Everything New Is Moralism Again: How The Law Is Emptying The Church

“Soon there will be so much applied Christianity that there will be very little Christianity to actually apply.
Em breve haverá tanto cristianismo aplicado que restará muito pouco cristianismo para realmente aplicar.”
~ J. Gresham Machen


Speaker is another one of my great friends is the Rev. Jacob A Smith. We had the pleasure of meeting Jacob and his wife Melina, while we were in seminary at Trinity, and became fast friends and have been close ever since, and we, that’s where we all kind of got together, and have been walking along these paths, yeah, ever since. He is the Priest in Charge, which it basically means we’re all praying for him to become the rector of a church in Manhattan, and he, not to be given too much credit, because obviously the Holy Spirit was involved, but he was given to go straight out of seminary to a church that was, let’s say, had seen better days, and was as many churches are, not this one, sort of right.. had fraught with, we’d say administrative and leadership difficulties, and he has righted it in an amazing way, and so his work among the sort of culture despisers in Manhattan has borne much fruit with resurgent evensong, with lecture series and he is basically other than certain others who remain nameless of the model of exactly the type minister you would want in your church. So it’s with great joy – that was a joke about me. That’s what I meant. I didn’t wanna, that’s what, I’ll just, oh okay, okay, okay, thank you… but I just, without further ado, Jacob Smith.

Well, it is great to be here in Louisville Kentucky here at St. Francis in this amazing church, and it’s great because this is one of the first places, I’ve ever been to where I’ve been known as Mel’s husband, and so ‘cause a lot of you I know read Mel and Liza’s blog, and so that’s a real honor. Before I get started I just want to thank the Rector Robin Jennings and Jady Koch for their warm invitation to speak at this amazing conference. I think a conference designed to actually give you a gospel-centric view of life and spirituality, which if I might argue is the only view to actually have when it comes to life and spirituality. There’s a lot of options out there, and unfortunately there’s a lot of options even in the church, and churches that would brand themselves as actually biblical, and they’re anything but, and this is a real problem.

My name is, as Jady said, is the Rev. Jacob Smith and I’m the priest in charge of Calvary St. George’s, and I actually, ahem, the gospel actually saved my life. I mean if it wasn’t for the gospel I actually heard the gospel for the first time really, in seminary, that the gospel was actually for Christians and it changed my life, and if it wasn’t for hearing that message, primarily through Jady and Dave’s father, I’d probably be back in Arizona selling real estate, and, ahem, which is a bad option right now. So but this is, this is true, and so, when I heard gospel it was like I went through this like rage phase at first, I was like “how come I never heard this!” Like, why was every sermon I ever heard about like five steps to like financial advisor, what I can like I could do, I mean you can go to Rotary and hear any of that stuff, you can’t hear it in the church. And so I really, I began to study this and became enamored with it and what went so horribly wrong in American Christianity. And I went all the way to France to study it, and, ahem, but it’s true. And that the topic that I’ve been given “Everything New Is Moralism Again: How The Law Is Emptying The Church” it’s true. The topic is relevant and when we’ve been talking about Facebook and social media. But daily and this is not an exaggeration, daily I get about 15 emails or 15 Facebook posts, from friends and colleagues talking about how the church in America is dying. There was recently an article in the Atlantic, just about two weeks ago about how sports is America’s new religion. And I don’t know if this is a problem in Louisville, but it’s definitely a probably New York City. You know, all sorts of like Pop Warner football game or Lacrosse games, are now played on Sunday. Because Saturday is family day.

And so people are talking about this, and Gallup actually did a very interesting survey a couple of years ago that said that about 60% of Americans attend church, on a Sunday; now compared to Europe that’s very significant. However the Journal for scientific study of religion by a sociologist C Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler, they looked at that survey and they said “there’s something wrong with this, this just doesn’t add up, this doesn’t add up.” So they began to do their own research, and there known for their scholarly research of the church, and said that these numbers definitely don’t add up, and what they found out when they released the study in August 2013 about this. They found that in actuality, it’s probably more like half, 30% of Americans attend church, and of that 17% attend church regularly, like every Sunday. And part of this is, is I think the churches has lost ground, because it is no different than what you can get in any self-help section at the bookstore. Actually at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square right by my house, Christianity is in the self-help section of the bookstore now.

The problem with American Christianity, that much of us know about and have been raised in, and maybe what I’m gonna say is gonna freak some of you out, you know because you are like, oh I thought that was Christianity, and it is not, it’s death. St. Paul actually calls it the Ministry of death. But the problem with American Christianity runs deep, it runs back to our earliest days. So what I want to talk about today, is, One: I’d like to give you a brief description of why I think the church in America is finally on a rapid decline. Two: I want to tell you, so if it’s in a decline, I don’t have an answer of how to make it grow, but it’s in a decline because it’s not giving the message. So the second thing I want to talk about then is: what is the message? And then the third thing I’ll talk about is how as the church, how is the church called to deliver this message to the world once again? And the and this how we are delivering it at Calvary St. George’s, I think it is true for everywhere, you know people always, oh New York City! It’s no different than Louisville. Your know, people there have a sick child, people that are struggling with their marriages, people there are struggling to find a job, and it is really expensive to live there. I mean, but people are the same everywhere. So the church’s message is the same, whether you’re in Los Angeles, New York, Branson Missouri, wherever.

Americans the problem runs deep in it goes all the way back to our earliest days, with even on the first and second Great Awakening with Jonathan Edwards even and those guys. But Americans are ingenious, and we are ingenious of taking things and making it uniquely our own, and we did this with the Christian story. We took the gospel, in the earliest days, we took the gospel, you know the message that God has fulfilled all of his promises for the salvation of the whole world in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what happened was is it as opposed to like what Saint Patrick did, he took Celtic culture and baptized it with Christianity. We took God’s story, the story of the gospel and we baptized it with the American ideas of manifest destiny, and conquering the world, living out your dreams. Contrary to most of our prevalent views, many of our founding fathers were not devout evangelical Christians, there were a few, but most of them were Deists. The idea of Deism is that God basically set the earth in motion, and took off to a celestial Acapulco, and it’s kind of like, it’s up to us to kind of figure it out, and we do that, and you know, and we are free agents, free to make our own decisions, free to stand on our own two feet, free to conquer the world. And what happened was that Deism baptized Christianity, and what happened was is you have a unique form of American Christianity.

Now early Christians in, and this was found in a lot of the mainline, early mainline churches, see, that had confessional roots, roots in a confession; ours is the Thirty-nine Articles. When guys like Jefferson became president in 1801, this was viewed by many actual Christians as a distressing event, ominous with the future of American religion. Now Jefferson was one of the first to begin the quest for the historical Jesus, and you can check out his Bible in Charlottesville, where all the miracles are completely cut out. The ideas of Deism were incredibly popular and became very popular in a lot of our colleges, especially those that were originally founded as seminaries, like places like Harvard and Yale, and that the ideas of deism in these these colleges just, it began to shape the religion. The Episcopal Bishop of Virginia William Mead, in the early 1800s, he declared that the College of William and Mary was the hotbed of French politics and religion. What happened was is that God’s story began to be shaped and became our story, our story of how we are making our way, our story of how we are making our way back to God in trying to find him, and what we’re doing for God as we conquer this country and expand out West. Deism and even atheism, interestingly enough took deep root along the frontier. The vast amount of space combined with the low density of people, made it difficult initially for the church, to have its missionary endeavors to have a very strong impact, especially confessional churches. The frontier was the place where those who sought to live out from underneath the puritanical moralism of New England sought refuge, even the early settlers of Kentucky, named some of their towns after prominent French Deists, such as Leroux, Bourbon, my favorite drink, and Altamonte. So all named after French Deist philosophers. But this all began, and so what happened was is you have revivalism, and Jonathan Edwards with his revivalism was his second generation. It was all located in Yale, they were like, they began a thing, “Oh, how can we keep this going, how can we keep this going this fervor up? And they became known as new divinity men. And what they began to do is they had a real heavy duty, an emphasis on predestination, and this idea of predestination of being predestined, which I mean in the Bible it’s true, but one of the things they did was, they began with the revivalism is, how do we know that you are predestined? Well it’s all about what you do. And you see this began to insert the will in this once again, and as the will became stronger, as the will became more of an important part of Christianity, well then it began to just just run rampant, and Christianity became in America, became all about the individual, what the individual does. What you began to see happen is moralism. This is where, you know, what you do defines you, came into Christianity. It shaped American religion and gave a moralistic version of Christianity, where God becomes the passive agent, and the emphasis is not no longer on what God has done for you, in the preaching of the gospel, but now what you should do for God. And so this is why oftentimes, you’ll hear, you know, “Okay Jesus is died for you, but now what are you going to do for Jesus?” This is why so many American Christians believe that if you do your part, God will do his. That God helps those who help themselves. Those two phrases are actually attributed to Saint Benjamin Franklin, who was a Deist and not one of the Apostles. [laughs]

But these ideas and whether you know it or not, shaped our piety. Because the American Christian story, if God is the passive agent and we are the active agent, and I mean this was really promoted by revivalist named Charles Finney, and that’s all I’m going to say about him, but I mean…. But we believe that somehow, some way, we’re the ones responsible for our Christianity. We’re the ones, maybe God got us in the club, but we’re the ones responsible for staying in it. J. Gresham Machen, when speaking about the rampant moralism in the church in the early 20th century once said: “Soon we will have so much applied Christianity that we will have no Christianity to apply”. And this is true, this is true we see it all over the place, and now where it’s all about, what you do and how you do it. Churches are no longer churches, but they’re kind of self-help centers. American Christianity now has become so associated with: what I need to do to make myself better, what I need to do discover my purpose, what I need to do to have my best life now, that this has contributed to its decline, and it’s contributed to its decline because it has lost ground in a sea of other religions, and in the sea of other programs, that will help you live your best life now too. This is why Christian books, the Barnes & Noble in Union Square is in the self-help section, ‘cause it hasn’t no longer anything to do with Christianity. Phil Vischer, the creator of Veggie Tales, he shares the story of his own life in the Veggie Tales, and in a recent article in World Magazine, he actually repents of what he’d done in the Veggie Tales, and he repents of how he’s contributed to the young people’s decline in church attendance, in the promoting of moralism, and how that is led to decline the church. He says this, listen to this, this is very powerful… “I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. That was a pretty serious conviction. You can say hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so, or hey kids be more kind because the Bible says so, but that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality. American Christians” he goes on to say “are drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of Protestant work ethic, the American dream and the gospel, and we intertwine them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true, it’s Oprah’s god. We’ve completely taken this Disney notion of ‘when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true’ and melded that with faith and come up with something completely different.” Finally, he says “There’s something wrong in a culture, in a church that preaches nothing is more sacred than your dream. I mean we walk away from marriages just to follow our dreams. We abandon children to follow our dreams, we hurt people in the name of our dreams, which as a Christian is just preposterous.” But that’s heavy, but it gives us an insight and the problem and why the church is on decline.

