Christian Living

Spiritual Life


IN THIS CHAPTER, you will discover:

·   The biblical basis of revival.       

·   A history of renewal movements before the Reformation.    

AS A RESULT, you will be able to:       

·   Trace the Holy Spirit'’s activity through cycles of revival.       

·     Understand revival in the church before the Reformation.

Revival Defined

Key Scripture: “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth” (Hab. 3:2-3).

For many Christians, the word “revival” suggests a special evangelistic campaign. A visiting minister may preach at a local church for a time with the express purpose of gaining new members for the church. For that reason, revival week is usually well advertised, especially inside the church community. A large crowd may attend, depending to a great degree on the enthusiasm of the congregation or the popularity of the visiting evangelist. The results are often nominal—some new converts may join the church, but after the revival is over, life in the church and community mostly goes on as usual.

Professional evangelistic campaigns featuring well-known evangelists like Billy Graham usually draw larger audiences and are often co-sponsored by several area churches. Their impact is usually much greater, with whole cities sometimes undergoing revivals as a result. When the lives of many are transformed and these persons, in turn, begin to change both the church and society, revival has taken place.

The meaning of revival for unchurched people may be quite different, however. Their concept may have been formed by grandparents who attended an old-time revival, or perhaps they may have seen a movie or television program depicting one. Such caricatures typically have a tent complete with sawdust floor and a boisterous, Bible-thumping preacher. His listeners are poor, uneducated fanatics who scream and faint—totally overcome by excessive emotionalism. A climate of hysteria is pervasive. Revival, they decide, is not something they care to be associated with.

The word “revival” therefore has several shades of meaning. But for our purposes, we will adopt the definition given in The Concise Dictionary of the Christian Tradition edited by J. D. Douglas, Walter A. Elwell, and Peter Toon (Zondervan, copyright © 1989, p. 326): “A tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a church or churches in a specific area. The results are felt both in terms of the internal life of the people and in their mission to the world.” Thus, in revival, God periodically intervenes spiritually in the normal course of human affairs.

Old Testament Revivals

Humanity’s need for revival began with the Fall. For where there is sin and rebellion against God, there is a need for revival. Because of Israel’s propensity to sin, revivals in the Old Testament always occurred in cycles. The books of Judges and Kings especially show the following pattern of revival:

  • Israel sinned
  • Prophets were sent to warn the people
  • God judged Israel
  • The people repented
  • Revival took place
  • God again blessed Israel
  • The cycle began again

This cycle can be seen in the following example from the life of Elijah the prophet.

Elijah Brings Revival

King Ahab continued in the sins of Jeroboam his predecessor, but he compounded his sin by marrying the wicked Jezebel (1 Kings 16:29-33). They both served the false god Baal, and their actions provoked the Lord more than all the previous rulers. Such abominable behavior forced God to send a severe drought on the land as judgment. He then sent his prophet Elijah to warn Ahab that no rain would fall for several years.

After three years had passed, the Lord decided to end the drought. But before the rains came, Elijah challenged Ahab and his 450 prophets of Baal. On Mount Carmel, Elijah set about to prove the power of God over the power of an idol. Elijah boldly challenged the onlooking crowd: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). When the people did not answer, Elijah went ahead with his plans. First, he gave the false prophets the opportunity to ask their god to send fire to burn their sacrifice. From morning till noon, past midday, and until early evening they cried out. Agitated because he did not answer, they began to cut themselves. Elijah taunted them as everyone watched.

Finally, at the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah called on the people to repair the altar of the Lord. After digging a trench around it, he placed the sacrifice on the altar and ordered it covered with water three times. When everything was thoroughly drenched, Elijah called on the Lord: “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (v. 37). At that moment fire fell from heaven, burning up Elijah’s sacrifice as well as the wood, the stones, the soil, even the water in the trench. Then the people fell on their faces and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39).

