(January 2001 – Volume 7, Issue 1) 

Revival is hot right now. If you read any Christian literature, especially magazines, listen to Christian radio or watch Christian TV, you know this is a subject that is on the front burner of evangelicalism.

In doing research on this topic I turned to the web site of Christian Book Distributors to run down a couple of books on the subject that I had been wanting to purchase. I was a bit surprised to discover that CBD listed 156 books on revival. These are books that are currently in print, and are being sold by this one outlet. This does not include many books that they do not carry nor the many hundreds that are out of print.

Revival is hot and it is easy. Who could say a word against fit? It is like putting down motherhood. Go into any Christian circle and declare that we need revival and you will get a hardy “Amen.” Tell people that you are praying for revival and expect a lot of admiration.

But what exactly is revival? Do people know what they are praying for? Would we know revival if it came, and would we like it? Should we even desire revival?

These are just some of the questions that I want to address in this paper. In doing so I am just touching the tip of the iceberg. Rather than adding yet another to the monstrous pile of books about revival, I will narrow the scope to two subjects (hoping to discuss other revival related issues in the future): The history of revival; and an examination of its biblical base.

A Short History of Revival

Revival vs. Revivalism

(What Revival Is, and What It Is Not)

We want to distinguish very early in our discussion the difference between revival and revivalism. Revival is considered by many a sovereign work of God, independent of the efforts or methods of man, in which God awakens His people spiritually.

Revivalism is defined as periods of spiritual and emotional excitement that have been orchestrated by the methods, and often, the manipulations of man. God does not necessarily have to be involved in revivalism at all.

Many of us grew up with, or are now involved in, some form of revivalism. A church has an annual revival that lasts two weeks or a month. The service usually focuses heavily on emotion and downplays exposition of the Scriptures. People walk forward every night, either to receive Christ or rededicate their lives to the Lord. When the revival is over things return to normal and it is done all over again next year.

Charles Finney, who set the standard for revivalism, said that God was not necessary to have a revival, all that was necessary was for a church to apply the right methods and then a revival would happen automatically. “The connection between the right use of means for a revival and a revival is as philosophically [i.e., scientifically] sure as between the right use of means to raise grain and a crop of wheat. I believe, in fact, it is more certain, and there are fewer instances of failure.” (Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, p. 33) However, in this paper we are not focusing on revivalism, which takes many forms today, but rather on revival.

Definition of Revival

Jonathan Edwards, considered by many to be the greatest theologian this country ever produced, said that revival was, “The work of God carried on with greater speed and swiftness” (Revival and Revivalism, p. 20). He did not believe that a revival was anything different from the regular experience of the church. The difference lies in degree, not in kind. In an ‘outpouring of the Spirit’ spiritual influence is more widespread, convictions are deeper, and feelings more intense, but all this is only a heightening of normal Christianity (ibid. p. 23).

Martin Lloyd-Jones says that the “essence of a revival is that the Holy Spirit comes down upon a number of people together, upon a whole church, upon a number of churches, districts, or perhaps a whole country.” By this definition modern-day revivals, especially in the West, have been few. Non-charismatic Christian historians only list three such revivals in the history of the United States:

  • The Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s localized in New England under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.
  • The Second Great Awakening at the turn of the nineteenth century localized in Kentucky and somewhat in Tennessee. Out of this revival came the camp meetings.
  • The Third Great Awakening took place in New York State and to some degree throughout the country in 1857,8 and is often referred to as the prayer revival.
  • No significant revival has taken place in America since that time and the last one to take place in the Western world was the Welsh revival of 1904,5, which upon closer examination was really Europe‘s birth of Pentecostalism.
  • No one alive today has seen what biblical historians call a revival on Western soil.
  • Of course on the Pentecostal side they would claim several revivals, all in this century: The Pentecostal revival beginning in 1900. The Charismatic revival beginning in 1960. The Vineyard revival beginning in 1980 and the Laughing revival that started in 1994.
  • If we ignore the charismatic events and focus on the mainstream revivals that brings us to another issue. What is the evidence of a revival? That is, how do we know when a revival is taking place? What are the characteristics of revivals?

