By David Feddes
David Morgan was an ordinary person. He worked as a carpenter for a number of years and eventually became a preacher. He was devoted to Jesus, but his education was limited, and he had less speaking ability than most preachers.
One night David Morgan went to a gathering of fellow Christians. He was deeply stirred there, but soon it was time to go home and go to bed. Morgan later told a friend, “I went to bed that night as usual—David Morgan. But when I woke up the next morning, I realized I was a different man. I felt like a lion, I felt great power.”
For the next two years David Morgan preached with astonishing power and effectiveness. A change swept across churches and communities in Morgan’s homeland of Wales. Lives were dramatically transformed. Faith in Christ spread like wildfire. This was the great Welsh revival of 1859. Many other people made an impact, but the man God used above all others was David Morgan, the ordinary man who became a lion overnight.
Then, suddenly, the lion became a man again. “One night I went to bed,” said Morgan, “filled with this power that had accompanied me for two years. I woke up the next morning and found that I was David Morgan once again.” He remained a faithful preacher and Christian for the remaining fifteen years of his life, but he no longer had that unusual, extraordinary power which had accompanied him during the period of the revival.
What is Revival?
What is revival? It is what happens when God pours out the life and power of his Holy Spirit in ways that go beyond his ordinary ways of working. God’s Spirit is present at all times in the life of every Christian and every faithful congregation, but in times of revival, he makes his presence felt in a direct and extraordinary way. When the Spirit comes with power on Christians, they don’t just believe by faith that God is with them; they actually sense God’s presence right there among them.
In revival a preacher who has faithfully proclaimed the Bible’s message for years without much impact may start speaking with awesome authority. Those who hear him sense that it’s not just a preacher speaking but the voice of the Lord himself. In revival church members who have had a hard time praying for more than a minute or two may suddenly pour out their souls at great length and sense that their prayers are being prompted by God’s own Spirit. In revival people who aren’t yet Christians, people who may have considered the church boring, find that they can no longer ignore the church. Their attention is gripped by what’s happening, and many are moved to repent of their sins and put their faith in Jesus.
John Livingstone was a solid preacher in the Church of Scotland. He generally did a good job of studying the Bible and teaching its truth to people. On June 21, 1630, in a place called Kirk-o’-Shotts, he was preaching a sermon and was nearing the conclusion. He was planning to end with a brief application, but something took hold of him, and he went on for another hour. As he spoke, amazing things were happening. People were falling to the ground, weeping with sorrow for their sin and crying tears of joy at God’s love. At least five hundred people were converted as a result of that one sermon. This doesn’t mean they raised their hands or came forward at the end. No, their lives were truly changed and remained changed. They joined the church and remained part of the church. Never before had a sermon of Livingstone had such an effect, and never after did his preaching have such power. This doesn’t mean his other sermons were bad or useless. God also works in smaller, hidden ways through many ordinary sermons. But in revival the Holy Spirit may choose to do more in one day and in one sermon than the rest of a preacher’s entire ministry could accomplish.
Revival is an outpouring of God’s Spirit which occurs when God chooses, where God chooses, for as long as God chooses. The extraordinary work may take place in one day, or last a few years, or be extended over a span of several decades. Revival may transform a single congregation or sweep entire nations. It all depends on the Holy Spirit.
Revival is not something that can be planned and carried out by human methods. There is a great difference between real revival and revivalism. Revivalism depends on human methods; revival depends on God’s power. Revivalism deliberately works up people’s emotions through music and other means of manipulation, and it pressures people to make an immediate, visible response. Genuine revival stirs the heart and moves the emotions, but it is not planned or produced by people; it is something God does.
Some years ago revival came to Africans in the Congo, and a certain preacher learned the difference between revival and revivalism. He had been using various revivalistic methods: telling tear-jerker stories, using music to create a mood, issuing long altar calls trying to make people come forward in impressive numbers. But he saw little response and little lasting effect in the lives of the people. Then the Holy Spirit came in power, and suddenly people came flocking to Christ. The preacher said, “There I had been preaching for twenty years in that area and pleading with people to decide for Christ at the end of the meetings, trying to persuade them to come forward and I was not succeeding. But then this came, this happened and now there was no need to ask them to come forward.” The Holy Spirit can achieve more in one day of true revival than we can accomplish in twenty years of manipulative, revivalistic methods.
