Revival

Preaching and Worship Resources about Revival

Revival is a supernatural work of the Spirit of God to restore spiritual life to the dead or dying. By God's grace, revival may come to individual persons, to families, to congregations, to groups of churches, or even to a whole region. Revival is God's work, often by way of such classic means of grace as Scripture read or preached, prayer, sacraments, the work of angels, dreams, earnest conversations, and influential books. Revival might or might not be accompanied by supernatural signs and wonders. In any case, the true validation of revival is the appearance of virtuous and, even more so, costly new life within the revived. Revived people not only seek the will of God; they do it.

In Scripture

"Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, `O Lord my God, let this child's life come into him again.' The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived" (1 Kings 17:21 - 22).

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me" (Ps. 51:10).

"You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again" (Ps. 71:20).

"Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?" (Ps. 85:6).

"Give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved" (Ps. 80:18 - 19).

"The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple" (Ps. 19:7).

"My soul clings to the dust; revive me according to your word. . . . I am severely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to your word" Ps. 119:25, 107).

"Thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite" (Isa. 57:15).

"The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, `Mortal, can these bones live?' I answered, `O Lord God, you know.' Then he said to me, `Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord'"(Ezek. 37:1 - 6).

"`Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him'" (Hos. 6:1 - 2).

"`Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above'" (John 3:3).

"God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved" (Eph. 2:4 - 5).

"I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Eph. 3:16 - 19).

"The Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first" (1 Thess. 4:16).

Points to Ponder

In ordinary English, the word "revival" suggests an event ("A Revival will be held in the big tent at the Country Fairgrounds, July 6 - 9"). With or without a sawdust trail, the revival event has traditionally featured singing, preaching, and sometimes an altar call to receive Jesus. Sometimes an intertwined set of revivals is big enough to become a movement, as is the case with America's First and Second Great Awakenings (1730s - 1740s and the early 1800s, respectively). As a revival described in Scripture, Pentecost stands out. At Pentecost, Peter preaches, and the Holy Spirit convicts and awakens. Here it's clear that revival is a supernatural work of the Spirit of God to restore spiritual life to the dead or dying.

Five observations:

First, revival has to do with a stirring in someone or something that's dead or nearly dead. You don't revive a seventeen-year-old athlete who is bursting with health. Revival is for someone who's stopped breathing and needs CPR. Revival is for someone who's just about to become a corpse. Classic revival isn't about repairing the repairable or improving the improvable. It isn't about polishing up a decent apple and making it shine. Revival is about raising the dead. It's all about bringing someone or something back to life.

Outside the grace of God and union with Jesus Christ, we are like corpses. We've got a kind of life, but it's a counterfeit life. Life in sin can be full of bright lights and fast action, the way it is in the gambling and entertainment capitals of the world, but that's a caricature of real human life. That's a bright fa├žade on a lot of darkness. And that counterfeit life has to die so that our real self in all its beauty and power can be raised up.

In the most central revival imagery of the New Testament, St. Paul says that the human heart, the human soul, the human being in all its complexity must die and rise with Jesus Christ in order to be saved. The same goes for the church. The same goes for a corrupt world. Not even Jesus got a resurrection without a death, and neither do his followers.

Second, raising the dead is a miracle, and that means revival is the proper work of God, not us. We don't revive ourselves because we can't; we don't revive the church, either, or the world. Revival is heavy-duty, industrial-strength work, and only God has an arm strong enough to do it.

Third, the fact that we can't save ourselves, or our churches, or the world is a stumbling block to many. We damage people by preaching that if we just tried harder, or prayed more, or used Jesus' name more often, why, we would rise up on eagles' wings; we would run and not be weary, like the muscular Christian wannabes that we have always wanted to be. The Christian church has always been troubled by do-it-yourself gospels of this kind, and the problem with them is that they are cruel gospels (Chappell). It's cruel to tell people lies of this kind, because, of course, they trap people. Every alcoholic knows about this trap. Try to save yourself, and you will fail, and then you will drown your sorrow. The gospel of grace alone, of Christ alone, of faith alone offends our sense of our own strength and independence, and so we persist in concocting cruel alternative gospels. Here's a place to see one of the oldest truths about sin — namely, that we have not understood sin in its essence till we have understood religious sin. The devil goes to church right along with the saints, and when he gets there, he pitches false and cruel gospels.

Fourth: When God revives a soul, or a part of the church, or an area of the world, we may expect plenty of irony and surprise. God's ways are not our ways; God's mercy is higher than ours, and much more inventive. God uses sinners to save other sinners. God used C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity to awaken Charles Colson. In parts of Asia and Africa, evangelists report that God uses dreams about Jesus Christ to awaken skeptics. God used Cyrus, King of Persia, to free Israel from bondage in Babylon — Cyrus, a man who thought God was a myth.

God uses angels too. Perhaps some of us don't think nearly often enough about angels and about the fact that God has many of them to work with. News of the Incarnation, news of the resurrection, good news and deeds of all kinds seem to pop up when angels gather. The letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation are written to their angels, as if each church has a sort of head angel with whom the Lord would naturally correspond and who would be a change agent in the revival of the church.

