This article is derived from chapter 11 of Eddie’s latest book, REVIVAL FIRE: Discerning Between the True & the False, available on Amazon and at www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.
Revival is nothing more or less than a return to the Christianity of the New Testament. I once did a computer search of the word “revival” in John Wesley’s Journal. I only found four places where Wesley had used the word and he used it only in reference to the “revival” of the faith of certain individuals and the “revival” of Biblical Christianity in a certain community. Wesley did not call the powerful move of God that was occurring in his day a “revival,” but considered the movement he was leading to be a return to “primitive Christianity.”
Indeed, prior to the 19th Century, the word “revival” was rarely used, and when it was used, it normally referred, as in Wesley’s Journal, to the revitalization of one’s personal faith in Jesus or the revitalization of the faith of a church or a community. These “revivals,” as we call them, were usually led by ministers, such as Wesley, Edwards, and Whitefield, who, from their diligent search of Scripture, saw that the church of their day had veered from the Biblical pattern. To remedy the situation, they did not seek or pursue something called “revival.” Instead, they sought to recover the faith and dynamism of New Testament Christianity. They did not consider themselves “revivalists,” but merely ministers of the gospel seeking to preach and practice New Testament Christianity.
A Shift Begins with Charles Finney
A shift began with Charles Finney, who faced the deadening tenets of the hyper-Calvinism permeating the 19th Century American church. Hyper-Calvinism is a theological system that emphasizes the sovereignty of God to the extreme, purporting that God has already determined from all eternity who will be saved and who will be damned. Finney tells how pastors of his day would tell concerned inquirers to go home and pray and read their Bible, and if they were one of the elect they would be saved, but if they were not one of the elect, there was nothing anyone could do. In this system of thought, revival was seen as a sovereign work of God totally separate from any human means or instrumentality.
Finney responded by rightfully emphasizing human responsibility in salvation and in all relations with God. He denied that humanity was unable to respond to the demands of the Gospel, as the hyper-Calvinists taught, and he provoked much opposition and controversy when he began calling on those to stand who were ready to submit their lives to the claims of Christ. Trained as a lawyer, he considered himself called to argue God’s case before an unbelieving world. His messages, very logical and backed by much prayer, powerfully impacted his audiences.
In reaction to the Calvinistic notion that a revival is entirely a sovereign work of God, Finney, in the early days of his ministry, declared that a revival was no more a miracle than a crop of wheat. He pointed out that if a farmer used the proper means, including plowing, planting, and watering, then his desire for a harvest would be realized. For a farmer to pray for a harvest without using the proper means would be foolish. In the same way, argued Finney, revival will always occur when the proper means are employed. He thus made revival an objective and goal to be sought and obtained by using the proper means.
Finney Opens to Door to Professional Revivalism
The means Finney emphasized for a revival were private and public prayer, protracted meetings, pointed preaching, and personal witnessing. He was probably the first to use the word “revival” on a regular basis and as an objective that Christians should pursue. In this sense, Finney became the first professional evangelist or revivalist. Producing revival was his vocation. Other revivalists, lacking his gifts and commitment to truth, soon followed suit.
Finney’s emphasis on human responsibility opened the door for revival to be seen as a human enterprise. As others picked up his concepts and ran with them, God’s sovereign grace and choice in pouring out His Spirit was diminished, and human responsibility and ability to create “revival” were highlighted.
This opened the door for all sorts of questionable means being employed to produce revival. Since the success of the professional revivalist hinged on human ability to create an emotional and exciting religious event, revivals became increasingly shallow. Instead of being the result of the Holy Spirit’s working through the Word of God to convict and to change lives, “revivals” often were simply the creation of individuals who were adept at stirring and manipulating people’s emotions. In other words, “strange fire” was brought into the sanctuary of God in the name of “revival.”
R. A. Torrey, (1856-1928), an associate of D. L. Moody (1837-1899) and a successful revivalist himself, came on the scene a generation after Finney. He lamented,
We frequently have religious excitements and enthusiasms gotten up by the cunning methods and hypnotic influence of the mere professional evangelist or “revivalist,” but these are not Revivals, and are not needed: they are a curse and not a blessing; they are the devil’s imitations of a Revival.[i]
“Revival” Must Never Become an End or Goal
Biblical revival is a co-operation between the human and the Divine. In his later years, Finney acknowledged that he had put too much emphasis on human ability to produce revival. This had led to the erroneous notion that by employing certain means, one could produce a revival at the time and place of his choosing. Finney, in fact, saw so many people “backslide from a revival state,” that he began to question if there was not something higher and more stable that Christians should pursue.[ii]
The “backsliding,” Finney observed, was the bad fruit of making “revival” an end or goal to be obtained. The only legitimate end or goal for every Christian is Jesus Christ and conformity to His will. Romans 8:29 says, For whom He did foreknow, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. Genuine, heaven-sent revival will always have Jesus Christ as its end or goal. If revival itself becomes the end, then bad fruit, as Finney discovered, will be the result.
Professional Revivalism in the 21st Century
Professional revivalism may be a greater problem in our century than it was in previous times. This is because the hyper-Arminian mindset (overemphasizing human ability) that emerged out of Finney’s theology has been coupled with the influences of an entertainment-driven culture and a personal success orientation. As a result, little value is placed on repentance, prayer, and waiting on God for a sovereign outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Instead, attention is given to what can be done on a human level to draw crowds and stir excitement. Challenging us regarding this, Duncan Campbell (1898-1972), the Welsh preacher whom God used in the mighty revival on the Hebrides Islands (1949-1952), writes,
We have seen crowded churches. We have seen many professions. We have seen hundreds, yes, and thousands responding to what you speak of here as the altar call. But, I want to say this, dear people, and I say it without fear of contradiction, that you can have all that . . . without God! Now, that may startle you, but I say again, you can have all that . . . on mere human levels.[iii]
In the sort of egocentric milieu that has emerged in American Christianity, revival too often is the product of a charismatic leader who knows how to control a crowd and generate excitement. Exciting promo, exaggerated claims, manipulative sermons, and flamboyant antics are used to stir the emotions of the masses and create a “revival.” In such an event, the Word of God is preempted by Christian entertainment or by testimonies of exciting “spiritual” experiences.
This approach, coupled with the neglect of Scripture, has dire consequences. “Strange fire” inevitably becomes a part of the mix. Individual casualties and tragedy are commonly the result. Such revivals tend either to drag on in pursuit of increasingly bizarre practices or to collapse under the weight of their own sin and neglect of Biblical truth.
This Generation Needs to See
a Heaven-Sent Revival
What, then, is the safeguard? In our day, we must reclaim the Word of God as central in all we say and do. This generation desperately needs to see the power and purity of a Biblical Revival. Torrey’s comment about the state of revivalism in his day rings true for the 21st century Church.
The most fundamental trouble with most of our present-day, so called revivals is, that they are man-made and not God sent. They are worked up (I almost said faked up) by man’s cunningly devised machinery—not prayed down.[iv]
Our God is the sovereign Lord, not only of this universe, but also of revival. If the Church in Finney’s day was guilty of not taking their responsibility for revival, the modern charismatic church has gone to the other extreme and made revival a mere human enterprise. It is time for the North American church to repent of this sin and be converted that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19). It is time for genuine Revival Fire.
[i] R. A. Torrey, The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1924), 228.
[ii] Charles Finney, An Autobiography, (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1908), 340.
[iii] Duncan Campbell, The Nature of A God Sent Revival (Euless, TX: Successful Christian Living Ministries, n.d.) 11-12.
[iv][iv] Torrey, The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power, 62.