Is revival or reformation the need of the hour?
Christians have long had discussions about, and debates over, the issue of which is more important, or which is more needed at the moment: revival or reformation? Just today a comment came in discussing this very issue, and I replied by saying that we likely need both.
If push comes to shove and I am forced to prioritise one over the other, I suppose that at times reformation has been my favoured option. But revival of course is also crucial. It seems to me that both are necessary, and both depend upon each other. Indeed, I recall while serving as a missionary in Holland that the very important 1979 volume Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal by Richard Lovelace was published.
It created quite a stir. I recall discussing this issue with a leader there at the time – he tended to want to highlight revival, while I tended to want to highlight reformation. But as I say, we need both. Let me briefly offer a quick bit of definition here, then return to Lovelace, along with something I just read in Scripture.
We can say that revival is the surprising work of God in which the Holy Spirit reinvigorates individual Christians and entire churches. It is usually a temporary, short-term affair, but one that can have a long-lasting impact. Given that I just wrote about revival and its fruit yesterday, have a look at that article for more on this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/05/11/revival-and-its-fruit/
Reformation is a bit different, and involves the ongoing reform and renewal of the church – usually involving theological reform – which often has an impact on the surrounding culture as believers take seriously their responsibility to be salt and light in the world.
The 450-page work by Lovelace is all about such matters. Early on he offers some definitions:
Spiritual (as in spiritual life, spiritual gifts) usually means deriving from the Holy Spirit, which is its normal significance in Scripture. Renewal, revival and awakening trace back to biblical metaphors for the infusion of spiritual life in Christian experience by the Holy Spirit (see Rom. 6:4; 8:2-11; Eph. 1:17-23; 3:14-19; 5:14). Usually they are used synonymously for broad-scale movements of the Holy Spirit’s work in renewing spiritual vitality in the church and in fostering its expansion in mission and evangelism. Reformation refers to the purifying of doctrine and structures in the church, but implies also a component of spiritual revitalization. Renewal is sometimes used to encompass revival and reformation, and also to include aggiornamento, the updating of the church leading to a new engagement with the surrounding world.
In yesterday’s article I focused on the historian of revival J. Edwin Orr, and his contention that revival is really all about getting back to the sort of Christianity we find in the opening chapters of the book of Acts. Having just pulled Dynamics off my shelf, blown off the dust, and reread portions of it, I see that Lovelace also appeals to Orr and this definition.
As to reformation, Lovelace notes how the emphasis is so often on theology: “The leaders and shapers of the Reformation, the Puritan and Pietist movements, and the first two awakenings, included trained theologians who combined spiritual urgency with profound learning, men who had mastered the culture of their time and were in command of the instruments needed to destroy its idols and subdue its innovations: Luther and Calvin, Owen, Francke, Edwards and Wesley, Dwight and Simeon.”
For more on this vital volume, see here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/10/26/the-dynamics-of-spiritual-life/
As I have been saying, reformation is about both the church and the surrounding culture. And I mentioned that a biblical passage that I just again read leapt off the pages as I was considering these matters. It comes from 2 Chronicles. In chapters 17-20 we read about King Jehoshaphat. And in 2 Chron. 17:3-6 we read about what a great King he was:
The Lord was with Jehoshaphat, because he walked in the earlier ways of his father David. He did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments, and not according to the practices of Israel. Therefore the Lord established the kingdom in his hand. And all Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat, and he had great riches and honor. His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord. And furthermore, he took the high places and the Asherim out of Judah.
But what really stood out to me is what we find in verses 7-12:
In the third year of his reign he sent his officials, Ben-hail, Obadiah, Zechariah, Nethanel, and Micaiah, to teach in the cities of Judah; and with them the Levites, Shemaiah, Nethaniah, Zebadiah, Asahel, Shemiramoth, Jehonathan, Adonijah, Tobijah, and Tobadonijah; and with these Levites, the priests Elishama and Jehoram. And they taught in Judah, having the Book of the Law of the Lord with them. They went about through all the cities of Judah and taught among the people. And the fear of the Lord fell upon all the kingdoms of the lands that were around Judah, and they made no war against Jehoshaphat. Some of the Philistines brought Jehoshaphat presents and silver for tribute, and the Arabians also brought him 7,700 rams and 7,700 goats. And Jehoshaphat grew steadily greater.
This was about theology – teaching God’s people the Word of God. This work of reform certainly had an impact on the Israelites, but what is quite amazing is the impact it had on the surrounding pagan nations. The fear of God fell on them, and they stopped treating Judah as an enemy. Talk about a powerful reform movement and its impact!
Of course one thinks of other periods of great reform found in Scripture. We see this especially under King Josiah as found in 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chron. 34-35. There we read about how the book of the law was discovered and how it was read to the King, resulting in his profound grief and repentance. Josiah in turn had the book of the law read to all the people, and repentance, renewal and reform was the result. As we read in 2 Kings 23:1-3:
Then the king sent, and all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem were gathered to him. And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant.
While we do not read about the surrounding pagan nations being impacted as in the case of Jehoshaphat, it is another stirring account of biblical reform. And both were based solidly on the teaching of God’s Word. Biblical instruction was the emphasis in both cases. And it was not just about passing on information, but in engaging the hearts and lives of the people.
That is how all real reform comes about. It is not through new gimmicks and gadgets, through entertainment and celebrities, through emotional experience and rock concerts. It is through the dissemination of biblical truth. That is the biblical basis for reform of the church.
And as the church is reformed on the basis of sound doctrine and the development of a biblical worldview, that will have an impact on the surrounding culture. That will result in the whole gospel having an impact on the whole man in the whole of his world.
We have seen it happen before and we can work toward seeing it happen again. We need reformation. And we need revival. As Orr has pointed out, one of the main characteristics of revival is that it is preceded by the prayers of God’s people.
So let’s be active in both: praying for revival and working for reformation. The church and the world around it certainly need both.
As I neared the completion of this article, it occurred to me that I better check my website to see if I had already written about this topic. With over 5500 articles, that is always possible! And sure enough: eleven years ago I did pen a piece with the very same title. But it is sufficiently different from this piece to warrant having both up on my site. You can see it here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/05/03/revival-or-reformation/