Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Abandon Doctrinal Preaching at the Peril of Souls

Jim Ehrhard has written an excellent biography of the early 19th Century American Baptist evangelist Asahel Nettleton (see link for footnotes). The difference between the methods and results of the ministry of Nettleton and contemporary Charles Finney are astounding. Ehrhard points out that while the converts under the ministry of Nettleton remained faithful unto death, many of the 'converts' under Finney's ministry did not. Ehrhard writes:

Perhaps what is most significant about Nettleton’s ministry is not the shear number of conversions but the number who remained faithful to Christ many years later. Most evangelists today would be delighted to “find” even a small percentage of their converts, much less to see them living for the Lord. Nettleton’s converts were surprisingly solid. For example, of the eighty-four converts in an 1818 revival at Rocky Hill, Connecticut, all eighty-four had remained faithful according to their pastor’s report twenty-six years later. Similarly, only three spurious conversions out of eighty-two professors were noted in another pastor’s report on a revival in Ashford, Connecticut.

In contrast, toward the end of his life, “after reflecting on the many who had claimed conversion [under his ministry] but had since fallen away,” the great evangelist Charles Finney “had mixed thoughts on the genuine results of his work.” He was not alone. In a letter to Finney, one of his co-workers raised some interesting questions about their work:

"Let us look over the fields where you and I have laboured as ministers and what is now their normal state? What was their state within three months after we left them? I have visited and revisited many of these fields and groaned in spirit to see the sad, frigid, carnal, contentious state into which the churches have fallen and fallen very soon after we first departed from among them."

B. B. Warfield also tells of the testimony of Asa Mahan, Finney’s closest friend and long-time co-worker:

"No more powerful testimony is borne ... than that of Asa Mahan, who tells us -- to put it briefly -- that everyone who was concerned in these revivals suffered a sad subsequent lapse: the people were left like a dead coal which could not be reignited ...."

Nettleton’s ministry was decidedly different from that of Finney, not only with regard to conversions, but also with regard to the lasting impact upon the communities which he visited. One contemporary pastor, Bennett Tyler, noted the differences between the revivals of Finney and Nettleton:

"These revivals were not temporary excitements, which like a tornado, sweep through a community, and leave desolations behind them; but they were like showers of rain, which refresh the dry and thirsty earth, and cause it to bring forth 'herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed.' These fruits were permanent. By them the churches were not only enlarged, but beautified and strengthened; and a benign influence was exerted upon the community around."

Although Nettleton and Finney were contemporaries, Finney has eclipsed Nettleton completely. Today, these questions must be asked: Who was this man so specially used by God in the conversion of many souls? Why has one of such significance been sadly forgotten in our generation? And what makes his ministry so different from the evangelistic ministries seen today? (emphasis mine)

Ehrhard goes on in the article to answer the above emphasized question:

While most modern preaching seeks to avoid doctrinal topics, Nettleton, like Whitefield and Edwards before him, preached the great doctrines of the faith.

In the accounts and descriptions of the great revivals in which Nettleton laboured, one thing comes across very powerfully, and that is that he was able to bring home the awesome realities of the eternal world home to the souls of men. When he talked about the heinousness of sin, they felt its sting. When he portrayed the sufferings of Christ, they felt the trauma of Calvary. When he proclaimed the holy character of God, they trembled at the vision. When he thundered forth the judgements of hell, men were moved to escape that place.

May the Lord give us all grace to love souls enough to preach the great doctrines of Scripture and resist the temptation to minimize doctrinal preaching for the sake of 'relevancy.' Truthfully, the application of the eternal doctrines of Christ's grace and love for His people and the glorious gospel of truth that brings freedom are the only true sources of 'relevancy.'


david b mclaughlin said...

My grandpa was an old-school, fire and brimstone pentecostal preacher. But he used to say all the time, "If all the folks who claim they 'got saved' on TBN really did, the whole world would be saved."

Grandpa was a smart guy.

B Nettles said...

Thanks for drawing our attention to this issue. It has been a longtime contention of mine (ever since I was a "Youth" in my hometown Baptist church) that the struggles many of the young people of each generation are rooted in the shallow picture of the Gospel that is presented in our churches. There is no attendant preaching to flesh out the character of God which brought the necessity of the sacrifice, the constant reminders of the coming Messiah, the beauty of the peace of the resurrection. All was focused on either getting people in the building and "down the aisle."

We are reaping that in pastors and elders who ignore or twist the Word, preaching one thing while doing another. If "just one soul" saved from an eternity in hell is worth "whatever I need to do," then shouldn't I spend more time with that one soul, building them up, rather than drawing the masses with trickery and presuming upon the Holy Spirit to "sort 'em all out?"

More and more, Paul's letter to Onesimus regarding Philemon grows in importance as an example of Christian ministry.

Although not spelled the same, I would gladly claim Uncle Asahel as one of my forebears! :)

Bob Cleveland said...


I have to think that numbers play a part in this. I recall a pastor "complaining" during his invitation prayer that the "altars have been so dry lately"; what struck me then was that sin was just as real as it always had been. But apparently there was a shortage of conviction, or willingness.

