Throughout the Old and New Testaments and church history, every spiritual awakening was founded on corporate, prevailing, intensive, kingdom-centered prayer. We cannot create spiritual renewal by ourselves, but we can “prepare the altar” and ask God to send his Holy Spirit to change our hearts, our churches, and our communities. Christians are used to thinking about prayer as a means to get their personal needs met. More mature Christians understand prayer as a means to praise and adore God, to know him, to come into his presence and be changed by him. But the corporate aspect of prayer is not well known. How do we pray, repent, and petition God as a people?
SPIRITUAL AWAKENING AND RENEWAL IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God continually fall into periods of spiritual stagnation and then cultural accommodation to the idol worship and practices of surrounding pagan societies. Then there is a turning to God, the raising up of new leaders, and a “covenant renewal”—a restoration of spiritual vision and vitality.
This pattern is especially visible in the book of Judges, but it continues throughout the reign of the kings, the captivity, and the return from exile. Just as Israel was constituted a people with the reading of the law and the taking of the covenant oath at Mount Sinai, so the people must periodically remember who they are, renew the covenant, and return to the Lord.
Sinai-like covenant ceremonies occur again before entering Canaan (Joshua 24), before choosing the first king (1 Samuel 12), and after the return from exile (Nehemiah 8–9). Less formal but crucial renewal movements are continually happening (you can find a string of them in Judges 3:7–11; 3:12–15; 4:1–4; 6:7–10; and 10:6–16). If we look at all of these various revivals, we are first struck by how different they are. Some are formal ceremonies. Some seem to be spontaneous. Some are led by a strong central leader, and some seem to bubble up from the grassroots.
But one thing is stated over and over again: the people “cried out to the Lord.” It is the only factor that is always present in every revival. It is corporate, intense, prevailing prayer—not for personal needs, but for the presence and reality of God among his people.
SPIRITUAL AWAKENING AND RENEWAL IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Even in the New Testament under the leadership of the apostles, it is evident that there is still a need for continual renewal. Just as Israel’s election as God’s people was demonstrated at Mt. Sinai, so the church is constituted by the descent and filling of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. But just as Israel is continually called to Sinai-like covenant renewals, so the church, even when it doesn’t seem to be in major decline, receives fresh fillings of the Holy Spirit. “Mini-Pentecosts” happen in Acts 4:31; 7:55; 8:17; 10:44; and 13:9.
What do these have in common? It is very easy to get distracted by the three unusual phenomena of the day of Pentecost: the mighty sound like “a violent wind” (v. 2); the visible “tongues of fire” over each person (v. 3); and speaking “in other tongues” (v. 4), which each member of the multiethnic audience could understand in his or her native language (v. 6). Speaking in tongues happens in some of the other Spirit-filling occasions, but not all, nor even most.
The central, abiding characteristics of Pentecost are that they were together in prayer (Acts 1:14; 2:1), they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4), and therefore they “began to speak” (2:4) “declaring the wonders of God (2:11).” Compare this with two other incidents in Acts after Pentecost.
In Acts 4:31, like Pentecost, there is a period of prevailing prayer (4:24) and then a powerful shaking as everyone senses the presence of God descending. But unlike Pentecost there are no tongues of fire or speaking in tongues. What results again are boldness (an assurance of God’s love and reality) and the ability to speak the word of God (v. 31).
The incident in Acts 7:55–56 is interesting, because it is an individual experience. As Stephen is about to be executed, he raises his eyes to heaven (v. 55), as the believers in 4:24 raised their voices to God. He gets the same assurance and boldness, the sense of God’s reality and presence called “the fullness of the Holy Spirit.” This allows him to face persecution in a completely Christ-like way, with courage and forgiving love toward his executioners.
In summary, what do all of these incidents have in common? We see that there is a continual need to renew the fullness of the Spirit. We see also that the fullness, in general, is connected to prevailing prayer, especially in the face of a challenge.
