Important distinctions must always be maintained between true God-given revival and man-made revivalism – as capable writers are doing elsewhere in this issue. But at the same time, confusion on this entire subject is so rampant that we perhaps need to refine our vocabulary even further than this.
Revival means "coming to life again." Something that was previously alive died, and then came to life again. (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 is in need of revival, an important question must be asked and answered before we start praying for the resurrection power of revival. And that is, what caused the death in the first place? The last thing we want is the resurrection of a terminal patient. Lazarus was not raised from the dead so that he could go back to the house with Mary and Martha in order to get back into his death bed. He was raised to life, and this was not in order to return to his final sickness.
This means we must be careful to define all our terms, particularly terms like "life." If we are referring to true spiritual life (and health), then it can only be restored from the hand of God, and what is happening is genuine revival. But in our situation, this would necessitate something more than simple revival. For many, evangelical means someone who believes whatever it is he believes vigorously. For a trivial example, if he waves his arms when he preaches, he must be an evangelical. If, after a time, such preachers get tired of waving their arms, they sometimes stop it. And when this happens, there are those who want them to go back to the older gesticulatory way of preaching, with a great deal of physical enthusiasm. If they start to do so, someone could certainly call this a revival. And so 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. Any movement when young usually 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 of course, everything hinges on whether or not what they had before was any good or not. Various monastic orders had their beginning this way – they wanted to address the lethargy which had overcome the older monastic orders. If the Protestant reformers had done only this, they would have fit right in with a general pattern, long honored in the church. 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 – what is the gospel? What does the Bible define as true worship?
After a moment’s reflection, we should still conclude that the Protestant reformation was of course a revival. But this way of putting it nevertheless strikes us as odd. It does not seem like our kind of revival, and that is right. It was not our kind of revival at all. We have a marked tendency to heal the wound of the people lightly, saying peace, peace, when there is no peace. We tend to think that stadium-filled displays of exuberance must be a 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, true worship established in many nations, the conversion of kings, and an explosion of true and purified worship.
Simple revival is what would happen to a church that was fully orthodox, but which for some reason has become moribund. But a church that is doctrinally heretical or heterodox must have reformation before revival could possibly be a blessing. Without reformation, revival would simply mean a return to an earlier form of zealous heresy or vigorous heterodoxy.
And this is why an accurate diagnosis is important before we pray for modern evangelicalism to be blessed with revival. The assumption underneath such a prayer is that modern evangelicalism is basically orthodox, and just needs 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 that reformation, then we should beg Him to not send revival. In our current condition, revival would only be an additional judgment.
So 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.