8 Characteristics of a True Revival: Billy Graham on the Effects of an Awakening

1 June 2023


For centuries, Christians have sought revival—a quickening of the Spirit in God’s people. Billy Graham was arguably used by God to spark spiritual awakening around the world, including in Australia. Here are what this great man of God identified as the eight characteristics of a true revival.

(You can find the first post in this series here: “The Time is Now: A Message from Billy Graham on the Need for Spiritual Revival”).

In his book, The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power in Your Life, Billy Graham surveys the ministry of the Spirit in believers’ lives. At the end of the book, he publishes his thoughts on “The Need of the Hour”—revival. His message is so prescient that I decided to summarise it in a three-part series (unless otherwise indicated, the following quotes are from Billy Graham’s book).

Billy Graham identifies eight of the characteristics that should accompany a genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the personal and corporate levels.

Two things, in particular, struck me about Graham’s words.

Firstly, he repeatedly uses the phrase “there will be”—expressing his supreme confidence in the consistent work of the Spirit in revival and in the availability of that power to the everyday Christian today.

Secondly, Graham highlights both the social and the personal implications of revival.

Whereas many Christians juxtapose social concern and evangelisation—as though the two can be disconnected—Graham seems to believe that wherever a true revival occurs, the Church will invariably pursue both evangelisation and social betterment. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Christians who have experienced the fullness of the Spirit will have a totally renewed view of God and themselves, a burden to share the good news with those around them and help them practically, and a vibrancy of Spirit life that bursts organically from within.

Appealing to the imagination, Graham asks the reader to visualise what would happen “if revival were to break into our lives and our churches today”.

He proceeds to list eight characteristics that should accompany an authentic outpouring.

1. There will be a new vision of the majesty of God

The first characteristic is that Christians will apprehend the true nature of God—as not only a God of tenderness, mercy and compassion but one of justice, holiness and wrath against sin.

Graham argues that many believers have a “caricature” of God that rightfully highlights his love and compassion, but ignores His “inflexible justice and wrath against sin” and His “desire for holiness”.

“What stirs God most is not physical suffering but sin. All too often we are more afraid of physical pain than of moral wrong. The cross is the standing evidence of the fact that holiness is a principle for which God would die. God cannot clear the guilty until atonement is made. Mercy is what we need and that is what we receive at the foot of the cross”

2. There will be a new vision of the sinfulness of sin

Graham quotes numerous examples in Scripture of when humans encounter the glory of God. Isaiah’s response when he saw God is particularly striking:

“Woe is me, for I am undone!

Because I am a man of unclean lips,

And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;

For my eyes have seen the King,

The Lord of hosts.” (Is. 6:5 NKJV)

Peter (Luke 5:8) and Job (42:6) had similar responses in the presence of God. When we encounter God, we realise what sin really is.

“The greatest vision of sin that a person can ever receive is to look at the cross. If Jesus Christ had to die for sin, then sin indeed must be dark and terrible in the sight of God.”

3. There will be an emphasis on the necessity of repentance, faith, and the new birth

Consistent with his entire ministry, Graham highlights that a true work of the Spirit will emphasise repentance, faith and being born again.

Fundamentally, the gospel journey for any individual begins with radical spiritual transformation through the new birth.

4. There will be the joy of salvation

An awakening will also lead to joy in salvation. Both the Old Testament (Ps. 85:6) and the New Testament (John 15:11; Acts 8:8) testify to this. Salvation and revival will be accompanied by rejoicing and a fullness of joy.

“…a true revitalization of the Church would bring about the salvation of tens of thousands of sinners, and this in turn would bring joy in heaven as well as joy here on earth.

If there were no heaven and no hell I would still want to be a Christian because of what it does for our homes and our own families in this life.”

“I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7 NKJV)

5. There will be a new realisation of our responsibility for world evangelisation

The passionate evangelist that he was, Billy Graham’s list would have been incomplete without a clear mention of the centrality of the Great Commission.

He traces the consistent testimony of John the Baptist (John 1:36–37), the early disciples of Jesus (John 1:40–45) and the early church (Acts 8:4), who all pointed their hearers to Jesus and centred their message around the good news of salvation.

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NKJV)

According to Graham, “[o]ne of the first and best evidences of being a true believer is the concern we feel for others.”

6. There will be a deep social concern

The concern for others that Graham mentioned extends beyond soul saving. It also involves loving our neighbours as ourselves practically (Matthew 22:37–39).

“Our faith is not only vertical, it is horizontal,” writes Graham. He is convinced that in a state of true revival Christians “will become interested in the hurts of those around us and those far away”.

At the same time, he is quick to point out that social concern without the message of repentance is dead:

“Too many people today want a brotherly world in which they can remain unbrotherly; a decent world in which they can live indecently. Too many individuals want economic security without spiritual security. But the revitalization that we long for must be biblical. If it is Christian, it will be Bible-centered. If this is true, then its leaders must have the courage of Amos to condemn those who ‘buy the helpless for money and the needy for a pair of sandals’ (Amos 8:6).”

7. There will be increased evidence of both the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit

Graham points out that the Holy Spirit is central to renewal—He is the one who brings it about. As a result, when the Spirit’s power comes upon the Church, we should expect manifestations of Him—the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit.

As Jesus noted, the fruit of someone’s life is the true test of the Spirit’s work in their life. The same is true of revival.

In a true revival, “Believers will learn what it means to minister to one another and build each other up through the gifts the Holy Spirit has given,” says Graham, “They will be given a new measure of love for each other and for a lost and dying world.”

But it is also a testament to the truth of the Gospel itself—to the veracity of the claims made about Jesus and His Church in the New Testament.

“No longer will the world say that the Church is powerless and silent. No longer will our lives seem ordinary and indistinguishable from the rest of the world. Our lives will be marked by the gifts only the Holy Spirit can give. Our lives will be marked by the fruit only He can bring.”

8. There will be renewed dependence upon the Holy Spirit

Because the Holy Spirit is the one who causes revival, it makes sense that one of the main characteristics of true revival is greater reliance on the Spirit.

To quote Graham,

“The Holy Spirit is the one who reproves, convicts, strives, instructs, invites, quickens, regenerates, renews, strengthens, and uses. He must not be grieved, resisted, tempted quenched, insulted, or blasphemed. He gives liberty to the Christian, direction to the worker, discernment to the teacher, power to the Word, and fruit to faithful service. He reveals the things of Christ. He teaches us how to use the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. He guides us into all truth. He directs in the way of godliness. He teaches us how to answer the enemies of our Lord. He gives access to the Father. He helps us in our prayer life.”

Christians cannot take any credit for the fruits of a true revival because revival fundamentally involves the Holy Spirit expressing His power and character through receptive Believers.

“There are things that money cannot buy; that no music can bring; that no social position can claim; that no personal influence can assure; and which no eloquence can command. No clergyman however brilliant, no evangelist no matter how eloquent or compelling, can bring about the revival we need. Only the Holy Spirit can do this. Zechariah said, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD of hosts’ (Zech. 4:6).”


Photo by Billy Graham Library.

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