David Malcolm Bennett
This article was published in “Evangelical Action” April/May 2013. The numbers, [p.7], etc. refer to the page numbers in that publication. The numbers (1), etc are end notes.
The theology behind much of today’s evangelism is often called Arminian. But is it?
After more than 50 years of moving and working in evangelical circles, reading theology and church history, completing three theological degrees and, at times, working in Christian bookshops, it seems to me that the dominant theology of conversion and evangelism in practice today is far removed from the Arminianism of, say, John and Charles Wesley. In this article I will compare the soteriology of the Wesleys, as representatives of genuine Arminianism, with that which underpins much of modern evangelism.
The Conversion Theology of John and Charles Wesley
John and Charles Wesley were, shall we say, less Arminian than many suppose. In fact, their brand of Arminianism seems to be closer to Calvinism than it is to today’s dominant evangelical theology of conversion and evangelism.
First, what did John Wesley believe? Let me make it clear that I will not use his “Free Grace” sermon, preached in 1740, in this summary. It would seem that he later did not regard this sermon as an accurate presentation of his beliefs. A clear indication of this is that his collections Forty-Four Sermons and Fifty-Three Sermons, which were standard doctrinal works for his preachers, did not contain it. (1) Even five years after he had preached that sermon his views seem to have moved closer to Calvinism. In 1745 he held a “conversation” with his brother Charles and some other early Methodists, which he probably dominated. The resulting record of this conversation stated that “the truth of the gospel” (presumably, Wesley’s brand of Arminianism) lies “very near … to Calvinism”. In fact, it is “within a hair’s breadth” of it and in some respects it comes “to the very edge of Calvinism”. (2)
In 1743, he wrote to George Whitefield hoping that they could heal the rift between them. This break in fellowship had been caused by Wesley’s “Free Grace” sermon, which Whitefield, being a Calvinist, had strongly criticised. In this document Wesley said that there were only “three points in debate” between them: unconditional election, irresistible grace and final perseverance, three of the five points of Calvinism. The other two points, not in debate, being total depravity, which Wesley clearly accepted, and limited atonement, about which the waters are more muddy.
Yet, he still even partially accepted the three points that were “in debate”. For this article we only need to look at two of the three disputed teachings: unconditional election and irresistible grace, plus the one Wesley clearly taught: total depravity. The last of these is the most significant, as the doctrine of total depravity seems alien to today’s common forms of evangelism.
On unconditional election, Wesley stated that he accepted that God had unconditionally elected some “to preach the Gospel”, Paul, for example. And presumably if unconditionally elected to preach, they were also unconditionally elected to be saved. In addition, Wesley believed that God had unconditionally elected certain nations, Israel for example, to receive “peculiar privileges”, and some other nations to hear the Gospel. He also argued that God had elected some people to receive certain advantages, both temporal and spiritual. He even accepted that God had “unconditionally elected some [p.8] persons to eternal glory”, yet he rejected the idea that “all those who are not thus elected to glory, must perish everlastingly”. (3) His view, then, was that some of those who would get to heaven had been unconditionally elected, but others who would also be so blessed had not. In other words, some not unconditionally elected to salvation would still receive it.
More generally, Wesley believed that election to salvation was conditional. His view was that God foresaw those who would have faith and thus elected them to be saved, so it was conditional on foreseen faith. He said “This election I as firmly believe, as I believe the Scripture to be of God.” (4)
On irresistible grace, Wesley argued that though grace does not generally “act irresistibly”, at certain times it does. For example, “the grace which brings faith, and thereby salvation into the soul, is irresistible at that moment”. He also said, “in some souls the grace of God is so far irresistible that they cannot but believe and be finally saved.” Yet, at other times it is possible to resist God’s grace. But he also said that he “cannot believe, that all those must be damned, in whom it does not work irresistibly.” (5) This, frankly, sounds a little muddled, but what Wesley seems to be saying here is that some people become Christians through grace working irresistibly, yet there are others who become Christians, still through God’s grace, even though it is not working irresistibly on them. The key issue here is that he did believe that at times grace did work irresistibly to bring about an individual’s salvation.
Crucially, Wesley strongly believed the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity, which has been defined as: “the belief that humans begin life with all aspects of their nature corrupted by the effects of sin; thus, all their actions will lack totally pure motives. This does not mean, however, that they are absolutely devoid of any good impulses.” (6) In fact, the Calvinistic Westminster Confession had taught that human beings had become “dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.” (7) Total depravity does not mean, nor ever did, that human beings were incapable of being kind, or honest or generous, rather it means that every human faculty is infected by sin, and that resulting from that human choice is so impaired that one cannot become a Christian without God’s prior gracious, saving activity upon the soul. In other words, no person can believe in Christ primarily of their own volition.
