A Glorious Demonstration of God’s Grace and Power

-Iain Murray talks to Peter Hastie-

“Revival” is a word that is guaranteed to ignite discussion and even controversy. While it excites some Christians, it makes others roll their eyes with suspicion.

Early in 2014 theologians and authors Tim Keller and Don Carson endorsed the Reformed theology of revival in a roundtable video. Keller has dealt with the subject extensively in his book Center Church. Others who have also raised the importance of revival are James Packer, Kevin DeYoung and Bryan Chapell. Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge have recently published A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir.

In this interview we talk to Iain Murray, a leading author on the subject, who has written Pentecost Today.

Iain, what do we mean when we talk about “revival”?

This is an important question because the word revival has been used in a number of ways over the last two centuries. Sometimes people have used it to refer to a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit, and on other occasions it has been employed to describe a time of intense religious excitement or a series of religious meetings focused on deepening the spiritual life. Since “revival” has been used to describe quite different things, I can understand why some people prefer not to use the word at all. The matter is
also complicated by the fact that the word “revive”, when it is found in Scripture, is not explicitly associated with the phenomenon that evangelical theologians traditionally referred to as “revival”.

The concept of revival, as it was first understood, is of a sudden and rapid demonstration of God’s grace and power through the Holy Spirit in converting sinners, enlarging the church, and restoring the public image of Christianity. This is how the term was originally used. I am speaking here of revival on a wide scale rather than its more localised expressions, although they both share the same characteristics.

When theologians use the term revival in its traditional sense, it reflects their understanding that the church does not advance in a uniform, even manner in the world, but there are times when people are converted in significant numbers and the church is rapidly enlarged through a powerful movement of the Spirit.

“So a revival is the sending of the Holy Spirit in fullness and power. We know that Christ’s promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost.”

The Reformation represented such an exceptional movement of the Spirit. John Knox said, “God gave His Holy Spirit to simpler men in great abundance”. And then again in the 1740s and the late 1700s and during several periods in the 19th century – especially in America – there were exceptional periods of the Spirit’s outpouring. These are established historical facts.

Christians often use the term in different ways. What’s going on when they do?

While evangelical Christians recognise in a general sense what a revival is, differences occur in the interpretation: how they occur, and what they mean when they happen. The question really comes down to Scripture. What does the Bible teach with regard to revival?

Briefly, my understanding is this: that our Lord in Luke 24 affirms that He would send the Holy Spirit or, as He puts it, “what My Father has promised”. Here is the repeated promise of the Old Testament – a future outpouring of the Spirit of God from heaven upon the church and the world (Is. 32:15; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28, 29; Zech. 12:10). So a revival is the sending of the Holy Spirit in fullness and power. We know that Christ’s promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. Peter, preaching by the power of the Holy Spirit, said, ‘He [that is, Christ] has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33).

So the question in relation to the Father’s promise is this: Is it completely fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, or is there an ongoing giving of the Holy Spirit? Evangelicals historically have understood that there is an ongoing giving of the Spirit and times of remarkable advance in the church are to be explained in
terms of further outpourings and effusions of the Spirit.This means that Pentecost isn’t once and for all.

For example, in Acts 4 the disciples, in circumstances of great need, prayed to be given boldness to preach the gospel. God responded by shaking the place where they were meeting and filling them with the Holy Spirit (4:31). So although they were filled with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, this is an additional occasion. So the Spirit has an ongoing ministry in building Christ’s church. He comes sometimes in special seasons of power for the remarkable advance of the church. That has been the pattern in history. When the Lord says, “I will build my church”, He wasn’t referring simply to Pentecost. He was referring to the fact that His ministry goes on through the Holy Spirit.

Revivals are therefore to be understood in terms of a larger giving of the Holy Spirit, and that’s connected with prayer for the Holy Spirit that Jesus refers to in Luke 11, “How much more will your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those that ask Him?” This prayer, we believe, was not exhausted at the day of Pentecost.

