Just about all of us have known people during our lifetimes who at some point made a profession of faith in Jesus, only to have that faith fade over the years. It’s not uncommon. In fact, it’s one of the reasons some people believe a Christian can lose his salvation. It’s not because scripture leads people to that conclusion. In fact, the opposite is true. Scripture teaches clearly that nothing can separate a true child of God from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
But we’ve all seen people drift spiritually. When that happens, we can draw one of two conclusions. We’re either seeing a child of God wander into a desert season (where the Good Shepherd will come eventually come and find His lost sheep and bring him home). Or we’re seeing someone who, like Judas, was a follower of Jesus but who was never really converted.
Have you ever had someone say “I tried Christianity for a while and it just didn’t work for me?” If so, that’s a pretty good indication that the person in question didn’t understand the gospel in the first place. They took Jesus out for a test drive but never took ownership.
This phenomenon – people responding to a misrepresentation of the gospel and then rejecting Christianity later in life – is not new in our day. It’s happened throughout church history.
If you’ve studied the history of the church in America over the past 300 years, you’ve heard of two eras that became known as “Great Awakenings.” These were sustained periods of time when great numbers of men and women were responding to Christian preaching. The First Great Awakening happened in New England in the years just before the American Revolution. The Second Great Awakening happened in both New England and in the frontier states in the early 1800’s.
Probably the best-known individual from that second period is a lawyer turned evangelist named Charles Grandison Finney. He is sometimes called the father of modern evangelism or the father of modern revivalism. Finney is known today for what were in his day known as the “new methods” of evangelism.
Here is how one biographer describes his ministry.
“He looked people in the eye, addressed them as ‘you,’ warned of hell in vivid language, used everyday illustrations, and argued like a lawyer. Adopting a Methodist and Baptist-like call for immediate conversion, his sermons sparked emotional results, with men and women weeping, shouting, falling down ‘in the Spirit,’ and testifying.”
Finney’s new methods were controversial at the time, but you couldn’t deny the crowds or the dramatic results – at least for a time.
Finney eventually looked back with regret over the fact that much of the “fruit” he saw in his ministry did not remain. Near the end of his life, he wrote that he guessed that fewer than 10% of those “converted” under his ministry had continued to follow Christ.
During that same Second Great Awakening, there was another evangelist who is not as well remembered in our day. His name was Asahel Nettleton.
Nettleton was born in Connecticut in the late 1700’s. He came to faith as a teenager when there was a move of God’s Spirit in his hometown of Killingworth, CT. He had always planned that he would take over the family farm when he grew up, but following his conversion, he went to Yale to study (Yale back then was a Christian school. Timothy Dwight, Jonathan Edward’s grandson, was the president when Nettleton was there).
After graduating from Yale, Nettleton became an itinerant preacher. He started out doing what today we call pulpit supply. In one city where he filled a local pulpit, there was an unusual moving of God’s Spirit. The pastors in the area observed in Nettleton what they said was “a more than ordinary gift for evangelism.”
For the next ten years, Nettleton preached throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, with similar responses from people in virtually every setting.
The difference between Finney’s new methods and Nettleton’s approach to evangelism can be best illustrated in a letter Nettleton wrote to a friend following a series of meetings in Middleton, CT. in 1817. Here is a portion of what he wrote:
There has been an increasing solemnity for some time past. Meetings were crowded and solemn.... One young man seized my hand exclaiming “I am a sinner. I am a sinner. What shall I do?” They [the people at the meeting] left the house and went home sighing, and sobbing in every direction. I came home and found a number around the door of Mr. Williams’ house, in the most awful distress. Some were standing, some sitting on the ground, and some on the doorsteps exclaiming “What shall I do? I shall die. I shall die. I can’t live.” This alarmed the neighbors who called to witness the awful scene.
