By Nathan A. Finn

Most evangelical Christians are in favor of revival. This is in part because of the many ways evangelicals in the English-speaking world have been shaped (for better and worse) by the history and theology of spiritual awakenings. Nevertheless, despite a generally pro-revival posture, it seems to me that evangelicals don’t agree on how to define revival. There are at least two different views.

Some understand revival to be an unusual and extraordinary outpouring of God’s Spirit upon a church or group of churches. It results in a renewed sense of God’s presence and power among those affected, which in turn leads to a season of heightened spiritual maturity, evangelistic fruitfulness, and church growth. Revival frequently has a positive influence on the wider culture. According to this view, revival is by its very nature a temporary blessing, sovereignly bestowed by God, unto the purpose of a season of remarkable ministry. Jonathan Edwards and Martyn Lloyd-Jones understood revival in this manner.

Others argue revival is God’s answer to spiritual declension in a church or group of churches. Churches, like individual Christians, are “prone to wander.” We constantly fall short of God’s holy expectations for us. Many churches decline to such a degree that they are actually dying, or at least floundering—this is where revival comes in. Revival is the Spirit responding to repentance to bring the church back to where she ought to be. As with the above view, it leads to greater sanctification, evangelism, and church growth, and it often positively affects the culture. Unlike the above position, revival isn’t understood to be inherently temporary—revival fails to last because our sin gets in the way, quenching the Spirit’s purposes for our churches. Charles Finney and Leonard Ravenhill understood revival in this manner.

Some caveats are in order. First, as with many such schemas, this one is somewhat artificial. I think it accurately notes two broad tendencies among evangelicals, but many folks embrace elements of both views. Second, both views agree that both phenomena occur. Sometimes God does amazing and unexpected things among us, and sometimes our churches decline and need to repent and seek spiritual renewal. The question isn’t which of these is good and which is bad—both are good. The question is which one of these phenomena is revival? Finally, it would be a mistake to think the first view is the “Calvinist” view and the second view is the “Arminian” view, my initial examples notwithstanding. For example, John Wesley tended toward the former understanding, while J. Edwin Orr leans in the latter direction.

For my part, I want to make a distinction between revival and renewal, though they may often coincide. Revival is a temporary season of extraordinary spiritual blessing and empowerment. God brings revival when and where he chooses. Revival is normally not limited to a single church or even denomination, though it often begins among a single church. We should pray for revival because we want the Lord to do more through our churches than we can even begin to imagine.

Renewal comes about when an individual, church, or group of churches repents of sin and returns to their first love. Revival almost always leads to renewal, but renewal can happen absent revival, simply through humbly responding to the ordinary means of grace, especially the preaching of the Word. At times in history, the Lord has used individuals who were undergoing a season of spiritual renewal as the catalysts he used to bring about revival.

If my understanding of this question is correct, then I think it is a healthy thing for us to prayerfully sing with the old gospel hymn,

Lord, send a revival

Lord, send a revival

Lord, send a revival

And Let it begin in me

Nathan Finn (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and an ordained Southern Baptist minister. Nathan is married to Leah and they are the parents of three children. The Finns are members of the First Baptist Church of Durham, where Nathan teaches theology classes and serves as a deacon. Nathan loves teaching at Southeastern because he enjoys showing students how church history applies to gospel ministry in the 21st century and why our historic Baptist identity is a heritage worth preserving. Nathan has contributed chapters to Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue (B&H) and Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future (Crossway). He also blogs at Christian Thought and Tradition.