Thursday, 4 December 2008

Why I Am Not Praying For Revival

Having heard talk about revival recently, I was reminded of some thoughts that I put on paper years ago. I have not edited them in any way, and simply offer them here for your consideration:–
I believe it was Finney who said that a revival of religion presupposes a declension. In the context of an institutionalised and established state 'church', where a form of religion is perhaps all that can be hoped for, then perhaps it may be appropriate to pray for revival. Bringing back to life can only be relevant when death has occurred, or when a state has been reached which is very close to death. As far as I can see, revival in these terms would mean a return to a life and meaningfulness within the visible observances of religion. God's purposes are much greater than that and a return to more lively and meaningful religious observance, though perhaps superficially attractive, would unfortunately preserve the observances. Irrespective of the background from which these come, they are ready to be thrown away as 'things which can be shaken', in the face of the kingdom we are receiving, 'a kingdom which cannot be shaken' (Hebrews 12:27&28).

There is a mystique about revival. People pray for it as if it is the one thing that we definitely need, and yet at the same time seem to say that it is entirely up to God's whim whether or not he deigns to let us have it in our situation. Faith, revelation and the ability to trust what he says to us seem to play no part at all in this sort of spiritual conjuring. This is not the God I see revealed in the New Testament.

If we should be praying for revival, are we to pray for a situation or for people? Surely it is the people who determine the situation anyway, so for whom should we be praying?

Is it for the people of 'normal' non-Christian society? They do not need revival, they need to hear the good news of Jesus proclaimed with authority and they need to see the reality of that gospel at work in the lives of believers. There are individuals for whom I am praying, but I am not asking Father to send a revival so that they will be saved; I am asking for them to come face to face with their need of the Lord Jesus and then to find those needs met by submitting to his love and lordship. It will probably be at least partly through me (and other Christians) that this process will take place.

Is it for the nominally 'Christian' churchgoer? If it is right that a revival of religion presupposes a declension, perhaps the religious person is the natural target for revival, but in what way? Are we to pray that they will suddenly see the meaning behind the routine they have been following for years? Certainly! ...but this is not revival, it is conversion! Are we to wait for God to send a revival so that many of these unfortunate folk will find release from the bondage of dead religion? Again, what they need is to see and hear the gospel lived and proclaimed in our lives NOW.

Is it for the true believers in Jesus? A frequently voiced 'prayer for revival' is "Lord, send a revival and let it start with me". The feelings are great: effectively it is saying that I am aware of the need around me but I am also very aware of my own need of a closer walk with Jesus. Surely this is a good way to pray, isn't it? Yes, but what does it mean? "I know that I have not been living as close to you as you want me to, and I want to start now." Sounds good to me, but is this praying for revival? I think it is very simply the normal prayer of a Christian who is aware of failure and wants to go on with his Lord. It will lead to repentance from sin and a fresh awareness of the forgiveness of God. There is little doubt in my mind that this is what many people are thinking of when they think of revival - a freshness of repentance and reality with God - but there is no need to wait for 'revival' for this to happen. To pray "Lord, send a revival and let it start with me", whilst aware of unresolved issues in my relationship with God, is to pray and live a lie. How can I honestly ask him to deal with me in the future when I am not prepared to deal straight with him now? Repentance is the issue here, not revival!

The basic problem with praying for revival is exactly this: it takes the responsibility away from the believer and allows us to 'blame' the will of God for the fact that nothing much seems to be happening. The very real blessing that has undoubtedly come from past 'revivals' has been in direct relation to the fact that believers have been brought to the point where they have met with God in reality. As one by one has been brought to that point, the fire of reality has spread and someone who tried to describe what was happening called it 'revival'. I am less worried by this looking back at what has happened and calling it revival than I am by looking forward and praying for revival by that name.

It would be at the very least stupid of me to try to deny the fact that many people have been blessed and many lives and situations changed as men and women have prayed for revival. Starting by asking God to 'send a revival', believers have had some revelation of their own need and have humbled themselves under the hand of God. Whilst 'revival' may not be what our Father has in mind for us, he is certainly not averse to using our genuine desires and (possibly misled) praying in order to bring us to reality with him. Again, you might say that in these cases, 'praying for revival has worked' and I would certainly praise God and thank him for such blessing. But the purposes of God are much greater.

