On February 8, 2023, students from Asbury University gathered at chapel as they would any other Wednesday at 10:00 a.m., but it was not an ordinary Wednesday. Those in attendance lingered in the chapel—for 15 more days.
Craig Keener of Asbury Theological Seminary described the revival as being marked by worship and prayer, with the occasional sermon.1 Hughes Memorial Auditorium has been a continuous house of prayer and worship since February 8.
The public reading of Scripture, testimony time, and times of confession are regular occurrences as well as singing. As this phenomenon continues, growing publicity has led to a swelling of the small town of Wilmore, KY, and the campus.
Hundreds of pilgrims have flocked to attend the ongoing chapel services, comprised of alumni, religious enthusiasts, and inquisitive seekers. Mixed responses to the current situation at Asbury are evident on and off campus. Some are calling this event a revival, while others, including school officials, are hesitant of that label preferring the term “awakening.”2
On campus, some undergraduate students are leading services and serving enthusiastically, while others feel overwhelmed by the shift from a small intimate spiritual experience to the current national phenomenon. Seminary students across the street hold equally mixed opinions, stating to this writer that there is nothing “spectacular” or “sensational” about what is going on—while at the same time admitting that the spiritual pulse of both campuses has changed as a result. Off campus, cautionary flags have been raised on social media warning of the dangers of overemotional zeal while others have praised the movement as another instance of Asbury’s long heritage of such revivals.3
These mixed responses are nothing new. Such a polarity has been evident in church history—biblical, ancient, and contemporary.4 In this piece I will seek to analyze the biblical witness to determine what a faithful reaction may look like to revival generally, and specifically to what is happening in Wilmore, KY.
Biblical characteristics of revivals
During his 2016 contribution to the W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lecture series, Walter C. Kaiser petitioned the student body of Dallas Theological Seminary to answer the call to preach through the revivals of the Old Testament.5 I took up this challenge, and the biblical principles below are the results of preparation for those sermons.6
There can be no doubt that the Christian world at large prays, preaches, and longs for revival, though there remain disagreements on what an ideal revival should look like.7 The term “revival” does not occur in any major English translation of the Bible. This much was noted by Charles Hodge in the nineteenth century when he conceded that, “It is true, that in none of the foregoing passages of Scripture is the word revival, used; yet is it altogether a scriptural word in application to a rapidly improving state of the church of God.”8 In the absence of a Scriptural definition, J. I. Packer offers one that is descriptive of the canonical witness:
Revival is a social, corporate thing, touching and transforming communities, large and small. Bible prayers for revival implore God to quicken not me but us. … God revives his church, and then the new life overflows from the church for the conversion of outsiders and the renovation of society.9
How does God go about reviving his people? An analysis of the major accepted revival texts yields three prominent characteristics.10
The ministry of the word of God
Biblical revivals that are relatively undisputed are the revivals of Asa, Hezekiah, Josiah, Nineveh, Ezra, and the birth of the Church in Acts.11 Of these, only Hezekiah’s began without some emphasis on preaching or Scripture reading, being instead cultically driven (2 Chron 29). The revival of Asa began when the prophet Azariah confronted Asa and called him to covenant faithfulness by the Spirit of God (2 Chron 15:1). Josiah’s reforms started when Hilkiah found the Book of the Law in the temple (2 Kgs 22:8) and had it read in Josiah’s hearing (22:10–11). Nineveh was confronted by the judgment oracle of Jonah by divine commission (Jonah 3:1–4). Likewise, Ezra’s revival included his sermon and the teaching of the Levites (Neh 8:1–8).
In each biblical revival, there was some emphasis on the role of the Word of God and its attendant ministry. For Nineveh, the pitiful preaching of the prophet led to the mass repentance of the city.12 For Josiah, there was no preaching. Instead, the word fell like a hammer on an anvil through public reading by Shaphan, the secretary (2 Kgs 22:10). Though revivals do not always have their genesis in preaching and teaching, they always eventually get there—as is seen in Hezekiah’s commission of the priests and Levites to teach (2 Chron 31:2–3). Perhaps nowhere is the role of the word of God clearer than in the effectual preaching of Peter at Pentecost leading to the conversion of 3,000, and a few days later 5,000 (Acts 2:41, 4:4). This is consistent with the findings of Jonathan Edwards in the thick of the Great Awakening.
