Who Needs Revival?

Some years ago, I was visiting a small rural church in Michigan where a preacher delivered a message on revival. His text was Genesis 26:18.

And Isaac digged again the wells of water, which they had digged in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham.

He argued passionately that what we need more than anything else in these times is revival. In fact, revival would solve every significant problem that exists in our nation, our churches, and in the lives of God’s people everywhere. Near the end of his message, he summarized with these words. “Our nation needs revival, God’s people need revival, we here—we all need revival… I need revival.”

The message illustrates a widespread way of thinking about revival and a common pattern in pulpit use of the term. But three problems with this usage call for our attention.

Problem 1: this use of “revival” isn’t actually biblical

It’s a surprise to many that the word “revival” does not occur in the KJV, though variants of the word like “revived” and “reviving” occur 16 times (variations of the word occur thirty times in NASB, twenty times in ESV and nine times in NIV). All of the OT references translate the Hebrew chayah (Strong’s 2421) or its noun form michyah (Strong’s 4241). These words are usually translated “lived” or “living,” though they cover a wide range of meaning related to the idea of life. The two NT references come from zao (2198) or anazao (326), words that have essentially the same range of meaning as the Hebrew terms.

Since the underlying Hebrew and Greek words are so flexible, their meaning is based mostly on context. A table following this article lists the references and portions of the passages containing them.

A survey of the passages in their contexts reveals that “revival” in Scripture occasionally includes a spiritual dimension but these cases are few in number. All of those with a spiritual dimension refer to the nation of Israel enjoying renewed material and geopolitical blessing from God in the context of renewed interest among God’s people in knowing and doing His will.

However, in each of these cases, the “revival” occurs in the lives of those who have never previously known a life of faithful obedience to God. In other words, the individuals who are “revived” are unregenerate idolaters before the “revival” occurs. On the individual level, “revival” is the same thing as conversion in these passages. On the national level, it is a return to a prior condition: a time when the nation as a whole knew God and was faithful to Him.

We may conclude, then, that Scripture does not refer often to “revival” in a spiritual sense but when it does, it refers to the conversion of unbelievers (in large numbers). Though fundamentalist-heritage ministries do use the term in this way, we clearly do not limit it to this sense. This is because the Bible’s use of “revival” is not the driving force behind how we use the word.

Problem 2: this use of “revival” is inconsistent

The preaching in that rural Michigan church prompted a series of questions in my mind. Was it likely that the American public, all believers as a group, everyone in the building that day, and even the preacher all desperately needed the same thing? If we all needed the same cure, did this imply that we were all in the same condition? And if the preacher was in the same condition as the loose-living, godless, self-indulgent public he had decried throughout the message, why was he in the pulpit preaching to us?

Of course, we understood that wasn’t what he meant when he said, “I need revival,” but what did he mean? The event epitomizes a second problem with popular use of “revival.” We tend to be vague and confusing on the subject.

Over the years I have witnessed the use of “revival” to refer to all of the following:

  1. many people repenting and believing the gospel
  2. a major shift in society toward clean living
  3. large numbers of Christians who have turned away from God for a long time repenting and “getting right with God.”
  4. a significant increase in visible excitement among believers about “the things of God” (spiritual fervor)
  5. a lot of believers walking aisles to repent of a wide variety of things large and small
  6. a dramatic, visible working of God that results in large numbers of transformed people
  7. whatever will fix whatever is wrong with this or that church or ministry
  8. any significant shift back toward how things were in the good old days
  9. the ultimate answer to all that is wrong or can be wrong with life, the universe and everything

Clearly some of these overlap, and some of them are not views of revival anyone would admit to, but even items 7 through 9 are uses of the word I have witnessed on more than one occasion. The question they prompt is this: If our use of “revival” is only loosely related to the biblical use of the term, and we use it in so many different ways, how has this come about?

Simply put, our view of revival in fundamentalist-heritage ministries tends to be folkloric. When we hear the word “revival” we do not think of biblical principles so much as historical events. We think of the Great Awakening, the Puritan and Wesleyan revivals in England, the great Welsh Revival, the Laymen’s Prayer Revival. We think of Whitefield, Edwards, Finney and Moody.

Our collective awareness of these historical movements brings with it the lore of revival. Taverns went out of business, preaching sessions and prayer times went on for days without interruption, businesses closed to allow more to attend services, and thousands were born again.

No doubt, much of the lore is true, and if some accounts are not factually accurate they’re still descriptions of what people genuinely believed was happening. But these events are, nonetheless, history, not theology. They are experiences, not biblical precepts. We do not know how much of what occurred was of God or how much was merely human, or what, at the judgment, will prove to have been wood or hay rather than gold.

We know that the reality of past revival “just goes to show” something, but, as always with history, what it goes to show is open to interpretation. It may posses some of the authority of human expertise, but it can’t legitimately claim the authority of Scripture.

