Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)
If one studies intermittent spiritual awakenings throughout history, s/he will notice several characteristics that attend and are the consequence of revival. Last week we mentioned that there were usually times of preparation that occurred before revival came. Often the preparation was accomplished through the faithful preaching of the Word of God over time, especially on the themes of substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, repentance and the pursuit of holiness.
A second characteristic: Occurring before many revivals were evident times of crisis or spiritual apathy. Certainly the cyclic periods of declension, despair, and deliverance are formative to understanding the entire history of Israel in the period of the Judges. Jonathan Edwards believed that the sudden death of a young woman precipitated the revival of 1734-5 in Northampton. Prior to the 1857-8 prayer revival in New York City there was a general decline of religion in America and a growing lukewarmness in the Church after a period of revival from 1830-42. There was also the Bank Panic of 1857, which was one of the most needless financial crises in American history. Based upon hysteria and rumor, banks closed for two months and people could get neither credit nor cash to live on or to run their business.
We also have records of revivals taking place during the crisis of the Civil War especially among Confederate troops. Eifion Evans writes of the Revival of 1858-60 which swept Wales and calls attention to how one region of the country was affected by the sudden death of a young man, while another area was chafing under the moral debauchery that attended a rising prosperity due to a flourishing slate-quarrying industry.
A third characteristic: Revivals have often been precipitated by an acute awareness of the resplendent majesty and holiness of God and a respondent awareness of the depth of human sin. The vision of Isaiah 6 is the pattern for such revival. In the face of a national crisis (the death of good King Uzziah), Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up in all his majesty. This struck a deep cord reminding Isaiah of his own sinfulness and creatureliness in comparison. “Woe is me; I am coming apart!” This was certainly Martin Luther’s turning point—a perception of the depth of his own sin coram deo (before God) and not by human standards.
The Puritans, the Pietists, and the leaders of the First Great Awakening preserved this strong preaching of God’s holiness and the demand for humility and repentance. However, as Richard Lovelace points out, “subsequent generations… gradually moved away from [this]. Rationalist religion reacting against exaggerated and over-explicit portrayals of human wickedness and divine wrath… began to stress the goodness of man and the benevolence of the Deity. By the time of the Second Awakening (mid-1790s to 1840), many leaders of the revival were… presenting an increasingly kindly, fatherly and thoroughly comprehensible God.”
No one is advocating going back to the “hell-fire” and damnation sermons of the Puritans, but neither should we so domesticate God that we fail to properly present his majestic character. We should faithfully preach the message of the cross, for it is in the gospel of Christ that God’s love and justice meet. The cross is the attestation both of God’s perfect hatred of sin and the perfect manifestation of the depths of God’s love and mercy in the sacrifice of Christ.
Cross of Jesus, cross of Sorrow,
Where the blood of Christ was shed,
Perfect Man on thee did suffer,
Perfect God on thee has bled!
Here the King of all the ages,
Throned in light ere worlds could be,
Robed in mortal flesh is dying,
Crucified by sin for me.
O mysterious condescending!
O abandonment sublime!
Very God himself is bearing
All the sufferings of time!
(William Sparrow-Simpson, 1887)