The Pelagian System of Decisional Regeneration Detrimental to Evangelism, Says Packer

Tim Brister —  October 25, 2007 — 14 Comments

More from my studies of Finney, this time from Packer in his “zinger” days of old. Below are three quotes from his book A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan View of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990). Anyone see a relationship here between decisional regeneration and unregenerate church membership? Of Finney, Iain Murray argues, “The new teaching, by putting its emphasis on instant action taken by an individual following the evangelist’s appeal and not upon a changed life, inevitably lowered standards of membership in evangelical churches and so encouraged an acceptance of worldliness among professing Christians” (Pentecost Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival, 51). I think Packer agrees. 😉

“While acknowledging—indeed, insisting on—universal depravity in the sense of a constant inclination to sin, he was a clear-headed and forthright Pelagian in his emphatic declarations that everyone is naturally able to turn whole-heartedly to God once he or she is convinced that that is the right, proper, and needful thing to do.” (293)

“If Finney’s doctrine is rejected, such methods are inappropriate to a degree, and actually detrimental to the real work of evangelism. It may be said that results justify their use; but the truth is that most of Finney’s ‘converts’ backslid and fell away, as, so it seems, did the majority of those since Finney’s day whose ‘decision’ was secured by these means.” (294)

“If one tells people that they are under obligation to receive Christ on the spot, and calls in God’s name for instant decision, some who are spiritually unprepared will come forward, accept directions, ‘go through the motions,’ and go away thinking they have received Christ, when in reality they have not done so because they were not yet able to do so. So a crop of false conversions result from these tactics in the nature of the case. Bullying for ‘decisions’ can actually impede and thwart the work of the Holy Spirit in human hearts. When the evangelist takes it on himself to try to pick the fruit before it is ripe, the result is regularly false conversions and hardenings. ‘Quick sake’ techniques in evangelism always tend to boomerang in this way; their long-term effect is regularly barrenness. . . . Finneyism, which seeks to break up the fallow ground, issues rather in a scorching of the earth, a state of diminished rather than enhanced responsiveness to the gospel.” (299-300)

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  • Timmy,

    I think Doctrines of Grace believing Baptists need to carefully ponder issues in relation to the altar call or invitation.

    I believe strong Revivalists actually assign two different meanings to the altar call.

    On the one hand, I think they equate the physical movement of someone coming down the aisle with coming two Jesus.

    On the other hand, I think they see at as a way for people to “confess Christ before men”.

    The first meaning has no biblical support in my opinion and conflicts with my conscience.

    The second meaning, I believe, can be “a” valid way for people to confess their faith before others [although I by no means am saying that it is the “only” way or that people would be in sin if they chose not to come forward]

    I think there are two reasons why Calvinistic Baptists might have a problem with meaning #2 as well.

    1. It is associated with Finney
    2. It possibly goes against the traditional Regulative Principle.

    I don’t think reason #1 is a valid reason to reject the invitation.

    However, I understand that reason #2 can take this topic down the road to discussing/debating the regulative principle.

    I personally do not think that the invitation should be chucked in total because I think it would cause unnessary conflict in most Southern Baptist Churches.

    I personally do not have a problem with what I call an “if/then” invitation–If you have believed in Jesus and would like to make that public, then I invite you to come forward.

    Don’t think I solved the world’s problems, but I hope I have given food for thought.

    God Bless you Timmy


  • Benji,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter. Regarding making a public profession of faith, or as you mention, confessing Christ before men, is this not what the ordinance of baptism is for? I mean, has not been generally understood that the public profession of union with Christ through faith in Him and repentance from sin is expressed in the ordinance of believer’s baptism?

    I am not saying that we should do away with invitations entirely. But I do mean to say that we need examine what exactly is taking place during that time. There are some who think that no one will ever be saved if a church does not give altar calls, that the pastor does not believe in evangelism, etc., but this is simply not true.

    One of the reasons why the public profession was made immediate and visible in revival services and the like is because it comported with the theology of Finney who believed a person can be saved anywhere, anytime given that man’s problem is not a sin problem but one of the will (or preference as Finney puts it). If the will or preference can be overcome by argumentation (which is the only work the Spirit does), then the person can choose Christ and effectually bring about their own salvation.