WHAT IS SPIRITUAL RENEWAL?
Spiritual revival, or renewal, is a work of God in which the church is beautified and empowered because the normal operations of the Holy Spirit are intensified. The normal operations of the Spirit include conviction of sin (John 16:8), enjoyment and assurance of grace and of the Father’s love (Rom. 8:15–16), access to the presence of God (John 14:21–23; 2 Cor. 3:17–18), and creation of deep community and loving relationships (Eph. 4:3–13).
This view differs or opposes three other common views:
1) The popular charismatic notion of revival, which sees revival as essentially the addition of extraordinary operations of the Holy Spirit (miracles, healings, prophecy, revelations).
2) The popular fundamentalist view that revivals are simply especially vigorous seasons of evangelistic activity. A “revival” is taken to mean an evangelistic crusade or a city-wide mission, etc.
3) The popular secular view that revivals are primitive, emotionally cathartic events, occurring among uneducated people subject to psychological manipulation by evangelists.
Instead the marks of revival are based upon the following.
First, there is an outpouring of the Spirit on and within the congregation, so that the presence of God among his people becomes evident and palpable.
In New York City, the Fulton Street Revival began in 1857, when a layman at the North Dutch Reformed Church on Fulton Street began a noontime prayer meeting for businessmen. These statistics are drawn from collections of sermons preached by New York City pastors during the revival years. When this happens, “sleepy” or stagnant Christians “wake up.” That is, there is a new and deeper conviction of sin and repentance—not just for major “behavioral sins” but for attitudes of the heart.
They experience a far more powerful assurance of the nearness and love of God, with the end result that Christians become both humbler and bolder at the same time. The more deeply one feels his or her debt of sin, the more intensely he or she feels the wonder of the payment on their behalf.
Nominal Christians, or Christians in name only, begin to realize they don’t actually have a living relationship with Christ by grace, and they get converted. When this begins to happen, it electrifies people. Long-time members are getting up and talking about being converted or speaking of Christ in radiant terms or expressing repentance in new ways. The early stages of renewal shake up other nominals and “sleepers” into renewal. Corporately, there is a sense of more passion and freedom and the presence of God in the worship services.
Second, as a result of this outpouring of the Spirit, new people are brought into the church, and it begins to grow. On the one hand, the renewed believers create a far more attractive community of sharing and caring and, often, great worship. There is the beautified community of the King. This can attract people from the outside.
On the other hand, Christians who begin to experience God’s beauty, power, and love put their relationship with Christ and the church first in their lives, and they become radiant and attractive witnesses—more willing and confident to talk to others about their faith, more winsome (less judgmental) when they do so, and more confident in their own church and thus more willing to invite people to visit it.
As a result, there are numerous conversions—sound, lasting, and sometimes dramatic. Significant, even astounding, church growth occurs. Many churches in America grow rapidly, but almost completely through transfer growth. When that is the case, renewal dynamics are not strong in the church.
Many churches in America do grow rapidly, but there are tell-tale symptoms of lifelessness. Most or all of the growth may be by transfer, not conversion. There is no deep conviction of sin or repentance, and thus few people can attest to dramatically changed lives. Also, the growth of many churches makes no impact on the local social order, because people do not carry their Christian faith out into their use of wealth, their work, or their public lives.
Without deep renewal of the gospel in our hearts, our external lives will be sealed off from what we believe, and our beliefs will never result in concretely changed living.
HOW DOES SPIRITUAL RENEWAL COME?
There is much to say about this, but we will concentrate on what is, biblically and historically, the one non-negotiable, universal ingredient in times of spiritual renewal: corporate, prevailing, intensive, kingdom-centered prayer. What is that?
It is focused on God’s presence and kingdom. Jack Miller talks about the difference between “maintenance” and “frontline” prayer meetings.
Maintenance prayer meetings are short, mechanical, and totally focused on physical, personal needs inside the church.
