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Important distinctions must be maintained between true God-given revival and man-made revivalism—as capable writers are doing elsewhere in this issue. But because confusion on this entire subject is so rampant, we perhaps need to refine our vocabulary even further. The word revival means “coming to life again.” It speaks of something that, having once lived and then died, comes back to life. Whenever life comes for the first time, as it does to people who have never heard the Gospel, we might simply call it “vival.”
But when the church “dies,” so that it needs to “come to life again,” an important question must be asked and answered before we start praying for the resurrection power of revival. That question is: What caused the death? The last thing we want is the resurrection of a terminal patient. Lazarus was not raised from the dead so that he could get back into his death bed.
This means we must be careful to define all our terms, particularly terms such as life. True spiritual life (and health) can be restored only from the hand of God, and when He does so we have genuine revival. But in our situation, we need something more than simple revival.
For many, “evangelical” means someone who believes whatever it is he believes vigorously. To use a trivial example, if a minister waves his arms when he preaches, he must be an evangelical. If, after a time, such a preacher gets tired of waving his arms, he may stop doing it. When this happens, some invariably want him to go back to the older gesticulatory way of preaching, with a great deal of physical enthusiasm. If he starts to do so again, someone could certainly call it a revival. And it is a revival of a particular kind of physical activity. This kind of revival, whether or not it happens in the name of Christ, is what is happening in revivalism.
Over the course of church history, monastic renewal movements often had this kind of impetus. When young, any movement has vigor. Over time, that vigor dissipates, and so many connected with the movement look back at the old days longingly. What they want is a revival of that which they had before. But everything hinges on whether or not what they had before was any good.
Various monastic orders began amid this desire to address the lethargy that had overcome the older orders. If the Reformers had done only this, they would have fit right in with a general pattern long honored in the church. Thus, it would have been the “Protestant renewal,” taking its place alongside the Benedictine renewal. But the Reformation was not this kind of revival. It was radical in the sense that it went to the radix, the root of the matter. The root was the applied answer to a series of doctrinal questions, such as What is the Gospel? and What does the Bible define as true worship?
After a moment’s reflection, we would still conclude that the Reformation was, of course, a revival. Nevertheless, it strikes us as odd to describe it this way. It does not seem like our kind of revival, and, indeed, it was not our kind of revival at all. We have a marked tendency to heal the wounds of the people lightly, saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. We tend to think that stadium-sized displays of exuberance must be Spirit-given revival, and then, after everyone has worked out their various enthusiasms, everyone goes home. But in the Protestant Reformation, the result was convulsion across continents, wars, the conversion of kings, and an explosion of true worship established in many nations.
Simple revival is the need of a church that was fully orthodox but which waned. But a church that is doctrinally heretical or heterodox must have reformation before revival can be a blessing. Without reformation, revival would simply mean a return to an earlier form of zealous heresy or vigorous heterodoxy.
This is why an accurate diagnosis is important before we pray for modern evangelicalism to be blessed with revival. The assumption behind such a prayer is that modern evangelicalism is basically orthodox, needing only an infusion of spiritual zeal. But this is not our case at all. The modern evangelical movement in North America today is as confused on the basic issues of the Gospel and worship as the Roman Catholic church was prior to the Reformation. And this means that what is needed is reformation, and if God is not pleased to grant reformation, then we should beg Him not to send revival. In our condition, revival would be an additional judgment.
The need of the hour is reformation, reformation that will set the context for all subsequent, true revival. If God grants reformation, revival will come. But if we seek revival only, we are merely looking for more of what we have now, which is the last thing we need. From any such revival may God spare us.