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We all know that revival bears fruit in the lives of God’s people and His church. But does a true God-sent revival affect the wider culture as well?
Revival is a sovereign work of God by His Spirit that exalts the Lord Jesus Christ, breathes life into the church, and leads to the conversion and transformation of large numbers of people. It is not an evangelistic campaign or a special meeting orchestrated by men. God always initiates true revival, and it is sustained and controlled by Him. But this is not to suggest that Christians have nothing whatsoever to do with revival. It sometimes comes unsought and unexpected, but God quite often causes some of His people to perceive the widespread spiritual declension and powerlessness of the church, then moves them to pray for His gracious intervention, which He is pleased to grant in revival.
In revival, God anoints His people with His Spirit. He grants to them “times of refreshing” from His presence (Acts 3:19). The church and its ministers are empowered by the Spirit of God to speak His word with boldness (Acts 4:31). As a result, large numbers of people are converted to Christ and added to the church. And, at the same time, whole communities are made aware of the presence of God.
It should be emphasized that revival is not essentially different from the Holy Spirit’s normal work. It is the Spirit of God who effectually calls, regenerates, and grants saving faith in Christ to sinners through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is also the Spirit of God who continues to sanctify believers, conforming them to the image of Christ. In times of revival, these activities of the Spirit are intensified to a greater measure and degree. We may say that revival is an extraordinary manifestation of the Spirit producing a deeper degree of life in the church and a widespread display of His saving grace to sinners.
But what effects does a revival have, if any, upon a community and its culture? What would a “revived” culture look like?
The Scriptures define all communities of people and cultures without God and Christ as steeped in “ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). Although God has revealed a measure of His eternal power and person, men professing to be wise have become fools, exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever (Rom. 1:19–25). This verdict is as true of an increasing number of people in the West as it is of those who live in parts of the world where the Christian faith is overshadowed by other religions. The West that knew so much of the mercies of God has, by and large, turned away from Him. People have turned to their own way. Rejecting the revealed knowledge of God, men have turned to society and its prevailing culture as that which determines moral standards. Others have made self the determining factor of what is right and wrong. This is nothing new, as the book of Judges declares: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6). Once people reject any notion of a moral lawgiver and lose all sense of accountability, what follows is a kind of perverted freedom to do just as each person pleases.
In our own time, the emphasis on spirituality is pagan at heart. Although more than 90 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, the God they believe in is one whom they have customized to their own liking. Each time the Pledge of Allegiance is recited in the public square and people declare that we are “one nation under God,” the question needs to be asked: “Which God are we under?” Our currency bears the words “In God we trust,” but who is this God in whom we are supposed to trust? The answers will show that the God so many profess is not the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture. Even the God confessed and worshiped in many churches is not always the living and true God of the Bible.
The inevitable outcome of “ungodliness” is “unrighteousness.” In Romans 1:18, the apostle Paul teaches us that God has revealed His wrath from heaven against all “ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” He then goes on to give us examples of how God’s wrath is revealed. Paul uses the expressions “God gave them up” and “God gave them over” (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). This means that as men refuse to honor God, He gives them over to dishonor themselves. It means that even as men and women choose depravity, God gives them over to commit acts that are depraved and degrading.
Romans 1 gives us a perfect explanation of the state of our world, and particularly of our Western American world and its culture. In the last three or four decades, the United States has taken the lead in the world in the production and promotion of pornography. Militant homosexuality has risen. Abortion, violence, the breakdown of the family, divorce, and the suppression of Christian truth have reached alarming levels. I am not suggesting that there is nothing good and beneficial in the world or in the United States. Americans and other Westerners continue to enjoy the freedom to worship and to read the Bible without fear of persecution. How we ought to thank God and make the most of this blessing. But generally, our society and culture are mired in godlessness and wickedness.
However, a God-ordained revival can bring change even to such a culture. In seasons of revival, God sends His Spirit to revive His church and to draw multitudes to Biblical faith in Christ. Historically, God seems to delight to do so when things look darkest. The church has known periods of spiritual declension and ineffectiveness in times past. In such times, when men have lost all inclinations and the resources to bring change, God has stepped in, transforming whole communities of people and the prevailing culture. Where “ungodliness” was once dominant, the people have been made aware of God’s holy presence and multitudes have been brought to fear Him. Where “unrighteousness” was the order of the day, sin has been held in check and holiness has characterized a community. In fact, it used to be said that in times of revival a bag of gold could be left out on the street and no one would attempt to help himself to it.
Jonathan Edwards provides a graphic example of the change revival can bring to a culture. He tells us that prior to the revival in Northampton, Mass., the stirrings of which began about 1733, the townspeople were “very insensible of the things of religion, and engaged in other cares and pursuits.” The youth were given to licentiousness, frequenting the taverns and engaging in lewd acts. But by the spring of 1735, “the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.” The youth, when they met together, spent time talking of “the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ, the glory of the way of salvation, the wonderful, free, and sovereign grace of God, His glorious work in the conversion of a soul, the truth and certainty of the great things of God’s word, the sweetness of the views of his perfections, etc.” (Edwards, Works, Volume 1, p. 348).
If we would see similar change in our culture, we must look to God, who alone can transform nations and cultures. Unfortunately, many professing believers today are seeking to bring about change politically. I am not suggesting that Christians should not be involved in politics, but I am saying that if we look to politicians and political actions as the way of deliverance, our efforts are doomed to failure. The teaching of Scripture and the long history of the church, and especially those periods when God was pleased to come down and revive His people, stand as testimonies to what God has done and can do yet again through His church, not through the government.
Revival, then, is an extraordinary manifestation of the coming of God’s kingdom in power and the doing of His will on earth as it is in heaven. May our sovereign Lord be pleased to move many of His people to pray and may He graciously grant us to know an outpouring of His Spirit in revival, to the glory of His blessed name. Until then, the church must keep on preaching God’s Word in season and out of season, and she must keep pleading with God for a gracious effusion of His Spirit.