The Authority of True Revival

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A.W. Tozer once said that if revival means more of what we have going on now, then we most certainly do not need revival.

But we do in fact need revival, and I want to write about what that might be exactly, and in pursuit of that theme I want to describe some of the fruit of revival.

The short of it is that revival involves a qualitative change, and not a mere quantitative change. It is not a bit more renewed energy, but more like life from the dead. The thing we would notice first is not that there would be more churches, although there would be more churches, but rather we would notice the fact that the flavor of everything would be different. The aroma would be different. The air would be different. Life from the dead is always different.

First Some Distinctions

Some Christians might agree with me that we most emphatically need an Awakening, but would object to the word revival as tired and overused. Anyone who has driven through the Bible Belt during revival season knows that the word in some quarters has come to mean a week of nightly meetings, with a guest preacher from over fifty miles away. That distance assures the faithful who assembled that he is “anointed.” And if you manage to get someone from the UK, with a rich plummy accent, you can add ten more anointed points. Sometimes these signs out in front of so many churches (“Revival! September 10-17”) makes you wonder how these good people managed to contact the Holy Spirit’s booking agent.

This ginned-up and scheduled kind of revival is a downstream legacy of Charles Finney. He taught that his program, if followed, would bring revival—as though it were something we have the ability to bring about. Insert tab A into slot B. And because God made the world in such a way as that we can control certain things, what we wind up doing is setting those sorts of things into motion, and calling it revival.

On a natural level, human beings are quite capable of fomenting enthusiasms, panics, frenzies, excitements, and all the assorted whatnot. We are in fact doing it right now with this COVID business—mass formation psychosis is a thing, and it doesn’t much matter if the agitators of such things provide them with religious content or with Jesus words. Societies periodically get the hysterics, and religious societies often do it with a religious vocabulary. So in one instance you might have a bunch of people sitting on the roofs of their houses in anticipation of the Second Coming, while in another case, they might diligently wear their masks while walking to their table in the restaurant. They then take it off when they arrive at their table, because everyone knows that the virus can’t see you when you are sitting down. Whenever such excitements or panics break out in the midst of a Christian people, we need to guard against having any spiritual value assigned to it. That is not revival.

Down throughout the history of the church, the wineskins have often gotten cracked and old, as wineskins are wont to do. When this happens, the church is beset with two negative things. The first is a loss of zeal—where the good become lethargic and set in their ways—and the second is the onset of corruption and overt hypocrisy. This combination has invited various renewal movements, and these renewal movements frequently resulted in the formation of a new monastic order. What these movements sought to do was to expel some of the grosser corruptions, and to rekindle the flame. And while these efforts did do some good, they did not get at the root of the matter. Too often they shared the same foundational doctrinal assumptions of the older, more decrepit orders they were challenging. Not surprisingly, the same thing then happened to them. An earnest renewal movement sought to embrace the challenges of poverty, and so grew rich. So renewal movements saw the problem, but healed the wound lightly. They didn’t really get at it.

The first great reformation of the church was given to us in the sixteenth century. In that time of great grace, the axe was laid at the root of the tree. Justification by faith alone, the article of a standing or a falling church as Luther put it, was brought back front and center. This recovery was made possible because of a return to sola Scriptura, meaning that the solution to our moribund condition was to be found there, and not in a renewal movement pep talk. In other words, the foundational doctrinal issues were finally addressed. That was the bedrock reformation.

But we must be careful, because there were areas of overlap. As it happened, Protestant renewal was occurring as well, but it was grounded on the reformational bedrock. Erasmus was simply a renewal guy—he would have been happy to see the church cleaned and tidied up, but he was not interested in a reformation that went to the root of the matter. The Counter-Reformation was a renewal movement as well. The Jesuits were formed as part of this renewal, and it was done in great moral earnestness. But everything rides on what exactly is being renewed. When the older errors grow moribund, and someone arrives to give them new energy, we can identify and name the renewal movement, but we can’t really call it a reformation.

So on the one hand, you had Protestant Reformation, with consequent renewal in many areas, and also, depending on the location or city, some excitements. On the Roman side, you simply had a renewal movement, and also some excitements. The Protestants were dealing with three layers, and the Roman Catholics with two. Our responsibility as Protestants would be to preach Christ, always to preach Christ, to proclaim the doctrines of reformation, pray down the experience of renewal, and discourage the inevitable excitements.

So what is revival? The word means “to come to life again,” and so revival means “revival of” something that existed prior to the time of revival. When new life comes to a pagan country, as it did during Paul’s ministry in Asia Minor, this would not be revival, but rather just anointed evangelism. It is simply vival, if we want to speak that way.