The Evidence of Revival

Martin Lloyd-Jones gives these descriptions of revival in his book Revival (pages 99-117):

  • “The Holy Spirit has descended into (His people) midst, God has come down and is amongst them. A baptism, an outpouring, a visitation. And the effect of that is that they immediately become aware of His presence and of His power in a manner that they have never known before.”
  • “The Holy Spirit literally seems to be presiding over the meeting and taking charge of it, and manifesting His power and guiding them, and leading them, and directing them.”
  • People may be held in a state of desperation over their sins for days and weeks and months. “Then they are given a clear view of the love of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ and especially of His death upon the cross.
  • “People are not only converted at meetings, some are converted as they are walking to the meetings, before they have even got there.”
  • “Always in a revival there is what somebody once called a divine disorder. Some are groaning and agonizing under conviction, others praising God for the great salvation. And all this leads to crowded and prolonged meetings. Time seems to be forgotten. People seem to have entered into eternity.”
  • “A revival, then, really means days of heaven upon earth.”

Charles Finney gave the following “Seven Indicators” of revival:

  1. When the sovereignty of God indicates that revival is near.
  2. When wickedness grieves and humbles Christians.
  3. When there is a spirit of prayer for revival.
  4. When the attention of ministers is directed toward revival and spiritual awakening.
  5. When Christians confess their sins one to another.
  6. When Christians are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to carry out the new movement of God’s Spirit.
  7. When the ministers and laity are willing for God to promote spiritual awakening by whatever instrument He pleases (Revival Signs, pp. 95,96).

Tom Phillips, previously with Billy Graham and noted President of International Students, writes in his book Revival Signs of nine evidences that revival is on its way to America (banking off Finney’s indicators):

      • Public confession of sin (pp. 38,61,97,154).
      • Ecumenism (pp. 39,44,68,82,83).
      • Pastor’s prayer summits (pp. 35,97,119-122,149-159).
      • Huge youth gatherings (pp. 35,43).
      • Concerts of prayer (pp. 35,96-97,146-149).
      • Mysticism and experience oriented Christianity (pp.40-41,82-83,92-93,101,108-109,130-132,144-146,187,232).
      • Spiritual Warfare (p. 42).
      • Promise Keepers (pp. 43,114,155).
      • Minimizing of doctrine (pp. 44,137,220).

There is one common denominator found in the above authors and so many others: the lack of scriptural support. None of these men back up their signs and evidences with Scripture. They look at experiences in the past, and then develop a theology of revival.

Why? Because Scripture does not teach these things. Scripture does not give the kind of experiences that Martin Lloyd-Jones describes. Revival, of the type these men describe, is never mentioned in Scripture. We are simply not called to revival.

In the New Testament, in all the information given on how we are to be sanctified, how a church is to function, how to impact our world for Christ; not once is revival mentioned. Not once are the signs of revival noted. Not once do we find a prayer meeting calling for revival.

What Do We Find?

Biblical Basis for Revival

If the Scriptures do not encourage us to seek revival, what does it say on the subject? In the Old Testament we find several references to being revived. The word that is sometimes translated “revive” or “revived” is found two hundred thirty-four times in the Old Testament and it means to give life, make alive, and give new life, depending upon the context.

In Psalm 119 we find this word for “revive” used several times in the context of spiritual renewal. On at least twelve occasions the psalmist prays to be revived. That is, an invitation to renew or make alive the spiritual passions and desires of a believer. By studying these examples we can find the biblical marks or characteristics of a spiritually alive person:

They want to know God’s way (verse 37)

Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, And revive me in thy ways.

This verse reminds us of the sayings in Proverbs with both a negative and a positive statement. On the positive side the revived person wants to be going God’s way. He wants to be on the right path — God’s path.

On the other hand He knows that the great distraction here is the magnetic pull of vanity. Now, you might remember from the book of Ecclesiastes that vanity means emptiness or meaningless. This verse tells us more about ourselves than we would ever want to know: that we can be so shallow, so blind, so off-base in our understanding of life so as to exchange the way of God for the “ways of the empty.”

We are not talking about choices between a good and better way. We are talking about choices between the best way and the worst way; between the path of life and the path of death; between the path that leads to the fountain of life and the path that leads to empty cisterns. That we would choose the empty path is tragic, but it reveals the heart of the one who lacks spiritual passion and life.

They Long for Righteousness (verse 40)

Behold, I long for Thy precepts;

revive me through Thy righteousness.

The path of God is a path of righteousness, holiness. Here’s the rub for many. Who wouldn’t want to be on God’s path if it offered happiness, life, and eternal security, especially if we could continue to go down the empty path at the same time? That is, if we could have the good things of God and at the same time could continue to indulge in our sins and empty pursuits, then that would be very attractive to many.

But God’s path is a path of holiness. To walk in God’s path is to repent of sin and walk away from those things that deter holiness. God’s path of righteousness and the empty path meet at a cross roads and go separate directions, a choice must be made.