Yet many modern evangelicals have either thrown out this idea, watered it down, or, while theoretically accepting it, ignore its obvious implications. But Wesley taught that each human being since the Fall is “by nature all “earthly, sensual, devilish”; altogether “corrupt and abominable” [and] cannot of himself think one good thought.” (8) And, crucially, he said no one “has a natural power to choose anything that is truly good.” (9) In fact, there exists “no good thing” in anyone “till he finds grace”. (10)
But here Wesley’s concept of prevenient or, as he called it, “preventing” grace enters the scene. (11) In his view, God gives this grace to all with the possibility that each can be led towards Him. But more outpouring of grace is needed before one can be saved.
On at least one occasion in a sermon he seems to have equated this preventing grace with conscience, (12) though at other times he seems to have seen it as more than that. For example, in his “Preface” to some of the writings of Robert Barnes (martyred 1540), Wesley demonstrated how he understood it. Wesley wrote, that “the general manner” by which God sets up His kingdom in the hearts of sinners is by first drawing them “by the love of the Father, enlightened by the Son … and convinced of sin by the Holy Ghost; through the preventing grace which is given him freely, cometh weary and heavy laden, and casteth all his sins upon Him that is ‘mighty to save.’ He receiveth from Him true, living faith. Being justified by faith, he hath peace with God … and knows that sin hath no more dominion over him.” (13) This preventing grace draws the sinner towards the Saviour, and the sinner then receives “true, living faith”, and so salvation is seen as an extra measure of grace.
In another sermon Wesley set it out more clearly. He said, “Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace; including the first wish to please God, [p.9] the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against Him…. Salvation is carried on by convincing grace, usually in Scripture termed repentance…. Afterwards we experience the proper Christian salvation”. (14) It is clear from these examples that to Wesley, preventing grace as such does not save, but rather it places sinners in a position from which they can be saved through the further outpouring of God’s grace.
In fact, as has been seen, to Wesley even saving faith is a gift from God. In the Preface just examined Wesley says that “the sinner receiveth [from God] ‘true, living faith’”. (15) In addition, in his sermon on “Justification by Faith”, he says that the faith that leads to justification “is the gift of God”. (16)
Now, Wesley’s concept of prevenient grace could have led him to a decision-based, do-it-when-you-wish understanding of conversion, but it did not, though it may well have led others in that direction. Examples of Wesley’s counselling demonstrate the outworking of a theology very different from that which dominates today’s evangelism. While Wesley was more than ready to speak to individuals and small groups of enquirers, there is no evidence that he ever felt obliged to lead them to make “a decision for Christ”. In fact, he frequently counselled those that required it and after having clearly presented the Gospel he either went to bed or on to the next town, often leaving these people in spiritual anguish. He does not seem to have believed in pushing or even leading people into a “decision”. In fact, that concept appears to have been unknown to him. (17)
When we come to John’s brother Charles, his theology sounds remarkably similar to his sibling. Take for example what may be his greatest hymn, “And can it be”. The fourth verse runs:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray –
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose went forth, and followed Thee. (18)
If one was to present that same message but in different words today, many would say that you were preaching Calvinism. But this “Calvinist” was an Arminian.
Yet, like the Calvinist, Charles Wesley too believed that all human beings in their post-fall condition were “imprisoned” and held “fast bound” by sin’s chains. This sin and its control over people dwell in humanity’s inherited nature. He clearly agreed with his brother’s view of total depravity. Indeed, Charles’s view may be even stronger than John’s. Because of that depravity, no one can just make a “decision” for Christ whenever they choose. It requires the prior intervention of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the modern concept of decisionist conversion is contrary to what the Wesleys taught. Rather, to them, any response that a human being might make to God could only come after God’s “eye” had “diffused a quickening ray”, a life-giving ray, a spiritual touch from God’s Spirit, His saving grace poured out upon the sinner, which made it possible for an individual to believe and repent. (The role of belief and repentance in conversion will be examined at the end of this article.) And what is presented here is something more than preventing grace. But it is this grace that must touch the sinner before he or she can believe, go forth and follow Christ. In addition, in this hymn, this grace almost sounds irresistible, even allowing for poetic license.
It is, thus, hard to equate the teaching of the Wesleys with the evangelism of today. Though this hymn has often been sung with great gusto in evangelistic meetings and services in the modern era, it is in stark contrast with the evangelistic practices that usually accompanied it. For example, compare it with the altar call (or public invitation), a device that John Wesley (and almost certainly his brother Charles) never used, (19) and the so called sinner’s prayer (that is, a prayer prayed to God [p.10] or Christ by an individual to “receive” Jesus into the heart). These practices, with their emphasis on human decision, particularly the latter one, just do not fit with the theology and methods of the Wesleys.