Paul suggests that the prayer of the Philippians was also answered when he received the help of the Holy Spirit in his time of need (Phil. 1:19). The Spirit isn’t given once for all in a static way. The Larger Catechism, Q. 182, says that while the Spirit is given to all Christians, His working is “not in all persons, nor at all times, in the same measure”. This helps us to understand the meaning of revival. While the Spirit is given according to the measure of the gift of Christ, sometimes that measure is so extraordinary and marked that amazing changes take place in the church and sometimes in society as well.

Some have said, quoting from 2 Chronicles 7:14, that if God’s people will humble themselves and pray, and seek His face, and turn from His evil ways, the Lord will send revival upon the church. Do you believe that the presence or absence of revival is dependent upon the obedience of Christians?

No, I do not – and for several reasons. First, the promise in 2 Chronicles 7 is a promise that belongs to the theocratic age – the time of Solomon. Blessing in the Old Testament was promised to Israel and to the land. That blessing is attached to the land. As I’ve already said, the promise of the Father and outpourings of the Spirit belong to the New Testament age.

Further, if the blessing of the New Testament age in terms of special awakening is related to obedience, then it has to mean that there are only two possibilities for the church: she’s either living under judgement because she’s not obedient, or she’s enjoying revival. Now those two alternatives are not the only alternatives. The norm in the church is, “I will give you another Comforter, and He will abide with you forever. If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (John 14:16; Rom. 8:9).

People aren’t the reason for revival. It is God who takes up instruments and uses them in His own sovereign way.

The Holy Spirit is present in the church at all times – that’s fundamental. So when we speak of “special seasons of grace and blessing”, that’s not saying that if those are absent, the case is hopeless and God isn’t doing anything. That isn’t true at all. Sometimes God works graciously, quietly, slowly, rather like a seed growing. But then, at other times, it pleases Him to come in an exceptional way, with a larger effusion of the Holy Spirit’s power.

Now, we’re speaking of God, which means we are speaking of an infinite Being – so we don’t entirely understand all His ways. However, if we say that obedience causes revival, we’re going to sooner or later cause deep depression, because many godly Christians have lived on the mission fields, served Christ in many places, and made costly sacrifices who have never seen revival. They have been obedient, eminently so.

So no, it’s never obedience that causes revival. It is Christ. Jesus said, “It’s not for you to know the times and the seasons which God has set by His own authority”, and that applies to revivals. Times and seasons belong to God. It’s very wrong when people try to claim revival in advance, or prophesy how many conversions will take place within one or five or 10 years. We cannot do that. We are dependent on God, and we have to pray in dependence on Him. Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 3:7, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” People aren’t the reason for revival. It is God who takes up instruments and uses them in His own sovereign way.

Charles Finney, an influential writer on revival, has claimed that anybody who supports Reformed theology can’t really be a supporter of evangelism and revival. What led him to make these claims?

Finney believed that the reason people became Christians is that they had the power to choose Christ. He had a very optimistic view of human nature and would not accept the Reformed understanding that sin so affects our minds and wills that it leaves us incapable of loving and trusting God. Instead, he taught that we could make that choice in our own strength. Sadly, he did not understand that the reason we believe Christ is that the Spirit renews our hearts. It is God’s secret work within us that gives us new birth, and the result of new birth is faith and trust (Acts 16:14).

Finney argued, “If you don’t believe that men can decide on their own conversion, then they can’t decide on revivals either.” He wanted to make revivals things that we could produce by our own efforts. He tried to do this for a time with some limited success, but ultimately it was a failure. Finney could not see that God determines revivals, not man.

He was opposed to Reformed theology, because he believed it hindered evangelism. But in truth, it doesn’t, and it ought not to. Any kind of Calvinism that hinders revival or hinders evangelism is not genuine Calvinism at all.

Do you think that believing in revival encourages fatalism and passivity in the practice of the Christian faith?

No I don’t. The bottom line of Reformed theology is that we depend upon God for His help. If dependence is real, we believe God is almighty, gracious, not willing that any should perish. We pray to Him as such. The opposite is the case where, if we look to men and think it depends on us, then we will experience discouragement.

However, we know that God can bring glorious changes in the worst of situations. And, because we believe that, we remain optimistic about what God can do in any situation. Further, history isn’t divided into judgment and revival. It’s divided into the time of God’s normal working, which is gracious and continuing, and extraordinary, special seasons.