In this account, we see how God used his prophet to bring revival after judgment, but with an added twist. In a mighty show of power, God demonstrated that he alone is worthy of worship and that Israel was to worship no other gods except Yahweh alone. Israel’s cycle of sin and revival ended in 722 b.c. when the nation was destroyed by the Assyrians and the people sent into exile.

The Exceedingly Wicked Manasseh

The next example is Manasseh, one of the kings of Judah (2 Chron. 33:1-20). Hardly a candidate as a revivalist, his reign was exceedingly evil. Ascending the throne at the age of twelve, Manasseh became more and more wicked as the years went on. He consulted spirit mediums and sorcerers, and even sacrificed his own children as burnt offerings to idols. And as the king went, so went the nation (2 Kings 21:16). Through his servants, the prophets, God warned Israel, but Manasseh and the people ignored him. Finally, God’s judgment came as the Assyrian army captured Jerusalem and carted the king away in chains to Babylon.

At last, Manasseh repented and called on God to save him. The Lord had pity on him and allowed him to return to his kingdom in Jerusalem. Manasseh finally realized that the Lord was really God (2 Chron. 33:12-13). As a result of his personal revival, he tore down the pagan altars, removed foreign gods from the city, and rebuilt the altar of the Lord. He not only offered sacrifices to God, but also demanded that his people worship only the Lord God of Israel (2 Chron. 33:16).

Manasseh serves as an example of a desperately wicked man who underwent a personal revival. As a result, his whole country was restored, for a time, to the true worship of Jehovah.

Good King Josiah

In contrast to the evil beginning of Manasseh, Josiah began to serve the Lord as a child. Yet even as a “good” king, Josiah needed revival—a fresh revelation from the Lord. The Bible tells us that “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left” (2 Chron. 34:2).

For 200 years, the temple had been neglected. At the age of 22, the wicked and idolatrous Amon became king of Judah. After two years in power, his own officials assassinated him. And his son Josiah became king at the tender age of eight. When Josiah was 20, he began to purge both Judah and Jerusalem of its idols and pagan altars. At age 26, he began to purify the land and the temple. Josiah reinstated the Levites to their rightful positions in the temple. From this group came guards, accountants, superintendents, musicians, supervisors, and carriers. Throughout the whole restoration of the temple, Josiah had musicians playing praises in the background as the work progressed.

One day, the high priest found an old scroll in the temple (probably the book of Deuteronomy). It contained the laws of God that had been given to Moses. When Josiah heard the words of the Law, he became distraught. He realized the nation was under judgment for the evils that had been committed in the land. Ignorance, Josiah knew, was no excuse for Judah’s failure to follow God’s instructions. Disaster was imminent. However, the prophetess Huldah assured the king that God’s hand would be stayed throughout his lifetime. Because of his responsive and repentant heart, Josiah was spared the disaster that would later fall on the kingdom (v. 27).

In response to the Lord’s words, the king “renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, regulations, and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, and to obey the words of the covenant written in the book. Then he had everyone in Jerusalem and Benjamin pledge themselves to it; the people of Jerusalem did this in accordance with the covenant of God, the God of their fathers” (vv. 31-32). Josiah’s godly influence was so great that all the people remained faithful to God throughout his lifetime. Their subsequent apostasy 23 years later once again brought judgment upon Judah through the Babylonians.


The prophet Ezekiel lived during the turbulent and grim days when Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonians and finally fell to them in 586 b.c. Ezekiel had acted as the Lord’s spokesman, constantly chastising the leaders for their rebellion. Jerusalem had earned the title “the bloody city,” for many of their pagan rites involved the shedding of blood. Moreover, the leaders had so oppressed the poor that many had died. God’s charges against them were murder, adultery, extortion, family breakup, abuse, and idolatry. Israel became spiritually famished from the filthiness of their sins and desperately needed a revival! Compounding her misery was physical famine and exile from her beloved homeland.