Fifth: Revival might or might not be accompanied by supernatural signs and wonders. In any case, the true validation of revival is the appearance of virtuous and, even more so, costly new life within the revived. Revived people not only seek the will of God; they do it.

This was the judgment of Jonathan Edwards, America's greatest theologian, who once wrote a book in order to judge a dispute about signs and wonders. The dispute centered on how to think of the First Great Awakening, a huge New England revival of the 1730s and '40s in which Edwards himself had taken a leading role. In the heady days of the 1730s, Edwards had preached powerful sermons in Northampton, Massachusetts, and had seen powerful results. People's lives changed. People began to speak not only of their fear of God, but also of a "new sense" of God, almost a sixth sense by which they could relish God. They said they could "see" God and taste God's "sweetness." So they walked joyously to Sunday worship. They opened their Bibles and read them with an appetite. Husbands and wives stopped fighting and started embracing. Alcoholics stopped drinking and started mending the quarrels their drunkenness had caused.

Strange new signs: All these were wonderful signs of revival, and Edwards loved them. But when the First Great Awakening spread through New England in 1740, a number of strange new signs appeared. People started to sob and faint at religious meetings. They fell on the ground. They trembled and groaned. Some got "high on the Spirit" and began to twist and shout. Some fell to the floor and started some holy rolling. People filled their conversations with Jesus' name and with reports of Christian thoughts that had come directly from him. Enthusiastic believers within the Great Awakening of the 1740s were sure their faith was attaching to Christ. Couldn't they feel it? Couldn't they feel their own joy and certainty?

Edwards found himself at the center of a dispute. On the one hand, some people looked at the controversial signs and saw religious nonsense. Some saw madness or fraud or even demonic possession. Boston intellectuals, especially Unitarians, sniffed at the special signs. All that shrieking! All that loss of decorum! Many ordinary people also questioned the new ways of carrying on. Did the commotion fit with what Paul calls "a sober and right mind" (I Cor. 15:34)? Was it even decent? To critics, the Great Awakening was the Great Disturbance.

On the other hand, Edwards and his congregation had led the revival in the 1730s, and they knew that if a person got born again, this supernatural event would show itself in a whole new life. Some of Edwards's supporters believed that such revival would come with the force of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit would shake people up and rattle their dry bones. To some of Edwards's people, revival meant a whole lot of shaking and rattling. It meant signs and wonders, some of them pretty spectacular. We can imagine how they thought. If a dignified banker starts rolling on the ground, isn't that a sign of the Spirit? Who else has the power to break a banker's pride and start him rolling?

Edwards's task was to judge the dispute between people who said the controversial accompaniments of the First Great Awakening were signs of the presence of God, and other people who said these things were signs of hysteria or worse. After a lengthy search of Scripture, Edwards reached his conclusion and wrote it up in a book entitled Religious Affections. In his book, Edwards concluded that the controversial signs tell us little. Given our tendency toward self-deception, we can't tell whether the signs come from God, from our own overheated imaginations, or from somewhere else. If we want to test for true religion, shaking and rolling are neither here nor there. Take them or leave them, said Edwards, but don't hang anything of significance on them because the Bible's interest lies somewhere else.

So where does the Bible's interest lie? How may we validate our own revivals? According to Edwards, the way to tell whether we have been truly born again by the Spirit of God is to see whether we have a Godly practice. Do we have in our lives a pattern of good works governed by the Ten Commandments and other biblical guides? Do we make good deeds our central business the way a physician makes medicine her central business? And do we keep on in our practice of godliness for the long run of our lives and not just in little spurts while other people are watching?

Of course, in urging good works Edwards was not discounting the place of prayer, Bible reading, or attendance at public worship for preaching and sacraments. He prescribed these things as basic spiritual exercises by which Christians commune with God and excite their hearts with love toward God and fellow believers. But how genuine are these exercises? Given the danger of hypocrisy, how do we know we aren't just thrilling ourselves at church while ignoring God? How do we know we aren't deceiving ourselves?

The way to tell, said Edwards, is not by noticing how much we talk about Jesus. According to the gospels, people who say "Lord, Lord" all the time don't necessarily impress God. After all, talk is cheap — and Edwards uses exactly those words. To follow Jesus we have to practice what he preached. And what Jesus preached is that a good tree is known by its fruit — not by its twigs or leaves or heaving branches. And a Christian is known by his godly practice, not by his good intentions or pious talk or spiritual handwaving. A good tree is known by producing actual fruit, and a good Christian is known by producing actual good works. Godliness consists not in a heart that intends to do the will of God but in a heart that indeed does it.

But can't good works be counterfeited too? Can't people make a show of them, try to get credit for them, and go after them not to do good but just to look good?

Absolutely. So to see whether we have the Spirit of Christ in us, and not just the spirit of self-advancement, we should ask whether our good deeds cost us something. Are we willing to accept the pain of new life as well as its joy? Do we give money away that we would rather have kept, and do we (eventually) find satisfaction in doing so? Do we accept other people's suffering as a shared burden and thus relieve them of a part of it? Do we drop a grudge instead of continuing to pet it like our own little animal? Do we put the best face on other people's motives while also suspecting our own? Are we able to rejoice in God right through allergy season?

Only God knows a human heart. But we can see a Christian practice. And, generally speaking, we can tell a good heart by good deeds that express the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.