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"For we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves."

Reforming:

A Journey from Arminian to Reformed Theology

Calvin

Introduction

It all started in 1996, or, maybe sometime before.

It was a winter’s day, about noon, and I was reaching for the handle of my car door when I seemed to hear words very close to this: “There are people at Miller Avenue Baptist Church who will hear Jesus say, ‘Depart from me, I never knew you.’”

As to the source of the words--I am unclear and have no opinion. Of course it could have been from God or it could have been the product of what I had been discovering in my reading about the American awakenings.

Influence from America's awakenings

For a year or more I had been reading about America’s awakenings beginning with the first one from 1734 to 1742 in which we read about Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Gilbert Tenant, and a host of others. Then I moved on to the second awakening, this one from roughly 1798 to 1725 or 1735 depending on how Charles Finney figures into it. Somewhere along the line I became focused on the debate that went on between Asahel Nettleton and Charles G. Finney. Finney was busy, from about 1825, employing in his evangelistic ministry what were called “new measures,” which had to do with the use of an anxious bench and other means of declaring a decision to become a Christian. Nettleton, an evangelist in the Puritan tradition where the Gospel would be preached and then the Holy Spirit would be relied upon to produce conversion, protested that the new measures would result in false conversions.

(Much more of this can be read in my book, The Great American Awakenings and the Jesus People Movement, which should be published this year.)

For a period of a year or so I read everything I could about the issue.

At the time of the Wednesday car incident, and again I place no supernatural intervention or authority on it, I had been actively engaged in ministry, mostly as a pastor, for twenty-nine years. Now at my third church and having been involved in the Jesus People Movement from February of 1967, I had much experience in evangelism and discipleship. I was only too aware, as any pastor will be who has been involved in communities of faith for very long, that not all who identify themselves as Christian are indeed born again. There are many reasons for this and in my book, Are you really born again? I take a careful look at the process I came to call “Christianization.”

From my point of view Nettleton had been correct—a decision based evangelism can result in false conversion. The trouble is that I was a Finney man through and through having used his book, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, in my evangelism and discipleship classes throughout the 1970s. Could it be, I had to ask myself, that I had been heading in the wrong direction all the past twenty-nine years and that I had been promoting false conversions, to whatever degree? The idea nearly paralyzed me. Once the thought crossed my mind I went into a panic driven effort to refute Nettleton. Finally, I could not.

The reason I could not counter Nettleton was the theology behind his caution in regard to methodology. When I was forced to go into the Word to determine the rightness or wrongness of Nettleton’s argument I was stunned by all that I had skipped over in the Bible itself. Now I found a God who did things according to His will and good pleasure. That He choose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and then all of Israel—these all were the chosen, the elect. No one cooperated, then were moved upon by God. Jesus then called His disciples, they did not choose them, and no one came to believe in Jesus except they were drawn by the Father. And faith, I saw over and over, was a gift of God as was grace. Yes, the whole of salvation was a gift. I knew this, preached it, but my ways of conducting my evangelism belied this theology. 

How we do things is, or should be, determined by clear biblical doctrine. Therefore, theology must determine methodology and not the other way around. I had simply assumed that human beings controlled their own destiny and anything less would be impossible. Sure, grace is real, but we at least cooperate with God in grace and faith. It did not occur to me that I was placing in human hands the keys to conversion. I saw salvation as one might view a bilateral contract—both parties had to agree before the contract could be binding. The idea of a unilateral contract where God alone could make the contract seemed unfair and unreasonable.

The trouble as I saw it, and I had never seen it this way before, that if Finney was right, and every major American evangelist from Finney on used the same evangelical methodology, then human beings actually controlled the process of conversion. Salvation could be willed—and this is what Nettleton argued against. Then I thought of my own conversion. In 1963 at the First Baptist Church of Fairfield, California, I responded to the invitation Pastor Bob Lewis gave, I walked to the front, prayed the sinner’s prayer with deacon Al Becker, and just like that I was told I was a Christian. But, I knew better however; it was nine months later that I was born from above and it just happened.

How many people had I prayed with to receive Jesus into their heart? A whole lot of them. How many had responded to invitations to pray the sinner’s prayer? A whole lot of them. And I knew they were not all converted of course. This had been made abundantly clear to me in my years of ministry at the Protestant Chapel at San Quentin Prison—so many praying the same prayer week after week and nothing, no conversion, and despite my efforts to rationalize it, make excuses for it, I was still left with a certain amount of confusion. Now it all began to make a little more sense.

Now what?

Okay, my theology was undergoing a transformation; indeed, a major paradigm shift was taking shape. What would I do now?

There was no doubt that there were many people who were unconverted at Miller Avenue as I had had to live with it day by day. Though I knew it was true I was reluctant, afraid, or ignorant as what to do. After all, I was a preacher of the Gospel. What more could I do?
There was no way to avoiding the issue so I started right in knowing that there would be a pronounced reaction. Sure enough there was.

That point marked the beginning of my preaching of a reformed theology. Not that I was reformed, by no means. I calculate that I was maybe a 2.5 point Calvinist—and no more. As yet, in terms of the classical TULIP, I am only a 4.5 pointer, and some would say less than that depending on certain definitions. But when I began to state as clearly as I could that God alone must save us, many took notice and more than that, object.

At the outset I knew some would leave the church and it happened almost immediately. More struggled with me than I had anticipated. In the first six months, 60% of the congregation simply stopped attending. And I followed up with each one as best I could, or better, was allowed to. I was stunned, shaken really, and began to fear the worst. There were some however that supported and encouraged me, some who were very glad I had come to this though they knew next to nothing of reformed doctrine.

Oddly enough, none of the ministries of our small church declined or suffered. And I must mention that at the time of my theological reversal, the average Sunday morning attendance was around 55. Oddly enough, the income of the church never declined but rather grew some.

Of the nine members of our church council, three left and almost right away.  This hurt me the most and I pursued these with phone calls and visits. It was as though they had been awakened, threw off what they thought was Christianity, and walked away. One of the most “spiritual” of these died of cancer not long afterward and was by then openly identifying with Buddhism. The impact of all this nearly made me wish I had never heard of Nettleton, the Puritans, John Calvin, R.C. Sproul, J. I. Packer,  Charles Spurgeon, David Martin Lloyd-Jones, and the rest.


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