Is revival something that men can plead for, or is it something that God does entirely on his own? Does revival work because certain circumstances are in place, or is it a work of the Spirit regardless of circumstances?
Iain H. Murray now discusses the context for revivals. What precedes a revival, and what can be expected after?
Murray has given the church a testament to the power of faithfulness in preaching and prayer. By taking the reader through a short period of church history, one is still able to see God mightily at work. Murray also pauses on occasion to interpret a particular series of events or controversies. For instance, he notes that “[a] winnowing season generally follows revival.” Many ministers or leaders would begin to question the validity of a perceived revival if a great number of new confessors suddenly returned to living in condemnation. Murray however relieves those misconceptions by showing how a number of awakenings, clearly attested to in history, have also given way to a period of cleansing.
In a review of Revival and Revivalism, Bobby Jamieson of 9Marks notes that Murray is essentially answering the question, “How did we get here?” Jamieson goes on to write that many evangelical churches owe their difficulty reconciling their practices such as the altar call and the biblical doctrine of conversion to the time period covered by Murray. His point is that Murray has turned us to a period in history that demystifies the uneasiness many evangelicals have with these nebulous practices. Many preachers have difficulty squaring these practices with Scripture, and it seems as though they are rooted more in a blip on the historical radar than anything else.
One mistake we can make is to regard history as unimportant to the current milieu. Murray calls attention to this temptation by clearly showing how each revival is molded by outside forces. He says, “When any error in belief or practice gains swift popularity in the churches it will almost invariably be found to be connected with something conducive to it in the spirit of the age.” Murray ties the founding of a democratic nation to the upheaval of orthodoxy. Men of skill and learning were no longer regarded as authoritative figures; now individuals were the center of society. Is this always progress?
Dennis Swanson from The Master’s Seminary notes that the preachers who preceded the Second Great Awakening were men who preached the same things before, during, and after revivals. The core message of their sermons were the same, yet God in his sovereignty used the same messages in different ways at different times. The preachers such as Jonathon Edwards and George Whitefield saw their main task as being faithful to expositing the Word; God would produce the fruit. Once success was redefined, the ministry of otherwise great preachers were viewed quite differently. The clear, relevant, faithful preaching of Edwards and Whitefield was deemed benighted.
Think of what we see today in the context of a pandemic. While I am loath to make too many judgments on what God is doing while he's doing it, it seems undeniable, a year into it, that God is purifying his church. Is God reviving his church amidst worldwide anxiety? Do people need more preaching about ways to be a better friend, or do they need sermons about gospel truth? Are Christians forced to reconcile their faith with limited potential for gathering? Are we having to reform our definition of what the gathered church is, maybe even in light of Romans 12:1? Are we realizing how religiously lazy we may have been? Are we becoming more attuned to what God requires of us? Perhaps revivals aren't just about an influx of people into the church but a revival of the people inside the church.