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by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Lord’s Day Evening, September 26, 2010

“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first…” (II Thessalonians 2:3).

The Apostle Paul tells us that two things will happen before the great and terrible Day of the Lord comes (1) “There shall come a falling away first,” and (2) “that man of sin be revealed.” Dr. McGee said, “First, the organized church will depart from the faith – that is what we call apostasy” (J. Vernon McGee, Th.D., Thru the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983, volume V, p. 413; note on II Thessalonians 2:3). The apostasy of the churches comes first, and then “the man of sin” is revealed. The word “apostasy” means “a departure from the faith,” a falling away from the faith revealed in the Bible.

Whatever eschatological view you hold, you must agree, if you know church history, that we are now living in the midst of the greatest apostasy of the last two thousand years. So, to me, the main thing of interest to us today should be those words in the text, “a falling away first.”

“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first…”
       (II Thessalonians 2:3).

“A falling away first.” Dr. W. A. Criswell pointed out that the Greek words translated “a falling away” are “hē apostasia” – “the apostasy.” Dr. Criswell said, “The use of the article [hē] indicates that Paul has in mind a specific apostasy” – hē apostasia – the apostasy (W. A. Criswell, Ph.D., The Criswell Study Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979, p. 1409; note on II Thessalonians 2:3). Dr. Criswell said, “The use of the article [hē – “the” in English] indicates Paul has in mind a specific apostasy. The implication is that before ‘the day of the Lord’ there will occur a marked falling away of professed believers” (ibid.).

So, when did “the apostasy” start? When did this “specific apostasy” begin? After studying this subject for over twenty-five years, I have become increasingly convinced that today’s apostasy did not suddenly appear. Today’s apostasy had a beginning and growth in history. The beginning of today’s apostasy started with the German theologian Johann Semler (1725-1791), the Bible critic who taught that “there is much in the Bible that is not inspired” (J. D. Douglas, editor, Who’s Who in Christian History, Tyndale House Publishers, 1992, p. 619). Criticism of the Bible grew so rapidly that by 1887 C. H. Spurgeon said, “The church is being buried beneath the boiling mud-showers of modern heresy” (C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Pilgrim Publications, 1974 reprint, volume XXXIII, p. 374). The “Downgrade Controversy,” which Spurgeon fought valiantly, was the beginning of the struggle between Bible believers and Bible critics, known as the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy, which raged in 1887, and goes on to this very day. That is the first component leading to today’s apostasy – the higher criticism of the Bible.

But there is a second element that led to today’s apostasy. In the early part of the nineteenth century two men challenged the foundational teachings of the Reformation. They were Nathaniel Taylor (1786-1858) and Charles G. Finney (1792-1875). Taylor was the first professor of theology at Yale University. Appointed to that position in 1822, Taylor remained the leading theologian at Yale for the rest of his life. Taylor’s views on the freedom of the will caused “such controversy that some more orthodox [men] departed from Yale and set up a rival seminary at Hartford in 1834” – where Finney’s opponent Dr. Asahel Nettleton often taught (Douglas, ibid. p. 661).

Bolstered by Taylor’s theology, Charles G. Finney began attacking the Reformation view of man’s depravity, and salvation by grace alone. Finney introduced “new measures” to his evangelistic meetings, calling on people to make “decisions.” Rather than depending solely on the grace of God to convert them, Finney told people to “make themselves a new heart” by a decision for Christ. Finney led the way for tens of thousands of people to make “decisions” – and consider their physical actions proof that they were saved. This led to millions of unconverted people joining the churches, and to thousands of unconverted ministers, who were soon attracted to German criticism of the Bible. Thus “decisionism” has been the main cause of today’s apostasy – producing both unconverted ministers and unconverted church members by the millions.

“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first…”
       (II Thessalonians 2:3).

We have seen “the apostasy” caused by “decisionism” grow into a huge movement that crippled and then destroyed one denomination after another, moving like a tidal wave across the churches, leaving havoc and ruin in its wake. We have seen the decisionist methods growing out of Finney’s “new measures” being spread world-wide, so in Russia, Poland, France, Asia and elsewhere, people who have never heard of Finney, now believe you can be saved by “going forward” or saying a “sinner’s prayer.” Thus “decisionism” is now a major world-wide error – the greatest threat to real Christianity in our time.

The “Old School” Baptists and Presbyterians opposed the “new measures” of Finney’s “decisionism” for five reasons:

1.  Because they confused the outward act of coming forward or saying a prayer, with the new birth. Finney’s “new measures” taught that an unconverted person could perform certain acts that would help make them Christians. But under “Old School” preaching it was expected that conviction of sin would cause the lost to see a need for God to change the very center of their being – a work of new creation, securing a new life. Without a new life in Christ, the Old School preachers held that no conversion had taken place.

2.  Because the new teaching of Finney was popularizing a dangerously superficial view of conversion, coming from a superficial view of sin. Replying to Finney, Dr. Charles Hodge said, “No more soul-destroying doctrine could be devised than the doctrine that sinners can…repent and believe just when they please” – any time and any place!

