Revivalism+Pietism+Free Grace Gospel=Death

American Christian culture is revivalistic and pietistic, and when we mix those prevailing elements with the Free Grace gospel message as it is commonly presented, the results are spiritually debilitating, if not fatal.

Revivalism teaches us that the individual conversion experience is by far the most important spiritual experience of a person’s life.  You’ll hear a man telling the story of how he met his wife say something like “…and then I asked her to marry me, and amazingly, she said yes.  It was the most important day of my life — except for when I came to Christ, of course.”

Pietism teaches us that it is not the externals that matter, but the internal condition of the heart before God.

Combined, these two teach that an internal, heart conversion is the quintessence of spiritual experience, and everything else comes in a distant second.

That’s already all kinds of wrong, but let it pass for now.

Add to that already dangerous mix the biblical gospel message: being born into God’s family is a free gift, not dependent in any way on your own works before, during, or after the new birth.  Once you’re in, you’re in forever.

The sum is this: the quintessence of all spiritual experience is a totally free, internal, heart conversion that delivers you from hell and unchangeably guarantees you a place in heaven.  That is by far the most important moment of your life; nothing else even comes close.  Of course you’re supposed to do good works and all that, but that’s very secondary to having the conversion experience itself, which is given to you and to which you can contribute nothing.

What sort of life does that teaching produce?

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Let’s ask it a different way.  Suppose someone really believed that physical birth was the high point of his whole life.  Being squeezed out through the birth canal was as good as it was ever going to get, and everything else was downhill from there.  Isn’t that a twisted way to look at life?

What sort of life do you think that person is likely to have?

Would you be surprised if that person became suicidal?

Me neither.

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Believing that spiritual birth is the high-water mark of the whole Christian life induces spiritual suicide.

FG believers need to understand that until we root out the underlying culture of revivalism and pietism among us, people will come to Christ based on a clear, correct gospel message, and then immediately get confused because at a deep, deep level, they can’t face believing that the high-water mark of their spiritual experience is already behind them.  Revivalism does that already without a FG gospel message, but our clarity on the place of discipleship vis-a-vis the new birth forces the issue into high relief.

People need to believe that the rest of their life matters, and that “further up, and further in” there are glorious heights that await them.  We have allowed them to think that getting into heaven is by far the most important thing, so in a move as unpredictable as sunrise, they begin to think that getting into heaven depends on how they live the rest of their lives.

That is a fatal mistake for an unbeliever.  For someone who’s already believed, it’s still a dangerous, terribly unhealthy mistake to become confused on this point.  But it is not nearly as unhealthy, not nearly as suicide-inducing, as believing that the best and most important spiritual experience of their lives is already behind them.

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Which is to say that the Free Grace theology commonly presented fails to win a hearing because its end product, taken as a whole, is often more spiritually destructive to the life of a believer than the end product of, say, Reformed or Arminian theologies — which at least give some motivation to keep moving — and at some deep level, people seem to recognize it.

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So what do we do?

We go back to the text of Scripture. Where, pray tell, do we see Scripture supporting the idea that conversion is the most important spiritual experience you’ll ever have?

Nowhere I know of.  If you’ve got a passage, by all means let me know.  I’d love to see it.

As far as I can tell, Scripture is not a revivalistic document.  Imagine Moses telling the Exodus Generation, “All right, you’ve just been delivered from bondage and passed through the Red Sea, and that is the most important event that will ever happen to you as a nation.  Nothing else will even come close.”  Imagine Joshua telling the Conquest Generation, “All right, you’ve crossed the Jordan and entered into the Land.  This is the most important thing that will ever happen to you.”  Ridiculous, yes?  There was more to do, further heights to be attained.  True, they could never have reached those further heights without the initial step, but that doesn’t mean that all the focus should be on the initial step.

In fact, of those two generations, one committed suicide by refusing to keep moving forward.  The other pressed on, and achieved everything God had planned for them.  The initial experience, while important, was neither most important, nor did it complete God’s agenda.

We see the same pattern in the New Testament.  Jesus commissions His disciples to “go therefore, and disciple the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  Note where the focus is: not on the initial evangelism, although certainly it’s not possible to fulfill the Great Commission without that, but on making disciples.  That means continuing to learn and grow and develop into all that Christ intended each person to be.  And this is the focus of Christ’s parables as well.  Scholars dispute about whether the thorny ground and stony ground represent truly regenerate people, and about whether the servant who buried his one talent in the ground represents someone who goes to heaven or hell.  (Yes, and heaven, but that’s another post.)  The point here is that no matter which side of that debate an interpreter might take, nobody thinks starting well and finishing badly is the goal.  Everyone understands that the goal is to be the good ground, the servants with five or ten talents — that is, to be a believer who goes on to maturity and becomes all that a believer should be.

