WHAT IS A REVIVAL?

by Bob Wheeler

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George Whitefield

Today in Evangelical circles we sometimes hear people speak of a need for “revival.”  We witness some of the awful things going on in the world today, and we may have heard that in the past there were “revivals,” and we imagine that if only we had one today things would be better.  The problem: scarcely anyone alive today has any idea of what a revival is.

There actually were revivals in the past.  Probably the most famous one was the First Great Awakening during the 1730’s and ‘40’s, led by such figures as George Whitefield, the famous British evangelist, and Jonathan Edwards, the colonial theologian.  There was also a Second Great Awakening, which was actually a series of revivals that occurred during the early 19th Century.  And then there was the Great Prayer Revival of 1857-1858.

But what exactly were these “revivals”?  Strictly speaking, they were revivals of spiritual life within the churches.  Unfortunately it sometimes happens that churches fall into a pattern of spiritual apathy and decay.  The institutional life of the church goes forward: people continue to show up for services on Sunday morning, they follow a prescribed order of service, the pastor delivers his sermon.  But it is all largely a matter of form.  The problem is that it does not go beyond the outward form and activity, and the people are largely unmoved by what they see and hear.  And we have become so accustomed to this that we accept it as normal.

What is missing is God Himself.  There is little sense of His presence, and very little reverence, joy or love.  And aside from the formal worship service on Sunday morning there is little or no prayer at all, and sometimes even professing Christians are too willing to make ethical compromises in their business and personal relationships.  In other words, there is precious little spiritual life in the churches.

What we need to understand is that there is something seriously wrong with this picture.  In the Old Testament God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, put it this way.  Speaking of ancient Israel He said:

“. . .these people draw near with their mouths

And honor me with their lips,

But have removed their hearts far from Me,

And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment

of men. . .”

(Isa. 29:13: NKJV)

In other words, the people of Israel continued to maintain the outward forms of worship, but their heart was not in it.  And since God looks on the heart, He was not at all impressed by their half-hearted religiosity.

Israel, sadly, did not heed the warning, and was sent into exile as a result.  But then God made a promise to them: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.  And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all you heart” (Jer. 29:11-13).

There are several important things to notice about this passage.  First of all, there were to seek God – not an institution, not a system of theology, not a liturgy, but God Himself.  Secondly, they were to seek Him, to look for Him, to search until they found Him.  Our problem today is that we take God for granted – we just assume that He is there, even in the absence of any evidence that He is actively at work in our lives.  What we need to do is to look for Him, to make a conscious effort to find Him; and that entails prayer.  Without a prayer life there is no meaningful connection with God.  And it may also mean the confession of sin.

Thirdly, we must seek Him “with all our heart.”  God is not impressed with half-hearted or insincere attempts at formal “worship.”  The whole object of true religion is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt. 6:5).  Jesus said that this was “the first and great commandment” (Matt. 22:37,38).  If we fail here we have missed the whole point of Christianity.  Everything else we may think or do is utterly beside the point.

And, to return to Jeremiah 29, the promise is that if we earnestly seek God we will find Him.  Note: we will find Him – not just the church, not just the fellowship with other Christians, but find God Himself.  And to find God is to be overawed and overjoyed at the same time.  We sense that we are in the presence of God, on holy ground, and nothing else matters.  Everything else is subordinate to knowing God Himself.

It is generally acknowledged that our country is in awful shape today.  But what is not so widely recognized is that it is the church that needs revival.  Sadly, today, most Evangelical Christians think that the Church of Laodicea, described in Rev. 3:14-22, is normal, because it is the only church they have ever known.  They can scarcely imagine anything else.  May God have mercy on His church and revive it in the midst of years!  How desperately we need a genuine spiritual awakening!

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