Ezekiel was part of the group exiled to Babylon in 597. Some of the exiles became dejected and gave up hope. Others assimilated into the society of Babylon, married foreigners, and became quite content. But Ezekiel helped to organize temporary communities to aid the people in preserving their faith. This prophet was one of the first to realize that God’s kingdom was not solely confined to the Promised Land. Instead he desired that every nation should know him. Because his reign is universal, he can be worshipped anywhere. The prophet realized that even though the nation was dead, God was still sovereign—and there was hope for revival.

God’s remarkable promise of renewal, which prophetically foreshadows the new covenant, is outlined in 36:24-30:

  • Gathering from exile and return to the land
  • Cleansing from impurities and idols
  • Removal of heart of stone and giving heart of flesh
  • Giving of a new spirit and putting of Spirit within
  • Renewal of covenant: “you will be my people, and I will be your God”
  • Multiplication of fruit and crops

This promise was gloriously confirmed in the vision of the valley of dry bones in chapter 37. When asked if these bones could live again, Ezekiel replied, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know” (v. 3). As Ezekiel prophesied over the bones, first they came together and were covered with skin. Then the Spirit’s breath entered into them, and they miraculously came to life. Israel’s hope, thought to be gone, was instead restored from the grave. This vision is a powerful reminder that the Spirit of God can bring revival even when outward circumstances seem hopeless.

Revival or renewal follows judgment when true repentance has occurred. In this particular situation, the judgment on Israel brought exile. Now God would return them to their homeland and restore them to himself. As a result, God’s name would be reverenced by other nations.

New Testament Revivals

The most stunning example of revival is found in the book of Acts. Before his ascension, Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would visit them—giving power to testify concerning his death and resurrection. He then gave specific directions to take this good news to Jerusalem and ultimately to the ends of the earth. Yet after the Resurrection, the disciples had been so fraught with failure and self-doubt that they had become immobile.

Then seven weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus, revival broke out at Pentecost. Such a moving of the Holy Spirit had never been witnessed before. Believers were filled with the Spirit and began to speak in other tongues. Crowds marveled at the fulfillment of the prophecy made by Joel centuries before. Peter, empowered by the Holy Spirit, preached a dynamic sermon proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. He assured them that salvation was only available through the Christ. His words moved the people deeply; and when they asked what to do, Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Three thousand people were gloriously saved that day.

The revival at Pentecost was planned and executed by the Holy Spirit—as are all true revivals. His visible (tongues of fire) and audible (rushing wind) signs could not be denied. The fire that settled on the heads of the disciples was symbolic of God. Fire warms, burns, and purifies. The wind represented the power of the Holy Spirit. Another sign of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment was manifested in the believers’ speaking in other languages. A similar miracle—that of understanding an unknown language—was a specific sign. This experience was exactly opposite to God’s treatment of the people at the Tower of Babel. There God confused their language and disunity resulted; here he gave understanding and the one church was born. The difference was in the heart attitude: those building the tower were attempting to exalt themselves, while those at Pentecost were reaching up to God—open, available, and hungry for his Holy Spirit.

The revival at Pentecost produced changed lives. The disciples had been hopelessly self-centered and self-reliant. Their primary motivation was changed from self-preservation to concern for others. They were not only willing to reach out, but the Spirit of God also compelled them by his love. After the revival, new believers began to attend prayer meetings where the apostles taught the word. Miracles were common. Love, generosity, and joy characterized each believer. And God continued to save others (2:42-47).

Pentecost was the first revival recorded in the New Testament—and what a glorious model! Such a great number of converts! Such manifestations of power and glory! All subsequent revivals have borne a spiritual resemblance to this spectacular event. God is still the same! His Holy Spirit still comes in power! Therefore, we are to expect the same miraculous results as experienced at Pentecost.

Revival at Ephesus

As a missionary, the apostle Paul was accustomed to revivals. But one of his evangelistic campaigns turned into a long-term revival. When he arrived in Ephesus, Paul asked several disciples if they had received the Holy Spirit. Those twelve men had been baptized according to John’s teaching and were unaware of the teaching of Jesus. When Paul explained that Jesus was the Christ of whom John spoke, they gladly accepted him as Savior and were baptized immediately. As Paul laid hands on each one, the Holy Spirit fell on them; and they spoke in other languages and prophesied (Acts 19:6).

