The events occurring at Asbury University have created quite a discussion online concerning the nature of revival. Apparently after chapel on Wednesday, February 8, a group of 20 students decided to stay to sing, pray, and share testimonies. They were still there a few hours later, and so the president of the seminary emailed the student body, told them that there had been an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the chapel, and encouraged other students to take part. The rest is history—thousands of people from around the country and the world have descended upon the University over the past couple of weeks, hoping to “soak in” some of the experience.
What is happening has been described by some as a revival, others as an awakening, and still others (including Asbury Theological Seminary President Timothy Tennent) as an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. There is much that could (and should) be said about what is going on, but my purpose here is to address a very simple question: Is the kind revival they are claiming even promised in the New Testament? To put it another way, should we be expecting or seeking a fresh “outpouring of the Spirit” today?
Where are Revivals in Scripture?
I think this question is actually a fundamentally important question to ask. Lots of people are debating whether or not what is happening at Asbury is a true or fake revival, but very few are actually asking whether we ought to be expecting this kind of revival in the first place.
In fact, both sides of the debate are generally appealing to history in arguing either for or against defining what is happening at Asbury as revival, but few are actually testing their understanding of revival by Scripture.
So I ask, Where are revivals in Scripture?
The fact is that nothing in Scripture is actually characterized as revival—the word simply does not appear.
That in itself, of course, is not necessarily a problem; the word “trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible either. But we must at least acknowledge that the term “revival” is an extra-biblical word that we have chosen to apply to particular events in church history, and thus we need to carefully examine Scripture to determine whether what we have labeled “revival” should even be an expectation today.
“Revival” in the Old Testament?
In a few cases, the Old Testament includes prayers for what could be characterized as revival:
Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us! . . . Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?Ps 85:4, 6
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!Ps 80:3
There are also promises from God that he will revive the hearts of those who come humbly before him:
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.Isa 57:15
This kind of promise is also given to the nation of Israel as a whole:
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.2 Chron 7:14
And, indeed, the Old Testament records several events in Israel’s life that could be characterized as national revival, such as under the leadership of Asah of Judah (2 Chron 15), Jehoash (2 Kings 11–12), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18), and Josiah (2 Kings 22–23).
Not surprisingly, those who do try to define or defend modern revival on the basis of Scripture often appeal to one or more of these national revivals in the life of Israel.
The problem is this: national revivals of this sort were unique to the covenant nation of Israel. Notice, for example, the promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14 that in response to national repentance, God will heal their land. These are promises and circumstances that only apply to a theocratic national people of God, a reality that does not exist for the New Covenant church.
So, we must turn to the New Testament.
“Revival” in the New Testament?
Like with the Old Testament, “revival” does not appear at all in the New. However, a few clear events in the Book of Acts could legitimately be described as an “outpouring of the Spirit” or, consequently, “revival.”
The first and most obvious is the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 when, just as Jesus had promised (Jn 14:26), the Spirit was poured out upon his people, resulting in the conversion of 3,000 souls who then formed the first Christian church and began to devote themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers (Acts 2:42). This event could truly be described as an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Two other similar events occur in the book of Acts as the gospel spreads to Gentiles within the land of Israel (Cornelius and his household in chapter 10) and then Gentiles outside Israel (Gentiles in Ephesus in chapter 19).
The important point to recognize about these events is that they are unique. The Spirit was poured out as Jesus had promised, and he does not need to be poured out again and again. He is now active in the world, convicting the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (Jn 16:8), regenerating dead hearts (Tit 3:5), and sanctifying believers into the image of Christ (Rom 15:16).
On this basis, at minimum, we should not expect nor characterize any occurrence today as a “fresh outpouring of the Spirit.” Such a thing is not promised in the New Testament, nor is it needed. We can and should certainly pray that the Spirit will do the work he has promised to do in regenerating and sanctifying hearts, but this is not an “outpouring” like was true at Pentecost and its ripple effects in the book of Acts.
“Revival” as Mass Conversion/Sanctification?
