Can You Reverse Engineer Revival?
The pastry chef takes another bite of thawed dough as she pulls the seventeenth batch of cookies out of the oven, hoping she has finally figured out the secret to her grandmother’s long lost ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookies recipe.
Meanwhile, scientists from the University of Toronto work backwards, exploring 20,000 genes—one at a time—hoping to deal a death blow to Glioblastoma, the leading cause of cancer deaths in children and young adults.
Previously, the United States and Israel disassembled, studied, and reassembled the Russian MIG aircraft system before returning it to its rightful owner, Cold War–era Soviet Union.
These are three examples of reverse engineering. From software to military technology, physical machinery to biological functions, we live in an age where reverse engineering is possible. The concept is a simple one. In reverse engineering, we:
- Take something apart
- See how it works
- Aim to replicate
Reverse engineering has been used for great good and great harm. Our gut tells us there’s nothing we can’t tear down, analyze, and recreate. As we grow accustomed to this quasi-superpower, we find ourselves trying to reverse engineer anything and everything, including things that can’t be reverse engineered.
WHAT IS REVIVAL?
This article argues that true revival cannot be reverse engineered because it’s fundamentally and genuinely a movement of God. John Piper calls revival, “God doing among many Christians at the same time or in the same region, usually, what he is doing all the time in individual Christians’ lives as people get saved and individually renewed around the world.”
Notice two key elements in Piper’s definition:
- God doing something among many that he always does in individual Christians (Psalm 85:6).
- God is the one doing the saving and renewing.
This definition of revival is useful because it rightly sees God as the main actor. It helps us see that revival cannot be reverse engineered because the will of God cannot be reverse engineered.
We may be able to tear apart a transistor radio, study it, put it back together, and replicate it from what we’ve learned. We may be able to taste an item from our favorite restaurant and use our refined palate to figure out the ingredients. We may even be able to study the human cell and use the tools of reverse engineering to fight brain cancer.
But we cannot reverse engineer the divine will of God. We cannot tear his will apart, analyze it, and reproduce it (Isa. 14:24, 55:9). We cannot stimulate him, persuade him, or cajole him to move, because he only and always acts in accordance with his eternal purposes (Eph. 1:1, 5, 9, 11).
THE SOVEREIGN SPIRIT
Consider the words of Jesus, as he speaks on the new birth in John 3: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Jesus is giving us a peek behind the curtain of the new birth. And his point is fairly obvious: God alone makes sinners alive.
Now consider how this applies to revival. Revival is when many receive the new birth in roughly the same time and place. Whether the wind blows on one person, or ten thousand people, or ten million people, it always and only blows where it pleases. Likewise, the Spirit of God does not move according to the will of man, but the will of the Father (John 6:44, 65). We can no more reverse engineer a revival than we can reverse engineer the wind.
This may leave you wondering if revival is completely out of our hands, if there’s nothing we can do to see the Spirit of God move powerfully in our midst. It would be useful here to consider the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions.
NECESSARY VS. SUFFICIENT
There are certain conditions necessary for revival—in other words, conditions that must be present for revival to happen. Necessary conditions include prayerful dependence on God, a right understanding of the gospel, and the faithful proclamation of Christ as Savior and Lord.
But none of these conditions are sufficient for revival. The only sufficient condition for revival is the sovereign movement of the Spirit of God. This is not something we can cause or force. We can plea for the Spirit to move, but we cannot force him to move. We cannot bribe or entice him to action. The Spirit moves according to the eternal, immovable, and unchanging will of God.
This is good news. We are carnal creatures with wimpy visions of the power of God. But when God moves according to his eternally wise purposes, he always does “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).
A TRUSTED WORD FROM AN OLD FRIEND
Reverse engineering allows the hacker to get into your operating system, the tyrannical nation state to uncover technologies that will almost certainly be used for evil, and the corrupt business to circumvent patent and copyright laws. The principles of reverse engineering are dangerous when they’re in the wrong hands and then they’re applied to spiritual things like evangelism, conversion, and missions. They produce a dramatic excess of sincere but false professions, false assurance, a surge of nominalism, and a watered-down and tarnished witness for the gospel. To put it another way, reverse engineering gives the outward appearance of success in the short-term but hurts evangelism and disciple-making in the long-term.
So, brother pastors, we must labor to excel in establishing the necessary conditions for revival, all while remembering that our triune God has predetermined the sufficient conditions for revival in eternity past. As Samuel Rutherford said, “Duties belong to us; results belong to God.”