Distinguishing “Revival” from “Revivalism”; Discerning True from False Prophets

Of late, the Malaysian Church seems to have gained the favor of global trotting ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’ who fly in preaching about revivals and supernatural encounter, and promising material prosperity to the faithful. What are we to make of these ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’? Tim Keller’s article on “Kingdom-Centred Prayer” offers a good starting point on … Continue reading “Distinguishing “Revival” from “Revivalism”; Discerning True from False Prophets”

Of late, the Malaysian Church seems to have gained the favor of global trotting ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’ who fly in preaching about revivals and supernatural encounter, and promising material prosperity to the faithful. What are we to make of these ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’?

Tim Keller’s article on “Kingdom-Centred Prayer” offers a good starting point on how to evaluate these visiting ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’. According to Keller, a spiritual revival, or renewal, “is a work of God in which the church is beautifed and empowered because the normal operations of the Holy Spirit are intensifed. The normal operations of the Spirit include conviction of sin (John 16:8), enjoyment and assurance of grace and of the Father’s love (Rom. 8:15–16), access to the presence of God (John 14:21–23; 2 Cor. 3:17–18), and creation of deep community and loving relationships (Eph. 4:3–13).”

Keller suggests three marks of  genuine revival:

First, there is an outpouring of the Spirit on and within the congregation, so that the presence of God among his people becomes evident and palpable.
“Nominal Christians, or Christians in name only, begin to realize they don’t actually have a living relationship with Christ by grace, and they get converted. When this begins to happen, it electrifes people. Long-time members are getting up and talking about being converted or speaking of Christ in radiant terms or expressing repentance in new ways. The early stages of renewal shake up other nominals and “sleepers” into renewal. Corporately, there is a sense of more passion and freedom and the presence of God in the worship services.”

Second, as a result of this outpouring of the Spirit, new people are brought into the church, and it begins to grow.
“On the one hand, the renewed believers create a far more attractive community of sharing and caring and, often, great worship. There is the beautifed community of the King. This can attract people from the outside.”

Third, there is a full impact on the community surrounding the church and even the broader culture.
“Revivals produce waves of people who become involved in works of social concern and social justice. Major social justice movements, such as abolitionism, had strong roots in the revivals. The reason for this is that real holiness changes the private and public lives of Christians. True religion is not merely a private matter, providing internal peace and fulfllment. Rather, it transforms our behavior and our relationships.”

Keller challenges believers longing for God to bring revival to the church to set up altars of living sacrifice:

A good image for seeking the fullness of the Spirit is the concept of “building a life altar.” In the Old Testament, an altar was built and a sacrifice placed on it, and then God sent his fire to burn up the sacrifice (e.g., 1 Kings 18). This is a great illustration of the dynamics of personal revival and spiritual renewal. Paul uses it when he tells us to make ourselves a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1–2). We cannot create spiritual renewal—we can only prepare the altar and the sacrifice. Only God can send the fire.

The last sentence highlights the difference between “revivalism” and “revival”. Revivalism is an attempt by well-meaning but misguided leaders, who think they can bring about a spiritual revival by setting in place certain organizational preconditions where a large gathering of believers would respond fervently to their ‘anointed’ preaching. In contrast, revival is the sovereign work of God. It may be granted that one should not be too quick to judge fellow Christians whose spiritual fervour rightly put their critics to shame. Furthermore, one should not rule out that God in his mercies may yet send a ‘Balaam’s Ass’ (Numbers 22:21-38) to deliver a prophetic word to his people when they call upon Him. We cannot limit how God works, precisely because he is merciful and his Spirit is sovereign.