Jonathan Edwards’s third mark of a true revival was that “The spirit that operates in such a manner as to cause men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divinity, is certainly the Spirit of God.”13
Asbury’s revival began immediately after a chapel service where the Word of God was preached. On February 8, Rev. Zack Meerkreebs preached from Romans 12 during the chapel service that would lead to the current outpouring. He noted that the chapel speakers had been working expositionally through Romans, and that his goal for that day was that the students would forget him, be moved by the Holy Spirit, and to become “love in actions.”14 Rev. Meerkreebs’s prayer was answered: the students described the sermon as rather unmemorable when interviewed!15 The fact that a revival fell during systematic study of Romans should surprise no Protestant. Martin Luther’s systematic study of the book of Romans led to the greatest revival outside of Scripture.16 The Word of God has remained a steady part of the Asbury revival through the ministry of preaching during regularly scheduled chapel services, and the public reading of Scripture has been employed throughout the unscheduled worship times.
Prayer: intercession, confession, repentance, and petition
Prayer during revival takes many different forms. Though confession and repentance of sin are specific forms of prayer separated here, the forms of prayer are inextricably linked, and may flow freely one to the other as Lloyd-Jones notes.17 In Ezra–Nehemiah one sees the great scribe intercede on behalf of the people then lead the group in confession and repentance multiple times (intercession in Ezek 9:6–15, corporate confession in 10:1, repentance in 10:2–16, confession in Neh 9:1–38, etc.). Charles Spurgeon emphasized the role of prayer in revival as he pled with his readers to
wrestle in prayer, meet together in your houses, go to your closets, be instant, be earnest in season and out of season, agonise for souls, and all that you have heard shall be forgotten in what ye shall see; and all that others have told you shall be as nothing compared with what ye shall hear with your ears, and behold with your eyes in your own midst.18
Joel Beeke echoes the Puritans sentiment that prayer precedes revival, since “God loves to answer petitions that are signed by more than one signature.”19
As one views the events of Asbury, the event is not simply an ongoing Christian worship concert. The order of worship frequently moves from worship to Scripture reading, then prayer. During the times of prayer, individuals are kneeling, prostrate, holding up holy hands, praying with one another in the seats, with pastoral staff at the altar, praying for themselves, and for others. The prayer exhibited at Asbury is intergenerational, interracial, and interdenominational.
The word of God brings an acute awareness of sin (Psa 130:3, Rom 7:7) as well as an awareness of the need for grace (Psa 32:1, Rom 5:20–21) and God’s remedy through the gospel (Rom 3:23).20 The biblical evidence for just such reactions to the word of God is clear through the revival of Josiah, Nineveh, Ezrah, and Acts. Perhaps the greatest biblical evidence of the emphasis on confession and repentance are found in the stories of Josiah, Nehemiah, and Jonah. Upon hearing the word of the Lord, Josiah tore his robes, a clear sign of mourning over the sin of his people. He then approached the Lord through the prophetess, signaling his repentance after his confession of corporate sin (2 Chron 34:18–22).21 This led him to repent by renewing the covenant through a corporate ceremony and ridding the land of idols (2 Chron 34:29–33). Likewise, when Ezra read from the Scriptures the people wept and were emotionally distraught. Ezra employed pastoral sensitivity by informing them that this was a feast day because the word of God had returned to them, and then he counseled them how they might repent. After hearing the word of God, the people experienced feelings of conviction over their failure to abide by covenant stipulations. After confession is made, Scripture often shows believers contemplating repentance; what must they now do? For Josiah, it was to rid the land of idols; for Ezra’s audience repentance meant divorcing foreign wives. Jonah’s situation was different, because his audience was composed of unbelievers. However, after only three days of preaching, the revival spanned a month and included corporate prayers of confession, repentance, and fasting. Though some would like to see more preaching in some revival contexts, no revival is uniform, and there is biblical precedent in Jonah for a revival which has minimal (and even rather unexemplary) preaching.
