INFORMED AND REFORMED
By Martin Murphy
There is a curious notion among many evangelicals that the primary duty of Christians is evangelism. Such is the language in the New Geneva Study Bible: "The Church's main mandate is evangelism (Matt. 28:19; Luke 24-46-48)" (p. 1889). It sounds as if God created us and saves us primarily for the purpose of evangelism. So much religious jargon is attached to the Christian evangelistic endeavor that we must be careful to define our doctrine and practice. The two are inseparable.
Let me preface everything I'm about to say with this: Evangelism is a biblical mandate and every Christian is commanded to be a part of the evangelistic enterprise. Even though I've made it perfectly clear that I believe the Bible teaches that evangelism is a mandate and I am actively involved in evangelism, I expect to hear someone say, "Martin doesn't believe in evangelism." Yes, I believe that evangelism is one of several disciplines required by all Christians, but it is not the main or primary mandate for the church. The primary duty of the body of Christ (the church of all ages) is to worship the true and living God. In fact, the New Geneva Study Bible says "It [worship] should already be the main activity both private and corporate, in each believer's life (Col. 3:17)" (p. 584). The idea that evangelism is the primary duty of Christians is a fairly new invention in the church.
I must admit that early in my Christian life I thought I contributed something to God's effort to save me. Maybe it was the sinners prayer or going to the front of a church during the alter call or at the very least I exercised my faith. Pride was the problem. After my conversion my goal was to win people to Jesus. During those early years I prayed with several dozen people to receive Christ. So far as I can judge only one of them ever made a serious commitment to worship the Lord and that was after I changed my views. After a serious and searching inquiry into the word of God, it became abundantly clear that I could not do anything to save myself or anyone else. I pray that my misguided evangelistic efforts have not deceived anyone into believing they are Christians when they are not Christians at all. After I learned that the Bible could be divided into two parts (the law and the gospel), I began to make some headway toward understanding biblical evangelism. The first thing I learned is that the Bible has much more to say about God's judgment than it does about God's love. It also has much more to say about the law than it does the gospel. If we are going to be consistent in expressing the biblical message to others, we need to spend more time preaching and teaching God's judgment and His law. If people do not understand God's law and His judgment, they will not understand the gospel.
The reasons for an affinity to Arminian evangelism are many. Arminianism was popularized in America by Charles Finney and his followers. It appears that the overwhelming majority of Christians believe and practice Arminian evangelism. It is called man-centered evangelism because it makes man the cause of salvation. Arminian evangelism teaches that the unconverted sinner is able to believe and repent. Regeneration takes place because the sinner believes. Calvinistic evangelism teaches that man is not able to believe until God regenerates the heart. Arminianism teaches that "God, as far as he is concerned, wished to bestow equally upon all people the benefits which are gained by Christ's death; but that the distinction by which some rather than others come to share in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life depends on their own free choice. . ." (Canons of Dort, Second Main Point of Doctrine, Section VI). Calvinism teaches that "the fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision" (The Canons of Dort, The First Main Point of Doctrine, Article 6). Arminians teach that man makes the decision (often called the sinners prayer or some other pragmatic, but unbiblical tool). Calvinism teaches that God makes the decision. Arminianism teaches that "unregenerate man is not strictly or totally dead in his sins or deprived of all capacity for spiritual good but is able to hunger and thirst for righteousness or life and to offer the sacrifice of a broken and contrite spirit which is pleasing to God" (Canons of Dort, The Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine, Section IV). Calvinism teaches that "all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform" (Canons of Dort, The Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine, Article 3). If men are dead in sin and not willing to return to God, then nothing that person can say, do, or think will cause his or her salvation. Just as Rome errs with baptismal regeneration, evangelicals err with decisional regeneration.
The reasons for so much deviant evangelistic activity among evangelicals are too many and too complicated for the purpose of this letter. However, the fundamental cause of so much error in evangelistic endeavors in our day can be traced to Bible institutes, Christian liberal arts colleges, Bible colleges, seminaries and other training centers for Christian workers. They not only err by teaching unbiblical evangelistic doctrine and practice, they propagate the idea that evangelism is the primary duty of Christians. When a young Christian develops a passion for some aspect of religion, it is difficult to rechannel those passions in another direction. These institutions seem to overlook the more important mandate - the mandate to worship God. If we search the Scriptures carefully and diligently, we will learn that worship is a predominant mandate throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament. We will not only learn that we must worship God, we will learn how to worship Him.
