Home Columnist Revival—God’s Sovereignty or Our Responsibility?

Revival—God’s Sovereignty or Our Responsibility?

by Church Times


Dr. Gary S. Maxey on Revival

“Will You not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in You?” (Psalm 85:6)


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“Revival is men and women on fire for God.” (John Wesley)


In my last column I gave this definition of revival:


Biblical revival is a spontaneous spiritual awakening by the Holy Spirit among professing Christians that is preceded by a deepening sense of spiritual need and conviction for sin and by earnest prayer, and that results in repentance, restitution, reconciliation, a deepened spiritual experience, holy living, evangelism and missions


As we can see, there are certain things that precede genuine revival; there are some things that accompany it; and there are other things that follow. We must never forget that prayer, a deep sense of need and conviction for sin always precede genuine revivals. Repentance, restitution and reconciliation always accompany genuine revivals. And deepened spiritual experience, holy living, evangelism and missions always follow genuine revivals.


I also noted that genuine revivals are not man-made, but are rather “a spontaneous spiritual awakening by the Holy Spirit.” That raises the question we must now consider. What actually brings about revivals? Are revivals solely determined and brought about by sovereign movements of the Holy Spirit, or is there human responsibility that must be undertaken before revival comes?


This is an important question. Great churchmen and revivalists of the past have not always agreed on the answer to this question. At least at first glance they appear to be in a rather sharp disagreement. For example, the great pastor and revivalist of Eighteenth-Century New England, Jonathan Edwards, believed revivals are completely sovereign, unexplainable and surprising visitations of God upon his people. For him any genuine revival is always a surprising thing.


This same Jonathan Edwards is best known for the most famous sermon in American history, entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards was pastoring the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts, when a mighty revival broke out and continued over a three-year period. Though the town was rather small, many hundreds of people turned to God in repentance. Two years later Edwards wrote a report of the revival. Very tellingly, he entitled his report, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton.”


For Edwards revivals were always surprising, because in his understanding they were the sudden and unexplainable appearance of God, pouring water on dry ground. Especially with his strong Reformed theology, Edwards was convinced that God and God alone could determine when and where to send revival. Man’s part was therefore only to respond.


One hundred years later another great revivalist, Charles G. Finney, held a very different view. Finney has been called the “Father of Modern Revivalism.” As a young attorney in upstate New York, he experienced a very dramatic conversion to Christ in 1821. Over the next fifteen years he travelled extensively, popularizing “new measures” designed to promote revival. Unlike before, women were allowed to pray in mixed public meetings. He adopted the Methodist use of the “anxious bench.” This was a bench was placed at the front of the church for those who were seeking salvation. He also prayed using common, colloquial language. Finney was especially heralded for a great city-wide revival in Rochester, New York, where he preached ninety-eight sermons to many thousands of people in late 1830 and early 1831, resulting in mass conversions and a sharp decline in crime.


Unlike Edwards, Finney believed that revivals come as the result of humans accepting God’s promises and fulfilling their own part of God’s revival covenant. His short definition said it clearly: “A revival is nothing else than a new beginning of obedience to God.” According to Finney, God has laid down certain conditions in His covenant, and when those conditions are obediently met revival must and will come. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is an example of God’s revival covenant:


If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.


The question we must now ask is, who is right? Is it Jonathan Edwards—that revivals are totally unpredictable, extraordinary and sovereign acts of God? Or is it Charles Finney—that revivals are conditioned on human response and human obedience to God? Where should we take our stand?


I believe the answer is that both of these men were correct. Divine truth lies on both sides, and to deny either one is to miss the mark. We must not deny that there is something truly mysterious about great revivals. Sometimes there is no human explanation as to why revival comes in one place and not in another. It is hard to deny the fact that sincere prayers can be offered for months and even years with no visible results. At other times genuine revivals seem to break out preceded by much less praying and expectation. Revivals are mysterious. God is sovereign in the instruments He uses for revival, in the timing of revivals, and where they break out. They can break out in a worldly and wicked Roman Catholic city under the godly preaching of a Dominican friar such as Savonarola in Fifteenth-Century Florence, Italy. Or they can break out under the impulse of lay-led prayer meetings as happened in hundreds of American cities in the Prayer Meeting Revival of 1858.


Yet at the same time we can see that the word of God does not eliminate human responsibility and human instrumentality. God is still yearning and seeking for men and women who will obey Him, just as he said to Ezekiel more than 2,500 years ago. (Ezekiel 22:30). He is still calling out as He did to Isaiah 100 years later, “Whom shall I send?” Our conduct in prayer, in obedience, in humility, and in turning from sin may not be the direct causes of revival yet they nevertheless play an important part in the fulfilment of God’s revival covenant.


One thing sure is that the Spirit of God will not easily fall on people who are spiritually asleep, who are not earnestly praying, and who are unaware of any spiritual need. Genuine revivals are always preceded by a growing sense of need. The cheap triumphalism we often see in our modern churches is a revival killer. Yet God is more than willing and ready to send down revival. Let’s not give up. God’s revival covenant is for us today. Hallelujah!


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