This was only the beginning. As Paul preached in the synagogue at Ephesus for three months, many people believed and were saved. Later, because of Jewish opposition, Paul moved to a nearby lecture hall where he taught for two more years. As a result, the gospel message was proclaimed throughout the Roman province of Asia. The revival spurred the establishment of the church in Ephesus. But when revival broke out, his opponents linked to the powerful Artemis cult, whose temple in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, stepped up their attacks. Toward the end of his two years of teaching, the opposition became so great that Paul often feared for his life. But revival had come to the great city and nothing could stop it.

Rejoicing: A Fruit of Revival

The fruit of personal revival can be seen in two stories from the Bible. First Kings 17 records the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. During a long drought, God sent food to Elijah using a raven. Later, God sent Elijah to ask a widow for bread. Because she shared her last bit of bread, God miraculously multiplied her flour and oil to provide for her, her son, and Elijah. But one day the boy grew ill and died. Immediately the widow blamed Elijah and God. At that moment, she would have given up her own life to have her son alive again.

The boy was physically dead. But Elijah trusted God to restore his life. As the prophet stretched out over the boy three times, he called to God. The Lord heard his plea and granted his request. When Elijah presented the healthy boy to his mother, he said, “Look, your son is alive!” (v. 23). Although the narrator leaves the story at that point, we know that the widow rejoiced greatly to have her only son brought back from the dead.

In Luke 15, Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son. This foolish young man had abandoned his father and his principles and, for all practical purposes, was dead in sin. When life closed in on him and he was in the middle of an unbearable crisis, the prodigal came to his senses. His father’s abiding love reached out over the miles, through the muck and the mire, to the heart of his son.

In the familiar conclusion, the father greeted his returning son with open arms, rejoicing, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again” (v. 24). Just as the widow rejoiced over the return of her son from physical death, the father of the prodigal rejoiced over the return of his son from spiritual death.

As we compare this father’s rejoicing with our Father’s rejoicing, we find that all prodigals who undergo revival receive:

  • A robe of righteousness to cover sins
  • A signet ring of spiritual authority
  • Shoes as a symbol of status
  • A fattened calf symbolizing an abundant life
  • A celebration memorializing this auspicious occasion

We have learned that revival is to raise spiritually someone from the dead. Because of its transformative effect upon those dead in sin, revival is, in a sense, more miraculous than the resuscitation of a person physically dead. Revival has its roots in the history of God’s people—from the Old Testament, through the New, and into today. And no generation is complete without experiencing personal and corporate revival.

Pre-Reformation Revivals

Key Scripture: “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:13).

Revivals did not end with biblical times. Throughout the history of the church, God has been intent upon reviving and renewing it. During some periods, spiritual darkness and malaise prevailed; during other times, such monumental changes occurred that their effects are still felt today.

Not every revival has been looked on as a blessing, especially to the established church at the time. But each has made an impact and has influenced Christian thought and practice in one way or another. Many seemingly insignificant groups have caused one significant person to seek revival—who has influenced someone else years later—and so on in a type of revivalistic chain reaction. The following groups or individuals were all significant in setting the scene for the great Reformation. They are listed here chronologically, not according to their importance.

Montanism Montanus

Montanism Montanus (c. a.d. 150) had been a pagan priest in his native Phrygia (modern Turkey) before his conversion to Christianity. Alarmed over the church’s abandonment of apostolic Christianity, Montanus also was disturbed at the increasing intellectualism of the hierarchy, the lack of church discipline, and the immorality of church members. His followers wanted to operate within the church, but because of their reforming zeal, they were forced out.

Montanism’s roots were in Christianity, but its adherents also regarded themselves as specially endued with the Spirit and endowed with new revelation. They were fanatical in asceticism (e.g., veiling of virgins) and in church discipline (e.g., considering second marriages as adultery). They predicted the end of the world was at hand, and that the New Jerusalem would descend near Pepuza. One noted adherent was the church father Tertullian.