It’s a mistake for Christians to be so eager for revival that we try to produce it through our own efforts, but it’s also a mistake to assume that revival is only a thing of the past or just a matter of unstable people getting emotionally carried away. We should always be eager for the Holy Spirit to empower us as individuals and for him to make his mighty presence felt in ways that the church and the surrounding world can’t ignore.
Pentecost and Beyond
The church of Jesus Christ burst on the scene in New Testament times on a wave of powerful outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and many of the church’s greatest advances since then have occurred in special times of blessing from the Holy Spirit. The first flood of the Holy Spirit among the early Christians came on the day of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus ascended to heaven. On Pentecost the Spirit came with signs people could hear and see: the sound of a rushing wind and the sight of tongues of fire resting on each of Jesus’ followers. The disciples were enabled to praise God and declare his wonders in other languages.
When the onlookers wondered what was happening, the apostle Peter explained that this was the outpouring of God’s Spirit which had been prophesied long ago and that Jesus himself was making it happen. Peter declared, “Exalted to the right hand of God, Jesus has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33).
Many in the audience had been skeptical about Christ, and some had taken part in the killing of Jesus, but now they were cut to heart. They repented of their evil, and about three thousand people accepted Peter’s message and were baptized.
Pentecost was the initial outpouring of the Spirit, but it was not the only outpouring. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Bible speaks again and again of how the Holy Spirit filled people afresh to meet special challenges and how the church flourished and grew by leaps and bounds. As Acts 9:31 puts it, the church “was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.” Even when opposition arose, “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52).
The only way to understand the events described in the New Testament and the explosive growth of the early church is to see that these things took place under extraordinary blessing from the Holy Spirit—and the only way the church can have that kind of power and vitality today is through fresh outpourings of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit has done such things in many times and places. We should be eager for him to do them here and now.
Christian scholar and author J.I. Packer says that revival is marked by “an awesome sense of the presence of God and the truth of the gospel; a profound awareness of sin, leading to deep repentance and heartfelt embrace of the glorified, loving, pardoning Christ; an uninhibited witness to the power and glory of Christ, with a mighty freedom of speech expressing a mighty freedom of spirit; joy in the Lord, love for his people, and fear of sinning; and from God’s side an intensifying and speeding-up of the work of grace so that men are struck down by the word and transformed by the Spirit in short order.” There can be personal revival without others being similarly touched, but usually the word revival is used for a more widespread work of God that touches many in a church, college campus, community or nation.
Awakening and Anointing
Sometimes it may seem that spiritual life is almost nowhere to be found in a congregation or student body or country, but then God’s Spirit does things beyond all expectation. At Yale University in the late 1700s, the college church was “almost extinct,” according to one observer. Hardly anyone professed to be a Christian: one freshman, not a single sophomore, one junior, and just a handful of seniors—that was all who professed to be Christians. But in 1802 there came a change “with such power as had never been witnessed within those walls before,” said someone who was a student at the time. “It was like a mighty rushing wind. The whole college was shaken.” About a third of the students were converted and joined the church, and a significant number became preachers of the gospel. Something similar happened a few years later at Princeton, with an even greater portion of the students coming to Christ.
These campus revivals occurred during what historians call the Second Great Awakening, one of the most widespread, longest lasting revival periods in America and Canada. The Awakening reached many churches and communities in both nations, bringing explosive growth to Christian churches for about a quarter century. Evangelist Francis Asbury called it “our Pentecost.”