This folkloric understanding of revival is problematic in at least two ways. One, it tends to confuse means with ends and byproducts with essence. Two, because the folkloric view is history and not Scripture, there is always the risk that our efforts to reproduce a historical situation will get in the way of pursuing biblical goals. Perhaps we should focus on our biblical marching orders and let God decide whether history ought to repeat itself?

Problem 3: this use of “revival” is ineffective

Maybe the word “revival” should not be stricken from our pulpit vocabulary, but this much is clear: There are perfectly good biblical terms for all the things that are truly wrong with people as well as what they should do in response.

Scripture commands us to make disciples of all the nations and teach them to obey Christ (Matt.28:19-20). It also instructs us to be His witnesses both near and far (Acts 1:8) and teaches that we are dependent on the work of the Spirit for any effectiveness in these efforts. Only a gracious act of God can quicken those dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). That obligates us to pray that God will bring unbelievers to repentance and faith in the gospel. So, if our aim as preachers and teachers is to urge hearers to pray that many people would repent and believe, why not say so? These are biblical terms and far more clear than urging people to “pray for revival.”

The Bible also calls wayward Christians to clean up their act. If our goal in ministry is to urge believers who have wandered from God to return to Him, why not challenge them in biblical terms to stop being carnal (1 Cor.3:1-3), stop living like vain-minded unbelievers (Eph.4:17ff) or simply to wake up and quit sinning (1 Cor.15:33-34)? These terms are far more clear and on-point than saying “we need revival.”

Scripture actually leads us to believe that apathy and disregard for the will of God are a rare and unnatural condition among believers (1 John 3:8-9). Many are immature, but most are growing. It’s part of being alive. If this is the case, most believers do not need to return to a Lord from whom they have strayed, nor do they need a great stirring of spiritual fervor. What they need is to grow, to learn whatever is next to learn, and to do whatever is next to do.

These are usually small steps and quiet ones, and are not “revival” in either the biblical or the folkloric sense. There is a place for “fervor,” as a reflection of genuine commitment (Rom.12:11), but lack of fervor is not most believers’ biggest problem, and “revival” is not what most of them need.

If we want to urge normal Christians to do what’s needed in their lives, why not challenge them to grow in grace and knowledge (2 Pet.3:18), or to pursue a love that abounds in knowledge and discernment (Phil. 1:9), or to be increasingly holy in the fear of God (2 Cor.7:1), or to stop being mere consumers of teaching and start being teachers (Heb.5:12)?

Scripture is full of clear and powerful expressions of what’s lacking in believers’ lives, and every one of these expressions is preferable to “we all need revival.”

Conclusion

So who needs “revival?” In the biblical sense, those who have fallen away or who have never known Christ need it, but even in reference to this select group, Scripture prefers to put the need in different terms. And in the much broader folkloric sense of “a large scale working of the Spirit with the result of radically transformed lives,” the average Christian does not need “revival.” What he or she needs is progress, growth, and maturity.

Variants of “Revive” in KJV

Reference

Term

KJV rendering

Genesis 45:27

chayah - חיה s.2421

when he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob their father revived:

Judges 15:19

chayah - חיה s.2421

when he had drunk, his spirit came again, and he revived: wherefore he called the name thereof Enhakkore, which is in Lehi unto this day.

1 Kings 17:22

chayah - חיה s.2421

the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.

2 Kings 13:21

chayah - חיה s.2421

they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet.

Ezra 9:8

michyah - מִחְיָה s.4241

grace hath been shewed from the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a nail in his holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage.

Ezra 9:9

michyah - מִחְיָה s.4241

God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the desolations thereof…

Nehemiah 4:2

chayah - חיה s.2421

What do these feeble Jews? …will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?

Psalm 85:6

chayah - חיה s.2421

Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee?

Psalm 138:7

chayah - חיה s.2421

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me: thou shalt stretch forth thine hand against the wrath of mine enemies…

Isaiah 57:15

chayah - חיה s.2421 (both times)

I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

Hosea 6:2

chayah - חיה s.2421

After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.

Hosea 14:7

chayah - חיה s.2421

They that dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine…

Habakkuk 3:2

chayah - חיה s.2421

O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years…in wrath remember mercy.

Romans 7:9

anazao - ἀναζάω s.326

I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.

Romans 14:9

Majority: ζάω s.2198
(UBS/NA omits)

to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.

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There are 20 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Two things that have always struck me about the need for revival is that it first assumes that the congregation (and like you say, the pastor) is backslidden at any given time, which seems to contradict the notion that the Holy Spirit is indeed working in sanctification in all believers.  The other thing that strikes me as darkly amusing is that if indeed real revival is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, how exactly can we put it on the calendar and schedule it?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry Nelson's picture

The Baptist church down the road from mine schedules their annual revival to occur in late April----the fourth Sunday of the month, I believe.