The Arminian approach to evangelism encourages people to join the church who may be unconverted. A sad commentary is that many Presbyterian preachers and laymen say they subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, yet many of them practice, maybe ever so subtle, a form of Arminian evangelism. Daniel Baker, a Presbyterian preacher in the 19th century could and did preach Calvinistic sermons, but would give invitations to come forward at the end of a sermon. Maybe Baker, like Billy Graham, could say that man was dead in sin, but not really mean it. How terrible to lead people to think they may be converted when they may or may not be converted. God and God alone knows if they are His.
After hearing my views on evangelism, the question most often asked is: "How do you engage in evangelism?" The answer is very simple. Explain the law and the gospel. Tell him or her to seek the Lord while He may be found. They can seek the Lord by being present for the preaching and teaching of the word of God, obey His commandments and ask God's people to pray for his or her conversion. Now I can imagine someone may say: "You will not get many church members that way." True! But is the goal to get church members or is it to obey everything that Christ has commanded?
Baptism, praying at the alter in a church, praying "the sinners prayer" or any other activity on the part of an unconverted sinner will not produce salvation. God and God alone can empower the person to repent and believe. When we command someone to "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ" we must remember that there is a contingency which is a work of the Lord. A person might repent and believe many things about the Lord Jesus Christ, but until God creates a new heart in him or her, salvation is not possible. Nevertheless, encourage everyone to seek the Lord while He may be found.
God created us to worship Him. We cannot worship Him unless we love Him and obey His commandments. One commandment out of hundred's of His commandments is to "Make disciples of all nations. . .teaching them to observe all that I commanded you. . . ." (Matt. 28:19,20). I want to encourage everyone to obey this command, but be careful how you obey it.
The theme for this issue of Informed and Reformed is evangelism. After you read the articles in this issue, I'd love to hear from you. We will consider publishing your response to my letter or any of the other articles. If you have suggestions for topics to discuss, please let me know.
Grace and Peace,
REVIVALISM VERSUS REVIVING THE POWER OF GODINESS
By Kerry Ptacek
Since the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening in the first half of the 19th century, the historic Presbyterian understanding of revival has practically disappeared. Instead, a set of ideas that originated with professed enemies of the Reformed faith, such as John Wesley and Charles Grandison Finney, have been imported and reimported. Revivalism in practice overturns Biblical norms in worship, mission and church leadership in order to increase a sense of participation either emotionally, in mass rallies, or vocally, in small group meetings. The identification of revival with activism and participation leads in particular to the violation of Biblical norms of leadership, replacing decision-making by family heads and elders with strong personal authority figure "ministers" at the top and broad based committees representing various social groups at the base. From its inception revivalism included women and others not qualified to serve as elders on these committees. Moreover, revivalism has always tended to create a cult of the personal authority of a minister elevated above other elders or entirely removed from their oversight.
The dynamics of authoritarian harangue, mass rally excitement and small group pressure combine in a pattern familiar to most students of modern social history. Such organizational methods do indeed work in virtually any setting. In the political arena the process would be called mass mobilization. Finney himself understood that his revivalist methods were borrowed from modern social and psychological theory. In Europe these organizational methods have had little religious expression but have been used widely by nationalistic, radical, and totalitarian mass movements to generate an enthusiastic sense of purpose and identity.
Like other modern social movements, revivalism combines individual isolation with group solidarity. The individual is removed from the ties and authority of church and family and placed in mass rallies and small groups with other individuals, often led by those who legitimately exercise authority in neither the family nor the church. If the individuals in these small groups, called "conventicles" by the Wesleyans and Pietists, have anything in common it is their membership in a social group. For example, Finney made great use of women's prayer groups which required every woman to take her turn in public prayer, again following the practice initiated by Wesley, but hitherto far removed from orthodox Christianity. This experience prepared them to violate Biblical norms by speaking in the revival meetings, which were perceived as worship. These women also went out in teams of two door-to-door to raise interest in the revivalist rally. Finney biographer Keith J. Hardman notes how disturbing and exhilarating such female independence from the family and church seemed in its day.
Revivalism is justified in these un-Scriptural innovations by its supposed results. Of course this view is wrong in principle, substituting worldly success for fidelity to God's word and spiritual blessings in heaven. In the American setting revivalism has generated only a transitory sense of commitment but little lasting positive impact. There is considerable evidence that revivalism has not even had much effect on church membership, except possibly for change of affiliation from one denomination to another. In fact, regions of revivalist activity have tended to become burned out, cynical and even more secular than those without such revivals, in a short period of time. Revivalism also has contributed to the rise of social reform movements inimical to Biblical norms. Whitney Cross's The Burned-over District is a standard source on this experience in upstate New York during the Second Great Awakening.
