What is revival?

From Steven Lawson’s commentary on Psalm 85:

On July 8, 1734, Jonathan Edwards stepped into the pulpit to preach his now famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards had actually preached from the same text several times previously, as recently as one month earlier to his own congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts. But while the guest preacher in Enfield, Connecticut, he preached this sermon yet again; and the people in that New England church were deeply affected. Eleazer Wheelock, one of the leading preachers in the Great Awakening, said the people were “bowed down with an awful conviction of the sin and danger.” One man under deep conviction sprang up and cried, “Mr. Edwards, have mercy!” Others caught hold of the backs of the pews lest they should slip into the pit of hell. Many thought that the day of judgment had suddenly dawned on them. Still others were alarmed that God, while blessing others, should in anger pass them by.

Revival had come to New England, restoring God’s work among his people in colonial America, empowering them to do his will. What is revival? Literally, the word itself means a restoring back to fullness of life that which has become stagnant or dormant. It is a rekindling of spiritual life in individual believers and churches which have fallen into sluggish times. True revival always returns God’s people to a fresh and vivid emphasis on the holiness and righteousness of God, his judgment on sin, true repentance, and the overflowing effect of personal conversions to Christ. This sudden awareness of the overwhelming presence of God is the hallmark of any revival. It is a supernatural work of God in which he visits his people, restoring spiritual life to their hearts, as well as ushering salvation into many souls. Such a revival is always a sovereign work of God, in response to the prayers of his people, and it leaves a lasting mark on his work forever.

Historically speaking, revivals have always been marked by the same spiritual characteristics, and it would do believers well to reacquaint themselves with these benchmarks. Whether it be during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah in Old Testament times or the Reformation, Puritan age, and Great Awakening in church history, revivals have always demonstrated the same qualities. They are as follows:

  1. A proclamation of Scripture. Any period of revival has always been preceded by a dramatic return to the Word of God. Certainly, this was true in the revival at the Watergate under Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 8:8). The centrality of the Scripture in any revival is undisputed. “Preserve my life according to your word” (Ps. 119:37). And this clearly was the dynamic of the early church in Jerusalem which exploded on the scene as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). The same was true in the days of Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield. There was a return to the divine revelation of Scripture being read, studied, taught, and preached.
  1. An intercession with God. A genuine spiritual awakening is further marked as a time in which God’s people humble themselves and seek the Lord in unceasing prayer. It is a new season of petitioning God, seeking his face, and asking him to revive his people and restore his work. While all revivals are sent by the sovereign initiative of God, nevertheless, prayer is always the forerunner of his people. It was this way in the early church as they regularly met together to pray (Acts 1:13–14; 2:42; 3:1).
  1. A confession of sin. True revival ushers in a deep conviction of personal sin, a confessing of sin, and a turning away from sin. This means that sin made known must go. Iniquities are revealed by the Word, and hearts are broken with deep contrition. Sin is put away. This is precisely what happened in Ezra’s day as the people confessed their sin to God, while openly grieving that they had departed from God’s standard (Neh. 9:1–37). In fact, they put on sackcloth, threw dust on their heads (v. 1), and acknowledged their sin (v. 3), bringing it out into the open before God (v. 37).
  1. A devotion to holiness. Old paths of obedience, previously forsaken, are once more pursued. The Word is not only taught and heard anew, but it is also received and kept. Suddenly, there is an overwhelming desire to apply the Scripture to one’s own life, putting it into practice with a new resolve. Revival always brings about this effect. It is a time of renewed commitment to return to the Scripture in order to obey it.