Thomas F. Zimmerman, a former Assemblies of God general superintendent, once compared the Holy Spirit to a mighty river and the Scriptures to the banks of that river. Brother Zimmerman said that great harm occurs when the river overruns the banks, but that the river does great good when it stays within the banks.
Whenever the topic of revival is brought up, it helps to provide some scriptural guidelines for assessment. In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, the apostle Paul admonishes us to “not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (NIV).
We would do well to look at the safeguards the Bible provides in helping us “test everything.” Here are three questions we should always ask when talk of revival rises like those waters against the banks.
1. Is Jesus Christ Exalted?
The purpose of the Holy Spirit is to testify about Christ and convict the world of sin, righteousness and the judgment to come (see John 15:26, 16:8). To the Corinthian church that had become overly enamored with charismatic manifestations, the apostle Paul reminded them that “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2, NIV).
Thus, the focus for any lasting revival always must be on Jesus. The Holy Spirit has not come to glorify Himself or any human or angelic personality.
2. Is the Word of God Proclaimed?
Every revival with lasting effect has been rooted in the preaching of God’s Word. This is in keeping with the spread of the gospel in the early church as recorded in Acts (see 4:31; 5:42; 6:7; 8:4; 11:1; 13:46, 49; 15:35; 16:6; 17:11, 13; 18:11; 19:10; 20:27). Based on these and other Scriptures, it’s obvious that great focus was given in the early church to preaching the Word. This is consistent with the first commitment of the early church following the day of Pentecost—“they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (2:42).
A doctrinal test for any revival is whether the content of the preaching is the same as that of Jesus and the apostles. God’s Word stands over personal viewpoints. Any biblical revival must “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3, NIV). If so-called truth is being proclaimed that can’t be found in Scripture, then that proclamation violates the specific announcement of Scripture that the faith “was once for all entrusted,” and such a proclamation also deviates from both the apostles’ fidelity to preach the Word and from the early church’s devotion to the apostles’ doctrine.
The Azusa Street Revival unabashedly proclaimed that the sure plumb line of truth was God’s revealed and written Word. William J. Seymour and others were criticized sharply for their insistence on “checking everything out with the Word.” But they were unashamed. In fact, Seymour responded to these criticisms in the September 1907 issue of The Apostolic Faith: “We are measuring everything by the Word, every experience must measure up with the Bible. Some say that is going too far, but if we have lived too close to the Word, we will settle that with the Lord when we meet Him in the air.”
Miraculous manifestations are never the test of a true revival; fidelity to God’s Word is the test. Jesus said there would be many who would do miracles in His name and even cast out demons, but He does not know them (see Matt. 7:15-23). To the Galatians, Paul writes: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” (Gal. 1:8, NIV).
Paul also cautions us: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (Col. 2:18-19, NIV). And Peter warns us that “there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies. ... Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up” (2 Pet. 2:1-3).
Remember, the message must always be examined. If the message and the messenger line up with God’s Word, then the revival is on safe biblical ground and it should and must be embraced. If not, then even though miracles and manifestations occur, it should be avoided.
3. Are People Repenting of Sin and Being Baptized in Water and the Holy Spirit?
Repentance has been called the first word of the gospel because it is the initial response called for by John the Baptist (see Matt. 3:2), Jesus (see Matt. 4:17), the 12 disciples (see Mark 6:12), Jesus after His resurrection (see Luke 24:47), Peter (see Acts 2:38) and Paul (see Acts 26:20). With repentance comes baptism in water and in the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:38-39).
Unless these initiatory events of the Christian life occur—along with the sanctifying work of the Spirit that leads to a holy life—then the miracles, crowds and enthusiasm will quickly wane.
The Azusa Street Revival had enduring fruitfulness because these three questions could be positively answered both then and now: Christ was exalted; God’s Word remained the plumb line; and people responded to the gospel with repentance and baptism in water and in the Spirit. And, like the early church, they were full of the Holy Spirit and went everywhere to share the good news.
Obviously, there are additional questions that can be raised. My purpose in writing this is simply to give some starter reflections for those who have honest hearts to “test all things” as Paul admonished (1 Thess. 5:21). If the above three questions cannot be answered with a resounding yes, perhaps other questions are unnecessary.
Every revival has been marked by some elements that would be regarded as extreme. J. Edwin Orr, who studied and wrote more on the history of revivals than anyone else in Christian history, told me once that revivals are like a cabin on the Maine coast that has been shuttered up for the winter. When the winds begin to blow, the first thing that begins to make noise is all the loose hinges and shutters. Since that may well be the case, we must be cautious at the initial onset of a revival to let some “loose hinges and shutters” have their freedom.
Yet ultimately, if the revival is to have enduring fruitfulness, it must be pastored carefully with doctrinal soundness, moral and financial accountability, and care to give publicity to Christ rather than to the revival.