Four Marks of True Revival

Article by and

Guest Contributor

Let’s dream about something together.

Let’s imagine that “revival,” the nearly undefinable reality we often talk about, comes to your church, your community, your nation. Let’s envision that what we’ve prayed for comes to pass, and the Holy Spirit falls upon us.

Then what? What would happen? What could we expect? More than that, would we even want “revival”?

Like some, you might cringe at that word revival. Manipulation, emotionalism, fake news, and high-intensity situations make us skeptical, if not downright hostile, toward the idea of some big, dramatic movement of God. The “Asbury Outpouring” last year placed revival at the center of attention again, but why, many ask, do we even need revival? Why are we dissatisfied with the ordinary work of the Holy Spirit?

After all, when we look at revival history — including Jonathan Edwards’s roller-coaster of a life, the “anxious bench” of the Second Great Awakening, the dissension surrounding the Azusa Street Revival, the controversial rise of the Moral Majority amid the late-twentieth-century revivals — we may wonder, Do we actually want revival?

The answer to that question, of course, depends on what we expect to find should revival come. So, what would revival look like if it came?

1. Revival will be costly.

When they heard [the gospel] they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37)

When revival comes from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we find an immediate, visceral response. On the one hand, skeptics hear the disciples speaking in tongues and mock them: “They’re drunk!” (see Acts 2:13). On the other hand, convicted listeners are “cut to the heart,” and the weight of their guilt brings them to their knees, begging the disciples to tell them how to be saved. The disciples then have to figure out, on the fly, how to organize thousands of new believers and deal with deepening persecution.

Revival is costly. Revival costs others’ perception of you. It costs your perception of yourself. And it costs an incredible amount of time and energy.

In the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, in writing about his wife, Sarah, found that the intensity of the joys and pains of revival could “overcome the bodily frame.” For this reason, “compassion towards [the lost world] . . . would allow of no support or rest, but in going to God, and pouring out the soul in prayer for them” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 4:338).

The process of revival is spiritually violent — the piercing sword of the Spirit will demand more of us than we could dream (Hebrews 4:12; Ephesians 6:17). This word will cut out calloused hearts and replace them with new ones at an astonishing rate. During revivals, the speed and size of these surgeries often bring overwhelmingly strong (and sometimes fake) emotions — which bring cynics, who love to bring division. Thus, during revivals the sword of truth tends to carve boundaries between revived communities and anti-revival communities.

“Revival brings an irresistible, consuming focus on unseen things.”

Our society will fear the exclusive, dangerous nature of revivals. But if we pray for new hearts, we must let the word of God do its work.

If we see revival, it will cost us far more than we dare to believe, because the Holy Spirit will give us faith that he is worth far more than we risked believing before.

2. Revival will be easy.

The word of God increased and multiplied. (Acts 12:24)

Ironically, if we were to see revival, we could expect that much of the strain and stress and costliness would feel somewhat easy. In Acts 12, even as James is killed, Peter is imprisoned, and much of the leadership of the early church is being hunted, the gospel increases and multiplies. And as it multiplies, everyone in the revived community seems impossibly happy (Acts 2:46; 8:8; 13:48, 52).

Like dry leaves picked up by a strong wind, when the Holy Spirit comes in power, hearts are stirred with unusual ease. Martin Luther would agree. Here’s how he interpreted the spread of the Reformation:

I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. (Luther’s Works, 51:77)

What if you inexplicably lost all appetite for scrolling but felt a craving for the Bible that you usually force yourself to pick up? What if you forgot sports-talk or small-talk or social media but began pouring forth God-talk? What if you went to war with that addiction, that grudge, that not-so-secret insecurity and happily handed your hard-earned money to the poor? Now multiply that sort of transformation by a very large number of folks around you.

For whole communities, the bright and blaring distractions of the god Entertainment would be slain by the one true God, like a stone idol crushed to dust. Why? Because the presence of God is tangible, and when we turn our eyes on Jesus, so much else grows strangely dim. Revival brings an irresistible, consuming focus on unseen things.

If our Lord sends revival, its comparatively effortless nature may startle us. And we’ll wonder why we ever spent a moment ignoring the Love who knocks on our doors so relentlessly. After all, what on earth could steal your gaze when the King of glory enters the room?