 

Bert Perry's picture

....that church falls into sin either with spring fever or March Madness.  :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ron Bean's picture

Thank you for an honest and Biblical look at the subject of revival. I cringe when I see churches scheduling "revival" and/or adopting the Faulty Finney Filosophy that revival is man-made.

I'm blessed when I read about real revivals like the Great Awakening or The Isle of Lewis off Scotland in the 1950's and realize that few know what real  revival would look like. I remember Ernest Pickering describing the revival on the Isle of Lewis in hushed and reverent tones. He was doing academic work in Scotland at the time and visited Lewis.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron, a very thorough -- if not perhaps too kind -- article.  "Revival" can become an idol that displaces what the Bible teaches -- growth little by little.  The idea of a quick fix to life's problems through a new commitment or promise is why we have so much failure among both Christians and lost people.  Everyone wants to learn the "secret" or have the life-changing experience.

Revival confuses the work of the Holy Spirit with adrenaline and an unsustainable level of zeal, which eventually often becomes an act and an attempt to capture an intense feeling that is fleeting.

The Holy Spirit can work in ways that are not part of our controlled environments or structures; I confess that. But the whole idea of seeking a revival suggest the quest for a quick, zapping solution to very complex problems.  

There is a constant battle between confusing the spiritual with either the emotional or the adrenal.

Here in Indiana, we had something called "Revive Indiana," which is part of a national organization.  Such movements require constant meetings; but when all the smoke clears and people return to the normal routines of life, you wonder what is really left and if people might not have done more good spending time with their wives and kids and local churches.

Sustainable zeal can only be a reality in a balanced lives.  Attempts at revival are essentially a time of imbalance. Like someone going on a no-carb diet, they will lose weight but then crave carbs so desperately that they end up putting it all back on, with interest.  The person who cuts their carbs down a third, for example, will lose less but is much more likely to maintain the loss.

Better to have less zeal over a long time than scads of it just to have it completely (or nearly completely) dissipate later. So much of this revival thinking is from a poor interpretation of Jesus' words in Revelation 3:15-16. The temperature is not a "zeal-o-mometer," but rather about becoming room temperature like the world (through compromise and lack of spiritual depth).

The way to attain a better balance is to aim for the center of the teeter-totter, not the opposite end.

This desire for a quick fix is why so many Christians have a bi-polar spiritual life.

If God wants to move by His Spirit in people's lives, that's great.  But our calling is make (and personally be growing as) disciples.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I suspect what it comes down to is that we all have this human appetite for drama. It actually takes a lot of faith to believe that God is using us and accomplishing eternally important work through ordinary, undramatic faithfulness.

But He has said so.

So much of this revival thinking is from a poor interpretation of Jesus' words in Revelation 3:15-16. The temperature is not a "zeal-o-mometer," but rather about becoming room temperature like the world (through compromise and lack of spiritual depth).

I have always found this passage a little puzzling, in light of what is so clear elsewhere.  But no, it is certainly not obvious that the temperature referred to is emotional

Ed Vasicek's picture

Laodicea had no main water supply.   The water in the area was plumbed in from two neighboring communities.  One was cold water, which made the sulfur tasting water bearable, but by the time it reached Laodicea, it was lukewarm and no longer bearable.  The other location had hot springs, and hot water was useful for a number of purposes, but, buy the time it arrived, it was lukewarm.  Both were unpleasant to drink.

The Laodiceans were like that -- they had compromised with the materialism of their rich but pagan community to the point that they had no testimony.  They were as worthless as the lukewarm water.   

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron, I read your blog article, and it is excellent.  Sounds like I was preaching (or in this case, writing) to the choir!

"The Midrash Detective"

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Aaron,

I agree with most of what you write.  Here I disagree, although some of it may be semantics. 

I believe both the use of the word and teaching in the Bible affirms the idea of revival.  I agree with you that sometimes we need to explain more what we mean by the term revival. 

I grew up in revival meetings.  My preacher dad often had revival meetings and preached revivals.  In the 1960s and 70s he would sometimes ask a congregation how many had been saved during a revival.  Often a large majority would stand.  He would then point out that revivals are usually held for just one week a year or less.  Yet so many found Christ as Savior during that time. 

The basic idea of revival is found in 2 Chronicles, and many other places in Scripture. 

If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.  -2 Chronicles 7:14

I believe revival meetings, evangelists, and national times of revival are all supported in Scripture.  Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, Keith Fordam, Greg Laurie, and many others have been greatly used of God in revivals to bring multitudes to Christ.  I pray for revival on a regular basis. 

