What Is Revival?
I suspect we have all participated in a prayer meeting in which it was not quite clear what, exactly, we were asking God to do. Perhaps we were praying for “traveling mercies,” or “blessing on this situation,” or for God to “be with” so-and-so. Those things sound good. But what are we really asking, why do we think God wants us to ask for that, and would we even recognize the answer if God said yes? For many of us, I think revival is another one of those fuzzy-around-the-edges blessings that we are quick to pray for and slow to understand. Sure, we pray for revival. Revival sounds great. But what exactly is it?
J. I. Packer provides a helpful definition. Summarizing Jonathan Edwards’s significant work on the subject, Packer writes: “Revival is an extraordinary work of God the Holy Ghost reinvigorating and propagating Christian piety in a community.”1 In order to better understand revival—and to ask God for it with greater confidence—we will examine and apply this definition one phrase at a time.
It is essential that we pray together for revival but impossible that we can compel it. We ask humbly, and we await his good answer.
Here, we notice first that revival is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit—given by the Father and the Son—empowers the Word (1 Thess. 1:5), convicts of sin (John 16:8), gives new life (John 3:6), helps us to pray (Rom. 8:26), opens our lips to sing God’s praises (Eph. 5:18–19), enables new obedience (Rom. 8:4), and manifests his fruit in our lives (Gal. 5:22–23). Revival is God’s work and, therefore, is under God’s sovereign power. He brings it when, where, and how he pleases according to the purpose of his will. He does it, as he does everything, for his own glory. And he does it in a manner consistent with his unchanging character. Revival, from beginning to end, is something only God can do.
Ask for Revival
For this reason, it is especially appropriate that we make revival a subject for prayer. Prayer is an admission of need, asking God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and our most urgent need is for the Holy Spirit.2 Jesus himself gives us this encouragement: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13). And when we pray for the Spirit, we are praying alongside Christ, who asks the Father for the Spirit on our behalf (John 14:16). The Holy Spirit, the divine agent of revival, is a gift that Christ promises to supply when we pray.
Recognizing that revival is the Spirit’s sovereign work also keeps us from demanding revival or from thinking that revival hangs on the strength of our prayers. Christians can sometimes approach prayer like a math problem, believing that enough people praying with enough boldness will force God to answer in the way we want. Instead, in the words of Ian Murray, “God has chosen to make prayer a means of blessing, not so that the fulfilment of his purposes becomes dependent on us, but rather to help us learn our absolute dependence upon him.”3It is essential that we pray together for revival but impossible that we can compel it. We ask humbly, and we await his good answer.
The second thing we notice about revival is that it is an extraordinary work. “Extraordinary” here does not mean new or different, but greater in measure or degree. In the New Testament, the Spirit definitively filled the Christians at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and then later filled the same Christians again in extra measure (Acts 4:31).4 When we pray for revival, we are asking the Spirit to do what he usually does (“reinvigorating and propagating Christian piety”) and to do more of it. In fact, we might not recognize revival immediately because it looks so much like what the Spirit is already doing. Murray writes, “From Pentecost onward, the work of the Spirit can be viewed in two aspects, the more normal and the extraordinary. These two differ not in essence or kind, but only in degree, so much so that we can never determine with certainty where the normal ends and the extraordinary begins.”5
In Charles Dickens’s classic novel Oliver Twist, the title character is sent as a young orphan boy to a workhouse. There he receives a single serving of gruel every night for dinner. After months of the scant ration, Oliver one evening finishes his porridge, gathers his courage, and approaches the workhouse master with his empty bowl and the famous words: “Please sir, I want some more.”6
We do something similar when we pray for revival. Having experienced the Holy Spirit, having tasted a portion of his presence and his power, we approach the Father with a bold request: Please, sir, may we have some more? But unlike the workhouse master, who met Oliver’s request with dramatic incredulity (“‘What!’ said the master at length in a faint voice”7), our gracious God delights to answer our petition with another generous ladling of the Spirit into our churches and our communities.
With this understanding then, we avoid praying for revival as something different, a magic bullet, that bears no resemblance to God’s normal work in our midst. Michael Horton recently critiqued the evangelical desire for revival as a facet of our modern, restless quest for “The Next Big Thing,”8and Murray himself points out that “too often in the twentieth century there has been faith in ‘revival’ where there has been little faith in God himself.”9 But prayer for revival should not be isolated from our prayers for God’s glory (Matt. 6:9), for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom and obedience to his Word (Matt. 6:10), for the success of gospel preaching (Col. 4:3; 2 Thess. 3:1), for the building up of the church and the tearing down of Satan’s dominion (Matt. 16:18), and for sinners’ repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). We pray together for revival by praying for God to do his ordinary work—in an extraordinary measure. Brothers and sisters, we ask for more.
Finally, we see that when God answers our prayers for revival, he does it in a community. As Packer explains, revival is a work of the Spirit, it is extraordinary, and it comes to a group of people. This is not to say that God cannot or will not revive individuals; the psalms are full of rich testimony to God’s reviving grace in the hearts of particular saints. But just as the Spirit filled the whole church at Pentecost and then added three thousand more to their number (Acts 2:4, 41), revival is most especially God’s work on a corporate scale, beginning first in the church and then extending outward to the surrounding community.
And since revival is a corporate blessing, given to the church and to her community, it is especially appropriate that we ask God for it together. This was the pattern of the church in Acts, and it is rightly our pattern, too. As a family, as a student body, as employees, as members of a community, and—especially!—as a church, we gather together to pray for an answer we expect to receive together.
Brothers and sisters, let us pray together in the Spirit for the Spirit,10 knowing what we are asking and from whom we will receive it.
- J. I. Packer, “Jonathan Edwards and the Theology of Revival,” in Puritan Papers: vol. 2, 1960–1962, ed. J. I. Packer (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 33.
- Jonathan Edwards called the Spirit “the chief of the blessings that are the subject matter of Christian prayer.” See Jonathan Edwards, An Humble Attempt, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 5, Apocalyptic Writings, ed. Stephen J. Stein, WJE Online, accessed December 26, 2014, http://edwards.yale.edu/archive?path =aHR0cDovL2Vkd2FyZHMueWFsZS5lZHUvY2dpLWJpbi9uZXdwaGlsby9n
ZXRvYmplY3QucGw/Yy40OjUud2plbw==. Also, cf. Matt. 7:11 (“How much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”) with Luke 11:13 (“How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”).
- Murray, Pentecost Today?, 69; emphasis original.
- Ibid., 18. Also, the Westminster Larger Catechism declares that the Spirit is present in every believer but does not always work “at all times, in the same measure.” Westminster Larger Catechism, in The Confession of Faith Together with the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism with Scripture Proofs, 3rd ed.(Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publications, 1990), 182.
- Murray, Pentecost Today?, 17.
- Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, 3rd ed. (Leipzig, Germany: Bernard Tauchnitz, 1843), 13.
- Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 74–81.
- Murray, Pentecost Today?, 78.
- D. M. Lloyd-Jones, “Revival: An Historical and Theological Study,” in Puritan Papers: vol. 2, 1956–1959, ed. D. M. Lloyd-Jones (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000), 318.
This article is adapted from Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer: In Our Homes, Communities, and Churches by Megan Hill.
Prayer is the means by which we implore the Holy Spirit to take up residence in our study time.
Jesus’s ministry on earth as a human was marked by a devotion to prayer. Through his prayer life, we see what it means to truly depend on God.
A church’s commitment to prayer is one of the greatest determiners of its effectiveness in ministry.