Divine Sovereignty Versus Pragmatism

What does God’s sovereignty have to do with the subject of this book? Everything. The very reason many contemporary churches embrace pragmatic methodology is that they lack any understanding of God’s sovereignty in the salvation of the elect. They lose confidence in the power of God to use the preached gospel to reach hardened unbelievers. That’s why they approach evangelism as a marketing problem. Their methodology is shaped accordingly.

More than thirty years ago, J. I. Packer wrote,

If we forget that it is God’s prerogative to give results when the gospel is preached, we shall start to think that it is our responsibility to secure them. And if we forget that only God can give faith, we shall start to think that the making of converts depends, in the last analysis, not on God, but on us, and that the decisive factor is the way in which we evangelize. And this line of thought, consistently followed through, will lead us far astray.

Let us work this out. If we regarded it as our job, not simply to present Christ, but actually to produce converts—to evangelize, not only faithfully, but also successfully—our approach to evangelism would become pragmatic and calculating. We should conclude that our basic equipment, both for personal dealing and for public preaching, must be twofold. We must have, not merely a clear grasp of the meaning and application of the gospel, but also an irresistible technique for inducing a response. We should, therefore, make it our business to try and develop such a technique. And we should evaluate all evangelism, our own and other people’s, by the criterion, not only of the message preached, but also of visible results. If our own efforts were not bearing fruit, we should conclude that our technique still needed improving. If they were bearing fruit, we should conclude that this justified the technique we had been using. We should regard evangelism as an activity involving a battle of wills between ourselves and those to whom we go, a battle in which victory depends on our firing off a heavy enough barrage of calculated effects.

What Packer was warning against is exactly the kind of thinking that has given rise to the user-friendly church and its market-driven, pragmatic philosophy.

Actually, the pragmatic approach to ministry is nothing new. It has roots deep in American church history. The main  was not made by Harry Emerson Fosdick, Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, or any other contemporary advocate of pragmatism. They, along with others, have followed the influence of another man—early nineteenth-century evangelist Charles G. Finney.

Charles Finney got off on the wrong foot when he dismissed the orthodox view of divine election as “an exercise of arbitrary sovereignty.” He rejected the doctrine that conversion is wholly a work of God. He taught instead that faith is fundamentally a human decision and that salvation is secured by the sinner’s own movement toward God.

Although Finney’s fundamental theological error was his rejection of God’s sovereignty, that led inevitably to other errors in his teaching. He concluded that people are sinners by choice, not by nature. He believed the purpose of evangelism should therefore be to convince people to choose differently—or as many would say today, “make a decision for Christ.” The sinner’s choice—not God’s—therefore became the determinative issue in conversion. The means of moving out of darkness into light was in Finney’s opinion nothing more than a simple act of the human will. The preacher’s task was to secure a decision of faith, applying whatever means proved useful. Finney introduced “new measures” (unconventional methodology) into his ministry, often using techniques whose sole design was to shock and intrigue apathetic churchgoers. He was willing to implement virtually any means that would elicit the desired response from his audiences.

Charles Finney’s approach to ministry thus foreshadowed and laid the foundation for modern pragmatism. His teaching and his methods have colored much of American evangelism for the past century and a half. He could rightly be called the father of evangelical pragmatism. The modern market-driven ministry is simply a culmination of the movement Finney began (see Appendix 2). We would expect those who reject the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty to follow Finney, but not those who say they affirm it. Their pragmatism becomes a denial of their theology—a kind of spiritual schizophrenia.

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The above is an Excerpt From Ashamed of the Gospel:  When the Church Becomes Like the World  (page 167), Dr. John MacArthur

4 responses to “Divine Sovereignty Versus Pragmatism

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