The Revival Issue


“Thus saith the LORD of hosts, Turn ye unto me, saith the LORD of hosts, and I will turn unto you…”

(Zechariah 1:3)

In the very first chapter of his book, the prophet Zechariah articulates the most basic principle involved in the dealings of man with God and God with man.  “Turn ye unto me, saith the LORD of hosts, and I will turn unto you” (verse 3).  This principle is repeated and re-emphasized throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament scriptures.  God responds to man when man responds to God.  It is a principle involved in the salvation of the soul, and also in the restoration of the soul to the place of blessing.  It is also a doctrine that is at the center of a long-extended debate among God’s people about revival.

What is the issue?

The debate is over whether spiritual revival comes as a sovereign act of God, or as a promised response from God.  There is no real disagreement over whether or not revivals happen.  Great revivals among Christians in general across wide regions or whole nations have led to powerful awakenings among the unconverted again and again over the centuries.  People who know what they are talking about never deny this fact.  The question that is debated is over why or how such movements have occurred.

One view is that spiritual revivals happen simply as sovereign acts of God.  In other words, God revives His people when, how, and where He chooses, with no actual connection to anything men have done.  One critical of this view would say that it states that God sends revival when and where He chooses, no matter how much Christians pray or repent to get it to happen.  They can pray all day, and repent of their sins until they are “blue in the face,” but revival will not come until God is good and ready to send it.

The other view is that God is always ready to revive His people, and that He will do it whenever they humble themselves, turn from their sins, and seek His face in prayer for the revival they need.  One critical of this view would say that it means that revival will happen automatically when we meet certain conditions.  One, two, three, BANG, and here comes revival!

The issue is currently debated among evangelicals and fundamentalists alike, although the controversy is somewhat subtle at this time. However, the revival issue is the great religious issue of our time, and it is at the root of other more obvious arguments that are going on.

What is revival?

At the heart of the revival issue is the very definition of revival.  Errors about revival have often arisen out of mistaken definitions.

The word “revive” in some form appears sixteen times in the English Bible (Authorized Version).  In the Old Testament, it is translated from the Hebrew word, chayah.  In the New Testament (just twice), it is a translation of the Greek word, anazao.  The Hebrew chayah is also translated with the words “quicken” (eleven times in Psalm 119), “live,” “keep alive,” “save life,” “make alive,” “recover,” and “restore to life.”  Although the word “revive” does appear in several important revival verses, the concept of revival is not confined to passages where the word is used. As a matter of fact, when the New Testament uses the word “revive,” it does not use it in the sense of God reviving His people.  Revival is the restoring of life, and a spiritual revival is the restoration of spiritual life and health.  God reviving His people, or His servant, is the work He does to bring them back to the level of spiritual health where they can enjoy the blessings He has promised to them.

Essentially, revival is the same in the Old Testament, as it is in the New.  However, there are differences in the results of a revival under the Old Covenant and those of a revival under the New Covenant.  When God’s people under the Old Covenant (the nation Israel) were revived, they enjoyed the blessings promised in the Law of Moses (see them in Deuteronomy 28 through 30).  Most of these promised blessings were material and physical, such as victory in battle, agricultural success, good health, big families, and financial prosperity.  God said they would have these blessings as long as they were faithful to Him, and kept the commandments and ordinances He had given them.  The New Covenant (promised in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, expounded in Hebrews 8 through 10, and applied by the Lord Jesus in John 13 through 17) applies to believers in Jesus Christ, and promises spiritual victory and spiritual fruit to those who believe and submit to Him.  When God brought Israel back to submission and faith, there was an Old Testament revival.  When God brings believers back to submission and faith, it is a New Testament revival.  In either situation, God is bringing His people back to life and health.  And that is what a revival, by definition, is!

Essentials and Incidentals.

