J. I. Packer on “Revival”

Soon I continue my posts on “the RADICAL reformission,” but I want to give you a short synopsis of what J. I. Packer had to say about revival. I came across this while researching for my first post on “Knowing God–Part 1: Who is J. I. Packer?” I think you will like it.

the-j-i-packer-collection.jpgThis came from The J. I. Packer Collection, selected and introduced by Alister McGrath. Find on Amazon.

There are two major theological streams that run parallel to one another when it comes to revival–divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Those following Charles G. Finney emphasized the human elements in revival; others following Jonathan Edwards recognize the divine origin of revival. It is not necessary that these two streams oppose one another, but the way that each has been emphasized shows how God can work through revival regardless. Nonetheless, Packer noticed the real danger of overemphasizing human responsibility. He warned that evangelistic methodologies of his day teetered toward Pelagianism–a heretical view of the freedom of the will that Augustine opposed in the 4th century. I don’t think he is saying that the apparant un-Calvinistic leanings during the Second Great Awakening were outright Pelagianism. Maybe he was speaking about Finney as well, but I’m not certain that Finney would not give God all the glory for the revival, even if it involved “the right use of constituted means.” As we shall see, Packer even advocated some human action in regards to revival.

For Packer, though, the developments of the emphasis on man’s responsibility in revival had led down a dark road of dependence upon human ability. In his biography of Packer (found here), McGrath notes that Packer almost lost his job over his accosting of the Pelagian Keswick theologians. The problem the Packer found with this theology was its uncritical optimism concerning human depravity. So when it comes to revival, Packer, a staunch Calvinist, rightly re-emphasized the Divine element. In other words, revival is ultimately a work of God.

McGrath reprints an expansion of Packer’s 1971 article entitled “Revival” in the Christian Graduate 24/4.

The one thing that shocks Packer is the relative disconcern among evangelicals for revival. Whereas earlier Christians viewed revival as God’s work of saving people, later Christians developed methodologies and theologies that precluded true revival. He states,

“For a century after the days of Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, the immediate reaction of evangelicals when the fires of life burned low in the church was to appoint times for self-humbling and confession of sin and special prayer that God would visit them again. They regarded revivals as the cheif means by which the gospel advanced…” (pg 76).

He continues,

“But after about 1860 evangelicals ceased to think in these terms. We may well ask, why?…The one [reason] was an optimistic belief that the mounting number of organized evangelical activities–missions, campaigns, conventions, Christian Unions and interdenominational doings of all sorts [in other words–institutionalism]–would suffice of themselves to meet the situation. The other was a pessimistic notion, born of J. N. Darby’s esoteric dispensationalism, that the great final apostasy has begun and there was, therefore, no possibility of an real recovery of the churches’ fortune” (pgs 76-77).

His solution was to once again seek God and pray for revival. Packer viewed revival as the only option to overcome apostasy and secularism in his day!

When it comes to the word revival itself, he noted that the original use, referring to movements of God around the world, came to take on special meanings referring now to evangelistic campaigns, revival preachers, and personal revival (our modern day re-dedication).  These “narrower” uses of revival, he felt, unnecessarily restricted the idea of revival, they could be chunked since they were sometimes, but not always, a part of true revival. Then he noted the fallacy of

“building up a mental blueprint of revival from the history of revivals, or of one particular revival, in the past, and treating this as a norm to which all revivals in the future must correspond” (pg 78).

After presenting key texts concerning revival from the Bible, he gave us his threefold definition of revival.

  1. Revival is God renewing the church. It refers to the body, the we, not the I, and it is God who brings His people back to Himself.
  2. Revival is God turning away his anger from the church. This point is interesting because he interprets Old Testament prophecies of judgment as referring to the New Testament church. But his point is well taken– “In times of revival, there is a deep awareness of God’s presence and an inescapable sense of being under his eye; spiritual things become overwhelmingly real and the truth of God becomes overwhelmingly powerful, both to wound and to heal. Conviction of sin becomes intolerable; repentance goes very deep; faith springs up strong and assured; spiritual understanding grows quick and keen, and converts mature in an amazingly short time; joy overflows (Ps. 85:6; 2 Chr. 30:26; Neh. 8:12, 17; Acts 2:46f.; 8:8), and loving generosity abounds (Acts 4:32); Christians become fearless in witness and tireless in labour for their Saviour’s glory” (pg 79).
  3. Revival is God making known the sovereignty of his grace. For Packer, revival is only a work of God’s grace because people really don’t deserve it. But, I say, God delights in us, not because of who we are, but because of his Son. Its still God’s choice, but I think Packer was going a little far with the judgment motif. Yet, do you think he was saying that we should just wait around for revival wallowing in our sinfulness? No, he says that those longing for revival should:
    1. Preach and Teach God’s Truth
    2. Pray

Therefore, even though Packer emphasizes, and rightly so, the divine origin of revival, he does not negate the need for mankind to respond rightly. Nonetheless, he does offer a corrective to those who think, like Buddhists ringing a bell as they walk toward their idols to wake up the god, that we can manipulate God into responding. I have found that even though God says, “Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you,” I need every bit of my drawing near to be empowered by the Spirit. The beautiful things is that God delights to do that, because he loves His Son and he has placed His Spirit in us for that very purpose. I suggest then that the reason we don’t see more revival is that our sinful, selfishness has precluded the Holy Spirit from taking us closer to the Father. Why? Because he is greived by sin and we have to agree with him in our inner man that we have offended God. That is why confession of sin is vital to true revival.

What do you think–is revival only of divine origin, or can human action bring about revival, or is there another option?

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