…”who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
The holy trinity of American evangelicalism were Moody, Finney and Sunday. You can Google them and learn more if you wish. These three were the original purveyors of mass revivalism, mass evangelism and “Big Box” tents, the forerunners of “Big Box” churches. The actual peak of this form of evangelism was in the decade prior to World war I. Well over a thousand itinerant evangelists plowed the country, while hundreds of others, in established communities, developed that unique American version of showmanship religion which made the ministries in neighborhood and country churches seem dull in comparison. Sheep stealing was rampant as these free-will purveyors railed against established churches and their meaningless sacraments. During the height of it’s lather, from about 1910 to 1913, church membership in America actually declined slightly. Go figure.
For many people, confrontational revivalism (the gospel at gunpoint, as one called it) is assumed to be the default way in which the church does evangelism. Give people a choice; heaven or hell, which will it be? Everyone must make a decision. First, accept Jesus as savior, then you must make Him Lord of your life. Salvation and this life are in some strange way unrelated, separated. Salvation becomes adherence to an ideology. The Christian life becomes a morality project, a striving after perfection.
What we have going on here, it seems to me, is the religious equivalent of a sales pitch for a consumer decision about a product, rather than the proclamation of the decision God has made about sinners. And it is no accident that what has characterized these ministries from the 19th century up to the present is a reliance on the end justifies the means. All that matters is closing the deal. No method or gimmick is too outrageous, provided we can bring people to the point of decision. Then, once the decision has been made, the job is to keep the whip of spiritual growth on their backs so that Jesus will really become their Lord.
But since when does the manipulation of a sales pitch play a part in the open and free proclamation of God’s grace? The only possible way to find any of this in the New testament is to ‘cherry pick’ verses and bend them out of all shape and context.
The New Testament witness does not separate the saving work of Christ, His will to save from His will to be Lord. His Lordship and salvation are inseparable because He is the one who has done the deciding and He is the one whose life now defines the life of the Christian and Christian community. The only will that is free to do any choosing where God is concerned is God’s will. For us to claim such freedom is not the key to salvation, it is blasphemy. For it is claiming something for ourselves that belongs to God alone.
Evangelism, therefore, is being brought by God’s grace – through Word and sacrament – to be with those whose great need is God’s concern. To trust God, to believe the Gospel, is not a consequence of my decision, it is the form God’s decision takes for me.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”