Revival and the Sovereignty of God
[On Wednesday night, June 5, during the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, Ga., the entire evening was given to prayer for spiritual awakening. This article originally appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness in anticipation of that Convention prayer meeting. It is reprinted here by the author’s permission]
A call to prayer for revival may be a profound turning point in the spiritual lives of Southern Baptists. It could be a historical moment. But do we really know what we will be praying for in such an effort? What is the meaning of a spiritual awakening, or its historical equivalent–revival? That is the question!
Revival, particularly, is an ambiguous word in Southern Baptist life. Ideas range from the annual “vociferous preaching time the third week in April,” to the 1734 awakening in Northampton, Mass., when the dynamic ministry of Jonathan Edwards saw multitudes won to Christ in a matter of days. But a precise definition based on the Bible, and manifest in history, is vital if we are to pray and seek God intelligently.
A good description of a revival, or spiritual awakening, from a biblical and historical perspective is given by H. C. Fish:
Revivals, then, are seasons when Christians are waked to a more fervent prayer, and to more earnest endeavors to promote the cause of Christ and redemption; and consequent upon this, seasons when the impenitent are aroused to the concerns of the soul and the work of personal religion. They are times when the Spirit of the Lord again moves on the face of the waters, and the freshness and beauty of the new creature comes forth. Nature itself seems more full of God; the very words of Scripture seem thereby invested with a new light and glory and fullness and meaning. As Edwards says: “All things abroad — the sun, moon and stars, the heavens and the earth appear as it were with a cast of divine glory and sweetness upon them.”
Such a definition of revival or spiritual awakening immediately points up a most important and foundational truth. Real revival comes only from God. He alone is the fountainhead. A spiritual awakening cannot be scheduled, worked up or humanly engineered. If we are to experience a “refreshing time from the Lord,” it will be because God’s sovereign hour has arrived. God grants revival blessings when and where he pleases.
All history attests to this fundamental reality.
Why did God come down in power to the church in Northampton, Mass., in 1734 and touch the ministry of the brilliant Jonathan Edwards to spawn America’s “First Great Awakening?” Because God chose to do so!
Why did our Lord reach down to a little Bible study group of Moravian brethren meeting on London’s Aldersgate Street in 1738 and transform John Wesley, who then was used by the Holy Spirit to birth the 18th-century revival in England? Because God chose to do so!
Why did the Holy Spirit come mightily on Barton Stone in 1801 at the Cane Ridge Meeting House in Bourbon County, Ky., that July weekend and explode into America’s “Second Great Awakening,” which wove the deep south “Bible Belt?” Because God chose to do so!
Similar historical accounts of awakenings can be repeated almost endlessly, recalling God’s sovereign mercies in revival power. But why does he move as he does? Why does God act in such a manner? There is no final human explanation of why God moves when, where and how he does to grace us with revival blessings, only that in his sovereign love he does. Therefore be done with what has been called “evangelical humanism.” We must rest in God’s sovereign grace and wisdom alone.
Of course, it is true that God pours out his Holy Spirit on his people in free grace because they need a fresh touch. Without revival times the church inevitably strays away from the cross and grows cold, slipping into the Laodicean Syndrome. There is that much explanation. But the when, where and how of revival rests in God’s sovereignty.
Yet, God never works in a vacuum. He always uses his people in spiritual awakenings. That leaves us with the inevitable paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But even that paradox means there are things we are to do if God is to bless in revival. Responsibly seeking revival should never be de-emphasized.
Nonetheless, we must view God as the sole source of all awakening grace, prostrate ourselves at his feet and simply trust him for sovereign mercies. If we do that, it just could be God will bless us with that “one divine moment” when it will be said, “God revived his people.” Let us seek him to that divine end.
May we earnestly, humbly and in resignation cry out with the Psalmist: “Wilt thou not revive us again; that thy people may rejoice in thee? Show us thy mercy, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation” (Ps. 85:6-7). It just may be this is God’s sovereign hour.