True Reformation & Revival: an Explainer

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As we continue to witness the grotesque disintegration of what was once more or less a coherent civilization, many Christians are wondering if there is any possible way for our free fall toward the abyss to be halted, or even slowed down. We appear to have reached terminal velocity, and we are beyond the help of man. Well, that part’s true enough.

Defining Some R Words

Before defining some of the words that might come to mind in our situation, I want to say something about the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit is God Himself, and is therefore not constrained by anything other than His own nature and character. He can do anything that comports with who He is. This means that we should not group the words that I am about to define into watertight compartments, saying that the Spirit is “in” this word, but not “with” that one. The Spirit can take and use anything or anyone as it suits Him, and when He does this, it does not imply any kind of endorsement of whatever else might be going on.

“But our God is in the heavens: He hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.”

Psalm 115:3 (KJV)

Here are some R-words that I would like to briefly define, and then go on to describe how they might apply in our hot mess of a situation. Those words would be reaction, renewal, revival, and reformation.

People like to rearrange the furniture, but then after a while they get tired of that and want to change it all back. This is reaction. And sometimes the furniture needs to be changed back, and it is spiritually healthy to do so. But getting tired of certain forms of sinful stupidity is not the same thing as a spiritual movement, although it may contribute to it.

Renewal is what happens when an institution has grown stiff in the joints, with the standards slipping a bit, and then somebody comes along and encourages everybody to get their head back in the game. Renewal has the tendency to rejuvenate what was going on before.

A revival is what happens when a Christian church or people grow moribund to the point of death. In that situation, there is a movement of the Spirit, quickening and converting people, and they find themselves suddenly zealous for the things of God again. The etymology of the word revival indicates a coming to life again, which implies that there was life before, then death, then life again. That is a revival. More is going on than simply redoubled effort.

Reformation is a hot combination of all three of these—reaction, renewal, and revival—with the additional component of a radical restructuring of everything that contributed to the earlier disintegration.

Imagine that all of us were living in a huge house that had gotten horribly run down. Reaction is where we move from room to room, trying to find a part of the house that is not as ratty as the part we just left, or a part of the house we are not that tired of yet. Renewal is where we get out the vacuum, clear off the coffee table, straighten the pictures on the wall, and move the furniture into a more orderly pattern. We tidy up. Revival is where we actually clean up our living space instead of tidying it up—and there is a real difference between cleaning and tidying. But reformation is where we jack up the house in order to pour a new foundation, and we take the sheet rock down to the studs, and rewire everything.

While I am not a prophet, and do not know what the next few years hold, I am an interested observer of history and the human condition, and I do think that if there is anything short of a root and branch reformation, our condition is hopeless. And by root and branch reformation, I mean the sort of thing that ten thousand years from now will be called The Great Reformation by every sensible historian. It will have to be the kind of thing that puts the Reformation of the 16th century—which was indeed a marvelous work of God—into the shade nonetheless. This would not be because we are that much greater, but rather because our decadence and therefore our desperate need, is that much worse. They were able to say post tenebras, lux—after darkness, light.

After we are delivered, we will be able to say post inanem, lux—after the Void, light.

Historical Examples

As I point to various historical examples of these things, I am not trying to pretend that they are entirely different things, the way a walrus and a canary are different creatures. There is sometimes overlap, and at other times a good deal of overlap. I am not trying to pretend otherwise. Leave me alone.

Not that we look to him for spiritual insight or anything, but Nietzsche once described the human tendency to reaction. In The Birth of Tragedy, he described how societies oscillate between a Dionysian pole and an Apollonian pole. Dionysus was the god of drunken revels and Apollo was the god of reason and order. Nietzsche’s point was to argue that the genius of Attic tragedy was a remarkable and short-lived fusion of the two poles.

We can see examples of this kind of reaction everywhere. When I was a little kid, Eisenhower’s America was one buttoned-up place—and then the sixties hit. In the neo-classical era, Alexander Pope was writing (very good) poetry to a metronome, and then came the Romantics. Eighteenth century England was about as dissolute as it is possible to get, and all of sudden we found ourselves dealing with Victorians. This kind of reaction is natural and human, and it can have spiritual ramifications. It is not what we should call a work of the Spirit, but the Spirit can certainly work with it.

For renewals, our best examples would be the various monastic movements that started up over the course of the medieval period. There would be a period of intense spiritual activity, and the Augustinian Order was founded. After a bit, that would appear to be inadequate, and the Benedictine Order was established. Then the Cistercians, and the Franciscans, and so on. Sometimes a new order was founded because of a different emphasis, but frequently it was because the previous monastic movement had become lax, or rich, or distracted, or something. Over a period of a thousand years or so, these orders had many ups and downs, did a lot of good, then did a lot of bad, and then a new order would soon appear, trying to do better this time.

