“But we are still too careless and ineffective in our prayer lives. We need to recruit many more of God’s children for serious prevailing intercession for revival. It will probably be the regret of millions of Christians throughout eternity that they failed so tragically in their prayer lives. How ashamed they will be when they stand before Christ’s judgment throne. But, oh, the joy of those who wake up now and invest quality time and an adequate quantity of time in earnest intercession, particularly for revival.” (Wesley Duewel, Revival Fire)
Many streams in the body of Christ are driven by the goal of revival. But what is revival? Today, while revival is passionately discussed and prayed for, the term – which cannot be found in the New Testament – is often undefined and we are left to fill in the blanks with whatever cultural ideas we inherit related to the word. From my experience, the concept of revival was generally equated with large scale signs and wonders, mass societal and national transformation, the overturning of evil legislation, the church prospering and being a powerful influence in the world, etc. These were the common ways revival was defined in the streams I grew up in. I heard statements like, “We have to launch an assault on the kingdom of darkness through prayer. If the body of Christ doesn’t respond then America is doomed.” I grew up inspired by a dominating dream that our nation would “turn back to God” and that prayer would “win the battle in the air”. I believed that if I “pressed in” enough, I would get “the breakthrough”, shift things in the Spirit”, and “change the spiritual atmosphere” of a region. I was taught that America was always on the edge of great “crisis” (God’s judgment for our sin) and the only prescription was “solemn assemblies” (a biblical term related to the corporate repentance of national Israel). If we prayed enough we could “push back darkness” and delay this crisis. Since more intercession would “prevail over the works of darkness” and “pull down the promises”, the only logical model for the church was continual intercession. We needed to establish houses of prayer that would “contend with every other house”. I believed I was a part of a special movement of “forerunners” ahead of the rest. I was the “tip of the arrow” that would “change the world”. These were the charismatic buzzwords I grew up with and they shaped how I understood my mission. I was excited to be a part of all this and I viewed anyone on the outside, those content with church as usual, to be sleeping or in compromise. They didn’t get “what God is doing in our generation”. But I did.
I had fear that if I didn’t weed out distractions like TV and secular music, I wouldn’t experience encounter with God (what I had at the time perceived to be the goal of my faith). These “lesser pleasures” would not only “dull my spirit”, they would also disqualify me and cause me to miss out on my special calling to be a prophetic messenger, awaken the church, and bring in revival. I remember one leader encouraging others to fast by recounting how God told him that if he didn’t give himself to adequate fasting, he would be useless to God in the days to come. Time and time again, I was exhorted with warnings of crisis mingled with promises of revival. But they weren’t just little subjective prophetic words. They were said to be really important. While not explicitly exalted to the level of Scripture, these words formed a storyline, a controlling narrative by which I was exhorted. God went out of His way to give these special revelations and I believed that I was bound to them. The nations were hanging in the balance, the boat was sinking, and if I didn’t respond correctly I would have to talk to God about it at the judgment seat. Would I stand before God filled with regret at the failure of my prayer life and lack of dedication?
But as I read my Bible and questioned what it meant to be a Christian, I discovered that Jesus and the Apostles did not talk like this, pray like this, or exhort the church like this. I was always focused on the next crisis, the next solemn assembly, the next election, the next great move of God, or if none of that was at the immediate forefront, I was consumed with more ways to feel and encounter God. But these things proved to be nothing more than a hamster wheel – the harder I ran the more disillusioned I became. Time and time again, the promises of revival or experiencing God were held out as a carrot on a stick in place of the true “hope of the gospel” (Col. 1:23). They were a distraction – shiny trinkets I gave myself to seek after. Spinning my head, I tried to find out what God was doing in my generation. Yet all the while there is one central thing God is doing in this and every generation – “the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). This was the faith of the Apostles. This faith did not consist in believing for revival, a nation turning to God, or even cultural influence for positive change. Rather, it was a bearing witness to the truth of what God has done and what He has promised to do. For the Apostles, this primarily consisted in pointing back to the death and resurrection of Jesus as well as pointing forward to the fixed day when all things will be restored. Their mission was to “make disciples” (Mt. 28:19) and “bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5), that is, people who believe these things to be true, place their hope fully in the return of Jesus, boast only in the cross, and live a life of obedience typified by love. They warned us to beware of those who would lead us down a different path or point us to a different hope. There is “one faith” (Eph. 4:5) which was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jd 1:3).
