The Church Is Revival

Why are the people who long for and advocate revivals so negative? What I mean is that the desire for revival appears to breed a fair amount of discontentment. Church members aren’t godly or zealous enough, the pastor isn’t evangelistic enough, the church is too small – these are the sorts of criticisms that are just beneath the surface of calls for an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon his too cold and casual people.

To be sure, Christians can be cold and casual about matters of faith. After all, saints are still sinners and so prone to various spiritual afflictions that impede sanctification. But why do churches have to engage in extraordinary ways of displaying their commitment to Christ? Why do evangelistic rallies, intense meetings of small groups, suffusing water cooler banter with God-talk, numerous conversions, or visible displays of piety (such as listening to inferior Christian music) constitute a work of God? Why doesn’t the weekly worship by word and sacrament, or a regular meeting of session, presbytery, or General Assembly count as a work of God’s Spirit? Why can’t genuine Christian piety be ordinary?

In the case of the church, what is ordinary is actually extraordinary. If you start with the supposition that people are sinners and in rebellion against God, and then find a gathering of believers for a worship service, you may actually think that something remarkable has happened in the lives of these people. And if you consider that most Americans don’t know how to sing independently of singing along with the radio or Ipod, and then you see people on Sunday holding hymnals singing praise to God, you may actually be struck by how extraordinary congregational song is. And if you think about the history of the Christian church and recognize how prone she is to error and unfaithfulness, and then you find a communion that is orthodox in its teaching and sane in its worship, you may be tempted to think that you have experienced a taste of heaven.

And yet, revivalists and the believers who support them are never so impressed by the church in her ordinary ways. Such discontent may actually breed churches filled with malcontents. And yet, in one of the bigger ironies of church history, the revivalists are the ones considered to be the most devout and the most loving when in fact it is the opponents of revival who are actually marked by charity and patience, fruit of the Spirit last I checked, in their dealings with this entity we know as the church militant.


32 thoughts on “The Church Is Revival

  1. DGH,

    Great post. Isn’t this just the same recurring phenomenon, under the guise of “revivalism”, that has dotted church history, ostensibly to accelerate the work of God in his people?

    I like this quote from John Kennedy (no not that one… the 20th century PB minister/author):

    The assembly is not the abode of Christian perfection; it is the abode of the family of God, those who through regeneration have been made partakers of His life and are developing in that life, sometimes in much weakness and limitation.



  2. I’m increasingly of the opinion that if, like most evangelicals and revivalists, you don’t think anything different happens in corporate worship than happens in private worship… that it doesn’t. Which would seem to explain why so many people are looking for supernatural experiences all the time: they don’t believe in the church’s institutionalized means for such so they need to make up their own. This works about as well as one might expect.

    Far from being unspiritual, this view of the church is far more spiritual than the charismatic view, which limits the true working of the Spirit to ecstatic and enthusiastic experiences. The implication being, as discussed in the previous few posts, that if you aren’t those things that you aren’t spiritual. All of which increases the incentive to do silly things like spend your whole life looking for that next fix.


  3. I really wish you would make the distinction as Iain Murray did in ”Revival and Revivalism”. The Church’s ministry is the ordinary means of grace. However, sometimes the Spirit chooses to work in and outside it in greater numbers… Though actually seeing spiritual numeric growth inside an OPC church without having kids… I can see why you would be suspicious of genuine revival. Even though a great many of the Reformed Scholastics embraced that kind of vision of revival (see: nadre reformatie and puritans).


  4. Joseph, Professor Robert Godfrey of Westminster Seminary California says much the same as you. Though confessionally Reformed, Dr. Godfrey has many positive things to say about George Whitefield and the need for revival in our day. See his lectures on Hereos of the Faith. He notes that Whitefield was the solution to the problem of his day, an excessive formalism and failure of the church to reach out to the victims of the industrial revolution. While God works normally through the ordinary means of grace, Dr. Godfrey notes that the outpouring of the Spirit in the Great Awakening was genuine and something to pray for in our day, not only for the people of God, but for unbelievers to come to the faith.


  5. I don’t think Hart is “suspicious of” or denigrating any “move” of God’s Spirit outside of four walls of a church building. Rather he seems to be highlighting the implicit assumption behind many, or most, who push for revivals, i.e. – “we need something more than what God has instituted in his Church… ’cause it isn’t getting the job done.” Without unpacking the faulty assumptions therein, the unintended(?) result is the relegating of the church to that of an accessory… or worse, an irrelevancy; which stands at odds with the centrality of Christ and His Church in Scripture (especially Paul’s letters).