Still, it would be wise for local Christian leaders to base their hopes of God’s revival on the clear teaching of Scriptures. They should test the messages of these visiting ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’ according to the full counsel of the Word of God. Indeed, the lack of knowledge of Scriptures encourages some local leaders and visiting ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’ to feel licensed to engineer ‘revivals’ that pander to human sensationalism rather than further a deeper, sanctifying work of God. Sadly, this results in spiritual abuse which discredits the Church in the eyes of the watching world.
Revival is not humanly engineered in stadiums which in effect magnifies the image of the visiting ‘miracle’ workers. In contrast, genuine revival is the outpouring of God’s mercies onto his people when they humble themselves, pray and wait patiently and expectantly for the sovereign God to act. This is why Keller’s article on “Kingdom-Centre Prayer” ends with a challenge to every believer to build an ‘altar of prayer’ where they present themselves as living sacrifices holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1). Importantly, repentance and sacrificial prayers should begin with the local leaders. God will then pour out his mercies and bring a revival in his own time and in his glorious ways.

We are thankful when God in his grace still blesses such rallies with cases of healing (I am personally acquainted with two such cases), nevertheless, in many cases there is usually no attempt to follow up claims of healing with medical confirmation (I know of a leader of a denomination who brushed aside the need for validation when he claimed to be healed from a severe illness, only to die from the illness not long later). One also wonders why God in mercies works a few miracles (say, for the sake of discussion, 20 certified cases of healing from the 1000 people who answered the altar call), but left the other 980 disappointed and bereft of consolation. This is an important theological and pastoral question that could be discussed some other time. For the moment, it would suffice to note that we should not equate “anointment” with “sanctification (this brings to mind Samson and the Corinthian Church). There is also a need to be cautious about equating the immediate, emotional response from the crowd with divine endorsement.

In contrast, the marks of divine approval and fruits of revival highlighted by Keller and Scriptures seem mundane compared to the prosperity and blessings promised by many current visiting ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’. Likewise, one would be disappointed with the biblical prophets as their appearances lack panache, and their ministries lack the mark of success which would impress the world. After all, Elijah only “wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” (2 King 1:8). Likewise, John the Baptist, “wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matt. 3:4). Certainly, country bumpkins like Elijah and John the Baptist cannot compare, much less challenge the impressiveness of modern ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’ in their elegant suits as they preach to expectant crowds in stadiums.

We should avoid being legalistic or judgmental, but there is wisdom in following the common sense adopted by the early church in the 2nd. century AD on how to discern a true prophet from a false prophet.

The Shepherd of Hermas (Mandate 11) offers some spiritual guidelines:
“How then, sir,” say I, “will a man know which of them is the prophet, and which the false prophet?” “I will tell you,” says he, “about both the prophets, and then you can try the true and the false prophet according to my directions. Try the man who has the Divine Spirit by his life. First, he who has the Divine Spirit proceeding from above is meek, and peaceable, and humble, and refrains from all iniquity and the vain desire of this world, and contents himself with fewer wants than those of other men, and when asked he makes no reply; nor does he speak privately, nor when man wishes the spirit to speak does the Holy Spirit speak, but it speaks only when God wishes it to speak”…”Hear, then,” says he, “in regard to the spirit which is earthly, and empty, and powerless, and foolish.”First, the man who seems to have the Spirit exalts himself, and wishes to have the first seat, and is bold, and impudent, and talkative, and lives in the midst of many luxuries and many other delusions, and takes rewards for his prophecy; and if he does not receive rewards, he does not prophesy. Can, then, the Divine Spirit take rewards and prophesy? It is not possible that the prophet of God should do this, but prophets of this character are possessed by an earthly spirit….This, then, is the mode of life of both prophets. Try by his deeds and his life the man who says that he is inspired.
The Didache (chapter 11) supplements with some down to earth suggestions:

Concerning Teachers, Apostles and Prophets: “Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him. But if the teacher himself turns and teaches another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not. But if he teaches so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord. But concerning the apostles and prophets, act according to the decree of the Gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there’s a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet…But whoever says in the Spirit, Give me money, or something else, you shall not listen to him. But if he tells you to give for others’ sake who are in need, let no one judge him”

Further Reading:

Tim Keller, “Kingdom-Centered Prayer” and “Ten Marks of Revival” and “Revival: Ways and Means

Good books on Revival:
Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections. Banner of Truth, 1961. Original publication 1746.
Martyn-Lloyd Jones, Revivals. Crossways, 1987 and Joy Unspeakable: Power and Renewal in the Holy Spirit. Shaw Books, 2000.
Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal. IVP, 1979.
Ian Murray, Revival & Revivalism. Banner of Truth, 1994.