Though specifics change, the principles remain for revival. Mankind has sinned and is estranged and cold towards God; the answer is uniformly to repent. The great revival text, often taken out of context, is 2 Chronicles 7:14. While the promises of restoration in that passage may be limited to its Israelite audience, the principle of repentance before restoration is timeless. For the people of God to be reconciled after divine estrangement, they must repent. This is why the verse can still be applied as a principle for revival and why repentance is evident throughout the greatest revivals of history. 22 Elmer Towns noted different “faces” of revivals, the first being that of “repentance revival.” Repentance revival “emphasizes a moral cleansing of individual lives and of society as a whole.”23 As Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes the stages of revival he notes that the people of God move from sin, God’s pronouncement, to God’s judgment—and then to a realization by the people of their position as estranged from God.24 This realization leading to intercession by certain members and then corporate confession and repentance; and this is when biblical revival starts. Asbury evinces different “faces of revival,” but there is no doubt that confession of sin and repentance have been consistent elements.25 The pastoral staff, according to my observation, has done an admirable job of ensuring that the public prayer, testimony, and Scripture readings do not turn into vainglory-seeking or any other immodest/insincere expression. During the service, students and visitors are informed that they must meet with a member of the pastoral staff who will confirm whether their testimony, prayer, or Scripture reading is “for this group at this time.” The service is free, and yet it is orderly.
Regeneration of souls and society
The last principle that is widely seen throughout the scriptural revival accounts is a renewed commitment to mission. This is evidenced throughout the Old Testament as people turned from idolatry to an exclusive, Yahwistic, monotheistic faith; it is seen in the New Testament as people were added to the church. This massive change in the religious affections of the populace would often lead to societal changes, which has a biblical precedent in Jonah 3. Henry Blackaby noted that
Spiritual awakening occurs when, over a short period of time, large numbers of people (or a high percentage of people in an area) experience new birth to spiritual life. Spiritual awakenings are not merely occasions of mass decisions for Christ. Decisions may or may not reflect a new birth. In a spiritual awakening people’s lives are radically changed.26
Likewise, Alvin Rreid and Malcom McDow note that, “When the church experiences awakening, it becomes energized for evangelistic outreach.”27
This special work of God also increases the church’s awareness of mission so that Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes the enormous increase of men being called to ministry during such times.28 A biblical revival produces lasting change, and this lasting change includes the call of future ministers, the conversion of sinners, and a change in society which is permanent.29 Though the other two elements are clearly evident in the Asbury Revival, this particular element can only be seen in time. Therefore, one must wait before determining if Asbury meets this qualification.
Until enduring fruit is seen or proven to be absent, how should one respond to an apparent revival?
Biblical responses to the Asbury revival
Throughout Scripture, there are multiple responses to revival. There are those who joined in the revival, those who refused, and those who waited to join. Since the scriptural accounts have the benefit of hindsight (and inspiration!), all who refused to partake in the revival are condemned.
Today’s audience of the Asbury revival are not blessed with foreknowledge, and therefore they do not know how it will end. The question remains whether or not the events fit the biblical criteria. Even this brief assessment of the most common elements of revival leaves Asbury indeterminate. There is nothing, as of yet, which disqualifies Asbury from being a true revival, and yet the greatest testament of a revival is its enduring effects—which are necessarily absent at this point in time.
Since there is no evident scriptural disqualification of Asbury’s revival which would lead one to reject it upon theological grounds, there are two biblically warranted options, both of which are seen in the book of Acts.
Throughout the scriptural accounts, those who receive narrative commendation are those who participate in the revivals. These people hear the word of God, sense the Spirit of God, are filled by that Spirit, and begin to operate in obedience to the faith. Whether their participation involves generosity, entrance into vocational ministry, lay-service to the greater mission, or simply sincere participation in the community (through worship, prayer, fellowship, and submission to the teaching of the word), everyone who participated is presented positively so long as they continue to live holy lives. Those who have witnessed Asbury’s revival and are approving of it are encouraged to find a way to participate. This may come through prayer, generosity, or visitation. So long as the person continues to walk circumspectly and to follow God’s clear guidance in Scripture, there is nothing to fear. In fact, there may be something great to gain by participation. For those not so convinced, there is another option.
In Acts 5:17–41 Peter and John are imprisoned by the Priests for their preaching and the revival’s inconvenient effects upon the populace. Most of the Pharisees want to kill the apostles immediately. At just this point Gamaliel is introduced to the reader of Acts. Gamaliel is described as “a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people” (Acts 5:34). In narrative studies, narrated characterization is important due to the omniscience of the narrator.30 Gamaliel is presented as one who is worthy of commendation to the reader, since he is held in honor by “all the people,” not just the scribes, pharisees, priests, or even Jews. Conversely, his Sanhedrin comrades are presented as hostile and even murderous antagonists to the truth. Gamaliel reminds the council of previous revolts, informing them that if the movement is not of God, it will fail; but if it is of God, their hostility is equivalent to striving against him. Though the Sanhedrin still elected to persecute the nascent Christian church, the apostles were spared martyrdom, and Luke in Acts credits Gamaliel with this positive turn of events.
