We need to preserve a very clear view of what genuine revival is and in so doing
to appreciate afresh just how marvellous such a work of grace is. Those who have
themselves witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit in revival hardly need written
descriptions and definitions to help them. However, those who have never known the
reality of revival are more prone to settle for something less.
Many believe that revival is linked to the restoration of supernatural gifts to the
church. The major revivals of the past have indeed been noted for phenomena, but
these have not been of the kind seen in many modern movements. This distinction is
vital and underlines the importance of careful definition of what constitutes revival.
Four basic essentials can be observed at Pentecost which characterize all revivals
of this epoch. We shall examine each of these in turn.
1. The sense of God’s nearness and especially an awareness of His holiness and majesty.
This first feature is vital. It consists of what is sometimes referred to as the
‘Shekinah glory’ of God’s presence. In Exodus 40:34 and II Chronicles 7:1 we read
of the cloud of the Lord’s presence filling the tabernacle and the glory of the Lord
filling the temple. There may not be any visible cloud, but in all true revival,
the presence of the Lord is sensed in an awesome way.
This phenomenon is important because it focuses on the fact that revival is God coming
down on mankind, with the result that they are humbled. There are religious movements
in Africa which involve huge numbers of people who sing in a very impressive way.
One can easily get the impression that a great revival is in progress. But it is
always essential for us to use our minds and analyse what is going on (Rom. 12:1-2).
Some consider such questioning to be sinful, but it is not. I do not mean that we
should be censorious, rather, that we are duty-bound to test everything by Scripture.
When there is great emotion, we need to ask ourselves about the source of that feeling.
Is it some- thing that has been worked up by manipulators who are experts in controlling
crowds, or is it something which is from heaven? Is there a glorying in patriotism,
or nationalism, or tribalism? Often religion is used as a veneer to cover what is,
in essence, idolatry.
Many modern-day religious movements are characterized by a strong emphasis on the
emotions. In mass meetings, there is sometimes a deliberate attempt made to bring
great crowds to a high point of excitement and exuberance. This is emotion worked
up from within, whereas revival is the Holy Spirit coming down. When He comes down,
there is a prostrating effect; the awesomeness and glory of God’s holiness are felt
in an overwhelming way.
We see this illustrated in the personal experience of the patriarch Jacob when the
Lord met with him at Bethel. Jacob’s response was expressed in these words: ‘How
awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate
of heaven’ (Gen. 28:17).
An awareness of the nearness of God is the chief characteristic of all true revivals
(Ps. 80; Isa. 64; John 14:17; 1 Cor. 14:24,25).
At Pentecost everyone was filled with awe (Acts 2:43). A realization of the holiness
of God is also one of the hallmarks of revival. The initial experience of fear of
God and conviction of sin is followed by intense joy and love.
The felt sense of the presence of God is reflected by this description of the revival
at Northampton in 1735. Edwards writes, ‘Presently upon this, a great and earnest
concern about the great things of religion, and the eternal world, became universal
in all parts of the town, and among persons of all degrees and all ages. The engaged-ness
of their hearts in this great concern could not be hid; it appeared in their very
countenances. It then was a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger
every day of dropping into hell.’
This sense of the fear of God is a vital element of true revival. It is the feature
which is missing from contemporary evangelicalism.
2. A greatly intensified work of the Holy Spirit in conviction of sin and giving
repentance and faith.
The second essential characteristic of genuine revival points us to the work of the
Holy Spirit in regeneration.
This is illustrated by the description given by Edwards of the revival in Northampton:
‘There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about
the great things of the eternal world. Those who were wont to be the vainest and
loosest, and those who had been most disposed to think and speak slightly of vital
and experimental religion, were not generally subject to great awakenings. And the
work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner, and increased more
and more; souls did, as it were, by flocks come to Jesus Christ.’
Yet by no means all who in times of revival profess to have faith and repentance
prove to be genuine. Time alone proves whether they are or not. Satan seeks to counterfeit
revival, and he is very active in genuine revivals to sow false seeds and promote
false professions. Having witnessed revival, first in his own church in 1735, and
then later, on a wider scale in the Great Awakening of 1740, Jonathan Edwards realized
the need to provide principles by which we can distinguish the true from the false.
He wrote two crucial works on this theme: the first, a short work, was called The
distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God, and the second, a much fuller
and more detailed book, was entitled The Religious Affections. The latter, which
is regarded as his best work and the most profound book ever written on the subject,
is really an enlargement of the first. Edwards proceeds in a straight- forward way
to describe what are not signs of true revival and then goes on to show what are
the signs which characterize a true work of God.
In brief, Edwards shows that none of the following are true signs of a work of God:
great emotions; great effects on the body, such as tears, groanings, loud cries;
agonies or prostrations; an appearance of love, joy, or great excitement; much time
and zeal spent in duty; great expressions of praise or moving testimonies. Edwards
observed that people can exhibit all kinds of emotions and yet fall away after the
true revival. So what then are the true signs?
A true sign of a work of God is a delight in the excellency of God, His holy character
and His truth. True religious affections are attended by what Edwards calls ‘evangelical
humiliation.’ The believer has a sense of his own utter insufficiency and the hateful
nature of his own sin, from which he turns, coming to depend on God’s provision of
righteousness. One of the true signs is a change of nature, the new birth, the creation
of a new disposition which has the likeness of Jesus. A vital sign is fruit in Christian
3. A marvellous increase in the numbers added to the church.
In the Great Awakening in 1740-42, it is reckoned that 50,000 were added to the churches
of New England, and about 300,000 across all thirteen colonies. In what we now call
the ‘forgotten revival’ between the years 1790 and 1840, 1,500,000 people were gathered
into chapels in England and Wales alone. That constituted one out of every ten people
in the country being converted. In the revival in 1859, around 100,000 were added
to the churches in Ulster and 50,000 to the churches in Wales. It is estimated that
in the 1859 revival in the USA over 2,000,000 were added to the churches.
Revivals are times of God’s personal intervention in great power. True revivals always
have a powerful effect on society as a whole in turning back the tide of immorality
and vice. True revivals are bad news for breweries and distillers and for the gambling
industry. True revivals will bring down the divorce rate and heighten society’s view
of the sanctity of life.
4. Powerful preaching of the gospel.
The primacy of preaching in revival is seen in the book of Acts. Where is power for
preaching to be found? The only way of power suggested in the New Testament is with
the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven (1 Thess. 1:4,5). That is unlikely to be our
experience if we misrepresent what the Holy Spirit has inspired in the Word of God
by faulty exegesis or shoddy expository workmanship. The apostles summed up the dual
needs of prayer and hard study when they explained the necessity of the appointment
of deacons: ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of
God in order to wait on tables . . . We will give our attention to prayer and the
ministry of the Word’ (Acts 6:2).
It is easy to forget that the power lies in the Word of God. But ‘the Word of God
is living and active’ (Heb. 4:12). Paul exhorted Timothy, ‘Preach the Word’ (2 Tim.
4:2). This is so basic, yet it seems that many ministers cease to believe that preaching
the gospel is ‘the power of God’ (Rom. 1:16). They direct their principal energies
to activities of all kinds, to the neglect of study combined with prayerful meditation.
The life of piety, combined with evangelistic enterprise and constant work in God’s
Word, is vital. It is as we continue fervently in that way that we intercede for
and look for revival today.