  6. Yes, and further to Jack’s point, assuming there is a “move of the Spirit” outside of the church, how do we measure its legitimacy? (read: counterfeit revival). The writers of the confessions didn’t anticipate such a move that I can see, rather, focusing on the rule of Word and sacrament (the ordinary and probably boring to many) rather than the exception (the extraordinary and titillating to the flesh). The Pentecostals read into Acts what they experience, so I wonder if we have to re-learn church history that demonstrates what occurs when subjectivity is allowed free reign. And these type of moves, if legitimate, are clearly the rare exception rather than the rule.


  7. But Joseph, why don’t people see that revivalists and revivalismists both assume that extraordinary displays are evidence of the Spirit? Isn’t the insistence on extraordinariness making the world safe for Pentecostals?


  8. My dear brother in the Lord Darryl, (fyi, I do hope you find yourself up in QUébec someday… I’d love to take you and my pastor B. Westerveld out for a good beer and poutine!)

    Well I’m sorry maybe I,m going to display my cards here, but I think Scripture should be our standard not fear of ”making the word safe for”xyz group. That is esentially the slippery slope argument and I just reject it flat out. That is the argument of the fundamentalists of Bob jones concerning alcohol and the fundamentalists in the Can. Ref and URC churches opposing women deacons (and women voting in the case of the Can Ref). Scripture shoes special times of revival and times or ordinary grace. Both are good and both are from God. History has shown this patten continued. The Reformation in the recovery of the Gospel was fundamentally a revival. Revival doesnt mean perfection or simplicity… it is rather complex and brings about confusing results. Have you read Murray’s book?


  9. Joseph, I have read Murray and am unpersuaded. I especially reject the idea that the Reformation was a revival. If you compare the 1540s and the 1740s, you really do find different concerns and criteria for genuine faith. But I get it. To call the REformation a revival is a way to find continuity even though practically no revivalist, including Edwards, would affirm Heidelberg, Belgic, or Reformed polity. The Reformation was about the reform of the church. It was formal. Revivalism was about invigoration of the individual. It was and remains informal. Is it possible to combine the formal and informal? Maybe. But it has not happened on planet earth.


  10. Conservative American Protestants (CAPs, avoiding the “E” word) believe they will be blessed by a large-scale evangelistic meeting, Promise Keepers, or whatever the religious rally du jour happens to be. They believe in revivalism.

    CAPs don’t believe they will be blessed by ordinary preaching, vanilla worship or the sacraments. They believe in such things a little more if they are revved up to reverberate like revivals. But, really, CAPs don’t much believe in the Church.

    It tends to be a vicious circle.


  11. Side note on Joseph’s comment:
    The CanRC and URCNA federations limit the office of deacon to men alone based upon Scripture’s authority, not a mere “slippery slope” argument. See for an example of detailed reflection in the URCNA on Scripture’s testimony regarding the office of deacon. Perhaps your view of our convictions might change if you examined the actual arguments from Scripture.


  12. Dr. Hart,

    Polity has has little to do with this discussion because there is no single Reformed polity, there are reformation polities, but Reformed persons can be found among folks throughout all the major forms of church government. Yes, the reformation had institutional aspects to it, but surely you would agree with Dr. Carl Trueman when he talks about the reason for the book of prayer was pastoral in nature in making sure true doctrine was maintained in the existing parish setting which came to England from Roman Catholicism?

    On a brighter note, I saw your friend Pastor C.T. here in chicago land and I’m sure he would send his warmest regards 🙂


  13. Joseph, who said anything about Presbyterian polity? I was contrasting the visible church with individual experience.

    I had no idea Dr. Trueman was a prayer book Protestant.


  14. As a fairly new Presbyterian and former Ref Baptist, I for one agree with Dr Hart. Word and sacrament on the Sabbath is the high point of the week. Rather than the church being just a fuel station for the “real” work of the ministry (which takes place on the other six days), seeing the Church as front and center and the main thing, albeit ordinary as it may appear to the eyes, is refreshing. After all, isn’t working a full-time job exhausting enough without having guilt heaped upon us for not exercising the spiritual disciplines of Don Whitney, or getting through Baxter’s ‘Christian Directory’ in six months. Or for witnessing to that cashier instead of just engaging in a normal transaction. Witnessing and discipline is fine but has it become a new law to some? Actually, in my own case, it was more of me doing it to myself, convincing that it was my work which kept me spiritual. Surely church history has told us that the turn inward since the 18th century has tended to less confessionalism rather than more. I for one don’t think it’s a coincidence.


