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SUPERFICIAL DECISIONISM AND
TRUE REVIVAL CONTRASTED

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Lord's Day Evening, July 27, 2003


"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-7).

Nothing could be clearer in this passage of Scripture than the fact that salvation is the work of God, and does not depend on human works of righteousness.

"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us" (Titus 3:5).

The Apostle Paul tells us that the Jewish people tried "to establish their own righteousness" (Romans 10:3) by obedience to the moral law of God. But obedience to the law of God did not bring them salvation.

"Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin"
      (Romans 3:20).

That is a very clear statement. The purpose of God's moral law is to show us that we are sinners, in need of a Saviour!

Then, the text tells us that God saves us

"by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus 3:5).

"Washing of regeneration" refers to the cleansing that occurs when someone is regenerated. The word "regeneration" is from the Greek word "palingenesia." Vine tells us that it means "new birth" or "spiritual regeneration…involving the communication of a new life…The new birth stresses the communication of spiritual life in contrast to spiritual death" (W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Revell, 1966, p. 267).

The new birth is brought about by the "renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus 3:5). The Person who brings about the new birth is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the agent who gives us the new birth.

This is not the work of man. Verse six makes that clear again,

"Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour" (Titus 3:6).

This whole passage of Scripture makes it perfectly clear that salvation is a gift of God, and is not dependent on the work of man.

"For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8).

Regeneration, or the new birth, is a gift of God, not dependent on human works or human efforts.

"he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus 3:5).

That statement in Titus 3:5 stands in stark contrast to what Charles G. Finney preached. Finney said this about the new birth, "It is a change of choice, or of intention" (Charles G. Finney, Finney's Systematic Theology, Bethany House, 1994 reprint, page 276).

Now it can't be both. Either the new birth is a gift of God, or it is "a change of choice." It can't be both. It is either something God does in you, or it is something you do for yourself. It can't be both. Finney says that the new birth is something you do, by "a change of choice." The Bible says it is something God does for you.

"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour"
   (Titus 3:5-6).

With Finney, man saves himself by a "change of choice." In the Bible, God saves man "by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost"!

Finney's most famous sermon was titled "Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts." But our text in Titus 3:5-7 shows that the very title of his sermon is false! Salvation is a gift from God, not something you do for yourself! This can be proved, not only by the Scriptures, but by three great facts in human experience.

I. First, there have been no great revivals where Finney's ideas have taken root.

This may sound strange to someone who has heard that great revivals came during Finney's ministry. But I question that. I am completely skeptical of that idea. I have read and re-read the accounts of Finney's "revivals," and I have come to the conclusion that they were not revivals at all. Finney simply came to churches that were strongly Calvinistic and told the people their ministers were wrong - and that they could "change their own hearts - and do it now!" The people flocked to the mourner's bench, to make public professions, but it ruined the churches, filling them with lost people. During Finney's own lifetime the churches he preached in, the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, became total liberals. This was the result of Finney's so-called "revivals." Floods of unconverted people joined the churches! Finney's "decisionism" produced liberalism!

The First Great Awakening occurred between 1734 and 1760. The Second Great Awakening occurred between 1800 and 1820. The Third Great Awakening occurred between 1857 and 1859. But Finney was not the leader of any of these revivals. Finney's main years of ministry were between 1821 and 1829. He was an old man on the sidelines during the Third Great Awakening. Finney's book, Revival Lectures, has never been used of God in promoting a regional revival in the English-speaking world. That is a statement of historical fact.

William G. McLoughlin, Jr. pointed out that

The official statistics of the Presbyterian Church [where Finney's methods were used] which began to be published in 1826 [showed a rapid] decline after the peak years 1831-32…Between 1834 and 1836 the churches actually suffered a net loss of over 27,000 members…Finney himself seemed to acknowledge the failure of his work. He declared in a lecture which was published in the New York Evangelist that of all the converts of the revivals of the preceding ten years "the great body of them are a disgrace to religion. Of what use would it be to have a thousand members added to the Church to be just as are now in it" (William G. McLoughlin, Jr., Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham, The Ronald Press, 1959, pp. 145, 147).

Jabez Swan and Jacob Knapp brought Finney's theology and methods into the Baptist churches with equally devastating results. Knapp introduced Finney's teachings on salvation by "decisionism" and insisted on instant baptism. "He boasted that he once baptized sixty people in thirty minutes" (McLoughlin, op. cit., pp. 140-141). Knapp introduced "decisionism" and instant baptism to the Baptist churches.