A state of spiritual health in the New Testament era will bring us, according to the words of the Lord Jesus, remarkable answers to prayer (John 14:12-14), obvious help from the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-26),  inward peace and joy (John 14:27, as well as John 15:9-11), much fruit (John 15:1-8), and persecution (John 15:18-16:4).  Of course, these things were experienced by the Christians after Jesus went to Heaven (as reported in the book of Acts), when they were in a state of health (“filled with the Holy Ghost,” Acts 2:4, 4:8, 4:31, 6:3, 7:55).  These are essential indications of the revived state.

The inspired record in the Acts of the Apostles also tells us of other occurrences related to the revivals in the early churches.  In Acts 2, we read of the sound of a great wind and the appearance of fiery tongues.  In Acts 3, there is the healing of a crippled man.  In Acts 4, the place where they prayed was shaken.  In Acts 5, two hypocrites were struck dead.  These were notable events, but they were not essentials to revival.  They were incidental events.  They do not happen every time a revival happens.

Note that in Acts 2 that the believers were in a revived state, as indicated by several of the revival essentials (answers to prayer, the power of the Spirit, joy, fruit).  But note also that in Acts 7, Stephen was “full of the Holy Ghost” just as definitely as Peter was in Acts 2.  He too had the promised blessings (the essentials of revival), but in Acts 2 there were three thousand saved in one day, while in Acts 7 the preacher was murdered!  Yet in both cases, there was a true revival.  We can see the essentials in both Peter and Stephen, although the incidentals for each of them were different.

It is important that we separate the essentials from the incidentals of revival.  Christians are revived when they are experiencing New Testament Christianity.  Yet being revived has not always meant that they have seen society cleaned up and church attendance multiplied.  The revival among the Baptists in the U.S.S.R. sent many of them to Siberia!  When revival is defined by the incidentals instead of the essentials, men get the wrong idea about how they come.

The miraculous events that characterized so many of the great revivals in history are an important encouragement to believers today.  But we do not understand revival by studying history.  We learn about it by studying the Bible!  Not all revivals have had all the miraculous elements of other revivals.  Certainly the power of the Spirit that always accompanies the witness of revived Christians is supernatural, but other extraordinary events recorded as happening in times of revival do not necessarily happen in all revivals.  We remember that the book of John says that John the Baptist “did no miracle,” but the book of Luke says that he was “filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb.”  Clearly he was in a revived state, but just as clearly he did no miracles.  Miracles are incidental and not essential to revival.

When men try to understand revival by studying history, they tend to focus on the miraculous or unusual incidents that are not essential, according to scripture, to what a revival is.  Then they will say that such incidents cannot be sought or expected, but are sovereign acts of God.  The truth is that the essentials of revival happen in response to faith in God’s promises, along with appropriate praying and repenting.  The incidentals in revival (such as the “special miracles” wrought through Paul in Acts 19) are given as God deems them helpful (Mark 16:20; I Corinthians 12:4-11) in the evangelistic efforts of His revived saints, and are therefore sovereign acts.  The revival itself with its essentials, on the other hand, is the response God has promised to His saints when they seek His face.  Confusing incidentals with essentials brings people to a mistaken view of revival.

Is It Calvinism?

Some too quickly draw the conclusion that the sovereign-act view of revival is the Calvinist view, but actually it is not.  The theological system of Calvinism boils down to conclusions some have made about what was decreed in the mind of God before the foundation of the earth.  These conclusions, although mistaken, do not necessarily mandate a sovereign-act view of revival.  Calvinism in its pure form (although there are many forms of it, some more truly Calvinistic than others) deals with matters that ought not to effect the actions of saved people, except for what they teach.  In other words, whether or not Christians preach the Gospel to the unsaved, or how earnestly they press the importance of believing on Christ, or whether or not the preacher extends an “altar call” will not, in the mind of a pure Calvinist, get any non-elect people saved.  To apply Calvinistic theology in a way that effects how or where the Gospel is preached is actually a perversion of it, and might be called “Hyper-Calvinism.”  For this reason, some important promised-response revivalists have been Calvinists, and some sovereign-act critics of revivalism have been non-Calvinists.  Jonathan Edwards, Christmas Evans, Charles Spurgeon, and Evan Roberts believed and said that revival can be sought and expected, although each of them classified themselves as Calvinists.  Each of them also were criticized and opposed by sovereign-act men.