 Related Post:

The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament

The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament Part 1/2
The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament Part 2/2
Practical Guidelines For Testing Prophecy in Church





6 thoughts on “Distinguishing “Revival” from “Revivalism”; Discerning True from False Prophets”

  1. Dear brother,

    This is an extremely important and helpful article. Thank you for your efforts in serving the church by helping us to identify where religion becomes idolatry. The greatest threats to Christianity are its closest counterfeits. Perhaps where Keller may have somewhat missed the mark is in failing to identify the work of the Spirit with the Spirit’s means of grace. The Spirit and the Scriptures that He authored (to be preached and corporately received by the church) should always be intimately held together. In my opinion, Keller ties these together far too loosely.

    An important related project would be to define “conversion” according to revivalism and show how it parts ways with the Scriptures and with historic Christianity. This is an area in which revivalism has made a huge impact on Malaysian Christianity (as it has on global Evangelicalism).


  3. Hi PhilD – I note that similar criticisms have been raised towards Tim Keller’s less than robust exposition of the sacraments in his undeniably excellent New City Catechism(Q 41). In any case, your comment reminds me of the debate between some Reformed theologians from the Wales Evangelical School of Theology(including Philip Eveson and Robert Strivens) versus Moore Theological College (John Woodhouse) ten years ago on the distinction and separation between Word and Spirit. The Moore School emphasizes that the Spirit primarily performs his subjective work in the believer by confirming the objective promises of the Word. It is argued that the Moore School was so determined to oppose Charismatics who are perceived to be supplementing the written Word that it conflates Word and Spirit, viewing them as virtually synonymous. On the other hand, the Wales School came across as committing the opposite error, that because the Word and Spirit are distinct they must necessary be separate.

    Doubtless, there was some misunderstanding in the debate. It is understandable that the Wales school maintained a more open attitude to the distinctive work of Spirit’s because of the heritage of the Welsh revival (1904-1905). Hence also, Martin Lloyd-Jones’ openness to post-conversion experience of the Holy Spirit (although he linked it to the ground of assurance rather than Pentecostal empowerment).

    Rather than resolving the debate in this short comment section, I shall end with the balanced perspective offered by Sinclair Ferguson, “ For the NT writers, however, there is no hint of a threat to divine sovereignty in the fact that the word is the instrumental cause of regeneration, while the Spirit is the efficient cause…Since the Spirit’s work in regeneration involves the transformation of the whole man, including his cognitive and affective powers, the accompanying of the internal illumination of the Spirit by the external revelation of the Word (and vice versa) is altogether appropriate. Since faith involves knowledge, it ordinarily emerges in relationship to the teaching of the gospel found in Scripture. Regeneration and faith to which gives birth are seen as taking place not by revelationless divine sovereignty, but within the matrix of the preaching of the word and the witness of the people of God (cf. Rom.10:1-15). Their instrumentality in regeneration does not impinge upon the sovereign activity of the Spirit. Word and Spirit belong together. Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (IVP, 1996), pp. 125-126.