    Iain Murray explains it this way:

    “If conversion was the result of the sinner’s decision, and if the inducing of that decision was the responsibility of a preacher, assisted by the Holy Spirit, then any measure that would bring the unconverted ‘right up to the point of instant and absolute submission’ had to be good. For me to be converted, he argued, ‘it is necessary to raise an excitement among them.’”

    – Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1994), 246.

  • Sorry for possibly the worst grammatical comment I have ever made on the internet…:)

    I just moved today, give me a break [ha, ha, ha, ha…]

  • Timmy,

    I think I understand where you are going about the theology of it all.

    Yes, I think Baptism is for that. However, I think living out one’s faith before one’s family, etc. is for that too.

    I don’t think the kind of invitation I believe is valid necessitates Finney’s theology.

    It would be nice to have a magic wand to do away with it all [without church conflict], but that is not the world we live in [and I’m sure you know that as well].


  • Benji,

    Yeah, I don’t think it all goes back to Finney, although I do believe he popularized it (along with others such as Billy Sunday and Billy Graham). I am going to blog about this later, but I think it all begins with whether or not we believe that sin is a big problem that we cannot fix (i.e. total depravity). If we can make light of sin, then conversion subsequently can be just as superficial. But if we treat our wounds so lightly, what are we saying about that old rugged cross?

    I guess that’s where I am getting at. To God, salvation and conversion is a big deal, so much so that the Father, Son, and Spirit accomplish it from beginning to end. And when salvation and the souls of men and women are being directed otherwise, then I think the concerns are warranted.

  • Timmy,

    I believe in Mark Dever’s last interview of Lloyd-Jones’s daughter, I think [if I remember correctly] that she said early on in his service as a pastor he would have people raise their hands if they believed that Jesus died for their sins [or something like that].

    Now, that is not exactly an invitation, but that is the kind of thing I am talking about that I do not believe necessarily conflicts with the weightiness of sin/Doctrines of Grace.


  • Benji,

    I admit. I do find that intriguing. I guess my thoughts would be, then, if such raising of the hands would be a reliable sign of a true regenerating work of God. In other words, could some be raising their hands (1) because someone next to them is, (2) because they don’t want to be the odd man left out, (3) that they have enough Bible knowledge to know that is the right thing to “believe, ” (4) genuinely under conviction and think that agreement or assent to such beliefs effects salvation (apart from trust/faith and repentance)?

    Edwards would say that such outward gestures are “negative signs” which cannot distinguish between a true work of the Spirit or an outward manifestation of man. I would tend to agree with Edwards on that.

  • Ahem,

    Why not just let the text of Scripture dictate the “invitiation.” Let’s face it, not every text does this.

    Also, why not be creative with the invitation if you give one? For example, I’ve done this: if preaching to a church that is looking for a pastor, if my message is about that, or, for example, the characteristics of a proper, godly NT local church, have the search committee stand and call for people to covenant publlcily to pray with the members individually after the service and periodically thorughout the search. The onus lies on them to follow through, but it is a concrete and proper invitation for such a message, as opposed to “If you don’t know Jesus come to the front.”

    We’re not against the whole system, just its abuse.

  • Timmy,

    I think you have to take into account what Lloyd-Jones preached before he had people do that.

    Lloyd-Jones was no joke as an evangelist. I think Ian Murray talked about how there would be people who would be so mad at what Lloyd-Jones preached in relation to sin, but would be back to hear him.

  • Mr. Arminibot3000,

    You said,

    We’re not against the whole system, just its abuse.

    I say,

    “Good word, robot.”

  • Benji,

    That’s true. The excesses and injury done through altar calls or decisional regeneration does not justify swinging the pendulum to the point where all invitation are inherently unbiblical. I think we are at a point in our generation where we have seen it done wrong and reaping the effects that we are prone to an overreaction. I hope that is not the case.

  • Don’t you guys know that if God wants to save someone, he doesn’t need our pitiful efforts to get it done?


    Good discussion, I’m gonna chew on this tonight!

  • “all invitation are inherently unbiblical”

    Invitations (at least, in the sense of changing location in a meeting room as an application-?- of a sermon text) are non-biblical at best, again introducing the question of the Regulative Principle.

  • I have an issue with a practice that is along the same lines as the altar call. It normally comes along with the altar call. That is the calling of people to come to the front to kneel and pray. The message given is as if being at the front of the sanctuary is a more holy place where God can and will hear and bless you more. What’s the deal with this?


    P.s. Is there still an altar today anyways?