A Scottish Presbyterian described revival with these words: “It is the life-giving, light-imparting, quickening, regenerating, and sanctifying energy of the Holy Spirit, converting the hardened sinner, and reclaiming the backsliding or dormant Christian. No one who deserves the name of a Christian will deny that these are the operations peculiarly ascribed in the Scriptures to the agency of the Holy Spirit, and that it is the duty of all to pray for, and the privilege of all to expect them in answer to earnest believing prayer — nay, that there cannot be Christianity without them....” 1
The gracious work of God’s Spirit that brings true revival is missing in our land today. This sad fact is cause for concern and prayer. There were revivals in both the Old and New Testaments. Following His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, our sovereign Christ poured out the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Timid disciples that had fled at Christ’s arrest, boldly stood up to preach the Gospel to their adversaries, and some 3,000 repented and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. The revival spread throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, “and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
Within a few centuries following the Apostles, a growing apostasy corrupted Christ’s doctrine, worship, government, and discipline. The Apostle John warned, “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time” (1 John 2:18).
The Apostle Paul wrote of a “falling away” [Greek, apostasia] and the revealing of “that man of sin … the son of perdition” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). He warned of the danger of mixing error with truth: “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9).
In the place of a Christian church obedient to the teachings of Scripture, there arose an ecclesiastical counterfeit, headed by one claiming to be Christ’s representative upon earth. Under the pope came a hierarchy of cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, and other potentates unwarranted by the Word of God. Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone was changed into salvation by works.
Good works, according to Rome, must be added to Christ’s merit. Even then, the faithful must suffer in a place not found in Scripture, called Purgatory, till enough merit has been acquired for entrance into heaven. Among Rome’s good works are worshipping of relics, worshipping of Mary, praying to Mary, praying to dead saints, counting rosary beads, and confessing sins to a sinful priest — none of which are warranted in the Bible. Adding moral corruption to spiritual corruption, the false church brought in the Dark Ages.
After many centuries of religious and civil persecution, the Bible was translated into known languages, and Rome’s false teachings and practices were revealed. The Lord sent the Reformation, the greatest revival since Pentecost.
The first rays of the rising sun of Biblical Christianity appeared in the 1300s through John Wycliffe and his translation of the Bible into English. It continued to advance in the 1400s and appeared in full brightness in the 1500s.
Reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, William Farel, John Calvin, William Tyndale, John Knox, and a host of others, studied the Bible, learned the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints,” and proclaimed it to a perishing world. The sovereign Holy Spirit brought countless sinners to true repentance and saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s work prospered in spite of Rome’s mighty resistance, calling upon monarchs, princes, noblemen, civil leaders, and laymen to punish and exterminate the “heretics.” Wars, inquisitions, tortures, imprisonments, and executions failed to quench the revival fire, and a new epoch of religious and civil liberty dawned upon the world.
Revivals continued in the 1600s and 1700s, before our country was founded. Many heirs of the Reformation fled to the American colonies to escape persecution. Before the War for Independence, the colonies were blessed with a great revival, called The Great Awakening.
By the 1700s, the zeal that first accompanied the seekers of religious liberty had waned. The churches in New England had established a practice that proved spiritually dangerous to individuals and congregations. Many churches allowed the unconverted to partake of the Lord’s Supper after publicly affirming a covenant in which they agreed to Christian beliefs and promised to submit to Christ’s government in His Church. Yet, they remained unconverted. The result was spiritual declension and apathy.
It was natural for the unsaved to think of their covenant agreement, church membership, and participation in the Lord’s Supper as actions pleasing to the Lord and works that would lead to conversion. Joseph Tracy (1793–1874), in his book, The Great Awakening, wrote, “There were many in the churches, and some even in the ministry, who were yet lingering among the supposed preliminaries to conversion. The difference between the church and the world was vanishing away. Church discipline was neglected, and the growing laxness of morals was invading the churches. And yet never, perhaps, had the expectation of reaching heaven at last been more general, or more confident.” 2
The renowned preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, of Northampton, Massachusetts, determined to expose and refute the error. In the face of opposition, the courageous preacher began a series of sermons on “Justification by Faith Alone.” He recorded the event and the results: “Although great fault was with a very remarkable blessing of heaven to the souls of the people in this town. They received thence a general satisfaction, with respect to the main thing in question, which they had been in trembling doubts and concern about; and their minds were engaged the more earnestly to seek that they might come to be accepted of God, and saved in the way of the Gospel, which had been made evident to them to be the true and only way. And then it was, in the latter part of December , that the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us; and there were, very suddenly, one after another, five or six persons, who were to all appearance savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner” 3
From this small beginning, the Lord was pleased to increase His gracious work. One historian said: “Remarkable conversions followed and Edwards soon had the entire community under the spell of his preaching. People became deeply concerned about eternal things and came in great throngs to hear him. They even met in private houses day and night to talk religion and to pray for pardon. In six months more than three hundred, or practically the entire population above sixteen years, were converted in Northampton. The revival spread from town to town through the whole Connecticut valley until one hundred and fifty communities in Massachusetts and Connecticut were visited with scenes similar to those which took place at Northampton.” 4
The Lord had also prepared fields white unto harvest in other parts of the colonies. Dutch Reformed minister Theodorus Frelinghuysen, arriving in New York in 1720, found the Dutch believers in spiritual decline. He labored in their settlements of the Raritan Valley, New Jersey, and had the joy of seeing many conversions. He became a close friend of Gilbert Tennent, a Presbyterian minister, through whom the Great Awakening began among the Presbyterians. This gracious revival would continue to spread through the middle and southern colonies for many years. It was the spiritual preparation for the conflict that would bring independence from Britain and establish a refuge for those who love liberty and detest tyranny.
The Great Awakening was one of the many revivals that the Lord sent to our land. Today we are facing impending judgment because of apostate and compromising churches, along with a blaspheming, atheistic, communistic, government shaking its fist at God, legalizing the killing of babies in the womb, attacking God’s institution of marriage, legitimizing moral perversion, and transgressing each one of God’s Ten Commandments. Surely the Judge is at the door, and we should be crying out to Him for a work that no man can do, a pouring out of God’s Spirit in true revival. In the context of the Lord’s judgment, Isaiah recorded this precious promise for His elect: “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring: And they shall spring up as among the grass, as willows by the water courses” (Isaiah 44:3,4).____________ 1 The Revival of Religion: Addresses by Scottish Evangelical Leaders delivered in Glasgow in 1840, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1984), p. x. 2 Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1989), p. 8. 3 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. I (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1987), pp. 347,348. 4 Wesley M. Gewehr, The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740–1790, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1930), pp. 5,6. The Rev. Mark Evans is pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC, and is Moderator of Faith Presbytery, Bible Presbyterian Church.