Revival – on Target?
by Werner E. Lange, July 10, 2014
He is book editor for Advent-Verlag (German Seventh-day Adventist publishing house).
My wife likes to make jam because the jars are appreciated by relatives and friends as a small gift. Pumpkin-ginger jam (with variations in other important ingredients) is a favorite. When she makes similar jams, she has to be careful to put the right label on it.
The last three years nearly all initiatives for furthering spirituality in the Seventh-day Adventist church carry the label “Revival and Reformation.” They are, without any doubt, important, recommendable and quite necessary when we consider the spiritual condition of many members and local churches! And it is always desirable to have more real prayer and prayer groups in gatherings and committees! But I ask myself increasingly: “Is what’s on it in it?” Undoubtedly, there is something good in the initiatives, but is it really “revival” in the true sense?
In the introduction to the current Sabbath School Bible Study Guide the author (a spokesperson for this initiative) writes: “Revival is an ongoing, daily experience.” An overview of the Study Guide suggests that “revival” is pretty much the same as the infilling with the Holy Spirit and His outpouring.1
The necessity of revival is oftentimes reinforced by a statement of Ellen G. White from 1887: “A revival of true godliness among us is the greatest and most urgent of all our needs.”2 She defines revival as “a renewal of spiritual life, a quickening of the powers of mind and heart, a resurrection from spiritual death.”3 In discussions about the revival initiative I found that many understand this definition in terms of “either … or … or ….” But I am convinced that she wrote in typical Hebrew manner, where one clause explains or complements the other; otherwise her following definition of reformation—“Reformation signifies a reorganization, a change in ideas and theories, habits and practices”4—would mean that every kind of reorganization is a spiritual reformation.
In the Study Guide, reformation is defined: “The term reformation simply refers to this ‘growing in grace,’” referring to 2 Peter 3:18.5 Frankly, the way that I see the problem is that a false label has been put on a good and necessary thing: spiritual growth. A false label on jam may not be a problem, but if it appears on a medicine bottle, the medication may be ineffective or even harmful.
Genuine revival is God’s medicine
Revival is God’s medicine for spiritual lethargy, sleep or even death; it is not a basic food for daily spiritual strengthening or growth! Angel Manuel Rodríguez, former director of the Biblical Research Institute, wrote: “Revival implies a prior conversion, that we were once spiritually alive but now we are slipping toward spiritual death and in need of a revival of our spiritual life.”6 Vance Havner wrote perceptively in a Ministry article: “When we have a vigorous daily Christian experience, revival is unnecessary, for a glowing fire does not need rekindling. But because our condition is subnormal, revival is necessary to get us back to normal. Then it has served its purpose. Revivals are not supposed to last; to try to live at revival pitch all the time would make Christians and churches abnormal.”7
This concurs with experiences in church history. Ellen White described past revivals in the following manner: “Revivals brought deep heart-searching and humility. They were characterized by solemn, earnest appeals to the sinner … Men and women prayed and wrestled with God for the salvation of souls … Men beheld a transformation in the lives of those who had professed the name of Jesus. The community was benefited by their influence.”8 She understood “revival” in the same manner as famous 19th-century preachers (although she didn’t approve of all their methods for initiating a revival).
No biblical teaching about revival of churches
New Testament writers have much to say about spiritual growth and how to achieve it, but revival of Christians or a local church was a side issue. We find no examples of it and no teaching concerning it in the New Testament, because the churches were alive (although some had severe problems). It is only to the church of Sardis, near the end of the first century, that Christ mentions the necessity of revival: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.” As a remedy he mentioned: “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent (Rev. 3:1–3 NIV).9 For the church at Laodicea the circumstances were different: it was accused of lukewarmness; therefore the remedy was different (see vv. 15–19).
Since there is no comprehensive New Testament teaching about church revival there is always the temptation to read into it what we would like to say about revival. However, we only have Ellen White’s writings as an inspired source on revival and the experiences in church history to find the way to a revival.
