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.]
Jonathan Edwards: Distinguished Marker of Works (Spiritual and otherwise)
[This is a guest post by Pat Roach. Pat is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Portland, OR. Pat is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]
We are just on the other side of the of the annual posting of college commencement speeches, but if you find yourself still needing to scratch that itch, then friends I give to you Jonathan Edwards. In particular, his commencement address at Yale College in 1741 entitled The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God (hereafter TDM). And in case you were wondering, the graduation speaker at Yale in the year of our Lord 2011 was Tom Hanks. Moving on…
In TDM, Edwards sets out to give a rational and Biblical defense of the revivals that had recently occurred throughout New England. He begins with an explanation of nine things that can not necessarily disqualify (or qualify for that matter) an event as a work of God’s Spirit. For example, he writes, “What we have been used to, or what the church of God has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge whether a work be the work of God, because there may be new and extraordinary works of God.” Edwards is saying that it is not enough to point out “we’ve never done it like that before,” and then consider the issue closed. God is free and not always “traditional” in the way He operates. Likewise, and these follow from his first point, just because a congregation gets emotionally worked up, has “great impressions on their imagination,” and copy one another’s behavior, doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is not working. He might very well be producing those exact effects. You have to explore deeper to discern Spiritual substance. I have to say this portion of the address was a pleasure to read, if for no other reason than seeing Edwards mind work on paper through the issues and counterarguments he anticipates. Edwards’ writing weaves together pastoral wisdom, Scriptural reasoning, and starchy Puritan tendentiousness.
He then goes on to outline positive markers of the Spirit’s work in reviving His people. The people’s esteem of Jesus is raised, they experience revulsion against personal sin, give greater attention to Scriptural teaching, and they have deeper love for others. On this last positive marker of love, Edwards addresses a false kind of affinity that is possible in revivals, and he perceptively writes, “There is commonly in the wildest enthusiasms a kind of union and affection that appears in them one towards another, arising from self-love, occasioned by their agreeing with one another in those things wherein they greatly differ from all others, and for which they are the objects of the ridicule of all the rest of mankind; which naturally will cause them so much the more to prize the esteem they observe in each other, …” This kind of love, he concludes, is not Christian love and “no true benevolence, any more than the union and friendship which may be among a company of pirates that are at war with all the rest of the world.” Edwards has not mindlessly drunk the Kool-Aid. He recognizes the abuses and false signifiers of spiritual renewal that can emerge, and wants to uproot them and cast them off.
Yet, one thing does he lack…a sense of mystery about history. In TDM Edwards categorizes the New England revivals as redemptive-historical works, and as precursors to Christ’s Second Advent. Describing the unusual features of the recent revivals, he says, “we have reason from Scripture prophecy to suppose, that at the commencement of that last and great outpouring of the Spirit of God…the manner of the work will be very extraordinary.” In short, “Our revivals have weird stuff. Weird stuff will be happening at the end of the age. This must be the end of the age.” From there, he goes on to warn those who oppose revivals that in so doing they hinder the work of the Spirit. He compares them to the first-century Jews who opposed Christ, and finally warns dissenters that they are in danger of being guilty of the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. He is that sure that the revivals are heaven sent.
And this is where Edwards’ overreaches. Or, he should at least be willing for the revivals to be measured by the same stick as the redemptive-historical events of the 1st century, to which he links them. Did the revivals produce long-term righteousness in the lives of the participants? Edwards himself despaired of this, as time wore on. Did the Spirit cobble together thriving (renewed) ecclesial communities as a result of the revivals, as at Pentecost? Sadly, Unitarianism soon weakened the churches in New England. Did Edwards Himself attribute to the Holy Spirit works that were not His? That would be claiming too much. That would be too Edwardsean.
In TDM Edwards apparently had no reservations about seeing in the current events of history – and his congregation’s collective life – the immediate, and discernible activities of a very busy, and present God. Yet today, for the most part, similar claims by Christians would be viewed with no small amount of suspicion. Are we are too conditioned to understanding history, and our the events daily lives, materially? Or is this reluctance to “interpret” actually a function of faith, not presuming to give definitive readings of the Spirit’s sovereign moving? What do you think?
[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]