Why didn't Finney's ideas promote real revival? Simply because Finney taught that salvation is a work of man, and that revival is a work of man. Finney said that the new birth is "a change of choice," a work of man. Finney said, "A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense" (Charles G. Finney, Revival Lectures, Revell, n.d., p. 5, emphasis mine). He said, "A revival is the result of the right use of the appropriate means" (ibid.). So, he taught that revival is a work of man.

Finney's ideas produced what has come to be known as "decisionism." Since Finney's decisionism became popular, there has been no major revival. The reason is clear: revivals are indeed miracles, and so is the new birth of an individual.

You see, a revival is nothing else but a number of people getting saved in a short period of time by a move of God. In our own church there has recently been a minor revival. The Puritans would certainly have called it a revival. In eleven weeks ten people appear quite definitely to have experienced conversion - nearly one a week. I do not merely mean that these people "came forward." I mean that they quite definitely appear to have come under the convincing power of the Holy Spirit, and to have come directly to Jesus Christ. All of these ten people attend both the Sunday morning and evening services every week, as well as the weekly prayer meeting and evangelism outreach program in our church. I have personally heard their testimonies, and I can assure you that they are not based on superficial "decisions" for Christ. They have experienced conviction of sin and forgiveness in Christ Jesus. They can give testimony to the fact that Jesus Christ saved them from sin.

One of them is a Chinese girl, just entering her first year of college. She came from a non-Christian home, and had no knowledge of Christ before coming to our church last year. Another is a young Hispanic man who is struggling to learn English. Before he came to our church several months ago he was a nominal Roman Catholic. Since his conversion he moved into a room in the home of one of our deacons. He is a well-grounded Christian after being exposed to the gospel only a few months. Four of these hopeful converts are young people who were raised in the church by their parents. These four college-age young people appear quite definitely to have passed from death to life in true conversion. They are now happy and zealous Christians, where before they were sluggish, disinterested "church kids." Their apparent conversions have brought a remarkable change in their love for God and desire to do His will. Instead of being half-dead, rebellious "church kids," they now appear as zealous young Christians. This is wonderful, and quite remarkable.

The seventh young man is an American-born Korean college student. He came from a Roman Catholic background. He saw the error of trying to save himself by good works, became convinced of his inward sin, and it seems very likely that he has come to Christ and is saved. He now lives in a room in our house and attends college with my sons. It is a joy  having  this  bright  new  Christian  living  with  us.   He  joins  our  family  for  devotions  each  night.

The eighth hopeful convert in that eleven-week period is a teenage girl who is the daughter of the head usher in our church. She strongly resisted coming to Christ for many months. At one point, my wife said, "Her heart is very hard." Then, on May 18th, she suddenly trusted Christ in my office. I had said to her repeatedly, "Will you come to Christ?" Her answer had always been, "No." Tears of conviction streamed down her face, but she kept on saying "no" to the Saviour. Then one night she said, "Yes." She has a beautiful smile on her face every day now, and is a real asset to our church.

The ninth teenager had been attending a new-evangelical high school, and had fallen in with the rebellious "church kids" at her school. Then, through a series of events at the school, she became dissatisfied with the hypocritical lives of her classmates. This led her to examine her own life, and to become convinced of her sin. She then hopefully came to Jesus  Christ  for  forgiveness,  and  is  now  very  helpful  and  enthusiastic  in  the  work  of  our  church.

The tenth of these new hopeful converts is a Chinese exchange student from Taiwan, twenty-six years old, with a Master's degree in engineering. When he came to the church a year ago he was an out-and-out atheist. He nearly left our church several times because he said he didn't believe in God. But gradually the light of the gospel shined in his heart, and he, too, passed from death to life. Convinced of his sin, he trusted Jesus. He seems to have been converted, and now goes to evangelize young Asian students at several college campuses every week, through our church's outreach program.

These ten college-age young people are, as Spurgeon would say, "trophies of God's grace." And the old Puritans would certainly have said that we experienced a small revival in our church during the eleven-week period when they were converted.

We didn't push them to make "decisions for Christ." I just kept preaching the gospel Sunday after Sunday, and Dr. Cagan, my associate, and I carefully counselled them by asking them questions and hearing their answers in my office each Sunday, after the gospel was preached.

This is revival! This is what we need in our churches! May God give us several more conversions like this in the weeks and months ahead!

We treat people like this as individuals. Each of them has his or her own background. You cannot run them through an assembly line - like Finney and his successor Billy Graham do. They must be treated with quiet dignity and given plenty of time in private with the pastor. It may take a lot longer to do that than to merely get them to the front and quickly baptize them, the way old Jacob Knapp did. He learned his methods from Finney. But we gave up the Finney-style, high-pressure, manipulative method long ago - because it just doesn't get people saved! We take time with the people, as Jesus did with Nicodemus in a counselling session that must have lasted several hours one night. Although we do not counsel for hours, as Christ did on this occasion, we have many short counselling sessions in my office with those who are seeking salvation. This to me is the way to restore real conversions, and make possible God-sent revival.