William G. Johnsson cautioned in the Adventist Review: “God alone brings revival … the General Conference cannot program renewal. Nor can any conference committee. We can plan and vote programs, but only God brings life. As I look over the course of Christian history, I am amazed at the unexpected ways in which God has worked to revive His people … Church history reveals no consistent pattern for renewing the church. God has used a variety of methods.”10
Nevertheless, some elements for initiating a revival seem to be quite clear.
Conditions for a church revival
Repentance and confession of sins are necessary conditions for a revival in a local church. Ellen White wrote in her foundational article about revival: “It is our work, by confession, humiliation, repentance, and earnest prayer, to fulfill the conditions upon which God has promised to grant us His blessing. A revival need be expected only in answer to prayer … Let us confess and forsake every sin, that the way of the Lord may be prepared, that He may come into our assemblies and impart His rich grace. The world, the flesh, and the devil must be overcome.”11 Ellen White envisioned foremostly concerted prayer: “The church must arouse to action. The Spirit of God can never come in until she prepares the way. There should be earnest searching of heart. There should be united, persevering prayer, and through faith a claiming of the promises of God.”12
Combined prayer is necessary because the spirit of revival should be “contagious.” This is not the case with merely private prayer. Only prolonged prayer leads to genuine repentance, confession of sins, and renewed dedication to Christ and leads others, who witness it in the prayer group, to that same experience,
A personal experience
I have experienced this on a youth vacation. We were some 50 young people from Hamburg on a three-week vacation organized by the conference after having driven to the newly built Adventist boarding academy near the Tyrifjord (a big lake) in Norway. On a Sabbath afternoon we decided to do some street evangelism (that was the time of the Jesus People movement, which had spread to Hamburg, too). We went to the lakeshore, sang some songs in English, and Peter Joseit, then a young pastor (later an evangelist and ministerial secretary in Australia), proceeded to preach, but nobody listened. Somewhat discouraged we returned home. Afterwards a little prayer group met and a spirit of prayer broke out. The participants told others and invited them along. The prayer circle grew and new groups were built. Sins were confessed, lives were dedicated (anew) to Christ. At the end of the week there were only a few who didn’t participate.
The result of this revival was remarkable. During the week we had been in Oslo (about 35 miles south) and had seen the quarter where the students lived. We wanted to witness to them. Since we had only two cars, we prayed for cars, and people whom we didn’t know gave us their keys. The whole group met before we went to Oslo. Personal prayer requests were written on a billboard. We prayed earnestly for God’s help. Half of the group went to Oslo; the other half continued to pray.
Once again we sang songs in English; the young people listened, and we talked to them. There on the spot some of them gave their hearts to Jesus! We went aside to pray with them and asked for their addresses so that the Norwegian youth who had come with us could contact them.
It was late in the night when we drove back. The others were still praying for us! When the last car arrived, the prayer-marathon ended; we related our experiences and rejoiced in God.
Back in our home churches we told the members about our experiences. They were moved, but the revival didn’t continue. We thought that a continued revival would happen automatically, but back then we (and our leaders) didn’t know about the necessity to wrestle in prayer for repentance and revival.
The responsibility of pastors
Ellen White stressed the role of pastors and leaders in initiating a revival, but she had a special task for them that is not pleasant. She wrote in her Review article: “The people must be taught not to be satisfied with a form of godliness without the spirit and power … Let the church arise, and repent of her backslidings before God. Let the watchmen awake, and give the trumpet a certain sound. It is a definite warning that we have to proclaim. God commands His servants, ‘Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins’ (Isaiah 58:1).”13
Vance Havner concurs: “It is going to take some robust and rugged preaching to sound this trumpet blast. Are we afraid to call the Church to repentance? Is popularity too precious to risk? … Are we unwilling to offend church members who give checks to the church while they live for the world, the flesh, and the devil? True revival is no bargain-counter proposition; the price is high for the preacher who preaches it and the people who respond. So we politely dodge it … If what we need comes, it may put to shame our pet projects, the programs that we set up on our own and then ask God to bless.”14 Strong words, but isn’t he right? Real repentance is always a necessity in any church situation that needs correcting, as the messages to the churches in Revelation show, even if the church doesn’t need a revival (see Rev. 2:4–5,14–16; 3:1–3,15–19).
