The Awakening We Need

Why the Reformed Pray for Revival

The word revival speaks of life renewed. It’s about depletion lifted to restoration, refreshing reinvigoration. It’s about weary you and me reenergized with new sparkle in our eyes, new spring in our steps, new steel in our spines. And isn’t that very renewal our constant need?

God did not create us as perpetual motion machines, grinding life out by our own energies. He created us to need him, and to have him, in his fullness of “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). His endless grace meeting our endless need is why the gospel speaks of “newness of life” (Romans 6:4) as normative Christianity — not only at conversion, but constantly thereafter, even moment by moment.

How could it be otherwise? The Bible summarizes our earthly journey like this: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26). It doesn’t speak of our “weaknesses” (plural) but of our “weakness” (singular). Why? Because it’s not as though we have a weakness in this area of life over here and another weakness in that area of life over there. The truth is, weakness pervades the whole of our existence. Weakness is not one more experience we have alongside other experiences. Rather, weakness is the platform on which we have all our experiences. We have never yet known a single moment of non-weakness. But the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. And revival is a mighty surge of Spirit-given help for weak Christians like all of us.

What Is Revival?

What then is revival? Revival is ordinary Christians experiencing extraordinary power from on high, so that the gospel gets traction in us and through us with astonishing impact. It cannot be scheduled — not by us, anyway. It is of God.

My dad and mom were speaking at a Christian college in the early 1970s. The Holy Spirit was moving with reviving power. With happy wonder, the students kept saying, “Can you believe this is happening to us?” That is not the kind of comment we tend to make when we execute our own ministry plan really well. The divine and miraculous nature of authentic revival is why we make no allowance here for false, worked-up “revivals” of our own making.

We disagree with Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875), who famously said, “A revival of religion is not a miracle” (Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 10). Finney influenced later generations to believe that a revival is the result of “the right use of the constituted means.” I disagree. I see revival as a glorious mega-miracle.

The Bible encourages us to pursue this kind of revival with this wonderful prayer: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6). Let’s think that simple prayer through, asking three questions.

1. Who Does the Reviving?

God does: “Will you not revive us again?” In fact, the word you is emphatic in the Hebrew text. Revival is a work of God. That’s why we pray for revival.

Do we also labor toward revival? Yes. We always want to serve in such a way as to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3–5). Like Elijah, we build the altar. But it is God, and God alone, who sends down the sacred fire (1 Kings 18:30–39).

If our churches become swept up into any movement, any dynamic, generated by our own brilliance or cool, why should anyone even care? Why should we care? If our churches grow by socially acceptable forms of shrewd marketing and trendy programs, then we’re left with a tragedy: churches that are total failures brilliantly disguised as massive successes. We are to be living proof that the risen Jesus is actually moving in this world — and nothing less. That is success (if such a word even applies).

When our Lord above pours out his Spirit upon us (Acts 2:33), he lifts us into new experiences of his wonder-working grace, with surprising conversions, hidden sins openly confessed, broken relationships tenderly restored, timid Christians publicly emboldened, and so forth. That miracle is revival. To quote the title of a J.I. Packer book, it is “God in our midst.” When this happens, a merely routinized Christianity crumbles, yielding to the powers of revived Christianity.

Jonathan Edwards certainly understood revival this way — as an intervention by God. It’s why, in his writings about the First Great Awakening, he had to use words like surprising, remarkable, extraordinary, and wonderful to describe what he saw happening. Far from threatening Reformed theology, the God-centeredness of revival validates Reformed theology.

And the great thing about the miracle of revival is that we, even we, can receive it. We can be as unimpressive as we truly are, but with the gospel and the Holy Spirit, we simple, plodding, and sometimes exhausted Christians are equipped in every essential to receive afresh the felt presence of the risen Christ with powerful effect.

2. Who Needs Revival?

We do. The people of God need revival: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Does the world need revival too? Of course. In fact, the old prophecy declares that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). And our Lord won’t stop until the very “trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psalm 96:12)! But revival starts among us, his own people.

“Revival is a work of God. That’s why we pray for revival.”

Can we deny that we need revival? Over the last decade or so, we Bible-believing Christians in America have suffered significant losses. We were surging forward. Personally, looking around at the gospel-driven movements among us, I was thinking, “If we stay low before the Lord and steward this blessing wisely, this could accelerate into historic awakening over the next ten or twenty years.”

But we’ve faltered. Our moral failures, our doctrinal betrayals, our relational fractures — we have taken many hits. From my vantage point, we are not in the position of strength we were just a few years ago.

If we think we don’t need revival, how much further must we fall before our hearts break and we humble ourselves? I believe that we orthodox, serious-minded, gospel-loving Christians need revival — now. Let’s seek the Lord for it.

3. What Difference Does Revival Make?

A wonderful difference! “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Revival gushes with overflowing joy in Christ. It is so cheering to get right with God and with one another, to get free from past regrets, to stop hanging back in timidity and face the future with new confidence in the One who holds “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18).

I remember a turning point in my own life during the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s. It was my junior year in college. I was tied up in knots with doubts about Christ. My deepest foundations were being shaken by some bad teaching. Then God mercifully moved in on me, when some friends invited me to a Christian rock concert on New Year’s Eve 1969.

When I walked in that evening, my heart was heavy with doubt. Three hours later, I floated out with a joy I had never known before. What made the difference? Not a brilliant argument (though I certainly respect brilliant arguments). No, God gave me something deeper, and even primal. He gave me happy certainty. He gave me joy from above, as a first-order, self-authenticating, direct and immediate experience of Reality — his very presence.

That night, I was sitting in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium with my friends, minding my own business. The curtains parted. There stood a rock band of “Jesus freaks” with their long hair and electric guitars. They began to play. Imagine a mash-up of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. I loved it.

But what got me was their simple message. The song that absolutely wrecked me riffed on this call-and-response lyric: “Jesus loves me; I love Jesus.” (Needless to say, this was not the traditional children’s song “Jesus Loves Me”!) These direct, honest, uncomplicated gospel words landed on me as an astonishingly bright and luminous new thought.

Prayers We Won’t Regret

By God’s reviving power, on that night in Pasadena, his message was experientialized to my heart as real — more real than anything else in all this world. It entered my being at a level down beneath my doubts. Those words exploded in my experience with a joy I could not deny — and I didn’t want to. Naturally, I still had many questions, and even more questions. But now I was free to think it all through with a joyous confidence that Jesus offered everything I was seeking. And I’ve never been the same since.

What if we examine ourselves for every trace of improperly limited Christian experience? What if we dare to ask the Lord to lead us into fresh green pastures and beside new still waters, so that we rejoice in him as never before? What if we let him decide whether our Christianity today is all that he can give us? What if all we offer him is our humble openness — our open Bibles with our open hearts? Do we really fear that we would ultimately regret going that low before our gracious Lord and Savior?

“Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” May Psalm 85:6 grab our hearts and never let us go!