They Recognize the Source of Life (verses 88 and 159)

Revive me according to Thy lovingkindness. So that I may keep the testimony of Thy mouth. Consider how I love Thy precepts;Revive me, O Lord, according to Thy lovingkindness.

One of the most important things that the child of God needs to learn is that spiritual life is not a product of our sweat and tears, it is a gift from God. Our spiritual development springs from the God who is full of lovingkindness (faithful, merciful love). We are totally dependent upon Him for life and passion. It is God who causes the garden of our lives to grow and bear fruit.

Now, we can do certain things to cultivate that garden. We can water and weed and fertilize. We can read the Word, pray, fellowship, worship and serve. But it is God who gives the increase. And so, like our psalmist, it is altogether appropriate that we ask God to revive us according to His lovingkindness. It is right that we cry out to Him to show us Himself, His truth. And that He gives us the power and passion to walk in His ways.

They Make Use of the Means (verses 25, 50, 107, 149, 154, 156)

Revive me according to Thy word. – That Thy word has revived me. – Revive me, O Lord, according to

Thy word. – Revive me, O Lord, according to Thine ordinances.

While it is the Lord who does the reviving, He does use means, instruments; and the primary instrument He uses is the Word. We saw this in an earlier study when we were trying to trace down the biblical means for spiritual growth. Our study revealed that growth and sanctification are always explained in the Bible as being effected through the Word. We do not grow through music, worship, service, or even prayer. These are the outcomes of growth.

Every mention of the instrument of growth or revival (from the human perspective) points to the study and application of God’s truth as found in the Word of God. Our psalmist agrees. Unfortunately we all know Christians who understand a great deal about the Bible; they may even have great portions memorized, but they are still baby Christians. How can this be? Because they misuse the Bible. And how do we know that they are misusing the Bible? There are two ways:

1. We will delight in God’s Word and ways (verses 35,47,70,77,92,143,174)

Make me walk in the paths of Thy commandments, For I delight in it. – And I shall delight in Thy commandments, which I love. – But I delight in Thy law. – If Thy law had not been my delight, Then I would have perished in my affliction. – Trouble and anguish have come upon me; yet Thy commandments are my delight. –

I long for Thy salvation, O Lord,

And Thy law is my delight.

The mark of the one with spiritual passion is that they delight in the words of God. Of the one hundred seventy-six verses in this Psalm only two or three leave out some direct reference to the Scriptures. This is a man in love with the Word.

But he is also in love with the ways of God. He goes to the Scriptures, not to win a theological argument, not to have ammunition to use against others, not to impress people. Rather, he goes to it to find God; to find God’s ways, and to have his life conformed to God’s ways. He does not do this because he feels he has to, but because this is his delight. It is the love of his life. It is what he longs for more than anything in life.

2. We will hate that which is false.

The Scriptures love to frame the positive with the negative. The reason it does this is because we often do not know how much we love something unless we know how much we despise the opposite. Our writer tells us that we know we love God’s Word when we:

~ Hate false ways (verses 104 and 163)

From Thy precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way. —

I hate and despise falsehood,

But I love Thy law.

We are back to where we started. The best way to know how much we love God’s ways is to examine how much we hate the empty, false ways that surround us.

Does it turn your stomach when you hear of lying, deceit, corruption, unfaithfulness and slander? More importantly, does it break your heart when you know that you can do these very same things? Do you hate false ways, not only in others but also in yourself?

~ Hate false people (verses 113 and 158)

I hate those who are double-minded,

but I love Thy law. — I behold the

treacherous and loathe them,

because they do not keep Thy word.

Wait a minute, I thought we were to hate the sin and love the sinner. In a sense that is true. The Lord tells us to even love our enemies. But on the other side of this coin there is a holy righteous anger that even God has toward those who have rejected His ways.

The Christian with spiritual life and passion should be repulsed, not attracted to lifestyles and people who despise God’s ways. You cannot love the way of God and the Word of God, and not be deeply offended by those who hate it. The tightrope we walk is that of loving people who are the very enemies of God.


Our mandate is not to revival, as it is usually understood. Our invitation is to spiritual life and passion which is a gift from God applied through the means of Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit. When we use terminology (e.g. “revival”) in ways not used in Scripture: and when we call for experiences not dictated in Scripture, we cloud the issues. Does God want spiritual passion; a hunger for Him, a heartfelt obedience? Certainly! But these things are to be found within the parameters of biblical instruction and example. When we set up extra biblical experiences as the standard by which we gauge our present spiritual condition we have set up a false and confusing paradigm. The biblical petition is not for revival but for consistent Godly living. We would be wise to follow Scripture’s example.


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