Ellen White counseled on the use of camp meetings for initiating revivals: “At our camp meetings there are far too few revival efforts made. There is too little seeking of the Lord. Revival services should be carried from the beginning to the close of the meeting. The most determined efforts should be made to arouse the people … At the close of every meeting, decisions should be called for.”15 Then she gave specific counsel on how to work for unbelievers and the backslidden. The right kind of revival meetings are needed.
Differentiation is needed
In addressing the needs and problems of members and churches we have to differentiate carefully, analyze the spiritual problem(s) carefully and ask ourselves: What is the remedy—real heart (not merely head) conversion and new birth, reconversion,16 correction of false doctrines, a better understanding of salvation and the righteousness of Christ,17 church revival or a new infilling with the power of the Spirit for witnessing?18,19 There is not one spiritual medicine for all cases. If we apply the wrong one, it will have no effect and it can even do harm!
The website of the initiative “Revival and Reformation” describes many prayer groups, successful small group ministries, blessed evangelistic efforts, new churches on fire, and people being revived.20 God be praised for all that! But with maybe one exception,21 I didn’t find examples of any revived local churches that had been spiritually dead! As editors of the German Adventist Publishing House, we asked directors in our division and at the General Conference, but they couldn’t give us examples either.22 If the recipe is not correct or vital ingredients are missing (sugar is not enough), the jam won’t taste good. If the medicine is not the right one for a disease it cannot help. Prayer is not enough; Bible study is not enough.23 We must carefully analyze the condition of the church, compare it with the churches in the New Testament and in Revelation, and recognize which of Christ’s counsels apply.
Recently I spoke to a member of the Revival and Reformation Committee at the General Conference and voiced my concerns. He fully agreed with my assessment as presented here, and told me that the same concerns have already been voiced in the committee. That’s good to hear! Reframing and respecification are urgently needed if we don’t want to miss real revival—and not continue to offend those faithful members who are spiritually alive!
1“Revival and Reformation,” Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, Standard Edition for July, August, September 2013, p. 2; cf. Mark A. Finley, “Revival: For What?” Adventist Review; February 10, 2011.
2Review and Herald, March 22, 1887; cited in Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 121 (see Study Guide, p. 6.).
3Review and Herald, February 25, 1902; cited ibid., 128.
4Ibid.; cited in Study Guide, p. 12 (for July 5, 2013).
5Study Guide, p. 72 (for August 24, 2013)
6“Revival as a Way of Life,” Reflections – The BRI Newsletter, January 2011, p. 2.
7Vance Havner, “Repentance as a Church Priority,” Ministry, January 1973, p. 15 (emphasis mine); online https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1973/01/repentance-as-a-church-priority.
8Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1911, p. 462.
9Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society.
10W. G. Johnsson, “Renewal—the biblical pattern,” Adventist Review, January 1, 1987, p. 11, 13.
11Review and Herald, March 22, 1887; cited in Selected Messages, bk. 1, pp. 121, 123.
12Ibid, p. 126.
13 Ibid, pp. 122, 126.
14 Vance Havner, op. cit., p. 16.
15 Revival efforts,“ Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, pp. 64f.
16 For conversion and reconversion, see Morris Venden, The Miracle of Conversion, Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2009.
17 See especially Morris Venden, 95 Theses on Righteousness by Faith, Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2003.
18 For “baptism” and infilling with the Spirit and the “latter rain,” see Ron E. M. Clouzet, Adventism’s Greatest Need, Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2011.
19 The German Advent-Verlag published a book with such a differentiation: Werner E. Lange, ed., Unser grösstes Bedürfnis, 2011.
22Often the church at Bergamo, Italy, is mentioned, but it is not an example of a spiritually dead church experiencing a revival. See https://www.revivalandreformation.org/content_series/11/entries/1.
23It is interesting to note that Ellen White never mentioned Bible study as a means for revival. Renewed Bible study is more an outcome of revival.