Public Square & Theology 101

The Work of Revival After Revival Ends

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We’re hearing the full blend of skepticism, joy, critique, and applause surrounding the recent non-stop gatherings on university campuses. Asbury, Cedarville, Lee University, and others have experienced unique events, indeed. They have been readily labeled as spiritual revival.

I must confess my personal struggle to remain objective. My middle son, Joel, is a recent alumnus of Asbury University. He called me early Friday morning, the same week the unique movement started in Hughes Chapel. Joel was rejoicing and asking for prayers of protection, insight, and responsiveness to the Lord. I assured him that I would be praying for his friends, faculty, and staff. 

My wife and I, along with Joel, spent meaningful time over several years in this same space. And that’s why I struggle. As Joel described what was transpiring, I found myself saying, “Well, such a breakout of confession, reading of Scripture, earnest prayer, and spontaneous praise could be something quite genuine.” Why could I say that? Because in my own chapel experiences at Asbury, I always found them to be low-key, very ordinary, and non-sensationalistic. In fact, at times I even dubbed them somewhat unimpressive in polish and hype, quite devoid of panache. As Joel shared more with me, deep inside I said, “Sounds like ripe ground for a surprising, genuine move of God’s Spirit.”

What Now?

As I write this, Asbury is deliberately redirecting and gearing down on-campus revival gatherings. As this transpires, there is strategic movement of services into the wider community. This certainly seems very wise. Classes must reengage. Professors need to teach. Everyday work must resume. 

And right here, this pivot has so many people pondering, wondering, and appropriately puzzling. After all, the real point of true revival really should be to look more like Jesus on the other side, in all the comings and goings of typical, down-to-earth, everyday life

But how? What is the work of revival after the revival meetings have ended?

I find myself stirring on these questions and more: Should we continue to be worked up about such a unique, brush-with-angels, fresh-wind phenomenon? And if this is genuine, what might be the true outcomes?

A Different Century—but the Same Issues

Amidst asking such questions, my mind was drawn toward an old book that’s gathered dust on my shelf for over thirty years. In 1832, W.B. Sprague published Lectures on Revivals. Sprague was a minister in the Presbyterian Church through the 1800s. Reviewing this collection of now-ancient lectures, I am stunned and encouraged by such similarities to our present-day pressing issues and questions surrounding revival.

Sprague addressed the following topics across his lectures: 

  • the nature of revivals
  • solid defense of revivals (in the face of common skepticism)
  • obstacles
  • divine agency
  • general means and promotion
  • treatment of awakened sinners
  • treatment of young converts
  • evils to be avoided in connection with such movements

In the wake of our current revival scene, I have heard numerous voices replying in response to questions about the revival’s veracity, “Well, let’s wait and see. The fruit will tell the tale.” That’s valid, certainly, but here is where Sprague’s final lecture proves immensely insightful. Lecture IX covers “The Results of Revivals.” Two of Sprague’s stated results are especially informative.

Social Outworking of Real Revival

Note the following outcomes described by Dr. Sprague: 

If the heart is changed from the love of sin to the love of holiness, it must necessarily result that this change will discover itself in all the Christian virtues; in that very course of conduct which makes man a blessing to his fellow man, and converts all his social relations into so many channels of benign and healthful influence. Hence it is found, in point of fact, and in instances almost innumerable, that a revival has renovated not only the moral but physical aspect of a community; has driven away vice; has encouraged industry; has given a spring to intelligence . . .

Across our own recent days, I have heard various cynics quickly jump to say, “Why is such movement of the Spirit just isolated to a chapel or sanctuary and not springing out into the streets, businesses, and global endeavors with greater justice, good works, and missional momentum?” Based on the above sage commentary, I believe Sprague would likely advise us: “Give it time; wait and see. Real revival will affect a revival of good works.”

Observing the overflow of revival movement in his own day, Sprague further expounded:

I hardly need say that all our great benevolent institutions—our Missionary, and Bible, and Tract, and Education, and Temperance, and all kindred societies, have flourished most where the influences of God’s grace have been most abundantly experienced; and I am sure that every thing in the aspect of Providence indicates that the spirit of revivals and the spirit of public charity are hereafter to go hand in hand—the one being sustained and cherished in a degree by the other, until the earth shall be filled with the Redeemer’s glory.

Such mighty wisdom from antiquity. Like the rushing winds of Acts 2, genuine revival, born of the Word and the Spirit, will blow forth in deeper and wider mission in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and global endeavors. Let’s be patient. Give it time. Wait and see. Real revival will affect a revival of good works. And there’s more to ponder from Dr. Sprague.

Our Triune God at Work in Revival

This glorious outcome stated by Sprague arrests my attention. Amidst these dusty lines on revival work, allow these rich words to soak deep and stir your own soul:

I may say too, reverently, that Jehovah himself rejoices in a revival of religion; for he beholds in it the most precious of his own works. In such an event each person in the adorable Godhead is eminently glorified . . . The Father is glorified in the display of that love and wisdom in which the plan of redemption originated: the Son is glorified in the honor which hereby comes to his mediatorial work, and especially in the efficacy which is thus proved to belong to his atoning blood: the Holy Ghost is glorified in the effectual energy of his operation on the heart; in changing stone into flesh—in new-creating the whole man.

Hence, Sprague’s rich observations of true revival draw our own limited vision toward the ultimate work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We recall their glorious presence at the start of creation (Gen. 1) and all across the grand story of redemption.  

Sprague’s insights might help move us beyond wrangling debate over human methods and means, straight to the heart of the greatest Worker of all. 

Is he not still willing, ready, and capable of blowing such creative, reviving winds today?

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