Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Leslie Basham: How do you know that you’ve truly encountered God? Richard Owen Roberts has met a lot of people who assume that it has to do with emotional worship services. 

Richard Owen Roberts: And they say, “Oh! The presence of God is glorious!” But what about holiness? 

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Monday, September 26. 

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: I was delighted to learn a few days ago that a longtime friend, someone who has shared our heart for revival for many years, was going to be speaking to our staff chapel today. We got in touch with our executive producer and said, “Let’s try and record Mr. Roberts, because I know our listeners would love to have a chance to hear what God has put on his heart.”

So I want to welcome today to Revive Our Hearts my friend, Mr. Richard Owen Roberts. Mr. Roberts, it’s always good to be with you. Thank you so much for ministering to our staff earlier today, and for then taking these couple of extra hours to talk with our Revive Our Hearts listeners about a subject that is near and dear to our hearts, and to yours as well. 

Mr. Roberts: Well, thank you. It certainly is very much a heart issue. 

Nancy: I think it may have been thirty years or so since we first met, and you’ve ministered to our staff many times over the years. I’ve heard you preach many times. I have in my hand a copy of a book that’s now out of print, but it came out in 1982, a book called Revival, and mine is well-marked. 

Many years ago this was a part of what God used to influence my own thinking on revival, and that’s the subject we want to talk about today—"Revive Our Hearts." That’s what this ministry is about. If you could just take us back . . . You’ve been preaching, studying revival for many years. I heard you say today that over sixty years you’ve been preaching on the subject of revival and calling God’s people to revival.

Can you take us back to when you first even became acquainted with the concept, and what it was that first put that burden in your heart?

Mr. Roberts: I think I can do that. I was a very diligent worker as a child. Our home was a poor home. My father had a very small income, and the children worked and did what they could to help. I worked from the time I was eight or so in some kind of labor or another. I was working, really as a boy, principally in farming. 

I had managed to earn enough money, and save enough, that I was able to go when I was twelve to a summer camp in upper New York called the Sunrise Mountain Bible Conference. At the conference, the closing day, an appeal was given for all those young people who would surrender for missionary service. I felt strongly compelled to offer myself as a missionary candidate.

I had done a very foolish thing toward the end of this week of camp. As group we were out on a hike in the Adirondacks, and there was a pause when people stopped to rest for a few moments, and I sat down to rest on a stump. Unbeknownst to me, that stump was covered with poison ivy. I had poison ivy in unmentionable parts of the body. It was a fierce case of poison ivy.

I had barely made this commitment to missions, and I was simply laid up with poison ivy. This was at the end of the summer. School started the next week, and I couldn’t go to school because the poison ivy was so severe. I couldn’t climb the steps to my bedroom, so a couch was fixed for me in our small dining room for two weeks.

I was there, essentially alone, and struggling with this commitment that I had made. It was full-hearted. But the Lord kept saying to me, “I didn’t call you to missions.”

“What, then, did I commit myself to?” 

“You committed yourself to serve Me,” was the message that kept coming.

“Well, what is it that I’m supposed to do?”

“You’re to preach.”

Well, I didn’t argue with the Lord in the sense of saying, “No, absolutely not.” But, “Lord, didn’t you make a mistake? How could you possibly use someone like me to preach?” In truth, I could hardly string two or three words together. I was so fearful in class in public school that if the teacher asked a question of me, I just froze.

Nancy: So you couldn’t imagine being called to preach.

Mr. Roberts: Yes, I couldn’t imagine it. So I tried to make a bargain with the Lord. A farmer I was working for had said, “If you’ll commit yourself to stick with me for five years, afterward I’ll pay your way through Cornell University, you can take an agricultural course.”

So, I said, “Lord, I’m going to be a farmer, and I could put a tract in a bushel of beans, and even a tract in every basket of strawberries that I raise.” But over and over, “No, I’ve called you to preach.” 

And then it came to the point, “Well, Lord, I know you’re capable of making me a preacher. What would I be preaching about?”

And I don’t understand how this could be, but at twelve years of age I was certain I was called to labor in the field of revival. So then and there I committed myself to that.

Nancy: And what did that term mean to you?

Mr. Roberts: It didn’t really mean anywhere near what it means now, but it meant something very consequential. My parents had been converted in a small holiness church, but because of infighting and other difficulties, we moved to a much larger, Presbyterian, church. The distinction between the two was very great. One was starched—the pastor looked as if he had just been pulled out of a starch barrel. Everything was formal, stiff. The holiness church was quite the opposite of that.

I was reading the book of Acts at that period of my life, and neither church looked like Acts at all. And so the theme of revival really came to me in that setting, where I thought, “There’s got to be something other than the formality, which was evangelical formality, but nonetheless very stiff, and the breeziness and the meanness of spirit, often, that accompanied things in the holiness movement.

