The Path of Conversion in America
The past seven years have given my wife and me several opportunities to visit a number of churches in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon. Many of these churches turned out to have few in number and were struggling to stay alive. Most of these churches were desperate in finding ways to grow, supply the budget, be relevant, and meet the needs of their respective community.
I found it to be interesting that each of these churches (and many that I have been in over the last several years or have read about) have a few common threads that tie them together. Each of these so-called churches had these things in common:
- A lack of understanding spiritual leadership within the church
- An inherent philosophy of decisional regeneration evangelism
- A lack of understanding of the sovereignty of God in evangelism
- A feverish emphasis on sanctification or spiritual growth as their starting point
- A slavish commitment to church growth philosophy and methodology
Let’s take a moment and see how the church has understood or viewed conversion over the last 400 years in America.
EDWARDS AND WHITEFIELD
Jonathan Edwards wrote in 1740,
“There is no kind of love in the world that has had such a great visible effects in men as love to Christ has had, though he be an unseen object which [is] an evidence of a divine work in the hearts of men, infusing that love into them. Thus the voice of reason, Scripture, and experience, and the testimony of the best of men do all concur in it, that there must be such a thing as conversion.””…seeing man naturally is unholy, there must be a change of nature in order to their being happy in God.” 
The great awakening did not materialize because of weak evangelistic presentations of “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” or sweet and sugary promises of “your best life now.” Gospel presentations and gospel invitations were 180 degrees in juxtaposition to what they are today. Listen to this excerpt from a sermon by Jonathan Edwards:
“The punishment that is threatened to be inflicted on ungodly men is the wrath of God. God has often said that he will pour out his wrath upon the wicked. The wicked, they treasure up wrath; they are vessels of wrath, and they shall drink of the cup of God’s wrath that is poured out without mixture.” (Revelation 14:10) “The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture.” That is, there shall be no mixture of mercy; there shall be no sort of mitigation or moderation. God sometimes executes judgments upon sinners in this world, but it is with great mixtures of mercy and with restraint. But then there will be full and unmixed wrath.” (Yale Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 14.304)
How do you think such preaching would be welcomed today in our modern churches? The significant difference lies in the fact that sermons by men like Edwards and Whitfield drove men to repentance and conversion. Today’s sermons drive men to be better husbands, or better fathers, or better wealth gathers, or even better lovers. All these things are good things but they can and in most cases are being done without the aid of the Holy Spirit and they surely do not drive men to repentance and/or conversion. Our evangelical churches are full of psychology and self-help classes.
Listen to an excerpt from a sermon by George Whitefield:
“But thus must it be, if Christ be not your righteousness. For God’s justice must be satisfied; and, unless Christ’s righteousness is imputed and applied to you here, you must hereafter be satisfying the divine justice in hell-torments eternally; nay, Christ himself shall condemn you to that place of torment. And how cutting is that thought! Me thinks I see poor, trembling, Christ less wretches, standing before the bar of God, crying out , Lord, if we must be dammed, let some angel, or some archangel, pronounce the damnatory sentence: but all in vain. Christ himself shall pronounce the irrevocable sentence. Knowing therefore the terrors of the Lord, let me persuade you to close with Christ, and never rest till you can say, “The Lord our righteousness.” Who knows but the Lord may have mercy on, nay abundantly pardon you? Beg of God to give you faith; and, if the Lord gives you that, you will by it receive Christ, with his righteousness, and his All. (From The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield, London, 1771-1772, accessed online.)
What are sermons like today? Do you want a better life; do you want to go to heaven? “Make a decision for Jesus and ask him into your hearts. Don’t worry about your sin; he takes you where you are. Just decide today!” At best a few scriptures are given from something we call the Romans Road and we pronounce our sinner “saved.”
Edwards and Whitefield both to their hearers to beg God for mercy and for pardon. They never promised redemption or salvation, they thundered forth, “If God has mercy on you.” They pleaded with their hearers to “close with Christ,” in other words, take care of business. They did not tell them to pray a prayer, make a decision, or ask Jesus in their hearts. They didn’t say repeat after me – they preached, “Beg God to give you faith.” They did not give an invitation. They left the sinner to work through his or her conviction of sin and allowed the Spirit of God to work salvation into their lives. They didn't count "converts." They waited to see if fruit developed from the seed that was planted and watered.
To Be Continued…