What we call revivals are largely a Protestant phenomenon. A good example of this would be the Great Awakening in eighteenth century America, just before our Founding Era. The surrounding culture was overwhelmingly Christian, but being a nominal Christian came easily. You could fit right in. Those who were spiritually serious saw that the wineskins were getting old, and were zealous to see something done about it. One of the criticisms of the Great Awakening is that it set the stage for a much more individualistic approach to Christianity, one more suited for the frontier as it was thought, and some elements of this criticism are quite true. But it must be remembered that new wine will burst the old wineskins, and the old wineskins ought not to be so critical. Nevertheless, there were negative downstream consequences to the Great Awakening—the wine got all over, and the floor is still sticky—but there were also massive numbers of true conversions. This awakening occurred in the decades just prior to the American War for Independence, and I am convinced that the Founding would not have happened apart from that Awakening. It was an enormous blessing to the world. But I was once in conversation with a history major, just graduating, and as I was just finishing up Arnold Dallimore’s two volume biography of George Whitefield, I mentioned that I thought we should consider another GW a second father of our country. The history major said, “who?”

The Reformation is the Protestant phenomenon. This was not something that Protestants created, but rather the series of glorious events that created the Protestants. This was a spiritual movement that laid the axe at the root of the tree. It was a doctrinal reformation, a liturgical reformation, a musical reformation, a civic reformation—up and down the entire waterfront. It was all of that, and it was a revival, and a renewal, and a reaction. Everything was entailed, meaning all of Christ for all of life. It is exactly the kind of thing we need now, only multiplied by a factor of some two-digit number, somewhere between 27 and 99.

A Prophetic Necessity

I said earlier that if this great reformation and revival does not happen, we are all done for. But this is not like a cancer patient saying that if a cure is not found, “I am going to die.” That is not our position. We are the cancer patient, and apart from a cure, we are going to die. But here is the good news—the cure is a promised one. The earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Go out to the middle of the Pacific, and then go two miles down. How wet is it there? That’s how Christian your town is going to be someday.

Everything looks pretty grim now, and the insanity does appear to have slipped the leash. If we had to go on the basis of what the media tells us, the time has come for us all to become pre-trib pre-mill preppers. But as I look at the secular cornice work falling off the U.S. Capitol, all I can think about is the nations streaming to the rod of Jesse, a rock growing to become a mountain that fills the earth, there being no end to the increase of His government, and of His name being praised from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same.

Discouraged? Not a bit of it. We have promises. Prior to the coming of the Messiah, every young Jewish maiden on the threshold of marriage could hold the hope that perhaps she would be the one privileged to bring the Christ into the world. Every man of God with a sermon for the people of God should approach the pulpit every Lord’s Day with that kind of expectant hope. Maybe here, maybe now. But if it is not the Lord’s good pleasure to set off His bonfire here in this moment, we rejoice in the fact that He is going to set it off somewhere.

If it starts where you are, rejoice. If it starts somewhere else, even better.

Flammable Doctrine

One of the great errors that grew out of the Second Great Awakening (referring now to Charles Finney and others like him) was the idea that if we just applied certain sure fire methods, we could have ourselves a revival every time. This plug and chug approach to things was inevitably bundled into a system, and this is why when you drive across the South at certain times of the year, you can see from all the church signs that it is revival season. Somebody connected with the Holy Spirit’s booking agent, and one wonders how that was managed.

What was once the name for a movement of the Spirit of God that came in like a hurricane off the Gulf, we are now content to apply to a week of nightly meetings. These meetings, needless to say, do not come in like a hurricane off the Gulf.

We cannot make a revival and reformation happen. We cannot whistle one up.

Reformation and revival are the result of the fire of God falling from the sky. What is within our power to do (by the grace of God, always) is the arranging of flammable material. As were labor and pray for reformation and revival, in the meantime we should also be splitting and stacking a lot of tamarack, which burns nicely. That is not the same thing as reformation, but it is a nice anticipation of it. Preparing for the fire to fall is not the same thing as the fire falling, but it shows good sense. That is what we are seeking to do here in Moscow. We pray for the fire to fall, and we want to prepare as though we believe it is going to.

But Tozer once said that if revival means more of what we have going on now, we most emphatically do not need revival. If the fire of God today were to fall on the evangelical church of North America, we would witness a continent-wide Kleenex fire. It wouldn’t last that long, but it would be really something while it lasted.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, as you drive our scenic highways, you will frequently see signs that post the likelihood of forest fires. What is the fire danger today? Is it high? When true reformation hits, there will be a conflagration. The doctrine is there, the preachers are there, and the flammable materials are there—millions of square miles of dry brush and trees. There have been other fires that have broken out when the conditions were not as good, but that is no reason to question whether or not it was a real fire—as with the recent Asbury movement, or the Jesus movement in the seventies. The problem was not in the fire, but in the arrangement of the combustibles. But when the real conflagration hits, there will be no doubt about whether this is what we have been praying for.

And that means there will be much for armchair historians to sneer at a couple of centuries later. They will miss the millions of converted souls, and will write a learned dissertation on some small group in the Ozarks who spent their time in the revival barking like dogs. And maybe they really did.