That’s what we need in our time: something we could call “our Pentecost,” an outpouring of the life and power of the Holy Spirit similar to what the Lord did on Pentecost and in revivals throughout history. When church members are lukewarm, when those outside the church have no interest in Jesus or the Bible, when campuses are full of ungodliness and almost empty of faith, when nations are wandering further and further from God’s ways, we need revival. Only a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit can bring the transformation we need.
One thing that happens in revival, or in periods when God is preparing to send revival, is that Christian people feel a great lack in their own lives and develop a longing for more of the life and love of Jesus Christ. They aren’t satisfied just to be forgiven and saved from hell. They want to experience more of God’s fullness and holiness right now. They are grateful for what God has already done for them, but they want more. They grieve that their spiritual condition is so far from the Spirit-filled Christians in the New Testament and in the church’s times of revival. Such people grieve over their own lack, and they grieve over the condition of their church and the society around them. Then they pray that God will renew and revive with fresh showers of his Holy Spirit.
Dwight L. Moody was a Christian man who seemed to be quite effective in telling others about Christ. Moody led a big Sunday school and spoke to a large congregation. Whenever he spoke, he noticed two women praying for him. They came up to him after a service and said, “We have been praying for you.” Moody asked, “Why do you not pray for the people?” They answered, “You need power.” “I need power?” Moody said to himself, “I thought I had power.” After all, there were conversions now and then, and Moody felt pretty good about his effectiveness.
But the women kept praying for him, and, said Moody, “Their earnest talk about the anointing for special service set me thinking. I asked them to come and we got down on our knees. They poured out their hearts that I might receive the anointing of the Holy Ghost and there came a great hunger into my soul, I knew not what it was. I began to cry as never before, the hunger increased. I really felt that I did not want to live any longer if I could not have this power for service. I kept on crying all the time that God would fill me with His Spirit. Well, one day, in the city of New York, oh what a day, I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it. It is almost too sacred an experience to name…I can only say, God revealed Himself to me and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to stay His hand. I went out preaching again, the sermons were no different and I did not present any new truths and yet hundreds were converted.”
That’s what often happens in revival. Someone develops a burning thirst for God, and then God satisfies that thirst with fresh blessings from his Holy Spirit. Someone prays for God to display his power and mercy, and God answers those prayers. Someone who has been faithfully doing God’s work keeps on doing it, without changing his message or methods, and yet God shows his power by bringing results that are extraordinary. It’s not how persuasive or clever the speaker is; it’s the action of God himself. As the apostle Paul wrote in the Bible, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).
This anointing, this demonstration of the Spirit’s power in preaching, is one of the characteristics of revival. Even when revival conditions aren’t present, the Lord uses the preaching of biblical truth and works through people who are faithful to him. But in revival the preaching of Christ takes on greater power than before, and people are much more responsive than before.
Probably the most striking thing about revival is the overwhelming sense of God’s real, majestic presence among his people. This is what impresses the Christians in the church, and it’s also what changes the unbeliever who visits. As the Bible puts it, that unbeliever “will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:25).
That’s not what happens in most of our churches, is it? We may have well planned services, impressive music, a gifted preacher, and a nice building, but such things are not enough to make people “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you.'” We may have classes led by smart teachers presenting strong reasons for believing in God, but intellectual arguments aren’t enough to make people “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you.'” We may have support groups that help people in various ways, but such encouragement—good though it might be—isn’t what makes people “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you.'” Only when God himself pours out his Holy Spirit and makes people sense his might and majesty, his beauty and holiness, his all-seeing eye and his fierce opposition to sin, his life and his love—only when the Holy Spirit moves with revival power do people “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you.'”
Consider the first Great Awakening which occurred in the American colonies during the mid-1700s. Preacher Jonathan Edwards said that some people from other places were skeptical when they heard about the revival that was happening in his town in Northampton. But many strangers who came to the town were amazed and overwhelmed by God’s presence among the people there. Many who visited the town on business or to see relatives had their consciences gripped by God and were drawn to salvation in Christ. They returned home rejoicing, and the revival spread to other towns. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “God has in many respects gone out of, and much beyond, his usual and ordinary way. The work in this town, and some others about us, has been extraordinary.” That’s the word for revival power: extraordinary. A pastor in another town that experienced revival said “more had been done in one week, then in seven years before.”