In Reformed denominations, the effect of the introduction of these strategies has not been revival but decline and loss of any distinctiveness. However, revivalism has only succeeded in influencing Presbyterians when they have begun to abandon Biblical practices. The organizational forms which arose from revivalism's emphasis on group mobilization, for example, women's and youth organizations, have no warrant in Scripture. However, the enthusiasm of revivalist mass meetings and small groups are mistaken as a spiritual validation above that of the sword of the Spirit, God's word. Women's and youth groups, in particular, have only arisen to assume the ministry of the men of the church in their families and congregations when the men have already abdicated their Biblically mandated spiritual leadership, especially in family worship and instruction. Even a "conservative" leadership cannot long maintain Biblical norms of church authority when the men are not encouraged and equipped to be spiritual leaders in the home. Their wives will inevitably turn to other arenas for spiritual nurture, which will set in motion the forces that have always led to demands for women's ordination.
The most recent example of the introduction of a revivalist approach to the problems in Christian families touches on the issue of male leadership: Promise Keepers. The Promise Keepers movement that seeks to restore the commitment of Christian men to their wives and children takes these men away from their families to put them through a program of emotion charged, yet superficial preaching and praise music, small group discussions, group prayer led by persons selected not by the church but para-church group staff. The men return to their families charged up, but soon need to go away to another Promise Keepers conference. Indeed, discussions on the Christian radio indicate that you must have gone to several of these rallies to show that you are a real Promise Keeper. So it is that this supposed effort to bring men back to their families has become yet one more event which takes them away, for several weekends a year for the most "committed." Yet this is exactly what you must do in the revivalist model which has risen to dominate the church since the days of Charles Grandison Finney.
Within the church this model means that a church is revitalized by getting as many members as possible "active" in committees, small groups, and social action para-church organizations. As an expression of church growth or outreach, this model means having an array of activities targeted to particular groups in society. Finney first worked for such an organization, the Ladies' Missionary Society of Western New York, and he inspired the founding of the Young Men's Christian Association. The roots of modern feminist models of independence from family and organizational leadership by women in the revivalism of Finney, and before him of Wesley, are well-known to scholars today. Indeed, this model of revival is so pervasive that for many it is impossible to even imagine what the alternative would be. Some even might think that a criticism of this participatory, social group focused revivalism is a rejection of true revival and evangelistic outreach.
Indeed, it could be said that Finney merely repackaged the ideas of John Wesley for the formerly Reformed Congregational, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches of his day. However, why did Wesley not succeed a century before with Presbyterians? Why were his efforts contained within the new Methodist denomination? Part of the answer is that the Reformed people of Wesley's day had another practical model of revival which is little known today. This model was particularly successful although unheralded, among the denomination that most practiced it: the Presbyterians. That model was based on the promotion of the Biblical principle of spiritual leadership of the male head of the family through family worship.
The thinking of American Presbyterians of all currents was shaped by The Directory for Family Worship which was adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1647. Family worship was necessary according to The Directory, in order that "the power and practice of godliness, amongst all ministers and members of this kirk, according to their several places and vocations, may be cherished and advanced." This same language was used by the Synod of Philadelphia in acting on an overture "to use some proper means to revive the declining Power of Godliness." The "proper means" advocated by the Synod was defined as recommending "to all our ministers and members to take particular Care about visiting families, and press family and secret worship, according to the [W]estminster Directory [that is, The Directory for Family Worship]. The Presbyterian minister William Tennent, of Pennsylvania, appears to have been the source of this overture.
Tennent's son, also a Presbyterian minister, Gilbert Tennent was a leader in the middle colonies of the "First" Great Awakening. Gilbert Tennent also emphasized pastoral visitation and the promotion of family worship as the strategy for reviving the power of godliness. Indeed, Leonard Trinterud asserts that family worship was widely urged in the First Great Awakening. Sermons on family worship from the Great Awakening by George Whitefield and Samuel Davies have recently come back into print. Whitefield stated that "I believe that we must forever despair of seeing a primitive [referring to First Century Christianity] spirit of piety revived in the world until we are so happy as to see a revival of primitive family religion." Whitefield upheld the Biblical emphasis on the spiritual leadership of the male head of the family: "every governor of a family... ought to look upon himself as a prophet, and therefore, agreeably to such a character, bound to instruct those under his charge in the knowledge of the Word of God." Jonathan Edwards' "Farewell Sermon" makes it clear that he viewed the practice of family government and instruction as vital to revival: "...family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual. If these are duly maintained, all the means of grace will be likely to prosper and be successful."
