R3 Alliance | What is Revival?
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What is Revival?

What is Revival?

‘O Lord, revive your work in the midst of the years! In the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. God Came…’                                                                                                                                       Habakkuk 3:2-3

“The antecedents, accompaniments, and results of revivals are always substantially the same as in the case of Pentecost.”                                                                                                                         (Charles Finney, Lectures on Revival)

*Excerpts from Revival Phenomena, Colin Dye

In some parts of the world, revival is the word which is used to describe a gospel or evangelistic meeting.  For example, some church leaders talk about organizing a revival, while their British counterparts talk about arranging an evangelistic meeting.  This is because they understand the word revival differently: both organize meetings at which they hope people will be converted, and both believe it is impossible to organize a visitation from God.

In some Christian traditions, revival is the word which is used to describe mass conversions in one geographic area during a limited period of time.  So some groups talk about the Welsh Revival of 1904 or the Ulster Revival of 1859.

But other groups adhere to the strict meaning of the word and use it to describe a personal reviving of a believer by the Holy Spirit.  They maintain that a non-believer cannot be ‘revived’.  So they use the word awakening to describe what many Christians call revival; and what they identify as revival, others classify as renewal.

Then there are those who associate revival with excessive emotionalism, extreme hysteria and unacceptable psychological manipulation.

The word ‘revival’ is not found in the Bible; although—as we will see—many types, examples and principles of revival are recorded in the Scriptures.

I believe that revival is more than large meetings, more than spiritual excitement, more than the dramatic renewal of believers, more than community impact, and more than mass conversions.  These are some of the elements of revival, but—on their own—they do not merit the label ‘revival’.


Powerful visitation

When I use the word revival, I mean ‘a season of powerful visitation from God’.  As far as I am concerned, revival is essentially a manifestation of God.  It is a time when he reveals himself both in his absolute holiness and in his great power.  It is God rolling up his sleeves—‘making bare his holy arm’—and working in extraordinary power on saints and sinners alike.

Although the term ‘revival’ properly belongs to the history of the church since the New Testament era, we can identify dominant elements which are present both in the New Testament church and in the revivals of history.

These centre on God acting through powerful manifestations of his presence—strengthening his church and awakening the world.  Indeed, many features of revival mirror the New Testament experience of God: for example, conviction of sin, mass conversions, powerful spiritual encounters, revelations of God, assurance of salvation, spiritual fervor, community impact and a lasting legacy for the church and society.


What phenomena can we expect in genuine revival?

All true revivals of church history have been marked by unusual phenomena.  Strange effects have been a feature of God’s work in all the seasons of blessing—from early church revivals, through early monasticism, the Moravians and early Methodism, up to the Pentecostal revivals of this century.



Records from every century show how the preachers in historic revivals regularly could not be heard above the cries of their congregations—and how many in their congregations lay flat on their faces during and after the meetings.

It seems that the conversion experience is often greatly intensified in revival.  This experience includes all the usual biblical elements, but is characterized by a heightened experience of them.

Historical records frequently describe men and women experiencing intense periods of grief and mourning when they were overwhelmed by a conviction of sin and by their need for repentance and forgiveness.  This was often followed by waves of extraordinary joy and excitement when the converts were overcome by a deep assurance of adoption and forgiveness.

For example, in his journal for 7th of July 1739, John Wesley records:

‘No sooner had Whitefield begun to invite all sinners to believe in Christ, than four persons sunk down close to him, almost in the same moment.  One of them lay without either sense of motion.  A second trembled exceedingly.  The third had strong convulsions all over his body, but made no noise, unless by groans.  The Fourth, equally convulsed, called upon God, with strong cries and tears.’

There is an almost unlimited number of examples, from every century, of special periods of time when God’s holiness and power were so intense that sinners turned to him in these dramatic ways.


Signs and wonders

There is often a strong element of signs in revivals.  These are visible, usually supernatural, phenomena which point to the invisible, spiritual activity of God.

For example, the journal of David Brainerd for 8th August 1745 records:

‘In the afternoon I preached to the Indians; their number was now about sixty-five persons…Afterwards when I spoke to one and another more particularly, the power of God seemed to descend upon the assembly “like a rushing wind”, and with an astonishing energy bore sown all before it.

I stood amazed at the influence that seized the audience almost universally, and could compare it to nothing more aptly than the irresistible force of a mighty torrent, or swelling deluge, that with its insupportable weight and pressure bears down and sweeps before it whatever is in its way.  Almost all persons of all ages were bowed down with concern together and scarce one was able to withstand the shock of this surprising operation.’

Records of these sorts of signs are found in every century and every part of the world.  They are similar to the phenomena which were experienced by the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Then, the sound of a mighty, rushing wind and the appearance of flames of fire were the outward and visible signs of the coming of the Holy Spirit.  These signs pointed to the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

Acts 2:12 reports that the crowds were ‘all amazed and perplexed, saying one to another. “Whatever could this mean?”’  But when Peter responded to their question, he did not analyse or explain the phenomena; instead he pointed to their true significance.

Brainerd, in his journal, whilst admitting that ‘I must say I never saw any day like it in all respects,’ describes the phenomena in only five lines.  He then fills eighty-two lines with a detailed description of the Indians’ responses to God.