This doesn’t mean that everything is perfect during revival. Sometimes there is disorder, excess, or error. This was the case among New Testament churches, as the Bible makes clear in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. There were also problems during the Great Awakening, and Jonathan Edwards wrote brilliant books to help people discern the genuine work of God from phony baloney. Wherever God sends revival, Satan goes on the attack and tries to create problems.
But the reality of such problems doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit’s extraordinary work isn’t real, or that we should prefer the predictable, boring, and largely ineffective condition of many churches today. Yes, revival can bring with it new challenges, just as the church at Corinth had to deal with problems and confusion. But, as J. I. Packer says, “The Corinthian disorders were due to an uncontrolled overflow of Holy Spirit life. Many churches today are orderly simply because they are asleep, and with some, one fears that it is the sleep of death. It is no great thing to have order in a cemetery!”
Revival may be accompanied by problems due to human failings and Satan’s meddling, but we must not let such things blind us to the value of revival, and we must not let certain problems hide the fact that churches in New Testament times and churches in periods of revival through history were experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit in ways which many of our churches today are not. Many churches have never had a service where those present were overwhelmed with a sense of God’s presence or where visitors fell to their knees in worship, exclaiming, “God is really among you.”
These days many church people are busier arguing over what music to use in the worship service than praying for the Holy Spirit to do something extraordinary in the service. They argue whether sermons ought to be intellectual lectures or entertaining stories, without ever expecting to hear Christ himself speaking with authority through the preaching of God’s Word. They are more concerned that each service goes according to schedule than for the Holy Spirit to make an unscheduled visit and shake them and revolutionize their lives.
Many church people, even those who are genuine Christians, have never tasted what it’s like to have a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in genuine revival. They don’t know their Bible well enough or church history well enough to know that most of the church’s great advances have occurred during times of special awakening and empowerment from God’s Holy Spirit. In church life and also in our personal spiritual life, many of us literally don’t know what we’re missing. We have little experience of what the Bible is talking about when it speaks of being filled with the Holy Spirit, or having our hearts flooded with the love of God through the Holy Spirit, or having the peace of God which surpasses understanding, or being filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory. We need to know what happens in revival in order to create a holy discontent with the status quo and a longing for Christ to bless us and advance his kingdom by doing immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.
Don’t underestimate the importance of revival. God works in ordinary times too, but the extraordinary times have been vital for the health and growth of the church. The United States and Canada would never have had so many Christians if God had not sent the Great Awakenings and other, more local revivals. That’s true of other nations as well.
Korea had only a few Christians by the year 1900. Korean churches weren’t growing much, and missionaries to Korea didn’t seem to be accomplishing much. But then came what missionary William Blair called “Korean Pentecost.” A group of Christians were meeting together for prayer. They all had a sense of being shaken and of being overwhelmed by the presence and power of Christ through his Holy Spirit. That led to an explosion of growth in the church in Korea. Today a huge number of Koreans—millions upon millions—are devoted to Christ.
Similar stories could be told about parts of Africa, Latin America, and China. Small, struggling groups of Christians have been empowered by the Holy Spirit, and churches have grown with astonishing speed. A Chinese friend told me about a place in China where the number of Christians grew from 20 to 3,000 in only three years. Those Chinese Christians continue to pray for revival power from the Holy Spirit to do even greater things.
We can’t create revival with our own methods. We are called by God to keep praying and speaking the Word of God faithfully, in season and out of season, when there’s revival and when there isn’t. We should be grateful for smaller blessings, even as we long for extraordinary ones. But knowing from the Bible and history about revival power, knowing how much the Spirit of God can accomplish in times of special blessing, knowing what a great change is possible in the life of churches and campuses and communities and nations when God moves in power, let us honor the Holy Spirit for his mighty works in the past and call on Christ to send fresh outpourings of his Holy Spirit.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.