Pursuing the Hope of a New Covenant Revival
Not long ago, I was chauffeuring a well-known pastor to the airport after a leadership conference. He has written extensively and is respected by pastors across the world, from a wide variety of theological persuasions.
We wandered onto the topic of revival, speaking affectionately of various individuals and ministries that emphasize that message. Midstream, he nonchalantly inserted a riveting statement: “You know, revival is not even taught in the New Testament.” I was stunned. I knew this was in no way a dismissal of our need for prayer or any lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Rather, it was an honest observation from a truth-loving student of the Bible who is not beholden to any particular denomination, philosophy, or stream of church methodology.
For weeks, I could not shake his statement. It began to dawn on me that easily 90 percent of the messages I have heard or the books I have read on “revival” are rooted in teachings and stories from the Old Testament. They were based on God’s dealing with His people under the old covenant, prior to all the benefits of the finished work of Christ, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the new reality of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the lives of His children. I began to think about my own sermons on revival. Certainly, they were sincere, passionate, maybe even compelling—but based on the Old Testament. Of course, the Old Testament provides many powerful and applicable truths for daily living, especially as they parallel with new covenant teaching.
After a careful search, it was confirmed. I could not find the word “revival” in the New Testament. At best, the concept could be extrapolated from a few indistinct passages. So I again was called to an honest evaluation of much of what I have said, taught, and written, not just on the work of the Holy Spirit, but about the whole idea of revival.
MEANINGFUL BUT MISSING
To be “revived” is “to return to consciousness or life” and “become active or flourishing again.” Concerning the actual word “revival,” Bill Hull has noted,
“The word is thrown around as if we all know what it means. There is a consensus across the theological spectrum that revival means to fully experience the fulfillment of both the Great Commandment and that the Great Commission, but expectations and descriptions of the revival manifestations vary greatly. . . . Revival is simply a term we have given to the special activity of God throughout history. . . . Spiritual revival (the idea) is in the Bible. Being radically transformed by the power of God based on the finished work of the resurrected Christ is in the Bible. Whatever it is called, revived, renewed, refreshed, regenerated, liberated, empowered, filled, raised, or healed, I’m for it!”
Certainly we can agree. We are for all that God wants to do for us, in us and through us by His Spirit. This is what drives our deep interest in “revival.” But, as we have seen, the New Testament describes the work of the Spirit in clear terms. His work requires our surrender, obedience, and passion for the glory of Jesus. I’ve had to remind myself over the years that I cannot prescribe His work by my preconditioned notions, nor can I overzealously promote His work with words that are not in His vocabulary. Bill Hull concurs:
“It is dangerous to give the variety of spiritual experiences in Scripture one label, namely ‘revival’ and then canonize it as the only hope for the church, the nation, and all of humankind. This leads to reliance on God to do all the work – not only his but ours. All spiritual work is God’s work, I know that, but Jesus left over 200 commands for his church. Our desperation for revival as a solution is in part evidence of our failure to walk daily in the power of the Spirit and to obey what God has already paid for and equipped us to do.”
Iain Murray wrote, “It may be argued that any attempt to define revival is pointless for the word itself is not scriptural and . . . ‘may not be wisely chosen.’ But rightly or wrongly, it was chosen and its sense was commonly recognized over a long period of time.” Yet Murray did go to on to describe this work for which we pray as “an extraordinary communication of the Spirit of God, a superabundance of the Spirit’s operations, an enlargement of his manifest power.”
Richard Owen Roberts has a similar idea of revival: “An extraordinary movement of the Holy Spirit producing extraordinary results.” As you might guess, I would like to augment that with a clear new covenant nuance: “An extraordinary movement of the INDWELLING Holy Spirit producing extraordinary results.”
THE NEW COVENANT AMBITION FOR REVIVAL
From a purely New Testament standpoint, could it be that the “revival” we long for and labor over is essentially an extraordinary sensitivity, surrender, and obedience to the Holy Spirit? I wonder what would happen if we even began to change our language and vocabulary about “revival” and instead emphasized the Christ-glorifying and transformational work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As Norman Grubb has stated, “Indeed, revival is really just obeying the Holy Spirit.” Ultimately, we all can agree to pray for an exceptional movement of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We can all pursue an extraordinary obedience to the promptings of the Spirit. So, believing the truths about the Holy Spirit discussed in this book, and that Christ’s sufficient redemption has provided the unspeakable blessing of the supernatural and sufficient Spirit of God in our lives—then the Spirit’s promises and presence must become the focus of our desire for a fresh work of God. Quoting Grubb again, “The truth is that revival is really the Reviver in action, and He came two thousand years ago at Pentecost. Revival is not so much a vertical outpouring from heaven (for the Reviver is already here in His temple, the bodies of the redeemed) as it is a horizontal outmoving of the Reviver through these temples into the world. It is a horizontal rather than a vertical movement.” Grubb agrees that we should seek an “inside out” experience that moves from heart to heart and life to life in the church, rather than something that falls from heaven when we meet certain conditions or create certain environments.
Could it be that the “revival” we long for and labor over is essentially an extraordinary sensitivity, surrender, and obedience to the Holy Spirit?
Grubb describes the reviving work of the Spirit so clearly. He notes that all Christians’ relationships are both vertical and horizontal. He proposes that revival incorporates continued two-way brokenness. Vertically, we must be careful to keep “the roof off between ourselves and God through repentance and faith.” Horizontally, we must also let the walls come down between ourselves and others. Our walls of pride, self-esteem, and self-respect must be leveled by transparent confession of broken relationships, harbored sin, and pretending to be better than we are.