What I am looking for, praying for and (by the grace of God) working towards is a real demonstration of the life of the New Testament Church. Men and women who are learning the reality of living in forgiveness, death to the old life, newness of life in Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A church whose very life exudes love, healing, security, joy, release and acceptance. A continuous community of life shared by those who belong to one Lord, irrespective of any labels which each one may or may not carry. A unique company of people whose doors are always open to anyone who is prepared to admit their need and find the fulfilment of that need in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I believe that this is the heart of God for the present day. There are many facets to the way he is bringing it to reality. One of them is to gradually unveil his purpose to us so that we begin to share his vision and burden. As a result, I am learning to pray, within the limitations of my understanding, for the manifestation of this glorious church here on earth in my lifetime.

You might call it revival.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Perpetual Penitence?

Some time ago, we were in a large meeting with Christians from several different backgrounds in the same city. We were visitors and knew no-one there, but wanted to be part of this united meeting.

The leader stood up and, after some introductory remarks, launched into his understanding of an essential preliminary: making sure (as far as possible) that there was no unconfessed and unforgiven sin in the congregation. He started by reminding us that we were all sinners and that therefore we needed to repent of our various sins. He then asked the whole congregation to say a 'prayer of confession' together and followed that by 'pronouncing forgiveness' on the basis of the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ shed for us.

I admire the desire to try to eliminate unconfessed and unforgiven sins, but it certainly doesn't work like that!

This sort of corporate, ritual confession and forgiveness definitely has its place in the Bible, but it is in the Old Testament, where the covenant of God was administered through the Law and the priesthood, with a system of different sacrifices appropriate to different circumstances and an annual Day of Atonement to make sure that nothing had slipped through the net.

The New Covenant in Jesus is different. Yes, there is the continuing understanding that we owe it to God to live rightly with him and our neighbours, but there are major differences. There is only one sacrifice which has already been made, and it is administered by the Holy Spirit working in each believer. When we first put our trust in the Lord Jesus and the sacrifice he made for us, we find ourselves brought into a relationship with the Creator Father God, where all the wrong things we have done are removed and are no longer a blockage between us and him. We learn that the death of Jesus pays off our 'debt' and so puts us in a right and open relationship with our Father.

All too soon, we discover that clouds have appeared in that relationship because we have failed again. It feels as though the whole thing is a failure but, if we are wisely instructed, we are told that Jesus' sacrifice covers not only the 'debts' we accrued before we turned to him, but also any that we fall into later. All we have to do is agree with Father that we have failed again and take fresh hold of the power of Jesus' death to cover the new debts as well as the old ones. As John writes so graphically, "the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." (1 John 1:7)

This is intensely personal and spiritual; it is usually where our relationship with our Father starts and it is also a very large part of how it continues as the days grow into months, years and decades. However much progress we may have made, from time to time we find ourselves needing to come back and experience afresh the release of his forgiveness. We also need to learn to give and receive forgiveness in our human relationships and one may often trigger the other.

So, when we meet together, it is important that any unforgiven sin is dealt with, but it simply cannot be done on a corporate scale. We do not need to be told that we are 'miserable sinners'. If we are learning to live in relationship with our Father through the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit makes it his business to let us know when we step out of line, and we need to learn to be sensitive to his voice and to respond quickly in repentance and faith. As long as I remain unresponsive to him I may well find that I am miserable, but I don't need to stay there!

If we adopt the attitude that "Well, I have probably done something wrong, so I may as well be penitent about it", we deny the role of the Holy Spirit. He wants to deal with us personally, on a 'case by case' basis, so that we can be gradually changed. If he is not showing you that you have gone wrong, please don't try to confess to anything!