Actually while I was flying here from New York City I sat next to a young woman, and she was like, what do you do? I was like, “are you ready for this?” And I was like, “well I’m a Minister. And she was like, “oh really, that’s interesting”, and she was like, she was like, “you know, I’m from Tennessee and, you know, I was really, I was raised in the church, but my husband is Jewish, this is the thing, my husband Jewish, we live on Long Island now. And you know, really it’s just about loving people and helping people, and that’s all that matters”. And, I mean, but that’s completely to miss the mark. Hear what I’m saying? if religion, if Christianity is all about what you do, if it’s true, if its validity is in, how it helps you, then what’s the difference between that and how Islam has helped somebody? What’s the difference between that and how, you know, going to Woodstock and like meditating with the Yogi Maharishi, how is that helps people, how is that any different? You see what makes Christianity valid is that it’s actually true, not that it’s helpful, of this amazing picture of these Christians being fed to the lions, it’s an old Roman woodcut about Christians being fed the lions, down below it says: God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. But Christianity is valid because it’s true, what we believe and what we confess is that there is one man Jesus Christ, who came to earth and actually made the claim that he was God, preached forgiveness in himself, died on the cross and on the third day rose from the dead. If they find his body, we just pack up shop tomorrow, because it’s not true, and it hasn’t been that helpful to me, you know. But it’s true, that’s what makes Christianity valid and that’s the point of the church. This is my first point. Much of American Christianity, since its beginning, has essentially been in lieu of self-help deistic moralism. And while in the beginning, it may appear alluring, it may appear helpful and it may even appear attractive. As we see today, it is not lasting, and it is running its course. It is running its course, because it has nothing to do with the one thing that’s lasting, the one thing that’s unique about Christianity, and that is the gospel, that God in Jesus, actually saves those who can’t save themselves. God in Jesus Christ retains those who are beyond help.

So, as I’ve said, there’s a lot of confusion, about what is the gospel versus the effects of the gospel in our lives. And this confusion oftentimes comes from from certain places in Scripture, like we taken them and we pull it out and we just apply it to ourselves. Like for example, the Corinthian verse in 1 Corinthians 12, the love passage. In there, there was there was an episode of Amazing Race, about five years ago, where there was this girl, she was reading 1 Corinthians 12, and she was like, “I just read this passage everyday and where it says love I just put my name in their, you know, Marcia is patient, Marcia is kind, Marcia is, you know,” and then the whole episode, it was such a setup, because the whole episode she’s screaming at her partner, and yelling at her, and like, you know, “get it together, I’m gonna lose!” And then there wasn’t much patient. Next time you read I Corinthians 12, where you see love put Jesus’s name in there, and know that it’s all for you. But just take a look at 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, verses 10 through 12. I’ll read it. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” See that statement from Paul is rooted in Paul’s confidence and hope in Christ’s righteousness, the gospel given to him. Hunt that he somehow like, God’s is gonna be like awesome, Paul, you knew you did a great. No, it is rooted in this amazing confidence in what Jesus has done for him and given to him, that now, God would say, “Well done good and faithful servant”. He goes on, he says, “Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others, but what we are is known to God and I hope it is known also your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you cause to boast about us that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearances, and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves is for God, and if we are in our right minded is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: That one has died for all, therefore all have died, and he died for, and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves – self-help – but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on therefore we regard no one according to the flesh, a.k.a. what they do – There are seven steps according to an effective marriage. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come. All this is from God who through Christ reconciled us to himself, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That is in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ. God making his appeal through us, and we implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin, who knew no sin. So that we might become the righteousness of God.”

Oftentimes what happens is with our can-do American Christian attitudes, we take this passage over and we immediately focus on this idea of trying to be a new creation. I’m just using this as one example, the prominent church. And what we must do to keep ourselves new, and this focus deceives people into self-reliance, and it’s this focus on what I need to do to stay in new creation, eventually empties churches. This week I’m a new creation, so I won’t be faithless like those other people over there. It begins to create an us against them mentality. I am going to try and pray more, etc. etc. etc., whatever it is, I’m not going to be like those people over there, And we fool ourselves into believing that a new creation is something that can be defined by reason, or can somehow be measured in my own life. And therefore, the mission of the church gets skewed, you see. And the mission of the church becomes all about making people better, and we spiritualize it. like talk about, like we hear it all the time in the Episcopal church, renewing the earth, or hear in certain pulpits, the renewing culture, renewing the, redeeming the city, making people fully developed followers of Jesus. Whatever it is the mission of the church is for us then to make new creations, and it takes the Holy Spirit right out of it. This is a misunderstanding and you see this is ultimately death. The issue St. Paul is addressing here in 2 Corinthians 5 is actually how are we going to stand before God. And the answer is, not how you made yourself a new creation, the answer Jesus Christ and what he has done for us in his life, death and resurrection. As Paul writes, “He who knew no sin became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God”. What a powerful line. This is my second point: A new creation is the effect of the gospel, not the gospel itself, it is the effect of being reconciled to God because God is the protagonist in the relationship, it is the effect of being reconciled to God and Paul tells us that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. I mean this is one of the powerful things about being a part of a liturgical church like St. Francis in the Fields, as we have this liturgy, you know, oftentimes it’s all about me inviting God into my story, and that’s awfully nice of me. But with the liturgy in what you are entering into here reminds you, is that you are brought into God’s story, he’s found you. I mean, he’s pulled you into his life, because he has reconciled you to himself, and he has made you a new creation, and listen he is God and you are the creature, and when he has declared you a new creation, you are, he is not about to let his creatures have the final say. You are a new creation, and there is nothing you can do to sully the newness. This is the powerful thing about the gospel. This is the power of God to save, this is the power of the church, to draw the whole world back to himself. See it’s in this confidence, this confidence that God is at work, by his son through the power of the Holy Spirit, that God is the protagonist reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ. And we are actually passive agents being worked upon. This is where the church begins to rediscover her mission, her mission to the whole world, and we see what Paul calls himself, and he calls the church. What is he saying in that reading? That we are ambassadors, we are ambassadors of Christ. Every year, I never got that really, until I went to this banquet, every year in my congregation we have a large West Indian population, and every year I go to a banquet, which raises money for a mission organization called the Mustard Seed. And that this is a mission organization that helps orphanages for handicap and handicapped children in places like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic in the Bahamas and the Caribbean and parts of Latin America, become self-sufficient and self-sustaining. They don’t have to rely on any government corruption. But one year they had at this event the Jamaican ambassador to the United States as the speaker, and I don’t know, but evidently the Prime Minister wasn’t very popular with the ex-pats in New York City; is he ever? But anyway – that was supposed to be funny – but anyway, so they began to press her on her views of what was going on in Jamaica, and what she would do. She said something very interesting at this banquet. She said, “Listen, I am not here to give you my views, I am here to deliver to you a message from the Prime Minister, not my own message”, I thought, gosh, that’s powerful, She’s taken the onus off of her and placed it where it belonged, on the Prime Minister. See, this is what Paul is doing, you know, we don’t have to come up with our own things. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time, on how to get people to stand on their own 2 feet, as we are regarding nobody any longer by the flesh, by what they do. To be an ambassador for Jesus Christ is actually truly freeing, because it takes the onus off of you and places it squarely where it belongs. It takes the onus off of you and what you do and places squarely where it belongs on our King Jesus and what he has done for you, for me, for the whole world. So that’s the mission of the church. In Jady’s office he’s got this powerful picture, it’s one of my favorite, of Luther in the pulpit and there’s the congregation, right in between is the crucified Christ, and there Luther is pointing to it. That’s what he’s doing, an ambassador for Christ. And as ambassadors for Christ with this message of the gospel, that Jesus has died, risen and is coming again for you. See this message, it’s timeless and it has the power to engage arts, it has the power to engage minds, and it has the power to engage souls, a broken people. We’re just exhausted by trying to get better.

A church that engages the world as ambassadors, I think typically does this in three ways. And these three ways are all intertwined. And this is one of the things I’ve been trying to work out over the last couple of years at our church. But there’re all tied together, and there’s three specific callings of the church, I think, as ambassadors of Christ delivering this message of reconciliation. But the first calling is a triage unit. News you begin to preach preach the forgiveness of sins, the truth is weirdos show up. I mean, this is like, this is true. Real broken people come together, and come because they need this message, this is water of life in a world that’s constantly saying look within, find the power within. In the medieval Catholic Church, one of the popular images of Christ in the church, especially in the English church, was one of him pointing a sword at you. And that people oftentimes talk about the Puritans destroying all of the beautiful stained-glass, but this stained-glass, according to one of our friends actually know was in a lot of churches, and they were like get that thing out of here. It was Jesus holding a sword pointed right at you, and the message was, He is your judge, get your act together. And sadly this is still a popular understanding of Jesus, you know, a moralistic, therapeutic milieu of deism, that we oftentimes call Christianity. Although, he’s oftentimes a little nicer. You know, he can be your homeboy, he is relevant, wears skinny jeans, but he’s still, he still expects you to get your act together, and be a new creation. And this message, this image is not helpful. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on the fatal bullet wound, and saying okay be healthy, you know. I mean, this is why we.. if I could get my act together, I wouldn’t need to come to church. But a church that’s a triage unit, you know, it actually sees people as they are, and recognizes the fact that most people have walked on glass to get to church. They’re fighting with their kids to get there, they are fighting with their husband to get to church, they are fighting with their wife to get church, at a long long week and a harder weekend. And that the truth is that the church that’s the triage unit recognizes that everyone has had or has a broken heart, brought on by life, a failed relationship, a difficult job, a sickness, whatever it is, and in those times the truth is as our only hope is the gospel. As a triage unit you recognize that people are actually needy. They’re..I’m needy. I need to be needed I’m so needy. And we don’t just need help, that we need saving, we need the physician, who by his wounds on the cross has made us whole. We are here because we can’t get it together on our own. Calvary Church, one of the churches in my parish, is actually one of the places that AA started. The 12 steps, Samuel Shoemaker and Bill Wilson, is actually written in my office. AA if could you go across, any.. go across the country. We have one at St. George’s and one at Calvary, but these places, our basements are hacked on Saturday mornings. Packed to the gills, packed to the gills with people at AA meetings. And this is because nobody’s talking about getting better.They all begin every, every time they get up and speak they say, “Hi my name is Jake, I’m an alcoholic.” I, when I start saying, hi my name is Jake, I’m a sinner. This is because nobody there has gotten away with anything, and this should be all the more true with the church. We believe the church should be a place when you recognize that God is the one reconciling the world to himself, that when people cry out from the trials and tribulations of life, they cry out from a broken heart, and when they cry out with a broken heart in a place like this, not that they’ll find the gospel, but that the Holy Spirit the gospel is going to find them. And you find him, he will find them there, and he will find them here, because the gospel is clearly proclaimed with that assurance that when we cry out to God he will not turn them away. Gosh you’ve been working on being a new creation for a long time, I don’t know. You know, it’s 70 times 7 that your sins are forgiven, I do not condemn you either. And the gospel what it does in this triage unit? He comes and they get God in full in order to comfort, in order to cheer, in order to restore us. For Christ as proclaimed in the fullness of his gospel is a wonderful Savior and a wonderful God, who has removed the sword that points at us in the law, removes that sword by laying his life down for each and every one of us. And let me tell you if you’ve been a Christian for tons of years, this is for you, this is for you too.

The second role that the church should play as a cafeteria. It is here where the redeemed are nurtured and built up and fed by Christ himself in his Gospel, and we are nourished as Christians through both that word forgiveness and absolution and reconciliation, proclaimed but also through the sacraments in bread and wine, in water over somebody’s head. These are the places where Jesus has placed his name, which assures us of his grace and his mercy and the forgiveness of our sins, in order to send us back out into the world to serve our neighbors in our various callings, and to the serve them well, and to serve them honestly.

Finally the third role, the church plays as a school, should be the place where we teach the historic Christian faith, and what we believe and why we believe it. That is the important thing. So that you understand what the gospel is, and you can make a reasonable defence for your faith. This is my third point. The mission of the church that understands the gospel begins to see that this is not about making people better, with cleverly devised myths, as St. Paul calls them, because at the end of the day, God doesn’t want better people. He’s not the least bit interested, as Dave said last night. He is not the least bit interested in better people, rather instead the mission of the church is to be ambassadors for Christ. And what that means is as we don’t pitch our own message, whether we proclaim the message of King Jesus, which says you have been reconciled by him to God, you are a new creation actually right now. Because this is what God wants broken people. He doesn’t want them better, he wants them brand spanking new. Listen, anyone can dig a well. Anyone can give moralistic life tips. There’s only one institution under heaven and on earth that has been given the authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, and that’s us, the church. A new moralism is old news, and it is most certainly not good news at all, that is killing the church, because it’s a ministry of death. The good news we have been given is not our message, but God’s. And it is the power of God to save. It is my prayer that St. Francis in the Field will continue to be that great beacon of light here in Louisville Kentucky. You’re a tremendous encouragement to us in New York City. And that it would continue to be that beacon of light as a triage unit, as a cafeteria, and as a school. Ambassadors for Jesus, not declaring our own message, but the message of our King, who loves you, has died for you, risen for you and mark my words, is coming again for you. God bless you all. Amen.