James 5:16 is clear about the power of this kind of honesty, confession, and believing prayer for one another: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” In revival, Spirit-filled Christians testify to one another about the great work of Jesus in their lives. They walk in the light as He is in the light. Roof off. Walls down. Continuous revival.
THE NEW COVENANT ACCESSIBILITY OF REVIVAL
In my study of the revivals of history, I am convinced that people were not seeking “revival.” Most of what I have observed about revival was the result of common people seeking God for an uncommon work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It advanced dynamically through heartfelt radical obedience to the Word of God, resulting in surrender, repentance, and fresh, believing faith. The gospel was always central. Christ’s honor was always paramount.
Accordingly, it is probably not ideal for us to expect any person or organization to broker revival for the rest of us through events or prescribed “movements”—including the ministry that I lead. When we speak of the power of a spiritual re-enlivening as something that may or may not be attainable by the person in the pew, we diminish the sufficiency of the truth of the indwelling Christ in every heart. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has written, “Read the story of any revival that has ever taken place and you will find that the beginning of it is always the same. One man, or sometimes a number of people, suddenly become alive to the true Christian life, and others begin to pay attention to them. . . . that is why our condition as believers is so important.”
If we could look at the history of revival, and the various wide-reaching descriptions through a clear new covenant lens, it would not devalue the wonder of these profound works of the Holy Spirit. We never want to diminish or doubt what the Holy Spirit can do. As Jim Cymbala has reflected, “I never want to let fear of the unexpected cause me to institutionalize lukewarmness.”
Rather, this lens would focus us toward a clearer interpretation of the cause of revival, rooted in the supernatural work of the indwelling Spirit. This, I believe, would put the idea of revival on the bottom shelf for every believer. Rather than something unclear and unreachable—an experience that can only be ushered in by a few gifted professionals—revival would be available to every believer as they bask in the supremacy of Jesus Christ and live daily in the sufficiency of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We need a heightened view and grander expectation of the transforming presence of the Spirit in the heart of every believer.
POSSESSED BY THE REVIVER
We often refer to the glory of “revival” as if it is some amorphous power that invades the church. But the New Testament is clear. To live abundantly, victoriously, and continually—is Christ (Phil. 1:21; Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:4). To experience glory “is Christ in [us], the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). New covenant life is the transformation of our hearts, described as the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). His “glory in the church” is rooted in the power of that works in us (Eph. 3:20–21). Stephen Olford writes, “When by His Spirit He dwells in us in revival fullness all flesh can see the glory of God.”
The devil loves nothing more than to distract us from the sufficiency of the gospel. He seeks to diminish our confidence in the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, who now indwells us in His fullness. Today, many of our promotions are well-meaning and good. But we must guard ourselves from going after an ambiguous event rather than pursuing an abiding empowerment. We should not place our hope in some remote possibility but rather in an assured promise. Emphasizing an atmospheric transaction rather than an internal transformation is a distraction that can lead to spiritual disappointment.
Quoting Norman Grubb again, “Revival in its truest sense is an everyday affair right down within the reach of everyday folk—to be experienced each day in our hearts, homes, churches and fields of service. When revival does burst forth in greater and more public ways, thank God! But meanwhile we should see to it that we are being ourselves constantly revived persons . . . which, of course, also means that others are getting revived in our own circles. By this means God can have channels of revival by the thousands in all the churches of the world!”
I love that! “Channels of revival by the thousands.” This includes you and me. This invites every member of your family, your church, your small group into an experience of the indwelling Holy Spirit that is deeper and broader than any of our efforts to organize or promote a new work of God. This calls every pastor to be intentional in facilitating this kind of work in each church. This, I believe, can be the account of our moment in history. The transforming presence of the Holy Spirit is available and sufficient for every Christian and produces radical, unstoppable gospel transformation—in us, through us, and beyond us.
The transforming presence of the Holy Spirit is available and sufficient for every Christian and produces radical, unstoppable gospel transformation—in us, through us, and beyond us.
Olford concurs, “One of the determining factors in seeing a church-wide revival is the determination to fulfill all of God’s purposes righteously in the power of the Holy Spirit.” As we teach passionately on the clear purposes of the Holy Spirit and surrender fully to His will, a new display of His power in the church, and through the church to the world, can unfold. Robert E. Coleman noted, “In as much as all of us were made to glorify God, revival simply fulfills his desire that we might know him in the fullness of the Spirit and declare his praise to the ends of the earth.”
I close with these clear and compelling words from Andrew Murray, praying that you will have new and profound faith in the transforming presence of the Spirit of God, in you and through you. I pray you will live in the power of the new covenant, secured, once and for all, by our glorious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“I have been very deeply impressed with one thought. It is, that our prayer for the mighty working of the Holy Spirit through us and around us can only be powerfully answered as His indwelling in every believer is more clearly acknowledged and lived out. We have the Holy Spirit within us; only he who is faithful in the lesser will receive the greater. As we first yield ourselves to be led by the Spirit, to confess His presence in us, as believers rise to realize and accept His guidance in all their daily life, will our God be willing to entrust to us larger measures of His mighty workings. If we give ourselves entirely into His power, as our life, ruling within us, He will give Himself to us in taking a more complete possession, to work through us.
“. . . it is as an indwelling life that Holy Spirit must be known. In a living, adoring faith, the indwelling must be accepted and treasured until it becomes part of the consciousness of the new man: The Holy Spirit possesses me.”
Copyright © 2023 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.
(Excerpted from Transforming Presence: How the Holy Spirit Changes Everything From the Inside Out by Daniel Henderson.)