But frontline prayer has three basic traits: A request for grace to confess sins andhumble ourselves; a compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church; and a yearning to know God, to see his face, to see his glory.
It is quite clear when listening to a prayer meeting whether these traits are present. Most interesting. It is to study biblical prayer for revival, such as in Acts 4 or Exodus 33 or Nehemiah 1, where these three elements are evident. Notice in Acts 4, for example, that the disciples, who had been threatened, did not ask for protection for themselves and their families, but only for boldness to keep preaching!
It is bold and specific.
The history of revivals shows one or a few or many who take the lead in praying fervently for renewal.
Their pattern is Moses (Exodus 33), who pitched a tabernacle outside Israel’s camp, where he and others prayed for God’s presence and to see his glory. Such prayer need not (indeed, usually does not) begin as an organized church program, but rather it is a private field of strong exertion and even agony for the leaders. The characteristics of this kind of prayer include pacesetters in prayer, who spend time in self-examination. Without a strong understanding of grace, this can be morbid and depressing. But in the context of the gospel, it is purifying and strengthening. They “take off their ornaments” (Ex. 33:1–6). They examine themselves for idols and set them aside.
They then begin to make the big request—a sight of the glory of God. That includes asking for a personal experience of the glory and presence of God (“that I may know you,” Ex. 33:13); for the people’s experience of the glory of God (v. 15); and that the world might see the glory of God through his people (v. 16). Moses asks that God’s presence would be obvious to all: “What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” This is a prayer that the world would be awed and amazed by a show of God’s power and radiance in the church, that it would truly become the new humanity that is a sign of the future kingdom.
It is prevailing and corporate.
By this we simply mean that prayer should be constant, not sporadic and brief. Why? Are we to think that God wants to see us grovel? Why do we not simply put our request in and wait? But sporadic, brief prayer shows a lack of dependence, a self-sufficiency, and thus we have not built an altar that God can honor with his fire (see 1 Kings 18). We must pray without ceasing, pray long, pray hard, and we will find that the very process is bringing about that which we are asking for—to have our hard hearts melted, to tear down barriers, and to have the glory of God break through. We need sustained, repeated prayer.
BUILDING AN ALTAR
Let’s return to Stephen’s “mini-Pentecost” in Acts 7. When Stephen was dragged before a human court, he was condemned unjustly and was about to be executed. But he was filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 55). How so? We are told, “full of the Holy Spirit, he looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him . . . While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed… ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” (vv. 55–57, 59–60).
What happened? First, he prayed. He looked up. Second, by the power of the Holy Spirit, something Stephen knew with his mind became real to his heart. He saw Jesus standing at God’s right hand. This refers to his work as our Advocate (1 John 2:1 says we have an advocate with the Father, one who speaks in our defense—Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the propitiation for our sins). At the very moment that an earthly court was condemning him, he realized that the heavenly court was commending him.
In other words, the “fullness” he experienced was an experience of the gospel. At that moment, he got an extremely vivid, powerful sight of what he already knew intellectually—that in Christ we are beautiful in God’s sight and free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1; Col. 1:22). The Spirit took that intellectual concept and electrified his entire soul and mind and heart and imagination with it. Third, Stephen, although only for a moment, was able to exhibit the new humanity that God is creating. He had courage. He forgave his oppressors. He faced his accusers not just with boldness, but with a calmness and joy. That is spiritual renewal.
It is not simply an emotional experience—it is a heart-changing and therefore life and practice-shaping work of the Holy Spirit. A good image for seeking the fullness of the Spirit is the concept of “building a life altar.” In the Old Testament, an altar was built and a sacrifice placed on it, and then God sent his fire to burn up the sacrifice (e.g., 1 Kings 18). This is a great illustration of the dynamics of personal revival and spiritual renewal.
Paul uses it when he tells us to make ourselves a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1–2). We cannot create spiritual renewal—we can only prepare the altar and the sacrifice. Only God can send the fire. If we look at Acts 1, we see Jesus helping the disciples build an altar. There are at least four parts to this process.