In fact, my research shows that the altar call was only very rarely used before John Wesley’s death, and then not by him. (20) With regard to the sinner’s prayer to receive Jesus, one American researcher says that the earliest printed form he can find is dated as recently as the 1950s. (21) I have found printed sinner’s prayers of that type slightly earlier (1922, 1945 and 1948) (22) and evidence suggests that such sinner’s prayers were being used orally before that, probably from the late nineteenth century. (23) But more basic than these practices and their dates of origin is the theological difference between them and the theology of genuine Arminianism, as believed by the Wesleys.
The Theology of Finney and Moody
It is my argument that today’s theology of conversion and evangelism is based more upon the theology of Charles Finney and D. L. Moody, than upon that of the Wesleys or Arminius, and so should be called Finneyism or Moodyism.
Finney did, of course, write works of theology and lectured in theology at Oberlin. However, criticisms of his theology on more than one area, but particularly his soteriology, are too numerous to list. (24)
Moody was nobody’s idea of a theologian and he certainly never thought of himself as such. However, anyone who preaches Christ has a theology, whether it is a good one or a bad one, a well-formed one or an immature or inconsistent one. Moody’s theology of conversion and evangelism was immature, at times inconsistent, and at some points dangerously deceptive, but make no mistake he had a theology.
Charles G Finney (1792-1875)
First, Finney disagreed with the Wesleys on total depravity. While he did agree that human beings were morally depraved, “wholly disinclined to obey” God’s word and that everybody had an “enmity against God”, (25) his understanding was very different from the Wesleys and the Calvinists. His view was that this depravity was not by nature, but by choice. It was “a voluntary attitude of the mind; that it did and must consist in the committal of the will to the gratification of the desire … of the lusts of the flesh, as opposed to that which the law of God requires.” It was “altogether voluntary”. Indeed, each human being has the power to make themselves “a new heart and a new spirit” and to do so “now”. (26) In fact, he also said that each individual had “the power and liberty of choice”, including the freedom to be saved. (27) This effectively meant that, to Finney, human beings had the natural power of choice to become Christians. All had the ability to turn to Christ. It was just a matter of being willing to do so. Here we clearly have a decision-based concept of conversion, one that is very different from that held by the Wesleys, but very similar to that behind the most common forms of evangelism today.
Related to that is his idea of how the Spirit works upon sinners. If with the Calvinists grace was irresistible and even with John Wesley was sometimes so, to Finney the working of the Spirit in grace is very, very limited, and certainly was always resistible. To Finney the Spirit’s work on the sinner is only in “teaching or persuasion” and “striving” with the soul. (28) That is, the Spirit persuades the sinner to repent and believe. He also awakens sinners to the plan of salvation. (29) But there, according to Finney, the Spirit stops. While the Spirit has a “moral influence” upon sinners, He has no “physical” influence on them. The Holy Spirit persuades individuals to change He does not physically change them. In other words, He does not change the “nature” of those converted. (30)
Finney said that he did not reject the doctrines of election and divine sovereignty, rather he opposed too much emphasis upon them. (31) However, it could be argued that within his theological framework Finney’s view of election was not really election, not even in the [p.11] Arminian mould. It is hard to see how God can elect anyone to salvation, when His Spirit is so inactive in an individual’s conversion. As Paul Chitwood says, “Salvation, in Finney’s mind, is obviously not a preordained event.” (32)
Dwight L. Moody (1837-99)
We now come to D. L. Moody. Though the lives of Finney and Moody overlapped by more than 30 years, there appears to be no evidence that Moody ever met Finney, read any of his books or corresponded with him, (33) so if Finney influenced Moody then it was presumably indirectly. However, there is no doubt that Moody was greatly influenced by Plymouth Brethren teachers and there are two specific identifiable examples of the influence that they had upon his soteriology and preaching.
First, Moody described his beliefs as consisting of the three Rs: “Ruined by the Fall; redeemed by the blood; and regenerated by the Holy Spirit.” (34) These three points also appear on the tombstone of Henry Varley, a Brethren evangelist, whom it is known influenced Moody, and Varley is, thus, probably the source of these concepts . (35) The phrase “regenerated by the Holy Spirit” indicates that Moody, unlike Finney, seems to have envisaged that the Holy Spirit worked a physical change in the subject at conversion. This is confirmed in that he did believe that the work of the Spirit in conversion was “supernatural” and more than just persuasion. (36)
Another Brethren influence was Henry (Harry) Moorhouse. In his early days Moody’s preaching was full of hell-fire, but this changed after hearing Moorhouse preach a series of sermons on “For God so loved the world”. Not that God’s judgment entirely disappeared from Moody’s preaching, but God’s love became its dominant theme. (37) However, Moody argued against the Calvinism of another Plymouth brother, J. N. Darby. And one suspects he might also have argued with the Wesleys about their Arminianism if he had met them.