  15. Joesph & DGH – re Dr. Trueman.

    I think Dr. Trueman was making the historical observation: in the State-Generated & State-Sponsored reform of the English church, there was the practical necessity of working with the resources available (a modern phrase, and not to be attributed to Dr. C. T.). Every Roman priest in England was not defrocked or kicked out of orders just because the English church was severed from Rom and under the headship of Henry 8th (or one of his offspring). The Prayer book was an attempt to get into the hands of the parish ministry a replacement for Papal/Roman teaching. That was just the historical fact and rational of a Church reformed by command of the sovereign and answering to that human sovereign. This is what sets the stage for the Puritan movement: Ministers loyal to Scripture and the Lord Jesus seeking for the reform of the church based on Scripture not on Tudor (later Stuart) decree or parliamentary permission.

    Trueman made this point in a talk setting the background of John Owen and Reformed Scholasticism.

    (Guess I’ve developed a low view of the Henrician reform).


  16. I wouldn’t be surprised if Murray responded positively to this post. It’s been awhile since I read Revival & Revivalism, but the impression I took was that Murray was explaining how the definition of ‘revival’ changed between the American ‘awakenings’. He touched on both the theological causes, and consequences, of that shift…attempted autonomy begets attempted autonomy. No doubt the older definition and those who held it were shed in the more positive light…..but in any case: Revival This Sunday!!


  17. Dr. Hart,
    Very very true (coming from a charismatic). I would love to see a post on changing the semantic trajectory of the terms “revival” and “extraordinary.” What I am thinking about is that it seems you are making the argument to move the location of the terms from outside the church to inside the church. Individual revivals and extraordinary means of grace are take place in the church. What you be comfortable to say that revivals happen individualistically in church?


  18. To question revivals and revivalism since the seventeenth century almost presupposes, in the eyes of no doubt many supporters of such phenomena, a negative approach which borders on the denial of God’s power. It is not necessarily any such approach. While many evangelicals and charismatics write with fervour about these happenings, a detailed and most of all objective book about revivals would be greatly appreciated. And my guess is that these events are not the key to church growth or Gospel blessing that they are cracked up to be.

    One book which does give a fair but devastating critique of a local ‘revival’ is John Macleod in his superlative and excellently written book ‘Banner in the West’. Macleod writes about Reformed and Presbyterian church history (and much more besides) in the remote islands of Lewis and Harris in Scotland and incisively exposes the legends that surrounded the so called Lewis revivals which have been encapsulated in evangelical books and folk lore. And I personally suspect the animated talk of other revivals elsewhere is based more on the penchant for the latest ‘happening’ rather than reality on the ground.

    What always strikes me as odd is the energy and hopes placed in some sort of revival in the mode of Whitefield and other evangelical legends. The cries and prayers for God to work in this way strongly suggests these folks seeking this view God as almost absent if He does not work in a revivalist sense; this strikes me as a lop sided or two tier theology which sees life outside of these happenings as second best. And that, if it really is what people think, is wrong and suggests a faulty theology at many levels.


  19. Further to Paul’s posts – I wonder if those who make a sharp distinction between the First and Second Awakenings wouldn’t use more qualifiers if the all the pheneomane associated with the First Awakening actually took place in their local church.


  20. Apropos of this post–and just in case some of you are starting to get OldLife withdrawals after over a week of inactivity–Darryl’s 2009 lecture on “John Calvin and American Calvinism” at “Calvin in the Capital” has rocketed to no. 33 on the top 50 download list, after being posted on Thursday.

    Yes, blatant self-promotion for Christ Reformed Church in DC, and D.G. Hart, but hey, it’s better than nos. 1, 15, 22, 29, and 47 on the list: “Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillenialist.”


  21. Coming late to this discussion, but can I second what UK Paul says?

    And add two things about the “revival” which was so devastatingly exposed in ‘Banner in the West’. 1) It was exactly the kind of revival which Dr Hart’s post is intending to guard against, being both weak in doctrine and weak in ecclesiology. But 2) it is exactly *not* what conservative Scottish presbyterians mean by “revival”, for precisely those reasons.

    There is another John Kennedy, a Scottish presbyterian in the 1800s, who wrote his own incisive expose of the Moody & Sankey “revivals” which were taking Scotland by storm at the time. Excess in emotion, superficiality in doctrine, and readiness to look beyond the Church (ordained ministers and the preached Word) were key reasons why he and his colleagues viewed the Moody & Sankey circus with deep caution.

    But that did not stop him and his cautious colleagues from talking about/ recognising something as genuine revival when the preached Word came with unusual power and unusually large numbers of people were brought into the church and existing believers had unusually obvious growth in grace. This happened within the parameters of Westminster doctrine and the ordinary church worship, not as something qualitatively different from ordinary Christian salvation and life, but as an increase in the intensity of ordinary piety, and it happened all over the place in Scotland from time to time – everywhere from Cambuslang in the 1600s to Dundee in the 1800s. It’s not what they lived for – it’s not that they despised the ordinary stated means of grace – but they recognised unusual degrees of blessing when it came.

