A number of years ago I was speaking in a church on the subject of salvation. I made the point, as a side note, that salvation is not a one-time event, but that it is a process. In fact, the New Testament speaks of salvation using all of the tenses—past, present/continuous, and future, “I was saved,” “I am saved” (justification), “I am being saved” (sanctification), and “I will be saved” (glorification).
A few days later as I sat in a restaurant with two fundamentalist preachers who had been present in the meeting and who were much older men than I, one of them cautioned me about speaking of salvation in this way. His fear was that it could confuse people. I admitted that I may have caused confusion by the way I framed my thoughts, but I underlined the importance and benefit of seeing the full biblical perspective of salvation from the Scriptures. Thankfully, the other gentleman came to my defense.
In some church circles it is customary to preach specifically to Christians in the morning worship service and to preach a dedicated “gospel” (i.e., evangelistic) message in the evening service to the unconverted. This practice developed in cultures in which the unsaved would attend the evening service rather than the morning, which is no longer the case. On two occasions now after Sunday evening services I have been questioned as to why I did not preach “the gospel”!
On one occasion, just prior to the service, the minister asked my subject matter. I gave him the title of my sermon and he said, “Do you not preach the gospel on a Sunday evening?” I replied, with a light-hearted smile, “I preach the gospel every time I preach” and we made our way to the pulpit.
On another occasion, after preaching on the subject of glorification from 1 John 3:1–3 and, incidentally, with an unsaved friend in the meeting, I was asked at the door by a young lady, “Do you not believe in preaching the gospel on a Sunday night?” My reply to her was, “What do you think you just heard?”
While these three incidents were in a congenial atmosphere, they betray a limited, if not an unbiblical use, of the words “salvation” and “gospel.” These incidents bring to the surface the idea that the gospel is a message for unbelievers and that believers need some sort of post-gospel message, a different message. In short, one might say, “I’ve heard the gospel; I’m saved. Now just tell me how to live as a Christian.”
On the face of it this statement might seem quite biblical. However, two problems arise out of it in the context of the fundamentalist movement: a shallow evangelism and a tendency to legalistic holiness.
Ironically, the early fundamentalist movement had a keen interest in the conversion of sinners and a high regard for personal holiness. However, perversions of these two virtues have become fundamentalism’s greatest danger. In many areas of the movement, both evangelism and personal holiness degenerated into empty forms without a sound and exegetical foundation. Holiness became a mere form, a list of “does and don’ts,” and evangelism became an invitation to “accept Jesus” without a clear understanding of the depth of original and personal sin or the glory and fullness of what sinners are invited to in the gospel.
Before I address these two areas of evangelism and holiness, let me say something about the reason for this shift from principles to empty form: the lack of exegetical foundation.
Fundamentalists have always been very principled people. The problem is that the movement became so principle driven that a fundamentalist mentality formed outside of a biblical framework. According to E. J. Carnell the “capital mistake” that converted fundamentalism from a “movement to a mentality” was that, “unlike the Continental Reformers and the English Dissenters, the Fundamentalists failed to connect their convictions with the classical creeds of the church.” E. J. Carnell again:
The mentality of fundamentalism is dominated by ideological thinking. Ideological thinking is rigid, intolerant and doctrinaire; it sees principles everywhere, and all principles come in clear tones of black and white. It wages holy wars without acknowledging the elements of pride and personal interest that prompt the call to battle; it creates new evils while trying to correct old ones.
The principles, however noble, were often not based soundly on biblical exegesis but on isolated proof texts. There are many examples of this. Let me give you just one: the notion that Christians shouldn’t do anything that might look to anyone else like sin. The verse that was used to defend this principle is “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). This is a misinterpretation of the verse. Interestingly, in a 1962 evangelical magazine, on the same page as an article by one of Western Canada’s most prominent fundamentalist leaders, the then young Elizabeth Elliot wrote an article, “What is really meant by ‘appearance of evil?’” to try to correct the interpretation.
A selection of fundamentalist/evangelical periodicals spanning 7 decades and representing five countries
After providing some examples from Scripture of occasions when men and women did things that “looked like sin” but were not, Elliot presented a number of different translations of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 and concluded that Paul is saying, “Test everything, discern, keep that which is good, but avoid every form of evil.” Elliot reminded readers,
Decisions must be made in the integrity of the heart before God—with an unselfish attention to our brother’s good and the glory of God.… Let us not be Pharisees in our certainty of what God could or could not permit.
The problem of proof-texting biblical principles arose because fundamentalists were typically afraid of academics and learning; after all, it was scholarship that had brought in liberalism and destroyed the church. For this reason, as a general rule fundamentalists avoided academics. I had one individual, a pastor, say to me once, “I don’t need to read history; all I need is my Bible.” I was shocked at this statement initially, but as time went on I realized that it illustrates very well the sort of mentality that has become such a part of fundamentalism. Unfortunately, this sort of statement forgets that his Bible is history and redemption is revealed through history!
Dr. Kevin Bauder, one of the most prolific writers in fundamentalism today, writes,
Part of the fault lies with fundamentalists themselves. For a generation or more, they have produced few sustained expositions of their ideas. Perhaps a certain amount of stereotyping is excusable, and maybe even unavoidable. No fundamentalist has produced a critical history of fundamentalism. Nor is any sustained, scholarly theological examination of core fundamentalist ideas available.” (“Fundamentalism” in The Spectrum of Evangelicalism, 19).