Charles Kelley does a good job dealing with revival meetings in his new book, Fuel the Fire

David R. Brumbelow

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

David, what you've described is pretty much what I'm arguing against. There are better words than "revival" for these things... and when we use the better (biblical) terms, we discover that we are mixing different things together as though they were the same.

As for 2 Chronicles 7:14, it's one of those "don't get me started" passages. Smile I was going to deconstruct a bit here but there's too much ... and I'd be too passionately chaotic about it (or chaotically passionate). The passage begs for an article-length study.

Ed Vasicek's picture

David, what you are talking about is "evangelistic meetings."  God uses and blesses them.  Many people may be saved in a week because church folks make an effort to get out their lost family and friends.

Revival means to bring back to life, to fan the flames.  This refers to attempting to wake up or shake up believers so that they live at higher levels of zeal.  

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Part of the difficulty comes from confusing a nation (OT Israel) with a local church or several of them. A nation turning from idols back to God is one thing. A congregation of believers getting stirred up in some sense is something else ... and I question the value of getting stirred up.

(NT seems to advocate sober mindedness and alertness more than "zeal") 

Ed Vasicek's picture

A lot of violations of Ecclesiastes 5:4-5  in revivalism:

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.

The principle of Luke 14:28 is that we carefully -- not spontaneously -- make commitments to the Lord that we keep.  Like marriage, they are not to entered into lightly or unadvisedly.

Growth comes from incorporating change via a system of some sort, not just an intention.

 

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

David R. Brumbelow's picture

When people get saved, you have revival among them, and among those already saved.

When the saved are revived again, it often results in others getting saved. 

I continue to firmly believe in revival meetings and have often seen God work in them in mighty ways.  It is simply a Scriptural principle that if God’s people get right with Him, He will bless.  When God’s people get more concerned for the lost, God blesses.  It seems several of the churches of Revelation were in need of revival. 

Then we will not turn back from You; revive us, and we will call upon Your name.  -Psalm 80:18 NKJV

Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You?  -Psalm 85:6

David R. Brumbelow

G. N. Barkman's picture

Forty years ago, I heard Bill Gothard speak about revival.  He said that when he was doing youth work in Christian schools, he could guarantee revival.  He gave us a seven step formula, and said every time he employed it, it produced revival.  Every time.  Then he said that the revival sometimes only lasted a couple of months, so now he needed to work on how to keep it going.  Honest.  That's what he said.  That's the last time I attended a Bill Gothard meeting.  When I heard that, I knew he was totally unreliable.  Years later, I realized his seven step formula was almost straight from Charles Finney.  That explains a lot.

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I wonder if part of the persistent appeal of revival language might stem from an unstated assumption, namely that more spiritual growth happens when many experience it simultaneously in a burst than happens when God advances many people more privately over an extended period, each on an individual time table.

But I question why we should believe this is the case. What biblical support is there for the idea that the best life changing work happens to a whole bunch of people publicly all at once, sort of like a herd? 

We see many converted at once in Acts, and arguably in events like Nehemiah 9, but doesn't 3000 for one day vs. 3 a day for a thousand days add up the same? And do we see anything like this kind of all-at-once large scale change in believers' growth in sanctification?

When examined, the assumption seems pretty... maybe vaporous is a good word.

 

Kevin Miller's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
What biblical support is there for the idea that the best life changing work happens to a whole bunch of people publicly all at once, sort of like a herd? 

Well, these verses don't support a week's worth of herd mentality, but rather a consistent practice of it. Doesn't Hebrews 10:23-25 tell us that the best way to be holding fast the profession of our faith and to be provoking others unto love and to be exhorting one another is to assemble together publicly, sort of like a herd?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Well there's gathering faithfully week after week for years and then there's trying to get a bunch of people to make a leap forward in maturity all at once. The latter is what I termed herd sanctification. The former is the NT way, it seems... slow and steady, each maturing as God works in his/her life. 

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that the question isn't whether or not the growth occurs in fellowship, but rather what attitudes one carries into fellowship.  Along those lines, I'm reminded of something my physical education teacher told us about football--way before any of us were eligible to go out for the team, even.  We were discussing the exciting long passes to wide receivers we saw on TV, and Mr. Wenzel stopped us short by endorsing short running plays along the lines of the philosophy that made Woody Hayes famous; 3 yards and a cloud of dust.  We were perplexed, but he noted that those short running plays got yards, got space to work, and finally, tended to pull the cornerbacks and safeties away from the wide receivers and made those big plays possible.

Same basic principle regarding the church.  We like to think of the high points like Acts 2 and the feeding of the 5000, and we forget the thousand or so quiet evenings where Jesus gathered around a meal of barley bread with His disciples to teach them.   It is not for no reason that Paul uses images of soldiers and farmers as a picture of the Christian life--yes, high points of harvest and battles, but between those high points, hours and years of patient toil getting ready.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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