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HOW DO WE UNDERSTAND REVIVALS?
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
A sermon preached at the Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle of
Lord’s Day Evening, February 11, 2001
"I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh" (Acts 2:17).
Iain H. Murray has written a very interesting little book titled
Pentecost Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival
(Banner of Truth, 1998). The first two chapters are especially helpful. They are
titled "How Do We Understand ‘Revival’?" and "Charles G.
Finney: How Theology Affects Understanding of Revival." In this message I
will attempt to "boil down" the basic message of the first of these
two chapters and preach it in a way that is hopefully helpful to you in
understanding the great subject of revival. All of the material in this sermon
is from the first chapter of Murray’s excellent book. I believe that every
preacher who is vitally interested in revival should obtain a copy of the book
and study the first two chapters very carefully.
Over 100 years ago Dr. Theodore Cuyler of New York said:
"I would advise you, my brother, not to talk too much about a
"revival." You will wear out the very word (ibid., p. 1)."
His advice was not widely received. The word "revival" continued
to be used extensively for decades. Even today, especially among Pentecostals
and charismatics, the word is in constant use.
But in spite of all that has been written and said about revival, there is
no clear, common understanding of the word. This is partly because the term
"revival" has changed in meaning over the last 150 years. It once
stood for special converting outpourings, but this changed to a time of
religious excitement, or simply to a series of special meetings. Few words in
contemporary Christian use have come to represent such a variety of ideas.
Several preachers have told me that we should drop the term
"revival" altogether and look for another word to describe this
phenomenon. I think they are wrong, and that we should retain the word, but
explain it Biblically.
Furthermore, we need to know how the word was originally used so we can
understand the old records of past revivals. A misuse of the historical use of
the word has, for instance, led the leaders of the "laughing revival"
to claim that they are following Jonathan Edwards. This is an absurd
statement if a person knows anything about the usage of the word in Edwards’
time. But simply dropping the word because others have used it incorrectly would
cause us to lose more than we could gain by substituting another word which has
no historical roots.
No matter how revival is explained, there is much about it we do not
understand. I have been an eye-witness to two great classical revivals, and I
can tell you from first-hand experience that much of what I saw has left me with
a sense of amazement and, as Murray says, "conscious of mystery." He
says, further, "If we could understand revivals they would not be the
astonishing things which they are" (ibid., p. 5).
There are three main views of what revival is. By looking at the Scriptures,
we can attempt to determine which of these three views is correct.
I. Revivals are not Biblical.
This view states that the whole idea of revival is not Biblical at all. That
is the view of the Dutch Reformed Church and of those who might be classified as
hyper-Dispensationalists. Most Independent Baptists do not hold this view. So I
will not discuss it in this message. It teaches in general that there are no
duplications of Pentecost and no little Pentecosts. Christians already have the
Holy Spirit and only need to realize what is already theirs according to this
But it fails to take into account the various periods of revival recorded in
the Book of Acts after Pentecost. It also does not deal adequately with the
great movements of God recorded in Christian history, such as the Reformation
and the first, second, and third Great Awakenings.
II. Revivals are conditional, based on obedience.
This view teaches that the presence or absence of revival depends on the
obedience of Christians. "Conditionalism" sometimes teaches that
revival could be permanent and continuous if Christians lived up to what God
expects from us.
I myself held to a form of "conditionalism" for years. Only after
many years and much observation and meditation on the Bible did I give up "conditionalism"
There are two main types of conditionalists:
(1) Those who believe that revival can be
secured by intense
prayer and evangelistic effort. This was the position of
Charles G. Finney, who said, "A revival is as naturally a
result of the use of appropriate means as a crop is of the
use of its appropriate means; and if the right means
continued to be employed revival would never cease"
(ibid., p. 8). The late Jack Hyles is a famous example of
someone who held this view in our time. Revival, to them,
is based on these conditions: strong prayer and
vigorous personal evangelism.
The practical problem with this view is that it
doesn’t work! Anyone who has been through a number
of prayer and fasting seasons and has knocked
themselves out in personal evangelism for months, or
years, knows that these human efforts do not produce
classical revival, such as we read about in the Book of
Acts and in Christian history.
(2) Another form of conditionalism
teaches that the
emphasis should not be so much on evangelism as on
Christians repenting and renewing their personal
holiness as the means of bringing about revival. This has
been the emphasis of groups as various as the Keswick
Convention, the Pentecostals, and Campus Crusade for
Christ (who mix in some of the elements of the first
Both groups of conditionalists often rest their case on II Chronicles 7:14,
"If my people, which are called by my name,
themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their
wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive
their sin, and will heal their land" (II Chronicles 7:14).
