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What Is Revival?

by Doug DeFord | Published March 9, 2023

Editor’s Note: Revival has been in the news a lot lately. Rather than address the situation directly, we want to take this opportunity to ask a deeper and more fundamental question. Before we can ask, “Is this revival?”, we must first ask, “What is revival?” This article is adapted from a sermon Pastor Doug preached in 2017. Though the material is six years old, it is more timely and relevant than ever! – J.S.

What is revival?

Let me just say from the outset that there are many godly people who have much to contribute on this subject. And there are many different ideas on this subject. No doubt there is some wrong thinking out there, but many of the opinions out there are perfectly valid. There are a variety of thoughts – good thoughts – on this topic. I’ve found that my idea of revival is in close agreement with what Charles Spurgeon has said on the subject (but again he’s not necessarily the only authority on it either).

This article will not settle the issue. It will give us a good working definition of what revival is for this book. For our purposes that is more important to me than detailing what revival is technically.

In the strict sense of the word, this article is not going to be merely about revival, but also about related topics that are often lumped under the general title of “revival”. Hopefully, by the end of this post you will have a clear understanding of what it is we’re studying and what I hope to accomplish. 

I’ve already stated that a strict definition of revival is too limited for our purposes. Therefore we are going to create a working definition of revival that will fit our purposes. And yet, I think it will be helpful for us to first offer a strict definition of revival that will help us discern where we extending beyond that strict definition. 

Even beyond the strict definition we’re going to a find a shared goal – an end product – that is shared by the strict definition of revival as well. It is this goal – this end product – that we are really driving at, not just revival in the strict sense. It is this end product that is our real goal. Yet when it is all said and done, if this goal is achieved, we will be able to look back on what happened. And the word that will predominantly describe what has occurred will probably be revival. That’s the broad sense of revival. But let’s first start by defining revival in the strict sense. 

Dead unbelievers need spiritual awakening

What is the strict definition of revival? Again, I’m not claiming to be the authority on this. This is just my perspective, though I do believe it to be valid. Revival is often used to describe evangelistic events. The old “tent revival meetings” were designed to see people saved from their sins. But dead people are not revived. Now, I know there is a window of opportunity where dead people can revived. There is a difference between what is called “clinically dead” and “biologically dead”. When one is clinically dead they may still be revived. CPR can still be done and they may be revived. But once they are biologically dead there is no reviving them. So, there’s dead and then there’s really dead!

Old fashioned revival meeting

This is an illustration that perhaps breaks down at some point. But as it pertains to spiritual life there is no such thing as an individual who was once spiritually alive and is now spiritual dead and in need of spiritual revival. If there’s a person who is spiritually dead they were born that way and never had life. If they have spiritual life they cannot spiritually die. They have everlasting life. Everlasting life means it’s life that’s everlasting! 

So all individuals who are born into this world are born spiritually dead and need new birth, not spiritual revival. This may be called a spiritual awaken, but not spiritual revival.

Dead people are not revived. 

Healthy Christians need spiritual growth

If you see someone floating face down in a pool of water for a long enough period of time you know they are not just holding their breath. They’ve died (clinically at least). If you see an individual like that you will be deemed a hero if you jump into that pool, pull them out, and begin CPR. You will especially be deemed a hero if you successfully revive that person. But even if you don’t you’ll probably still be deemed a hero because you at least tried. 


But, if you attempt the same on a robust, strong, healthy, athletic swimmer in the middle of swimming laps, “hero” is not going to be the label given to you! You don’t revive healthy people. You don’t revive healthy Christians. Spiritually healthy people are not in need of revival. 

But there’s an important clarification that must be made. It becomes very apparent in Paul’s letter to the Philippian believers that he had not attained. I think this would be true of all Christians. No one attains perfect Christ-likeness in this life. Thus there is always great need (yes, great need) for spiritual growth on the part of all believers. But not all believers are in need of spiritual revival. Paul gives his testimony: “I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12b-14)

The apostle Paul had been saved. He’d been “apprehended” for the purpose of being like Christ. But he had not yet attained that. You and I haven’t attained that. No Christian in the world has attain that. We haven’t even come close!

