by Mike Ratliff
God is an expert at cutting through the blindness and hardness in our hearts. In 1995 I was a Deacon at a church in Oklahoma. I had been a Christian about 10 years at that time. I was at a point in my walk at that time that I am actually ashamed to discuss. I was active in Church, but the rest of the time, I functioned almost as an unbeliever. Then on April 19th I had a huge intervention into my life. While I was in my office at Bank of Oklahoma in downtown Oklahoma City, Timothy McVee set off a massive truck bomb just a block or so North of our building all but wiping out the Federal Building. I wrote about my experiences from this in Do Not Grow Weary.
Prior to this, as I stated earlier, my Christian walk was very shallow. I spent very little time in prayer and studied my Bible only to prepare to teach. I was on auto pilot. I remember prior to the bombing being very sure about the veracity of my religiosity. Don’t we all have a “value system” or mindset that contains our belief system? We are all born with this. Our default belief system is one of works righteousness. It sees God as being fair above all. However this fairness is based on our own innate feelings and beliefs not the Word of God. In any case, my spiritual condition prior to April 19, 1995 was one of belief, but much of my theology was still based entirely on my own performance. I remember around that time reconciling my poor “performance” with the fact that I was going to be one of those making it to Heaven by the “skin of my teeth.” Even so, I was still adamantly opposed to any theological teachings that smacked of what I know now as Reformed Theology.
The bombing experience shattered my complacency, but on the flip side, God also created a spiritual situation for me in which I became aware of Him continually placing before me points of contention where I must choose to respond to Him in faith or in unbelief. The former would be obedience based in trust in Him while the latter would be a decision to not trust Him because of the perceived risk. Risk to what? This can only be understood as a refusal to obey Him because it appeared to be costly if I did obey. Also, I was struggling mightily at this time with anger and emotional trauma. So when I did obey Him it was a wonderful thing and I was always aware of Him moving in me to teach or minister. However, if it all became too much, I would take the easy way out and not risk anything. God did this with me continually over the next 9 years or so. My trust in my stored up theology had begun to develop a lot of cracks. God’s ways seemed so different than what I had thought I understood before. His ways seemed to have no reference point where they coincided with Him being “fair” according to my standards.
During this period my “theology” in my heart would have had no problem with any form of pragmatic ways to “do church.” One of the things I clung to all through this was that I had “made my decision for Christ” back in 1986 and that it was by me doing that that I was a Christian. Therefore, any form of “doing church” that matched that understanding was fine by me. On the other hand, I remember viewing those denominations that seemed more formal than us as being mired in religiosity. How could anyone get saved in a “system like that?” Unless there is a system in place to facilitate people making decisions then how can people get saved?
If you read Do Not Grow Weary then you know that God did not leave me in this pathetic theological state. What He did for me in 2004 I view now as a miracle of Grace. He turned my “belief system” upside down then replaced it with one that is Biblical instead one of my own creation. He took away my spiritual blindness and hardness of heart. He took away my unbelief and opened my eyes so I could see the truth and believe. He took my faith and gave it power. Of course this is His power and it is the Holy Spirit as wind in my spiritual sails, moving me into obedience.
I shared all of that to lead into the main topic for this post. The root of pragmatism is unbelief. God does put each of us who are on this narrow way into circumstances which are really points of decision or contention. Are we going to take the right fork or the left fork in the path? The right fork is to walk by faith, obey God and trust Him through it all. The left fork is to walk by sight, disobey God and sink further into unbelief and unfaithfulness. The more left forks we take the further we proceed into blindness and hard-heartedness until we are right where I was before God intervened into my life in 1995.
If we are in that state then we are spiritually sick. However, since we have God’s divine nature in us, there are times we can still be used by Him in the working of our spiritual gifts, but there is a huge missing piece. When I was in this sorry state I was serving God perfunctorily. I would live my own way the rest of the time. The missing piece was the crucified life, the obedient life that is spirit-filled and moves in obedience to God by our spiritual sails being filled with the Holy Spirit. The Christian who is operating in unbelief is hard-hearted and spiritually blind. Only God can shatter it. Sadly, I believe that most Christians are in this state. They are in unbelief so they do not have the power of the Holy Spirit moving in their lives. To compensate, they depend upon pragmatism. This pragmatism takes many forms, but tragically, it has morphed into ways to do church, such as the Purpose Driven Church model as well as the Willow Creek Association. These forms of “doing church” are simply pragmatic approaches to evangelism, gearing every aspect of a church to this role and it is all by works and not by faith at all.
These pragmatics are products of the the “church growth” movement. This movement has its roots in the teaching of C. Peter Wagner.
