It was bound to happen. Evangelism and Evangelicalism generally taught the same message to Americans, a message that came to permeate American society. American Christianity, especially in the Second Great Awakening, and in the revivals that followed, emphasized that the way to Christ is by faith. The message was preached in country churches, in city cathedrals, in brush arbors, on street corners, and was carried from house to house. America was defined by revivalism. The message was democratic and egalitarian, and fit America perfectly.
In the excitement of revivalism, however, the sturdy Calvinism of the Reformation was an embarrassment. How could the egalitarianism of America be squared with the predestinarianism of the Reformation? New England Theology led the way in attempting the integration. The result was Unitarianism, which came to dominate the universities. On the popular level it was free will arminianism. Man had a free will, it was thought, and every man had the ability to choose to be a Christian. Charles Finney and others believed that if the “sale” were made properly, every man and woman would become a Christian, especially children whose wills were still impressionable. American evangelicalism had no doubt that only God could save a man, but there was also no doubt that man must make the first move. It was man’s free choice that triggered the power of God so that he could be a Christian. Thus the advertising agent became the mover and shaker in evangelism.
I remember my family, lined up on the front pew of an evangelical church, along with a cousin who was staying with us at the time. The minister went down the line, asking each of us, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” Upon our affirmation we were immediately bustled off to a back room, made to put on robes, and were dunked in the baptistery.
And so millions heard this Gospel, walked the sawdust trail, and professed Christianity. But as this writer frequently heard as a boy, very often it didn’t “take.” There were “lapsed” Christian everywhere. The formula had been followed; the words had been uttered, but very many lived far from Christianity, even abandoning the church. Many professed strange doctrines and cults, and denied Christ in works and in doctrine. At Wednesday night prayer meetings, prayers were offered frequently for Mr._________ or Mrs. ___________ who had been saved years ago, but were now “walking afar off.” And, of course, there were frequent prayers for another revival. A corollary of this was criticism that the church for not “paying the price” for revival.
In the years that followed, huge numbers of people abandoned traditional churches for glamorous and “lively” churches that made Christianity “alive and relevant.” The bar was lowered, and fewer and fewer demands were made upon the lives and the doctrines of those who attended.
What was to be thought of such things? Controversies arose among evangelicalism. Were such lapsed people true Christians? Hadn’t they accepted Christ and confessed Him openly? On one side were the “Arminians.” “Of course they aren’t Christians. The will is free, and people can walk away from Christ if they want to. If they don’t live holy lives they will be lost. These people were saved, as God promised, but they have lost their salvation.” In some of these circles, people were saved several times, sometimes baptized several times, hoping to get it right, or until they gave up, saying, “I tried to be a Christian, but I can’t live the life.”
On the other side were the “Calvinists.” They agreed with the Arminians on free-will, and agreed that such people were really saved, but insisted that such were still saved, no matter what the fruits in their lives. Most did not realize that only a tiny remnant of the Reformation remained in their theology, and that their view of faith was as shallow as the “Arminians.” I suppose that few issues have caused such an emotional debate in evangelical circles than the debate between the “once saved always saved” people, and those who think people can lose their salvation.
I heard a new phrase in my late teens. There was a shift in the thinking of some of the more serious evangelicals. The evils of those who “lapsed” from the faith would be cured if we warned people of the dangers of “easy believism.” People needed to be told to repent. It wasn’t easy to go to heaven, and people needed to be told to make a greater effort. It seemed attractive, for certainly there were many warnings in Scripture, and even James had said, “Faith without works is dead.” The message was that “easy” believism does not save. You still hear the phrase today.
But what is the alternative to an “easy believism”? a “hard” believism? Are true Christians those who have built their faith up, worked hard at it, until their faith was hard and tough enough to get the attention of God? Did Christ really mean to say, “Blessed are the tough, for they shall inherit the earth?” and “Blessed are the strong in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”? Is the message of the Gospel this: that men are saved when they join enough of their sincerity and tenacity to the work of the Holy Spirit? What is enough sincerity? How much tenacity is enough?
The problem is that those on both sides of the debate were operating on a wrong view of faith, essentially a humanistic one. They both thought that faith is an ability within the natural strength of any man. Because faith was taught to be a natural power, anyone could exercise it, and if they did so sufficiently, God would add His strength. Men looked to faith itself, rather than to the proper object of faith, Jesus Christ.
It is true that the energy to lay hold on God is faith--but not just any sort of faith. The Apostle Paul put it distinctly in Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” It is faith which is the gift of God—a supernatural power by the Holy Spirit. who calls a man by the Gospel to Jesus Christ, who is the only Savior of men. Faith is the first manifestation of new life in Jesus Christ, a fruit of the Spirit, not of the flesh.
Humanist doctrine perverts the teaching of the Bible and teaches me to look to my faith. This leads either to self-satisfaction and complacency, or to disillusionment and despair. The Biblical doctrine teaches me to look to Christ in the Gospel and to lay hold on Him, and to have no confidence in the flesh. Christ alone is my salvation. The perversion that trusts in faith even exists in some small pseudo-reformed circles, where the purity of doctrine (faith) is taught to be the mark of regeneration.
The promises of the Gospel are not self-help formulas, but are to those who are without strength. It comes to those who are dead in sins, to those who are the poor of the earth. It breathes life and vigor into the dead bones, into the weak and needy. The energy that does this is not natural. It is the vigor that flows to the branches from the Vine, from Jesus Christ, the Savior of the Church.
“Come unto me,” says the blessed Savior, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” Come, not to your faith; but to Christ, where the bankrupt finds riches, the weak find strength, and the needy find mercy. Christ is made unto us wisdom and righteousness, sanctification and redemption. “I believe, help thou my unbelief,” was the prayer of the father in Mark 9:24.
“Easy Believism” or “Hard Believism”? It’s just a humanist quarrel, after all. Biblical faith brings no human power, because it is the gift of God, the work of the Holy Spirit. It is powerful enough to storm the gates of hell, save a man from the wrath of God, unite him to Jesus Christ, and bring him safe through to glory. Hallelujah!!