Repent & Baptize
and be baptized, every
one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your
sins." Acts 2:38
How Modern Evangelism
Came To Accept Nominal Conversions
If someone asked a new convert about his experience, he
could tell exactly how he had changed. How different it was from today,
when Pastors have to twist the arms of kids for "testimonies"
of how they "got saved" at Church Camp. Before the 20th
century, salvation was rare, but real. If God saved a person, he knew
it without doubt. As Whitefield taught it, the New Creation
was not a "mere metaphor"; it was as self-evident and palpable
as a "tasteless palate" suddenly brought alive at a sumptuous
People received the illumination of the
Holy Spirit...not just the convincing message of a talented evangelist.
From Church Membership To Personal Experience
Before Whitefield and Wesley, large, impersonal church gatherings were rare. Local Ministers were responsible for "making disciples," and the idea of people "getting saved" outside the context of a local body was unusual. Old line Protestants believed in infant baptism, adult confirmation and church membership. All the needs of the saints were met in the sacraments. Salvation could not be separated from the ordinances of the local body. If a person wanted to "get saved," they could become a church member.
When George Whitefield and John Wesley came on the scene, they preached a personal salvation not controlled by church membership. They burned with the fire of revival, calling for repentance and holiness. Their standard for salvation was a "born-again" experience. Anything less was worse than no religion at all, since false religion obscures the true condition of the soul. Understandably, they were denied access to the pulpits of most churches.
This set evangelical Christianity on a course which de-emphasized salvation through sacraments, ordinances, and church membership, and created a new approach to evangelism. (Of course, this wasn't really an new approach at all. Personal salvation is just as much a New Testament teaching as submission to elders.)
The new evangelism emphasized the born again experience as a definite conversion, identifiable at a specific time, accompanied by feelings. Whitefield explains: "Every one who has but the least concern for the salvation of his precious, his immortal soul, having such promises, such an hope, such an eternity of happiness set before him, should never cease watching, praying, and striving till he find a real inward, saving change wrought in his heart, and thereby knows of the truth that he dwells in Christ and Christ dwell in him." 11
The Calvinist-Arminian differences
didn't influence the methods of the popular evangelists. Many pastors
on both sides had problems with Whitefield and Wesley. Whitefield encouraged
seekers to give their lives to God almost as fervently as did Wesley.
Wesley believed God was sovereign in conversions almost as much as Whitefield.
Large Crowds, Large Changes
Preaching to unknown crowds presented new problems. There was no peer pressure to prevent emotional outbursts. Crowds were a mixture of churched and unchurched, so anything could happen, and sometimes did. Wesley ignored the outbursts, thinking it wiser than calling attention to them. Whitefield seemed to encourage the outbursts. "Outcries and repentant groans soon punctuated every sermon. The traditional Sunday sermon would never have the same chance again....While he was in the town, hysteria often prevailed. The next morning he was gone and the local minister had to deal with the aftermath." 12
Jonathan Edwards disliked many of the negative effects of Whitefield's evangelism.
Salvation is Definite and Complete
The "eternal security" divide prevented Whitefield and Wesley from combining resources for the good of the Kingdom of God. But before the 20th century, most functioning Calvinist doctrine included the huge caveat that if someone didn't act saved, they probably never were.
Over and over again we find in the writings of the most strident hyper-Calvinists the emphatic resentment that anyone would suggest that grace could result in sinful living. Of course, these great men of God were merely repeating the Gospel message... echoing what Jesus and Paul and Peter said about the New Birth so many times before.
"What shall we say then? Shall
we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we
who died to sin live any longer in it?..we should no longer be slaves
of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin." Rom
Although pre-20th century functioning Arminianism allowed for a "falling away," it also taught the more likely reason for "backsliding" was the person was never born again in the first place. In either case, since both sides taught the Biblical truth that salvation was definite and complete, they were quick to judge "false conversions" for what they were.
Whitefield compelled his listeners to understand salvation
as nothing less than "a thorough, real, inward
change of heart." 15