    Which means that, for those of us who come straight out of the same stable as Kennedy, it is perfectly possible to agree fully with the original post here (and it is an excellent post!) and yet wish that in the rush to condemn revivalism, the reality of revival itself wasn’t so readily denied.


  22. Cath,

    It is very refreshing to read of a historical Presbyterian account from outside the USA. The Scottish revivals warrant more attention than they receive, but I would contend there is a need to compare and contrast such revivals with how the Reformation had the church and it’s reforming as the key to the spread of the Gospel. Today, and maybe to some extent in even the more balanced revivals, the soul winning aspect seems to be central and all consuming. True, this is vital, but the church has become obsessed with growth and relating to folks in order to get them under the Gospel to the extent that the accurate means of grace and their articulation through the confessions has been downgraded. There is no “rush to condemn revivalism” here but the request to also put such events as you have well described in their historical, local, and Biblical context so they can be appreciated and yet evaluated objectively.

    There is though, to change the subject, a sad picture in Scotland and throughout the UK today in so called Presbyterian and Reformed churches. If my reading of their articles and newspapers is correct, there is an almost obsession with the state of the country, especially with the laws of the land; homosexuality; Islam as a threat; and the notion that the Government should act in a Christian manner. The spirituality of the church and the means of grace in terms of preaching and the sacraments which were indeed at the heart of the Reformation and Presbyterian life is seemingly not as important or viewed as the core of Christian life and church growth which is what the Reformers advocated. If the leaders of the Presbyterian denominations and free ‘Reformed’ churches could disengage from the futile attempts to seek a Christian nation and focus on the Reformed church as the agent for Gospel life, then we may see more of the healthy Christian church and growth we are both alluding to and wanting.


  23. Paul,

    I completely agree.

    I agree on the need for greater historical awareness – it’s not as if the Puritans sprang out of nowhere and then landed with shedloads of subjectivity in New England, the end. I agree on the need for careful evaluation – it’s simply a matter of historical fact that in specific times and places, greater numbers of believers were added to the church in a shorter space of time than normal (and the graces of existing believers were increased more rapidly and deeply than normal), without doing despite to solid doctrine and the ordained means of grace. That does need evaluation and occasional local qualification but it is flying in the face of historical fact to dismiss and discount these events outright just because of some excesses on the other side of the Atlantic.

    Or indeed because of the mistaken impulse to simply achieve growth. Special ministries and programmes and evangelistic rallies – if all these activities were designed to bring people to the ordinary regular preaching of the Word, it would be a different story, but they’re too often ‘extra-curricular’ in the sense that they provide a service (a ministry or a social gathering) which not so much supplements as sometimes supplants the ordained means of grace. What the church is *for* is to worship the Lord, so if outreach efforts contentedly stop short of bringing people under the ordinary weekly Lord’s Day preaching, they’re missing the point.

    Agreed again on the spirituality of the church. That is not to minimise the increasingly pitiful condition of our justice system and social structures or the concern we should rightly have as citizens for civil freedoms (much as I regret running down the UK situation with American brethren around – lost count of the number of US blogs I’ve run across penning woebegone eulogies to Britain’s defunct Christianity – reports of our death are greatly exaggerated). But whatever Scottish presbyterians might say about the responsibilities of the state, there is a general lack of recognition of the church’s own native responsibilities – preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, exercise discipline – and however badly the state may or may not be failing in its responsibilities, the church herself needs to recover her own priorities.

    Precisely as the original post here has it, there is a failure to recognise the standing miracle of a stated gospel ministry, the gathering together of a community of worshippers under the preached word, the gradual consolidation of believers in the faith and in holiness. Whether as cause or effect I don’t know, but there is too little confidence in the power of the ordained means of grace to effect what God intends them to effect in the hand of the Spirit – sinners converted and saints edified.


  24. How would it sound, to say that “revival” is qualitatively the same as “ordinary” Christian experience (SC 31-36 eg) but more marked in degree? (numbers, rapidity, intensity).

    The “creativity” which is mentioned in Mark Denning’s link seems to be the kind of thing which John Kennedy and his like-minded colleagues treated as irrelevant to revival in that sense – there *could* be irregularities of procedure (unordained ministers, novel methods of gathering audiences) and behavioural extravagances (hysteria), etc, alongside genuine instances of justification/adoption/sanctification — but these things are inherently undesirable and neither here nor there when it comes to deciding whether you’re witnessing a more genuine though unusual work of the Holy Spirit, or mere religious excitement.

    I believe that Sprague, in his Lectures on Revivals which is mentioned in that link, makes this precise point (although you mightn’t guess it from the link itself).


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