Although the movement spread quickly throughout Asia Minor, the church subsequently condemned Montanism as heresy over the question of its exclusive claim to prophetic revelation. In spite of its problems, Montanism rightly insisted on the Holy Spirit’s role in the church when the trend was toward increased institutionalization.

Francis of Assisi

Francis was born into a wealthy family in Assisi, Italy in 1181. Described as a happy, handsome, and popular young man, he chose a career as a merchant. Dissatisfied with that profession, Francis became a soldier. Around the age of 25, he relinquished all his possessions and vowed to live in poverty, determining to spend the rest of his life serving the poor. Francis loved life and is especially remembered for his love for all of God’s creatures. Although he was never ordained as a priest, Francis went as a missionary to Italy, Spain, and Egypt. He also visited Palestine and finally returned to Assisi. After his health failed, Francis died at his favorite chapel. Two years later he was canonized by the church.

Francis founded the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church. His order took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The friars’ purpose was to preach the gospel while living in poverty. They felt that freedom from worldly goods would make them more efficient in missions, preaching, and charitable work. Friars were humble men who called each other “brother.” They differed from monks who withdrew from the world into monasteries. At first, the friars were devoted to providing spiritual care for others, but later they also turned their attention to educational work. Many of the Indian missions along the Pacific coast as well as other posts throughout the United States and Canada were established by the Franciscans. This group, “in the world, but not of it,” was instrumental in bringing the Western world into the faith.

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe was born in 1320 in Yorkshire, England. After studying at Oxford University, he became head of Balliol College in 1361. He had observed the church becoming extremely wealthy, noting that it possessed almost unlimited power over civil affairs. The pope, much like a king, decreed what the people should believe. Then the priests dictated their beliefs to the common people. Because the poor were largely illiterate and had no Bibles, they depended solely on the church for religious instruction. Enraged, Wycliffe denied the authority of the pope — going so far as to suggest that church property be managed by the government.

Because of Wycliffe’s radical view of the Roman Catholic Church, King Edward III sent him to settle a dispute between England and the papacy over church authority. Shortly thereafter, Wycliffe resumed his attacks on the church. Because he believed that the Bible was the highest source of truth, it, not the church, contained what was needed for salvation. Because of this view and his attacks on the doctrine of transubstantiation, Wycliffe was declared a heretic. Although the pope demanded his imprisonment, the English government did not allow it.

The peasant’s revolt in 1381 spurred Wycliffe on to translate a Bible from Latin into English. He felt the people should be able to read the source of their religious beliefs. He finished all the New Testament and part of the Old, and his friends finished the translation after his death. In 1384 Wycliffe became ill while saying mass in church and died soon after. He had so undermined the authority of the church that 44 years after his death, the pope had his body exhumed and burned.

Wycliffe attracted a group of common folk called “poor priests.” After instructions from Wycliffe, the poor priests walked throughout the kingdom preaching the gospel. In spite of persecution, they helped to spread their radical doctrine well into the 1500s. His pioneering efforts in church reform has earned him the title, “Morning-star of the Reformation.” Wycliffe’s memory is kept alive today through the ministry of Wycliffe Bible Translators.

The Lollards

The Lollards were a religious group living in Holland during the twelfth century. Also, the poor priests recruited by Wycliffe to evangelize later became known as Lollards. They preached obedience to God and the Bible, and denied that church membership was necessary for salvation. Most of them were poor and begged from village to village. The bishop of London declared them heretics who taught in profane places outside the authority of the church. The king persecuted them because they disagreed with religious law. Although their effect on religious life in England was temporary, they greatly influenced the thinking of John Huss of Bohemia.

