Revivalism and Conversion

This is, I think, the fourth time that I have turned one of Jon’s comments into a post. He asks good questions and offers challenges that I either have not thought of or did not feel I had the time to address in a post.

In a post about true conversion, I wrote: “It seems to me that Washer was reviving a process of conversion I read about in some of the great British evangelists of the 19th and 20th centuries. I think especially of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, and Charles Finney. Washer wants to sit with people and explain the Gospel to them and pray until they know they are converted, even if it takes hours. Finney called it ‘the mourner’s bench,’ and he had them come repent and pray there until they knew they were saved.”

Conversion by Agonizing

Jon answered with, “A similar approach of agonising protracted conversion is evident in the writings of Edwards and other Puritans and sometimes can be detected in contemporary Calvinists like John Piper, John MaCarthur and Tim Conway … I am not exaggerating when I say that I HATE this approach. I hate it because reading and hearing about it has been the no.1 cause of doubt, despondency and lack of assurance in my Christian life for over 10 years. I hate it because it paints Christ out to be a reluctant saviour, who has to be grovelled to before anyone has the remotest chance of being saved by him. Some of the Calvinists even said that you could seek and cry and seek and seek yet still end up in hell because God simply decided not to save you. I hate it because it drains any encouragement out of sweet promises biblical promises (such as Matt 11:28, Matt 12:20, Luke 18:14, John 3:16, John 6:37, Acts 2:21, Rom 10:9, Heb 4:16, John 1:9 among many) by adding small print (e.g. they are not true for you unless you “feel” and “know” the Holy Spirit and see loads of fruit in your life).”

I asked Jon if I could use his comment in a post because, despite the post I wrote, I agree with this. I also believe that a lot of people who claim to be converted are not really converted, and we can know this because they make no effort to obey Jesus’ commands. In fact, they are filled with excuses, amply supplied by some who preach faith only, for not obeying, or even being interested in, Jesus’ commands. The apostle John, on the other hand, tells us that anyone who isn’t actively obeying Jesus commands is lying if they claim to know God (1 Jn. 2:3-4).

So we have this very true dilemma. We want people to be saved, but we don’t want people wondering whether Jesus wants to save them. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, had that problem. In The Jerusalem Sinner Saved by Grace (I think that was the book) he described 5 years of wondering whether God wanted to save him before he rejected those Calvinist chains, believed, and was set free and saved.

Is Agonizing Prayer for Conversion Scriptural?

Jon wrote, “I don’t think there is huge scriptural warrant for this kind of approach to conversion … but it still, to this day, sometimes causes me to doubt and paints an odious picture of God and Christ in my mind.”

In the linked post, I agreed with Jon in advance that I could not back this process scripturally. I just know that a lot of people who pray the sinner’s prayer, as well as a lot of people who respond to the Gospel scripturally (with baptism), are not converted. I base this on the description of a Christian given in 1 John.

Near the end of John’s first epistle, he writes, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” This verse is often used, most notably in the extremely popular Evangelism Explosion method, to assure a new convert of salvation.

Those who use 1 John 5:13 in this way apparently have no idea that John wrote a letter before writing that sentence. Even “these thing I have written you” does not prompt them to look at the things John wrote. Crazy.

John’s letter, written to those who believe in the name of the Son of God, says that if we do not keep Jesus’ commands, walk in the light, and love one another, then we do not know Jesus. A converted person, even though he/she sins (1 Jn. 1:7-2:2), has a habit of practicing righteousness by obeying Jesus’ commands (1 Jn. 2:3-4; 3:7-10).

So what do we do about this dilemmma? Many, or possibly most, of our conversions do not produce the converts that the apostle John described. On the other hand, the long hours of agonizing prayer that Washer describes, and John Bunyan and my friend Jon hate, have no scriptural precedent.

Solving the Dilemma

The obvious solution to the problem, and one tried by lots and lots of people, is to disciple these converts. The problem is that many of them will neither show up, nor allow themselves to be contacted. I remember, way too painfully, my first year as a Christian and the people we tried to follow up with after “converting” them during our church visitation with them. All but two refused any further contact with us.

