Are Revivals Needed?

Amongst many conservative Protestants today—be they Reformed, Evangelical or even Pentecostal—the topic of “revival” has fallen out of vogue. Very few Christian pastors preach on it, and even fewer call on the Lord’s people to ask for it in prayer. One of the best, as well as most balanced, examinations of the subject is by Iain H. Murray, Pentecost – Today? The Biblical Case for Understanding Revival (Banner of Truth, 1998).

I’ve only managed to get around to reading this recently. If only I had done so earlier! Most books on the subject describe what happens during a revival without providing a biblical basis.[1] As Murray quotes one author, “We need to think more about certain questions raised by revivals rather than read more about more revivals. What is revival? The question of definition is fundamental”.[2]

Murray explains how to understand revivals biblically, without resorting to certain proof texts, such as the well-known 2 Chronicles 7:14, which he believes confuses the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. The reason why Murray says this is because a) The unique ‘internal’ nature of the promised Holy Spirit (see Joel 2:28; Ezekiel 47:1-10) in the new covenant age compared to the ‘external’ influence in the Old;[3] and b) the now defunct role of the Promised Land in the saving purposes of God. As Murray helpfully explains:

‘In the New Testament the church of Christ ceases to be connected in any theocratic manner with any land. Ours is ‘the Jerusalem above’, ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’ (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22). Certainly, communities and nations are often blessed because of the gospel, but that is a very different thing from making God’s promise to Solomon the grounds for believing that if Christians repent and humble themselves there will be a national healing and a national revival. Many thousands of believing Israelites were living obediently to the gospel in the first century but, far from securing for them the promise, ‘I will heal their land’, they saw the utter destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.’[4]

God’s Sovereignty versus Human Responsibility

According to Murray, revivals are brought about first and foremost, by the divine initiative and sovereign intercession of Christ Himself in heaven. And then, flowing out of this, the humble and obedient response of His people on earth. This is because the experience of Pentecost is not a one-off event—as some people wrongly claim—but an ongoing reality for every disciple of Jesus. For while the Spirit was given permanently on the day of Pentecost, it was not with the same degree. For example, the same persons present in Acts 2:4 are said to be [again] “filled with the Holy Spirit” in Acts 4:31. What’s more, the New Testament points to believers being continually filled with a greater measure of God’s Spirit (e.g. Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 1:19; Luke 11:13).

One of the most helpful aspects of Murray’s approach to the topic though, is how he explains the biblical interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Murray is aware of both the unbiblical fatalism and spiritual passivity of the so-called ‘hyper-Calvinists’, as well as the unorthodox beliefs of someone like Charles G. Finney.[5] I’ll leave it to the interested reader to follow up on Murray’s explanation of the ‘tension’, but he dedicates at least two chapters of his book to examining the two extremes.

Why Aren’t We Experiencing Revival Today?

The really crucial question though, is why don’t we experience a greater outpouring of God’s Spirit today? One of the most important sections in Murray’s book is chapter 6, Hindering Revival: Evangelical Fanaticism. The opening paragraph is worth reproducing in full:

We have already considered what place is left for human responsibility if revivals come by the sovereign will of God. We saw that the Bible teaches both man’s total dependence upon God and the voluntary nature of his own actions. In a manner hidden from us, the divine and human agencies are conjoined in events in such a way that the will of God comes to pass while men remain fully accountable for all sin and failure. Not a single success in the kingdom of God is ever achieved without the predetermining purpose of God (Acts 15:8), yet we are confronted in Scripture with the real danger that we may hinder the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 9:12). This is true in general and it must remain true with regard to revival.[6]

Often during times of revival an individual’s personal sins are confessed publicly, but here Murray urges caution. This is because we can be tempted—even in confession of our guilt in temptation—to glorify the darkness of sin rather than magnify the light of Christ’s love (cf.. Eph. 5:12). That said, Murray goes on to outline at least seven distinct ways in which followers of Christ Jesus can grieve the Holy Spirit and hence be a “potential hindrance to revival” (see Eph. 4:29-32).

a)     Unbelief

            The Scriptures clearly teach that “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards     those who seek Him.” (Heb. 11:6) Significantly, the Gospels teach that is was because       of a lack of faith in His hearers that Jesus sometimes did not do many miracles (Matt.        13:58; Mark 6:5). If this is true while Christ was on earth, then it also remains relevant           now He is in heaven, from where He calls on us to believe that we will receive what we     have asked (Mark 11:24). Maybe one of the reasons why we are not seeing    greater degree and measure of God’s Spirit is because we have not asked in faith (Luke 11:13)

b)    Pride

C.S. Lewis rightly referred to pride as being “the great sin”.[7] Through our hubris we dethrone God, putting ourselves in His place. This is why the Scriptures repeatedly warn that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (e.g. Prov. 3:34; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5-6). Is the church today guilty of relying more on marketing strategies and human ingenuity rather than humbling ourselves before the LORD       in prayer? If so, it is little wonder we don’t see a great outpouring of the Spirit’s power for we may well be depending on our own.