Strangely Warmed: Whitefield, Toplady, Simeon and Wesley’s Arminian Campaigns

Listen here to the lecture and the Q&A time afterwards, to hear more about John Wesley’s strangely warm opposition to the preaching of Whitefield and his friends. There is much for us all to learn, whichever side of the doctrinal debate we are on, in our own contexts today.

To read the original text, there’s a booklet on sale:
“Strangely Warmed”: Whitefield, Toplady, Simeon and Wesley’s Arminian Campaigns

Transcript (sample).

Westgate has been given the 2014 St Antholin lecture and this seminar here at Oak Hill and we’re gonna start by looking at 2 Timothy chapter 2 verse 22. Paul writes:

“So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith love and peace along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. have nothing to do with foolish ignorant controversies, you know that they breed quarrels. and the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone able to teach, patiently enduring evil correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil after being captured by him to do his will.”

Let’s just pray as we begin. Heavenly Father we thank you and praise you for your words in the Bible. Thank you for the Gospel, which saves us and is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. Pray that you’ll help us as we look tonight at some controversies in church history to be discerning as Paul exhorts us to be in 2 Timothy 2 here, that you’d help us in our day not to be breeding quarrels or be involved in things that we ought not to be embroiled in, but to join with all those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart to pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace. And pray too that you help us to pursue these things with prayer, asking that you would rescue our opponents in all these theological debates that we might be involved in, you might rescue them from the snare of the devil. We ask all these things in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.

Well, 2014 is the 300th birthday of George Whitfield, the great Anglican evangelical evangelist. Whitfield has been rightly celebrated as the primary cause, humanly speaking, of the evangelical revival of the 18th century. His most recent biographer lords him as America’s spiritual founding father. His name is being kept alive by evangelical Baptists, evangelical Presbyterians, especially in America. Yet he has been strangely neglected in large measure by evangelical Anglicans, despite being a thoroughgoing Church of England man. I hope your hearts are strangely warmed, as I say that. The relative neglect of Whitfield may not be surprising however, when we consider the early on in the 18th century at these evangelists were often barred from Anglican pulpits. One of those pulpits from which they were barred, or some of them, was St Helen’s Bishopsgate, which today has something of a reputation as a flagship evangelical church. More than once when I was on the staff there, I was told the story of how graceless and dead St Helen’s must have been in those heady days of the 18th-century revival. Why? I here you ask. Well, John Wesley came to preach at St Helen’s one Tuesday lunchtime in May 1738. Yes, they did have Tuesday lunchtime services then. Dick Lucas did not invent that idea. He preached there on May 1738, and afterwards he wrote in his diary, that somebody at St Helen’s said to him. “Sir you must preach here no more”. Obviously, the doctrines of grace and salvation were despised and misunderstood in 18th-century Bishopsgate. I was always intrigued by this. So I did a bit of research. I read George Whitfield’s journals. and I found that he had also preached at St Helen’s in 1736. And funny enough he’d been received far more favourably. Indeed he says in one of his journal entries that they stopped him getting out of the place because they were so keen to talk to him afterwards. “They soon grew serious and exceedingly attentive,” he says, “and after I came down” from the giant pulpit they have there, “they showed me great tokens of respect, blessed me as I passed along. I made great enquiry who I was. So what was going on? Why if Whitfield was received so well, was Westley not also embraced at this evangelical church? What was I missing about the evangelical revival? The problem, I later found, is that the controversy started by John Wesley, in his strangely heated opposition to reformed Anglican doctrine, has been systematically hushed up and played down by historians and hagiographies alike. So much so that opposition to Wesley is even now taken by some with little knowledge of Wesley’s actual teaching, to be straightforward opposition to the Gospel itself. I was less surprised however, at the strong reactions against Mr. Wesley when I tracked down the printed version of his sermon on Romans 8:32, which is the text that he preached on that Tuesday lunchtime at St Helen’s. It is a sermon he used on many occasions. From start to finish it is a sustained, emotive, cognitive, highly prejudiced and somewhat patronising rant against reformed doctrine, against Calvinism. He goes on and on and on in this sermon, about how believing in predestination is bad for your spiritual health, and it destroys all zeal for good works, especially the good work of evangelism. No one will evangelise if they believed in predestination, he asserted. Predestination Wesley pronounced, was a doctrine full of blasphemy. He complained bitterly against the horrible blasphemies contained in this horrible doctrine. To those who might disagree with his convictions, he said: “You, you represent God as worst than the devil, more false more cruel, more unjust, no Scripture can prove predestination. I abhor the doctrine of predestination. I abhor the doctrine of predestination. He then goes on to portray the opponents, and hmm, his opponents are those who believe in Reformed doctrine, as worse than the baby sacrificing worshippers of the false god Moloch. This is not just a brief off-the-cuff aside. This is the tenor of the whole sermon, and the reason that he had it published. Well, I have to say, that doing just a little bit of historical research, certainly changed my mind about where St Helen’s stood in the 18th century. My sympathies now are clearly with the discerning minister or churchwarden who sought to protect the church from hearing such divisive and melodramatic things again. If I’d been there I think I would have said, “Sir you must preach here no more.”

Julia Wedgwood’s 19th-century biography of Wesley, makes the rather insightful comment that Wesley’s sermon against predestination, has in it some of the provoking glibness with which young or half cultivated people settle in a few sentences questions that have exercised the deepest minds ever since the dawn of speculation. Indeed it is evidence on reading this sermon that of all the deep works, which had been written on the subject of predestination, Wesley had not read one. And yet, he pronounced so forcefully on all of these issues. That’s sermon was printed, and reprinted many times in the following years, despite howls of protest from Whitfield and others who pleaded with Wesley not to publish it. Now it was suggested to me that Wesley just didn’t understand grace when he preached that sermon in 1738, his heart had yet to be strangely warmed by his Gospel experience, his Aldersgate experience at St Botolph’s Aldersgate near St. Paul’s Cathedral in the city of London.

And it’s true that the St Helen’s sermon was on May the 9th and the warning of Wesley’s heart did not happen until May the 24th. However, Wesley disliked predestination just like his mother and his father from very early on. Ian Murray rightly notes that Wesley’s opposition to Calvinism stiffens rather than weakens; his heart was always strangely warmed against Calvinism. Wesley was always and always would be an Armenian. Armenians were fiercely opposed to things like unconditional predestination, which they regarded as Calvinistic nonsense. So Wesley preached this sermon and printed it, and several other polemical works time and time again.

Not just in 1738, not just in 1739, but in 1740 when the revival was in full swing. In fact, in 1741 he published a dozen explicitly anti-Calvinist, anti-predestination works in just a few months after Whitfield returned from America. It was a deliberate ploy to caricature and oppose reformed theology, and especially the hellish doctrine, as he put it, of predestination. What is it he would have seen “Oh horrible decree worthy of whence it came forgive their hellish blasphemy who charged on the land. Wesley’s line, however was that God me to preach and to print this stuff, God told me he had cast lots and received very clear guidance from God to preach and print against predestination. Truth is though it was all part of a rather sordid power-play against Whitfield, who’d left the rather imperious Wesley to look after the nascent evangelical movement while he went on mission to America. While he was gone Wesley used his position to gather followers, pressurise booksellers and to form his own movements instead. His distinctive rallying calls were his stance against predestination and his teaching on perfectionism. Arnold Dallimore’s biography of Whitfield tells the full story in its crude and shocking detail, how Wesley tried to stamp his mark of authority onto the revival at this early stage. and put himself at its head.

Whitfield was extremely reluctant to enter the lists against Wesley on this subject, yet eventually Wesley had turned up the heat too far and so he felt constrained to offer a reply in a public letter to Wesley. I don’t know if you’ve ever read this letter but I find it to be a clear, courteous and very effective reply. What’s more it is restrained and mildly put in comparison with Wesley’s bitter invective, especially when you read that in the context of what Wesley is doing with Whitfield’s evangelical movements, trying to hijack it. One of the things he criticises Wesley for is actually ignoring the actual text he was meant to be preaching on. Romans 8:32 is a brilliant text for demonstrating the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and limited atonement. Whitfield refers in his reply to Wesley to several books which he thinks are helpful and unanswerable on the points in question. Clearly Whitfield had read some important books on the subject and encourages Wesley to go and do likewise, in fact he even posted some copies of those books to his friend in order to help him and see if he could answer some of his objections. Whitfield stands on the shoulders of giants in the puritan and reformed tradition. Whitfield particularly cites article 17 of the Thirty-nine Articles to show that our godly reformers did not think election destroys holiness. He questions Wesley’s loyalty to the reformed Church of England, saying “I cannot but blame you for censoring the church that clergy of our church for not keeping to their articles, when you yourself by your principles, positively deny the 9th, 10th and 17th. You can’t go around saying to other people, you’re not obeying the Thirty-nine Articles articles and preaching the true doctrine, when you yourself are denying some of the key ones.

Whitfield’s response to Wesley Places him very firmly in the reformed tradition of the Church of England. The hymn writer Augustus Montague Toplady says that Whitfield was not only a great evangelist but also a most excellent systematic divine. His reply to Wesley is full of careful Continental Calvinist divinity, which he preached with passion and fervour. In the rest of his reply Whitfield chose several times why he thinks such doctrines as predestination are a very good thing, in terms of encouraging a godly life and spurring us on to evangelism, rather than being a bad thing as Wesley had alleged. Predestination rather than something to be appalled was Whitfield’s daily comforts and joy and supports he said. This is warm piety allied to solid theology, served up in a firm but friendly tone. In one of his sermons George Whitfield talks about those who dislike this kind of reformed theology, he says, “They that are not led to see this I wish them better heads, though I believe numbers that are against it have got better hearts. The Lord help us to bear with one another where there is an honest heart.” But Wesley hated all this. His father was a Church of England clergyman and Wesley called himself a high churchman born of high church parents, he was brought up to despise his reformed faith and the reformed faith of the Church of England and the puritan heritage, if dig back further into Wesley’s family you find several puritans in his family tree. Now let’s be clear in all this. Wesley may well have believed in all the objective facts of our salvation, like substitutionary atonement and the bodily resurrection of Christ, but he wasn’t just mistaken about small things like predestination, he was also confused on Christian perfectionism, which he thought was attainable in this life, and even wobbled on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. So if you go forward to the, where Wesley Methodist conference of 1770 we find that Wesley has been losing patience with the evangelical Calvinists. He chooses this moment when Whitfield has died to return to the Armenian distinctives, but particularly to justification and its relationship to holiness, as well as rebuking the Methodists for leaning too much towards Calvinism, a poisonous play worse than all the devices of Satan. He also told them this: “Every believer till he comes glory works for, as well as from life. We have received it as a maxim that a man is to do nothing in order to justification. Nothing can be more false. Is this not salvation by works? Not by the merits of works but by works as a condition, we are every hour and every moment pleasing or displeasing to God according to our works”, said Wesley. Just read that again, look at it. We do good works for eternal life, not just spurred on by our new birth. It is false to say we contribute nothing to our justification. It is not by faith alone. Good works are a condition of our salvation.