3. Revival will be surprising.

The people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. (Jonah 3:5)

When I posed the question “What should we expect when revival comes?” one friend said, “I just sort of think that’s a dumb question.” She meant, rightly, that God’s plans rarely come at the time or in the circumstances we expect (Isaiah 55:8–11). In revival, a people is awakened to a need they hadn’t realized.

Jonah was a prophet who didn’t want revival. He even accused God of being too merciful (Jonah 4:1–2). Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, one of the most despicable nations in world history. Why would God choose to revive them? Or why would God choose to awaken the Gentiles rather than Jews (Acts 18:6)? Or why would God choose the grandson of Manasseh, Judah’s vilest monarch, to lead revival (2 Kings 21:11–13)?

One of the few things that will be unsurprising about revival is that it will be surprising. Both the people who receive revival and the way in which revival comes may shock us.

From George Whitefield’s scandalous open-air preaching to the controversial institution of song leaders and songbooks in the Second Great Awakening, revivals have always been full of innovation, intrigue, and controversy. In many ways, more recent American revivals have stood on the shoulders of past creativity; in the generations after Whitefield and Edwards and Finney, D.L. Moody and Billy Graham found striking ways to modify old modes of worship and preaching. One might even argue that the worship at Asbury University in February 2023 was a creative surprise: no gadgets, no flashiness, no excess, only a reversion to modest production and maximal passion.

The point of revival is for the word of God to shine a light on what has dwelt in darkness (Isaiah 9:2). Inevitably, the revived community will inwardly and outwardly change in ways they did not anticipate. So, be careful when asking for revival. It will bring much we don’t expect.

4. Revival will be normal.

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. (2 Kings 22:11)

In the greatest revival of the Old Testament, a young king by the name of Josiah hears the words of God for the first time and repents.

This is not new. This is not revolutionary. It is the basic practice of listening to God that speaks life into a church, community, or nation. It is simple, tear-stained confession that beckons the floodwaters of revival.

Tim Keller was right in teaching that in every revival there is “a recovery of the gospel.” In Josiah’s day, the people of God had literally lost the word of God; in our day, we can still “lose” the word we have. Sometimes, a church refuses to listen to its Shepherd’s voice. We have lost, forgotten, or ignored his words and have found words that fit what our itching ears wish to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). When we resort to our own words, we beckon death. Therefore, John Calvin writes, “The restoration of the Church is the work of God. . . . It is the will of our Master that his gospel be preached. Let us obey his command, and follow [wherever] he calls. What the success will be it is not ours to inquire” (Calvin’s Tracts Relating to the Reformation, 1:200).

“One of the few things that will be unsurprising about revival is that it will be surprising.”

Revival is not about new words; it is about a fresh, impassioned, revived belief in the almost unbelievable: that the eternal Word of God named Jesus died for us. This is why, as Michael McClymond writes, “within the context of awakening, people are almost invariably orthodox theologically” (Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America, 1:2). The Holy Spirit needs no new additions to his word — we need only return to what has always been the most stunning story in the history of the world. This story alone, undiluted by us, can bring about the results that we see in every revival.

And what are those results? Simple: love of God and love of neighbor. If love is not increased, then you know it is not a revival. It’s probably somebody trying to make noise — like a clanging cymbal.

Do You Want Revival?

Several words have been used to describe what happened at Asbury University last year. The word revival was avoided for the most part. Even so, words like costly, easy, surprising, and normal could certainly describe those weeks of worship. The emphasis on the manifest presence of God Almighty was central, and where he, the Great Paradox, is central, revival can be expected.

When God comes, his presence is severe because he demands that we destroy whatever idol sits on the throne of our heart; and his presence is gentle for the same reason. If you want to know what to expect when revival comes, identify the gods that have taken the place of the Holy One. Revival is the expedited removal of those idols. Revival is God revealing his unchallenged kingship. Revival is the glimpse of a hot flicker of light called paradise. It is the first note of a song called heaven.

Revival is beautiful because it is the briefest image of life under King Jesus. Revival can also be ugly because there are other powers that do not take kindly to our gentle Lord’s strength.

So, now that we have a vague idea of what we can expect, the question remains: Do you want revival?