February 20, 2023

Discerning and Celebrating Revival

associate pastor

associate pastor

Ken Rathburn


By now almost everyone has become interested in the happenings at Asbury University. The small Christian college in Wilmore, KY has been recently featured on major news outlets across the country. It began on Wednesday, February 8th, as students gathered in Hughes Auditorium for the regularly scheduled morning chapel service. And now, over a week later, that same chapel service hasn’t ended. Students come and go around the clock as the service keeps going. Asbury Theological Seminary Chair of Theology Dr. Thomas McCall, in his recent Christianity Today article (available here), describes students singing, praying, repenting, reading Scripture, raising hands, kneeling, and talking with “faces bright with joy.“ He goes on to say, “Some are calling it a revival.” (emphasis mine) Ring the bells of celebration and sound the alarms of skepticism. Just as many declare this a true revival and rare presence of the Holy Spirit, others quickly dismiss it as spiritualized emotional contagion. We need a deep, spiritual breath.

While Asbury University has a storied history of revivals dating back to 1905, most followers of Christ have little to no experience with the phenomenon. The word ‘revival’ means restoring or coming back to life. In the Christian context, true ‘revival’ is a fresh and special outpouring of the Holy Spirit that reinvigorates the faith of God’s people for ministry. This is expressed by deeper worship, repentance, and obedience. So, is this a true, real revival at Asbury University? Let me say this: I hope and pray it is, and the reports are largely encouraging and inspiring (as McCall details in his video, available here). Revival is what Christians should always desire to see. Asking the Holy Spirit to move in power among the people of God must be our ceaseless prayer. As we await the return of our Lord and Savior in glory, it must be the cry of our hearts to see the lost saved and the listless renewed. At the same time, we should not assume every spiritual breakout experience is a special work of the Living God. The Bible warns against doing exactly that, even in the Church itself:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. (1 John 4:1-3a)

The greatest American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, published a short treatise in 1741, titled The Marks of a Work of the True Spirit. It is quite helpful in discerning the true work of the Holy Spirit, helping us to discern whether or not a movement is of the Lord. Having been at the center of the Great Awakening—a series of Christian revivals in 18th century New England—Edwards had witnessed both true revival and charlatan fraud, both authentic spiritual renewal and overhyped manipulation. In The Marks, Edwards expounds 1 John 4 along with other Scripture. He outlines “marks” for discerning that a work is from the Holy Spirit—evidences by which one can discern there is indeed true revival.

Marks of a work of the Holy Spirit, indicating true revival:

Here are the marks, in no particular order:

  1. Love for Christ increases. The Holy Spirit testifies to the life, death, resurrection, divinity, and sinless humanity of Christ. (John 15:26) If a movement among the people elevates that testimony so as to draw hearts into a deeper and more lasting love for Jesus, then the Spirit of God is at work.
  2. Hatred of sin increases. God opposes sin and the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, driving us to confession and repentance. (John 16:8) If people are drawn to despise their sin more, confessing it and turning from it in life transformed, the Holy Spirit at work.
  3. Love/regard for Scripture increases. All Scripture is the very Word of God, breathed out by him. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) As Edwards writes, “A spirit of delusion will not incline persons to seek direction at the mouth of God.” If the people are moved to value God’s Word more highly by the movement, then the Author of Scripture is at work.
  4. Lead to a deeper love of truth. God is the author of truth and Jesus promises the Holy Spirit guide us into all truth. (John 16:3) Evil spirits, in contrast, manipulate and spread falsehoods. If a movement causes people to love truth more and believe true things, then God is working.
  5. Love for God and neighbor increases. We are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love neighbor as self. (Matthew 22:37-40) If a movement invigorates God’s people to walk in line with this commandment, then it is a work of the Holy Spirit.

At first glance, these marks of revival might strike you as simple and even a bit boring. We expect to see unexplainable miracles and healings, emotional ecstasy, people being caught up or slain in the Spirit, captivated imaginations, and contagious momentum, don’t we? Edwards points out that such signs often accompany true and false revivals alike, which renders them unhelpful in discerning whether the movement is really a work of God. Just as seemingly ‘good’ things can happen at false churches, and just as ‘bad’ things can happen at faithful churches, so it is with revival movements. Also, warns Edwards, we should never label a movement false solely because some within it are filled with sin, or may fall into error, or because false prophets may flock to it. Even Peter fell into great sin and was rebuked by Paul! (Galatians 2:11-14) In Philippi, the apostles and their companions routinely experienced evil spirits trying to commandeer the growing Gospel ministry. (See, for example Acts 16:16-18) 

Discerning the work at Asbury University (and beyond)

Notice that none of the “boring” marks above can be confirmed or denied immediately. Exercises in discernment take time, and wisdom comes to those who are patient to receive it. In our endless news cycle, instant information society, and social media-driven culture, our natural tendency is to render judgment (read: hot take) right away. Such knee-jerk reactions in either direction are not the way of godly wisdom. Time will reveal all things. As Gamaliel the Pharisee cautioned about the early Christian church:

So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men [Christians] and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God! (Acts 5:38-39)

This is the approach recommended by Edwards. It is also the approach counseled by our own denomination, as explained by Reverend Dr. Dean Weaver, the Stated Clerk of the EPC (watch his video here). The movement at Asbury University will become clear as time rolls along. At some point soon, each person inside Hughes Auditorium and elsewhere will have to leave that place and re-enter the world. As they do, real revival will manifest itself as life transformation—not just in Wilmore, KY, but continuing on throughout their daily lives. But in the meantime, as this movement is underway and spreading to other campuses, we are not to sit on our hands. There is much we must do.

First, get excited at the prospect of true revival sweeping our land! Does anyone not want to see the world upended for the Gospel through Generation Z? I most assuredly do! Lord, please make it so. Whether this movement or a future one, God promises to justify and sanctify all whom he calls to faith. May we see that number of changed hearts and transformed lives explode in our time. 

Second, pray. Pray that the Holy Spirit of God would move in power and bring true revival. Pray that these young people would be God’s instruments for spiritual renewal in our land and across the globe. Pray for Asbury University. Pray for the marks of true revival to take shape—that love of Christ would deepen, sin would be confessed, the Word of God would be held high, truth would be valued, and love and service toward God and neighbor would stretch out to the world. Pray for protection from forces of manipulation, false teachers, and those with evil intentions. Pray that above all God would receive the glory.

Finally, may God use this to ignite our own hearts as well. A revival event is wonderful, but only a revival in one’s own heart is life transforming and lasting. God primarily works his grace in the ordinary ways and normal rhythms of our lives. Revival is not limited to special events because our omnipresent God is always near and his Spirit is always working. In fact, when revival is real, it will spill out of the worship space and into daily discipleship routines. The Lord promises to invigorate our souls toward him as we worship together regularly, hear the Word preached rightly, and receive the sacraments joyfully. Doing so is a true and lasting witness to a watching world in need of redemption.

May grace and peace in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit fill Hughes Auditorium at Asbury University. But more than that, may all of God’s people have their hearts reinvigorated for the Lord. And may it spread out across the earth until the Day that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11)

Praying for revival along with you,

Pastor Ken