Now this sort of thing was rightly shocking to those who were taught to value their Reformation heritage, so writes Ian Murray, “If Wesley’s theology was confused — that’s being polite — why, some might ask, should we value his memory today? The answer”, says Murray, “is that it is not in his theology that his real legacy lies. Christian leaders are raised up for different purposes. The 18th-century evangelicals were primarily men of action, and in that role John Wesley did and said much, that was the the lasting benefit of many thousands.” What do you think? That may be true, in a way, but we may also want to go on and ask whether celebrity men of action can really be so easily excused a little dodgy theology on basic issues of salvation.

Now it would be bad enough, wouldn’t it? if Wesley and Whitfield fell out, the two great names in our evangelical revival, and at the height of all the activity. But what if Wesley continued to press his case for Arminianism even further? What would happen? In order to put his spat with Whitfield into some context, let’s look further at Wesley’s controversial Armenian campaigns. Now I know they’re sometimes called the Calvinist controversies, but who do you think made that name up? Who made that name up? Who looks like the bad guy if you call it the Calvinist controversy? Well that was Wesley’s idea. It makes it look like Calvinism is the troublemaker, but that’s not how others at the time sow it. Whitfield said it was Wesley who threw in the bone of contention.

So the first Armenian controversy was that cold war between Wesley and Whitfield in the 1740s. In the 1750s James Harvey on the side of the reformed is attacked by the Rev J Fletcher, John Fletcher and others for the Armenians. That was round two. Round three however, would see Wesley go up against the most able of all those on the Calvinist side of the debate, Augustus Montague Toplady. He’s most famous, of course, as a hymn writer. You may know hymn A Debtor to Mercy Alone and that startling and oft-quoted line “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling.” But he was also a preacher a historian and a controversialist of some talent. Toplady links Arminian theology to Pelagius the arch heretic who opposed Augustine in the fourth century. Some people might find that offensive, perhaps but Wesley was in fact happy to identify with Pelagius, “One of the righteous remnant in church history; A true Christian; A holy man, who’s been unfairly stigmatised by that nasty abusive Augustine” – and he wasn’t really worth listening to, Augustine. “All Pelagius was trying to say” [over] Wesley, “was that a Christian can go on to perfection, and fulfil the law of Christ.”

Toplady also linked Arminianism to Rome. Indeed he said, “Arminianism is the forerunner, which prepares the way for Rome, and if not discarded in time will one day open the door to it, to Roman Catholicism.” Now J.C. Ryle seems to consider Toplady’s identification of Arminians with Pelagians and papists, to be an outrageous scandal. In fact Ryle has done more than anyone to destroy Toplady’s reputation because of this, in his popular book on the Christian leaders of the 18th-century. Yet these were, of course, not unusual connections to make in the 16th, the 17th or the 18th centuries. Whitfield, who Ryle loves, and many others, also drew attention to the theological links, and it had been standard practice in the Puritan debates against Laudianism and the Remonstrance. It was also not unusual when Toplady links the rise of immorality in the country with the rise of Arminianism in the church, especially under the Merry Monarch Charles II, from 1660 onwards. Was that outrageous as well? Well if it was we should also point out that several leading Arminian Methodists, including Wesley, accuse Calvinists of all manner of evils, alleging that they are unchristian, heretical, islamic, fatalistic, cold and emotionless sloths, whose principles prove that they must be uninterested in evangelism, blah, blah, blah. So accusing them of a tendency to Pelagianism, an identification which Wesley seemed happily to accept, hardly seems comparable on the insult scale.

Now Toplady and Wesley, particularly came to blows in print between 1769 and 1772, in what I like to call the Zanchi tract war. There they are, 18th-century ships firing broadsides at each other in the Zanchi tract war. In November 1769 Toplady published a translation over work on predestination by Jerome Zanchius, a 16th century reformer, which Toplady entitled the doctrine of absolute predestination stated and asserted. This had been an influential book in his own spiritual development while he was a student. He’d originally translated it from the Latin in 1760, when he was a 19-year-old student. After some prompting from the Baptist, his Baptist friend John Gill and others he overcame his diffidence and decided the time was now right to publish this translation. What is Zanchius’ book like? Well it leans heavily on Luther’s reply to Erasmus on the Bondage of the Will, as well as on Augustine; it covers election, reprobation, particular redemption, and various objections to these doctrines. It concludes with a section promoting promiscuous Gospel preaching to all, and public preaching on predestination for the Saints. The ultimate reason for focusing on this doctrine, said Zanchius, was that scarce any other distinguishing doctrine of the Gospel can be preached in its purity and consistency without this of predestination. A few months after this book came out John Wesley wrote to his Methodist colleague Walter Sellon. He’d only ask Sellon to write something against John Owens work on Limited Atonement, which Wesley particularly disliked. He also asked Sellon to write something against Toplady as well, in order to stop the mouth of that vain boaster. Evidently Wesley felt threatened by the arrival on the scene of the much younger Toplady.

But it wasn’t Sellon, but Wesley himself who made the most public response to the translation of Zanchi. He put out an abridgement of Toplady’s book, under Toplady’s name, but for his own, Wesley’s profit. Three observations ought to be made on Wesley’s abridgement of Toplady’s book. First it does capture something of the general flow of Zanchius’ argument, and retains some of the choices quotations. As revision notes for an exam on Zanchius’ philosophy this material might have some use. Secondly however, Wesley removes entirely the biblical aspects of Zanchi’s presentation, for example, and I know you’re gonna think I’m a geek, bear with me. In Toplady’s book, in Toplady’s translation of Zanchius, there are over 350 biblical quotations and allusions – yes, I did count them. In Wesley’s abridgement, how many do you think there are? None. Not a single verse is quoted with a reference. There is a vague allusion to “Esau I have hated” and that’s it, which does rather leave a different taste in the mouth, I think you’d find. And sort of castrates the persuasive potential of the book for a Christian audience. But finally, and most alarmingly, Wesley added a whole paragraph to the book, claiming that it was by Toplady. It was calculated to paint predestination and Augustus Toplady in as bad a light as possible. Here it is: “The sum of all is this: 1 in 20, suppose, of mankind are elected, 19 in 20 are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will. The reprobate shall be damned, do what they can. Reader believe this or be damned. Witness my hand Augustus Toplady.”

Now naturally, Toplady felt somewhat aggrieved by this gross misrepresentation. He replied to Wesley pointing out that, “in almost any other case a similar forgery would transmit the criminal to Virginia or Maryland, if not to Tyburn. In other words, normally for this kind of forgery you’d be, you’d have pretty bad punishments, like being sent to America, Virginia or Maryland or to Tyburn. I, you’d would be executed for this. There were very harsh laws against forgery at the time, akin to the laws against plagiarism of Oak Hill Theological College (laughs), and in fact one of Wesley’s acquaintances had been hung at Tyburn in 1777 for forgery, but Toplady thought that it was better to refuse Wesley’s falsehoods then to take him to court for his plagiarist liable. So he says, “As far as this infamous final paragraph is concerned, the numbers are wrong and presumptuous and certainly not Toplady’s.” In Toplady’s opinion he says this, “The kingdom of glory will be more largely and more variously peopled than bigots of all denominations are either able to think or willing to allow.” Wesley’s summary of what he’d written, was also scurrilous with entirely false indications. The elector not saved do what they will but chosen as much to holiness as to heaven. Equally importantly Toplady neither claims nor thought that Armenians were all going to hell. He never once said that you had to be a Calvinist in order to be saved. That of course would had been a very strange thing for him to have said given that he himself had been an Armenian in the first few years after he was converted, and he doesn’t subsequently redate his conversion to when he becomes a Calvinist. He thought that many Armenians were pious, moderate, respectable men, adding of these I myself know more than a few — some of my best friends are Arminians – and I have a happiness to enjoy as much of their esteem as they deservedly possess of mine. He could even be very positive about some other prominent Arminians, calling them eminent and worthy, great ornaments to our church, and not to be mentioned without honour, even while he fervently disagrees with some of their theology. Well, Wesley replied to Toplady’s reply, and Toplady replied, and so on and so forth. It was attract war. What one commentator says, “Toplady treated Wesley with the manners and decorum of gentlemen and the analytical objectivity of a scientist. Well, he may have been slightly warmer than that. But what was he up against? What kind of thing was Wesley saying against him? At one point Wesley compares the Calvinist God to a man who has his enemy’s nine-year-old daughter raped, so that he can then strangle her to death because she’s being deflowered. Toplady rightly thought this was impious, to say the least, and some Evangelicals refuse to let Wesley in their pulpits – no surprises there. Toplady complained against a man who is so liberally lamentable in his outcries against the doctrine of predestination, and carries to such horrid lengths his invectives against the purposes and providences of God.

Toplady’s attempts at persuasion won him no friends amongst the Arminians, but he continued to pray for them, and hope for them. He wrote to a friend in 1773, “The envy malice, and fury of Wesley’s party are inconceivable, but violently as they hate me, I dare not, I cannot, hate them in return – I have not so learned Christ.They have my prayers and my best wishes for their preset and eternal salvation. But their errors have my opposition also.” Toplady’s reputation has been unfairly maligned in my opinion, because of the extravagant eccentricities of the great and famous John Wesley, which had been hushed up, too easily excused by Wesley, by his followers, by Ryle and others. It certainly does seem out of place from a man ordained nearly 50 years to behave the way Wesley did towards a fellow evangelical less than half his own age. As Jim Packer rightly says, “Wesley’s misrepresentations of Calvinism argue a degree of prejudice and close mindedness, which is almost pathological, his heart was hot against Calvinism.”

As a young man in his 20s Toplady had held back from publishing his translation of Zanchi for nine long years, because he was fearful of offending Wesley, and those on his side. If anything, Toplady seems to have been guilty of an unwarranted deference the older man celebrity, and intimidating influence. If in later years this may have threatened to become an unhealthy fixation on demonstrating Wesley’s perfidious errors, we can also see with crystal clarity, that what motivated Toplady, was defending the Gospel of God’s mercy and grace. It was even his duty, he thought, to pray for Wesley, writing, “O, that he in whose hands the hearts of all men are, may make even this opposer of grace on monuments of almighty power to save. God is witness how earnestly I wish it may consist with the divine will to touch the hearts and open the eyes of that unhappy man, Mr. Wesley.”

When I originally gave this lecture the somewhat more sensational title, “Celebrity Preachers in Calvinist Cover-ups”, the extent of Wesley’s Arminianism and bad behaviour has for far too long been covered up. We’ve explored some of the reasons that already, but much of the blame for downplaying things here, might fairly be laid at the door of another evangelical Anglican hero, Charles Simeon.

In November 1787 nearly a decade after Toplady died, a young Charles Simeon destined to be the leader of the evangelicals into the next century, met with the ageing John Wesley. The conversation, though it is not recounted in Wesley’s journal, has often been cited as evidence that Calvinists and Armenians are in essence agreed on fundamentals. If you read it in advance as I suggested, you’ll know how it goes.

Simeon: Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian, and I have sometimes been called a Calvinist. Therefore, I suppose, we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions, not from impertinent curiosity, but for real instruction. Pray, Sir, (I should do this in a posh accent, really. Shouldn’t I, but I can’t really muster those up) do you, Sir, feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?

Wesley replies: Yes, I do indeed.

Simeon: And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything that you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?

Yes, solely through Christ.

But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?

Wesley: No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.

Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?


What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?

Yes, altogether.

And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?

Yes, I have no hope but in Him.

Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.

It’s interesting to read that in the context of the previous 50 years or so of debate, between Wesley and Whitfield, Wesley and Toplady, Wesley and everybody else. Isn’t it? We ought to notice that Simeon begins — if this account is accurate, and does actually relates to Simeon himself — is recounted in the third person in a footnote of one of his books, and as if it might not be him —  but it probably is. And he claims there, not to be a Calvinist, but to say that he’s sometimes been called a Calvinist.  Normally Simeon did not want to be identified either with Calvinists or Arminians; claiming that he was no friend to systematisers in theology — sorry Mike. He had no doubt that there is a system in the Holy Scriptures — for truth cannot be inconsistent with itself — but he was persuaded that neither Calvinists nor Armenians are in exclusive possession of that system.