I just felt that, “Revival, that’s what that really means. Something of God in the midst of the life of the church that we’re lacking on both sides.” So at twelve years of age I made a commitment . . . I didn’t have the foggiest notion what it entailed . . . I made a commitment to read every book on the subject of revival that had ever been written.

So I began immediately gathering. It started really with biographies of persons who obviously had extraordinary ministries. For a long time I couldn’t distinguish between revival and evangelism. I took them to be one and the same. Gradually I realized that evangelism is what we do for God and for people, and revival is what God does for us.

When I grasped that, I thought, “Wow, that is sensational! That’s what we really need, a fresh work of God in us.”

Nancy: I think there are a lot of people today who still don’t really know the difference between revival and evangelism. In fact, in some parts of the country, those terms are used virtually synonymously.

Mr. Roberts: Yes, and it’s terribly difficult to correct an impression that has existed in people’s minds for such a great length of time. And perhaps we never can fully resolve that, and it may not even be urgently necessary to do so. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that there have been times and seasons when God has moved wonderfully in the lives of His people and brought them into a relationship with Himself that is so precious, so enduring, so impacting, that they’re never the same again.

Nancy: I’d like us to take some time this week to just unpack that concept of revival. I said to you before we started recording, “Let’s just make this a Revival 101 course for those many among our listeners who may not be familiar with the concept.”

I find that the term revival is not used in many circles today, or it is misused in a lot of circles, and in some areas it carries a lot of baggage. People hear the word revival and they think that sounds outdated, or not contemporary, not relevant, but really it’s the concept that we need today as much or more than ever.

Help us start with a basic definition of what we’re talking about when we say the word revival.

Mr. Roberts: Yes, I think that’s an urgent need. The first time I felt I was ready to write a book on revival . . . I had contemplated a number of books in the preceding years, and it was quite evident over time I wasn’t ready to put my heart on a page. But when the time came when I was sure I was ready, I felt because of this variation in understanding of what the term itself means, I ought to explain what I mean when I’m using the term revival. 

So I said at that time, “Revival is an extraordinary movement of the Spirit of God with extraordinary results.” Well, that’s valid. I still hold to that, but over the years since then, it just became very clear to me that there’s a much simpler way to state it, and a much more moving and exciting way to state it, and that’s to say that revival is God in the midst of His people.

Now that may not mean anything to some, because sometimes we take it for granted, “Oh, well, God is always with us.”

But if you take that as a given, then you’ve got to exclude major portions of Scripture that describe God as having withdrawn. In Psalms, for instance, where the psalmist is crying out, “God, where are you? How long will you be gone? Have you forsaken me forever?” So, the simple concept, revival is God in the midst of His people.

There are those incredibly wonderful times when God draws near. That’s true in our own individual lives. So much so that our fathers often described the soul experiences in languages like the “night season” of the soul, the “daytime” of the soul or the “winter” of the soul over against the "springtime" of the soul.

All those who have had any kind of a wondrous walk with Christ have been aware that there are times when Christ is so much nearer and times when it appears as if He has gone, and perhaps will never appear. But if you fix your heart on that simple truth, “Revival is God in the midst of His people,” a time when God draws near. . . .

Obviously, when that happens, if it’s happening corporately, if there are others involved, then part of what is happening is, eyes are drawn away from all kinds of doctrinal issues and personal issues and preferences, and eyes are fixed on Christ. So think of a wonderful time when the whole of the church had its gaze fixed on Christ.

Nancy: God in the midst of His people. Now, I’m going to press you on that a little bit, because I’m thinking some people may say, “I have no concept of what that means or what that might look like.” Others may say, “Well, isn’t that what happens every time we go to church? We have this great worship time, we have this really powerful preacher, the church is packed, we have all these incredible programs.” Is that God in the midst of His people?

What you’re talking about, what does that look like? How might you describe it, and how might it be different from what many of us experience as a regular course in our own churches?

Mr. Roberts: Yes, it would be hard to make a simple response to that. The response I want to make is simple, but it’s not really a simple response. It’s a response involving a number of very consequential issues.

If it’s true that God is always with us, to the same degree, then you have to ask, “Why, in the book of James, does it say, ‘Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you?’” And why, to repeat something I’ve already said, did the psalmist frequently ask the Lord how long He would be gone?

We have to take as a fixed fact that God is not always as close as we wish Him to be, as we need Him to be, as we find it wonderfully beneficial when He is. So you begin with the concept that there are comings and goings of God. Then you face the fact that sometimes you’re responsible for that.

We have very severe and wonderfully helpful passages of Scripture that speak about grieving the Holy Spirit. So there are times, clearly, when we look at ourselves with any care at all, when we say, “Well, I wish I hadn’t done that. Why did I ever allow my thoughts to go in that direction? Surely I have grieved the Spirit in this.”