At the heart of Wagner’s teaching and the church growth movement are principles related to evangelism. Wagner has admirably promoted the work of evangelism as being of utmost importance in the local church. When his understanding of evangelism is examined in the light of Scripture, however, some serious question marks appear. He divides evangelism into the following categories(C. Peter Wagner, editor, with Win Arn and Elmer Towns, Church Growth: State of the Art. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1988, pp. 296-297):
* Presence Evangelism. Getting next to people and helping them; doing good in the world; designated “1-P” evangelism.
* Proclamation Evangelism. Presenting the gospel; the death and resurrection of Christ is communicated; people hear and can respond; designated “2-P” evangelism.
* Persuasion Evangelism. Making disciples; stresses the importance of not separating evangelism and follow-up; incorporating people into the body of Christ; designated “3-P” evangelism.”
Wagner points out that all three types of evangelism have their place, but the goal must be to carry out “3-P” evangelism. Few would disagree with the fact that “1-P” evangelism cannot adequately communicate the gospel to an unbeliever. But few also would deny that without the visible presence of those who have been animated by the gospel of Christ, all other evangelism would be stifled.
The biggest problem comes in Wagner’s understanding of “2-P” evangelism. According to his definition it appears to be little more than preaching or a verbal witness of the facts of the gospel. Then the unbeliever can make up his mind on whether the facts presented appear to be worthy of his deciding to embrace the gospel.
“3-P” evangelism becomes the focal point for church growth proponents. It does involve both presence and proclamation, but that is not enough. The evangelist must use every means at his disposal to persuade an unbeliever to turn from his sin and believe in Christ so that he becomes a disciple. In class lectures, Wagner capitalizes upon the Greek word, peitho, and its use in the book of Acts. He cites Acts 13:43, 17:4, 18:4, 26:28, and 28:23-24, where peitho is used as a reference to an evangelistic appeal. Wagner consistently portrays the word as meaning “to persuade.” Therefore, proper evangelism will be persuasion evangelism.
There are several problems with Wagner’s deduction from these passages in the book of Acts. First, it is generally unwise to build a theology upon a historical section of Scripture unless there are no didactic or instructional passages dealing with the subject. The New Testament abounds with passages referring to the work of evangelism. Most notable is Paul’s clear explanation of his method for evangelizing in Rom. 1:16-17. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” Paul declared that the gospel is adequate enough through the work of the Holy Spirit to bring a man to a saving knowledge of Christ.
In 1 Cor. 2:4, 5 he points out that he sought to proclaim the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit rather than using all of the common mind-control techniques of the Greeks. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive [Greek, peitho] words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. The Apostle also contends that Christians should so live out the reality of the gospel that they will “appear as lights in the world,” which is “1-P” evangelism according to Wagner’s definition. On the heels of such a statement he then shows the appropriate method of evangelizing, “Holding forth the word of life,” which puts the believer in the position of presenting (i.e., “proclaiming”) the life-giving truth of God’s Word to unbelieving men (Phil. 1:15-16).
Second, Wagner’s use of peitho as the basis for persuasion evangelism is extremely weak. To limit the translation of this word to one use shows a lack of understanding the breadth of the Greek language. While peitho can be translated “persuade” in numerous places, it also can best be translated by “urged,” “convinced,” “seduced,” “entreat,” and even “bribe” in other cases. The context determines the best translation of the word. Did Luke, the biblical writer in Acts, use peitho to refer to a certain type of persuasive methodology employed by Paul and other early disciples? Obviously, Luke would never want to use manipulation, trickery, or deceit in the work of evangelism (see the use of peitho in Acts 12:20, 14:19, and 19:26 where the ideas of “seduce” and “bribe” are conveyed in the Greek text of these verses). To do so would deny the need for the Holy Spirit’s work, which must be at the heart of any true evangelistic work (Rom. 8:9, 12-17; 1 Thess. 1:4-5).
The New American Standard Bible rightly translates peitho in Acts 13:43 as “urging,” showing that Paul and Barnabas used the best reasoning powers and their passion for truth in exhorting the listeners to “continue in the grace of God.” In Acts 17:4, “persuaded,” implies that the Thessalonicans were “convinced” of the things which Paul and Silas had proclaimed. Luke had already noted that they had “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead.” (17:2-3). These descriptive words show a great intellectual interchange taking place, as the messengers utilized the proofs of Scripture, a series of questions and answers (“reasoned,” Greek dialegomai) and all of their reasoning powers to “convince” these people of the truth. They passionately presented the Word of God to these unbelieving people by appealing to their minds with the truth (see also Acts 18:4 and 28:23 where the use of peitho is most naturally translated as “to convince.”).
Third, the idea of “3-P” evangelism suggests that the “2-P” evangelism of proclamation lacks persuasive power. The early disciples never stoically proclaimed the gospel! They were passionate about the truth that had transformed their lives. Their presentations of the gospel contained solid logic and reasoning. They appealed to the mind of unbelievers rather than trying to manipulate a “decision for Christ” by appealing first to the will or to the emotions. The Acts 17 passage demonstrates this conclusively, as does the whole narrative of the book of Acts.
