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DECISIONISM UNTWISTED!

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Saturday Evening, September 26, 2009

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (John 3:6-7).


Last week a gentleman who reads my sermons asked me what I mean when I talk about “decisionism.” I realize there are probably several others asking that question. Click here to read our book on this subject. It is titled, Today’s Apostasy: How Decisionism is Destroying Our Churches.” This book is given in its entirety on my website at no cost. It will probably answer most of your questions about this important topic.

I contend that “decisionism” arose in the United States, in New England and New York, beginning in the 1820s, and that it appeared in the advocacy of the freedom of the will in the “New Haven Theology” of Dr. Nathaniel William Taylor (1786-1858), professor of theology at Yale University. Taylor’s views were popularized by Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875). By 1831 Finney was able to preach a landmark sermon titled, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.” To Finney, and to a lesser degree Taylor, man was no longer seen as a totally depraved creature that could only be converted by the grace and power of God. Instead of lost men depending on God, salvation could be attained at any time, by anyone who made a “decision,” by an act of his own will. This was called the “new divinity” because it changed the traditional Protestant view of the inability of man to play a part in his own conversion. The "new divinity" certainly was new! We call it “decisionism.” The older beliefs and methods of evangelism were soon discarded by the Presbyterians, Congregationalists and most Baptists. In Finney’s own lifetime “decisionism” became the “normal” belief of most churches. So powerful and sweeping were the changes made under Finney that G. M. Rosell calls him the “father of modern revivalism” (J. D. Douglas, Ph.D., editor; Who’s Who in Christian History, Tyndale House Publishers, 1992 edition, p. 247); not the father of revival, but the “father of modern revivalism.” The great days of revival in the First and Second Great Awakenings were already past when Finney appeared on the scene. It was revivalism, not revival, that Finney fathered.

The “decisionism,” introduced and popularized by Finney, was continued by the evangelists who followed him, and it filtered down into all the churches within a few years, so that today the older beliefs and methods of evangelism now are largely unknown. For a full discussion of this subject, read Revival and Revivalism: the Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, by Iain H. Murray, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994. Click here to order it from Amazon.com. Chapter 14 should be read first, then the rest of the book. Another important book on this subject is The Old Evangelicalism: Old Truths for a New Awakening by Iain H. Murray, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005. Click here to read my review of it. Click here to order it.

It is my belief that “decisionism” has played a major part in killing the churches. First it killed the Congregationalists, then the Presbyterians, and now we are experiencing its effects on the Baptists and others. Today we see many articles on the “death of Christianity” in America. This is a direct result of the errors of “decisionism.” As previously stated, click here to read our book, Today’s Apostasy: How Decisionism is Destroying Our Churches. You can read it free of cost on my website. See also Christless Christianity: the Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton, Ph.D. (Baker Books, 2008); especially pp. 199-201, 224-226.

One of the great tragedies connected with “decisionism” is that people don’t know when they are converted – or if they are converted! This confusion appears often in modern Christian biographies. For instance, biographies of the famous Chinese evangelist Dr. John Sung often have “decisionist” confusion in them. Dr. Sung clearly said that he was born again “on 10 February 1927” (The Journal Once Lost: Extracts from the Diary of John Sung, Genesis Books, 2008, p. 43). Dr. Sung said, “After I was born again I felt that everything was now transformed” (ibid., p. 44). He said, “Now that I was born again, I went out daily to spread the Word” (ibid.). Dr. Sung said,

Being born again is a distinctive experience; anybody who has not been born again is a dead living person. Anyone who enters the Kingdom of Heaven has to be born again. Many people believe with their lips and with their minds, but not with their hearts (ibid., p. 236).

Dr. Sung said it – “Being born again is a distinctive experience.” He said he was born again on February 10, 1927.

John Sung was a highly educated man. He earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Ohio State University. He also did post-doctoral theological studies at a famous seminary. It was there that he said he was “born again” on February 10, 1927. Afterwards he became a professional evangelist, committing the rest of his life to preaching the new birth. How could anyone say that this well-educated man, who spent a lifetime studying the new birth, did not know when he himself was born again? Yet that is exactly what Dr. J. Edwin Orr said, “John Sung was converted during the Hinghwa Pentecost” when he was eight years old! (“A Review,” in I Remember John Sung, by William E. Schubert, Strategic Press, n.d., p. 4). Dr. Orr was considered to be the greatest expert on revival in the 20th century. But Dr. Orr said that John Sung was really converted at the age of eight, in 1909, not when Sung himself said he was born again, on February 10, 1927. Who was right, Dr. Sung or J. Edwin Orr? I personally think that Dr. Sung was the one who was right about his own conversion!