I think we've conditioned folks to acceptance before repentance, and relegated repentance (or at least nodding acknowledgment thereof) to a necessary "Agreement", required for church membership.

My own guilt over sin and fear of death led me to not only believe, when I was quite young, but to exercise diligence to show (to myself) that I really was approved by Jesus and thus before God. That took several years, in my 20's & 30's.

I'm sure glad it wasn't easy.

irreverend fox said...

"May the Lord give us all grace to love souls enough to preach the great doctrines of Scripture and resist the temptation to minimize doctrinal preaching for the sake of 'relevancy.' Truthfully, the application of the eternal doctrines of Christ's grace and love for His people and the glorious gospel of truth that brings freedom are the only true sources of 'relevancy.'"

amen Wade! well put!

Ephesians 6:19-20 said...


I respond with a little fear and trembling, freely acknowledging that I am not an expert on the subject.

However, having the same deep inner desire to have my church gospel driven - as do you - and spending sixteen years at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Enid, Oklahoma, we have seen not only growth, but consistent, and at times phenominal growth, both spiritually and numerically.

I think THE key to a gospel-driven church that emphasizes the truth of God's grace through Christ Jesus is the ability to ACCEPT people who disagree - and LOVE them as they are - and probably even more important, to worship Christ in a spirit of freedom and celebration.

Anonymous said...

Wade, after I posted my previous anonymous comment, I became very uncomfortable. I am afraid that what I wrote could hurt some very good friends of mine (other pastors in this state). Since I posted anonymously, I cannot erase the post.

When I read your post, it triggered these questions I have been mulling. I remain concerned about what I wrote, but I am more concerned about causing pain to these other pastors.

Would you be kind enough to delete my comment?

Todd Pruitt said...


Thanks for the very helpful post. The church I pastor has grown significantly and the people would say it is due primarily to the commitment we have to doctrinal exposition. People come to our church literally starving for the Word. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the words: "I haven't heard a sermon from the Bible in five years."


Wade, we recently welcomed a family into our fellowship from your church. They moved to Wichita about a year ago. They speak VERY highly of you and EBC.

Rob said...

A fitting post on a day where other blogs are abuzz about the heresy of the likes of Osteen, Dollar and other prosperity heretics, and their false converts.

david b mclaughlin said...

Dear Anonymous,

2 Timothy 4:3

3For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

david b mclaughlin said...

BTW, I know all the baggage around the terms "purpose-driven" and "seeker-sensitive" but do not think they are necessarily mutually exclusive from "gospel-driven."

Scott Gordon said...


Thanks for this post. A timely reminder for us all that the primacy of the Gospel is the only thing that makes us Christian and God-honoring. To take the cross out of our preaching would render our churches as nothing more than social clubs or self-help groups. That fact is what I think goes to the heart of the challenge about which Anon is concerned. I believe that Gospel focused, doctrinally based ministry takes time and true compassion. There are no quick steps to biblically based and Christ honoring ministry. said...


I think your comment is thoughtful and insightful, but I will delete it at your request.

John Daly said...

I was going to comment in my own words but during lunch I was reading a book called, Spurgeon: A New Biography (Arnold Dallimore). And in there the Prince of Preachers states: “A spiritual experience which is thoroughly flavored with a deep and bitter sense of sin is of great value to him that hath it. It is terrible in the drinking, but it is most wholesome in the bowels, and in the whole after life.” He further states: “Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Saviour.” After reading some of this book at lunch I have concluded that I am such an evangelical wimp. If the Puritans could visit modern America today, they would look at my life and probably question my justification. Or at the very least, my backbone.

B Nettles said...

If you're looking for book that illustrates the concept of being "Gospel-driven" (I guess everything evangelical is going to be "xxxx-driven", just as political intrigue is "xxxx-gate"), check out D. A. Carson's The Cross and Christian Ministry.

It's a challenging and inspiring exposition of I Cor. 1-4. Deacons, encourage your pastors to read it SLOWLY. Pastors, likewise.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Wade! I have been pondering this subject as I prepare to lead revival services at a local church next month, and do advance sermon planning here. Our focus is to "Make disciples of all the nations", not simply get people to walk an aisle, sign a card, and swim through the baptistry. Thanks for the encouragement and the new resource.

Anonymous said...

Not being an expert on the subject either, I did find the extended quote interesting and worthy of more contemplation and study. The author may be 100% dead on in his assessment and my tendency is to believe he is correct. Part of my willingness to believe he is correct though is because of my own theological beliefs and leanings. I am no fan of the theology of Finney. For this very reason I do have to check myself when I read quotes like this and ask if I believe the author's conclusions because he or she is right or because it agrees with my preconceptions on the subject? I also hesitate to base my conclusions on the experiences of two men. Wider study needs to be done on the subject and done in an unbiased way as much as is possible. It would be a mistake to automatically assume that every preacher who saw people fall away must not have been preaching doctrinal messages. Jesus, for instance, saw a mass exodus as recorded in John's gospel. Surely it wasn't because he had been preaching "seeker friendly" messages.

Tyson Wynn said...