Gamaliel’s wisdom is useful here. It is too early to determine whether what is happening at Asbury is a spiritual revival that will result in mass conversions, an increase of ministers for mission, or life-changing results. In the absence of negative evidence, the believer is justified in patiently waiting for these results until they are convinced of God’s work in the movement. However, Gamaliel’s words also offer a warning. In the absence of negative evidence, one may find themselves fighting against God by negatively criticizing the movement. This is to be avoided, since fighting against God tends to result in chastisement throughout Scripture. In the very next chapter, Acts 6:7, a great number of priests were becoming Christians, and the narrative structuring seems to imply that some of these were perhaps the very same members of the Sanhedrin who heeded Gamaliel’s council. If one is unconvinced of God’s visitation upon Asbury, patience is the biblical counsel as one weighs scriptural evidence and the fruit of this event. A predisposition towards negative criticism is not only unbiblical, considering these are brothers and sisters in Christ, it is also dangerous. Instead, the less-convinced reader should patiently wait for evidence lest one be found to be less charitable than the Sanhedrin of Acts 5.
In a recent documentary, Revival: The Work of God, Jeremy Walker notes that revival is “something divinely powerful, probably painful, truly delightful, sweetly fruitful, often resisted, easily abused and greatly to be desired.” 31 Academics, pastors, lay people, and the staff and students from all over, including from Asbury University, have been praying for revival for years. The students of Asbury have noted the pain associated with the discomfort that this potential outpouring has caused in their own lives. The sweetness of the event has been described in multiple places. As with all revivals in history, there is no shortage of excitement or absence of skepticism. The fear that the revival could be abused, and the reality of resistance to it, is not lost on Asbury due to the ready availability of opinions on social media.
The goal of this article was to provide a grid for evaluating revivals generally, and in so doing, to demonstrate that the current phenomenon at Asbury provides no definitive biblical cause for concern. Instead, I counsel quiet caution and prayerful evaluation for the skeptic; and I counsel eager participation by the biblically informed and experientially convinced. Regardless of where believers find themselves on this spectrum of opinion, God invites his children to bring all cares and anxieties before him (1 Pet 5:7). One should not hesitate to offer fervent prayer that this current movement in Wilmore would bring forth the fruit of repentance, beget enduring spiritual fruit in the lives of the participants, raise up laborers for the harvest, effectively evangelize the lost, edify the believers, and glorify God by exalting Christ.
- Paul Prather, “History Repeats Itself as Another Spontaneous Revival Sweeps Asbury University,” Lexington Herald Leader (McClatchy Media Network, February 16, 2023), https://www.kentucky.com/opinion/paul-prather/article272483797.html.
- Sylvia St. Cyr, “Asbury College in Kentucky: Is It a Revival?,” CHVN Radio, February 21, 2023, https://www.chvnradio.com/articles/asbury-college-in-kentucky-is-it-a-revival.
- Mark Maynard and Hannah Julian, “All Eyes Focus on (Another?) Asbury Revival,” Kentucky Today, February 13, 2023, https://www.kentuckytoday.com/baptist_life/all-eyes-focus-on-another-asbury-revival/article_6994621a-a9b0-11ed-9cf7-67c841f9b6a3.html.
- Everett Ferguson, John D. Woodbridge, and Frank A. James, Church History Volume 2: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 574. The authors describe the various reactions to the Second Great Awakening noting that “Some contemporary observers attributed the awakening to the spread of a ‘heavenly fire.’ Others dismissed it as the purveyor of overheated religious enthusiasm. Still others viewed the awakening as a mixed spiritual blessing.”
- Dallas Theological Seminary, “The Message of Book III,” YouTube Video, 44:12, February 4, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxOmplbDkLk.
- For anyone interested in viewing those sermons, a video playlist can be found in this Revival 2022 Playlist.
- David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Revival (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1987), 241. Lloyd-Jones stated that revival is “our greatest need.”