What is the place of prayer in revival? Should we be seeking fresh outpourings of the Spirit of God as we pray?

We should be praying for the Holy Spirit’s grace and power. We have been given promises to that effect. Jesus says, “God gives the Spirit without limit” (John 3:34). Of course, we don’t determine the measure in which that grace is given but we ought to believe – especially pastors and teachers – that the prayer is being heard, and answered, in the measure that we need for our present situation. It is possible that the Lord may give us exceptional help, but as I say, the measure and the times of His giving are in His hands. But prayer for revival is stimulated by this belief.

How do we distinguish between a genuine movement of revival and fanaticism?

Well, the tests of the Spirit’s grace and power in revival are the same as in the normal periods. Is the Word of God being honoured? Are people hungering for the Word of God? Is faith being exercised in the gospel? Is Christ being formed in people? Now, if that is happening, Christ will be central – and He will be preached. Anything that diverts attention from Christ is not the work of the Spirit. Jesus says, “When He comes… He will bring glory to Me” (John 16:13, 14). The Spirit is the Spirit of holiness. If there is backbiting, anger, jealousy and lack of love, then we have signs that something other than revival is taking place. So fanaticism is a man-centered excitement of emotions, and the devil tries to stir that up – especially in times of revival.

Can you help us understand the relationship between preaching and revival?

In the book of Acts we read of men being filled with the Holy Spirit and preaching the Word of God with power. Luke joins these two things together. Christ builds His church through human instrumentality – that instrumentality is in His hands.

But it is our business as preachers to live close to Christ and the Scriptures. Now, one area where the need is special today has to do with the presentation of the gospel. There’s a fear now lest we offend people. But the truth is: unless we come to an end of ourselves, we’re not going to fear God. We are really lost. Romans chapters 1-3 are really vital in showing the order in which the gospel should be preached. If we loved people more, we would preach more on the wrath of God, and of the desperate urgency to repent and come to faith. So there’s a loss of fear of God in our day.

This should remind us of our need to experience the Spirit’s presence and power in greater measure. Fear of God and the Spirit’s presence so often go together. Luke tells us that the church was “encouraged by the Holy Spirit… living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). This starts in the pulpit when the preacher himself fears the Lord and is unafraid of man.

How do preachers actually prepare themselves to do that?

God gives gifts to men, and these gifts need to be disciplined, trained and educated. This means that theological and biblical studies are vital. However, gifts alone will never make a powerful preacher. We need the anointing of the Holy Spirit on those gifts. And this is where prayer, godliness and the fullness of the Spirit come in. Revivals begin so often as a new generation of men arise, who are patently speaking with an authority which is not their own. They are humble, God-fearing men. Sometimes these men are very gifted and sometimes they’re not. The Spirit is not limited by our education.

Do you see any trends in modern preaching today that may inhibit revival?

I think much of modern preaching is nothing more than passing on information. Sometimes it’s just a commentary on the Bible. However, people can get that from a book; they don’t need a preacher. Preaching has to move people’s hearts and consciences. Something has to happen to us.

It’s one of the sad features of our time that congregations that are often large in the mornings are only a handful in the evenings. That possibly tells us something about the morning service. If there was real blessing in each service, people would hunger for more. Preachers need to consider this. If the preaching is not lively and spiritually arresting, why would anyone want to come back later?

What kind of changes would we see if the Spirit enlivened our preaching?

There would be new attention to the Word of God. There would be more relish in preaching. People would be more eager to bring their friends under the sound of the gospel. Even more than that, believers themselves would be sharing the gospel on other days of the week. At the end of the day, it’s our people in the work place who are to be the preachers in the sense of making Christ known through their own lives and what they do.

One of our failures at the moment is the idea that the preacher preaches on Sunday, and the people come back seven days later. Something needs to happen on Sunday so the people on Monday are encouraged, helped, and the Word goes out through them to a much larger number. This is the pattern we see in the early church (Acts 6:7; 8:4; 12:24). Every Christian became a missionary. What made them do that? The preaching they sat under; the blessing they were receiving.

Peter Hastie is the Principal of PTC Victoria

First published Spring 2014 edition

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