Wesley on the other hand, although he doesn’t recounts the conversation, identifies Simeon on the two occasions when they both met, as very much like his own designated successor as leader of the Armenians, the Rev J. Fletcher of Madeley. This is not to say that Simeon was an Armenian. I don’t think he was. But his Calvinism was either unseen, or sufficiently confused as not to attract the attention of the man who had been Calvinism’s self-proclaimed nemesis for 50 years, and had made such harsh pronouncements against it. Perhaps, Simeon was naive in his youthful enthusiasm to sidestep to decades and decades of serious discussion, and be considered like a consummate ecclesiastical politician, sympathetic to both sides. Yet the debate was not as many may wish it to be; one merely of timing and where to place the emphasis. You know, as if Calvinists like George Whitfield held to divine sovereignty, but did not appeal to human decisions; or that they simply ignored parts of Scripture that did not at first blush seem to fit their preconceived system; or that they were abstract theologisers, who needed Arminians to teach them how to speak to real people.

That caricature certainly does not fit George Whitfield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th century. He was not a Calvinist in this study and an Armenian in the pulpit. To say that the Arminian doctrines of Free Will could be used alongside Calvinist teaching concerning divine providence and grace, as if they were not necessarily contradictory, perhaps sounded irenic to Simeon. But what are we to make of Simeon’s comments here? “It is supposedly said by many, that the doctrines of grace are incompatible with the doctrine of man’s Free Will, and that therefore the one or the other must be false, but why so?” Or his assertion that, “it is possible that the truth may lie not exclusively in either, nor yet in a confused mixture of both, but in the proper and seasonable application of them both.” It seems likely that Simeon’s misunderstanding that the two systems could be pastorally blended to obtain a supposedly better and more biblical balance, played straight into the synergistic hands of the Armenians. And I suspect that the more experienced Wesley was well aware of that.

Secondly, it ought to be pointed out that Simeon in this conversation, narrating events two decades before he’s written it down, and two decades after Wesley has died, does most of the talking, doesn’t he, in this exchange? Putting lots of words into the older man’s mouth. Hence we learn more in this discussion about Simeon, then we do about Wesley himself. Very skilfully he skirts around some of the actual areas of contention, to present himself in a rather positive light. For example, lets get back to it. What does he ask? He asks Sir. Wesley whether he feels himself depraved, not notice whether he is or was totally depraved and unable to respond to God before his conversion, which because of his doctrine of prevenient grace or universal enablement, Wesley would not have been able to answer in the affirmative, like a Calvinist. As said Charles Wesley’s hymn appended to the Free Grace sermon, puts it. “The power to choose. A will to obey. Freely his grace restores. We all may find the living way and call the saviour ours.” So as resheathes his dagger Simeon declares: “This is all my Calvinism. This is all my election. Of course, we should note that at no point has it actually addressed the doctrine of election, in that discussion. Presumably that was because he knows full well that Wesley believed in predestination on the basis of foreseen faith and perseverance, and not on the basis of God’s gratuitous unmerited choice alone. Again, Charles Wesley would have us sing lines like this:

Whom his eternal mind foreknew,
That they the power would use,
Ascribe (the glory that) to God the glory due,
And not his grace refuse;
Them, only them, his will decreed,
Them did he choose alone,
Ordained in Jesus’ steps to tread,
And to be like his Son.

What is that? That is conditional election based on foreseen faith and the use of resistible grace by the unbound will. That is no small point, but goes to the very heart of the predestination debate, and yet in his noble and historic heroic crusade for some kind of unity, Simeon evidently feels that it is merely searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention. There was real Gospel minded concern at the hearts of people’s worries about Wesley, which is not apparent from the way that Simeon deals with him here.

Third, I think it’s hardly right to acquit Wesley and Arminianism generally of synergistic views of salvation, simply on the basis of his own protestations and denials. Which Christian theologian ever admitted openly to teaching straightforward salvation by works? That is not to say, however, that every Christian theologian avoids that track, or the tendency, as a clear implication of their system, or in the minds of their less educated followers. Nevertheless, Simeon’s view of Wesley and of Arminianism and of systematisers in theology has become the dominant note in much of today’s evangelicalism. Differences between Calvinists and Arminians are too often evaded and fudged for the sake of unity and peace, so that somebody who dredges them up is considered factious, and unnecessarily competitive, a cynic a bear, a Toplady, as Wesley once said in his usual sour way. But you know, questioning somebody’s teaching on predestination and justification and sanctification is hardly the equivalent of arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. So what should we conclude this evening?

Wesley raised the temperature of debates amongst evangelicals in the 18th century. Some may say, needlessly, for one supposedly devoted to evangelical unity and peace his heart and his pen was strangely warmed against Calvinism and Calvinists. His behaviour and his tone have too often been excused, or covered up, and many have been blinded by his celebrity and reputation, and wanted to keep him and his followers on side. That’s sometimes lead to something of a whitewash. Wesley once said: “Those that are for peace, will leave these things alone.” Many feel the same about the Armenian controversies, which he stirred up. “It’s better not to get embroiled in such things. Those that are for peace, will leave these things alone.” But you know, when he said those words, Wesley was not trying to calm a doctrinal debate, which he continued to fuel. He was trying to deflect attention away from scurrilous slandering of Toplady — after reading in the book exactly what he did to Toplady after Toplady was dead.

Party loyalty may sometimes be laudable, and there is a time and a place. But the idea that for the sake of evangelical unity, we must never question the behaviour of the big chiefs, however lamentable, is surely anathema to truth loving Christians. Those that are for truth, must sometimes touch the sore spot. In my view it’s imperative that both Whitfield and Toplady are heard again in proper historical context by both Evangelicals and Anglicans. It’s vital as Paul Helm notes, “to see clearly that the evangelical participants in the 18th century controversy, certainly did not think that what united them was greater than what divided them. The occurrence of the Calvinist Arminian division was very serious, fairly permanent and sad.” Many would not have considered themselves evangelical first and reformed second, if that meant unity with the imperious Wesley was the touchstone issue. George Whitfield may have acknowledged some common ground with Wesley, but he resisted the idea that the issues at stake between them on predestination and justification, were only of secondary importance, to be placed on one side for the sake of a common witness. No he told Wesley in 1741, that they were preaching two different Gospels.

Fred Sanders a well-known and much respected Arminian, Wesleyan, recently attacked Toplady in a blog post, and then put it out again on his birthday no less. Poor old Toplady. “Toplady wrote the hymn Rock of Ages, says Fred, out of spite, and was a bitter narrow-minded young man, who couldn’t keep his personal hatred from overflowing into his prayers and songs.” Well, okay, Toplady did indulge in some florid rhetoric at times, for which he cannot be entirely praised, but I think my good friend Prof. Sanders is perhaps guilty of selective historical judgements. Again, Toplady is being excoriated and not always fairly, while the great and famous John Wesley is almost automatically exonerated from his perfidious crimes. However that being said, Dr. Sanders does have these very helpful words of application for us tonight. He says, “When publicly disagreeing with other believers, try to keep some sense of perspective; if a Wesleyan is the worst thing that you can imagine, you have a weak imagination. Wesley’s influence is not what is driving the godless spirit of the age, the same moral applies of course to Armenians too. If you think the main problem with the world today is Calvinism, you should get out more.”

Well, all that being said, Whitfield and his friends, they thought that the confessionally Anglican and evangelical testimony to God’s saving grace in the gospel must remain unadulterated, unconditional election and justification Sola fide are too important the push to one side. A time may come, when even friends or allies must be taken to task the softening gospel’s truths or adding spurious practices to them. We forget that at our peril, even as we celebrate the famously Catholic spirit of George Whitfield in this his 300th anniversary year.

Q&A time

Thank you very much, Lee for taking us back and challenging us to rethink, some of this wonderful lecture. We have about 10/15 minutes for discussion, faculty members, students, may be you’d like to ask to continue the conversation on.

Q: [This I may not, I’m greatly admire these or nor just a part from J. C. Ryle.] Do you think he was sort of deliberately covering up for the possession of all the materials, you’ve sort of loaned them. He made too much of Wesley’s sermon at Whitfield’s funeral particularly, What were you make of that?

A: Yes, so he’s talking about Wesley in this chapter on Wesley…and, Oh, Yes, of course, he disagreed with Whitfield and they had some disagreements. Let’s now quote for the rest of this chapter on that subject from Wesley’s funeral sermon on Whitfield, in which of course all those big arguments are naturally covered over. So you don’t get any sense of Wesley’s – you know. none of that stuff I told you about Wesley appears in that book by Ryle, you don’t get the sense that Wesley was at all at fault anywhere.

Q: What was that do you think, is if he had that material, he’d choose…

A: He had that material, he had that material.

Q: Didn’t Wesley reach a funeral at Whitfield’s request. Does that say anything to us about how did they end personally to it?

It’s, I mean, it’s not his funeral at first, it’s a memorial service back in England — Whitfield died unfortunately in America, although he wants to come back, Yeah. They were preaching two different Gospels, and Wesley always tried to be friendly towards him, even, you know, they could appear together on a platform later on in Whitfield’s ministry, but only if Whitfield gave up all claim to be a leader in the movement and to just to appear as one of Wesley’s assistants, which kind of speaks volumes for the relative ambitions of the two men. I don’t think they made up the doctrinal issue at all. They just came to a sort of truce, not not to attack each other over it any more, which in 1770, as soon as he’s called in the grave, bang! in goes Wesley with the those conference Minutes on justification and other things.

Q: When we see this Calvinist Arminian division today, all I said was if we drop the ball we fudge the issue?

Lee: I don’t know whether we see it, do we see it at all? Haven’t the Armenians all just died out?

A: No, not yet.

A: Whitfield thought we all came out of the womb Armenians, that that was natural sinful theology. Whitfield thought that, not Toplady, saying something rude, but it was Whitfield who said that. So, it is gonna be a bad. It’s the standard theology of anyone who hasn’t thought about it for very long I think, in some ways. That’s not to say that you can’t also have a more developed, thoughtful Arminianism, but I think it is a default mode for many people in evangelical circles, yeah.

Q: I just come back from the EETS, still very much annoyed .. Southern Baptist convention South Western Seminary still, oh, well, who call yourself 1 or 2 point Calvinist. So you kind of go, you’re Arminian bias – let’s say you’re a Calvinist, but 1, 2, 3 or 4 points. So it’s interesting, on some of the discussions between the old and the new Calvinism, some of the new Calvinists movement before people be more Arminian in terms of having denied 2 or 3 points, 40 people Arminian who’ve got claims to be Calvinists.

A: Yes, it’s a very big deal in America, but is it over here? Your question is more about, is it in our circles? Is it, where is it here?

