Global forest restoration targets have been set, yet policy makers and land managers lack guiding principles on how to invest limited resources to achieve them. We conducted a meta-analysis of 166 studies in naturally regenerating and actively restored forests worldwide to answer: (1) To what extent do floral and faunal abundance and diversity and biogeochemical functions recover? (2) Does recovery vary as a function of past land use, time since restoration, forest region, or precipitation? (3) Does active restoration result in more complete or faster recovery than passive restoration? Overall, forests showed a high level of recovery, but the time to recovery depended on the metric type measured, past land use, and region. Abundance recovered quickly and completely, whereas diversity recovered slower in tropical than in temperate forests. Biogeochemical functions recovered more slowly after agriculture than after logging or mining. Formerly logged sites were mostly passively restored and generally recovered quickly. Mined sites were nearly always actively restored using a combination of planting and either soil amendments or recontouring topography, which resulted in rapid recovery of the metrics evaluated. Actively restoring former agricultural land, primarily by planting trees, did not result in consistently faster or more complete recovery than passively restored sites. Our results suggest that simply ending the land use is sufficient for forests to recover in many cases, but more studies are needed that directly compare the value added of active versus passive restoration strategies in the same system. Investments in active restoration should be evaluated relative to the past land use, the natural resilience of the system, and the specific objectives of each project.