II. Second, we must actually preach the gospel 
for real conversions like this to occur.

I generally preach a simple gospel sermon on Sunday morning, and go more deeply into the theology and Scripture concerning salvation on Sunday night. All of our members are present on Sunday night, and also a number of lost visitors, although most of our first-time visitors are with us Sunday morning. But after a while, they begin coming Sunday night as well. My Sunday night sermons go more deeply into the great themes of salvation in the Scriptures. I almost never preach what are now called "expository sermons," on a long passage of Scripture. I believe that this modern type of sermon is not conducive to evangelism or to building up Christians. That is my belief.

You young people are confronted with so many ideas during the week that I feel I must stick to central questions, to keep your mind focused on the gospel, the very center of our religion. I do not preach shallow sermons. I spend over thirty hours each week studying and writing out, word-for-word, these gospel sermons. Yes, I read them, virtually word-for-word. I only learned to do this about two years ago, at the age of sixty, but I believe it is the way God wants me to do it - at least in this stage of my ministry. Jonathan Edwards experienced great revival under the reading of his sermon manuscripts. I think it is hard to beat the method of the man God used to bring in the First Great Awakening!

But they must be gospel sermons - focusing on sin, depravity, grace, the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and above all, the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ!

III. Third, we must not excite you emotionally to make a superficial "decision."

I know how to preach that way. People have told me in the past that I was quite good at it. But as I read about Finney and his followers, I became more and more dissatisfied with what Duncan Campbell called, "High pressure techniques to get men into an inquiry room [to get them to respond physically]."

To be honest, I am enough of a pragmatist to know this hardly ever results in people getting saved. After getting literally hundreds to "come forward to receive Christ," I found that very few of them experienced true salvation. So, slowly and reluctantly, I gave up Finney's high-pressure tactics in my sermons. Now, I either throw the whole matter back on the lost - and tell them to go home and think about what I said, and trust Christ. Or I give a very brief and unemotional invitation for them to go to my office for counselling. I never tell them that they must come forward "to be saved!" Instead, I say, "If you would like to speak to me or Dr. Cagan about your salvation, leave your seat quietly and come and stand here in front of the pulpit. After you have come, we will go and discuss the salvation of your soul in the quietness of my office."

Far more people have been saved in the last few years in our church using this appeal, than we ever had before, when we used a Finney-like high-pressure invitation.

You  are  far  too  important  to  God  for  us  to  run  you  through  an  assembly  line.   Each  one  of  you  has  a  story  to  tell,  and  questions  to  ask.   And  we  are  here  to  help  guide  you  to  Christ.

I must emphasize that you are a sinner - that you are ruined by sin - that you cannot in any way do any thing to save yourself. When the Holy Spirit convinces you that this is Scriptural and right, when you become aware and convinced that you are sinful and lost, then perhaps you will come to Christ.

I do not think that everyone experiences the same degree of conviction of sin. Everyone does not need the same conviction. God knows that we are all quite different from each other. But if you are at all convicted of sin, and convinced that you are a lost sinner, why not come and talk with our Deacon Dr. Cagan and myself up in my office after this sermon? What do you have to lose? You have some questions you would like to ask us. You need answers from God's Word. You want to know how Jesus Christ can save you. You are somewhat troubled about going on like you are. You are at least somewhat troubled about the prospect of going to Hell when you die - which could come far sooner than you realize. Then why not take a few minutes to come and talk with us about it?

We are going to sing a little chorus from memory. While we sing, you slip out of your seat and come and stand here in front of this pulpit. Then we'll go upstairs and talk about it.

Our text said,

"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-7).

God will save you by His great mercy. God will wash you clean by regenerating you through His Spirit. He will save you by the abundant mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. Christ loves you and He wants to save you.

Come and talk with me about it as we sing a little chorus. You come, while we sing.


(END OF SERMON)

Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: Titus 3:3-7.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:

"Ye Must Be Born Again" (by William T. Sleeper, 1819-1904).

THE OUTLINE OF

SUPERFICIAL DECISIONISM AND
TRUE REVIVAL CONTRASTED

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

 

"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-7).

(Romans 10:3; 3:20; Ephesians 2:8)

I.   There have been no great revivals where Finney's ideas
have taken root.

II.  We must actually preach the gospel for real conversions
to occur.

III. We must not excite you emotionally to make a superficial
"decision."

You can read Dr. Hymers' sermons each week on the Internet
at www.rlhymersjr.com. Click on "Sermon Manuscripts."