Q: I suppose about asking these days, there are churches as a default position I wonder if you … they are going out into for the real world and just being aware of … people …. name names, but who are articulating what they think of their might .. a world thought through Arminianism .. I’m rabbled fudging the issue and some are continuing in Simeon’s footsteps. We need to man-up and…

A: Yeah, it has all kinds of applications. So, I gave this material to a great and famous worthy in our constituency and he’s… he read it and came back to me, and having thought about it and prayed about it, he said, “Well, you’ve removed Wesley’s halo, which is probably a good thing, but you can’t say all these things about him, you know, you can’t say that he’s Arminian and he’s hopeless, and” bla bla bla…, “you can’t just can’t do that. You know, he’s done so much great good, good things, and you know, I’ve learned lots from reading his sermons, and that kind of thing”,… And I said, okay, great, well, if you will say the same thing about HTB, then I will say nice things about Wesley. You know, if you will acknowledge that also HTB have done some good things, and their big men of action, and got lots done… Even though. And this guy, you know, really dislikes that kind of HTB theology. And he’d stopped couldn’t say anything at that point, and didn’t know what to say. See, we think Wesley great hero, great hero, but we don’t see it in our own day. We don’t see the same people around us. We’re slightly blinded to it, that’s why history is very helpful, ‘cause you can just take a step back, let a few hundred years go by, and then analyse it more carefully. Yeah, like I said, I think I said at the end, there are gonna be cases where we will have to man-up and sometimes even people with, friends with or allies with in good causes, there may be things where we have to say ,hang on a sec, you’re denying justification by faith alone, or, you know, one of the things that Whitfield writes against is the Moravians, who are using incense and images of Christ and all kinds of full-blown Anglo-Catholic things, I guess, or mystical things. And he has to take, he has to say, you know, this is bonkers — that’s the technical theological term. And he has to draw a line there. Even though they are on the same page on a number of other issues.

Q: rephrase the question about where are … by

A: Yes, they are very, it’s very much related. I mean, he’s basically saying that it is a long-standing Pelagian programme as far as I can see. So those things are linked all the way back to Pelagius at least, but in the Middle Ages as well you see it, don’t you? in various places you get this Armenian or semi-Pelagian trajectory in certain people, which is linked to moralising legalistic “we can do it guys, c’mon just put more effort” in asceticism often. So either that comes out in some of the monastic stuff in the Middle Ages and as a Calvinist carolingian Calvinism sort of reaction to it, all the way through the Middle Ages as well. And we get it, we get it in the Reformation too. So, I do think that it’s part of a programme. Wesley doesn’t, isn’t the first person to put those two things together. Pelagius does as well and others too.

Q: But he is unusual in

A: Outside the East, Yes, in the East Augustine is, you know, persona non grata as he is for Wesley. So he is unusual as a Western theologian in that sense to say, “Yes, I don’t mind Pelagius, he was just unfairly stigmatised by that nasty man Augustine.”

Q: What did he say of Augustine?

A: He’s a sort of nasty abusive man, who’s a bit sort of hat up and not to be listened to.

Q: Would it not be true to say that Wesley personally attacked Calvin and Whitfield.

A: A couple things to say about that, yeah, it’s a very good point. First there’s always variety, isn’t there? and Wesley acknowledged that he sees it ‘cause he excoriates his own movement for going too close to Calvinism in 1770s, like, “You are all practically Calvinists, stop it!…No!” He tries to pull them back from that, he can’t control them forever. he is a very controlling man. And he does eject people from places, from movements, from societies, if they’re Calvinist. That’s very clear, he’s just quite happy just to get them pushed out… So there is, there is some variety, but his writings are, you know, they are [inaudible] statements of orthodoxy for many in the Wesleyan church. He is a world changer, he’s a, you know, he’s one of those people, who change the world, like Aristotle and Marx, and these people, who had such an impact that people followed them. So Wesleyans read Wesley, they put, you know, in Cambridge when they had an anniversary at the Wesley Church, what did they put on the side of the church in big letters? – a quote from Wesley. They didn’t put a quote from Whitfield. So, you know, Wesley’s works are honoured read, and rebound, and republished, as they were just recently again, in America. So, you know, these things are perpetuated. I doubt you’d find many Calvinists in the Methodist Church today. But, yes, there a Calvinistic Methodist group in Wales, but that was basically led by Whitfield, so and how [inaudible] people like that.

A: … os I mean, of of the things he is against is that . Now I don’t know how you feel about that

No, I suggested that that book should not be published for that that and other reasons to another publisher. That’s nonsense, isn’t it? I mean, that idea that you can reconcile Arminianism with the Thirty-nine Articles we just take that specifically, and originates in the 17th century, and big time. I mean, there were people in Cambridge in the late 16th century saying that kind of thing, having a go with it, but they were clearly the minority, and that is where the bigwigs came up the Lambeth Articles, just clarify a few things to make it clear the Thirty-nine Articles really are very Calvinist. By the end of the 17th-century the Civil Wars or anything, we get a very important commentary by Bishop Gilbert Burnet on the Thirty-nine Articles in 1699, in which he says, “Here is the Reformed interpretation of article 17 and 9 and 10, and here is the Armenian one, and just leaves it at that. And you think, Oh my goodness, you know this is a bombshell for many people, that you can do that and get away wit it. anything my trip to Smithers is a bombshell for many people, that you can do that get away with it, ‘cause he didn’t get away with it. Two years later, convocation meets and censures him for publishing that, without saying, actually we are Reformed, not Armenian. So even in 1701, that late, the Archbishop can publish a dodgy book, but the official stance is still; No, that’s not the case, you cannot say you’re an Armenian and agree with article 17. That’s why during the 18th century Wesley, Toplady and Whitfield the world round, there’s a huge crisis over subscription to the Articles. Not just ‘cause of this, but because of Unitarianism, Socinianism, as well. Some people saying, “Well, I believe that Jesus is God, but I agree with the Articles. The same hermeneutic, isn’t it? If you can work your way round article 17, you can probably, work your way round article 1.

I’ve heard several people work their way round Article 1, but it’s of the Trinity, normally, as some things like impassibility that they don’t like, and thus outright deny them.

Q: Quick question. Did Wesley ever acknowledge publicly

A: No, his responses to Toplady’s kind of, Oi! What ya doing mate?! are very defensive, you know, Huh! You know, Top buddy is just getting in a bad mood, getting his knickers in a twist over nothing. I’ve done anything anything wrong. I’ve completely summarised it fine. Not really, no.

Q: So he doesn’t actually view the fact that

A: No, no he dies thinking that, You know, basically, he had that,.. he was in the right, all the way through that.

Q: A very practical question. Thinking celebrity pastors

A; Oh, that was a million miles away from what I was talking about.

Q: But, I just, I mean, you mentioned …about how you .. learn from all of this.

A: In case anyone here is going to be, to grow up to be a celebrity preacher.

Q: I expect most of you will.

A: We are looking at you (laughs)… Well, what is interesting is Whitfield, Whitfield, who in his early days, you know, he’d stamp his feet, he’d put a black cap on to pronounce death sentences on sinners, and he would shout and he could he heard two miles away, and he would write against people and attack them in print, and say they’re all dead lifeless, and because they were, you know, orthodox but lifeless, and he’d really a go at people. Later on, after the, you know, after his 20s, all of this is in his 20s, You know, much of what he does is a 24-year-old guy who goes out, you know, attacking all the letter learned preachers of the world. When he’s had a little bit more life experience, and meets a few more people, he does backtrack on much of that, and publicly says, “Alas, Alas! How wrong I’ve been to speak in a style too apostolical, and to give in characters and judgements on people and on places, that’d been too quick too rash. I ought not to have said many of those things, and some of them I ought to say till after I was dead. You know, just to have written them down to be published later. You know, I should not have done that”. And so, he apologises publicly, that can’t have been easy. Jonathan Edwards takes him to task for following inward impressions too much. And he, that’s another thing he kind of repents of. “i’ve made inwards impressions too much that rule for my acting, So he backtracked on that. Now I think that’s a good thing for anyone in the public limelight to to bear in mind. Thank you very much, we sure appreciate [Applause]

Christless Christianity

Christless Christianity – Michael Horton I

It’s a pleasure to be with you, and to be able to participate in this Reformation conference, this year. It’s wonderful to be able to talk about the issues that are at the heart of, not only what happened five hundred years ago, but what we really desperately need again today, and to be with so many concerned brothers and sisters, who feel the same way about that is a great privilege and a joy.

Thanks to Pastor Lambert and the pastors and elders at New Saint Peter for bringing me here and inviting me to be a part of this. Let’s open, shall we, with a word of prayer. Our gracious Heavenly Father we come to you because you are the author of life, and even when we fell in Adam you already had a plan to restore us, and beyond restoring us, actually to bring us into your family, and to take us where humanity had never been before, namely into that great consummated state, where at last we glorify you and enjoy you forever. And Father all of that is secured for us by that new and living way in Jesus Christ our Savior. We pray Father that over this weekend, tonight and tomorrow we would be able to understand and wonder and revel all over again in that wonderful and often familiar Good News that we have received, namely that Jesus Christ is sufficient, not only in the beginning, but throughout the Christian life, for we pray in His name. Amen.

I don’t like this talk very much. This is the bad news! And I would prefer to talk about the good news. So happily I’d get to talk about that all day tomorrow.

Tonight however, I’ve been assigned a topic which was the subject of the first book in a series of three, that I have been writing over the last few years, titled Christless Christianity. That book states the problem. Second book, The Gospel Driven Life, presents the solution, namely the Gospel for all of our faith and practice, not just in the beginning, but throughout the christian life. And then finally, The Gospel Commission, focusing on taking that message out to the rest of the world and what it mean for us; to be recipients of the great commission, as well as agents of the great commission. We’ll be able to focus on those tomorrow. But no good news without the bad news. I’m afraid if you are constitutionally unable to handle bad statistics, this is probably not gonna be a good night for you. But we have to lay out the problem before we can talk about the solution, and so that’s what I’ll focusing on this evening. Let me open first of all with a section from Paul’s letter to the Romans beginning at verse 30 of chapter 9. Paul says:

“What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written,

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Rom 9:30-33)

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (Rom 10:1-10)

And then he says verse 14. “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (10:14-15).. So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (v. 17)

This will really be our text, holding together the different talks tonight and tomorrow. It’s a wonderful passage where Paul very clearly lays out two ways, two ways of looking at religion and spirituality. One way is very dominant. Not only was it dominant for Paul in relation to his brother according to the flesh, but really it’s our default setting. And there is a theory of religion that says we are sent up to God, either by mystical experiences or by our works or by our speculation or as Paul says in the Gospel, not only did God come down to us two thousand years ago in Christ, because we couldn’t climb one rung up to him, but even now he comes to us as nearly as the word of the Gospel that we hear preach. And so Paul says, you don’t have to go climbing up into heaven to bring him down or into the depths to try to bring him up from the dead. He is there in the common everyday creaturely elements that he has promised to bless. He is there in preaching, he is there in baptism, he is there in the Lord’s Supper, where has promised to meet us in the very common everyday elements that he himself has created.

So it’s all very different, very very different the ascent of the soul, that constitutes so much of the spirituality all around us in our day. Every Christmas and Easter in national periodicals have something on their cover about the search for the secret. You know this sort of general theology of Oprah, if you will. That is now sort of the pervasive theology of our culture, where it’s believing in anything and everything in general, but nothing in particular. And the main purpose is to find the god within; to find our own inner resources; to look within to find the basis for our authority, and also the basis for our self-fulfillment. Peace of mind not peace with God, is the goal of this.

According to the statistics 92% of Americans believe in “God” (in quotes), and 63% believe that the Bible is the word of God. God, apple pie and mom seem to go hand in hand in american culture. But if you just scratch beneath the surface and you ask for a little more specificity, things begin to take a pretty dramatic change, turn and not for the better. Take belief in God for example. According to a pew study, 92% of american adults give a nod to a belief in God. 92%, so we are not struggling in America with a lot of atheism. But only 60% believe in a personal God, and only 79% of those who describe themselves as evangelical christians, 79%, said that they believe in a personal God. 26% of the evangelicals surveyed said they believe in an impersonal force or aren’t quite sure. And despite the public nod to the Bible, most Americans rely on their own inner light to create their own spiritual playlist. According to the pew study, most Americans, including most evangelicals, believe that there are many paths to salvation. And so basically what we are seeing in these studies is that, if anything, professing Christians in America today are further from the Gospel as the Protestant Reformes understood it, than the Roman Catholic church was in the 16th century.