Now that the Holy Spirit has already been poured out, his ordinary work today (which is really anything but ordinary) is to convert and sanctify sinners. When he chooses to do this in large numbers in a short amount of time, Christians in relatively recent history have labeled that as “revival.” But the question still remains: Is a kind of sudden, extraordinary mass conversion and/or sanctification something promised to us in this age?
The fact of the matter is that no, the New Testament never promises times of mass conversion or sanctification. Could the Spirit of God choose to save and/or sanctify large masses of people in a concentrated area in a short span of time? Of course he could. But he has not promised that this kind of thing will happen in this age.
In fact, he has promised the exact opposite.
The New Testament promises dramatic increase of lawlessness before Christ comes again (2 Thess 2:1–8). It promises that these last days will be “times of difficulty,” that persecution will grow, and that things will go from bad to worse (2 Tim 3:1, 12, 13). Instead of expecting mass revival, this is what Jesus said we ought to expect:
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.Matthew 24:9–14
Certainly we should long for more people coming to Christ, we should fervently evangelize, and we should seek to promote righteousness among God’s people and even in society, but we have no biblical basis for expecting mass “revival” during the present age.
Rather, we ought to look with expectant hope for true revival to occur, what Peter described as “times of refreshing” (Acts 3:19), when Jesus comes again.
What Do We Do with “Revivals” in History?
What do we do, then, with what people have labeled as “revivals” in church history? Again, people on both sides of the debate concerning whether Asbury is a revival inevitably point to history as proof for their positions. So what do we do with those historic events, especially in light of the fact that the New Testament never promises mass revival in this age?
First, we must always remember that Scripture must interpret experience, not the other way around.
Second, we do need to clearly distinguish between what Ian Murray helpfully described as revival and revivalism. However we are going to interpret, for example, what happened during the “Great Awakening” of Jonathan Edwards’s day, it was markedly different from what happened during the “Great Awakening” of Charles Finney’s day. Edwards’s “awakening” was, in his words, “a surprising” work of God’s Spirit in which, under the clear doctrinal preaching of the Word of God, many sinners were converted. On the other hand, Finney’s “revivalism” sought to create revival through “new measures” such as scheduled protracted revival meetings and the anxious bench. Even during the first “awakening,” what happened under Edwards’s ministry should be distinguished from the revivalism of other preachers, including the early preaching of George Whitefield, which was far more emotionally engineered.
But third, it is also very important that we take note of the eschatology of even the more careful, doctrinally-rooted “revival” preachers. Almost to the man, preachers who urged believers to pray for revival and who interpreted certain events as “revivals” or “awakenings” were postmillennial—including John Owen, Thomas Boston, William Perkins, Thomas Manton, John Flavel, Richard Sibbes, Samuel Rutherford, William Gouge, Jonathan Edwards, Matthew Henry, John Cotton, George Whitefield, Archibald Alexander, and Charles Finney.
These men believed that a “time of refreshing”—a period of mass conversion and sanctification—would precede the Second Coming of Christ, and thus they prayed for it, and they urged others to seek it. This caused them to interpret what was happening during periods of religious enthusiasm as true revival. Were lots of people converted during those periods? It appears so, though many professions (especially those caught up in the heightened emotional excesses) proved later to be false. Even Edwards, discouraged that what he hoped was the kingdom of God did not actually come, was far more measured in his interpretation of the events after the fact than he was during them.
Expectation of “Ordinary” Conversion and Sanctification
The bottom line is this: quick, extraordinary, mass cases of conversion and sanctification are simply not promised in the New Testament, nor is this ordinarily how conversion and sanctification take place. The Holy Spirit of God converts souls through the faithful, “ordinary” preaching of the Word, and this normally happens, not all at once or in mass numbers, but gradually as God’s people faithfully proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth.
And the Holy Spirit sanctifies hearts through the faithful “ordinary” means of grace: local church worship and fellowship, preaching, prayer, Bible study, and singing. And this normally happens, not in dramatic spurts, but progressively through the course of a Christian’s life.
My fear is that what caused the Asbury events to take place in the first place, and certainly what has influenced interpretation of the events as an “outpouring of the Spirit,” is an unbiblical expectation concerning what God has promised for this present age.
Let us be content with the “ordinary” way God has promised to work in this present age, and let us long for our blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, when true revival will come.