I should comment here that I have recently been to a discipleship (and evangelism) training camp conducted by Curtis Sergeant, who has had tremendous success founding disciple-making movements. The movements he has started, and which his trainees have started, have reached tens of millions of people who continue together in small churches that have stayed in fellowship with one another. Tens of millions is not an exaggeration.

Perhaps what has worked so well in those disciple-making movements (DMM) has been two things: their definition of conversion, and their instant follow-up. In these DMMs, a person who prays a prayer or gets baptized is immediately asked to list people to whom they can pass on their conversion experience. They are asked to “make a list of five people you can share your story with.”

Those who do not want to tell anyone are obviously not really converted. Those who do follow through now have friends they are already reaching out to and a mentor who is following up with them as they try. The training continues from there, teaching them how to study the Bible, how to meet together, how to have accountability groups, etc.

Hmm. Maybe I should have written those last four paragraphs rather than writing that post on true conversion.

Believing Without Feeling

Jon wrote: “As I have said before, I have had zero tangible experience of the Holy Spirit despite praying for it many, many, many, many, many times (and still do most days). It seems to be like I have two choices:

  1. “Believe the revivalists and preparationists when they say that experience is of the essence of salvation, that I am headed for hell, and therefore assume that God is simply ignoring all of my prayers and is reluctant to save me.
  2. “Cling to the promises of God in scripture by naked faith and try to press on as best I can.

“As the former will no doubt eventually lead to some sort of mental break down, the only option is the latter. I am not saying I am opposed to experience. I really wish I did know joy unspeakable, to be able to discern the clear witness of the Spirit and to know the love of God deep down. Until that time though, to have any chance of hoping in God’s goodness, all I have is faith.”

Jon’s words here are critical. My complaint in “true conversion” post was about people with no desire and no effort to obey Jesus’ commands, not about those who didn’t “feel” converted. Unfortunately, in the process of talking about Paul Washer’s solution, I most certainly suggested that a person ought to feel converted. That I have to retract.

Who is more to be commended, the person who has a lightning-strike, glorious conversion that fills them with instant joy, or the one to whom this did not happen, yet he/she presses on to follow and obey Christ the best he can?

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29).

Based on that we might say—indeed, we must say—that Jon is in a much better position than me. I had a lightning-strike conversion that amazed and changed me to my core. As the Scripture says, “to whom much is given, much will be required.” How much greater will be the reward for those who have not felt the power of conversion, yet have faithfully served?

Two Questions

When we question whether the conversions we are seeing are true, there are two questions involved. One is in regard to what true conversion is, but the other is how to obtain true conversions in those to whom we preach.

Those two questions got confused in my post. In it, I was really questioning what I and those around me here in Selmer need to do in order to see true conversions. In the process I touched in true conversion without focusing on what it is. Let me do that now.

True conversion happens when a person quits living for themselves and starts living for Jesus. It is clear that this involves obeying his commands and loving our brothers and sisters (all of 1 John). Based on everything above, I also conclude that it does not necessarily include feeling anything. Jon is not the only person I know who doesn’t have the feelings, yet is faithfully trying to serve Jesus. There is also the experience of St. John of the Cross and his famous “dark night of the soul.” (If you don’t know about that, it is well worth googling and thinking about.)

That said, there is a promise that the Holy Spirit will bear witness with our spirit that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16). This is something Jon has agonized over. I can pray and wish for him to have this witness, but on the last day, none of us will be judged by the warm feeling we had in our chest (sorry, Mormons). We will be judged by our works (sorry, evangelicals; see Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 2:5-8; 2 Cor. 5:10-11; Gal. 6:7-9; 1 Pet. 1:17; etc.).

As said above, I probably should have focused on a successful method of producing obedient converts. You can read about the success of Disciple-Making Movements among Islam nations and in Asia in the books, Miraculous Movements and T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution. (I get a commission of you buy the books through these links.)

For information about discipleship movements in your area, go to 2414now.net.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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9 Responses to Revivalism and Conversion

  1. Dear Paul

    (Sorry for this very late reply – life has been very busy over the last several weeks. I had not forgotten about this post and I wanted to reply).

