I’ve asked Karl Dahlfred to answer a few follow-up questions I had stemming from his book, Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin. I reviewed the book last month (Part 1, Part 2).
What do you think about his answers? How might this apply to your ministry context?
1. You claim that many today who use Finney’s methods may not hold to his theology. You want these people to consider what their methods may unwittingly convey about God, man, and salvation. I have two questions on this topic.
First, what do things like the “sinners prayer,” “altar calls,” or pressurized calls for repentance implicitly communicate that you think are in error?
There are two primary concerns that I have. First, giving altar calls and leading people in the sinner’s prayer run a high risk of causing people to look to some external ceremony or ritual as the cause, or assurance of their salvation. Our assurance of salvation must come from the Holy Spirit himself as we cling to he promises of Christ, yet there are many people today who look back to the time that they “prayed to receive Christ” as evidence of the salvation, even though their life currently does not reflect the fruit of the Spirit or a true understanding of the Gospel. I think that most evangelists want true heart change, but methods such as the altar call undermine that goal by leading people to depend on some external human action as proof of their salvation.
My second concern is related to the first, namely that salvation presented as entirely a human decision that can be brought about through the right technique and persuasion marketing. What Jesus says about the work of the Spirit to Nicodemus (John 3:1-8) makes clear that conversion is wholly brought about by the Spirit. Most evangelicals today would not admit to dismissing the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion as Finney did, but when discussions of “soul winning” and “closing the deal” focus on how to push people to a point of decision, then they are functionally in the same Pelagian realm that Finney lived in.
In much of modern evangelism, the idea that we must wait for the Lord to bring people to faith in His own time and His own way is pejoratively dismissed as some sort of anti-evangelical hyper-Calvinism. Most people are unaware of the fact that even Arminians like John Wesley were happy to let the Lord have his way with people without forcing any decision-making mechanism upon his listeners.
This is a difficult issue to discuss with many people because the altar call and sinner’s prayer are seen as so essential to faithful evangelism, that it is difficult for many to fathom how you would do evangelism without them. It has been claimed, “If you don’t have an altar call, you are denying people the chance to be saved.” While this assertion displays a very low view of God’s sovereignty and the work of the Spirit, it is not so helpful to tell people, “If you use the altar call, you have a low view of God’s sovereignty and don’t trust the Holy Spirit.”
Rather, I like to take the more positive approach of talking about how sad it is that many people pray to receive Christ and then fall away and then suggesting a solution. Everyone I’ve talked to has agreed that people falling away is problem. Then I say that I think the reason why this happens often is the people misunderstand the Gospel, or misunderstand what it means to become a Christian, and therefore make a decision prematurely. I tell some stories about Asahel Nettleton and John Wesley, and how they saw many conversions, and conversions that “stuck,” without using the altar call or sinner’s prayer. They preached directly and powerfully, and direct people to seek their assurance directly from the Holy Spirit. I say that we need to trust the Holy Spirit with people’s salvation because if He has started a good work, he will surely finish it.
I am hoping that this more positive approach will have some good effect in helping people see that they need to change their view of God and of their methods, especially among those who are generally in favor of the altar call and sinner’s prayer.
With that said, more direct criticism of the these methods, such as I presented in “Theology Drives Methodology” can also be effective. A brief paper that I wrote about the sinner’s prayer, laying out the problems with it, was read by a pastor who was in process of revising a well-known evangelistic bible study curriculum. The sinner’s prayer was in the original edition and after reading my paper, the prayer was removed from the revised edition.