“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” -1 John 1:9
What does a revival look like? For some, the word evokes images of Friday night music solos, guest speakers, and altar calls in the sanctuary. For others, it conjures up memories of Billy Graham and sold-out football stadiums. Still, the majority of Christians in American history would not have associated the word “revival” with any kind of scheduled event. In other words, a revival was something you prayed for, not planned for. As Jonathan Edwards called the Great Awakening in 1737, a revival was a “surprising work of God.” And that spirit lives on today in America’s churches. Names like George Whitefield and Charles Finney have been largely forgotten in popular evangelical culture, but the anticipation for revival has never left its pews. The people of God in America continue to hope for, and pray for, a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
While the expectation for revival hasn’t changed, the way in which Americans expect God to bring revival has gradually altered through the years. For centuries, revival was something that began with the people of God, not the country itself. In 1800, speaking of “the gracious aid of the Holy Spirit,” Charleston pastor Richard Furman asked, “How earnestly should we pray for this gracious aid?” He then declared, “Remember your depraved, guilty and lost state by nature, remember the vileness and guilt you contracted by actual transgression, and what obligations you are brought under by pardoning, renewing, and sanctifying grace.” When Furman prayed for revival, before he prayed for the world to change its ways, he prayed that the people of God would change theirs. He prayed that the church would contemplate their own sin before any others. And revival certainly had nothing to do with politics. Baptist John Leland once famously quipped, “Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of mathematics.”
Today, however, when Christians anticipate revival, many of them seem to expect God to reform American culture before he reforms the church. There is sometimes even an assumption that the Spirit will first descend upon Washington D.C. before He is poured out upon the local church. But that kind of worldly thinking runs contrary to American history as well as to the Bible itself. When the great evangelists of the past did mighty works in the name of the Lord, they did so not with policy but with the power of the Word. And they called people not simply to repent of their sins, but to die daily. To be crucified with Christ. (Gal. 2:20) In fact, one might say that the only stain upon Billy Graham’s otherwise pristine legacy is his involvement with the Richard Nixon campaign in 1972, something he later regretted and acknowledged later in his life. As Graham emphasized throughout his career, the simple gospel did the work.
It is simply not enough to “pray for a revival” if we believe that somehow God should reveal to our enemies their sin before He reveals to us the gravity of our own. Indeed, the church has nothing to offer the world unless it is changed by the gospel it proclaims. Reform begins in the church, not the culture. Therefore, when we pray for revival, we should pray that Spirit would convict us of our sin, something that Jesus said the Spirit has come to do. (John 16:8) And when we pray that God would save the lost, as we should, we should likewise pray for the church, as Christ also did. (John 17:9) After Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, Jesus didn’t simply walk away. He assured him that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. (Matt. 16:18) And then he prayed for that church. He discipled that church. He gave His life for that church. And the world was never the same.