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Human Ingenuity and Gospel Preaching (part 1/4)

By Fred Zaspel–

In 1821 in rural upstate New York, a young lawyer who had grown up a religious skeptic was converted to Christ. The next day in his law office he said to his client, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours.”

It was, he said, a dramatic conversion, and he wanted to give himself to Christian service without delay. He became active in Christian work, witnessing the gospel fervently. Converted in the wake of some revivals which had swept the area, within just two years he was licensed to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church, and he very soon began conducting revival campaigns himself. He had not studied formally or been trained in any theological seminary, but he was an obviously gifted man destined for success.

And these “Western revivals” were by most every account a dramatic success. Hundreds, even thousands of people made decisions for Christ, sometimes virtually whole towns seemed to have been swept into the Kingdom.

This young evangelist immediately became famous. His name, of course, was Charles Grandison Finney, icon of modern evangelicalism and father of many of the leading earmarks of the contemporary evangelical church. It was his “new measures” that gave rise to a new era of Christian evangelism. He had learned as a lawyer the art of persuasion and now put it to work for the gospel, and he found that the power of argument could get impressive results.

It was Charles Finney who gave the “anxious bench” and the “altar call” a permanent place in the evangelical church. He instituted the now common practice of calling sinners to walk to the front to receive Christ. He would single out individuals from the audience both in preaching and in impassioned prayer. He perfected the use of music and the protracted appeal. These and other emotionally manipulative tactics were employed to get sinners to commit to Christ. He could work a crowd to fever pitch, to “enthusiasm” (“excitements”) of various forms — there were many reports of faintings, shakings, out of control weepings, and so on.

And all for good reason!  Decisions for Christ were made! Sinners made profession of faith! Human emotions may have been predominant, but at least sinners decided for Christ!

This, historically speaking, is the fountainhead of much of modern evangelical Christianity. The “church growth” seminars we have seen that insist that theology just gets in the way of seeing sinners saved, the meticulous instruction on “the art of the appeal,” “the effective altar call,” “how to get decisions,” the effective use of sad stories in preaching, seventeen stanzas of “Just As I Am,” and so on — all this is the outgrowth of Charles Finney whose theology of manipulation “got results.” With him, a new era of Christian evangelism was born that lives strong today.

One of Finney’s most popular sermons was “Sinners Bound to Change their Own Hearts.” This was the theological understanding from which he developed his new methods. The critical move is a human one, and so any method which serves to encourage or even coerce that move is one well used.

In his Revivals of Religion he writes,

 “A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means — as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means.”

Finney claimed, then, that he carried revival in his briefcase. Just apply the prescribed means, and results are ensured. And these “new measures” are of course well known to us today.

And again, all this does get results. Decisions are made. So how could it possibly be wrong? Should we allow tradition and prescribed ideals to interfere with success? And in fact Finney himself argued like this. Those stodgy old traditionalists — Calvinists — not really concerned for the lost!

Interestingly, shortly after these “Western Revivals” Finney wrote with considerable embarrassment that the results were not what they appeared. Few decisions had “stuck,” and those areas where he seemed most successful were now being described as “burnt ground” — once the emotion of the moment wore off people were more hardened than ever to the gospel.

By contrast, Asahel Nettleton, an evangelist of enormous success in the “second great awakening” preceding Finney, opposed these “new measures.” Many, many had come to Christ in the years immediately preceding Finney in these “awakenings,” but for his part, Asahel Nettleton flatly refused to stay on where there appeared to be any reliance on him for such results. If there appeared be excitement because of him, rather than remorse for sin and desire for God, he felt that he could be of no use. Indeed, he was convinced that he would only hinder true revival and true conversion. And so he would leave.

Can you imagine this today? A preacher leaving town because revival has broken out and seems too much dependent on him? What? Was he unconcerned for the lost?  Did he put tradition and ideals above souls?

The younger evangelist deliberately employed these means to get results. The older evangelist carefully shunned these means, fearing the “results” would be spurious. History and virtually our whole evangelical tradition today judge the younger evangelist the hero. And the older evangelist has largely been forgotten, and where remembered, often scoffed.

Which evangelist was right? And why do I bother with all this history and raise the question in the first place? Very simply, it bears directly on the nature of Christian ministry. If we are to “do ministry” in a way that is consistent with the gospel, we must sort these things out clearly. And all this is precisely the issue Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, which we will take this up in our next post.

Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim

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