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17 April 2023

When posed with the question what the evangelical church needs to do better, Dorothea Wendebourg, an emeritus Professor at Humboldt-University Berlin, replied that the processes of “doing better” are not in our hands. This was the case even during the Reformation, Wendebourg adds, “these are something – to put it old-fashioned – like revivals.”

The term revival movement (Erweckungsbewegung), which became the guiding concept for many piety movements, was coined by Halle’s Pietists in the mid-18th century. For the Pietists, revival is needed to liberate Christians from spiritual lethargy to a lively Christocentric and Bible-oriented way of life.

During the 18th century, the Pietists were in constant spiritual battle against the secular Enlightenment thinkers who taught the religion of virtue with its emphasis on individual autonomy. In contrast to secular rationalism, the Pietists emphasized human sinfulness and their dependence on the justifying grace of God.

Here we already find some of the most important characteristics in true revivals, namely a deep sense of unworthiness before the holy God and the joy of free justification through the gospel of Christ.

Is revival still relevant and needed for today’s church and society? The answer depends on how we perceive the current state of the church and society. If we think our church (and society) is good enough then revival would be somewhat redundant.

However, if we humbly acknowledge the worldliness of the church, how the narrative of the gospel is not faithfully lived by Christians, then we might lament and continually pray for a revival.

Brett McCracken regrets that Christians are too distracted by things like #trending words and AI algorithms to long for a revival. As long as church activities are ongoing, revivals no longer interest Christians.

However, a revival is urgently needed because the true gospel can easily be distorted into either neo-legalism (higher life movement) or antinomianism (the so-called cheap grace ‘Christianity’). With the first we have self-righteous religiosity while with the latter we have religiosity without doing “freely and cheerfully … the will of God, revealed in the law” (WCF XIX.7).

Against moralistic sermons, which only celebrate religious heroes to be imitated morally, revival brings about Christ-centered preaching: the Christ who forgives us our sins and invites us to follow him. Christless preaching leads to self-made human righteousness.

This self-righteousness is the result of human failure in dealing with the problem of guilt. Instead of humbly acknowledging and confessing our sins before a gracious and merciful God, we suppress, excuse, or compensate our unworthiness before God by offering our religious achievements.

On the other hand, the danger of lawlessness downplays the importance of sanctification, discipleship, and the imitation of Christ in the Christian life. A sanctified spiritual life is a liberation from the religious lethargy and the slumber of sin.

“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14)

In spiritual slumber, let alone spiritual death, one cannot revive oneself. Revival is strictly a process that comes from outside. This corresponds with the Reformation concern of the extra nos (outside of us). On the other hand, however, the revival impetus does not move humans mechanically, but rather works internally, touching the deepest of the human hearts.

Deichgräber emphasizes that revival “protects the Christian faith from the danger of being exhausted by a one-sided intellectual orientation. It is an effective bulwark against the temptation to alienate theology from its actual task, so that it is no longer a critical reflection of lived faith but an intellectual compensation for a lack of faith.”

When revival comes, theology becomes a tool for critical reflection on the sinfulness and shortcoming of the church rather than a tool for their justification.

Historically, the impact of the revivalist movement took various forms. In England, for instance, the revivalist preacher John Wesley emphasized the importance of justification, regeneration, and sanctification in popular speeches to simple peasants and workers. Despite his methodical emphasis on religious self-examination, he believed that revival should be substantiated in the active love of neighbour.

In Germany, the revival impact on the individual state churches varied according to regional differentiation in German Protestantism.

In Württemberg, the older Pietism strongly influenced the revival. In Berlin, the Herrnhut preacher Johannes Jaenicke, who was closely connected with the English Awakening, founded a mission school, a Bible society, and a tract society in 1800. Ca. 20 years later, there were many Pietistic prayer groups in Berlin. Revivalists like August Tholuck, August Neander, and Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg received influential theological professorships at the University of Berlin.

During revival, there were no unfruitful dichotomies such as academic theology vs. spiritual piety, mission vs. internal church ministry, love of neighbour vs. individual self-examination, or grassroots vs. elite Christians.

Sermons of edification and repentance, redemptive and joyful Christianity, evangelical sermons on the dialectic of law and gospel, and the Pietist anti-liberalism were part of the multifaceted appearance of revival in church history.

Revival depends fully on God’s sovereign grace and mercy. Our part is to long for and pray ceaselessly for it. When revival comes, God will visit us with his glorious presence. May God stir our hearts to pray in our souls’ agony with Isaiah:

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence! (Isa. 64:1-2)

Rev Dr Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean at International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta. Graduated from Heidelberg University (Ph.D in musicology, Th.D in systematic theology), he is an ordained pastor of Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia.