I have always been sceptical of movements that seek revival in the church. I know some of the history of it. I have even met some people who experienced the Lewis revival of 1949-52. They were impressive people who were blessed by God in the remaining years of their lives. But I have been around long enough to see lots of bad ideas surrounding revival – that it can be organised through big meetings, that it is about “manifestations of the Spirit”, and so on.
It is my settled conviction that what the church needs most today is the regular, faithful, ordinary use of the means of grace (preaching the word, engaging in fervent prayer, making good use of the sacraments). If we ministers and our people were focussed on these things, the church would be so much the better for it.
However, perhaps I have been too eager to dismiss the idea of revival. Recently I picked a book off my shelf and started reading it. I think I must have bought it second-hand more than 25 years ago and has remained on my shelves eagerly awaiting its turn. It is W. B. Sprague’s Lectures on Revivals. It was published in the United States in 1832 and introduced to Britain by, amongst others, John Angell James who preached in Carrs Lane, Birmingham.
I have been challenged by it. The Bible speaks of God reviving his work and his people:
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. – Psalm 19:7
When the humble see it they will be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive. – Psalm 69:32
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. – Psalm 71:20
Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? – Psalm 85:6
I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. – Isaiah 57:15
O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. – Hab 3:2
God does revive, and note the objects of that reviving work: the soul, hearts, me, us, the spirit, the Lord’s work. The Lord does the reviving; it is done as we are contrite before him; he can do it through his word; it is to be prayed for.
In Lecture III, Sprague lists obstacles to revival. This particularly stirred me up and I want to list them here. (The summary after each one is basically my thoughts on his thoughts!)
Ignorance or misapprehension of the nature of true revivals.
Some people are simply put off by the excesses that sometimes accompany true revival, where passions are unleashed which are hard to control and sometimes result in sin. Some other people are put off because their temperament is such that any expressions of feeling make them uncomfortable. I suspect this feeling is very common in our modern reformed/conservative evangelical church in the UK which is largely middle class and well educated. As a result, and without an understanding that God does move in wonderful ways at times, thoughts of revival are suppressed.
A spirit of worldliness amongst professed Christians.
This rather speaks for itself. Worldliness is not so much about behaviour as it is about what “floats your boat”. What really animates you? What gets you up in the morning? What grabs your heart? For many of us who are Christians, we are less motivated by the glory of God than we are about something else we are involved in.
The want of a proper sense of personal responsibility among professed Christians.
It is true that we are not ultimately responsible for what only God can do. And yet, in God’s grace, he engages us as his people to play a part. That is why the church is described as a body, each member playing its part, actively engaged in fulfilling their immediate purpose as part of that great purpose that God is working out.
I know too many people who don’t seem to play a very active part in the ministry they have been given. They don’t have their hearts in worship, they don’t pray and cry out to God, the are lazy about finding ways to serve and love others. They don’t have a sense of responsibility before God. They are happy with irresponsible apathy.
The toleration of gross offences in the church.
That is, the church and its leaders are unwilling to act when sin is present in the church’s life. Now it is not that the church is or will be perfect. It is just that when gross sins appear (which is bad enough) the church doesn’t do anything about it (even worse). Churches and Christians need to take holiness seriously.
The absence of a spirit of brotherly love among professed followers of Christ.
We want it to be said of Christians, “Look how they love one another!” Yet often this is not present in the life of the church. People come late and leave early on Sundays. They never see other Christians from one Sunday to the next because there is no desire to be involved with each other’s lives. That lack of love and relationship within the church can be one of the greatest hindrances revival as a loveless spirit has a deadening effect on the church.
An erroneous or defective exhibition of Christian truth.
This final reason comes down to people like me – minsters of the word of God. To fail to teach a congregation the whole counsel of God. To have hobby horse subjects you regularly go back to. To miss out difficult doctrines or passages. To teach good doctrine in a bad and unbalanced way that distorts the glory of God, of Jesus Christ and his word. To ’embellish’ the teaching with stories, studied eloquence, clever quotations which display one’s education. All this hinders the reviving work of God.
We need regular faithful ministry using the ordinary means God gives us. And yet how we also need an outpouring from heaven that animates his people and his work! Let’s examine the list above, apply it to our hearts, and may God grant that he revive our souls for his name’s sake.