The hardest thing in the world to keep is balance, and this is particularly the case when you are in discussions with folks who think you might not be keeping yours. I have heard it said that some have accounted for my recent regeneration jag as a ploy to stay in good with Piper or Driscoll, while others think I am simply returning to my Southern Baptist upbringing. I had tried to run away from home with the other bad FV boys, but I only made it to the end of the driveway.
But I am not returning to anything. While I am not a Baptist at all (though I like them fine), I am an evangelical. I have always been an evangelical, and when this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave, it will be the tongue of a dead evangelical.
I say this knowing that many of you, my dear readers, understand that I have spent a goodish bit of the energies from my satiric chakras in making fun of evangelicalism. Now this may require some explanation. Evangelicalism can be divided into two broad wings. The first wing houses a sedate wax museum containing the likenesses of such worthies as Jonathan Edwards, A.W. Tozer, and Carl Henry, while the second wing contains the teeming and swollen Barnum & Bailey contingent, not forgetting the tattooed fat lady. In my satiric labors, I have sought to focus my attentions on the latter, and all for the sake of the former.
But let me explain some of the background of this. How did I get here? Whence comes all this?
My father, as I have noted before, is an old school evangelical. But he is also one of the most gifted personal evangelists I have ever met. This means that as far back as my memory goes, there is a long line of people getting saved, getting converted. And they really were getting converted, lives turned completely around, with all glory and honor going to God. While a number of these folks were heathens, a bunch of them were baptized and had their ecclesiastical papers stamped and everything. They still needed Jesus, even though they had been given the Jesus water. In order for them to come to Jesus, they needed an evangelist who saw that they needed to.
Now follow me closely here. At the very same time, because of where I was growing up, and because of the circles we lived in, we were in close proximity to the Barnum & Bailey tents. We could smell the elephants. All the salvation hooey that goes on . . . tell me about it.
One time a nationally known evangelist came to Moscow, and had a big event at the Student Union. Over 800 decisions for Christ were recorded . . . and reported to the Christian community as though it was in the bank. Now Moscow is a small town, and the Christian community is even smaller. In the months following that event, I was not privileged to meet one person out of that 800. Not one. To be fair, I did later meet one Christian who had signed a decision card one of those nights, but he had actually gotten saved later on in some sort of fashion that did not involve the signing of cards.
Allow me to use an odd illustration. It was as though I grew up in a wild hare charismatic church, with forehead slappers healing people of popcorn gluttony every Sunday, along with other assorted and zany activities that tried to prove that the Holy Spirit had lost His mind, while at my house my father was quietly healing terminal cancer patients without stretching one syllable words into three syllables at all. Someone growing up in such circumstances would be somewhat conflicted. When it came to telling stories, like that time the snake basket got knocked over in middle of the revival, he would have the kind of stories to make you wheeze. And yet . . . but . . . all those cancer patients . . .
Jim Jordan has a good point here about the excesses of the Great Awakening, and some of the downstream negative conseqences of it. The George Whitefield who published his journal was a young man and a coxcomb. I agree with Charles Hodge’s critique of the whole thing. But that does not mean that the Great Awakening was not from God, or that Whitefield was not greatly used by Him.
Here is the thing. Using both terms broadly, revivalists and sacramentalists both make staggering claims for what they are doing. Often the claims are not borne out by what we might call “actual results.” The evangelicalism that I am defending is not the hot evangelicalism of Brother Love’s traveling salvation show on one more muggy August night. What I am defending is a chastened evangelicalism.
David Brainard ought not to have said that his instructor at Yale had no more grace “than this chair.” But let it also be noted that Brainard heartily repented of that comment. Gilbert Tennant ought not to have preached his famous sermon on the dangers of an unconverted ministry (although it is dangerous, his language was intemperate). But he repented. Jonathan Edwards made his name by cheerleading for the revival, but as time went by his book on the religious affections showed that he was not prepared to accept sin for the sake of protecting his earlier views of the revival.
David Wells has a magnificent book on conversion (called Turning to God), and in it you find an evangelical treatment of true conversion that is thoughtful, judicious, biblical, balanced, scholarly . . . and evangelical. That is what I am urging. I’m with him.
At the same time, I have not seen the same kind of willingness on the part of sacramentalists to admit that what they are telling us isn’t working, as measured by those indicators that the New Testament gives us as being inconsistent with inheriting the kingdom of God. What happens is usually special pleading. And when a sacramentalist does acknowledge that some baptized son of the church is a son of Belial, and that something decisive needs to happen to his soul to turn him around, to turn him back to God, that is evangelical enough for me.
Now the New Testament era was born in a hot revival. The movement exploded in a fervor of religious zeal. The accusers at Pentecost thought everybody was drunk, not that everybody was singing Matins. And you find exactly the same pattern in that first generation — a glorious work of the Spirit, inevitable excesses, and judicious leaders of the movement then laying down the marks of a real conversion. The New Testament is jammed with tests to help us distinguish the real ones from the posers.
And the heart of it is this. Real conversions are marked by the fruit of the Spirit, not the gifts of the Spirit. Regeneration has a tell, and that tell is love.
“If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).