His statement “Ruined by the Fall” could mean that he believed in the traditional doctrine of total depravity, but his evangelistic practice and some of his sermons suggest that if he did he had greatly modified it, for, to him, people were able to take or receive Christ. “You can if you will”, he proclaimed, and “Every creature can be saved if he will.” (38) Thus, in his view, sin had not disempowered the human will. As David Bebbington says, “Moody enlarged the place of human volition in his system so that a person could will to be saved”. (39)
Moody, like Finney, expected his listeners to make decisions on the spot, as he believed they were able to do. As Moody once said, conversion to Christ “don’t take time; it takes decision.” (40) In keeping with that, in one sermon he advised his listeners “the way to be saved is not to delay, but to come and take, t-a-k-e TAKE.” (41) He is said on one occasion to have stood on a chair in an enquiry room and challenged the seekers with “Who’ll take Christ now? That’s all you want. With Christ you have eternal life and everything else you need. Without Him you must perish. He offers Himself to you. Who’ll take Him? Now let all inquirers and all who now will take Christ as their own for the first time, kneel down and take Him.” (42) To Moody, Christian conversion could always be taken here and now.
The idea of having the power to accept or receive Christ into the heart or life when one chooses seems to have emerged in the mid-19th Century. For example, it commonly appears in the writings of American Methodist Bishop, William “California” Taylor. (43) As it developed the picture became Christ outside a locked door, as in Holman Hunt’s painting, (44) which only the sinner could open, thus the initiative in conversion is clearly with the sinner. This idea is usually based on John 1:11-12 and, especially, Rev. 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (which, in actual fact, is a statement addressed to Christians in a church, not non-Christians).
Moody eagerly adopted this new method of understanding these passages of Scripture and made it [p.12] popular. In one sermon, Moody used the verse “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” as an invitation for sinners to receive Christ into their “hearts”. (45) In another, he said, “Many people are keeping the doors of their hearts locked against the Saviour”. (46) In another sermon, he spoke of some Christians not being willing “to receive [Christ] fully,” urged sinners to “admit Christ into their hearts”, and also said, “If we admit Christ into our hearts.” (47) In another address Moody said, “I do not believe there is a man or woman in this room to-night that is willing to confess sin, and turn away from it and confess Christ, but what will get salvation. Salvation will come the moment that they are ready to receive Christ and confess him.” (48) Moody even had a tract printed during his first tour of Britain (1873-75), which had a brief exposition of Rev. 3:20 by him on one side, and on the other the Gospel song “Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By”. (49)
Yet one does also find Rev. 3:20 used in reference to conversion in the works of earlier writers such as John Flavel (d.1691), (50) Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) and Asahel Nettleton (1783-1843), (51) but in their writings the initiative in conversion still remained with God. For example, Flavel regarded Christ’s “voice” in that verse as the “effectual call”. Receiving Christ would be impossible without that. However, in the new way of viewing this text the initiative was definitely with the enquirer. Christ remained powerless outside the door. (This very point has been made many times in modern evangelism.)
As with Finney, election does not fit easily into Moody’s system. True, unlike Finney, the Spirit of God did change the individual, but in Moody’s theology conversion still appears to have been dependent primarily upon human decision. It could be argued that God elected people to salvation whom He foreknew would “receive” Him, which would be similar to the Arminian belief, though I have found nothing in Moody to indicate that he believed that. In addition, if conversion is based primarily on human decision, then God’s grace and the Spirit’s work must always be resistible.
It is clear from Moody’s sermons and practice that his theology of evangelism and conversion was significantly different from the Wesleys. Instead of total depravity and inability to choose God, in Moody’s view one seems to be able to believe at just about any time. Instead of an emphasis upon the Spirit’s working on the soul, the main emphasis is on human response.
Today’s Practical Theology of Evangelism and Conversion.
The most common forms of evangelism today are that after a sermon or other evangelistic presentation those desiring salvation or wishing to know more are called to the front of the meeting place for counselling. Sometimes, at the end of the sermon or counselling session or both, the one being counselled is led in a sinner’s prayer for salvation. In personal evangelism a brief presentation of the Gospel is used, one individual to another, and then, often, a sinner’s prayer is recited to “receive” Christ. Both forms assume that if such a prayer is prayed sincerely, then the individual will be automatically converted. Here conversion is viewed primarily as a human decision, and sometimes the impression is even given that it is entirely a human decision.
