Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee? – Psalm 85:6

When a movement among God’s people causes people to love Jesus, lift up Jesus, worship and praise the Lord, go to extreme lengths to meet with God, confess sins, get right with each other, run to preaching services, run to prayer meetings, witness to the lost—or better, when a movement causes people to rejoice in God—you can’t chalk that up to the devil. The devil doesn’t want people to lift up Jesus and all that goes with it (1 John 4:1ff). When God’s people are rejoicing in God, God must be doing a reviving work—at least on some level. Does this mean everything will be pristine and free from streams emanating from flesh? Does it mean the enemy will not attempt to muddy the waters? Not necessarily. Usually not.

The old writers emphasized the importance of understanding “dual streams.” Aberrations do not negate the possibility of real blessing in the main, but the aberrations themselves should not be condoned. Without clarity, dual streams may be viewed as a single stream which can either give credence to that which is negative or discredit that which is positive. Rejoicing in what God is doing in the main does not necessitate condoning a negative aspect. The tests of the spirits laid out in 1 John 4 are the tests God has given, and these stand apart from what man often emphasizes. The inspired author focused on God’s focus, and what we have recorded for us are the essential tests. Yet, other things may puzzle us. How do we process these matters?

Why, in times of movements toward God, are some entirely pro, others entirely antagonistic, and many others confused? It’s because ideas matter, misunderstandings hinder, and one-size-fits-all approaches either box out what may be good in the main or involve acceptance of too much.

Revival is a massive subject. Movements toward God vary regarding matters of emphasis and degree. Without clarity, confusion clouds the brightness of what God is doing. Beyond the Bible admonition to test the spirits to discern what is of God, there is value in discerning the differences surrounding some lesser matters. Clarifications can burn away the fog of confusion. The clarifications we will address are principial and extend beyond any particular event.

Discern the Difference between Definition and Description

Some definitions offered for revival are actually descriptions. But take heed if you define revival by what it does rather than what it is. You can get confused and may embrace self-efforts in attempts to reproduce it. You can force the standard of revival based on a certain account. You can focus on incidentals over essentials. You can also confuse the extent of revival.

Someone may insist, “When real revival comes, it will spread from coast-to-coast.” But what if your nation has only a single coast or, perhaps, none? And must the movement be national to qualify as real? Such misunderstandings confuse incidentals (what characterizes revival in a given scenario) with essentials (what revival is in every scenario).

Revival is restoration to life. The word revival is simply re (again) –vival (life). Revival is life again.  Spiritual revival, therefore, is restoration to spiritual life, life in the Spirit, the life of God.

Life again defines the essence of revival—what revival is. Living that life showcases the impact of revival—what revival does.

When the saints are revived, they are restored to spiritual life. The indwelling Spirit fills them with the life of Jesus. The Holy Spirit animates their personalities. This is what revival is on the individual level.

But then there is what revival does on the individual level. The fruit of the Spirit of Jesus will spring forth: love, in all its expressions, all the way to temperance (Gal. 5:22-23). The fruit of the Holy Spirit is true holiness, the beauty of Jesus shining. Mere externals can be imitated, but Jesus in believers shining forth as the hope of glory must come from true restoration to Christ’s life. Love, joy, peace, and so forth mark the cleansed and revived.

As life in the Spirit continues, burden for the lost ensues. Since Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, believers restored to the life of Jesus experience His burden. Evangelism takes on life and dynamic power.

What revival does is wonderful, but it is helpful to distinguish between what revival is from what revival does.

Discern the Difference between Essence and Expression

In the Second Great Awakening, the expressions of revived people differed based on religious and cultural contexts. The revivals in New England were more staid than the more demonstrative camp meeting revivals of Kentucky and Tennessee. Both, however, experienced God’s reviving presence.

