I’ll never forget the moment when a nurse led my wife and me over to press a button on the wall to announce to everyone in the hospital the good news of the birth of our newborn son. We pressed the button and chimes calmly rang throughout the building. Recently, I was in the hospital again visiting a family member in the midst of less joyful circumstances when, all of a sudden, a gentle chime rang out with the same joyful news from another family. It brought happiness to my heart; it was just what I needed right then, and for a brief moment, I felt renewed, revived.
You won’t find the specific word “revival” in your Bible, no matter the translation. The early church used the word rarely. Tertullian, for example, spoke of our death in Adam, but our “revival in Christ” [Latin: vivificatio].1 At the core of the concept of revival is “life,” or “vivification.”
While some of us think of spiritual revival as rare, it is actually common. You could even say it is ordinary. Revival occurs all the time, just like births (new life) and meals (re-newed life). Revival happens every minute, hour, day, week, month, and year. This is because God is always active in bringing life to people. Humans are brought to life when the Word is presented through the power of the Spirit. The Spirit and the Word will neither “sleep nor slumber” (Ps 121:3). If you want to bring revival, speak God’s words to people.2
God’s Word and revival
God’s Word is special because the Spirit of God is in God’s words. The exact number and arrangement of God’s words can vary, because the Holy Spirit makes those words meaningful and effective. God spoke through Paul to write,
I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 12:3 NASB)
When anyone at any time says the words “Jesus is Lord,” those words are meaningful, and revival is possible.
Martin Luther taught that only the Spirit of God truly teaches the Word of God:
No one can correctly understand God or his Word unless he has received such understanding immediately from the Holy Spirit. But no one can receive it from the Holy Spirit without experiencing, proving, and feeling it. In such experience the Holy Spirit instructs us as in his own school, outside of which nothing is learned but empty words and prattle.3
The meaningful words of the gospel can fall on deaf ears or eager ears because, as Luther says, the Holy Spirit controls their effectiveness.
The work of God arrives in human lives through the Holy Spirit, yet the normal operation of the Holy Spirit comes through humans speaking God’s Word, and thus, the gospel. Paul writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). If you want to see the Holy Spirit work in your ministry, speak God’s words to people.
Luther, again, has something to teach us on this point. Luther writes:
It’s decreed that the external word must be preached and come first. Once we have the word enter our ears and we grasp it with our heart, the Holy Spirit—the true schoolmaster—comes and gives the word power, so that it takes root. … And so we must honor the gospel and grant it this praise: that it is a means and way—just like a pipe—through which the Holy Spirit flows into and enters our hearts. 4
We preach the external word, the external gospel, anchored in the rule of faith, and after that, we let go because we do not know what will happen next. The Holy Spirit who “gives power to the Word” sets the internal work of God loose to bring life—to revive us. The words emerging from the lips of the evangelist, the external words, are just words; when the words are met by the Spirit a conduit forms through which words become the Word.
Some people might hesitate to accept such a broad definition of revival. This is because they are thinking of “evangelical revivals.” Evangelical revivals are the documentation of the synchronized regular work of the Holy Spirit. Revivals of this sort are only a feature of the church in the last three hundred years because of the documentation, gathering, and promotion of large-scale public preaching that began in what is generally called the First Great Awakening. Were the Holy Spirit and the Word of God dormant until the “First” Great Awakening? I think not.
Church historian Mark Noll explains that revivals are “intense periods of unusual response to gospel preaching linked with unusual efforts at godly living,” and that these revivals “marked the origin of a distinctly evangelical history.”5 This era was led by John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards.
Wesley’s words about revival were mostly in retrospect; the majority of his ministry was spent dutifully continuing the work of preaching and organizing Methodist societies far and wide within the Church of England. Whitefield, too, rarely spoke specifically about revival. The focus of Whitefield’s ministry was preaching the Bible to as many people as possible. Wesley and Whitefield both attested to surprising and unusual manifestations of God’s Spirit in their midst, but one of the most distinctive features of their ministries was the sheer number of people they encountered through their extensive ministerial travels and large gatherings. These circumstances allowed them to see more instances of the Word of God meeting the hearts of people than—perhaps—anyone who lived before them. This is one reason, among others, why it shouldn’t surprise us that they attested to a wide variety of responses to the preaching of the Word of God.
Edwards on revival
In 1738, Jonathan Edwards preached a series of sermons by which over 300 people were “savingly wrought upon,” and this movement of God’s Spirit spread to thirty-two other nearby communities. This wasn’t due to Edwards encountering more people, it happened amidst Edwards’s normal ministerial routines. Edwards authored three successive evaluations of revival in his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God (1741), and Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion (1742). Amidst these works, Edwards explains,
Scripture speaks of the Word of God as the principal means of carrying on God’s work. … All that is visible to the eye is unintelligible and vain without the Word of God to instruct and guide the mind.6
Edwards, thus, understood God’s Word to be the principal means of the revival in his midst.