I just saw the latest pew study, maybe you saw it as well, it’s reported in a lot of newspapers and magazines a couple of weeks ago, that when it comes to knowledge of the Bible and christian doctrine, atheist and agnostics came in first. Jewish people and Mormons (Latter days Saints) came in second. And Evangelicals trailed just barely ahead of the category identified as no religious affiliation. But the churches are full. You know, the excitement is there. Something big is always happening. And yet the question really is raised: do people know what they believe and why they believe it?

Increasingly now a lot of people are just staying home. The children of the boomer generation that wanted to have its way — the customer is king — a lot of their children are staying home, they realize you can get this on TV, or you can get this just by hanging out with your friends, you don’t particularly need to get dressed, go to a church and participate in something. That is another version of what you can find anywhere else in the culture. And all of them may have heard the praise music in the background growing up, neither at church nor at home, where steeped in the great truths of the faith. I know there are great exceptions to this. I would assume that many of the great exceptions are in this room tonight, but that’s what the statistics reveal. What we are seeing now is a growing trend within evangelicalism of actually quitting church. As a book titled had it recently, a reporter for the Washington Times wrote a book identifying this trend. It’s a growing trend.

Researcher Ed Stetzer observes, quote: “Southern Baptists, composing the largest Protestant denomination in the United States have apparently peeked in a trending toward decline. The same is true of most evangelical denominations. And he adds: “the bigger concern is that people who identify themselves as christians and even Evangelicals, do not evidence the beliefs historically held by Christians.

You know a lot of folks have grown up in the church, and they will say. Well I grew up in the church but I never learned any of this, and then you ask them, and it’s all that clear that they did in fact grow up in the church. The grew up in nursery school, children’s church, youth ministry and then college ministry. And I meet young people all of the time who have never been a member of a church and have never been baptized. So instead of reaching the lost with all of these missional objectives, are we actually losing the reached. Are we ourselves in need of some missionaries. You talk to some brothers and sisters in Africa, in South Korea and other parts of the world, and they say: “Let us know when you want us to start sending the missionaries.”

In my view there are three basic problems that we see across the landscape that in each and its own way undermines Christ filled christianity in our day.

The first is misunderstanding the Gospel. This is of course a very serious danger because if we misunderstand the Gospel itself, the power of God unto salvation, than we misunderstand the very thing that has any potencial whatsoever for giving us hope and life and faith in this present evil age. There’s nothing else the church does that’s interesting or important if we misunderstand the Gospel. But you hear a lot of people today saying things that you wouldn’t have heard, at least as rarely, 20 or 30 years ago, like “living the Gospel”, “being the Gospel”, instead of preaching the Gospel. You know, basically the idea you hear very often today it’s not, it’s not creeds but deeds. It’s not hearing Christ proclaimed, as Paul said it was, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. It’s not by hearing Christ proclaimed as much as it’s going up and pulling him down or going into the depths and bringing him up.

Another thing that undermines the Gospel is trivializing it. We can trivialize it by putting it on bumper stickers and t-shirts and not really understanding what’s meant. I not that long ago asked a brother, I saw wearing a t-shirt, that said, “this blood is for your”, with a cartoon picture of Jesus, what he understands by the atonement. And he wasn’t sure what I meant. He was wearing a t-shirt that said, “this blood is for you”.

I’m not saying that we have to be, we have to have all the right words or we don’t really understand the content, but what I’m saying is: we are losing a lot of the vocabulary that gives meaning to what we mean when we say “this blood is for you”. Do we really know beyond superficial slogans what we’re saying to people.

And the third danger is something that I see even in our own circles. And that is assuming the Gospel. The Gospel may be understood, and if you wanna know what it is we’ll tell you. And in fact we’ve got a great confession that’s locked up in a vault somewhere, and we can go find it. I think someone round here knows the combination. And we’ve, it’s great doctrine, great theology. Let me go find that for you. We can do that. But the Gospel is assumed. You know, everybody understands the Gospel, that’s why they’re here, they’re Christians, You’ve been Christian for 30-40 years. You know the Gospel. No, you really don’t. Neither do I. That’s why we have to hear it every week. As Calvin said, “We are all partly unbelievers till we die.”

It’s the Gospel, it doesn’t just give us information, it’s the Gospel that proclaims Christ into our hearts, that put wind in our sails. That gives us the faith that in turn produces the works of righteousness, the fruit of love and service to our neighbors. But we want the fruit without the root. We want the appearance of godliness, as Paul warned Timothy against, without its power, which is the Gospel. Methodist bishop William Willimon puts it this way:

“Lacking confidence in the power of our story to effect that of which it speaks, to evoke a new people out of nothing, our communication loses its nerve. Nothing is said that could not be heard elsewhere. . . . In conservative contexts, gospel speech is traded for dogmatic assertion and moralism, for self-help psychologies and narcotic mantras. In more liberal speech, talk tiptoes around the outrage of Christian discourse and ends up as an innocuous, though urbane, affirmation of the ruling order. Unable to preach Christ and him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.”

We see that across the board, we saw it when some evangelical brothers and sisters went running after the current president as if he were a messianic figure and spoke of it in messianic terms. And now you hear evangelical brothers and sisters on the right talking about Glenn Beck, who is a Mormon, as if he were an evangelical leader. You see it’s the culture wars that define who we are as Christians today. For or against president Obama. Could you imagine the apostle Paul saying — this is where we’re going to put the dividing line. There’s nothing at all, nothing at all in the New Testament at all about how you have to vote. But there’s a lot about the Gospel and what happens on the earth, how everything dries up and withers when that is not being preached. Religion, spirituality and moral earnestness, what Paul calls a form of godliness that denies its power, can continue to thrive in an environment that is superficially friendly to the Bible, it can even flourish in the Bible Belt. But my worry is that whatever something is called the Bible Belt will probably in 10 years from now be a burned over district, filled with so many agnostics and skeptics that it will be very very hard to be missionaries to our neighbors.

We are constantly talking about us. We are so taken with ourselves in the church today. Our discipleship, our happiness, our peace, our meaning. What we can get out of this? And if we are not completely satisfied simply return the annual’s portion for a full refund. We talk about what we are going to do even what we are going to do for Jesus. Without grounding that in the question “What has Jesus done for us?” That’s assuming the Gospel. That’s what happens when we just assume that people signed on a dotted line or raised their hand or went forward, and now they get the Gospel and what they need now is a bunch of instructions; week after week, after week, it’s like coming to homeroom. How to be a better you, how to have a better family, how to have peace of mind. We need to examine the symptoms before we can diagnose the illness.

First of all, there’s a heresy from the 5th century called Pelagianism and you heard about it last year. Pelagianism is named after a monk who came to Italy, came to Rome and he was very concerned that that the influence of this bishop in Northern Africa named Augustin, was having too great of an influence on the people in Rome. Augustin was preaching grace too much. And you know if you preach grace too much what that does. Oh, that just creates all sorts of moral license, and so Pelagius was going to get a handle on it. And so what Pelagius did was deny Original Sin. So that’s part of the problem. We are not born guilty of Adam’s sin and his corruption. We are not totally depraved. Adam was a bad example, and so guess what that makes Jesus? A good example. Adam condemns us only by his example, Jesus saves us only by his. And this was condemned by more church councils than any heresy in history. And yet, it’s very much with us today. Charles Spurgeon, once said that no one ever has to be taught Pelagianism, It’s our native tongue. It’s our default setting. I know it’s my default setting. You know, things aren’t going well in my life, I must, I’ve got find out what I did. Or things are going pretty well, got keep doing that. You know, that’s how we live, that’s what we are wired for, and that’s because we were wired for this in creation. God wired us for law. God wired us to obey. We weren’t created initially fallen and sinful. We were perfectly capable of glorifying God and enjoy him forever, everyday. But after the fall, the worst part of the fall is that we think we still can. And that’s where you get Pelagianism. Wasn’t invented in the 4th century, was invented in the Garden of Eden. But it still clings to us very much. And it has contributed to the perfect storm in our day where many, many sociologists point out that Pelagianism actually is probably more fully pervasively held in American Protestantism today than it ever, than it ever was in 16th century Roman Catholic theology.

One of the bumper stickers in the Middle Ages – ok, wasn’t a bumper sticker, but it would’ve been. It was a slogan that they like to use was “facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam” (God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them.) So what does that sound like that we are more familiar with? God helps those who help themselves. And according to one survey 82% of Americans, and the majority of Evangelical Christians agreed with that. 62% of Evangelical Christians thought that it was quotation from the Bible. And so we really are in a pickle. Newsweek Magazine a little while ago reported (quote) “Churches have developed a pick and choose Christianity in which individuals take what the want, and pass over what doesn’t fit their spiritual goals. See this is like, I have a “My Life Movie”, I think it’s the most important thing, it’s a blockbuster really, and starring Me. And you all – are you ready for this? – You all get to be supporting actors. You’re part of the supporting cast in my life movie! Aren’t you excited? And God too. Ah, there’s a place for God in my life movie! And this I think, this is our setting today, in much of American Christianity. I decide what I’m going to believe, I decide what I’m going to do, based on my own goals, my spiritual workout plan. And God fits into that because, well I need his hep. I need him to be a supporting character in my life movie. When really, that’s just horrible news. This is, my life movie actually is the show about nothing. It’s about the nowhere man, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. He doesn’t have a point of view, he knows not where he’s going to. Isn’t he a bit like you and me? Yes, certainly like me. I’m so glad that that character got killed off in the scene. Not improved with God’s help, but got killed off, got written out of the script, and God wrote me into his script as a supporting character in His Life Movie. See this is the reversal that we need in our churches desperately today. God does not care what you think you need. God created you. God knows what you need. God knows what I need and he loves us too much to let us handle it ourselves.

Those are symptoms, now the diagnose, the illness. As we listen to some of these symptoms, one sociologist, now at Notre Dame, was at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Christian Smith, has gathered together a group of sociologists to collaborate with him in surveying american teens. He did this several years ago in 2005, a whole tea of researchers and the book was published by Oxford, Soul Searching: The Spirituality of America’s Teens. And then he just wrote a follow-up book in 2009 titled Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of America’s Emerging Adults, as he caught up with them, he and the team, caught with them now, so many years later. And from his extensive interviews, Christian Smith came to this conclusion, he says: “If you take it as a whole, I didn’t think I’d hear this unified a message across all the different denominations in [inaudible]. If you could summarize it with one sort of long term what would it be that caracterizes these reports and the religion of America’s teens?” And he came up with the phrase: Moralistic therapeutic deism. Moralistic therapeutic deism. Why moralistic? He says. Well, is it most, most young people say that they believe that good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. Most of us are good, so we should expect good things to happen to us and we should expect bad things to happen to bad people. But as long as you’re doing your best, you’re trying hard, that will certainly bring you good karma, or God’s favor or whatever you wanna call this amorphous thing that comes to you.