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So just for giggles, let me make a modest proposal.  I’m not saying it’s true, and I’m certainly not attached to it.  I can’t prove it.  I don’t know of anywhere in the Bible that says anything like this.  (Have I put in enough disclaimers yet?)  However, I think it will be good exercise to see if you can prove it wrong.

Here it is: The day you came to Christ might be the most important day of your life up to that point, but it is the least important day of your life as a Christian. Who you will be as a Christian depends on every day after that, and every one of them is more important than the day of your birth — today being the most important of all.

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14 Responses to Revivalism+Pietism+Free Grace Gospel=Death

  1. Gary says:

    Tim:

    Well said & extremely important to get across.

    Awhile back when the gospel debate was flaring at greater intensity, I went back into the Text to do my own work on it.

    Let alone having come up with a better understanding of the gospel message itself, I was mainly struck by the fact that in the Text, conversion is for the most part seen simply as a precursor to Christian growth and production. In fact, the main focus is production, it’s the goal, just like planting the seed in the ground has a goal to the profit at the end of the process (parables), just like the evangelizing has the goal of discipling the nations (Commission), just like the legal aspect of justification has the goal of predestination (Romans), and so on…

    At an earlier time I did one of many ongoing studies on the topic of biblical “love.” I came away from that particular study with an interesting focus in line with what you speak of and I’m responding to. For me from that study, I came to see that it was a focus of love to try to assist others to receive a “Well Done!” at the Bema (along with cooperating with grace myself to hopelly be able to hear the same thing). Thus, my focus for the unbelieve and the believer became the same goal – to get the unsaved through conversion to the Well Done & to get the converted to the same Well Done.

    We obviously do not slight the evangelization, but we realize that Christ did much more on the cross than provide the way to conversion. He provided the groundwork for all that is necessary for transformation so we can be conformed to His image.

  2. Gary says:

    Tim:

    To conclude my 1st post which my new computer decided to post by itself before I was able to proof & hit the “Submit” (Windows 7 sticky cursor syndrome or some such thing!), once again, thanks for your posts.

    We’re being prepared for eternity. Our initial faith in Christ is of course vital, but the Bible moves rapidly from there into a focus on the end goal which is the greater gospel which few seem to be focusing on. Maybe you have touched on some of the reasons why.

    Gary

  3. Zoe says:

    Hi there,
    I love this post, Tim, and the comments above. For far too long I have been listening to such comments as “well, we’ve led them to Christ, that is what counts, now we can leave them to it” and various forms of that, and each time has struck deep sorrow into my heart. I was at a Ladies’ Retreat last weekend and one of the speakers put it most succinctly (and femininely!) “When we first receive eternal life, we love Christ because of what He has done for us, as time passes, we should love Him for WHO He is.” I think this dovetails nicely with your post, Tim. How much do we miss out on because we spend our time *exclusively* focused on the cross? The cross is critical, and Christ’s death there stunningly poignant, BUT what about the Resurrection and the LIFE we are now empowered to lead? What about our Lord, Himself – His character, His love, and I could continue indefinitely…
    We have 2 young children (3 and 5), who both have now come to believe in Christ’s message of eternal life. That was exciting, but since those events, I have been watching as their lives begin to open up. They have both understood for some time(the youngest understood this even before eternal life) about confessing their sins to God, and total forgiveness, but are starting to understand things like loving their classmates, even the bullies, eternal and temporal rewards, living wise instead of foolish lives. And even the biblical response to unfair suffering. What should we have done when our 5 year old was being unfairly accused of something at school (aside from talking to the relevant parties!) – “he’s saved, what does it matter from here?”. Aside from missing the opportunity to focus on rewards, this would just have felt like standing by and allowing him to be fed to the lions. And should it be any different for an adult believer? Who wants to see *anyone* left to the rough and tumble of life, unprepared, floundering – when we can see life-giving truth in the Word that could result in rewards, but also a fruitful, joyfully intense experience in life?

  4. Tom says:

    Great post, Tim. I’ve been struggling to get away from this mindset for a number of years…to say it leads to spiritual suicide is perhaps the clearest and most powerful description of the end result of this way of thinking I have heard to date.

  5. Jim Reitman says:

    Yeah, Tim. Not to mention all the problems pietism creates for FG at the opposite extreme. We had a guy visit our SS class 8 days ago who was an ex-con—he hadn’t attended for several years and went on and on about how we aren’t holy enough because we don’t try hard enough. “That’s the problem with evangelicals these days; we need to get back to the way things used to be. People have no business saying they’re Christian if they are not striving to be holy.” As he kept going, there was the strong implication: if you don’t show it you ain’t got it. One of the “regulars” in our class (who occasionally erupts anyway, without any help) took his cue and started railing about immorality in the church and (essentially) how we need to stamp it out to preserve our testimony.

    Oh, that’s the problem, say the holiness folk—all we need is more good flesh to “reverse” the problem we have with bad flesh. For people who would seem to be so zealous for the Spirit, they sure seem to be void of His fruit…not to mention grace. Apparently, they had not yet exegeted to the end of Romans 7.