These ideas continued to shape the Presbyterian view of revival in the 18th century. The 1743 New Light Synod officially adopted The Directory for Family Worship with some amendments. A pastoral letter from the Synod of New York and Philadelphia of 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, decried the "neglect of family religion and government" as the principal cause of the sins of their time. Presbyterians from the Associate and Covenanter streams still tied to bodies in Scotland maintained their subscription to The Directory for Family Worship. When they formed the Associate Reformed Synod in 1799, an amended form of The Directory was adopted. The founding General Assembly (1788-89) of the Presbyterian Church in America included much of the 1647 Directory in its "Directory for Secret and Family Worship." All of these bodies retained the sections emphasizing the centrality of the spiritual leadership of the male head of the family.
As long as these Presbyterians upheld family worship as central to the need to revive the power of godliness they were immune to the form of revivalism promoted by John Wesley. When the Second Great Awakening impacted Presbyterians in the early decades of the 19th century they sought to retain both the practice of family worship and adapt the un-Biblical methods of the revivalists, including Sunday school and women's societies, to Reformed doctrine. By the 1840s several writers pointed to the disturbing decline of family worship throughout the church. Men were very willing to abdicate the Biblical responsibility for the spiritual nurture of their wives and children in favor of new methods seemingly proven to be effective by the revivalists. In reality, at that juncture the church exchanged the power of Godliness for a form of godliness with no power, because of its lack of grounding in the word of God.
Rev. Kerry Ptacek is a church planter in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in the Tennessee-Alabama Presbytery located in Birmingham, Alabama.
WILLING TO BE MADE WILLING IS WILLING ALREADY
Dr. Steven G. Simmons
In some circles, counseling the unconverted often follows a pattern of first calling meant to make a decision. If this is obtained, the task is accomplished. However, if the targeted candidate for salvation refuses to decide, often the evangelist asks him if he is willing to pray that God would make him willing, This is an interesting proposition. It at once removed all responsibility and reason from the conversation.
By this ingenious new stage, the unconverted is able to relinquish all responsibility to repent and believe. The Scripture knows nothing of the gimmick that both lets the sinner off the hook and gives the evangelist a "half credit" for his score card. Why not remove him one step further from the command of our Lord and upon the refusal to pray that he be made willing, ask him if he is willing to be made willing to be made willing. . .and so on. I fear that this new prayer is nothing but a salve to soothe the ego of the rejected evangelist. God declares that all men everywhere must repent and believe. Though they are unable to so act without God first bringing regeneration, that is the command. To change the gospel at this point is to require of God another work.
It is true that men will not believe unless God first changes their heart so they are made willing to believe and repent. But the unregenerate man will never ask for a changed heart - it is against his sinful nature. They are dead to God. They could only pray such a prayer with insincerity - hoping to either get you off their backs or shift the blame for their present state of unbelief upon God. The Bible says that God regenerates according to His own will, like the wind blowing there it will. While we might pray that God would bring new birth to an individual, they have neither desire nor ability to pray such for themselves. The best we can do for them is to command, urge, and plead with them to seek the Lord while He may be found. We ought to bring all lawful means of grace into their lives and pray that God would give them understanding and new life. But we must not ask them to do something that stands as rival to that which we are commanded to call for - faith and repentance.
As the first paragraph of this little article mentioned, there is a second problem with the prayer for willingness. Certainly it is enough that such a practice is contrary to the gospel, but it may also prove helpful to point out that such a request is irrational. In short, to be willing to be made willing is to be willing already, that is if one is being sincere. For those who see such a once-removed request as a ducking of responsibility, logic may not be an obstacle. But it is surely a prayer that plunges completely into the sea of modern pseudo-evangelical irrationality. To say, I am willing, is to say that I have weighed the options given and if I have chosen to be made willing, then I am willing. The will is not some mystical switch that God might throw, or a series of switches that might be thrown, leading finally to the desired empowerment. The will is our ability as rational creatures to chose that which we desire most. The unconverted do not choose God because they do not desire Him nor do they desire to desire Him...whatever that means. Only the regenerate (born again) desire God and only they will will to believe and repent. I mean no disrespect to those who call men to willingness to be willing - I confess such has more than once found its way into my evangelistic encounters - but such a request is just silly. A man cannot will to do what he is unwilling to do. To desire what you don't desire is a contradiction of logic at a very basic level. You cannot sincerely pray for that which you do not desire.
