Revival and Repentance

Anyone who loves Jesus knows full well that the church today is nowhere near where it should be, and is in desperate need of a radical shakeup. Revival, in other words, is our most pressing need. Until that occurs, we will continue to be largely irrelevant and ineffective.

And another 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:
“1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.”

[1470 words]

14 Replies to “Revival and Repentance”

  1. Revival “… which resulted in mass convictions of sin and subsequent conversions.”

    And to think that some people say that true Christians are involved in continual “revivial” (ie. God loves a humble and contrite heart).

    But Bill, we don’t need all that nowadays… coz we’ve learnt that God loves everyone no matter what and we don’t want to focus on the S word, or how we’d rather address it… “not God’s best” or “falling short of the mark”

    It’s all so old fashioned, and unnecessary you know…

    Garth Penglase

  2. Thanks Garth

    Yes most unfortunately I suspect that perhaps most Christians today would either not understand the things being said in this article, or might even violently disagree with them. Such is the sorry state of the church today.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Revelation 3:14-22 is interesting to read again in light of what you’ve said here Bill and is connected to something that I’ve been studying from the letters to the seven Churches found in Revelation. Two things have stood out to me, the call to repent and also overcome. How to overcome? It’s an interesting study. The special focus of my denomination this year is “Revival and Reformation” so I especially appreciate your article today. Many Thanks.
    Greg Sadler

  4. Psalm 51 is an an enlightening study in relation to this subject. David has sinned – in fact he let laziness lead to lust, which led to adultery which led to murder. Psalm 51 shows his thoughts as he trod the road to restoration. That road involved acknowledgement of sin, confession and repentance.

    Yes, we can also say that David based his plea for mercy on the love of God (he surely had no other foundation for it) and it is that incredible love of God which allows restoration, but the road to restoration also includes confession and repentance. Without them, the destination of restoration will simply not be reached.

    John Symons

  5. Bill
    Along with revival, there also needs to be reformation. I was told that a short time before the massacres in Rawanda, there was a revival that swept through the country. Many revivals, if not accompanied with reformation, can last a very short time.

    Certainly, pray for revival, but at the same time, work for century-lasting reformation. We need seasons of refreshing from the Lord, but we also need institutionalised foundations of righteousness and justice.

    Lance A Box

  6. Thanks Lance

    Yes quite so. And anyone who has read even a small portion of what is found on this site will know that I am 100% in favour of both revival and reformation. We desperately need both. And reformation often flows out of revival.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Thanks so much Bill, again insight and wisdom.
    Three years ago I went forward when the call for prayer was said at my church. I was overcome with an awareness of sin in my life and felt detestable in the sight of God. There were a few of us who went forward and shortly we were ushered to a back room. A man sat in front of me and said have you accepted Christ into your life? I said yes but, well, sin. I don’t deserve God. I said seriously we are all filthy rags. I was losing him. He said, don’t worry about sin, it’s always there. That didn’t help. I believe God was making me aware of whom I am from his point of view in order to break me. So I’m a slobbering mess and able to do Nothing. Interestingly this all happened about 2 weeks before Bill Muehlenberg came to talk at our church and that, was the beginning of my education.
    Daniel Kempton

  8. The worst thing (or the saddest thing) is when Christians mistake all the noise and activity that we see in the various mega-churches as being revival in action. But there is no preaching about repentance or conviction of sin or holy-living, so I’m convinced most of it is just man-made hype. I think it was Leonard Ravenhill who said something like, “Much of what goes on in churches today is man’s best effort to make up for the lack of the presence of God.”

    Before you can have revival you first have to recognise that you need revival, and I fear that much of the church today thinks everything is going just fine.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  9. Steven Hill says that “one of the prominent characteristics of this fresh move of the Holy Spirit is brokenness and tears.
    Thats what I am going through at the moment, lots of brokenness and tears.

    Sins long forgotten have been confessed and forgiven, strongholds brought down and bondages released.

    Hallelujah!! What an Awesome God we serve.

    Jeffrey Carl

  10. Thanks Jeffrey

    Yes, deeply dealing with our sin is never pleasant, and repentance is costly indeed. But the joy which comes from getting back right with God always makes it so very well worth it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. We said sorry to the aboriginal people for what was done to them but we didn’t say sorry to God for what was done to them. The source of forgiveness has been forgotten. Let us have a National Sorry Day and say sorry to God and to the victims (all of them) of abortion, the stolen generation, homosexuality, Church sexual abuse, addictions, betrayal etc and all our other sins that offend our loving God. But a day is not sufficient time. Jesus said: ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’. If we did know we would probably spend the rest of our lives saying sorry to God but until then a day would be a good start.
    B T Walters

  12. And to go on from there, I am praying for national revival, which of course can only come from individual revival. Men coming into the kingdom of God, what a blessed thought, do we ever need men to lead us in repentance and reformation! Queensland has just seen the biggest landslide in Australian electoral history and all they say is “people wanted change”. Can you believe that! People are looking for the old good ways and what they are not being told is that they can only find those good things if they accept the Lord Jesus, under whose blessings Australia once committed itself on a public platform.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  13. I totally agree that if we are to ever experience a real revival again, it will come through repentance and holy living. Nothing will get God’s Attention anymore than when we repent of our sin. He is Holy and He expects His People to live holy lives. Lord, Let it start with me!

    Steve Tincher

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