Few words have undergone such a transformation in the modern church as the word “revival.” After a rich history of spiritual awakenings in America, today “revival” can simply denote a weeknight service with a special “evangelistic” speaker. However, hundreds of years ago this multivalent term had a much more robust meaning. A revival wasn’t relegated to a service or a day or even a week. It was a special enlightening, empowering work of the Spirit of God that transcended the worship service and swept through the village or town, culminating in a steady increase in discipleship and a genuine love for the things of God.
Therefore revival is about much more than simply a fresh round of baptisms or professions. In fact, it cannot be relegated to a single experience or event. It is, rather, a corporate movement. This understanding of “revival” began in the early eighteenth century with the American Great Awakening, itself a cluster of revivals. In his history of colonial New England revivalist tradition, Michael Crawford explains, “In theory, a revival was more than a conjunction of numerous conversion experiences. It was the outpouring of grace for the reformation of the community.” (Season of Grace, 190) By nature a revival doesn’t stop at the church door. It keeps going.
At its heart, revival is reformation and renewal, beginning with the message of the rebirth. One cannot be saved without being changed, and a church cannot be reformed without first reforming souls. The very Gospel message that declares salvation through faith in Christ also extols the promise that the Spirit of Christ will inevitably bear fruit in the born again sinner. To be “born again” entails growing in one’s faith and seeking that growth within the spiritual confines of the church. Therefore evangelism and discipleship are inextricable in a revived church. The Gospel begins with the message of justification by faith and continues with the hope of sanctification in the life of the believer. Revival is for new believers and old.
The message of the rebirth has stoked the fires of American revival for centuries. George Whitefield, the “Great Itinerant” of the Great Awakening and the father of American evangelicalism, published his first sermon in London in 1737 entitled “The Nature and Necessity of Our Regeneration or New Birth in Christ Jesus.” (2 Cor. 5:17) It was to become his most popular sermon in the Great Awakening and the sum and substance of his basic revival message: the rebirth. Hundreds of years later, in his recent biography of Billy Graham, Grant Wacker summarizes the “centerpiece” of Graham’s theology with two words: “new birth.” (America’s Pastor, 33) Revival begins by asking the very same question posed by Nicodemus: “How can a man be born when he is old?” (John 3:4)
However, in contrast to the packed stadiums of the Graham revivals, true revival isn’t necessarily about numbers. Instead it’s about unity. Today the word “revival” has become synonymous in some ways with nationalistic unity, however, we should never understand revival outside the specific context and unity of the church. Revival is always first and foremost a revival of the church. Worship begins in Spirit and truth, both given uniquely to the body of Christ. (John 4:24) Thus the life of the Spirit is breathed out upon a church and a community through the preaching of the Gospel, and this is demonstrated most vibrantly in love. The Holy Spirit begets love. (Rom. 5:5) Disciples beget disciples. (2 Tim. 2:2) Revival begets revival. In turn, a church of revival is never self-contained or divisive. This is contrary to the bond of peace and the unity of the Spirit. (Eph. 4:3) Revival is a revival of love.
In 1741, after multiple revivals in New England, Northampton pastor Jonathan Edwards recognized this, and his observations are still helpful for our own religious culture today. He composed The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God in order to help the church discern between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error prevailing in their generation. One of these marks, according to Edwards, is the outpouring of “the spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, all flows out or is breathed forth in love.” Revival is a shower of God’s love that naturally attends the proclamation of truth. Therefore, to some degree, it’s possible to discern a “Spirit-filled” church by the presence or absence of God’s love in that particular body. A factious church will never sustain nor invite godly revival.
After a long process beginning with the Great Awakening itself, the word “revival” has become a somewhat muddied term inside the church. Today, it sadly no longer connotes a prayer-fueled, God-initiated movement. Instead it’s come to represent something you’d find on a church calendar, as if sinners could somehow conjure such a divine phenomenon by simply showing up on a Monday night. The idea that revival is simply a special service with a special speaker eviscerates the “special” character and power behind the idea of spiritual awakening. When the Holy Spirit is breathed forth upon a community or a local body, believers don’t leave simply discussing how much they enjoyed the speaker; they continue meeting together around God’s Word. They instinctively pursue discipleship and evangelism as the Spirit of God inevitably leads them. From the pew to the Panera. From the pulpit to the porch. Revival isn’t something we ultimately create. It comes only by the Spirit of God through prayer and the preaching of the Gospel. Are we praying for revival?