It’s moralistic. Basically good people will go to heaven when they die, and it’s therapeutic. Because basically, he says, according to the surveys, the interviews that we conducted, most of the young people we surveyed said that God there for them when they need it. But they spoke in terms not of the Trinity and sin and redemption and the person and work of Christ in grace. They spoke in terms of peace of mind and their heart being right and having meaning and a sense of purpose in life. In other words, he said it was really category is drawn from a very therapeutic culture. And that fits with what Phil Rieff wrote years ago in his bestselling book, he’s a psychologist, bestselling book, The Triumph of Therapeutic, in which he wrote: “Christian man was born to be saved. Psychological man is born to be pleased.” And so now sin became dysfunction, and salvation became recovery. And that’s where a lot of the message is, I think in America today that across the board it’s really hard to distinguish, something that Oprah might say, from something that you could actually hear in church, in many churches across America today, and Christian Smith says exactly that’s what’s going on. And then it’s deistic. That’s kind of odd, why deistic? He says, “Well, because they don’t really believe in a personal God who intervenes in our lives unless we let him. And so we kind of whistle like Jeeves, you know, for Jeeves the butler, when our bags get too heavy and he comes running and he helps us with our load. But otherwise, he’s out of the way – out of sight out of mind. Smith writes, “mosts teens, including those reared in Evangelical churches and said that their faith is very important and makes a big difference in their lives, are stunningly inarticulate concerning that actual content of faith. Makes a big difference, but they can’t tell you what it is, what it means – this that makes such a big diference. He says interviewing teens one finds little evidence that the agents of religious socialization in this country, parents, pastors and teachers, are being highly effective and successful with the majority of young people in America. And that’s his indictment as a sociologist. So do I want to go any further than that? It’s not my filed, but I just wonder what on earth, what on earth is going on in the churches? Even Lutheran youths, active in the church, couldn’t define Justification, which is the article Lutheran and Reformed Christians believe, by which the Church stands or falls. So is it standing or falling?

Smith writes, “In the working theology of those we study, being religious is about being good. It’s not about forgiveness. It’s unbelievable the proportion of conservative Protestant teens who do not seem to grasp elementary concepts of the Gospel concerning Grace and Justification. It cuts across all traditions.” (end quote). And I asked him when we interviewed him on the White Horse Inn, “Does this really characterize everybody, You are talking about Unitarians, right?” And he says, “No”, he says, “Actually, there’s very little diference between Unitarians and Bible believing Evangelical Protestants when it comes to the statistics, when it comes to interviewing the [inaudible]. It’s pretty much across the board. it’s heart breaking.

And yet, it’s there in our history. It’s not the first time that this kind of Pelagianism has crept up. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Charles G. Finney, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest evangelists that America has ever had. Ah, Led revivals all up and down the Eastern seaboard and on the frontier. And Charles Finney denied Original sin, the substitutionary atonement – you can’t have one person dying for another person’s sin. That would be, that would disincentivize virtue. People have to, have to look at Jesus as their example and try their best to emulate him. For example he says the doctrine of an imputed righteousness or that Christ’s obedience to the Law was accounted as our obedience, is a false and nonsensical assumption. For Christ’s righteousness could do no more than justifies himself. It can never be imputed to us. For whenever a Christian sins he comes under condemnation and must repent and do his first works or be lost. Now we don’t hear that hellfire and brimstone version of Pelagianism anymore, what you hear, very often today is a smiling version. That is have I got a path for you to walk, and if you walk following these spiritual principles, rung by rung up this ladder, you will have a better life. You’ll have health, you’ll have wealth, you’ll have happiness, you’ll have friends, you’ll have whiter teeth. This a happier, more easy – It’s not hell in the balance, it’s happiness in the balance, but it’s still a feverish it’s all up to you religion. Things are not going well, you don’t have enough faith. If you can’t seem to get that quality of life, your business is not quite doing what you hoped it would be doing. Then you are not investing in the spiritual principles that I taught you last week. It’s a different kind of that righteousness which is by Law that the apostle Paul is talking about, climbing into heaven to bring him down, or descending into the depths to bring him up.

One last point here for diagnosing the illness. Marsha Witten published a very fascinating study with Princeton University Press in 1993. All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message of American Protestantism. Just the title alone, All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message of American Protestantism. She starts out by saying she’s not a christian. But it’s interesting to hear someone who says she’s not a Christian as a sociologist, diagnosing what we are talking about here. She did a very interesting study. The texts of 47 sermons on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, delivered from 1986 to 1988, by various pastors and two denominations, the Presbyterian church USA and the Southern Baptist Convention. She starts out the book by saying, “I was”, this will put it all in perspective. For..it put it all in perspective for me personally. She said, [“I was listening to St. Box”, or to, yeah. “to the box St. Matthew’s Passion it was Ester time], and though I’m not a Christian. I grew up as a young girl listening to this and I was drawn to it, and I can’t help, but be in those moments lured by the promise of a crucifixion and a resurrection that provide my salvation. It’s a haunting religion, I don’t accept it but it’s, there’s actually something there. And she says, “just then the Daily Mail arrived and I opened the thickest envelope first, it was a promotional material for a new church launching in my area with the following message: “Hi neighbor! Al last! A new church for those who’ve given up on church services. Let’s face it. Most people aren’t active in church these days. Why? Too often the sermons are boring and don’t really relate to daily living. Many churches seem more interested in your wallet than in you. Members aren’t friendly to visitors. You wonder about the quality of the nursery care for little ones. Do you think attending church should be fun? Well, we got good news for you!” – Not the good news you are thinking of. “Valley Church is a new church designed to meet your needs in the 1990s. At Valley church you meet new friends and get to know your neighbors. Enjoy exciting music with a contemporary flavor. Hear positive, practical messages which will uplift you each week. Like, how to feel good about yourself?” I love William Willimon’s phrases, “When I read the New Testament, it seems to me, I could be wrong, but it seems to me, that Jesus made people more depressed.” How to overcome your depression. How to have a full and successful life. Learning to handle your money without it handling you. The secrets of successful family living. How to overcome stress. Trust your children to the care of dedicated nursery workers. Why not get a lift instead of a let down this Sunday?

Witten also reports University of Virginia sociologist James Davidson Hunter’s documentation of (quote) “The tendency of the popular evangelical literature to stress God’s therapeutic role to downplay notions of sin and to give central prominence to conversion as a relatively easy process of self-transformation through procedures and steps. Taken to the extreme, she says, this talks constitutes do-it-yourself-guide-for-personal satisfaction, with a few mentions of God or faith or prayer tossed into to mark it as religious. As a result, she says, a religion’s teachings, no longer give meaning to their adherence life in the world, their life in the world determines both the meanings and meaningfulness of their creed. It’s not a creed that shapes their living in te world, but their living in the world that shapes whatever they find meaningful or not in the Christian faith. What’s interesting about the sermons, she said, is that for all of their difference, you know, many of the sermons in the mainline Presbyterian samples she took were on the more liberal theological side, whereas many of the Southern Baptists sermons were on the more conservative side, she said they both shared some interesting characteristics. They were both very therapeutic; most of the sermons across the board tended not to talk about sin as a condition. And of course the parable, is all about God the Father seeking and saving the lost in his son. But she said that’s not what came out in these sermons. God comes out as a kind of ideal secretary of homeland security. Homeland being defined by your personal happiness and security. When the pastors sampled in these sermons do talk about sin Witten relates, they depersonalize and generalize it and then deflected to outsiders. They generalize it and depersonalize it and then deflected to outsiders. For example, one Southern Baptist pastor said. “We should go out to the poor, the blacks, the hispanics, the beer drinkers and the divorced, without condoning their sin.” The deflection of sin to outsiders could hardly be more obvious. Ah, since when did being non white constitute a sin, for one thing. But the main Presbyterian strategy, mainline Presbyterian strategy, was to resist offering evaluations – to empathize with both parties. None of the sermons talk about sin in theological terms, Witten writes, exemplified in the omission of the foundation doctrine of original sin. It’s generalized, depersonalized, deflected to outsiders or dismissed. She said in the Southern Baptist sermons the pigpen was the world and the point of the sermon was to gel all the young people in church not to go out to parties, and to stay in the safety of the home. Whereas in the Presbyterian sermons the bad guy wasn’t the kid who left home and lived a riotous life, the bad guy in the parable was the older brother. In both cases it wasn’t I. I can’t find myself as the person who is actually saved in this parable, because I can’t find myself as the one who’s actually a sinner in this parable.

Witten herself says, “This Augustinian vocabulary prevailed in Calvinist speech throughout the early years of American Protestantism, but quickly succumbed to modification that continues to the present day. She said the central message of both, the mainline Presbyterian and the Southern Baptist sermons, the main message was self-transformation – transformation through conversion. And conversion is up to us, but it’s relatively easy to maintain. Although it’s interesting, she says by they time they get through telling you what you have to do for this self-transformation it sounds actually pretty difficult. She also says by the time it’s all over you’re not really sure why you’d need to ask Jesus into your heart, which is by the way an expression not found anywhere in the Bible. Why would you need to ask Jesus into your heart in order to have more personal satisfaction in life? How is that an absolutely necessary thing for that particular outcome. Whereas if you are talking about under the dominion of sin and death, under the condemnation and wrath of a holly God, the cross of Jesus Christ is the only answer to that question. Restoration of the Prodigal to the father, she said, in many of the sermons was basically a human achievement of will and action. In fact by the time they have stated the effective procedures which necessitate human effort on a variety of fronts, she says, conversion finally seems not easy as advertised. Among the typical concluding remarks are the following: Open yourself to the salvation that God wants to work in your life. And Witten realizes it. What’s that mean? What on earth does it mean first of all, and is it even possible?

May conclude, I want, again, I’m [inaudible] tomorrow do not, you know, go home and slit your wrists tonight. There’s good news tomorrow. The good news is coming, but I wanna end with a little bit of good news. Jesus lamented that the religious leaders of his day were like children playing the funeral game and wedding game. “To what can I compare this generation”, he says. Like children playing the wedding game and nobody dances, and the funeral game and nobody mourns. John the Baptist came proclaiming repentance. “The Kingdom of God is at hand and the axe is laid at the root of the trees, and whatever doesn’t bear fruit will be thrown in the fire.” He was kind of a, you know, hellfire and brimstone type of character. He was the funeral guy. He came with the funeral dirt and you guys said, “Boy, he’s a doubter.” You couldn’t mourn. And now when the Son of man comes and eating and drinking and you say, “O, behold, a glutton and a drunkard, friend of tax gatherers and sinners.” I can’t loose, win for loosing with you people. Jesus said, you guys can’t mourn properly as sinners, and you can’t dance properly at a wedding when the Messiah arrives. And that’s, that’s where we have to find ourselves in this story. That we are just like that, all of us. Every week, even though we come to the, sometimes because of what we’ve been taught in church. And far from leading to moral complacency without a serious recognition of original sin, we can easily become passive pawns in the game of dictators, spiritual or political, is the Doctrine of human perfectibility that leaves us open to that sort of deception.

G. K. Chesterton said years ago, the end of the Nineteenth Century, “Christianity’s “outer ring” is despair — but its “inner ring” is “life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only real [faith] frame for pagan freedom.” But in the modern philosophy, he adds, the case is exactly the opposite, it’s the “outer ring” that’s obviously artistic and emancipated, but its despair is deep within it. See his point. You know, Christianity goes through that “outer ring” of despair because inside is forgiveness and Grace, peace with God, joy! Dancing, because the Bridegroom is here, eating and drinking in the presence of God at his feast. Whereas for the world it’s all fun and games and superficial happiness and whatever on the outside, but when the head hits the pillow, deep depression, despair, horrid being alive. In the 1050s Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr gave this pithy and tragically accurate summary of Protestant liberalism. “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgement, through a Christ without a cross.” And sadly from what we are seeing in the statistics, that is the diet now. That is pervasive in many, many churches that left Protestant liberalism over a concern to protect the Gospel. Nome of us is immune to this. Even in good churches we can begin to take the Gospel for granted. To assume it as something that we needed way back then but now — now we are getting alone just fine, now just give me the marching orders. In the 1920s J. Gresham Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism, offered a play that that’s just as relevant today. “I’ve heard your exhortations and they will not help me. But has anything been done to save me? That’s all I ask. If you have any answers there just tel me the facts.” The funeral game is just a warmup for the wedding game. But if we don’t ever have the funeral game we can’t have the wedding game. The bad news is worst than we ever imagined, and the good news is greater than we ever could have conceived. In Jesus Christ we are not improved children of Adam. Our characters aren’t helped along for our Life movie…. we are killed and made alive in Christ in whom there is therefore NOW no condemnation. Amen.