A renewed church is vision-driven.
In Acts 1:6–8, Jesus repairs their faulty vision of what he is going to do in the world. They were looking for a political campaign, and he tells them about the nature of the kingdom, which will spread through his disciples as they become his witnesses and ambassadors.
The vision is that through our words we will bring people under the kingship of Christ, which will heal and repair all things.
A renewed church is gospel-driven.
In Acts 1:9–11, Jesus ascends to heaven, and the angels tell the disciples that now the knowledge of his ascension should empower them. As in the incident with Stephen, it is only as we “preach the gospel to ourselves” about our standing in Christ that the Holy Spirit takes that truth and catches it on fire in our hearts, creating times of amazing assurance that equip us for service.
A renewed church is prayer-driven.
In Acts 1:14, we see the disciples uniting in corporate, prevailing prayer. It is only in prayer and through prayer that the Holy Spirit takes up the vision and the gospel and makes them fiery realities in the centers of our being.
A renewed church is leader-driven.
In Acts 1:15–26, we see the disciples asking for God to raise up leaders. Personal and corporate revivals occur through leaders which God identifies and equips.
How, then, can we as leaders “build an altar,”
…seeking our renewal as a church and a people by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s begin now.
First, pray that your church grasps its own vision in a new way. Take time to thank God for your church, for what it has done in your life, and for what you see it doing in the lives of others and in your community. Ask God to help you better understand and grasp what he is calling you to do to reach your city. Pray that your small group and outreach ministries will give people a deeper appreciation of your church’s vision and an experience of real community.
Second, pray that your worship services this season will be particularly anointed, that the truth of the gospel will be unusually vivid and spiritually real to all hearers—believers and non-believers—and that God’s presence would be evident.
Third, pray that your seasons and services of prayer would not be just a passing program but would signal a greater emphasis on and practice of corporate prayer within your church.
Fourth, accept your leadership role in the church. Even if you are not an officer—even if you think of yourself as a “volunteer”—you, as an active worker and servant, are a model to those less committed.
Take time to pray for yourselves, that you could enter a season of self-examination. Ask that you may be, with full gospel assurance, nonetheless hard on yourself. Ask that God would show you ways in which you don’t represent Christ as you should, in your relationships, in your work life, in your family life, in your habits and attitudes, and in your relationships within the church. Take time to pray for yourselves, that God will make things you know about the gospel in your head real to your heart, and changing the way you live where you need to change.
Andrew Murray said that “The coming revival must begin with a great revival of prayer. It is in the closet, with the door shut, that the sound of abundance of rain will first be heard”.
We stand before God knowing that before Him, nothing will be impossible. We are deeply aware that of our own power, we can do nothing yet with Him we live and move amidst the Miraculous. Revival and humility go hand and hand. We yield to God’s will, place our hearts before him and we pray to be equipped and given courage. The purpose of receiving the blessings of revival is to bless others and to be stewards for His glory.
E.M. Bounds on Revival~
“A revival of real praying would produce a spiritual revolution.”
“To look back upon the progress of the divine kingdom upon earth is to review revival periods which have come like refreshing showers upon dry and thirsty ground, making the desert to blossom as the rose, and bringing new eras of spiritual life and activity just when the Church had fallen under the influence of the apathy of the times.”
Martin Lloyd Jones on Revival~
“We can define it as a period of unusual blessing and activity in the life of the Christian Church. Revival means awakening, stimulating the life, bringing it to the surface again. It happens primarily in the Church of God, and amongst believing people, and it is only secondly something that affects those that are outside also. Now this is a most important point, because this definition helps us to differentiate, once and for all, between a revival and an evangelistic campaign…
The essence of a revival is that the Holy Spirit comes down upon a number of people together, upon a whole church, upon a number of churches, districts, or perhaps a whole country. That is what is meant by revival. It is, if you like, a visitation of the Holy Spirit, or another term that has often been used is this–an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
What the people are conscious of is that it is as if something has suddenly come down upon them. The Spirit of God has descended into their midst, God has come down and is amongst them. A baptism, an outpouring, a visitation. And the effect of that is that they immediately become aware of His presence and of His power in a manner that they have never known before….