The Greek word translated 'confess' really means 'agree', 'say the same thing'. We can only truly confess to sin when we have become aware of it. This may be by the direct prompting of the Holy Spirit, or through the words of another believer who has had the insight, grace and courage to point it out to us. Either way, it is our Father who is speaking to us, and our response can only be either to reject the prompting or 'say the same thing' and agree with what is being said to us. As we do that, we truly 'confess' and forgiveness is instantaneous – no penance, no pleading, no delay!

Going the other way, rejecting the prompting, is futile if we want to go on in our relationship with our Father, as there will always be a blockage while we refuse to agree with him. However, most (probably all) of us have tried it and experienced the resulting spiritual desert.
There is very much to be said for 'keeping short accounts'. Quite apart from the joy of unclouded relationship, we also go on learning the precious lesson of hearing and recognising the voice of the Holy Spirit when he speaks to us. This is no ritualised religion, administered by man; it is part of the path of progress as we are gradually being transformed.

Monday, 9 June 2008

The Right To Change Society?

A sinister development which seems to spring at least partly from the charismatic movement has been the apparent conviction that we Christians should be active in changing the society in which we live, that we have a responsibility and even a right to do so.
Some of this has probably washed over from an earlier age when some Western societies were seen as being 'Christian countries'. Many Christians in these countries, perhaps the majority, still long for a 'return to Christian values in society' and see this as one of the primary roles of the Church.
Believers in 'non-Christian' countries usually have no such illusions. They know that, as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, they are in a minority and are likely to remain so. They have no reason, from Scripture or elsewhere, to expect to live in a 'Christian' society. From a distance, some of them may envy their brothers and sisters in so-called Christian countries but, if they once make a visit, they soon see the hollowness of the label and are often shocked at the lack of faith that they find.
I believe that the various attempts to 'restore' society are not only doomed to failure but are profoundly misguided and stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature and role of the Church.
In the New Testament, we do not see Paul advocating any kind of tinkering with the setup of the pervading pagan Roman society. It would have been unrealistic, to say the least! Christians continued to find themselves relentlessly persecuted. This was the time in the Church's history when the most phenomenal growth was seen – should we be surprised?
Even the Lord Jesus himself, working largely within the Jewish community, taught right attitudes and behaviour and did not shrink from blunt criticism of those in authority, but he did not attempt to bring about changes in society. His whole teaching on the kingdom of heaven makes it very clear that he was aiming for internal spiritual change, not some sort of organisational rearrangement. The temptation to 'take the kingdom' and rule over the world system was not his idea, but Satan's. Simon Peter was still thinking in these 'world takeover' terms when he rejected Jesus' statement that he would suffer and die – no wonder the Lord spoke so strongly to him!
Internal change is the key. Of course there will be some change in society as individuals within it are themselves transformed by the new life of the Holy Spirit within. But that change will be at first infinitesimal, growing only as the number of changed lives grows, always organic and never organisational.

Maybe we doubt this and seek to hold on to the many Christian institutions that have been founded with clear intent to change society. Whilst I would not question the sincerity of those who founded them and those who work in them now, the least association with any of them will show us that they are prone to fall into the trap of becoming mere man-made organisations, incapable of fulfilling the vision which which they were founded.
The disciples asked their risen Lord whether he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel at that time (Acts 1:6). Even after all the years of listening to his teaching and their very recent intense experience of the enormous price of the grace of God, they still thought that maybe he was just about to take over as the conquering, ruling Messiah.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how they had missed the point. We know that those same confused disciples were soon to know the enabling of the Holy Spirit, and how they would take the message of internal spiritual transformation to 'Jerusalem, Judea and the uttermost parts of the earth'.
In closing, let me pass on something I was told some time ago. Apparently there are some Jewish scholars who now say that it was a mistake for the Jews to be given the modern land of Israel in 1948. Their study of the scriptures leads them to believe that the only way they were supposed to re-occupy Israel would be under the command of the Messiah when he had returned in glory. In other words, they could not see the kingdom restored unless the king had returned.

The Lord Jesus does not look to us to get the world sorted out before he returns. He looks for the Church to have made herself ready, like a bride for her bridegroom. Only when he returns will the kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of God and of his Christ.