We now need to look more closely at the theology behind these common forms of evangelism. Here I will concentrate not on the views of recognised theologians, but rather the teachings of those who do most to form and establish the modern theology of evangelism and conversion, that is, evangelists.
The major figure promoting this form of evangelism in the last 60 years has been Billy Graham. We will examine his relevant theology and his practice. Billy Graham taught that it is impossible “to turn to God to repent or even believe without God’s help!” Indeed, “When a man calls upon God, he is given true repentance and faith”. However, to receive that help one must first “be willing”. (52) The Wesleys would have agreed with Graham’s second statement that God gives “repentance and faith”, (53) but perhaps would [p.13] have clarified the nature of calling on God. But they may have been a little wary of the first about needing God’s “help” to repent and believe, not because it goes too far, but because it does not go far enough. While in the Arminianism of the Wesleys it is technically true that we need God’s help to repent and believe, with the Wesleys the emphasis was very much upon what God does rather than what the man or woman does. Saving faith is impossible until God diffuses “a quickening ray”. The sinner is “fast bound in sin” and unable to effect his or her own release. While Graham’s statement may seem to be expressing the same idea, his “God’s help” makes God’s help sound secondary. It is much milder than Charles Wesley’s hymn.
What is Graham’s theology of conversion and evangelism? Graham believes fervently in the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion. To him, the Spirit’s activity goes beyond convincing people of sin and persuading them to believe, in that he actually regenerates individuals. In fact, to Graham, “Only God can give us the new birth”, (54) for it “is a divine work”, which results in a “new self created of God”. (55) In addition, “only the Spirit of God can give [us] the determination necessary for true repentance.” (56) Thus Graham has a stronger view of the Spirit’s work in conversion than did Finney.
Billy Graham also says that he is a great believer in the sovereignty of God, including as it operates in the salvation of individual believers. In fact, he said at one meeting in Melbourne in 1959, “You cannot come to Christ anytime you want to. You can only come when the Spirit draws you. Millions are praying. You’d better come now.” (57) If the last sentence would seem to contradict the first two, Graham would probably answer that as “Millions are praying”, God was at that time drawing all those who came forward and made a decision in response to the preached word, a decision which was freely made. In his account of his own conversion he says that he “felt the inner compulsion to go forward”. Such “compulsion” he presumably regards as always, or at least usually, God’s drawing.
In line with all that, he also believes that God elected or predestined some to salvation, but not that He predestined any to go to hell. At first sight this might, again, seem to be a contradiction, and so it may be (after all, if you are not predestined to go to heaven, then one would think that you are effectively predestined to go to hell). However, Graham may mean, similar to John Wesley, that even some who are not predestined to salvation will still be saved in addition to the elect. (58)
In 1957 Graham wrote in his diary, “it is difficult to put in chronological order just which comes first, repentance, faith or regeneration… They all seem to happen simultaneously.” (59)
By the time he wrote his book Peace with God, Graham seems to have sorted that out in his mind and in it he gives a step by step conversion process. He says, “as you stand at the foot of the cross, the Holy Spirit makes you realize you are a sinner. He directs your faith to the Christ who died in your place. You must open your heart and let him come in. At that precise moment the [p.14] Holy Spirit performs the miracle of the new birth. You actually become a new moral creature. There comes the implantation of the new nature.” (60) A few pages later Graham adds “Faith is absolutely impossible” until we have repented. (61) Though, as we have seen him say earlier, the act of regeneration is conducted by the Holy Spirit/God, in his thinking, this apparently can only happen after we have repented and placed our faith in Christ and have opened our hearts to receive Him. Thus conversion seems to be initially a human activity, apart from the Spirit convicting us of sin and giving us “the determination necessary for true repentance.” The active divine functions only come into operation after our positive action. This outline is logical and generally consistent with Graham’s evangelistic practice, but is it strictly biblical? Eph. 2:8-9 teaches that faith to believe can come only from God, which Graham does not seem to allow for here. To him, it is “your faith”. And this faith to him “literally means ‘to give up, surrender or commit’.” (62) That faith sounds like a human characteristic rather than a divine gift, contrary to the Wesleys.