3.  Because people were told that they were saved if they came forward or said a sinner’s prayer. Thus, they were given false assurance of salvation.

4.  Because putting the emphasis on man “making a decision” – instead of experiencing a changed life – allowed millions of unconverted people to become church members.

5.  Because they believed, as John Elias said in 1828, that the “…results of [Finney’s] erroneous principles shall be visited upon the ruined churches of our land.” (Condensed from “Why the Old School Opposed Finney” by Iain H. Murray in Pentecost Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998, pp. 49-53.)

But the Old School leaders were unable to stop “decisionism.” The methods and beliefs of “decisionism” spread quickly through the churches because it seemed so much easier to get people to make a superficial “decision for Christ” than to have them go through a thorough conversion, as all the churches had done before Finney. Prior to Finney, hopeful converts were kept on probation for six months or longer before being allowed to make “a public profession of faith” (Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994, p. 369). In 1833 Jacob Knapp, a disciple of Finney, introduced “instant baptism” for the first time in Baptist churches (Revivalism, ibid., p. 313). Knapp said, “Brother Everts and myself baptized ninety-six in one day; and the work went on for ten weeks” (Revivalism, ibid., p. 314). Thus, Jacob Knapp baptized about 900 people in ten weeks. Nearly all of them fell away in a short time. It was at that point that these false converts began to be called “carnal Christians.” The truth was that they were “false brethren” (II Corinthians 11:26), not real Christians at all! Decisionism grew so rapidly that by the 1920s Billy Sunday was proclaiming that everyone was saved who came and shook hands with him at the close of his sermons!

No one seemed to notice that the acceptance of thousands on the basis of a “decision” was killing the churches. The Congregationalists withered and died, followed quickly by the Methodists, then the Presbyterians – and finally, by the Baptists and others. Propped up by every conceivable means, even the Southern Baptists finally began to decline in numbers in 2007. Jim Elliff, a Southern Baptist consultant, said that “…nearly 90% of Southern Baptist church members appear to be little different from the ‘cultural Christians’ who populate mainline denominations. Though these people have ‘prayed the prayer’ and ‘walked the aisle,’ and been told they are Christians, old things have not really passed away, and new things have not come. They are not new creatures in Christ, 2 Cor. 5:17. In too many cases obvious signs of an unregenerate [unconverted] heart can be found…These are ‘professing believers’ which the Bible says are deceived” (Jim Elliff, Southern Baptist Consultant for the Midwestern Center for Biblical Revival, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Founder’s Journal website, February 7, 1999).

In a mad scramble to stop the rupture and save the churches, many preachers of all stripes have turned to various fads – from busing, to purpose-driven, to emerging church modes. Yet the churches, on the whole, grow weaker and weaker year by year. When I talk about “decisionism” most pastors say they don’t practice it. But they do. One pastor, who says he is not a decisionist, coaxed twelve people out of my friend’s church. He baptized all 12 of them the first time they “went forward.” Though he will not admit it, this pastor is a thoroughgoing decisionist of the worst kind! But, in the end, “sheep stealing” only makes the problem worse, because it adds more and more unconverted people to the churches.

Many are now turning to Calvinism, thinking that Reformed doctrine is the answer. This seems like just another fad to me. It has not been blessed with any significant amount of real conversions. No revivals have accompanied it. It seems to me that they are largely teaching Reformed theology to unconverted people, who come to their churches to have their ears tickled intellectually. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called this “dead Calvinism.” He said, “If your Calvinism appears to be dead it is not Calvinism, it is a philosophy. It is a philosophy using Calvinistic terms, it is an intellectualism, and it is not real Calvinism” (The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002 edition, p. 210).  The name for this error is "Sandemanianism."  Click the word to read a sermon on this subject.

Actually, most modern Calvinism I have seen (or read about) presents merely another form of “decisionism.” Instead of making a decision to “come forward,” in the main today’s Calvinism tells you to make a decision to change your theology! It is a mental decision, but it is as much human “decisionism” as going forward in an evangelistic meeting. Instead of a man deciding to go forward, he now decides to believe Calvinistic doctrines. He is supposedly saved by a mental decision rather than a physical one. It is still salvation based on human decisions! But no one is saved by decisions of any kind – either by physically going forward or mentally believing doctrine. No! No! Salvation does not come by man’s decisions at all!

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works [either physical or mental], lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Real conversion comes when the Spirit of God makes you feel like a wretch, lost and blind! Real conversion comes when God’s Spirit teaches your heart to fear wrath and judgment for your sin. Only then will totally depraved sinners be drawn to Christ, washed from sin by His Blood, and saved by His resurrection and His life. That’s what John Newton said, and I agree with him! Sing hymn number 8 on your song sheet! Think about the actual words of the song!

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
   That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
   Was blind but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
   And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
   The hour I first believed!
(“Amazing Grace” by John Newton, 1725-1807).

Click here to read, “A Review of Iain H. Murray’s ‘The Old Evangelicalism.’”

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Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: II Timothy 4:2-5.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“Ye Must Be Born Again” (by William T. Sleeper, 1819-1904).