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Revival Versus Reformation

By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008

Talk of the need for revival in the church is all the rage these days. I receive announcements of and invitations to conferences designed to incite a burden for revival in America (oddly, the spiritual state of the world at large is usually ignored) and provide a strategy to accomplish that revival. The announcements allude to or provide examples of the moral degeneracy of our society, as well as the spiritual apathy of professed Christians. The opinion over on my side, however, is that it is reformation, not revival, that is our most pressing need.

Revival and reformation are not to be equated. Revival is a stirring of apathetic saints; reformation is an alteration of their very spiritual core. Revival (contrary to the beliefs and tactics of “revivalists”) is a sovereign, gratuitous outpouring of the Holy Spirit-not sweet, spiritual, “showers of blessing” provoked by a meritorious repentance and contrition of the saints; reformation is a revision of the very heart of religion, a conscious effort to make a full-scale break with all that is unscriptural, and to reinstall Scripture as the final authority of belief and practice; the effects of revival are temporary; those of reformation span centuries. Revival makes better Christians; reformation makes a better Christianity. Revival makes Christians more zealous; reformation makes them more knowledgeable. Revivals occur spasmodically; the work of reformation is never completed.

The mention of the term reformation immediately reminds us of the great Protestant Reformation, an historical event almost as significant as the Enlightment and more important than the Renaissance. It altered not only the course of the church but also that of society itself. In this point reformation differs from revival also: the latter greatly revitalizes a tepid church, while the former reorients society and the general social mindset. Its deep social effects are possible because reformation involves the reordering of thought, an occasion which, unlike the work of revival (necessary and potent though it may be) is able to altar the state of affairs beyond the sphere of the church. Thus, while Old Testament Israel experienced numerous significant revivals, as a society she experienced no reformation until the coming of Christ which, indeed, influenced not only that relatively small nation but the entire known world.

A revival would quicken the sleeping, worldly church of our time and give it fresh devotion to the God of the universe and his Son. A reformation, however, would dismantle the deadly secularistic/materialistic/humanistic axis that presently dominates the West. Not only religion, but also law, the arts, and politics would be reformed. The results would be as far reaching as those of the Protestant Reformation.

A.W.Tozer implied that reformation must precede revival because those who were not properly reformed are not worth reviving; and if they were revived, they would simply persist in their wrong ideas and practices, on an even dangerously larger scale. The revival at Pentecost was preceded by three and one-half years of careful training. It would have been foolish for Christ to spiritually revive the apostles, for they had virtually nothing in themselves worth reviving. When, nonetheless, he instructed them in a proper devotion to the Father and Himself, they were prepared for a revival from the former Judaistic hardness of virtually all Israel at Christ’s coming. The revival of Old Testament Judaism would never have turned the first century world “upside down.” It took a reformation to do that.

We don’t need revival; we need reformation.


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