We have great need for spiritual growth, but not necessarily revival. 

Backslidden Christians need spiritual revival

We have three categories of people we’re examining. So far, we have dead people and spiritual people. Neither one needs revival. They both have needs, but it’s not revival. The spiritual dead need awakening. The spiritually healthy need growth. But neither need revival.

Backslidden believers are in need of revival. Backslidden Christians are those who are spiritually alive but have slidden from the level of spiritual maturity which they once had (only then by God’s grace). They need to be brought back to a level of faith and obedience which will take them beyond where they once were to greater heights of spirituality. 

But see, the word “revival” is often used to describe all these things – spiritual awakening, spiritual growth, and (strictly speaking) spiritual revival. We often use the word to mean something beyond the strict definition of revival. 

We say that Christians need revival. But I have to tell you, from my perspective this is the way I see it: most individual Christians today are not backslidden. They’ve simply never grown to the level they should not at. 

This is not a new problem. In Hebrews 5, the writer of Hebrews addresses this very problem of Christians who should be more mature but just haven’t grown. The reasons for this lack of growth may be somewhat different than ours today but at the same time, it’s still the same problem. Look at verses twelve through fourteen, “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” What Christians need today is to experience growth they’ve never experienced before! Call it revival if you like. But let’s just make sure we know what we’re talking about. 

Many churches have what they call “revival meetings”. Most of the time these are evangelistic meetings. Christians are encouraged to invite as many unsaved people as they can so that they might hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and be saved. And while this might be a very fine thing to do, it’s not revival. These people are dead! They need spiritual awakening, not revival.

Now, we can call both of these examples revival if you want to. But we have to know what we mean. It’s like the term “love”. We don’t object to people saying that they love the weather, that they love dogs, that they love their spouse, or that they love coffee. But there’s a huge distinction between the love that you have for your spouse and the love you have for your dog (or, at least I hope there is!). We use the same word to describe these different affections but we know by the context what it is we’re talking about. So let’s just make sure we know what we’re talking about.

To summarize: backsliders (Christians who have left a level of spiritual maturity they once had) need revival, Christians (all Christians!) need to grown, and unbelievers need to be saved. And when all of that happens in significant numbers we can look at that big picture and rightfully say that revival has occurred. I don’t mind using the term that way, but it is a much broader use of the term. 

I want to return that what I said earlier about the common goal or end product of revival, awakening, and growth. People in all three categories need to overcome idolatry and worship God alone. The need for the unbeliever is that he be saved and become a worshipper of God alone. Certainly, there’s a lot more that comes with salvation. A saved person has eternal life, forgiveness, freedom from the power of sin, and much more. But the ultimate end of salvation is a relationship with God. He’s been saved to be able to worship God. That’s the ultimate need of an unbeliever. 

The need of the backslidden Christian is that he become a worshipper of God alone. The need of the Christian in want of further growth is to become a worshipper of God alone; that he become like Christ who said to Satan, “It is written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.’” (Luke 4:8). Even as believers, any time we fail it is because, at least at the moment of sin, we’ve chosen to worship someone or something other than God. So we can add this to our definition of revival: “Revival is overcoming our idolatry to worship God alone”.

In God’s dealings with the children of Israel, He made clear time and time again that their need was to forsake false gods and return to the one God, the covenant God of Israel. The New Testament emphasis is really no different for the church than it was for Israel in the Old Testament. Israel’s need was to forsake idolatry and worship God alone. Our need is the same. The risen Lord Jesus had this to say to one of His churches, “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” (Revelation 2:4-5) 

That’s why we can’t limit this discussion to revival in the strict sense of the word. In some sense, revival (in the strict sense) might be the least needed of the three categories. A whole lot of people need to be saved. A whole lot of people need spiritual growth. Relatively fewer people were once mature and have fallen away and now need revival.

But all three are needed. 

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