What is the difference between reformation and revival?

Robert M. Godfrey & 2 others
3 Min Read

GODFREY: Historically, part of the reason reformation became the label of what happened in the sixteenth century is that a great deal of time and energy had to be devoted to reforming the externals of the life of the church—how the church worshiped, how the church educated, how the church catechized—almost everything had to be redone.

When the Reformation was over, people thought the external life of the church now was conformed to the Word of God, and the question became, Are hearts really connected to this purified external form of religion? The Reformation was very much concerned about hearts as well as externals, but once those externals were properly reformed according to the Word of God, then the great concern tended to be this: Are people in Reformed churches just going through the motions? Is it just formal religion, or are hearts really engaged? That’s where the concern became more about the renewal of hearts than the reformation of externals.

DEYOUNG: We are dealing with some categories that are useful but aren’t going to allow for dogmatic definitions, but what Dr. Godfrey said is helpful. You could think of reformation as a kind of awakening that moves in a doctrinal and external direction, while revival is generally internal and subjective. That is not to say reformation has no concern for the heart and revival isn’t concerned with doctrine, but revival moves people from a place of religious stagnation—often with the right forms—to a place of personal appropriation of that piety and those convictions. Both reformation and revival are necessary in our day, both require a work of the Spirit, and both require the powerful preaching of the Word.

FERGUSON: The Reformation so clearly changed the face of the church that we have categorized it as a reformation, but I’d be willing to categorize it as an awakening. In fact, many of the characteristic marks of the later awakenings also took place during the Reformation, like the way in which God brought together brotherhoods in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The same would be true of the Puritan period—there was an unusual coalescing of individuals whom God used in unusual ways. You see that during the Reformation, for example, with John Calvin. The more you read about Calvin as a person, the more you realize he was closely connected to a group of friends and brothers upon whom God had laid His hand in a very unusual way.

The more you read Calvin’s sermons, the more you realize he used the dialogical mode of preaching, which is why his preaching is so surprising to people. He spoke in the power of the Spirit right into where the people of Geneva were. His sermons contain a lot of “you” language and a lot of close application, and there was a lot of resistance, but there was also an extraordinary spread of the gospel. This not only changed the face of the church but also the hearts of the people.

There were thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people converted during the Reformation period. I wonder if anyone has ever done statistics about the number of people who seem to have been genuinely converted from 1520 to 1550. The actual obedience to what God commands us to do with respect to the life of the church gained great prominence in the sixteenth century, even more than in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

GODFREY: You can think of that in terms of Geneva having preaching every morning in the church. Presumably, somebody was there—even Reformed ministers don’t preach to an empty building. There was an eagerness for the Word of God such that people were coming every morning to hear sermons. That’s an eagerness for the Word that represents a changed heart, not just changed externals.

FERGUSON: At one point, they had to move Calvin’s Old Testament lectures into the church because so many people wanted to hear him lecture on the Old Testament—that’s quite something.

This is a transcript of W. Robert Godfrey’s, Sinclair Ferguson’s, and Kevin DeYoung’s answers given during our 2018 National Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.