- Charles Hodge, “Review of A Brief Sketch of an Argument Respecting the Nature of Scriptural, and the Importance and Necessity of Numerous, Rapid, Frequent, Powerful, and Extensive Revivals of Religion,” The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review VI.1–4 (1834): 111.
- Collin Hansen and John D. Woodbridge, A God-Sized Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 35.
- Though Jonathan Edwards, in Jonathan Edwards on Revival (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), offered five criteria, his work was limited to a description derived from the book of Acts. This study will seek to offer characteristics that are evident in both Old and New Testaments as a limited type of biblical theology.
- Alvin L. Reid and Malcolm McDow, Firefall 2.0: How God Has Shaped History Through Revivals (Gospel Advance Books, 2014), 38–60. Revival is sometimes limited to the reviving of believers as noted by Ervin Budiselić, “The Old Testament Concept of Revival within the New Testament,” KAIROS: Evangelical Journal of Theology 3, no. 1 (2014): pp. 45–74. However, Budiselić also notes that contemporary usage includes the term’s usage for mass repentance among unbelievers. This paper will utilize the popular understanding, since similar elements are evident in both cases, and it could be argued that a revival must start among the regenerate before affecting the unregenerate.
- The fact that Jonah’s preaching was so successful is extraordinary. Jonah’s sermon, as found in the text, is pitiful. In Jonah’s day, prophetic preaching had a standardized format. An oracle of judgment, the “hell-fire-and-brimstone” preaching of the Old Testament prophets, typically included an introduction, an accusation, and an announcement of impending judgement. See Claus Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech, trans. Hugh Clayton White, (London: Lutterworth Press, 1967), 130–131; 161–163; 169–170. Though there were occasions in which a pronouncement of judgment lacked an accusation, these occurrences were typically a response to an inquiry of the Lord by the one who is under divine wrath and does not fit the case of Jonah’s calling. Jonah’s sermon lacks both an introduction and an accusation. Though Nineveh was clearly evil in the Lord’s sight (Jonah 1:2), Nineveh is left without any idea of who sent the prophet, what deeds they should repent of, and what works they should turn towards to find relief. Jonah’s sermon set up the Ninevites for failure. Jonah’s sermon found itself somewhere between minimal and incomplete obedience. This lack of direction in Jonah’s sermon left the Ninevites in the dark regarding pivotal information to assure their full repentance and obedience; however, God was happy to relent from the disaster he originally declared toward the city.
- Edwards, Loc. 431.
- Explore Around Us, “The Chapel Service That Launched the Asbury Revival,” YouTube video, 26:38, February 12, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGvvGbgUmMU.
- For a brief analysis of the interviews conducted with Asbury students by the author and a team of PhD students from Liberty University see Chris McIntyre, “Analysis: Four Things Asbury Students Want You to Know,” Kentucky Today, February 21, 2023.
- Roland Herbert Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017), Loc. 807–823.
- Lloyd-Jones, 174.
- Charles Spurgeon, Revival (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1998), Loc. 833.
- Revival: The Work of God, directed by Dan Pugh (Reformation Heritage Books, 2022). https://revival.movie/.
- Justo L. Gonzalez, The Reformation to the Present Day: The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2 (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1985), Loc. 815–828.
- Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 318–319. It should be noted that this was an extreme but culturally appropriate example of emotional display. Such emotional displays are sometimes cautioned against by theologians, but there can be no doubt that they are evident in the Bible through weeping, tearing of clothes, and shouting, whether here in Josiah’s account or throughout the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. One should note that Ezra and Nehemiah also display some emotional responses which would cause concern today and would even be considered abusive leadership by today’s standards. Emotional responses have biblical warrant but should be culturally appropriate. What is culturally appropriate in a college age group (which Asbury is predominately composed of) may not be viewed as culturally appropriate by others, but in no way discredits them any more than those found in these passages.
- Elmer L. Towns and Douglas Porter, The Ten Greatest Revivals Ever: From Pentecost to the Present (Virginia Beach, VA: Academx, 2005), 224–225.
- Ibid., 5.
- Lloyd-Jones, 165.
- Towns and Porter, 5.
- Henry Blackaby, Richard Blackaby, and Claude King, Fresh Encounter: God’s Pattern for Spiritual Awakening (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2009), 166.
- McDow and Reid, 19.
- Lloyd-Jones, 118.
- Ibid., 115.
- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York, NY: BasicBooks, 2011), 157.
- Revival: The Work of God.