In the 19th century, Charles Haddon Spurgeon was noted as the supreme example of a true evangelist. The scope of his ministry spread broader than any other man of his day. Spurgeon would have been repulsed by manipulation or man-centered emotional methods in evangelism. Yet no one would ever accuse him of proclaiming the gospel without persuasion or passion. The gospel itself, rightly proclaimed, is persuasive! And such a gospel, when savingly believed due to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, produces true disciples.
Last, while I agree with Wagner that we must be persuasive in presenting the gospel, his emphasis puts undue confidence in the evangelist’s abilities to bring about conversions. Such confidence is foreign to the teaching of Scripture (see 1 Cor. 2:1-16; see also Iain Murray’s excellent treatment of the subject in Revival and Revivalism, Banner of Truth Trust, 1994, pp. 161ff.). The Apostle Paul was so overcome with a consciousness of divine judgment, that he stated, “Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.” The natural sense of translation is that because Paul understood that sinners would stand before a just and holy God, he sought “to win men to Christ.” He looked for the lost, proclaimed passionately the gospel to them, but depended upon the power of the Holy Spirit to save. Those whom the Spirit of God saved would inevitably become a part of the visible body of Christ (see Acts 2:47). True evangelism seeks to proclaim clearly and passionately the whole gospel of Christ in dependence upon the Holy Spirit to save. Such evangelism will result in the work of incorporating new believers into the church. The disparity comes when the evangelist sees himself and his methods as the keys to the man’s salvation rather than the regenerating work of the Spirit.
Wagner bases his categories of evangelism on “The Engel Scale,” which is a “spiritual decision process model” developed by James Engel. The scale has a series of negative and positive numbers which chart the process of evangelism:
-8 Awareness of Supreme Being but no effective knowledge of the Gospel
-7 Initial awareness of Gospel
-6 Awareness of fundamentals of Gospel
-5 Grasp of implications of Gospel
-4 Positive attitude toward Gospel
-3 Personal problem recognition
-2 DECISION TO ACT
-1 Repentance and faith in Christ
REGENERATION–A “NEW CREATURE”
+1 Post-decision evaluation
+2 Incorporation into Body
+3 Conceptual and behavioral growth begins
The basic problem with the “Engle Scale” can be seen in the reversal of the biblical order of repentance and faith in Christ and Regeneration-a “New Creature.” Following the logic of this chart one would assume that a sinner merely has to begin to grasp the fundamental implications of the gospel, recognize his “personal problem” (which is a kind way of implying “sin”), then make a decision to be saved. What Wagner assumes concerning regeneration implies that a sinner must not be totally depraved or dead in his trespasses and sins. Otherwise, regeneration would of necessity precede repentance and faith as is clearly taught in the numerous passages dealing with regeneration (note the following examples which refer to the act of regeneration: Titus 3:5, where the Greek paliggenesia means “a birth again,” “new birth;” Eph. 2:5 and Col. 2:13, where the Greek sunezoopoisen, means “to make alive together with;” John 3:3, 5, where the Greek gennao, means “to be born,” “to be begotten;” James 1:18, where the Greek apekuasen, means “to give birth,” “to bear”).
Wagner’s whole premise is that once the sinner is persuaded to make a decision to repent and believe then he will be regenerated. It is the act of the sinner that thus causes his regeneration. The sinner has the capability to make a willful and appropriate choice concerning the gospel if he is under good 3-P or Persuasion evangelism. How does that sinner’s nature improve enough for him to repent and believe? If the sinner’s spiritual problem is the result of not only his sinful behavior but his depraved nature, then until his nature is changed he will not repent and believe; it would be against his nature to do so. Besides, how can a “dead man” make himself alive, which is what takes place in regeneration? This is especially clear in Eph. 2:1-5 where Paul asserts twice that an unregenerate person is “dead.” -Phil A. Newton – The Founders Journal
Pragmatism is a fruit of unbelief. Unbelief refuses to accept that God is Sovereign and that fallen Man is “dead.” Therefore, those in this unbelief evangelize with an emphasis on manipulation and persuasion instead of relying on the preaching of the Word while trusting that God will save His people through that as He as promised to do in scripture. As I look back on my own journey I see clearly the line of demarcation between my life as a pragmatic Christian who thought his salvation was his own work and that wonderful awakening when God opened my heart to the truth of his Sovereignty and Faithfulness in saving His people as we obey Him in evangelizing by making disciples of all who will hear. If you are one who has taken way too many left forks then I pray that you will seek God, draw near to God, and that He will, in turn, draw near unto you. I pray that He will draw you into becoming a Spirit-filled believer as you saturate your life with His Word and follow through with obedience and submission to others.
Soli Deo Gloria!