Revival and Repentanceby Bill Muehlenberg on May 3, 2016
Revival and Repentance
By Bill Muehlenberg
One thing we can be sure of is the fact that revival is always intimately connected with repentance. There is no true revival without repentance. Revival is a spiritual revitalisation, and that process always includes an increased awareness of who God really is in his holiness and perfection, and our own sinfulness and ungodliness.
Any study of revival will demonstrate this unbreakable connection between revival and repentance. Even when we seek to define the word revival we can barely get away from speaking about conviction of sin and repentance. That is part and parcel of what true revival is all about.
Harry Sprange for example says that revival is “an unusual and spontaneous awareness of the Presence of God, sometimes although not always preceded by preaching and prayer, but which resulted in mass convictions of sin and subsequent conversions.”
Stephen Olford has written that revival is “the sovereign act of God, in which He restores His own backsliding people to repentance, faith and obedience.” Earle Cairns defines revival as “the work of the Holy Spirit in restoring the people of God to a more vital spiritual life, witness, and work by prayer and the Word after repentance in crisis for their spiritual decline.”
Brian Edwards said this: “Holiness can never be separated from revival.” The necessary evidence of revival is “deep conviction of sin and biblical holiness”. And again, “Revival is always a revival of holiness. And it begins with a terrible conviction of sin.”
Or as Lewis Drummond explained, “A spiritual awakening is no more than God’s people seeing God in His holiness, turning from their wicked ways, and being transformed into His likeness.”
One noted revivalist, Charles Finney, repeatedly spoke of repentance as an integral component of revival. Revival is “the return of the Church from her backslidings, and the conversion of sinners.” And again, “Revival is a renewed conviction of sin and repentance, followed by an intense desire to live in obedience to God. It is giving up one’s will to God in deep humility.”
“It presupposes that the church is sunk down in a backslidden state, and a revival consists in the return of the Church from her backslidings and the conversion of sinners.” Moreover, revival is “the Christian’s new beginning of obedience to God.”
Study any period of revival and the focus on repentance will always be in the spotlight. As J. Lee Grady said about the Welsh revival, for example, it was marked by two profound characteristics: “First, waves of conviction drew people to repentance. Often sinners wandered into the meetings and immediately knelt at the altars. Second, Christians felt an urgency to share Christ with everyone around them because of the reality of hell and God’s judgment. They seemed almost possessed by the love of God for the unconverted.”
W. Graham Scroggie said this: “There never has been a spiritual revival which did not begin with an acute sense of sin. We are never prepared for a spiritual advance until we see the necessity of getting rid of that which has been hindering it, and that, in the sight of God, is sin.”
Alan Redpath put it this way: “If you want revival, let me remind you that God only plants the seed of His life in soil which has been broken up by repentance.” Steven Hill says that “one of the prominent characteristics of this fresh move of the Holy Spirit is brokenness and tears.” Leonard Ravenhill put it as follows:
“I read of the revivals of the past, great sweeping revivals where thousands of men were swept into the Kingdom of God. I read about Charles G. Finney winning his thousands and his hundreds of thousands of souls to Christ. Then I picked up a book and read the messages of Charles G. Finney and the message of Jonathan Edwards on ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,’ and I said, ‘No wonder men trembled; no wonder they fell in the altars and cried out in repentance and sobbed their way to the throne of grace!’”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones says there are “general characteristics which you will find in every revival that you can ever read about. The immediate effect is that the people present begin to have an awareness of spiritual things such as they have never had before….
“What are these things of which they become so aware? First and foremost, the glory and the holiness of God. Have you ever noticed, as you read your Bibles, the effect on these people as they suddenly realized the presence of God? Like Job, they put their hands on their mouths or like Isaiah they say, ‘Woe is unto me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips.’ … They have just had a realization of the holiness and of the majesty and the glory of God. That always happens in a revival….
“And that, as we have seen, leads inevitably to a deep and terrible sense of sin, and an aweful feeling of guilt. It leads men and women to feel that they are vile and unclean and utterly unworthy and, above all, it leads them to realize their utter helplessness face to face with such a God.”
A number of examples of revival are found in the Bible, but let me mention just one. The second half of the book of Nehemiah contains a wonderful account of revival which is worth noting. We read in chapters 8-10 how the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem was followed by a renewal of the people. There was a reading of the law, confession, worship, and covenant renewal.
In his expository commentary on this book, James Montgomery Boice says this: “When revival sweeps over a people, the first evidence is a profound awareness of sin and sorrow for it. This was true of the great Welsh revivals of the last century and of the revivals under the Wesleys the century before that. It was true of the Reformation and of the first revival in recorded history, the revival in Nineveh in response to the preaching of the prophet Jonah.”
He then shows how these chapters so closely link revival with repentance:
- There can be no genuine forward moral progress for either a nation or an individual without an acknowledgment of, sorrow for, and a true turning from sin. In other words, nations move forward spiritually and morally only in times of revival.
- But there can be no true sense of what sin is or knowledge of why it is sinful without a hearing of and response to the Law of God. That is, we will never acknowledge sin to be sin or grieve over it unless we see it as an offense against God, and the only way we will ever see or sense that it is an offense against God is by seeing our actions as contrary to God’s written law.
- Consequently, revival must be preceded by sound preaching of the whole counsels of God, particularly the Law of God, which we have violated.
Most Christians would say they long for revival. But do they also long for its essential ingredient? Do they long for brokenness and a deep awareness of their own sinfulness? Of course this picture is incomplete if I do not mention the deep joy of the Lord which is also a marked feature of true revival.
But the order seems to be this: a genuine revival will bring Christians face to face with a holy and pure God, exposing to them afresh their own wretched sinfulness and depravity. But confession and repentance brings a new and deeper sense of the joy of the Lord as we appreciate much more fully the love, grace and forgiveness of God.
I hope you are longing for revival, praying for revival, and expecting revival. But that includes longing for, praying for, and expecting the cleansing stream of deep repentance. Let me close with the words of Brian Edwards:
“We often have a tinted view of revival as a time of glory and joy and swelling numbers queuing to enter the churches. That is only part of the story. Before the glory and joy, there is conviction; and that begins with the people of God. There are tears of godly sorrow. There are wrongs to put right, secret things…to be thrown out, and bad relationships, hidden for years, to be repaired openly. If we are not prepared for this, we had better not pray for revival.”