We must always beware of the danger of over-anaylsing a sign, rather than establishing its importance and meaning.


Gifts of the Spirit

Supernatural, spiritual gifts have featured prominently in most of the revivals throughout history.  Prophecies, healings, tongues and miracles are recorded in every tradition and century—especially in this century’s Pentecostal revivals.

For examples, during the remarkable 1542 revival at Goa, In India, a Spanish monk wrote to his superior to report:

‘I went into a village full of idolaters, and preached Jesus Christ to them, but the inhabitants would not change their religion without the leave of their lord.  Their obstinacy yielded to the force of the miracles by which God was pleased to manifest his truth to them.  A woman who had been three days in the pains of childbirth without being eased by any remedies was immediately delivered and recovered when she responded to the preaching of Jesus Christ.

Upon this miracle, not only that family, but most of the chief persons of the region heartily embraced the faith.’

In the Cevenne revival at the end of the seventeenth century, more than three hundred children spoke in tongues and prophesied with astonishing power and accuracy.  This move of God’s Sprit lasted for over ten years, before it was forcibly subdued by the French Army in 1711 and the children were either executed or transported.

During the eighteenth century, the gift of tongues featured in the Quaker revival in North America, the Jansenist revival in France, the Methodist revival in Britain and –especially—the Moravian revival in Germany and wherever their amazing world-wide missionary activity took them.

An anonymous critic of Count Zinzendorf, the leader of the Moravians, wrote that:

‘He and his followers were great dealers in the Spirit and affected strange convulsive heavings and unnatural postures.  And in one of these fits they commonly broke into some disconnected jargon which they often passed upon the vulgar as the exuberant and resistless evacuations of the Spirit, and other such enthusiastic stuff.’

Many supporters of what is known as ‘the Toronto Blessing’ have looked to the eighteenth century American revivals of Jonathan Edwards (a close friend of David Brainerd) to support the phenomena associated with ‘Toronto’.

I find this rather strange, as there are far more parallels to be drawn with the early days of Pentecostalism.  Edwards, for example, seems to have rejected the miraculous, visions, and prophecies.  The present move of God is, in reality, an outgrowth of the Pentecostal revival at the evangelicals continue to reject—or fail to recognize—the radical Pentecostalism which gave birth to most of the Third World revivals of this century, and paved the way for the more recent charismatic renewal in the mainline denominations.


Physical and emotional effects of the Spirit

Church history has well documented the many different ways that people have reacted to God’s powerful and holy presence.

Everything that is happening today (and much, much more) has occurred before with remarkable similarity.  The next two reports could come from any country and any century.  They could even describe recent events in many churches.

‘She could neither go nor stand, nor sit on her seat without being held up.  After public service was over, she lay flat on the ground and would take no notice of, nor give any answer to, any that spoke to her.  Thus she continued for many hours.’

‘I don’t know any other terms for describing or explaining it.  Nor does the soul then know what to do, whether to speak or be silent, whether to laugh or to weep.  This is a glorious foolishness, a heavenly madness where true wisdom is learnt: and it is for the souls a most delightful way of enjoying.’

(The first report is from New Jersey in the early eighteenth century: the second comes from sixteenth century Spain.)

There are leaders today who accept that unusual phenomena may accompany conversions, and that signs, wonders and spiritual gifts come from God.   But they question the physical and emotional effects of the Spirit on people in revival.

‘Let us be very careful that we do not do violence to man’s very nature and constitution: man reacts as a whole.  And it is just folly to expect that he can react in the realm of the spiritual without anything happening to the rest of him, to the soul and to the body.’                       (Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Revival)

People often make the false assumption that what God does is instantly recognizable as being of God.  It is this assumption which—together with culturally preconditioned standards of what is acceptable—influences many people’s initial responses to unusual phenomena.

Jesus did not arrive in the expected way, did not act in the anticipated manner, and left in a highly unusual fashion. The Jews loved the Scriptures.  They longed for the Messiah to come.  And then they rejected him because he did not match their expectations.  We need to be careful that we are not so ‘correct’ in our thinking that we miss his visitation in our day.

Those of us who genuinely experience a touch from God must aim to build up the whole body rather than our own small part.  We will be characterized by love, not slander; not theological bigotry; and by common appreciation, not critical arrogance.

Moreover, we will be filled with a constant sense of wonder at Christ’s great sacrifice for us—and with a burning passion to share his gospel of grace with the lost around us.

It is my fervent prayer that Habakkuk 3:2-3 will be prayed again and answered again in our own days.

“O Lord, revive your work in the midst of the years! In the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. God Came…’


‘Oh for the fire to fall again—fire which shall affect the most stolid!  Oh, that such fire might first sit upon the disciples, and then fall all around!  O God, thou art ready to work with us today even as thou didst then.  Stay not, we beseech thee, but work at once.  Break down every barrier that hinders the incoming of thy might!   Give us now both hearts of flame and tongues of fire to preach thy reconciling word, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.’                     (C. H. Spurgeon)


*Colin Dye is Senior Minister of Kensington Temple, London, one of the largest churches in the U.K.  Revival Phenomena was forwarded by Pastor Jack Hayford and R. T. Kendall