Yesterday I was present at a discussion among ministers about revival. We had had a stimulating and encouraging talk about the north Wales revival of 1904-05. The discussion tended to follow lines one has heard before, though it was none the worse for that.
A central issue always is: what is the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility? Can we in any way 'prepare' for revival? Can we contribute to a chain of causation leading to its coming? The human contributions may consist of prayer, preaching, penitence (repentance) and purity (a holy life - 'God can't fill a dirty vessel') yet the history of revivals shows God is notoriously difficult to pin down and bestows his blessing where he wills. There may be common themes in revivals but it would be a brave man who said 'this must happen or else there will not be revival' or 'if this happens, then revival will follow'. Charles Finney was such a man, of course.
Let us look at prayer for revival. Who would not pray at some point, 'Lord pour out your blessing on this land'? Increasingly one hears Christians , at long last slowly being brought to our knees and our senses by the abject failure of the church in its cleverness to make any inroads on the darkness around us, realising that without a great movement of the Holy Spirit we are lost.
Yet systematic prayer for revival is also characteristically tied to a postmillenialist eschatology - as in Jonathan Edwards' 'Humble Attempt' (1747). Revival is the way in which the gospel prepares the way for the Lord's return. If one is a premillenialist, then characteristically one would pray for the Lord's immediate return, as the Brethren apparently did in the 19th Century (and I have been told they forbade praying for revival).
What of the poor Amillenialist? The optimistic representative of this group is close to the postmillenialist and may pray in that manner; the pessimistic amillenialist is likely to think more like the premillenialist.
Can prayer for revival be separated from eschatological concerns?
Not entirely one would hope, or we are being less than fully theological about things (and that is something with which we could never charge Jonathan Edwards).
But surely the true Amillenialist is concerned above all with the glory of God (and I am not suggesting our friends in other eschatological camps are not). With this in mind, is not revival principally seeking God for his own sake and for his presence? It was rightly concluded at yesterday's meeting that the presence of God, felt and powerful, is the characteristic of revival proper. It is not the results, even though Jonathan Edwards would be right to see widespread revival as bringing in a gospel 'golden age'. But why does God send revivals? It would be presumptuous to think there is only one answer to this, or that we could certainly know it. One might, for example, say that it is because the world is getting so bad. But why at certain times in certain places, when we could say with some justification that other places and other times are as bad if not worse. Did the Isle of Lewis need that much more purifying in 1949-51?
Or is it because the people are praying, or holier than others? Or the church deader than others? It is difficult to pin down - why in 1904 did revivals break out in Rhos near Wrexham? The people were gathered for a series of meetings to deepen spiritual life. Is it preaching? Iain Campbell (Lewis) has said he has studied many sermons of the early 20th century of preachers used in revival times in Lewis, and there is no discernible difference on paper between times of revival and times of non-revival. The content is the same. The difference is the (greater) presence of the Spirit of God.
Is it because the people are seeking God? Even when, as we often see, no more than in 1904-05 perhaps, the theology leaves something to be desired?
Perhaps praying that is more concerned with the Giver than the gift is the prayer which , while we would not presume to call it or anything else the key to revival, is the praying that is closest to the heart of revival and most correspondent to the true effects of revival - a people enraptured with God. Perhaps it is out of his desire to cause people to love him for himself that God makes it so difficult for us to define the terms on which revival will come, and acts so gloriously sovereignly as to both time and place. Yet it may also give a hint as to why some areas are and have been more blessed than others.
As to fruit - Jonathan Edwards is surely right to say that love will be the fruit of a true work of God.
A final point - the theology of worship that says we gather together only to encourage and edify one another but not to 'worship', is surely selling itself short here in relation to expecting or longing for the felt presence of God. It is a theology that is inimical to revival. Yet those of us with a fuller theology of the Lord's Day meeting should not be triumphalist; God is known not to bless only because of correct theology.