  6. Tim Nichols says:

    Gary,

    “He provided the groundwork for all that is necessary for transformation so we can be conformed to His image.”
    Exactly! That’s what we were created to be (Gen. 1).

    Thanks for your thoughts — always good to hear from you.

  7. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    Yup. Pietism is a bad, bad deal all the way around. When the Body has a wound that doesn’t heal properly, ugly things grow in it…

    Zoe,
    Thanks for your kind words. The picture you’re painting of your children growing is exactly the way it should be. The seed germinates, and that’s important, but the purpose for it all is to grow fruit.

    Tom,
    Glad it was a blessing to you. I, too, had to escape this way of thinking. I don’t think my background was as extreme as yours, but it was pretty intensely rooted in me. But praise Yahweh for His faithfulness — He is committed to our growth, whether we are or not.

  8. Drew says:

    I think pietism and revivalism spring from Catholicism, Arminianism, and Calvinism rather than the other way around. The idea is that if you have a strong enough revival experience, for example, then that initial “faith” will irrestibly bring about good works in your life and (probably) keep you from losing your salvation (or showing that you never really had it, or whatever). So revivalism is basically a twisted view of eternal security, one that’s easier for false religions to swallow than the reality.

    Same goes for pietism. Catholics and such realize that their ritualistic works-salvation is basically heaven earned by following the law of a pagan Moses. Since they instinctively know that Christianity isn’t supposed to be like that, they offer themselves a tad bit of security: As long as they keep a positive view toward God and a relatively pure heart, they will *probably* make it to heaven because that pure heart will bring about the correct number of works.

    So yeah, I guess it’s definitely good to reject these errors given their diabolical origins. If you give in to them too much, they can drag you back to their theological origins.

  9. Tim Nichols says:

    Drew,

    Historically, both revivalism and pietism spring from times/situations where the church’s besetting sin is empty formalism and the salvation-by-association-with-a-church that accompanies it. Revivalism emphasizes the initial conversion experience as necessary, and pietism emphasizes maintaining a right heart, not just doing the right things outwardly. When those particular points are de-emphasized in the experience of the church, revivalism and pietism spring up like dandelions.

    You’ll find good people associated with both. Let’s face it — if the options are dead formalism or pietism, wouldn’t you rather hang with the pietists who are at least trying to walk with God? If the choice were between one church with a “We have Abraham as our father” mentality, and another that’s revivalistic, wouldn’t you go to the revivalistic church?

    I would. But I’d work for reform…

  10. Michele says:

    Hi Tim,

    The “Here it is: ” paragraph at the closing was a great challenge to thought.

    This was bold,

    Which is to say that the Free Grace theology commonly presented fails to win a hearing because its end product, taken as a whole, is often more spiritually destructive to the life of a believer than the end product of, say, Reformed or Arminian theologies — which at least give some motivation to keep moving — and at some deep level, people seem to recognize it.

    The common post-FG anxiety in my church…. Veni vidi (not so) vici.

  11. Tim Nichols says:

    Michele,

    “Bold” as in overreaching, or “bold” as in unpopular-but-I-said-it-anyhow? Or both?

  12. Michele says:

    Very needed medicine. It was true but I am not sure who else has noticed it, or at least mentioned it. I think time will help me at least, describe faith-alone salvation in an accurate yet not anxiety-making manner (giving the impression that sanctification is no biggie). I am really struggling with it.

  13. David Wyatt says:

    Oh, my! Bro. Tim, you hit a home run with this one (that hurts, having just seen my Reds blow a 6 run lead in the 9th to lose to Philly)! I could go on & on & on & on… about this. I was raised in this mentality, & for many years, & I mean MANY years, I have struggled to pinpoint the exact time I was saved, since that has so often been seen as the end-all experience of the Christian life. Believe it or not, I still struggle with this from time to time like a back burner pot making gurgling noises like it’s going to boil over in my mind. Man, this is so helpful! I can remember many times, & yes I will admit it still occurs at times, looking back to see if I believed just the right thing & the right way at conversion. It is such bondage!! Even with the Biblical Grace Gospel, I find myself going back over & over again, trying to make sure I believed just right, or if it was 100% rather than 99! Oh man, it gets so frustrating! I am so thankful that HE did it all, that IT IS FINISHED & I just rest in His finished work! I must be a real nutcase! But I am so thankful that He will never cast me out anyway! Tim, I have rambled too long already but I could go one indefinitely. You’ve helped, & I thank God for you.

  14. Tim Nichols says:

    David,

    You’re certainly not a nutcase — you wouldn’t believe how common that problem is, even in FG circles. I was never anything but FG, literally from the cradle, and I still struggled with the same doubts you’re describing until I was 16 or so, and God was kind enough to do something for me that simply precluded all doubt. My theology was another 10 years or so catching up — but I knew.

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