It can be fairly argued that the impression usually given at Graham crusades is that human decision is the key issue, with God working somehow in the background. The emphasis on human decision is very strong in Graham’s public invitations, the following counselling process and counsellor training. Indeed, one of the Billy Graham organisation’s primary magazines was called Decision. In fact, Graham says, “In order to be converted you must make a choice.” (63)
Perhaps the second leading advocate of these methods during the modern period has been Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ. He is probably best known for his tool for use in personal evangelism, Have you heard of the four Spiritual Laws? This appears to have been one of the first evangelistic booklets to use a sinner’s prayer to receive Christ, which gives the user the impression that conversion is based primarily on human choice. This booklet developed in three stages. It first appeared in 1952 in a larger form called “God’s plan for Your Life”, which was a twenty minute presentation by Bright for use by Campus Crusade staff. All the staff of that organisation were expected to memorise it. A shorter version appeared in 1956, but that also was only produced for use by Campus Crusade staff. The booklet edition for mass distribution did not appear until 1965. The Sinner’s Prayer appeared in all three editions. (64) It is claimed that this booklet has been “distributed to more than 2.5 billion people”. (65)
Four spiritual laws, which, like most such booklets, can be either given to a seeker or be used in a counselling situation. This booklet begins with a very brief introduction to the Gospel and then states, “You can receive Christ right now by faith through prayer.” It then gives “a suggested prayer” which runs:
“Lord Jesus, I need You. I believe you paid the penalty for my sins on the cross. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Saviour and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be. ”
This is followed by the assurance that if “this prayer expresses the desire of your heart” and you pray it “right now”, then “Christ will come into your life, as He promised.” (66)
The major component in the prayer seems to be receiving Christ into one’s life. Indeed, the sentence “I open the door of my life and receive You as my Saviour and Lord” places the initiative in Christian conversion on the one praying rather than on God. Then, while the first half of the prayer asks for salvation, the second half assumes that it has by then been granted. That assumption is supported by the material that follows. That is, provided the prayer does actually express “the desire of your heart”, then you will automatically and immediately be saved. The same ideas also appear in Bright’s book A Man Without Equal. (67)
Is this Arminianism?
It is clear from these examples and an awareness of teaching about today’s evangelistic practice that most of modern evangelism is conducted on the understanding that human decision is the key ingredient in conversion to Christ. This is not only very different from Calvinism [p.15] it is also different from traditional Arminianism. The idea of total depravity, believed by both Calvinists and the Wesleys, is missing.
If this new evangelism cannot truly be called “Arminianism” what should it be called? A reasonable label to fasten upon this belief system is “Finneyism” (68) or, perhaps better, “Moodyism”. To call it Arminianism is a mistake and quite misleading. The Wesleys and Arminius would surely have rejected this system.
If it be thought that this is just a matter of names, it needs to be recognised that names help form perceptions. Most of today’s evangelicals seem to assume that their evangelistic beliefs and practices have been long-held and are traditional (the same as those of, say, 250-300 years ago), but this is clearly not so. A new name would help highlight the differences and encourage people to question the modern ideas and methods.
Are Faith and Repentance Decisions?
It is clear that believing in Christ and repenting are the biblical stipulations for salvation. These concepts are found in many places in the Gospels, Acts and Paul’s letters. But the concept of decision, as such, is very hard to find in the Scriptures. But do belief and repentance require human decision?
It can be fairly argued that there is an element of human decision in any conversion, say, in the process of repenting. But such decisions are subordinate to God’s work. They are utterly impossible unless the Holy Spirit is first working in people’s lives, convicting them of sin, calling them, drawing them to Himself and ultimately saving them. It is God who saves.
The problem with much of today’s evangelism and the theology behind it is that the impression is often given that human decision is the primary factor in conversion, rather than a subordinate one. (This was Finney’s position and seemingly Moody’s.) That is, receiving Christ by an act of the human will and deciding for Christ are the predominant ideas used in sermons of many evangelistic preachers. However, those ideas are common not only in sermons preached to gain a response, but in books about evangelism, including training manuals, (69) and in Christian testimonies. One of the most common terms used to describe a conversion is “decision” or its cognates. One frequently hears, “Decide for Christ”, “I made my decision …” or similar. Far too often talk of conversion as a decision makes it sound like our work, rather than God’s, and in much of modern evangelism it may indeed be our work.
Peter and Paul in the first century and the Wesleys in the eighteenth all preached for response, and so should we. But they did not appear to have expected their hearers to make a decision as such. The call was to repent and believe and they are different concepts. (70)
Not all who use the modern methods of evangelism, such as the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, would necessarily agree with the theology of Finney and Moody, but their practice is generally in line with what these two men taught. However, it is very different from a Calvinistic or even a traditional Arminian theology. Thus the theology behind much of today’s evangelism is best dubbed “Finneyism,” or even “Moodyism,” but it is a mistake and misleading to call it “Arminianism”.