John Huss

John Huss was influenced by Wycliffe’s writings and the teachings of the Lollards. After graduation from the University of Prague, the scholarly Huss lectured there. He also served as dean and finally as the university rector. After his ordination as a priest in 1402, Huss began to preach. Because he so admired Wycliffe’s writings, Huss translated them into Bohemian. He agreed that the church had no right to interfere in civil or political matters. Moreover, Huss was concerned over the apparent lack of spirituality in the clergy. But his teachings at the university caused such an uproar that Huss was forbidden to mention them. Two years later in 1410, the pope excommunicated the followers of Wycliffe. But Huss, not intimidated by bans and prohibitions, kept right on speaking out against injustice in the church.

Huss himself faced charges of heresy before a body of church leaders in 1414. When he arrived in Constance (in present-day Germany), he was thrown into prison. Finally, on June 5, 1415, he was brought to trial. He was ordered to give up his views, but was never allowed to defend himself. The next day he was found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake. Little did the established church realize how far those flames would reach. When the news of his martyrdom reached Bohemia, his friend Jerome of Prague went to Constance. There he was arrested and burned at the stake, exactly like Huss. The two deaths set off civil wars in Bohemia — and inspired a young German priest later to call for reform in the Catholic Church.

Girolamo Savonarola

Savonarola was born in Ferrara, Italy in 1452. Because he came from a noble family, Savonarola was able to study both philosophy and medicine. But he left his studies behind when he joined the Dominican order. His first mission was to reform the city of Florence. Savonarola was able to sway audiences with his humor, charm, and theatrical presentations. As a preacher, he was very effective — claiming prophetic inspiration for his predictions of punishment of the church. He did not endear himself to the Catholic hierarchy when he criticized the pope’s immorality.

Finally, the pope ordered the friar to Rome to explain his special revelation. Savonarola refused, so he was ordered to stop preaching. When the friar continued to preach during Lent, he was excommunicated. Since personal threats did not stop Savonarola from preaching, the pope threatened the whole city of Florence with a ban on worship. This edict forced Savonarola to surrender to the civil authorities. First, he was tried by an ecclesiastical court. After they found him guilty, Savonarola was turned over to the civil authorities. They hanged him and burned his body on May 24, 1498.


As we have discovered, the path to reformation was steep, winding, and treacherous. The individuals and groups who chose that path all shared certain beliefs:

  • Faith was to be taken beyond the walls of the church.
  • Christianity was to reflect the life of Christ.
  • Authority that contradicted Christ was invalid.
  • Material possessions were irrelevant.
  • Persecution was not to be avoided.
  • Martyrdom for the cause of Christ was embraced.

Life Application: Have you experienced revival in your own personal life; in your church? What difference has that experience made in your life? Consider some of the effects that have resulted from that revival.

Take the quiz

Quiz Instructions

Test your knowledge by taking this short quiz which covers what you just read. Select the correct response based on the lessons and concepts of this chapter.

1. Although most people realize the need for a revival, very few know exactly what revival is.



2. Revival ____________ magical and mystical.


is not

3. Most revivals occur during a time of moral stability and economic prosperity.



4. Almost all recorded revivals show a ______________ of joy and gladness.



5. Revival brings shock to apathy and carelessness.



6. Revival restores ____________.



7. During revival the church dormant becomes the church militant.



8. Vance Havner defines revival as a work of God's ______________ among his own people.



9. David Brainerd prevailed in prayer for revival among the American ____________.



10. Revival fills the pews and reinstates the church in power and authority.



11. Revival is a divine attack on society.



12. Revival often acts like the well-known military principle known as concentration of ____________.



13. Before a movement of revival, the stream of power and blessing has been unusually ____________.



14. Humankind has advanced by ____________.



15. The ____________ Testament pattern is one of revitalization of the church.



16. We face the same cycle of change and decay, of reformation and ____________ as our spiritual predecessors.



17. Left alone, things (and people) tend to move from order to chaos.



18. Because of the ____________, humans suffer from moral entropy.



19. In the Old Testament, one godly man usually stood up for the whole nation.



20. ____________ was a king who cleaned the idols out of the land of Judah.



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