The real issue of revival is not a choice between the larger theological systems.  It is whether or not revival can and should be sought by people who need it.  Actually, many of the fundamentalists that preach the sovereign-act view among Baptists today are indeed Calvinists.  One of them has said that revival should never be our goal, but only our hope.  He is, as are many others, concerned that we not insult God’s sovereignty by praying for and trusting God for a revival.  He is wrong about this, but it is not his Calvinism that forces him to take this position.  There are also Calvinists who reject this position, and look for the Lord to send revival in response to our faith and repentance.  The issues that have long been raised over Calvinistic errors will continue to spark debate and the searching of the scriptures, but they are not exactly the same as the revival issue.

Must we agree?

Promised-response revivalists and others who believe that God responds when men respond to Him, do not all agree on everything else.  One problem occurring in the current discussion of revival is the impression some have that we must agree on everything else to agree on the revival issue.  The truth is that people who agree on revival disagree on other matters, such as how exactly to explain the believer’s role in his own practical sanctification, how prayer meetings for revival should be conducted, how to define all the terms involved in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and how exactly to conform to Biblical standards of holiness.  These differences may affect or even hinder some cooperation for the cause of revival, but they do not determine on which side of the revival issue an individual, a church, or a movement actually is.  Those who see revival as a sovereign act of God and those who see it as a promised response from God are on two opposite sides of the issue.  Opinions on other questions may produce disagreement, but consensus on the revival issue puts certain people clearly on the same side concerning the main question of our time.

Is it a paradox?

The Bible and true Bible doctrine present us with many paradoxes.  By definition, a paradox discovered in the Bible presents us with two apparently contradictory concepts which are, nevertheless both true.  When scriptural paradoxes are studied out, they not only will be harmonized, but they also reveal the most precious jewels of God’s revelation!  We should not fear, but rather investigate, these paradoxes.  For this reason, we should ask if the apparent contradiction between the views of revival might be a paradox, and if somehow both might be true.  This is certainly the case in the matter of divine sovereignty and human responsibility in man’s salvation.  Might it be the case in the matter of how revival comes?

For years, many fundamentalists have espoused both the sovereign-act and promised-response positions on revival at the same time, apparently not recognizing the contradictions in their statements.  How many fundamental Baptist evangelists have pointed to conditions for revival in the Bible?  But how often have fundamental Baptists attributed a remarkable revival to the sovereignty of God, even after the people had prayed and made things right to prepare the way of the Lord?  Have fundamental people been schizophrenic or simply balanced about revival?

God is certainly sovereign.  He reigns and rules over all.  However, He does not do everything as a sovereign act.  We know this for sure because of the conditional promises in His Word.  More than once, the Lord says, “If you will do this, I will do that.”  Not every promise in the Bible is conditional, but some are.  Jesus said, “I will come again,” and we can be sure that He will come again no matter what we do about it.  His Second Coming is expected based on an unconditional promise (John 14:3).  But He also said, “Ask, and it shall be given you,” and the book of James says, “Ye have not because ye ask not.”  He has promised to give if we will ask, and thus answered prayer is not a sovereign act of God.  It is a promised response from God.  To act sovereignly, God must do something just because He has decided to do it.  Conditional promises give men the opportunity to interact with God.  They also make God somewhat predictable!  This is the way a sovereign God decided it would be.  He would do some things in response to what men do.  Can we remember other conditional promises?

“Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:13)

“Give, and it shall be given unto you…” (Luke 6:38)

“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God,…and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5)

“…let your requests be made known unto God.  And the peace of God…shall keep your hearts…” (Philippians 4:6-7)

Revival is one of the blessings that God has promised with conditional promises.  Read the great revival passage in James 4:1-10.

“Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.  Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.  Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.  Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.”

(Verses 8 through 10)

Similar revival promises are found in Malachi 3:7, Psalm 85, II Chronicles 7:14, II Chronicles 30:6-9, Jeremiah 29:11-14, and in all the passages where the basic principle of Zechariah 1:3 is repeated.  Throughout the Bible, the Lord says that the blessings will come back when His people turn back to Him.  See this all over the book of Judges, as well as in many of the accounts of the kings, and in the appeals of the prophets.  Find it also in the experience of the early church.  When they turned to the Lord, He responded (Acts 4:29-33; 6:5-7).

The other side.

As we have seen, many scriptures can be cited to prove the promised-response view of revival.  But have all the verses that support the sovereign-act view been misinterpreted or ignored?  The inquirer will be surprised to find that there are no passages of scripture to support the sovereign-act view of revival!  No prophet says, “When God is ready to turn us from our idols and our sins, He will do it.  We must not insult Him by repenting and expecting Him to do anything.”  No, the prophets all say “Turn from your sins now and look for God to deliver you!”  No New Testament writer encourages believers just to ignore carnality, sin, and worldliness in the church until the Lord decides to get rid of it.  Paul says, “Now it is high time to awake out of sleep” in Romans 13.  He says in Ephesians that those already “sealed with that holy Spirit of promise” at the time of their salvation have the obligation to “grieve not the holy Spirit,” and the opportunity to be “filled with the Spirit.”  He says again and again in his epistles that believers should abandon their sins, and claim the victory of Christ over them.  James tells us to “Draw nigh to God,” with the promise that “he will draw nigh to you.”  Jesus in the book of Revelation calls on churches to repent, and invite Him to sup with them.  The whole Bible shows us that God will revive us if we will humbly and earnestly seek His face.  It never presents revival as a sovereign act of God.

What difference will it make?

But is the difference between the two views of revival really just academic and impractical?  Does viewing revival as a sovereign act of God have any effect on our lives and our churches, as opposed to believing that revival will come in response to our repentance and prayer?  Actually, there is a great difference in the prayers and actions of Christians who hold the opposing views.

Sovereign-act people will not expect much from God.  Joshua told the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you” (Joshua 3:5).  Were they to expect anything from God in response to their sanctifying themselves?  Of course, they looked for “wonders” tomorrow.  Sovereign-act Christians may hope for the wonders that are actually promised with revival, but they do not expect them.  Sometimes, as a result, their “sanctification” (separation unto God) becomes dry and difficult.  This does not always happen, but the wrong idea about revival does indeed shape one’s perspective on life and the world in an unbiblical way.

The promised-response view of revival will motivate godly activity and true faith among Christians.  There will be prayer meetings for revival, unshackled by the traditional forms and lifeless unbelief that characterized many of our prayer meetings in the past.  There will be faith-based evangelistic efforts, unhindered by the flesh-dependence which has characterized efforts in the past.  There will be new interest in the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, enlightened by the preaching of truths known well by our spiritual forefathers, but long-neglected in reaction to the false doctrines of the Pentecostal movement.  There will be a new zeal for the evangelization of the world, accompanied by confidence that it can be done.  There will be the abandonment of the hold-the-fort mentality of fundamentalist churches, which has not even served them well in holding the fort!  And there will be revivals, because God is the Great Reviver of His People!  There will be individuals powerfully transformed by personal revivals.  There will be church revivals that will remind us of the stories our fathers have told us.  There will be wider movements of revival that will make the churches again what Jesus intended them to be, so that He by them can meet the need of the world!

Getting our noses back into the Bible, and getting the scriptural view of the revival God wants to give us, will turn everything around, and prepare us for mighty works for Jesus in coming days.


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