As a result of this lack of biblical/theological investigation and self-examination, fundamentalism’s most admirable characteristics—evangelism and personal holiness—degenerated into quibbles about makeup, hem lengths, and hair styles, and evangelism turned into a mere invitation.
Let me address the area of evangelism and revivalism first. I recently spoke to a member of a fundamentalist church who is very discouraged by the shallow evangelistic preaching. He summed it up and, with a sense of hopelessness said, “It’s all invitation and no content.” He may not have known it but this is classical revivalistic preaching.
Revivalism is what we might call free-style evangelism, closely associated with the techniques and “new measures” of Charles G. Finney (1792–1875) and more recently with the mass evangelism of Billy Graham. Revivalism erodes the theological foundation of the gospel, cheapens salvation, and focuses on the external results of evangelism. Numbers are crucial to the revivalist mentality and numerous methods are used to draw crowds. To that end many churches have regular testimony slots in the evening meeting—celebrity testimonies especially are a big attraction—and of course a continuous flow of special music.
In the revivailistic mentality the effectiveness of the minister is determined by how many conversions he can chalk up to his ministry and these conversions are considered “God’s seal” on his ministry. According to that rule, of course, Noah was a failure, and so were Ezekiel and Jeremiah, etc.
A few years ago a friend of mine was attending a fundamentalist church in Canada. On one occasion he inadvertently came within earshot of a Sunday school class that one his children was in. The teacher was attempting to present the gospel. After establishing the fact that children are afraid of the darkness, the teacher described the scene of a potential car accident on the way home from church. In this hypothetical scene both the parents died and the children were left without mom and dad. The application was forceful and manipulative. I paraphrase: “Don’t you want to go to be with your parents and not be shut out into the darkness of hell forever?”
This is the type of shallow, fear-mongering evangelism that develops out of the lack-of-content gospel. It was the sort that many fundamentalists were quick to criticize in the Billy Graham crusades. It is the sort of gospel—the Jack Hyles’ variety—that gets thousands up the aisle to accept Jesus only to discover that the Jesus they accepted was a hollow replica of the Christ of Scripture.
In his recent book called Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart (B&H Publishing Group, 2013), J. D. Greear addresses the same subject. He chastises the revivalistic, guilt-driven type of evangelistic preaching that demands of listeners an in-the-moment “decision for Jesus” and then leaves them confused. All of the clichés of this type of evangelistic preaching are dealt with: the “sinner’s prayer,” “asking Jesus into your heart,” “getting saved.” The main thesis that Greear presents is stated in the first chapter: “Salvation is not a prayer you pray in a one-time ceremony and then move on from; salvation is a posture of repentance and faith that you begin in a moment and maintain for the rest of your life.”
Greear states that the sinner’s prayer is a biblical concept and that asking Jesus into your heart is not wrong in itself or unbiblical. His concern is that it is grossly misleading because it leaves so much out of what happens at conversion that is equally important: the sealing of the Spirit, the washing of the blood, one’s name being written in the Lamb’s book of life, etc. When Paul said that the “gospel is the power of God unto salvation” he did not simply mean that the gospel brings us to God, but, to use the title of Dr. Derick Thomas’s recent book, it is the gospel that “brings us all the way home.”
The second area that lacked sound biblical footing in the fundamentalist ethos was personal holiness. The two fault lines are linked. In the absence of a full gospel message, where Christ is not only Saviour, but the sanctifier through His Spirit, something has to replace that agent of sanctification. Fundamentalists very often replaced spiritual growth in grace with a moral code of their own which was culturally and sociologically mandated. Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, the personal holiness of the fundamentalists was sincere and well-intended. Nonetheless, the holiness of many fundamentalists was reduced to what we do, not what we are.
Here again, the fundamentalist mentality comes to the surface as a superficial (not based on Scripture but on culture and sociology), judgmental spirit that manipulates the unsuspecting to conform to a particular code and outward appearance. In some cases modesty was not taught as a biblical principle but as a cultural more.
Worldliness very often became geographically defined. There are things that were counted “worldly” in certain parts of the world that were not considered to be so in other parts. In the 1970s and 80s worldliness looked different in Britain than it did in North America, and it still does today. Consider men’s hairstyles or ladies’ cosmetic makeup for an example. In the 1970s men in Britain wore their hair longer than they do today, often covering their shirt collars. In North American churches this was shameful and in some colleges it was forbidden to wear the hair touching the ears or shirt collar. In the 1970s also, conservative Christian ladies in Britain shunned cosmetics as worldly while their North American counterparts painted it on in abundance, encouraged by one of their leaders, Bob Jones, Sr., who famously said, “If the barn door needs painting, paint it.”
To obey the command, “love not the world,” the fundamentalists took the easy path and emphasized conservative living rather than biblical thinking. Scripture demands, however, that we try the spirits (1 John 4:1), search our hearts (Psalm 139:23), and to inform our minds (1 Peter 1:13). The point is clear: worldliness is not always as overt and identifiable as one might think. Furthermore, the command to “love not the world” is not only obeyed by distancing oneself from certain activities and objects in the world or by entrenching oneself in a particular form of Christianity. Worldliness is not so much what we reject of this world—the material things, the pleasures, or the fashions; it has more to do with how we respond to the influences of the world around us. It is not so much about right living as it is about right thinking; not so much about things as it is about thoughts. R. B. Kuiper wrote:
There is a type of worldliness which is extremely prevalent in the church today and is doing untold damage, yet is hardly recognized as worldliness…. It is to count greatness as the world is wont to, to stress externals at the expense of spiritual values. (The Glorious Body of Christ, 15)