This is the favorite "revival" text of conditionalists of both the
first and second type. They say, "If God’s people will pray more and win
more souls, revival will come. Second Chronicles 7:14 says so." They say,
"If God’s people will repent and fast and seek to be holy, then God will
send revival and heal our land. II Chronicles 7:14 says so."
Actually, II Chronicles 7:14 has no direct application to New Testament
revival, and none at all to America as a nation. The verse is simply not
talking about America and it is not talking about Christians! I was astonished
when I first thought of this myself. I realized this was a covenant promise to
ancient Israel as a nation and to the Hebrew people of that dispensation. That’s
when I began to realize that the verse really has nothing to say about the
"conditions for revival" in our time. I know we’ve heard this
verse from D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, Bill Bright and many others. Falwell
and Bright have promoted large fasting and prayer conferences based on it. Dr.
Falwell lost nearly 100 pounds fasting like this twice. Bill Bright even wrote a
book on fasting and prayer for revival. But no classical revival has come as a
result of these conferences, fasts and calls for personal holiness.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against fasting and prayer for revival.
I just don’t think we can use II Chronicles 7:14 to claim that God will send
revival if these conditions are met. Remember, it hasn’t worked yet! Thousands
of Christians have met the conditions of II Chronicles 7:14 without ever
On the other hand, the two great classical revivals I witnessed had no real
preparation. The first one happened at a summer camp in 1971 conducted by a
Southern Baptist church. The second one happened in the deep south at a
conservative independent Baptist church. There was no intense prayer and soul
winning before either of these revivals. There was no emphasis on
"Christians getting right and fasting" before either of these
revivals. Both of them were spontaneous, sudden, and thoroughly unexpected. The
first one brought nearly three thousand people into the church in about two
years. The second one brought over five hundred people into the church in three
Actually, to be quite honest, I believe there are two conditions preceding
classical revivals, but they are not the ones listed by Finney or found
in the Old Testament, Old Covenant Jewish promise of II Chronicles 7:14. The two
conditions I think are Scriptural are these:
- Correct theology concerning the person of Christ and
correct understanding of conversion. Dr. Lloyd Jones,
who had quite a bit of insight into the nature of revival –
plus personal experience – gave these doctrinal
conditions as necessary to make it possible for revival to
- Conscience-probing preaching (such as you do not
often in our day), followed by pastoral counselling. In a
sense, these are conditions. But I do not hear these two
given by "conditionalists" today.
I do not say that correct doctrine on conversion and hard
preaching, followed by pastoral counselling, will produce revival. I do
say that these conditions make an atmosphere where it is much more likely that
God may send revival (though He may not, because He is sovereign).
III. Revivals are larger measures and degrees of the working of God.
This is the Old-school view of revival. Murray correctly says,
"Old-school spokesmen believed that while the (Holy) Spirit was permanently
given, He was not given in the same measure and degree as was witnessed
in Pentecost (and in subsequent revivals" (ibid., p. 17).
This is the view that was held before Finney came on the scene. It was the
main view during America’s three Great Awakenings.
This view agrees with the first one – that the Holy Spirit was given
permanently at Pentecost, but with this vital difference: Old-school spokesmen
believe that, while the Spirit was permanently given at Pentecost, He was not
given in the same measure and degree as was witnessed at Pentecost, and
in subsequent revivals.
Two things overlap at Pentecost. First the Holy Spirit came, never to be
removed. Therefore the work of conversion never stops, from that point until
now. But secondly there was the "largeness" of the degree of the Holy
Spirit’s influence. It was not the permanent standard for 3,000 people to be
saved all at once, as at Pentecost.
So, from Pentecost to the present, the work of the Holy Spirit can be seen
as (1) His normal work, and (2) His extraordinary work. These two differ in
degree. This is the Old-school view of revival: it is the belief that the Holy
Spirit is poured out in an extraordinary way during times of spiritual
There are a number of proofs that this is the correct position given in the
Bible and Christian history. It is indisputable that there are differences in
the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit throughout the Bible.
Turn to Acts 2:4,
"And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost…"
Now look at Acts 4:31,
"And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they
were assembled together; and they were all filled with the
Here is a part of Pentecost that was clearly repeated – there was a larger
giving of what they already possessed.
