Saturday, February 11, 2006


The only cure for a sick church

A little while back, I shared a story of a sick woman who temporarily grew better while under the effect of a young doctor's forty-day cure. Although her cure didn't last permanently, it did seem to produce beneficial effects for a number of years, so you'd hardly blame that poor woman for thinking that the cure had worked. However, time and experience taught her that her confidence in that quick-and-easy cure had been misplaced, and she ended up disappointed in the end.

History is full of situations rather similar to that endured by the woman of our little story. Take, for instance, the ministry of the famous 19th Century minister Charles Finney. Surely all evangelicals have heard the stories of the amazing results that were seen during Finney's revival meetings. Thousands of men and women professed to have made a decision. In some towns, so many people were affected by Finney's preaching that all of the drinking establishments went out of business. To this day, the stories of Finney's revivals are told as examples of the amazing results that can be expected when effective methods are used to present the Gospel. However, there's more to the story of Finney's revivals. Although his preaching invariably produced quick, visible results, the passing of time was not kind to his revival fruit. Later in life, Finney himself began to realize that the vast majority of his converts had fallen away from the Christian faith.

As Phil Johnson writes in his excellent article on Finney:

Predictably, most of Finney's spiritual heirs lapsed into apostasy, Socinianism, mere moralism, cultlike perfectionism, and other related errors. In short, Finney's chief legacy was confusion and doctrinal compromise. Evangelical Christianity virtually disappeared from western New York in Finney's own lifetime. Despite Finney's accounts of glorious "revivals," most of the vast region of New England where he held his revival campaigns fell into a permanent spiritual coldness during Finney's lifetime and more than a hundred years later still has not emerged from that malaise. This is directly owing to the influence of Finney and others who were simultaneously promoting similar ideas.
The Western half of New York became known as "the burnt-over district," because of the negative effects of the revivalist movement that culminated in Finney's work there. These facts are often obscured in the popular lore about Finney. But even Finney himself spoke of "a burnt district" [Memoirs, 78], and he lamented the absence of any lasting fruit from his evangelistic efforts. He wrote,

I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith . . . . [But] falling short of urging them up to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state [cited in B. B. Warfield, Studies in Perfectionism, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford, 1932), 2:24].

Thus, the fruit of Finney's revivalism, at first so promising, turned out to be rotten at its very core.

In our day, we may observe the sad spectacle of countless once-faithful but now-dying evangelical churches turning to seemingly effective methods and programs in order to revive themselves. Predictably, these methods often seem to work, just as Finney's "new methods" once seemed so fruitful. Today, the results that are garnered by the methods of Rick Warren and others are trumpeted as proof of the value of the methods. "Look at how our church's attendance has grown, and look at how many decisions for Christ we've had since we've gone through our forty days of purpose!" On the face of it, this reasoning looks compelling. After all, who can argue with the results? Remember, though, what became of Finney's alleged results in the end. The witness of church history is clear: new methods developed and practiced without true regard to Scripture, however successful they seem to be in the short run, never produce good, lasting fruit. They always end up doing far more harm than good! Although the history of Christianity has seen times of reformation and revival in which old truths have been restored to the church, I am not aware of any instance in which a totally new doctrine or method proved to be both Scripturally sound and fruitful.

In my fairy tale, the woman who'd been temporarily cured by the forty-day nostrum eventually fell back into sickness, and in desperation called upon the town's old physician who prescribed for her a slower and less trendy cure that nonetheless restored her to full health and long life. In turning to the old, proven cure, the woman found the health that had been promised but finally denied her by the young doctor's new methods. Likewise, the churches who are flocking after the latest and greatest cures for their ailing fellowships would do far better if they were to seek help from the tried-and-true cure: the undiluted preaching of the whole counsel of God. Whereas church growth methods can produce an illusion of life, history and experience show that the lasting fruit will not be good, and that in fact lasting harm will be done to countless souls on account of the very methods that had seemed so effective. Instead, the ailing church ought to turn itself back to the Scriptures and to prayer, calling upon God to revive true religion and sound doctrine in its midst. This, my friend, is the only cure for an ailing church that really and truly works.

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