Some thoughts on revivals

As you probably know, there are reports of a revival happening at Asbury University, Kentucky. I don’t think many of us this side of the pond are very well placed to say a great deal about it. I am quite happy to take the reports at face value and am quite prepared to believe that the Lord may well be something significant there. I am equally happy, with that said, to wait and see what happens. I trust it is real and genuine – and am happy to affirm it as such based on the little I know – but I am also conscious, ultimately, time will tell.

My comments here are not really about the Asbury Revival so much as revival in general. Nor do I have a great deal to say about it. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to dampen enthusiasm for what seems to be happening currently nor do I want to pick holes in what seems to be spontaneous and genuine as far as I can judge it, based on the little I know right now and my perspective from a distance. But nevertheless, and in no particular order, here are some more broad comments.

We shouldn’t be closed to such a work of the Spirit

Regardless of what may or may not be happening at Asbury University, we should not be closed to the idea that the Spirit, in his sovereign goodness, might be working this way. Clearly, revivals take place. From Acts 2, when 3000 people came into the church, right the way through Church history, there have been revivals. Mass turnings to the Lord Jesus by a work of the Spirit. There is nothing in scripture nor in church history that leads me to think he would not and could not do such things again. Let’s not be closed off and unbiblically sceptical about these things.

Don’t assume all that glitters is gold

At the same time, we have to accept that not everything that appears to be a revival is really a revival. Let’s be honest, one long worship service that goes on for 7 days does not, of itself, a revival make. It might well be the beginning of something, but tonnes of people coming to check out a service over the course of a week does not necessarily signal new life being found en masse. The signs of genuine revival are lots of people putting their trust in the Lord Jesus, repenting of their sin, searching the scriptures to understand what he would now have them do and evidence of the fruit of the Spirit developing in their lives. These things all may well be present and visible, as far as they might be visible at this point, at Asbury University. If so, we can praise God. But ultimately, not everything termed revival proves to have such features and might well not be worthy of the name.

Time will ultimately tell

If we are not closed to the Spirit working this way, and we recognise that not everything termed revival is actually revival, how do we recognise a true one when we see it? Revivalism used to rely upon the whipped up excitement of the moment; it reckoned revival by the number of conversions spurred on at the time. Most Evangelicals, particularly those of a reformed theological persuasion, do not reckon this to be a solid measure.

If we believe in the perseverance of the saints, the answer is ultimately this: time will tell. How do we know the 3000 who were saved, baptised and added to their number were clearly the product of a Spirit-powered revival? They continued on with the Lord. They didn’t just profess faith one day, they continued professing belief in the Lord Jesus, they grew in maturity and showed evidence of the the Spirit at work in them as time went on. How do we know revival has broken out anywhere? Not so much the number of conversions across 7 days, but the number of those folks still walking with Christ after 7 years. The most reliable guide on these things is time.

We can still judge what is going on at Asbury University – as with any other place where these things might happen – and judge them on face value at the time. Are people professing faith in Christ today? Are people repenting of sin and seeking to walk with Jesus today? If the answer to that is yes, we can praise God that there appears to be a real moving of his Spirit. But the ultimate test will be what they are saying next week, next month, next year and next decade. If they’re still walking with Jesus then, we most certainly had a revival on our hands. In the meantime, we take each day as it comes and judge matters as they seem before us now.

Revival is miraculous; so is every conversion

One of the dangers when it comes to revival is to view it as miraculous in such a way as to imply that the single conversion of one soul that was 10 years in the making is not. This, I believe, is a real mistake. Don’t get me wrong, clearly revival is miraculous and is evidently a work of God. But so is the conversion of one soul who has been faithfully witnessed to over years and years by the same people from the same church.

Nobody can believe in the Lord Jesus unless the Spirit draws him. Every conversion is a miraculous work of the Spirit. People who are dead in their sins cannot make themselves alive, cannot express faith, cannot will themselves to glory. If we are going to be made alive in Christ, it requires a miraculous work of God to do it. That remains true whether it is 3000 people on one day at Pentecost or 1 person over 3000 days at some unknown church. We might recognise the miraculous work more clearly when it is a revival, but we should equally recognise the miraculous work when only one person converts at one particular time too. All conversions are miracles and it shouldn’t matter how many happened or the length of time it took. The dead raised to life should be miracle enough for us.

If we are encouraged by what is ordinary, we’ll be more encouraged by the extraordinary

One of the mistakes Christians can make is to over-focus on the extraordinary works of God. So far as conversion is concerned, there can be an obsession with revival and a despising of the ordinary means. When this happens, you get people terribly disappointed when there is not a new revival every year. What goes on ordinarily is not deemed enough for them. Only the big, flashy revivals count.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, are the dour folk who essentially suggest revival cannot and will not happen. They abhor enthusiasm of any sort. We don’t want any of this sort of excitement. There can be a sneaking suspicion it is all manufactured anyway. There can often be a revelling in the small and ordinary because it is small and ordinary.

Both these positions, I think, are missteps. If we are prone to expect revival all the time, we will be endlessly disappointed. Extraordinary things, by their nature, are not ordinary. If they were ordinary, they would not be nearly so impressive or exciting. By contrast, if we are prone to glory in small things because they are small, we are likely to miss the great encouragement of what God is doing in bigger and extraordinary ways.

But I think those who are not excited by small things because they are small, but are excited by smaller things brought about by ordinary means because they recognise they are still miraculous, such people are likely to be even more encouraged when genuine revivals to occur. If we recognise the miraculous nature of conversion through ordinary means, we will be all the more in awe of conversion by extraordinary means. If we recognise the miraculous nature of even one person converting, we will be blown away by the miraculous work of many people coming to faith.

If our eyes are closed to revivals altogether, we will never see them. If we only ever expect revivals, we will be constantly (and mainly) disappointed when they, by their very nature, don’t come along very often. If we accept revival as a real and legitimate possibility, but we glory in the small and ordinary means that God uses and the miraculous nature of any conversion, we will be all the more encouraged when we do see revivals break out.