Peter’s quotation of the Old Testament (in Greek) on the Day of Pentecost
included the phrase, "I will pour out of my Spirit upon all
flesh" (Acts 2:17). George Smeaton points out: "According to the New
Testament quotation (in Greek), there is an important shade of meaning not to be
lost in the words ‘of my spirit’ (apo), showing the difference
between the measure of the Spirit given to men and the inexhaustible riches of
the fountain" (ref. ibid., p. 20). We see in the Book of Acts that the
early churches received repeated givings of the Spirit because there is always
more of Him to give. That is why, after Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came again in
fulness, recorded in Acts 4:31.
Another proof of the Old-school position comes from Christian history. How
can such turning points as the Reformation or the Wesleyan revival be explained
if the Holy Spirit is always uniformly present? The great Scottish reformer John
Knox explained the powerful events of his day by saying, "God gave his Holy
Spirit to simple men in great abundance" (ibid., p. 21). James Robe
described the revivals at Cambuslang and Kilsyth, in Scotland, in a book titled,
Narratives of the Extraordinary Work of the Spirit of God. Jonathan
Edwards spoke of "Surprising Conversions," in connection with the New
England revival of the middle 18th century.
Witnesses to revival invariably speak of something being given which was not
there before – something much more than Christians merely deciding to
be more faithful or to make greater prayer and soul-winning efforts. Murray
says: "A revival is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit…resulting in…a
widespread movement of grace among the unconverted" (ibid., p. 24). Charles
Simeon said, "The work of conversion must be very gradual among you, unless
God pours out of His Spirit in a most extraordinary measure upon you" (ref.
Alexander Moody Stuart said:
While the Holy Ghost is always present in his church, there
are times when he draws manifestly nearer and puts forth
greater energy of power (ibid., p. 24).
So, too, Welsh preachers of the Old-school spoke of revival in the same
terms. During the great revival of 1859-1860, Rev. D. C. Jones reported,
"We have been visited with a larger measure of the Spirit’s influences
than usual. It came suddenly ‘like a rushing mighty wind,’" (ibid., p.
25). Another Welsh preacher said of this period: "I am firmly persuaded
that the Almighty is opening the sluices of grace and pouring out streams of
blessings on the churches" (ibid.).
We will continue this subject next Sunday night with Iain Murray’s
chapter, "Charles G. Finney: How Theology Affects Understanding of
Revival." In closing this message, let me go back over what we have learned
and make an application.
(1) We learned that the term "revival" has shifted
(2) We learned that there have been three main views of
meaning, especially since the days of Charles G. Finney.
There is no such thing as a revival.
Revivals come when certain conditions are
Revivals are sovereign acts of God in which
larger degrees of His Spirit are poured out.
We hold to the third position. We believe that each and every conversion is
a miracle. We rejoice over every conversion because it is a triumph of God over
man’s fallen nature and the hosts of Hell. In revival, a greater number of
people find deliverance and true conversion, because a greater measure of
converting grace is poured out by God.
When we are praying for revival, we are not praying for the Holy
Spirit to come. He is already here according to the Bible. What we are praying
for is this: a greater manifestation of God’s awakening and
converting grace, through the Holy Spirit.
Whether God’s grace comes to one person or to many, it is always a miracle
when a lost person gets saved. It takes a miracle of God’s grace for a lost
person to awaken to the fact that he is living in sin and headed for Hell.
Awakening to an awareness of one’s depravity and inability to save oneself is
also a miracle of God’s grace. Coming to Jesus Christ for justification and
the imputation of Christ’s righteousness requires a miracle that can only be
accomplished by God. Jesus said:
"No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent
me draw him…" (John 6:44).
Objectively, Jesus Christ died on the Cross to pay for your sins.
Objectively, He arose bodily from the dead and ascended into the Heavenlies,
where He is currently seated, praying, at the right hand of God. These are
But they can only become your subjective reality by the ministry of the Holy
Spirit, operating on you and within you. This constitutes the miracle of
conversion. If you feel that God is drawing you to His Son, Jesus, for cleansing
from sin by His Blood, come and speak to me tonight in my office.
Solo by Benjamin Kincaid Griffith: "Revive Thy Work"
by Albert Midlane
You can read Dr. Hymers' sermons each week on the Internet
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THE OUTLINE OF
HOW DO WE UNDERSTAND REVIVALS?
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
"I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh" (Acts 2:17).
I. Revivals are not Biblical (Dutch Reformed and
II. Revivals are conditional, based on obedience
(conditionalism), II Chronicles 7:14.
III. Revivals are larger measures and degrees of the
working of the Spirit of God (Old-school),
Acts 2:4; Acts 4:31; John 6:44.