  4. Hi Kim Sai – A close study of the Bible would confirm that while there is no succession of apostolic office for the Church, there may be succession of apostolic doctrine and apostolic ministry. Lest some people accuse me of prejudice against the so-called New Apostolic Movement, I quote from the excellent position paper given by The General Council of the Assemblies of God (USA), “Apostles and Prophets” [https://ag.org/Beliefs/Topics-Index/Apostles-and-Prophets]:

    [Quote] It is also clear that while the apostles (with the elders) were established leaders in the Early Church, there was no provision for their replacement or continuation…It is instructive, however, that nowhere in the New Testament after the replacement of Judas is any attention given to a so-called apostolic succession…It seems strange that apostles of Jesus Christ, concerned about faithful preservation of their message (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2), would provide for the appointment of overseers/elders while ignoring their own succession if such were indeed to be maintained.

    In fact, there are certain exegetical hints the apostles of Jesus Christ are not to have successors. In 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul listed all the Resurrection and post-Resurrection appearances of Christ and noted “last of all he appeared to me.” While some disagree, the statement is most commonly understood to mean Paul looked upon himself as the last apostle to whom Christ appeared.11 If this is the correct understanding, only the Twelve whom Jesus personally called and those He commissioned in His post-Resurrection appearances made up His original apostles…It is difficult to escape the conclusion of Dietrich Müller: “One thing is certain. The N[ew] T[estament] never betrays any understanding of the apostolate as an institutionalized church office, capable of being passed on…

    Since the New Testament does not provide guidance for the appointment of future apostles, such contemporary offices are not essential to the health and growth of the church, nor its apostolic nature [Unquote]

    It would be instructive to contrast the sober theological position of the AOG with that of the New Apostolic Reformation (you should google to find out more about this influential global movement started by Peter Wagner and associates like Chuck Pierce, Cindy Jacobs, Bill Hamon, John Kelly etc. Their appointment of new ‘Apostles’ supposedly initiated the Second Apostolic Period. As the International Coalition of Apostolic Leaders [http://www.icaleaders.com/] explains an ‘Apostle’ is a: “Christian leader who is gifted, taught, and commissioned by God with the authority to establish the foundational government of the Church within an assigned sphere of ministry by hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches and by setting things in order accordingly for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.” Furthermore, an Apostle is “the strategos, an authorized representative of the government sent to maintain order. That is what an apostle of God is: God’s appointed, anointed, authorized ambassador to maintain right government (shaphat) in his sphere of ministry.” Finally, “these are God’s generals who have spent time with their Commander-in-Chief and know His ways.”

    It would seem that members of this Apostolic Network want to be regarded not just as ‘apostles’ (with a small ‘a’ used for a wider group mentioned in the NT who should not be confused with the 12 Apostles and some others whom the risen Christ appeared to in 1 Cor 15). The authoritative tone accompanying these appointments, evidenced by their self-appointed task in the name of God “to establish the foundational government of the church” would suggest that they regard themselves as Apostles (with a big ‘A’).

    Note especially their doctrine of apostolic authority and their practice of pronouncing new ‘revelation’. In theory these modern ‘Apostles’ acknowledge the supreme authority of the revealed Word of God inscribed in the Bible. However, critics argue that in practice, the proclamation of new revelation by these Modern ‘Apostles’ effectively undermines the sufficiency and finality of the Bible.

  5. Yes, Word and Spirit belong together. The (confessional) Lutheran tradition has always insisted that the external Word must ‘precede’ the (‘descent,’ ‘coming,’ ‘outpouring’ of the) Spirit – and not the other way round. This guards against Enthusiasm whilst upholding the character of the Word as primarily spoken, communicative and mediatorial, i.e. given in human words or speech – so that the Word does what it says and says what it does. Otherwise, for all the talk about sovereignty, there is a lingering suspicion (on the part of confessional or radical Lutherans) that synergism is always lurking in the background.

  6. Word and Spirit should not be confused or conflated. But our salvation is secured in its totality – the entire person and body and soul. Thus consistent with the nature of our salvation (grounded in the Incarnation and secured in the Crucifixion), there is a union between Word and Spirit such that both ‘permeate’ and ‘intertwined’ with one another – so much so that the Word and Spirit are always together – as a whole. It is therefore impossible for there to be One without the Other.

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