Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Do we need to pray for revival?

As we reflect on the year that is now drawing to a close, Christians have a lot to be thankful for. God is good and he continues to be at work in the churches. But we must also search our hearts as we reflect on the weakness of the churches and our lack of impact upon the world. What is the answer to the present spiritual malaise?
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And shall we then for ever live
At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee,
And Thine to us so great?
(Isaac Watts)
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Do we need fresh programmes, or do we need to discover "new ways of doing church"? No doubt we should strive to be contemporary and try to find new ways of reaching the world with the gospel. But will these things alone turn the present situation around? Surely something greater is needed, a fresh outpouring of the Spirit of God!
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What is Revival?
The term "revival" was redefined by C. G. Finney in the 19th Century. He used the word "revival" of evangelistic missions that could be organised and planned by the churches. Finney taught that churches could have a revival any time they wanted, if only they fulfilled certain conditions. This new thinking represented a huge paradigm shift in the understanding of revival. Before Finney, the term "revival" was reserved for an exceptional outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. The "Evangelical Revival" in the UK and the "Great Awakening" in the US were understood within this framework. Jonathan Edwards, the great Theologian of revival wrote,
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It my be observed, that from the fall of man, to this day wherein we live, the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit of God. Though there be a more constant influence of God’s Spirit always in some degree attending his ordinances. Yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work, always has been by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit at special seasons of mercy
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When conversions were few and the spiritual life of the church was ebbing away, the godly used to long and pray for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit of God. My native land of Wales was blessed with a series of revivals, beginning in 1735 with the preaching of Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland, to the 1904/05 revival.
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Old Testament
In the Old Testament prayer was offered for revival,
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Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)
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O LORD, revive your work in the midst of the years! In the midst of wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2)
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What the Psalmist and prophet are praying for is that the Lord will turn from his anger against his people, deliver them from their enemies and grant them his presence. A great example of Old Testament "revival" is the work of God during the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah, described in 2 Chronicles 29-31.
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Without using the language of "revive" or "revival" a similar concern is found in other Old Testament passages:
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Oh that you would rend the heavens! That you would come down! That the mountains might tremble at your presence (Isaiah 64:1)
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O Lord, hear! O Lord forgive! O Lord listen and act! Do not delay for your own sake, my God, for your city and your people are called by your name. (Daniel 9:19)
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No doubt the desire of the prophets finds an echo in the hearts of New Testament believers.
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New Testament
But is it right to pray for revival under the New Testament? The Spirit was poured out upon the church on the day of Pentecost. He continues to be at work in the churches to this day. What more could we possibly want? But wait a minute. The outpouring the the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was the beginning of new age of the Spirit and a unique event. However, the church in Acts experienced fresh outpourings of the Spirit subsequent to Pentecost.
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And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:31)
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While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. (Acts 10:44)
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The power of the Spirit upon the preaching of the word was a notable feature of New Testament Christianity.
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Preaching with Power
Consider these statements of the apostle Paul. Clearly for him, there was more to preaching than accurate exegesis, telling illustration and thoughtful application:
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And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:4 & 5)
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For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance (1 Thessalonians 1:5)
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Paul did not take this kind of preaching for granted as if there was something automatic about the Spirit's power upon his ministry. He continually urged people to pray for him,
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praying always...and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. (Ephesians 6:18-20)
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Should we not likewise pray for the preaching of the word in great power today? The lack of power in much of today's preaching is the cause of the weakness of the church and the indifference of the world to the gospel
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Declension and Renewal in the New Testament
Some people object that under the Old Testament there were spiritual peaks and troughs, making prayer for revival understandable, but in the New Testament, no such pattern can be discerned. But what about the seven churches in Revelation 2 & 3, where the church at Ephesus has lost its first love and the church at Laodicea has become lukewarm? When we look at church history, we can see with Jonathan Edwards that the church has gone through periods of decline, followed by remarkable outpourings of the Spirit. It is simply not true to say that the Old Testament pattern of spiritual decline and revival has been abolished since Pentecost. The same Spirit is at work under both dispensations. The Spirit of the Lord who worked so powerfully during the reign of Hezekiah is responsible for all the great revivals of church history.
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Prayer for Revival
What was the answer for the church at Ephesus that lost her first love? No doubt she had to "repent and do the first works". But is that all? Did she not need to return to Paul's marvellous prayer for the church in Ephesians 3:14-21?
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14 For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, 16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— 19 to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, 21 to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
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If our churches had a greater comprehension of the love of Christ, if we were filled with all the fullness of God so that he was glorified in the church by Christ Jesus, would that not be a great revival? Let us plead the promise of our Saviour,
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11 If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him! (Luke 11:11-13)
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Revival is not a "singularity" where all the normal rules of Church life break down. Revival is an intensification of the regular work of the Spirit. When he comes in revival, he will convict the world of sin, glorify Christ and shed God's love abroad in the hearts of the people of God with great intensity. He will enpower the preaching and witness of the church to the salvation of great numbers of sinners and sanctify believers by the truth.
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The hymn I quoted earlier concludes with this verse,
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Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,
With all Thy quickening powers;
Come, shed abroad the Saviour's love,
And that shall kindle ours.
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May we lay hold upon God and not let him go until he pours out the Spirit of Christ upon our churches with mighty power!

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