1 For a more detailed argument of these points, see David [Malcolm] Bennett, “How Arminian was John Wesley?” Evangelical Quarterly, 72 (2000), 237-43.
2 “Conversation II,” John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (14 vols. 3rd ed. Thomas Jackson, Grand Rapids: Baker,  1991), 8:284-85.
3 Wesley, Journal, in Works, 1:426-27 (emphasis added).
4 Wesley, “Predestination Calmly Considered,” Works, 10:210.
5 Wesley, Journal, in Works, 1:427.
6 Millard J. Erickson, Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 169.
7 Westminster Confession of Faith; The Larger and Shorter Catechisms (Inverness: F. P. Publications  1981), ch 6:2.
8 John Wesley, “The Righteousness of Faith”, first published in 1746, in Sermons on Several Occasions; Forty-Four Sermons (London: Epworth,  1944), 69.
9 Wesley, Some Remarks on … Aspasio Vindicated, Works, 10:350.
10 Wesley, “Righteousness”, 44 Sermons, 69.
[NB: in the Evangelical Action” version of this article n. 8 is missing and ns. 9 & 10 have been confused.]
11 For a detailed study of this concept in Wesley see Herbert Boyd McGonigle, Sufficient Saving Grace: John Wesley’s Evangelical Arminianism (SEHT, Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), 318-30.
12 Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation”, Works, 6:44. See also McGonigle, Sufficient, 322-23.
13 Wesley, “Preface,” Works, 14:211-12
14 Wesley, “On Working Out our own Salvation,” Works, 6:509 (emphasis in original).
15 Wesley, “Preface,” Works, 14:212.
16 Wesley, “Justification by Faith,” 44 Sermons, 58-59.
17 For more examples of Wesley’s counselling methods see David Bennett, The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Usage (Lanham: UP of America, 2000), 8-10.
18 The Methodist Hymn Book (London: Methodist Conference, 1933), Hymn 371.
19 Bennett, Altar, 1-11.
20 Bennett, Altar, 29-79.
21 Paul H. Chitwood, The Sinner’s Prayer: an historical and theological analysis (PhD. Southern Baptist Seminary, 2001), 52-63.
22 Albert H. Gage, Evangelism of Youth (Philadelphia: Judson, 1922), 77; Faris D. Whitesell, 65 Ways to Give Evangelistic Invitations (Grand Rapids: Kregel, [3rd ed. 1945] r.p. 1984), 88; Albert F. Harper & Elmer H. Kauffman, First Steps in Visitation Evangelism (Kansas City: Nazarene, 1948), 49.
23 Full details appear in my book The Sinner’s Prayer: Its Origins and Dangers (Brisbane: Even Before Publishing, 2011), 39-150.
24 Amongst the easily accessible recent criticisms of Finney are Michael Horton, “The disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney”, viewed 12 Mar. 2010, and Philip M. Johnson, “‘A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’: How Charles Finney’s Theology Ravaged the Evangelical Movement”, viewed 12 Mar. 2010. This article also appeared in Evangelical Action (Oct/Nov. 2009), 9-15.
15 Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (NY, Revell, 1868), 16-17 (emphasis in original); C. G. Finney, Revival Fire: Letters on Revivals (Minneapolis: Dimension, n.d.), 9.
26 Charles G. Finney, The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney (eds Garth M Rosell & A. G. Dupuis, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 152, 154, 190, 265 (emphasis in original).
27 From a Finney sermon, quoted in Keith J. Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney 1792-1875: Revivalist and Reformer (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1990), 230.
28 Finney, Memoirs, 351, 266-67.
29 Finney, Revivals, 16-17, 34.
30 Finney, Memoirs, 155, 350 (emphasis in original).
31 Finney, Revivals, 228-31.
32 Chitwood, Sinner’s Prayer, 35.
33 Stanley N. Gundry, Love Them In (Chicago: Moody, 1976), 77-78; W. O. Thompson Jr. The Public Invitation as a Method of Evangelism: Its Origin and Development (PhD. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1979), 138-39.
34 Gundry, Love, 87-88, quoting from D. L. Moody, The Way and the Word (Chicago: Revell, 1877), iii (emphasis in the original).
35 Henry Varley, Jr. Henry Varley’s Life Story (London: Holness c.1913), 281.
36 Gundry, Love, 84-85, 87, 121-25.
37 Gundry, Love, 45-46; J. C. Pollock, Moody without Sankey (London: Hodder, 1963), 72-74. John Kent has challenged the idea that Moody’s preaching strongly emphasised God’s love, at the expense of his judgment. He says that Moody’s method was a “system of terror”, but more subtle than his predecessors, with a “strong element of fear”, see Holding the Fort: Studies in Victorian Revivalism (London: Epworth, 1978), 171-72. Kent, at the very least, overstates his case.
