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  • Writer's pictureJ.D. King

Redefining Revival in the Twenty-First Century—Apparently We've Forgotten What it Means

Updated: Jan 24


Revival in the American Frontier
A camp meeting revival scene in the early 1800s

When an outpouring of the Holy Spirit erupted in the second chapter of Acts, some were open to what was occurring, but others were confused. Scripture recounts: “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:12).


Christians think that they understand revivals, but I’m not always sure that they do. Living in the shadow of the Welsh Revival, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones asked,


“What do we know of the realm of the Spirit? What do we know of the Spirit falling on people? What do we know about these great manifestations of the Holy Spirit?”1 

I wish twenty-first-century churchgoers would circle back to this. Many are so caught up in politics, money, and social concerns that they rarely look to the heart of the matter. Revival—in their estimation—is merely a religious buzzword for all sorts of religious expressions.


Some see revival as a seasonal meeting or special event promoted through social media channels. Others imagine it as a city-wide stadium event unifying local congregations. Evangelistic crusades and inner-city food giveaways are sometimes called “revivals”—even though that was not what they were understood to be generations ago.


What does the term "revival" genuinely mean?


Revival in the Bible?

Most of our assumptions about revivals come from popular religious culture. Churchgoers tend to pick up on what others are saying, and run with it. People rarely ask questions or bother to grapple with the underlying meanings of things.


This goes without saying, but Christians should always turn to the Bible—and consider what it says about a matter. However, in this instance, the term is mostly absent from the text.


There are two verses that use the word “revive”—drawing from the Hebrew term "chayah"—meaning to nourish, repair, or bring back to life:


  • “Revive us, and we will call on your name” (Ps 80:18)

  • “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you” (Ps 85:6).


Surprisingly, "revival," and its related forms, don’t really show up in most English translations.


Don’t misunderstand me, I know that its there, under the surface. Scripture documents many outpourings of the Spirit in the stories of Israel and the early Church. Nevertheless, the English text doesn’t utilize the term “revival” to characterize these encounters.


There were, for example, outpourings of the Spirit during the era of the Judges (Judges 2:6-23; 6:1; 13:1). They also occurred under the monarchies of Solomon (2 Chr 7:1-16), Jehoash (2 Kgs 11, 12; 2 Chr 23, 24), and Asa (2 Chr 15:1-15). Holy Spirit outpourings are also evident during the time of Ezekiel (Ez 7:1, 36:24) and also Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh 8-13). Revivals are also found throughout the Gospels and Acts. They were also stirrings in the congregations that the Apostle Paul established across the Roman Empire (Rom 6:1; 12:1-8).


None of these ancient biblical outpourings were called “revivals.” Since this term is largely absent from the text, people don’t always draw the right conclusions. The murkiness of our discussions about outpourings of the Spirit frees modern churchgoers to make their own conclusions.


Revival's History and Etymology

It’s harder to build a definition of revival directly from scripture, but one can make a reasonable argument from English Church history. Sometimes, to see ahead, we need to look behind, finding important lessons in the stories of previous generations.


Fundamentally, discussions on revival in the twenty-first century must move beyond sensationalism, apocalyptic timelines, and all the cultural touchpoints that color modern assumptions. To make progress, believers must draw out the original meaning and subtext of this word.


Exploring English word origins reveals that "revival" descends from French and Latin terms, meaning "to come alive again."


The eighteenth-century Puritans were the first to use the term in a religious context. Their understanding was rooted in covenant, the Kingdom of God, and the Church's triumphal expansion. They believed that a revival occurred when a group of believers turned back to God and began experiencing the fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit.


We can see this pattern of thought in the correspondence of Jonathan Edwards—a leader in the Great Awakening. He wrote,

“I looked upon the late wonderful revivals of religion as forerunners of those glorious times so often prophesied of in the Scripture, and that this was the first dawning of that light, and beginning of that work, which, in the progress and issue of it, would at last bring on the Church's latter day glory.”2

Revivals, as originally understood, were seasons of covenant renewal—an outpouring of the Spirit on a spiritually dead church. In its most fundamental sense, it's a move of the Spirit that “exalts Christ . . . attacks the powers of darkness . . . exalts the Holy Scriptures . . . lifts up sound doctrine and . . . promotes love to God and man.”3 


This is how Jonathan Edwards defined “revival” generations ago, and his understanding still rings true. Edwards’ hopeful Puritan outlook was the catalyst for the First and Second Great Awakenings. It also fueled fervent intercession and the advancement of global missions. Revival was thought to be a vital part the expansion of the Kingdom of God in this present age.


The Meaning of Revival Has Changed For Some

Over past generations, devout intercessors expected regular outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and more often than not, their desires were met. Hundreds of thousands of people were touched in virtually every era. Multitudes encountered the goodness and glory of revival.


Nevertheless, different attitudes arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At that time, a less hopeful outlook started clouding the mind of the American church. The masses were so caught up in an apocalyptic story line that they lost hope for this present age.


Due to these entanglements and other setbacks, churchgoers seemed to struggle. It seems that many lost sight of what revival actually is. I believe that it would help us immensely to return to the origins. We need to re-examine what devout believers in previous eras understood about the things of God.


Let me reiterate: in the twenty-first century, revival shouldn’t be thought of as a "circus sideshow" or a prelude to the apocalypse. It is not merely a buzzword or a fashionable religious trend. It cannot be manufactured—formulated into a social media campaign or church program. Please stop going along with this.


Instead, revival is an encounter with the living God that transforms lethargic believers. This kind of things occurs when the glorious gospel returns to center stage in the Church—fortified by the power of the Holy Spirit. These glorious outpourings typically occur when churchgoers get a fresh vision of Jesus and begin responding to his beauty and wonder.


Believers desperately need to return to an earlier conception of revival because it's an experience rooted in a larger biblical narrative. God wants to awaken and empower us—positioning us to partner with him in the transformation of the world.


Revival helps you rediscover who you are and grab hold of your purpose on earth. We need a fresh understanding of what it means.





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1 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones quoted in John White, When the Spirit Comes with Power (Downer’s Gove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1988), 13.

2  Jonathan Edwards. "Letter to the Reverend Mr. M'Culloch” (March 5, 1744).

3 Jonathan Edwards, "Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God" (Boston: S. Kneeland and T. Green, 1741), 42-53.

 

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