    Thanks for this response. This does help to clarify your original post a bit more, as well as prove encouragement on the “lack of feeling issue”.

    There is a remaining problem here, and that is lack of experience when tied to believing what you teach about works (as you have repeated in some form or another in just about every post since this one).

    As I made clear, I have had no experience (or at least haven’t had any that I can be confident was the Spirit, anyway).
    You believe and teach the Bible contrasts between initial salvation and entering the kingdom (by faith alone), and by final salvation and entering the kingdom (by works).
    An example of reference to the former would be Titus 3:4-7:
    “But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. “

    The problem here is that I have no experience of “renewal of the Holy Spirit”. Certainly I can see patterns of sanctification over the years, but otherwise fight against sin is a hard slog. I know nothing of what has been called “The explosive power of a new affection” as one puritan writer (I think) put it.

    Where does that leave me, if I am to take your teaching on works seriously? The answer seems to be, a to do list of commands I must follow, and virtues I must attain to if I am to have hope of eternal life, all the while when there is seeming silence from God. The gospel, therefore, is “Be good or else, and try to attain enough works to make it through the judgement”.
    Living fearing that this is the case (as with the revivalist conversionism) again paints a grim god in my mind – one I might be able to obey out of terror, but not one I can genuinely love.

    This is part of the reason why I still do not fully accept & believe your teaching on this matter (the other reason is being unable square it with biblical teaching on forgiveness, justification & adoption, though I think we’ve talked about that before).

    What keeps me going in faith is the hope that Jesus IS not what I fear he may be (an unforgiving harsh task master) and that my salvation is by his grace. I have zero confidence in my own progress in sanctification. You wrote
    “Jon is not the only person I know who doesn’t have the feelings, yet is faithfully trying to serve Jesus”

    I’m not sure “faithfully” is the best word there – I am incredibly inconsistent.
    Indeed, glancing at the last few posts on this blog (all on salvation by works) has not been a positive experience, I may add.

    Now, I can anticipate the following kind of response:
    “Well, that’s too bad. This is the truth and you need to toughen up and accept it, whether you like it or not”.
    Indeed, I am wary of being open to the charge of being a “snowflake” when it comes to theology.

    In reply I would say
    a) In my own Church tradition (Evangelical Charismatic Anglicanism) I would actually like to hear more emphasis on themes such as hell & judgement as they seem to be forgotten doctrines, and
    b) The “toughen” up approach still leaves me with the problem of a bad picture of God.

    “Sinful thoughts” are something many of us struggle with, and when we here that phrase, we tend to think of thoughts relating to lust, anger and other sins of the flesh. However, for me the sinful thoughts I most have a problem with are thoughts that curse God & Christ, and make him out to be a monster, or at best, a grumpy & overbearing deity. I have to confess (to my shame) I have sometimes caught myself humming a particular children’s song, but replacing the phrase “Mighty God” with “Nasty God”! – just one of the weird ways this difficulty manifests itself. Paul even says that the person who doesn’t love Christ is to be “accursed” (1 Cor 16:22), and this is something I fear.

    I’m not sure If I can neatly wrap up this response, other than to say I wish I was more sure of my faith, wish I had more affection for Christ and wish I had more clarity in my own mind.

    What I will continue to do, however, is to read and meditate on those verses that speak of God’s goodness, regardless of whether I think I have enough feeling or works.

    Jon

    • Paul Pavao says:

      First, I apologize to all that my replies seem to show before the comment I am replying to. I worked with the settings, but I have not been able to fix this.

    • Paul Pavao says:

      After all the conversations we have had in the past, I think I will limit myself to this. A few days ago, this sentence slipped out my mouth in a conversation with a newly repentant Christian. I told him, “Succeeding is not our job; trying is. Succeeding is God’s job.”

