Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Damming Effect of Decisional Regeneration (Part IV)

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.


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.” [1]

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.

What happened?

To Be Continued…

[1] Kimnach, Minkema, and Sweeney, eds., The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, 89)


welcome to my world of poetry said...

Another great write Gregg. Some folks of believing in God is that everything in their life is going to be good, but I firmly believe that one has to experience sadness and grief to appreciate the good times in life.I have had much grief in my life many years ago but God knew I would come through it though it took me quite a while.

Have an enjoyable day.

Pat Donovan said...

A couple of great series Greg. Keep it up, Great topics.

Diane said...

Gregg, Since you and I have so much in common in our backgrounds, I'll run my "theory" by you.

Saved in 72 - even though most churches then were Evangelical Arminians, the gospel was, for the most part, still presented with an emphasis on repentance. World missions and evangelism were very big. Our small country church had well attended week long mission conferences twice a year.

By the end of the 70's about the time we were all in Bible college, James Dobson's family video series came out in churches and shortly after that Focus on the Family was founded. About the same time Gothard's Men's Manual (with some pretty wacky ideas) was also popular.

From my perspective, the church turned it's focus not only on the family, but also on psychology. No longer was Christ's Gospel and spreading it- or expository preaching central in the church.

Mission conferences were replaced with all things family related - like Promise Keepers, ect. Expository preaching was replaced by topical ones and the church became idolotrous through self absorbtion.

I'm so thankful that we've seen such an astonishing revival of reformation theology in recent years, but it concerns me that that the focus on being theologically correct can also become an idol if we're not careful to apply it diligently with love.

Sorry to rant on your comment - but....then you did start a good conversation brother. :)

What do you think? I'm curious.

Corey P. said...

Great work, Gregg. Looking forward to the next installment!

Leslie Wolf said...

These posts are great, but they almost make me despair a bit. I know that the church is in God's hands, and that He will preserve it, but we need to do something to help the dechurched, unchurched, and badly churched understand the Gospel. How are we going to do that? We need to do some serious evangelizing, but how? I am a young, inexperienced Christian, and I don't know what to do. Any advice would be appreciated!

Gregg said...

No need to despair. God is sovereign and in full control. I write these as a warning and as a clarion call back to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our job, your job is to share the gospel, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then pray, beseeching God by His mercy to save those whom you have shared the gospel with. God gives the increase. God saves His elect. Nothing helps people more than preaching or sharing a complete, accurate, and passionate gospel in love. The last post in this series will contain some help along these lines. Trust God!

Leslie Wolf said...

Thanks Gregg. The tricky part for me is knowing how to share the gospel with others, especially in a new city (Raleigh) where I don't know many people. Perhaps you could write a post or two in the future about sharing the gospel with others. If you could write the posts for people with no formal training in evangelism, that would be great. If you think such people shouldn't evangelize, that's great too, but I would then appreciate some advice on how I could go about getting that training. Thanks!

Gregg said...

No problem. You can share the gospel the moment you have been born again. You need to learn to explain what God did in your life. Sharing the gospel is simply being aware of an opportunity to share the good news of salvation with a person in need.

Think back to the last good meal you had. You would talk about the restaurant, the service, the decor, the food, etc in a warm, passionate, excited manner. Talk about Christ the same way. There is no magic formula, or words. Faith comes by hearing, hearing the word of God. But I will write some posts next on that topic, thanks for the suggestion.

Simply meet people. Stop by the library, the supermarket, your cleaner, drug store, gas station, butcher, and be friendly (in your case particularly to women) and develop friendships, listen for an opening, and relate every day experiences, conversations, and situations to the scripture.