Much of Edwards’s analysis of these events had to do with their reliability. Jonathan Edwards scholar C. C. Goen explains that “revivalism is a technique of mass evangelism, and as such is peculiarly adapted to producing the all-important conversion experience (or at least acceptable surrogates therefor) in great numbers.”7 Notice how the terms “revival” and “revivalism” take on slightly different meanings. The term “revivalism” describes techniques which seek to bring revival. Edwards was wary of techniques that attempted to manufacture inauthentic experiences of revival: much of his Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion addressed how to navigate these concerns. Edwards scholar Mark Rogers explains that Edwards was not against any and all means for revival, just those means that attempted to link cause and effect as if humans control God. Edwards encouraged three means: spreading the news of the revival, preaching the truth, and united prayer.8 Despite affirming these means for revival, if Edwards were alive a hundred years later, he certainly would have been very concerned by what he saw in the approach of Charles Finney.
Finney and revivalism
Charles Finney, sometimes called the father of modern revivalism, believed that a minister could control the work of God within a person. For him this process was scientific. He argued that revival “is a result we can logically expect from the right use of God-given means, as much as any other effect produced by applying tools and means.”9 He added,
There is a long-held belief that the task of furthering Christianity is not governed by ordinary rules of cause and effect. … No doctrine endangers the church more than this, and nothing is more absurd.”10
Finney formulated, mastered, and perpetuated the techniques of revivalism; he believed that if these tools were applied correctly, revival would result.
Finney imagines the Holy Spirit like a well-trained animal or a mathematical formula: he imagines a God who obeys our commands. But this is not how God works. John the Apostle writes,
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (Jn 1:12–13 NIV)
Receiving Christ and believing in his name—perennial focal points of revival and revivalism—is not a human decision. It is the decision of God. Faith and repentance are gifts from God. Jesus explains,
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (Jn 3:8 NIV)
Revival—the new life, or the re-newed life—that God gives “blows wherever it pleases.” No matter how much we desire it, revival is not under our control. When the Word of God is met by the Spirit of God, new life emerges. We control it not.
Revival through God’s Word
Many Christians are unsure of the significance of Jesus’s ascension. Jesus said to his disciplies, “It is for your good that I am going away” (Jn 16:7 NIV). When and why would it ever be good for Jesus to depart? Many Christians miss a key benefit of Christ’s departure. If Jesus was on earth today, imagine the enormous crowds gathered around him, the miles of people standing in lines to see him, the endless problems created, especially in the age of the internet and social media. The facilities managers at Asbury University have only the slightest taste of the scale and extent of these challenges.
Jesus explained that when he ascended he would send the Holy Spirit. Pentecost ushered in a new era. There are no lines to get “near” the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells inside of Christians, so we no longer need to make pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem (1 Cor 3:16). Further, Jesus promised that the Spirit would remind the apostles of everything he said to them (Jn 14:26). Some of us have the time and means to get in a car or hop on a plane to visit Asbury University, but we don’t need to. The Holy Spirit is always available, now, and everywhere.
Engaging the Word of God is the doorway to revival. Read it, memorize it, listen to it, share it, discuss it, pray it. This is something you can do. Then, at a time determined not by you but by the Spirit, God will work.
Rev. Zach Meerkreebs preached the chapel sermon on February 8, just prior to students gathering in prayer that marked the most recent revival at Asbury. He later told a reporter that he was certain his sermon had “totally whiffed,” and when he got off the stage, he texted his wife, “Latest stinker. I’ll be home soon.”11 So it is with God’s Word, bringing new and re-newed life to people. Meerkreebs opened the Word of God, delivered a “stinker” of a sermon, and God decided to revive his people. This can happen anywhere. This happens everywhere the Word of God and the Spirit of God come together.
Learn more from Sean McGever
Dr. McGever’s book on evangelism releases soon, but in the meantime, you can discover more of his books and courses below.
Born Again: The Evangelical Theology of Conversion in John Wesley and George Whitefield
Regular price: $21.99
Mobile Ed: ED209 Evangelical Conversion (2 hour course)
Regular price: $69.99
Mobile Ed: CH361 Evangelism in the Early Church (2 hour course)
Regular price: $69.99
Mobile Ed: ED281 Communicating to Youth (2.5 hour course)
Regular price: $93.99
Was this helpful?
- Tertullian, “Against Marcion,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, vol. 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 3:447–448.
- For more on this, see my upcoming book: Sean McGever, Evangelism: For the Care of Souls, ed. Harold L. Senkbeil (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2023).
- Martin Luther, “The Magnificat” (1521), Luther’s Works 21:299. See also Luther’s Small Catechism on article 3 of the Apostles’ Creed.
- Martin Luther, “Another Short Sermon on the Feast of Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth” (1527), in D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 73 vols. (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1883–2009), 17,2:460.3–6, 15–18.
- Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 15.
- Jonathan Edwards, The Great Awakening, ed. C. C. Goen, vol. 4, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1972), 240.
- Introduction by C. C. Goen: Edwards, 4:3.
- Mark Rogers, “Jonathan Edwards, Revival, and the Use of Means,” in Regeneration, Revival, and Creation: Religious Experience and the Purposes of God in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Chris Chun and Kyle Strobel (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2020), 160–61.
- Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revival, ed. L.G. Parkhurst (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1988), 13.
- Finney, 14.
- Olivia Reingold, “Why Students in Kentucky Have Been Praying for 250 Hours,” The Free People, February 19, 2023.