Now, I am not questioning whether the Apostles relied on working of the Holy Spirit to empower the witness of the gospel and mature the church. They absolutely did and so should we. What I am seeking to point out is how they never prayed for this modern concept of “revival” or exhorted us to contend for it. That wasn’t their agenda. They didn’t set out to change the world, overturn evil legislation, or get “God’s man” in political office – their writings made it clear that those things were not part of their God-given mission. For them, the only solution to the ills of society was the bodily return of Jesus, the One who alone would change the world and order it in righteousness forever. Bearing witness to Jesus as God’s appointed king was their guiding mission (cf. Acts 10:42) When praying, they uttered specific prayers related to the maturity of the Church in faith, hope, and love. They prayed for boldness in the preaching of the Word. In short, they prayed in agreement with the will of God; the One who set them apart “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (Rom. 1:5). Unfortunately, when people pray for “revival”, they may have this biblical mission in mind but they often blend it with agendas such as “binding the evil one” or “taking the land” – things the Apostles never prayed for.
Language shapes reality and when our language departs from that of the Apostles, we should ask ourselves, “Are we playing the same game?” When the coach says, “Kick the soccer ball in the goal”, you would have to be somewhat concerned to hear the players talking about how to capture the flag. In the same way, when the Apostles use language exhorting us to “contend for the faith” (Jd 1:3), why are we so eager to contend for revival? When the Apostles tell us to fight the good fight of faith, laying hold of eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12), why are so concerned about laying hold of societal transformation in this age? For years, I was caught up in the hamster wheel of revivalism, thinking this was the true Christian faith. But in doing so, I was actually calling myself to something God had never called me to, binding myself to something God had never bound me to.
“God never binds people to error or uncertainty. Only inerrant, authoritative, special revelation is binding on all Christians. The only ‘words from God’ that fit that criteria are those found in Scripture. It is abusive to make personal words from God to be special revelations of God’s will either to an individual or to a church. These ‘words’ never have the quality of being ‘certainly from God.’ When we take them to be that when they are not, then we have become false prophets to our own selves or to the church.” (Bob DeWaay, Critical Issues Commentary)
If you have ever been placed under the burden of prophetic words related to judgment or revival, I want to tell you very clearly: You are not responsible for turning a nation back to God or averting imminent crisis through prayer and fasting. Neither is your confidence on the day of judgment tied to the quantity or effectiveness of your prayers, it’s tied to faith in Christ Jesus, abiding in Him, and putting your boast in His free gift of righteousness (cf. 1 Jn. 2:28, Phil. 3:9). Your responsibility is the obedience that flows from faith in Jesus, a life of submission to “the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2; cf. James 2:8; Jn. 15:12) summed up in self-sacrificial love. Instead of fearing distractions that would keep you from experiencing encounter or disqualify you from being used by God, you can learn to enjoy the beauty and goodness of creation while simultaneously refusing to be intoxicated by its wickedness. You can learn how to be sober in faith, hope, and love, recognizing the devil is waging a war to destroy these things (1 Thess. 5:8; 1 Pet. 5:8). In short, you can just be a Christian.
This has been my journey. I am grateful for the way past leaders in my life have valued the Scriptures and encouraged me to question their teaching on that basis. This Biblical investigation has been my aim. With a humble awareness that I have much to learn, I hope this post bears the marks of gentleness, kindness, and godly concern. I don’t want people to be caught up with things the Apostles weren’t caught up with. I don’t want people binding themselves to subjective prophetic words that distract them from the prize of eternal life. May we contend earnestly for the faith of the Apostles and imitate their prayers for the maturity of the church in faith, hope, and love – our faith grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus, our hope anchored in His return, and our lives bearing the fruits of sacrificial love.