What is Revival? The Three Rs of Transformation

Sawdust on the floor. Benches once neatly arrayed, now pushed hastily aside, tracing a chaotic maze through the crowd of people swaying and dancing under the high-peaked tent. Light streaming from the tent’s door into the warm summer evening where more people wait for a small taste of what’s happening within. Taut ropes quivering as thousands of feet stomp to the music.

Revival has come to town.

At least, it looks like a revival. Sawdust? Check. Big crowd? Check. Dancing and singing? Check. All we need now is some preaching, confessing, and maybe a little fainting. Then we’ll be all set.

After all, that’s what a revival is. Right?

Our Revival Roots

Evangelicalism has always had a deep concern for the transformation of individual Christians and the Church itself. Drawing on currents already present in pietism and among the Puritans, early evangelicals like Jonathan Edwards, the Wesley brothers, and George Whitefield feared for a Christianity that seemed to have lost its vitality. People were just going through the motions. They attended church, took communion, and read their Bibles. But, there was no life. No change. No transformation. People, churches, and entire communities went on about their business, everyday lives untouched by the Gospel.

And, that can’t be. Jesus promised that his people would be filled with the Spirit, ambassadors of the Gospel, harbingers of his Kingdom. We are supposed to be God’s image bearers in the world, manifesting his glory everywhere. We’re supposed to be different.

Something was wrong.

So, these early evangelicals prayed, preached, worked, and hoped for something more. Real change. Their desire was that God would come and transform his people so that they would live in the world as he intended. They sought revival.

And, evangelicals pursued revival into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well. The First Great Awakening gave way to the Second, Third, and even Fourth Great Awakenings, every generation praying for God’s empowering presence to renew his people for more vital living and more faithful ministry in the world. This emphasis on “renewal through revival” is part of the DNA of evangelicalism.

Two Key Questions

But, despite this general agreement, evangelicalism has struggled to understand exactly what this means. And, we’ve had a particularly difficult time answering two fundamental questions.

Is revival lasting or temporary? Some evangelicals focus on the fact that we live in a broken world. And, in this fallen existence, we will always encounter times of sustained, spiritual dryness. The best we can hope is that God will occasionally pour out his spirit onto our dry ground, allowing the plants to sprout and the flowers to bloom for a time, before the dry heat of the desert returns.

But, other evangelicals see revival as more lasting. For them, the promise of real change isn’t fleeting. Rather than seeing revival as a sudden rainstorm, they picture it as a spring continually flowing up from the ground to sustain new life in an otherwise barren land.

Is revival “miraculous” or “natural”? A related question has to do with the source of true revival. Now, we have to be a little careful here because all evangelicals agree that true revival is “miraculous” in the sense that ultimately it comes from God. No one argues that revival is something we simply produce on our own.

But, evangelicals do disagree on exactly how to understand the relationship between the divine and the human in producing revival. For many evangelicals, revival is a miracle along the same lines as bringing someone back from the dead. The dead person doesn’t contribute much to the process. So, renewing them to life must be a gift from the outside. Others can pray, pleading with God to offer the gift. But, in the end, renewal is a miraculous gift.

Others agree that revival is a gift, but they prefer a different analogy. For them, revival is more like a plant growing in your garden. The fact that the plant exists and grows at all is a gift from God. But, to make the plant grow, the gardener needs to work hard: cultivating, planting, weeding, feeding, and watering. And, under normal circumstances, God will not withhold the miraculous gift of life when his people carry out these tasks faithfully.

Different answers to these two questions will give you very different pictures of revival. Is revival temporary and “supernatural,” like the raising of Lazarus? Or, is revival sustained and “natural,” like a farmer growing crops? And, of course, we could also combine the options and argue for something that is sustained and supernatural (like the New England Patriots) or temporary and natural (like any plant I’ve ever tried to grow).

The Three Rs

I think that a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that we’re using one term, revival, to describe at least three different things. So, it may help if we make some important distinctions.

Renewal. Nothing is more pathetic than a child’s toy when the batteries are running low: it slows down; the already annoying music turns into a mind-numbing warble; and the lights flicker erratically like a firefly with a mental disorder. I think we all feel like that at times. We run down spiritually, emotionally, physically, and even missionally, needing to be reminded and renewed so we can be reengaged in what the Gospel is all about. We sometimes need to have the “joy of your salvation” restored (Ps. 51:12) so God can continue the process of renewing us in his image (2 Cor. 4:16). Praise God for rechargeable batteries.

Renewal refers to the revitalization of God’s people for faithful life and ministry. And, in this way, it’s distinct from rebirth, which is a word that we should reserve for the beginning of one’s Christian journey. But, renewal shares one common characteristic with rebirth: it’s a gift. A battery does not recharge itself, and life does not arise on its own. Renewal, as the overall process of revitalizing God’s people, always comes as a gift of God’s grace.

