[Pastor raising one hand slightly cupped toward the ceiling]
“Come. The doors of the church are open. Just come. I know there is one more. Come.” <organ plays to stir emotions> “Today is the day of salvation thus saith the Lord. Choose ye THIS day! Come.”
This should sound familiar to you if you’ve ever been part of or currently are part of a traditional worship service; perhaps even more so in the African-American context. For those unfamiliar, these are the typical phrases heard at the end of a service known as the altar call or the invitation. Sounds harmless, right? After all, isn’t the pastor supposed to “lead people to the Lord”? Obviously, this isn’t an article on pastoral theology, so I won’t get into the role and responsibilities of the shepherd.
Using belligerent speech to convert people to Christ after you’ve given the gospel. This usually happens after a person has given a clear presentation of the gospel and the listener appears the least bit concerned. “So you’re telling me you’d rather go to hell, than accept the forgiveness Christ offers? Why would you want to do that?” If that is not your experience, great. But believe me, it happens.
Or perhaps you’re the kind of person that frets over your gospel presentation or you feel condemned after the listener walks away in rejection.
It is my conviction that both of these very common scenarios are evidences of an inaccurate understanding of the gospel. These two scenarios represent common tactics of the Decisional Regeneration or Decision Theology Movement. It’s antithesis is Reformation Theology.
As the title says, I hope that this provides some encouragement for the evangelist (all believers for that matter) as we biblically assess salvation and how it comes about.
Decisional Regeneration / Decision Theology
Decisional Regeneration is the teaching that after hearing the gospel man can respond by choosing to follow the Lord and it is by that decision that he is regenerated or born again.
Decisional Regeneration gained mass popularity by the preaching of Charles Finney in the early 19th century. It was his unbiblical position on depravity, justification, atonement, imputation and other key doctrines that led to his pragmatic revival style of preaching, which evangelicalism has yet to fully recover from.
Concerning depravity, which will remain my main focus, Finney believed that depravity resulted in a person after a freewill immoral decision was made. In his Lectures on Systematic Theology, Finney states that the idea of moral depravity is “absurd”, “anti-Scriptural and non-sensical dogma”. He went on to say, “Moral depravity, as I use the term, does not consist in nor imply a sinful nature in the sense that the substance of the human soul is sinful in itself. It is not a constitutional sinfulness. It is not an involuntary sinfulness.”1
This is nothing more than the resurrection of the condemned teachings of Pelagius, called Pelagianism. Under this spurious view, it proports that Adam’s sin was not imputed to rest of the human race. Subsequently, a denial of Adam’s imputation of sin naturally leads one to reject the idea of the necessity of Christ’s imputation of righteousness through faith, and Finney did deny that. However, Finney did believe that depravity was universal because every man everywhere makes immoral decisions. Yet, Finney believed and taught each man is born in a state of innocence. The conclusion – all man has to do is to stop desiring and choosing the wrong things and desire and choose the right things, namely God. Can it be so simple, Mr. Finney? Why does man naturally desire and choose things that God prohibits without the full revelation of God’s order?
Concerning the ability and desire to choose God, Romans 3:11 and 5:6 silences that position. In Romans 3:11, quoting Psalm 14, the Apostle Paul says of man in his natural unredeemed state: “…..no one understands, no one seeks for God.” The word the Holy Spirit led Paul to used for seeks is the Greek word έκζητων (ekzeton). This comes from the words “ek” and “zeteo”. “ek” is a preposition which means out of and “zeteo” is the verb to seek. When used like this ekzeton means to make a diligent or careful search. In this context, it is in the present tense and its mood is functioning as a participle. Literally, Paul is saying no one from their own initiative is carefully or diligently seeking the Lord. Man doesn’t do this because he is in bondage to his sin, his desires are constantly for sin and he is spiritually dead. That’s how bad the fall affected us. We do not desire God! We are dead to God naturally. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that man cannot freely choose Christ on his own for the forgiveness of his sins and regeneration.
It is on the foundation of Jesus’ words in John 6:44 that Paul instructs us through the Holy Spirit.
“44No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him….”
The results of Finney’s soteriological beliefs led to rowdy evangelistic pragmatism like the “anxious bench” (the forerunner to the altar call) and emotional tactics that often resulted in fainting, uncontrollable weeping and sobbing, and proclaiming “new words” from the Lord. Sound familiar? It should as these trends have had a long lasting global impact. Unquestionably, the worst effect of Finney’s doctrine is that it is a departure from the gospel as the Bible puts forth and the fruits of a false gospel aided by humanistic pragmatism are false conversions.
In my next installment, we will consider the biblical soteriological beliefs characteristic of The Reformation and how that affects evangelism.
Grace & Peace,
1 Charles Finney, Lectures on Systematic Theology, p. 245