Revival: The Need for Gospel Renewal

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Definitions of Revival

This understanding of gospel renewal differs from two widespread views of what revival is. The first view sees revival primarily as the adding of the extraordinary operations of the Holy Spirit (such as miracles, healings, and revelations). A second view sees revival as an especially vigorous season of preaching, gatherings, and evangelistic activity. In contrast to both, I am arguing that gospel renewal or revival is an intensification of the normal operations of the Spirit (conviction of sin, regeneration and sanctification, assurance of grace) through the ordinary means of grace (preaching the Word, prayer, and the sacraments).

Gospel renewal is a life-changing recovery of the gospel.

Personal gospel renewal means the gospel doctrines of sin and grace are actually experienced, not just known intellectually. This personal renewal includes an awareness and conviction of one’s own sin and alienation from God and comes from seeing in ourselves deeper layers of self-justification, unbelief, and self-righteousness than we have ever seen before. There is a new, commensurate grasp of the wonder of forgiveness and grace as we shed these attitudes and practices and rest in Christ alone for salvation. Perhaps we have previously said that we were “resting in Christ’s work, not our own work” for salvation, but when we experience gospel renewal, we have a new clarity about what this means in our mind and a new experience of actually doing it with our heart.

Corporate gospel renewal — what has sometimes been called “revival” — is a season in which a whole body of believers experience personal gospel renewal together. Over time, all churches, no matter how sound their theology, tend to lose sight of the uniqueness of the gospel and fall into practices that conform more to other religions or to irreligion. Their doctrinal instruction loses sight of how each doctrine plays a role in the gospel message, and their moral instruction is not grounded in and motivated by the finished work and grace of Christ. The leaders of the church must always be bringing the gospel to bear on people’s minds and hearts so that they see it as not just a set of beliefs but as a power that changes us profoundly and continually. Without this kind of application of the gospel, mere teaching, preaching, baptizing, and catechizing are not sufficient.

Richard Lovelace was a student of the history of revivals. He sought to discover what, for all their apparent differences, they had in common. He concluded that while Christians know intellectually that their justification (acceptance by God) is the basis for their sanctification (their actual moral behavior), in their actual “day-to-day existence . . . they rely on their sanctification for their justification . . . drawing their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their recent religious performance or the relative infrequency of their conscious, willful disobedience.”

In other words, revivals and renewals are necessary because the default mode of the human heart is works-righteousness — we do not ordinarily live as if the gospel is true.

Christians often believe in their heads that “Jesus accepts me; therefore I will live a good life,” but their hearts and actions are functioning practically on the principle “I live a good life; therefore Jesus accepts me.” The results of this inversion are smug self-satisfaction (if we feel we are living up to standards) or insecurity, anxiety, and self- hatred (if we feel we are failing to live up). In either case, the results are defensiveness, a critical spirit, racial or cultural ethnocentricity to bolster a sense of righteousness, an allergy to change, and other forms of spiritual deadness, both individual and corporate.
In sharp contrast, the gospel of sheer grace offered to hopeless sinners will humble and comfort all at once. The results are joy, a willingness to admit faults, graciousness with all, and a lack of self-absorption.

Because we don’t really believe the gospel deep down — because we are living as if we save ourselves — our hearts find ways of either rejecting or reengineering the doctrine (as in liberal theology) or of mentally subscribing to the doctrine while functionally trusting and resting in our own moral and doctrinal goodness (as in “dead orthodoxy”). As a result, individuals and churches experience a slow spiritual deadening over the years, unless some sort of renewal/revival dynamic arrests it.

Revival can be widespread, affecting a whole region or country, or more narrow in scope, influencing just one congregation or even just a part of one. It can be fairly gentle and quiet or rather sensational.

But all revivals are seasons in which the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit are intensified manyfold.

In revival, the ordinary means of grace produce a great wave of newly awakened inquirers, soundly converted sinners, and spiritually renewed believers. The church growth that inevitably results cannot be accounted for by demographical-sociological shifts or efficient outreach programs.

So revival is not a historical curiosity; it is a consistent pattern of how the Holy Spirit works in a community to arrest and counteract the default mode of the human heart. It is surely relevant to ministry in twenty-first-century global cultures, as it is relevant in every culture.

Excerpted with permission from Center Church by Tim Keller, copyright Zondervan.

Your Turn

Tim Keller says “the default mode of the human heart is works-righteousness” and we strive to earn God’s grace before falling into despair when we fail to live up to the standards we’ve set. Daily we need to acknowledge the amazing grace of God and have a renewal of the gospel that aligns our perspective with this truth. Join the conversation on the blog! We would love to hear from you!

Tim Keller

Timothy Keller is the founder and senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Reason for God and The Prodigal God. He has also mentored young urban church planters and pastors in New York and other cities through Redeemer City to City, which has helped launch over 200 churches in 35 global cities to date.

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