Summary: Whenever you see an awakening taking place, you see people crying out to God in confession of sin. Sometimes this can be gradual, where God’s people really listen to the preaching of the Word. And at other times, there’s a sudden change as if an invisible thunderbolt from heaven comes down.
A revival is a time when sleepy Christians wake up, when nominal Christians convert to Christ, and when non-Christians come to faith in Christ. This is accompanied by an increase in the conviction of sin, an increase in the consciousness of God’s mercy and our unworthiness. You see, a revival is the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit (I’m not speaking of signs and wonders) when the Spirit convicts of sin, brings assurance of salvation, and makes the sense of Jesus Christ intensely real. We want revival for so many reasons but one reason is this: revival always makes an impact on a society. There have always been social reforms in the wake of revivals — whether it is the repeal of child labor laws, the abolition of slavery, or even a decrease in crime — revival always leaves it mark on a people.
Now, the mention of the words revival or awakening will make some Christians light with excitement while others will roll their eyes with suspicion. I get this as so many of us have seen so much emotionalism, that we run from the phony stuff. No one can force a major revival to happen by pushing the right buttons. Yet, allow me to give you Five marks that help distinguish a real awakening from the phony emotional stuff that passes for an awakening.
Five Marks of True Revival
Jonathan Edwards was the great pastor in Northampton, MS and experienced several revivals in his time there. You know him from his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God.” But he’s much bigger than this one sermon. In fact, nearly 300 years ago, during the First Great Awakening, he penned a book where he outlines five true marks of a revival. These are helpful for us to quickly review.
1. A Deeper Awareness of God’s Presence
Usually a time of renewal is preceded by a crisis and during the crisis, God’s people really seek His presence. The people of God had a thirst for the living God. There’s a hunger for God’s presence. Revival or Awakening never happens unless the Spirit of God shows Himself strong.
When you study the awakenings in the past, I don’t know of one that wasn’t preceded by an extraordinary time of prayer. The Holy Spirit uses “extraordinary prayer” — united, persistent, and kingdom centered prayer. What is important is not the number of people praying but the nature of the praying. There is a difference between “maintenance” and “frontline” praying. Maintenance prayer meetings are short, mechanical, and focused on physical needs inside the church.
In contrast, the three basic traits of frontline prayer are these:
1. A request for grace to confess sins and to humble ourselves;
2. A compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church and the reaching of the lost;
3. A yearning to know God, to see his face, to glimpse his glory.
2. An Increased Sensitivity to Sin
Whenever you see an awakening taking place, you see people crying out to God in confession of sin. Sometimes this can be gradual, where God’s people really listen to the preaching of the Word. And at other times, there’s a sudden change as if an invisible thunderbolt from heaven comes down. Either way, you begin to notice a deepening burden on the minds of people whether they are old or young, rich or poor, man or woman. There’s a pervasive shame throughout, as they search for inner peace. There’s a deep anguish of the heart and it may reveal itself as silent, downcast appearance of the face but at other times, you witness people sobbing because of their increased sensitivity to sin. A true revival will see a lot of people in despair and sadness. A true revival will see someone’s conscience awakened.
3. A Renewed Discovery of God’s Grace
The strange thing about an awakened congregation is you’ll have a mixture of sadness and joy in the same room. There’s sadness because we realize the true weight of our sins, but there’s real gladness because we begin to appreciate the significance of the gospel. A lot of people right now are living life like this: “I live a good life; therefore Jesus accepts me.” But, when revival/awakening comes, there’s new embrace that Jesus saves sinners by grace. There’s a new grasp of the wonder of God’s grace. So in place of, “I live a good life; therefore Jesus accepts me,” it’s now, “Jesus accepts me; now I’ll live a good life.” Sleepy Christians wake up to the power of grace and realize they cannot be accepted based on their religious performance.
Over time, people and even the whole church will lose sight of the gospel. One of the main vehicles sparking the first awakening in Northampton, Massachusetts was Edwards' two sermons on Romans 4:5, “Justification by Faith Alone,” in November, 1734. For both John Wesley and George Whitefield, the main leaders of the British Great Awakening, it was an understanding of salvation by grace rather than moral effort that touched off personal renewal and made them agents of revival. The gospel will delight committed Christians, confront nominal Christians, while arousing sleepy Christians – all at the same time. There’s a rediscovery of the gospel by a generation or a church body.