Reformation. Even though renewal is always a gift, God’s people have long recognized the importance of working faithfully to address our imperfections and weaknesses. That’s reformation: the ongoing practice of bringing every aspect of life and ministry into greater conformity with the Gospel. And, whether it’s Paul calling for reform in the Corinthian church, the early church working toward reform in a series worldwide councils, the medieval church with its many reform movements, or the Protestant Reformation itself, reform efforts have always been with us. Because, of course, reformation didn’t end in the sixteenth century. It continues today as God’s people labor to address their flawed attempts at faithfulness.

Does this mean that reformation stands at odds with renewal? By no means. The Gospel of grace entails neither quietism nor passivism. We are called to action. Reformation by itself cannot produce renewal any more than going to church alone can produce sanctification. But, they are both expressions of Christian faithfulness that God uses in the process of growing and renewing his people.

Revival. If “reformation” is the active and ongoing process by which God’s people seek to live faithfully in light of the Gospel, then we can reserve the term revival for those more special occasions in which God uniquely empowers a particular group of people for Gospel-centered living.

I’ve experienced revival in my own life: on the shore of a lake at summer camp, in a sanctuary filled with God’s people singing his praises, on a sofa praying with friends. Special times of experiencing the powerful presence of God in ways that renewed and re-energized me as one seeking to follow God obediently and live out the Gospel faithfully.

And, I’ve seen the same dynamic at work in entire churches. Whether we’re talking about a Great Awakening that sweeps across an entire country, or a special work of God in a particular congregation, revival renews God’s people for carrying out God’s purposes.

Grounded in the Gospel

So, returning to the two questions I asked above. Are we talking about something that is lasting or temporary, supernatural or natural? Yes, we are. Renewal is all of the above.

And, what holds it all together is the Gospel. Overemphasize reformation and we’ll approach the church and the Christian life as a task that must be accomplished, a goal we can achieve if we just work hard enough. Down that road lie pride, frustration, and eventually exhaustion.

Overemphasize revival and we’ll approach the Christian life as something that can only be truly lived during times of heightened excitement, passion, and felt empowerment, something that must be continually stirred up and sought after. And, down that road lie pride, frustration, and eventually exhaustion.

Two different roads. Same tragic end.

The Gospel rejects both approaches because it recognizes that true renewal is always a gift of God, but it is one that involves his empowering Spirit and our faithful response. In the end, sustained transformation, both personal and corporate, involves our renewal through both reformation and revival.

[This is an article I’ve written for the next issue of Western Seminary’s magazine, focusing on revival in the life of God’s people. This article is supposed to set the stage for the others by talking about what “revival” is and how it relates to the Gospel. I still have time to make some final edits before I send it in, so let me know if you have any feedback.]

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on October 17, 2011, in Church History, Ministry and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. The 18th century England and British were in many ways like our 21st. century, but now we have gin plus…! But can the visible Church today even respond to a revival, renewal and reformation? I am not sure myself that a culture bathed in modernism and now postmodernity can reason here? Are we seeing the death of the western culture, as Pat Buchanan writes in his lastest book (Suicide of a Superpower, Will America Survive to 2025?). But indeed as always God is saving people, or “persons” who respond by the power of God, to the great mercy & grace of God…always simply/profoundly ‘In Christ’ alone! The Gospel of God is always the power of God, unto salvation, a saving event in the life of people & persons called by God! (1 Cor. 1 & 2)

  2. Hi Marc,
    Great article! Looking forward to the rest of the series in the upcoming magazine. One question though . . . could the need for revival that Edwards, the Wesleys and Whitefield looked for be the result of their church traditions emphasis on infant baptism and the resulting mixed family of God their church fellowships contained? In other words, what role,if any, did a infant baptism play in producing a “Body of Christ” that needed revival in the first place? I would suggest it is a question that needs examining. That is not to say churches that practice adult or conversion only baptism do not need revival. I am simply asking whether or not our church traditions create the problem or contribute significantly to them. Blessings!
    Dave Barnhart

    • I definitely think that every tradition carries the seeds of its own demise, and will always find itself in need of renewal as it faces the challenges/dangers inherent in the trajectories it established from the beginning (e.g. the individualism endemic to Protestant traditions in general. So, I don’t think there’s any question that the New England Puritans founds themselves in need of renewal at least partly because of their own traditions and practices.And, although I don’t think this is an argument against infant baptism, I do think that churches that practice infant baptism need to be constantly on guard against a tendency of some to see that as justifying a false sense of security, just as churches that practice believer’s baptism have to struggle with a tendency toward insecurity (was my faith really sincere?) and emotionalism (do I feel saved?).

      But, overall I’d probably be more inclined to look at the halfway covenant, the Puritan view of the church/culture relationship, and what looks at times like an overly intellectual view of Christianity as contributors to their spiritual malaise.

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