Now let us put all this together. Let us postulate an orthodox Protestant denomination of today, one that has a fourth-century codex of the Westminster Confession in the original Greek, housed in a glass case, behind a velvet rope, with two armed guards. However, despite this great legacy, when it comes to a lively application of the Word to the lives of their congregants, their preachers all graduated from Tree Sloth Seminary. This would be a denomination that would be a prime candidate for true revival. They have the carved fireplace. They have the grate. They have the split hard wood in the fireplace. They have the kindling under the wood. Everything checks out, everything is good. The only thing they lack is fire. They need revival.

What if we turned to a pop evangelical big box church? They are in need of both reformation and revival. This is because their theology is semi-Pelagian, like the Christian world was before the Reformation, and their cotton candy worship services are not conducted according to the rule of the Word of God. They need a doctrinal reformation, and they need renewed life.

What Reformation and Revival Would Look Like

Reformation would consist of men preaching doctrine. Some might object to men preaching “doctrine,” but when you come down to it, there really is nothing else to preach. What does the Bible say about who Jesus Christ is, and what does the Bible say about what He did? Preach that.

What would the marks of revival look like? Given how variegated our religious landscape is, if there were to be a great reformation, it would be a revival in some places, a reformation and revival in others, powerful evangelism in others, and so on. With all these distinctions remembered, let’s just call it all revival as a form of shorthand, at least for the next few paragraphs.

So what I am calling revival here, were God to grant it, would be characterized by certain notable things. There would be many consequences, obviously, but these would be among the most obvious characteristics.

Awareness of sin as sin: The impudent immoralities that roil our politics now would cease being political issues that we Christians simply “disagreed with,” and would appear to us as violations of character of a holy God. And this realization would bring with it the horror of guilt. This spiritual realization within the church would be something that greatly affected the world outside the church. Public support for the mere existence of things like pride month, or drag queen story hour, or slaughtering the unborn, would simply collapse. If John the Baptist were to appear down by the Jordan, all of Judea would flock there.

Gladness and joy: Because this would be a reformation, and not simply a renewal (with its earnest resolve to “do better this time”), the gospel would be proclaimed. After the horror of guilt had struck us down, with its realization that America really does deserve to be obliterated by the hand of God, the gospel of grace would lift us up. Christ died for sinners, and we qualify. The chaos of the last two years is far, far better than we deserve, and is a small foretaste of what is coming unless we repent. But if we repent, we will repent into the realization that Jesus paid it all. With that, the only consistent response would be gladness and joy.

Music: The gladness and joy would create hearts that would need to sing, or burst. The result would be a torrent of music. That music would be jubilant, robust, triumphant, and good. The lyrics would be saturated in the psalms, and from the rising of the sun to its setting, the Lord’s name will be great among the nations.

Restitution: All the major retail outlets in the country would have to create special departments to enable them to handle the flood of people coming in to make restitution for the things they had shoplifted. New policies would have to be written, new procedures implemented.

Authority: Like their master before them, the preachers raised up for this moment would speak with authority, and not as the scribes. They would come to America with this message—Christ died and rose, and He sees what you have been doing. He will forgive you nevertheless, so come. And these preachers would have the authority to offer that kind of invitation.

The Authority of True Revival

So true revival is an exercise of authority, and it is not in any way dependent on the authority of man. I said earlier that we must reject Finney’s distortion of the meaning of revival. We do not control it. Nothing about it is within our power. We Christians cannot manipulate anything that will make it happen; we do not control the gifts of God. We cannot whistle Him up, as though He were somehow our servant.

But the flip side of this is really encouraging, and it is that the secularists cannot do anything to stop God from pouring out His Spirit either. We do not control the onset of revival, but neither do they. Revival is the result of Christ wielding His rod of iron. Revival is consequently an act of true authority. All God has to do is nod His head, and all the machinations of all the architects of our new global order will all tumble down into rubble. You will not even be able to see the rubble because of the dust.

When reformation and revival came in the reign of King Josiah, they were cleaning out the Temple and apparently found the book of Deuteronomy. Josiah was a great reforming king, and he didn’t even know that there was a book of Deuteronomy. I say this because things have been every bit as bad as they are now, and they have been this bad numerous times before. This is God’s signature move.

“Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

A preacher with authority is the man who can be commanded to preach to the bones, and he does so. He is not persuading sick people to take their medicine, he is standing on a tombstone, preaching in a graveyard. The situation is dire, in other words. There is no hope, in other words. Things are serious.

“Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD . . . So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.”

Ezekiel 37:4–7 (KJV)

So why does God bring us into these straits? Why does God do this to us? He does this because we are preaching a message of resurrection, and He wants the believers to believe it before we tell the unbelievers to believe it.

“For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead”

2 Corinthians 1:8–9 (KJV)

So true revival happens when God shows up and shows off. And not a moment before.