And what does that mean? Well, 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.
They have heard all these things before, they may have heard them a thousand times, but what they testify is this: ‘You know, the whole thing suddenly became clear to me. I was suddenly illuminated, things that I was so familiar with stood out in letters of gold, as it were. I understood. I saw it all in a way that I had never done in the whole of my life.’ The Holy Spirit enlightens the mind and the understanding. They begin not only to see these things clearly but to feel their power…” Source: Martin Lloyd Jones on Revival
John Piper on Revival~
“In the history of the church, the term revival in its most biblical sense has meant a sovereign work of God in which the whole region of many churches, many Christians has been lifted out of spiritual indifference and worldliness into conviction of sin, earnest desires for more of Christ and his word, boldness in witness, purity of life, lots of conversions, joyful worship, renewed commitment to missions.
You feel God has moved here. And basically revival, then, is God doing among many Christians at the same time or in the same region, usually, what he is doing all the time in individual Christian’s lives as people get saved and individually renewed around the world.” –John Piper
Charles Spurgeon on Revival~
“The word “revival” is as familiar in our mouths as a household word. We are constantly speaking about and praying for a “revival;” would it not be as well to know what we mean by it? Of the Samaritans our Lord said, “Ye worship ye know not what,” let him not have to say to us, “Ye know not what ye ask.” The word “revive” wears its meaning upon its forehead; it is from the Latin, and may be interpreted thus—to live again, to receive again a life which has almost expired; to rekindle into a flame the vital spark which was nearly extinguished.” –Charles Spurgeon
“If revival is confined to living men we may further notice that it must result from the proclamation and the receiving of living truth. We speak of “vital godliness,” and vital godliness must subsist upon vital truth. Vital godliness is not revived in Christians by mere excitement, by crowded meetings, by the stamping of the foot, or the knocking of the pulpit cushion, or the delirious bawlings of ignorant zeal; these are the stock in trade of revivals among dead souls, but to revive living saints other means are needed. Intense excitement may produce a revival of the animal, but how can it operate upon the spiritual, for the spiritual demands other food than that which stews in the fleshpots of mere carnal enthusiasm.
The Holy Ghost must come into the living heart through living truth, and so bring nutriment and stimulant to the pining spirit, for so only can it be revived. This, then, leads us to the conclusion that if we are to obtain a revival we must go directly to the Holy Ghost for it, and not resort to the machinery of the professional revival-maker. The true vital spark of heavenly flame comes from the Holy Ghost, and the priests of the Lord must beware of strange fire.
There is no spiritual vitality in anything except as the Holy Spirit is all in all in the work; and if our vitality has fallen near to zero, we can only have it renewed by him who first kindled it in us. We must go to the cross and look up to the dying Savior, and expect that the Holy Spirit will renew our faith and quicken all our graces.
We must feed anew by faith upon the flesh and blood of the Lord Jesus, and so the Holy Ghost will recruit our strength and give us a revival. When men in India sicken in the plains, they climb the hills and breathe the more bracing air of the upper regions; we need to get nearer to God, and to bathe ourselves in heaven, and revived piety will be the sure result.” –Charles Spurgeon
“Father, for thy promised blessing, Still we plead before thy throne; For the time of sweet refreshing Which can come from thee alone.
“Blessed earnests thou hast given, But in these we would not rest, Blessings still with thee are hidden, Pour them forth, and make us blest.
“Wake thy siren bering children, wake them, Bid them to thy harvest go; Blessings, O our Father, make them; Round their steps let blessing flow.
“Let no hamlet be forgotten, Let thy showers on all descend; That in one loud blessed anthem, Myriads may in triumph blend.”