      I really believe that. My target is not you, Jon, unless you get lazy. My target is those who justify their lack of concern for holiness and reject admonition. Even Martin Luther condemned those who were difficult to guide and exhort (commentary on Galatians 6). To me, admonition is not “stop sinning, you jerk.” Admonition is “you could have been much kinder to that waitress.” The problem is not the lack of kindness; the problem arises when the person is difficult or impossible to train. The stiff-necked are condemned; not the weak.

      As 1 Thess. 5:14 says, the unruly are to be warned. They are in danger of hellfire. The weak are to be helped. They are not in danger of hellfire unless they quit; i.e. slip back into the world or end their effort to please the Lord.

      I friend of mine, who does not like my teaching on works, said, “I believe you can lose your salvation, but I think it’s hard.” I disagree only in the sense that it is very easy for the stubborn and obstinate to be condemned. It is hard for the weak, for God does not just have mercy for them, but grace as well. Grace teaches and grace empowers.

      It is hard for me to agree to change my teaching, though, because I am careful to use scriptural terminology in what I write and say. I am careful to include the mercy side as well as our duty, though you may feel I do not do that enough. Finally, I do want to be careful that I am not more lenient than the One who said we cannot be his disciple if we do not deny ourselves daily. Again, though. I do not believe Jesus is confronting weakness, but stubborn persistence in embracing our own comfort.

      • Thanks Paul

        I think I understand what you mean. The confronting of stubborness as opposed to weakness. That is helpful when applying various scriptures.

        I like , “Succeeding is not our job; trying is. Succeeding is God’s job.”

        I suppose I would say that all of us still have certain areas where we could be called “stubborn & obstinate”. Its on those such thoughts where I tend to go round in circles. An answer there is that’s why we need the fellowship of other Christians to help and admonish us.

        As I briefly mentioned, I wish my church (and tradition) looked at more depth and took seriously the warnings in scripture. Its not that they are blatantly dishonest in interpretation (as you would accuse some evangelicals as being), they just tend to either ignore certain biblical teaching, or at least have an unbalanced emphasis on certain matters (e.g. Spiritual gifts).

        Anyway, thank you Paul, I value your responses and prayers.

        A very happy Christmas to you and your family.

        Jon

        • Paul Pavao says:

          I missed this comment for more than a month! Sorry about that. I sure agree with, “An answer there is that’s why we need the fellowship of other Christians to help and admonish us.” The ultimate example, I think, is the problem of pornography, especially among Christian men, but also among women. I hope it is less of a problem in the UK than it is in the US, but it is a huge problem here. We are working with our young men here at our community so they get in the habit of talking about pornography because very few stay away from it without talking about it … myself included. I am in two accountability groups where we are committed to talking about everything we might struggle with, not just sexual lust. This kind of accountability works, especially when there is good teaching combined with it. By “good teaching,” I mean talking about the difference between temptation and giving in to temptation, between having a thought and letting a thought nest in our brain … things like that. Most especially, we need the teaching that purity is possible, peaceful, and pleasant.

          • Thanks for replying anyway, I only just noticed the notification function.

            Yes I think that is a problem that runs deep in many churches, probably more than most church people think.

            I confess that I have also have personally struggled in that area too, though I’m glad to say that I’ve not stumbled in that regard for years.

  2. Paul Pavao says:

    Thank you, Doug!

  3. Thanks for this Paul.

    Lots of things to think about here. I have some thoughts and questions on what you said here. Will post them in a few days when I’ve a bit more time.

    Jon

  4. Doug Chamley says:

    I enjoyed this. Lot’s of good spiritual context to what it means to be really saved. I had a “lightning strike” conversion in 1979 after my friend from high school (whom I tortured and persecuted for over a year) asked me one question. “Is there any reason why you couldn’t give your life to Jesus?” I couldn’t think of anything to say to that question other than “No, I can’t think of any reason.” Maybe it was his persistence or maybe it was the Holy Spirit, maybe both, but I had a distinct conversion that resulted in a total life change and immediate conviction of living out the life Jesus. All I know is that the impact of that moment knocked me out of my complacency and disobedience. I have never been the same. There is no doubt in my mind I am His. Obedience is the issue but having a Rock to anchor my life on definitely reminds me of the fact that I am saved for greater things than just what I want or think I should do.

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