38 Gundry, Love, 123-26, quoting from a Moody sermon on the new birth.
39 David Bebbington, “Moody as a Transatlantic Evangelical”, in Timothy George (ed.), Mr Moody and the Evangelical Tradition (London: Continuum, 2004), 83.
40 Moody, “Popular Excuses”, in W. H. Daniels, D. L. Moody and His Work (London: Hodder, 1875), 442.
41 Bernard A. Weisberger, They Gathered at the River (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958), 211 (emphasis in original).
42 Weisberger, Gathered, 212.
43 William Taylor, Reconciliation; Or, How to be Saved (London: Partridge, 1867), 193, 195, 197, 200-202, 205; William Taylor, Christian Adventures in South Africa (London: Jackson, Walford & Hodder, 1867), 229-30, 245, 280, 311, 313, 368, 375, 391, 417, 419-20, 424, 427, 474.
44 For a brief examination of how Holman Hunt’s painting has been interpreted see my Sinner’s Prayer, 112-13.
45 D. L. Moody, “Come”, in Garth Rosell (ed.), Commending the Faith: The Preaching of D. L. Moody, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 20-21.
46 D. L. Moody, “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners”, in D. L. Moody, Sovereign Grace (Chicago: Moody, n.d.), 40.
47 D. L. Moody, “Christ All and in All”, Rosell, Commending, 100, 105-106.
48 D. L. Moody, “Instant Salvation”, Boston Journal, 1877.
49 Thomas E. Corts, “D. L. Moody: Payment on Account”, in George, Mr Moody, 104, quoting E.J. Goodspeed, A Full History of the Wonderful Career of Moody and Sankey in Great Britain and America (1876), 148.
50 Erroll Hulse, Who Saves, God or Me? (Darlington: EP, 2008), 110.
51 Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), A History of the Work of Redemption (WJE. ed. John F. Wilson, New Haven: Yale UP, 1989), 333, and an extract from a sermon of Asahel Nettleton (1783-1843) in Bennet Tyler and Andrew Bonar, Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labours (Edinburgh: Banner , 1975), 219-220.
52 Billy Graham, World Aflame (Tadworth: World’s Work, 1966), 144-45.
53 Wesley, “Justification by Faith”, 44 Sermons, 58-59.
54 Billy Graham, How to be Born Again (Nashville; Word, 1977), 163, quoted in Lewis A. Drummond, The Evangelist: The Worldwide Impact of Billy Graham (Nashville: Word, 2001), 24-25.
55 Billy Graham, Peace with God (rev. ed. Carlisle: OM, 1986), 140, 138.
56 Graham, Peace, 121. See also Billy Graham, World Aflame, 144.
57 Quoted by Stuart Piggin, Billy Graham in Australia, 1959: Was it Revival? CSAC Working Papers, Series 1, No. 4 (Sydney: Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, 1992), 5. See also Drummond, Evangelist, 53-54.
58 Drummond, Evangelist, 56-57. For John Wesley see his debate with George Whitefield, Works, 1:426-27.
59 Curtis Mitchell, God in the Garden (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957), 133.
60 Graham, Peace, 113.
61 Graham, Peace, 117-18.
62 Graham, Peace, 131; see also 132-35.
63 Graham, World, 146.
64 This information is from two e-mails to the author from Laura Sherwood of Campus Crusade for Christ, 4 & 7 Dec. 2009. She states that the Sinner’s Prayer was in all three forms.
65 “William R. ‘Bill’ Bright”, viewed 23 Nov. 2009,
66 Bill Bright, Have you heard of the four spiritual laws? (Sydney: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1965), 10.
67 Bill Bright, A Man Without Equal (Arrowhead Springs: NewLife2000, 1992), 12-13, 101-103.
68 I am aware that “Finneyism” is not a new term. Nor is the distinction between it and Arminianism new, though it is uncommon. I am just supporting its use for this type of thinking instead of Arminianism.
69 See for example, Commitment Counseling Manual (Nashville: SBC Sunday School Board, 1985), 5-8, 14-17, 43-44; R. Alan Streett, The Effective Invitation (Grand Rapids: Kregel,1995), 169-85; Whitesell, 65 Ways, 46-48, 86-89.
70 For more on a biblical understanding of conversion, see my Altar Call, 201-213, and Sinner’s Prayer, 21-25, 28-38.