Let us then, as true men, lay down these toys that are meant to pump our egos and soothe the consciences of the unwilling unconverted and take up the powerful tools of evangelism given to us by our Lord. Let us pray that men shall be born again. Let us call men to faith and repentance. Let us demand that men seek the Lord. Let us tell the truth, nothing more and nothing less. Let us rest on the truth as Christ builds His church. Evangelism really is simple. It only becomes complicated when we seek to use it for our ends. The best you can do for the unwilling is to warn them of their coming damnation, urge them to repent and believe, and pray for their new birth. And if that is the best you can do, why would you do anything else?
*Dr. Steve Simmons is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church at Crossville, Tennessee.
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COMMENTS ON EVANGELISM
By J. Greshem Machen
Christian experience is necessary to evangelism; but evangelism does not consist merely in the rehearsal of what has happened in the evangelist's own soul. We shall, indeed, be but poor witnesses for Christ if we can tell only what Christ has done for the world or for the Church and cannot tell what He has done personally for us. But we shall also be poor witnesses if we recount only the experience of our own lives. Christian evangelism does not consist merely in a man's going about the world saying: "Look at me, what a wonderful experience I have, how happy I am, what wonderful Christian virtues I exhibit; you can all be as good and as happy as I am if you will just make a complete surrender of your wills in obedience to what I say." That is what many religious workers seem to think that evangelism is. We can preach the gospel, they tell us, by our lives, and do not need to preach it by our words. But they are wrong, Men are not saved by the exhibition of our glorious Christian virtues; they are not saved by the contagion of our experiences. We cannot be the instruments of God in saving them if we preach to them thus only ourselves. Nay, we must preach to them the Lord Jesus Christ; for it is only though the gospel which sets Him forth that they can be saved.
If you want health for your souls, and if you want to be the instruments of bringing health to others, do not turn your gaze forever within, as though you could find Christ there. Nay, turn your gaze away from your own miserable experiences, away from your own, sin, to the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered to us in the gospel. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up." Only when we turn away from ourselves to that uplifted Saviour shall we have healing for our deadly hurt.
It is the same old story, my friends - the same old story of the natural man. Men are trying today, as they have always been trying, to save themselves - to save themselves by their own act of surrender, by the excellence of their own faith, by mystic experiences of their own lives. But it is all in vain. Not that way is peace with God to be obtained. It is to be obtained only in the old, old way - by attention to something that was done once for all long ago. . . . Oh, that men would turn for salvation from their own experience to the Cross of Christ. Oh, that they would turn from the phenomena of religion to the living God!
*Education, Christianity and the State, by J. Gresham Machen, p.21, 22.
A FEW COMMENTS FROM "SELLING JESUS"
By Douglas D. Webster
Perhaps too little of today's preaching relies on the sovereign will and power of God for effectiveness. Not only attention spans have been conditioned by thrity-second commercial messages; the presentation of the gospel has been as well. Messages are purposefully kept light and simple, humorous and anecdotal, in order to keep the audience. But this way of keeping the audience may end up losing the audience. The audience never becomes a congregation. The weekly sermon designed for unchurched Harry never makes the transition from performance to proclamation. Harry may feel better, but he remains spiritually unchanged.
The market-driven church stresses the immediate accessibility of every aspect of the Sunday sermon to everyone in attendance. This goal rules out the use of such terms as redemption, election and predestination. It minimizes theological reflection an close exegesis of biblical texts. It discourages references to church history and key theologians such as Augustine, Luther and Calvin. And it tends to individualize and privatize Christian truth every week in order to make the gospel immediately relevant.
For years thousands of American Christians have felt that the simplest evangelistic line they could use was, "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." Given the fact that most people do not know who Jesus is, do not understand the meaning of God's love and have no idea of the significance of the phrase "a wonderful plan for your life," this line, which appears so understandable, can be totally misunderstood.
Jesus took up the challenge to provoke the minds and penetrate the hearts of a reluctant and distracted audience, not though performance but through the proclamation of the Word of God.
Reprinted by permission of Informed and Reformed