Even John Sung’s biographer, Leslie T. Lyall, thought Dr. Sung was born again at the age of eight. Lyall said,

John Sung liked to attribute his first experience of the new birth to his great spiritual crisis in America many years later… One can only suppose that there was some doctrinal confusion which made him discount that evident work of grace in [1909] (Leslie T. Lyall, A Biography of John Sung, China Inland Mission, 1965 edition, p. 9).

Yes, there is “doctrinal confusion” here. But in my opinion it is Mr. Lyall and Dr. Orr who were confused – not Dr. Sung!

It is true that John Sung shed “bitter tears” when he was eight years old (Lyall, ibid.), but there can be no question that he was not born again until February 10, 1927 – eighteen years later!

I believe that Leslie T. Lyall and Dr. J. Edwin Orr were both confused by the doctrines of “decisionism” that ruined the churches in the twentieth century! Thus, our churches are full of people who felt some superficial sorrow for sin and “raised their hands” in Sunday School. They said the “sinner’s prayer.” They went “forward” at “decision time.” But, like the eight-year-old John Sung, they were not born again!

An even greater tragedy happens after they leave the church and come back years later, and “rededicate” themselves. Since no one can be born again by “rededication,” they therefore remain religious but lost church members. This is the sad condition in many of our evangelical churches today.

Now let us turn to our text, which is John 3:6-7,

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (John 3:6-7).

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” Dr. John Gill (1697-1771) said of that phrase,

Man by his natural birth, and as he is born according to the flesh of his natural parents, is a mere natural man; that is, he is carnal and corrupt, and cannot [understand] spiritual things; nor can he, as such, enter into, and inherit the kingdom of God; see I Corinthians 2:14 and 15:50. And therefore there is a necessity of his being born again…by “flesh” is [meant] the nature of man; not merely as weak and frail, but as unclean and corrupt, through sin; and which being propagated by natural generation from sinful men, cannot be otherwise; for “who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one” (Job 14:4)… hence “flesh,” as it stands opposed to “spirit,” signifies the corruption of nature…and such who are in a state of unregeneracy [not born again]… “And that which is born of the Spirit, is spirit”; a man that is regenerated [born again] by the Spirit of God, and the efficacy of his grace, is a spiritual man; he can [understand] things of a spiritual nature… “Spirit,” in the first half of the clause, signifies the Holy Spirit of God, the author of regeneration [the new birth]… and “spirit,” in the latter part [of the clause], intends the internal work of grace done upon the soul, from whence a man [becomes] a spiritual man… “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” For Nicodemus was quite astonished, at this doctrine of the new birth; it was altogether new to him…nor could he understand nor conceive in what manner it could be: “Ye must be born again”… which shows the necessity of it, that without it, no man can either see, or enter into the kingdom of God (John Gill, D.D., An Exposition of the New Testament, The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1989 reprint, volume I, pp. 768-769; notes on John 3:6, 7).

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” You can walk that “flesh” down the aisle at “invitation time” and it is still flesh! You can open your mouth of “flesh” and say a “sinner’s prayer” and it is still simply a prayer uttered by the flesh! Only the Spirit of God can change your heart! When you were born from your mother, you were born flesh. You cannot become a “spiritual” man unless you are born again by God’s Spirit.

Don’t try to figure out how that happens. I don’t think an unconverted man can grasp or understand it.

“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”
       (I Corinthians 2:14).

You can only have some understanding of the new birth after it has happened to you. Generally, there is first an awakening to sin. When your sins, and your sin nature, become deplorable and unbearable to you, then you may be drawn to Christ, and be regenerated, born again, and washed clean from sin by His Blood. It will all sound like a mystery to you until God brings it to pass in your life. Dr. Sung said,

      My spirit was so weighed down by sin that I felt no peace. On the night of 10 February 1927, I wept and prayed in desperation. From about ten o’clock that night, the scenes of my own sinful life played out before my very eyes, even those hidden ones…I could also feel the weight of my manifold sins crushing me almost to death.
      There was the Lord, hanging high on the Cross and blood was oozing from His hands…I dropped to my knees…and pleaded with the Lord to cleanse me with His precious Blood from all unrighteousness. Then the Lord said, “Son, your sins are forgiven!” (The Journal Once Lost, ibid., pp. 42-43).

That was how Dr. Sung was born again on February 10, 1927. It was a classical Protestant conversion, resembling what happened to John Bunyan, George Whitefield, John Wesley and C. H. Spurgeon. And a similar experience must happen to you if you hope to be truly born again.

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (John 3:6-7).

(END OF SERMON)
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