Repent & Baptize

"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins." Acts 2:38
Unless You Repent, You Shall Also Perish

How Modern Evangelism Came To Accept Nominal Conversions

Modern evangelism had painted itself into a corner. Before the 20th century, Evangelicals (Calvinist and Arminian) taught conversion as a definite, mystical event, orchestrated by a sovereign God. The pre-20th century understanding of salvation lined up with the Bible: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new."
2 Cor 5:17

Both George Whitefield and John Wesley taught the born again experience as definite, complete and identifiable. 13

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 feast. 8 People received the illumination of the Holy Spirit...not just the convincing message of a talented evangelist.

Charles Spurgeon summed up the sentiment: " I do not come into this pulpit hoping that perhaps somebody will of his own free will return to Christ. My hope lies in another quarter. I hope that my Master will lay hold of some of them and say, "You are mine, and you shall be mine. I claim you for myself." My hope arises from the freeness of grace, and not from the freedom of the will." 9

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.)

Luther and Calvin had both declared personal salvation as necessary, but they did it in the context of the local church. Luther's born again experience was just as definite and complete as Whitefield and Wesley. 10


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.

All evangelists by definition are Evangelical. They call people out of their complacency. They tell them they will die in their sins unless they are converted. Whether the conversion takes place before or after the call for repentance is not the issue. The issue is whether the evangelists explains the new birth process in such a way so as not to confuse seeker and saved alike.

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.

He, like so many pastors of the day, had to deal with the real problems after emotions died down. But all pre-20th century Evangelicals agreed on two things. 1) That salvation was definite and complete,13 and 2) persons who exhibited no lasting change were never saved. They were "False appearances, corrupt mixtures, even counterfeits." 14

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 6:1-7

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

Modern Americans would consider pre-20th century Evangelicals to be legalistic and judgmental. Serving God was considered an all-or-nothing proposition. Holiness was considered a natural product of salvation. It was easy to see who was saved and who probably wasn't. Edwards talked about his salvation: " I was a far better Christian, for two or three years after my first conversion, than I am now; and lived in a more constant delight and pleasure..."16

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