We understand that when we grieve the Holy Spirit, we lose that wondrous sense of His presence. Now, we might wish to interpret that, “Oh, well, I grieved the Spirit. He’s right there.” But I grieved Him, so I’ve obscured His presence. But in truth, that doesn’t fit the biblical picture.

The biblical picture very, very often portrays God Himself as having withdrawn, having pulled back. There’s a powerful passage in Isaiah 63 and 64, and in the passage, the Lord is saying, “Surely these are My people, sons who will not deal falsely,” but they sinned wickedly, they grieved the Holy Spirit. He turned Himself and became their enemy. He fought against them.

We couldn’t live with God constantly fighting with us, not those of us who have tasted His nearness, not those of us who have tasted His forgiveness, but there are seasons when we do grieve Him, when He does turn away from us.

Nancy: And what are some of the evidences that that presence is not as it should be, that God is not in the midst of His people, as we would want Him to be?

Mr. Roberts: Yes, going back to your earlier statements of our supposition that God is with us . . . we’ve had this wonderful worship service, we’ve sung these lively hymns, we felt good all over as a result . . . There is really only one absolute evidence of God’s presence.

We have clearly a number of occasions in Scripture where God draws near. We have Moses, for instance, with the burning bush; we have John on the Isle of Patmos; we have Isaiah with the coals of fire touching his lips. Is not the one clear evidence of God’s presence holiness?

Each of these persons that I’ve mentioned, and the multitude of others that could be described in some fashion, cry out concerning holiness with words like, “Woe is me, I’m undone.” “I’m a man of unclean spirit, a man of unclean lips.” “Depart from me, I’m unworthy.”

When God is near, there’s always an awesome sense of His holiness and our unrighteousness and a deep, deep concern that His righteousness become our righteousness. Now, what we often interpret as a sweet time, when God was with us, has nothing whatsoever to do with holiness.

I’ve been in many settings where people have said, “Wasn’t it glorious, the way God was with us?” And what they were referring to was the level of feet-stomping and hand-clapping. I’ve even been in situations where people get up and jig around, and prance about, and they say, “Oh, the presence of God is glorious!” But what about holiness?

If I can go from a meeting of that sort, where there’s such a wondrous sense of God’s presence, and then engage in an argument with someone, or speak offensive words, or think thoughts that are contrary to Christ and His kingdom, it doesn’t really look like holiness has been the predominant factor.

So when I look at these things, I say to myself, "How do I know if God is with me?"

  • Is the spirit of holiness prevailing in my life? 
  • Am I deeply offended by my own sin? 
  • Am I constantly turning from it to repentance?” 

When God draws near, it is God Who draws near, the Holy One, the God whose Name is Holy. All my unholiness becomes obvious when God is near. And that’s the only safe test of His presence, and it's one that I think all of us need to learn more concerning.

Nancy: Have you ever been in a place where you sensed the presence of God in that way?

Mr. Roberts: Yes, thankfully. I have not as frequently as I wish, not anywhere near as often or as permanently as I hope will be true, but times when the presence of God was so manifest that sin took on a level of wretchedness that it does not normally have. Where the beauty of holiness is so profound and so attractive that nothing else compares.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of being in many of the beauty spots of the world. I’ve watched many a glorious sunrise and sunset, seen remarkable mountain scenes, snow-capped peaks, beautiful lakes and rivers. But I can testify as an old man, there’s no beauty like the beauty of holiness. To live for a whole day with the beauty of holiness, imagine—a week, a month, where the beauty of holiness has been so gripping that nothing else was of any interest or had any allure.

What I’m trying to say is revival is a time when God draws near, when men and women, boys and girls are captured by the beauty of God’s holiness, where it is so attractive, so alluring, so glorious that they themselves walk in the beauty of holiness, even as He does.

Leslie: Richard Owen Roberts has been inviting you to consider the beauty of holiness. He’s been talking with Nancy Leigh DeMoss about revival, and one of the marks of genuine revival, a passion for holiness. If you’re intrigued by what you’ve heard today on revival, would you get to know more about it? We’d like to send you a book by Del Fehsenfeld, Jr. called Ablaze with His Glory.

Del founded Life Action Ministries, the parent organization to Revive Our Hearts. He wrote this book in the months before going home to be with the Lord, and Nancy was involved in guiding this book through the publishing process. Ablaze with His Glory will help you better understand what genuine revival is. You’ll be encouraged to pray for revival, and to seek it in your own life.

When you make a donation of any size to Revive Our Hearts, we’ll send Ablaze with His Glory. Just ask for it when you call 1-800-569-5959, or just visit our newly renovated website, ReviveOurHearts.com.

Do you ever feel discouraged by all the darkness and blatant sin in our world? Richard Owen Roberts says change needs to begin, not in the world, but in the church. He’ll explain more tomorrow. Please be here for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

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