Denominationally, revival among Presbyterians may differ in expression from revival among Methodists or Baptists. Culturally, revival in an African context may differ in expression from revival in a European setting. Some may bow in quiet awe while others shout in exuberant praise. Reading revival history reveals these differing expressions. To fixate on any one expression as the only legitimate expression is to miss the variety existing among God’s people and the reality of God’s willingness to revive any and all who seek Him.

Should we not let movements that occur in other groups motivate us to seek God ourselves, regardless of how pristine or not they may seem to our eye? Or do we only find motivation to discredit movements that differ from our standard, preferred expression? Should we not ask why revival is not occurring in our context? Should we not humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord that He might revive us (James 4:10)?.

The essence of revival is the same across church or cultural lines. The expression of revival, however, may vary.

Discern the Difference between Personal and Corporate Revival

In personal revival, an individual is cleansed and filled with the life of Jesus as the animating leader and power to his or her personality. Corporate revival is when many are filled with the life of Jesus. Said another way, the filling of the Spirit in personal revival is when God fills a believer with His life. The outpouring of the Spirit in corporate revival is when God fills the atmosphere with His life.

The outpouring of the Spirit is the manifestation of the presence of God (Ezek. 39:29). This manifestation is spiritual rather than physical, but it’s just as real as if it were physical. God’s manifest presence produces an awareness of God. This brings joy to those walking in the Spirit and conviction of sin to those walking after the flesh. When that sin is confessed, the blood cleanses and the Spirit fills and restores to life in the Spirit. Thus, the outpouring of the Spirit leads to the filling of the Spirit among individuals affected by His outpouring.

Testimonies reveal differing levels of intensity regarding God’s manifest presence. At times, a holy hush sweeps across a riveted audience and everyone senses the weight of truth. Most people reading this have likely been in services of this sort in church or at camp. Sometimes, a higher level of intensity evokes audible groans of conviction or even greater responses, but the dynamic is the same. The differences can be traced to levels of intensity. God knows what is best for a given situation, and He does not always prescribe the same level of intensity.

We also see variation in the breadth of God’s manifest moving. At times, a movement has been confined to a single living room, dorm room, or a larger auditorium. In other instances, no room could contain His presence as a community and surrounding areas became aware of the outpouring. Revival history is replete with a wide variety of examples.

The duration of God’s manifest presence is yet one more variable. How long will a movement continue? It may be on the shorter side, lasting only for a single service. In other cases, it has continued for many hours, several days, stretches of many weeks, and even longer.

The essence of revival is life again. Whether there is personal filling or corporate outpouring, a quiet hush or intense conviction, limits on scope and duration or broad, extended movements, revival is the blessed restoration of life in the Spirit. A related movement of God, an awakening, occurs when an outpouring of the Spirit couples revival among the saints with stirrings among unbelievers to put their faith in Jesus. The historical periods we label as “Great Awakenings” illustrate this dynamic with the broad, sweeping moves of God that touched countless localities and multiple nations over many years.

Discern the Difference between Moment and Maturity

Revival and spiritual maturity are not the same. Revival occurs relatively quickly. Maturity, however, takes time. Take care not to confuse the two. Revival is not spiritual maturity, but revival restores the maturing process. Revival affords people the opportunity to restart their growth in grace through the walk of faith. This truth reveals a need for discipleship in the midst of revival, and some outpourings have lasted longer when this was recognized and acted upon in earnest.

To expect those involved in any revival to become spiritually mature overnight is a misunderstanding, and relying on such an expectation to assess the genuineness of a revival is a mistake. Brokenness, cleansing, and restoration to life can occur quickly. Spiritual maturity takes time. The two must not be confused.

Final Thought

Recently, I was in a preachers meeting. The oldest preacher there said something to the effect of, “We always seem to put revival in our box; maybe we should get in God’s box.” This does not suggest ignoring discernment. Instead, it encourages the importance of seeing a larger perspective. God has a box, but it may be larger than one particular group’s perspective.

John Van Gelderen

John Van Gelderen

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