When Revival Happens to Someone Else
Iain Murray describes biblical revival as consisting of “…a larger giving of God’s Spirit for the making known of Christ’s glory… a sense of God… not only in conviction of sin but equally in the bewildered amazement of Christians at the consciousness of the Lord who is in their midst" (Revival & Revivalism, p. 30). Revival is not a constant reality in church history or in the life of any specific congregation. Rather, it is descriptive of those extraordinary times when the Lord is pleased to pour out a greater abundance of saving grace, resulting in a greater zeal for Kingdom priorities and a vital spirituality characterizing the people of God. It is a time of unique energy and vigor regarding gospel labors, and of unique blessing from the Lord in those pursuits.
All churches would love to see such things become a reality in their own midst. Who would dare to say that they would not want the Lord to pour out such grace, to act in mighty ways to save sinners, to animate and revitalize His people? The desire for such blessing need not mean a depreciation of the normal, plodding rhythms of ministry and the ordinary means of grace. Indeed, Biblical revival is not a circumventing of normal ministry activities; it is a fresh and dynamic outpouring of grace through those very same means.
It is true that some people take revival and do unbiblical things with the concept. In fact, much of Murray’s book is given over to distinguishing the difference between true God given revival and man’s foolish attempts to manufacture an outpouring of the Spirit- a pursuit he labels as revivalism. To the historically minded, terms like revival sometimes evoke negative associations like Charles Finney’s anxious bench (a forerunner of the more modern altar call), and to the broader culture it often takes on a garish tent-huckster ethos, but we should never let other people’s errors define our practice. None of these abuses are the fault of authentic revival. And so quite aware of the dangers of a false and manufactured show of dramatic piety, even solidly Reformed men do say, "Lord, if it pleases you, send revival in our midst!”
But what about when you pray for revival and it comes…but to someone else? What are we to think of extraordinary measures of grace that God seems to pour out on others, while He seems pleased to withhold it from us? What am I to think of my neighbor’s revival?
To that question I offer three responses.
1. Avoid the temptation to adopt an elitist “narrow way” cynicism.
The present reality is that the Kingdom of God on earth is fractured into a multitude of church denominations, sects, movements, and coalitions. At this stage in church history, no matter what segment of evangelical Christianity you call home, there are always more people outside your circle than inside of it. No one group has the majority. What that means is that God is always doing more outside your narrow context than inside of it. This conclusion is unavoidable, unless you want to say that only your own theological and ecclesiastic tradition is truly the place that God is pleased to work.
We’d rarely say that out loud, but I fear that sometimes we do think that way. It comes out when we adopt a “narrow way” cynicism regarding revival in other denominations or movements (cf. Matt. 7:13–14). When we assign to apparent revival in other quarters a “broad way” condemnation because of the various ways they aren’t like us and therefore aren’t faithful to God’s Word and therefore couldn’t possibly be enjoying his blessing while we aren’t, don’t we betray the cynical elitism in our hearts?
Let’s not do that. When our Christian brothers and sisters in other denominational contexts see real blessing from God on their labors, let’s not let our various disagreements with them over doctrine and practice prevent us from recognizing the true work of God in their midst. Let’s not betray a belief that if God isn’t blessing us (or those most incredibly like us) whatever we are seeing must be a mere mirage of revival. Being different from us doesn’t put another group beyond the reach of God’s blessing anymore than it puts them beyond the reach of His grace. This of course doesn’t apply to those who hold to outright heretical views--I’m not talking about that. But not all doctrinal disagreements are heretical. There are a multitude of second tier issues which Christians will always disagree on. Are we really ready to say that those who we disagree with over Baptism, or the exact role of the Law, or the precise nature of the Spiritual gifts or many other issues we rightly make distinctions over are so far gone that we can’t grant to them the genuine blessing and favor of the Lord? Do we really want to say with our dismissive attitudes that we are the only ones who are deserving of His favor?
2. Avoid the temptation to adopt a shallow imitation of the latest new thing.
It is one thing to humble acknowledge the work of God in other contexts, it is a different thing to try and imitate whatever latest fads seem to be associated with that revival. I use the word “fad” not necessarily to denigrate, but rather because it is an accurate description of evangelical patterns. There is always some latest new thing. Sometimes it has value, sometimes it doesn’t. The test is God’s unchanging Word.
Sometimes two churches adopt identical strategies and have leadership that is practically interchangeable, but God grants revival to one while the other simply plods on without seeing extraordinary things in their midst. Maybe they even see trial and struggle. God is pleased to work when and where He chooses. It’s not necessarily a stamp of divine approval or disapproval on either one.
It would be a mistake to assume that because God is pleased to work in diverse segments of the Kingdom, that the distinctions between those segments are irrelevant. It would be a mistake to depreciate doctrinal precision on that count. We can humbly recognize God at work in a context which our own Biblical convictions do not allow us to participate in. Doing so does not make us compromisers; it merely keeps us chaste in our appraisals of our own achievements and humbly aware that we are never indispensable to the God who is actually the one building His Church. Almost as bad as letting our doctrinal disagreements prevent us from thanking God for His work among other sorts of Christians would be to on that count dismiss or diminish the importance of taking those open and firm doctrinal stands.
3. Seek first the Kingdom of God.
Maybe the issue is that we spend too much time looking around horizontally, period. Maybe we need to reevaluate the value of our horizontal evaluations. Maybe rather than correcting those outside our circles so often, we should be more concerned with working out actual gospel ministry in the doctrinal and traditional context to which we are committed. Maybe we need to think about what we are truly seeking first, our own glory or that of the Lord?
This might sound preachy… but I am a preacher, so go figure. To be clear, I’m preaching to myself as much as anyone else. I want to be the sort of Christian who can rejoice whenever and wherever the gospel is proclaimed and people are being reached. I don’t think I have to give up an inch of theological or doctrinal conviction to do that. But I do think I have to give up some pride.
May God send us true revival, and if He sends it to others instead, may He send it all the more!
Nicolas Alford is an ordained minister and graduate of Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has served as a pastor and teacher in various contexts. He is the author of Doxology: How Worship Works (Free Grace Press, 2017) and co-author of In Praise of Old Guys (Wrath & Grace Publishing, 2018).
"Revival and Revivalism," a lecture series by Iain Murray
"Edwards on Testing True Revival" by Jacob Tanner
"Revival and Revivalism," review by James Rich
"Time on Our Hands" by Megan Taylor
"The Spirit of Revival" by Richard Phillips
Note: This article was originally published on Place for Truth in January 2018.