Based on a sermon. Part 2 of 5.
“What is a revival?” Answers to this question are essential if you want to understand the rationale for the Church Growth Modelling project. The first answer is that revival is a work of God. This is the second in a series of five articles that come from a sermon I have preached in many churches. The passage is Acts 1:1-16.
Read the introduction to set the context.
Revival Comes From Above
Look at our foundational text in Acts 1:8,
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.
After his resurrection, Jesus promised his disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit upon them.
I am going to send you what my Father has promisedLuke 24:49
Three words, receive, send, come. In revival, people receive from God. Or, to put it another way, the Holy Spirit comes on them. God is active; the people are passive. Indeed, the whole trinity is active. Jesus sends the Spirit he has received from the Father.
It follows that revival is not a work of people. It is not an evangelistic campaign or a special meeting. Evangelism is our responsibility. Revival is God’s work.
Revivals may well involve evangelism as it did in the Breadalbane revival I referred to in the introduction. The minister Robert Findlater would go from house to house to witness Jesus Christ. That is evangelism – and he did not wait for revival to do this. We are commanded to evangelise, “in season or out of season”. But only God gives revival.
The Word Revival is Not in Scripture
Sometimes you find the word “revive” in the Old Testament, e.g. Psalm 85:6 Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? But the word “revival” is not in the Bible at all. So, where did it come from?
As far as I can tell, its first use was among protestant Christians in the early 18th century. It was used occasionally by Solomon Stoddard 1643-1727) of New England, who experienced such moves of God in 1679, 1683, 1696,1712, and 1718. He usually called these moves “harvests”. However, in 1712 he wrote about these events as “some special seasons wherein God doth in a remarkable manner revive religion among His people” . For Stoddard, and no doubt others in New England, Revivals of Religion are associated with the Spirit being poured out.
An earlier reference is given by the famous Bible commentator Matthew Henry. He wrote in 1707:
The year of the revival of primitive Christianity in the power of it, will be the year of the redeemed 
The term was also in use in Scotland. In 1716, Thomas Boston spoke to the Church of Scotland General Assembly, saying:
Are you longing for a revival to the churches, now lying like dry bones?
Subsequently, the term revival came to be popularised by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). Indeed, he became the theologian of revival, defending it against its attackers, for example, in his treatise, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival in New England. Following Edwards, the word was used by the early Methodist leaders such as Whitefield and the Wesleys. It has been in common use since.
An Outpouring of the Spirit
Although Jonathan Edwards popularised the word “revival”, his preferred expression was always an “outpouring of the Spirit” – the Biblical term. The archetypal revival occurred on the Day of Pentecost. The apostle Peter quotes the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.Joel 2:17
Later in his sermon, Peter uses the expression “poured out” to explain what his onlookers are hearing and seeing.
Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.Acts 2:33
Peter is making it clear that all the commotion at Pentecost was not from them but from God. Indeed, Peter regards it as evidence that Jesus was now at the right hand of God and therefore raised from death. Yes, revivals are evidence of the resurrection!
Luke concludes the section with a summary:
And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.Acts 2:47
Again, he makes it clear. This revival did not come about by great preaching, or by a well-organised church, or by an evangelistic strategy, but by a move of God. The Lord added.
Whatever word we use, whether outpour, send, or receive, revival is something that. God does, and we are the recipients. So don’t try to organise a revival! It is a contradiction in terms.
Many historical revivals support the view that revival is of God and not man. For example, in the Hebridean Revival from 1949, the evangelist Duncan Campbell, speaking about the revival, starts by saying, “I did not bring revival to Lewis” . He was adamant it came from God. He defines revival:
Revival is a going of God among His people, and an awareness of God laying hold of the community.
His favourite text was from Isaiah:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!Isaiah 64:1
That is it! Revival is God coming down!
Another example of a preacher who saw a revival as a move of God was Charles Haddon Spurgeon. In 1858 he preached the sermon entitled “The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit” to explain the revival occurring in the USA. Throughout the sermon, he explains revival and the resulting conversions as works of God’s Spirit. In particular, he states that: the Holy Spirit gives to men powers which they never had before.
Spurgeon’s text from Acts shows the God-given nature of revival
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.Acts 10:44
Revival is the Holy Spirit falling on people. The testimony of history is that revivals are of God.
If revival is from God, a sovereign move of the Almighty, what is our contribution? Indeed, is there anything we can do to see revival?
I can think of three. Firstly, we can pray for revival. If God gives, then we can ask. Indeed, many revivals started with people praying, perhaps for weeks, months or years. We may not be able to plan for revival, but we can certainly ask the One who gives it that he sends it. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!
Secondly, we can teach and preach about revival. We can raise the awareness of what God has done in Bible times and what he has done in history. But it is not just history. We can teach the promises of God and raise expectations of revival now.
Thirdly, we can prepare our hearts. We can strive to ensure we are walking with God as we should be. That we are living the life, the Lord Jesus expects of us. We cannot presume that God would send revival on us if we are willfully disobeying his word.
Duncan Campbell was adamant that every revival was a holiness revival. He may have gone too far in this regard, implying holiness is a condition of revival. Conditions like this are not helpful. If God did not send his Spirit on sinners, there would be no revivals at all. It is because we are sinners that we need revival!
Nevertheless, we live in an age where holiness and sanctification are out of fashion in the church. It would do us no harm to seek a deeper and more holy life with our Lord, one where he increases and we decrease. We might then convince ourselves that we are serious about receiving an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Also, we might convince God of the same.
- Blog post: What is Revival? Introduction.
- A Dawning in the New World. Christian History Institute.
- Murray IH, Revivals and Revivalism, p. xvii, Banner of Truth, 1994.
- Murray IH, The Puritan Hope, p. 112–113, Banner of Truth, 1971.
- Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival in New England, 1740. In Edwards J, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth, 1988. Also online at Pioneer Library.
- Campbell gave many talks on the Lewis revival, some of which were recorded on tape, now available on YouTube or MP3.
- The Lewis Awakening: The Nature of a God Sent Revival 1949–1953, Duncan Campbell, p. 14-15, Kraus House Publishing, 2016.
- The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit, New Park Street Pulpit, volume 4, June 20, 1858.