With much ado I got them into the house, about eight or ten in number. The fact was, the young man aforementioned, who left the meeting house in such distress, was walking in company with them, when all at once he found relief and exclaimed “I have found the Saviour.” He was now very joyful. He sat clothed and in his right mind: and they were afraid. My first business was to warn them against a false hope. Prayed with them and enjoined it particularly on them not to go home together, but to go alone, and be alone, for the business must be settled between God and their souls.
Maria (a young woman living in this family) was one of the number. She retired to her chamber, sighing and sobbing, and crying for mercy, and exclaiming, “I shall die, I shall die.” She came down and went out doors and returned in the same awful distress to her chamber. And suddenly all was still and hushed to silence. I sat still below and said nothing. I soon heard the sound of her footsteps descending the chamber stairs. She opened the door and with a joyful countenance exclaimed, “O, Sir, I have found the Savior.” I continued to warn her of the danger of false hope. She exclaimed, “I love Christ. I do love Him. O how sweet.”
Within a few days eight or ten are rejoicing in hope. What will be the end, I know not. Do pray for us, and your friend, A. Nettleton.
The first time I read that letter from Nettleton, two things struck me. First, I thought about how different his report sounded from most of the evangelistic efforts that are happening in our day. And second, I was struck by Nettleton’s response to those who professed faith in Christ. Did you notice? He regularly warned them of the danger of false hope. He didn’t lead them in a prayer and then grant them assurance of salvation. He warned them to take the call to follow Christ seriously.
JC Ryle says this: “Many a man begins a religious life, full of warmth and zeal, and by and bye loses all his first love, and turns back again to the world. He liked the new uniform, and the bounty money, and the name of a Christian soldier. He never considered the watching, and warring, and wounds, and conflicts, which Christian soldiers must endure. Let us never forget this lesson. It need not make us afraid to begin serving Christ, but it ought to make us begin carefully, humbly, and with much prayer for grace.”
As we think about our coming transition from our current space to our new church home, we need to be thinking about how we can clearly and carefully communicate the gospel to our friends, our neighbors and the people God will bring our way. As ambassadors for Christ, we should be mindful of our charge to represent Jesus and the gospel as accurately as we can. Conversion is the work of God’s Spirit. But proclamation is our responsibility. Let’s seek to carry out that responsibility as boldly and as biblically as we can.
At our recent Town Hall meeting, I shared with you an update on our continuing building project. I told you about our wish list – items that were not a part of the original budget for the building but that we’d like to include as new funds become available.
I mentioned at that meeting that someone had made a pledge to provide as a matching gift, $20,000 for some of these unfunded items. To receive that gift, we would need to raise an additional $20,000.
I’m happy to report to you that since that time, we’ve had funds come in to meet the matching gift. In fact, we’ve now received more than $45,000 in donations and/or pledges! That means the total amount raised so far is just over $65,000! As a result, we’re able to move forward with the purchase and installation of the audio equipment and the projectors for the sanctuary.
And, in the last week, we’ve had a second $20,000 matching gift made available to us. That means that if we’re able to raise an additional $20,000 in donations in the next few weeks, we’ll be well over $100,000 in funds raised for our wish list total of about $213,000. And we’ll be able to cover the cost of platform lighting as well as a significant upgrade to our video capabilities.
Would you pray about making a gift this month to the building fund? We’re hoping to move forward soon on many of these items so they can be installed while the building is being built. You can write a check or give on line. Simply write “Building fund match” in the check notation line.
Again, thanks to all who have already given, and thanks in advance for your ongoing generosity and your prayers.
The Men’s Retreat is next weekend!
Last chance to reserve your spot. Click here.
Once again, here are the details.
We’re still hoping to take you on a tour of our new facility soon. Lord willing and weather permitting, we’ll plan to visit the new church building after our worship service on Sunday, March 31.
Meanwhile, this Sunday, we’ll learn about the Apostle John, the man who wrote a big chunk of the New Testament, as we begin an extended study of his first epistle.
See you in church.
Soli Deo Gloria!