c)     Impurity

            While this can come in many different forms, the most ubiquitous danger today— thanks to the internet—is pornography. Where previous generations had to expend     considerable thought and effort to acquire it, the challenge today is avoiding it.     Sexual immorality is everywhere. From social media, the streaming services, to            mainstream advertising. Sex sells. But in exchange for its free offer of illegitimate lust,      is a deadening of one’s spiritual vitality. Revival must start with us         as individuals. And

a sure sign of Christ’s quickening grace is a hunger and thirst for His kingdom and His

righteousness (Matt 5:6). By flirting with, rather than fleeing from, sinful desires we are in danger of experiencing God’s holy    discipline (Heb. 13:4; 1 Thess. 4:1-8). And this is often expressed through a withdrawal of His blessing and favour (Rev. 2:19-24).

d)    Moral laxity

            Closely following on from this, is the challenge to be holy in all we do. In warning the

church in Ephesus about the danger of grieving the Spirit of God (Eph. 4:30), the apostle

Paul immediately goes on to write:

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph. 4:31-32).

How many churches are currently suffering from broken relationships and fractured fellowship because of the unresolved hurt—and accompanying unforgiveness—which has allowed the Devil to get a foothold? (Eph. 4:25-28) Where such division exists the kingdom of God cannot flourish, let alone stand (see Luke 11:18).

e)    Prayerlessness

Prayerlessness is not just a symptom of unbelief but also of spiritual laziness. Jesus rebuked His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane for not even being able to keep watch for one hour (Matt. 26:40). But then He issued them with the following challenge: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41) All of us may desire revival, but are we willing to expend the spiritual “sweat” of seeking the LORD in prayer. So often in Scripture—in both Testaments—believers are called on to seek God with all our hearts (e.g. Jer. 29:13; James 4:7-10) and to be especially committed to prayer (Col. 4:2-6).

Perhaps the most obvious reason we don’t see more dramatic movements of God’s Spirit is because we are simply not prepared to devote ourselves to prayer. How difficult is it today to organise a prayer meeting? And when we do, why is so few people come?

f)      Unfaithfulness to Scripture (or ‘erroneous beliefs’)

It should really go without saying that the Spirit will never bless those who are unfaithful to His Word. This is because the Comforter’s role is not to speak on His own, but only what He hears, and thus bring glory to Jesus (John 16:12-14). To be unequally yoked with false teachers is to not only grieve God’s Spirit, but also incur a loss of God’s favour and blessing (2 Cor.6:14-7:1). Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself solemnly warns the church at Pergamum that if it did not repent in this regard, then He “will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:16).

g)     Contention between brethren

One of the most beautiful signs of revival is the unity of Christian believers, especially       across multiple congregations, and even, denominations (Psalm 133). This is a clear realisation of the prayer which Jesus Himself prayed in John 17 when He asked the Father to make us one. Being brought to complete unity would “let the world know that You sent me and have loved them even            as You have loved me” (John 17:23). There is something profoundly evangelistic about genuine spiritual unity. It testifies to the truth and power of the Gospel We who were formerly estranged to God are now reconciled also to one another. To remain divided is to obscure the work of the Gospel and thus hinder a greater manifestation of the Holy Spirit (See 2 Cor. 2:11).

Revive Us O LORD!

As with the word Trinity, so too the noun revival is nowhere to be found in the Bible. But that doesn’t mean that these spiritual truths are not clearly taught. Iain Murray helpful observes that, “Not until the time of Cotton Mather (1663-1728) did it begin to come into currency in the English language”.

Putting together all of the inferences of Scripture, we see that the reality of revival has to do with the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Whether it’s through the virgin birth, inspiration of Holy Scripture, bringing people to spiritual regeneration, transforming believers into the image and likeness of Christ, or raising God’s people’s physical bodies from the dead, Murray rightly says, “at every point his work runs far beyond our comprehension”.

What is needed today—as in every age—is for a greater filling of the Holy Spirit. This is an event which begins with a sovereign act of Christ Jesus in heaven and results in a faithful human response on earth. As Rob Smith writes in his modern-day chorus:

Revive us, O Lord
Send forth your Spirit
Unsheathe your sword
And break through our chains
By the power of your word
Revive us, revive us, revive us, O Lord!

–  Mark Powell

[1] A notable exception is Max Turner, “’Revival’ in the New Testament”, in On Revival: A Critical Examination (Paternoster Press, 2003), 3-22.

[2] Reviving Australia: Essays on the History and Experience of Revival and Revivalism in Australian Christianity, eds. Mark Hutcheson and Stuart Piggin (Sydney: Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, Robert Menzies College, 1994), 6.

[3] For an excellent examination of this aspect see James M. Hamilton, God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments (Broadman, 2006).

[4] Murray, Pentecost – Today? 15.

[5] In this regard, Charles Finney infamously wrote in his book, Revivals of Religion, or Lectures on Revival, ‘A revival is as naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means’ and thus, if one continued to employ the right means then ‘revival would never cease’. However, as has often been pointed out, Finney’s approach not only gives sinful human beings much credit, but also undermines the awesome and divine majesty of the Holy Spirit. Someone whom the Lord Jesus Christ says is so mysterious, powerful and uncontainable as to be like a mighty wind (John 3:7-8).

[6] Murray, Pentecost – Today? 134.

[7] C.S Lewis, Mere Christianity, chapter 8.

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