Thanks for this post. I agree wholeheartedly.

The concepts of "backsliders," "false converts," and the "fall-away rate" are central to The Way of the Master (WOTM) evangelism course, which we going through together right now at our church. Ray Comfort's ministry is predicated by the belief that the hard soil of a person's heart must first be tilled and plowed by the Law before he or she can appreciate his or her need for a Savior (and we can then cast our seed on good ground where it will effectively take root and flourish). Then, rather than putting on Christ for comfort, the convert puts on Christ for salvation, causing him or her to cling ever more tightly to Christ in times of trial and adversity rather than falling away (as is done when Christ is put on for comfort). Though I am and will remain dedicated to preaching great doctrinal truths from the pulpit, WOTM is teaching all of us to use God's Law and the conscience as a means of personal soul-winning, and I have to say I am astounded at how simple and effective their methods are.

As you might expect, the course is full of quotations from Spurgeon. Here's just one:

“I do not believe that any man can preach the gospel who does not preach the Law…. Lower the Law and you dim the light by which man perceives his guilt; this is a very serious loss to the sinner rather than a gain; for it lessens the likelihood of his conviction and conversion. I say you have deprived the gospel of its ablest auxiliary [its most powerful weapon] when you have set aside the Law. You have taken away from it the schoolmaster that is to bring men to Christ…. They will never accept grace till they tremble before a just and holy Law. Therefore the Law serves a most necessary purpose, and it must not be removed from its place.”

Needless to say, I highly recommend The Way of the Master Basic Training course for those who are convinced of the need to show others their standing before an Almighty God without coming of as a religious lunatic who no one will listen to. It works.

Anonymous said...


I think you might have hit on the heart of the matter in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Will we be a gospel driven denomination?

Or a culture warrior driven one?

Or a seeker sensitive driven one?

Or an isolationist driven one?

Or a "dot every i and cross every t or you John Bunyan and Dwight Mckissic can't preach the gospel through the IMB" driven one?

Unfortunately, I don't think the BF&M 2000 helps us out here much.

For example, it's statement on "Evangelism and Missions" is pretty minimalistic.


P.S. I've never had anybody come up to me and say "I love the gospel in the BF&M 2000!" But I suspect there are many that love its statement on abortion, homosexuality...

Chuck Bryce said...

The post really hit home. I won't go into details but it spoke to me in a very direct and personal way.

I would ask that everyone ease up on the comments I often hear that seem disparaging about terms like "Seeker Sensitive" and "Purpose Driven" etc... Just because one person goes too far in making things "Seeker Sensitive" does not mean the next guy is wrong for using the term or following the idea.

Are we as quick to disparage all "Conservatives", "Evangelicals", "Gospel Preachers" and (insert whatever) just because some have shamed the Lord in their beliefs or attempts at ministry?

This post should serve as a reminder that we all need to examine what we are teaching and make sure it measures up to the full counsel of the Scriptures.

Anonymous said...

And by the way, for all of you "strict subscription advocates" for the BF&M 2000,
take it from one who used to work on staff at one of the founding churches of the PCA...


Chuck Bryce said...



But I would add that your statement would be more correct if you had said, " SOME of you Baptists hold up the BF&M 2000!!!

Remember, we all get to be autonomous and drift whichever way we want/feel led. :>)

Anonymous said...


A gentle correction--reread my first sentence.

God Bless you brother


Chuck Bryce said...


I stand by my statement. This is an odd numbered day so specific applications addressed in the first paragraph do not carry over to the other paragraphs.

Chuck's Rules of Order Article MCMXIII, Section GG, Point 364d.

I think it is also found in Book of 2 Opinions but that oner did not make the Canon!

creed said...

I think it was Church historian Leon McBeth whom I heard in the classroom say that the revivals of Finney, Moody, etal were weak because of a lack of follow-up of new christians. Also, it seems I remember that establishing a safety net was at least one of the reasons for the founding of early sunday schools or bible classes.

Doctrinal preaching is a basic in my preaching, and I work hard to make a practical application that will stick in the hearts and behavior of sermon listeners. Yet, I also am very aware that it is the Holy Spirit Who is expertly capable of keeping true believers true. I am also aware that each believer has competency to hear, resolve, and believe what they hear preached.

However, a caveat is in order. I have heard preached as doctrines surely approved by angels in heaven such subjects as the KJV being the only approved version of the Bible, the dispensational pre-trib, premil., open/closed communion, legitimate new testament baptism being only in
an authentic Baptist Church, etc.,, etc.

I'm becoming schizophrenic with all the possibilities, yet I believe in the truth once delivered to the saints.

Anonymous said...

Ditto on TWOTM. I have met Ray and Kirk several times and have been an instructor for the classes on this method for almost 8 years...since the beginning basically.

I dropped FAITH like a hot potato...or is that potatoe? :)

Ray likes to quote Finney in many of his books and recordings (maybe because he said a lot of neat things), but Ray also knows that Finney's "walk down the aisle while no one is looking and if you are really and truly sorry enough you can have a life full of peace, love, joy, and happiness" kind of Christianity that Finney initiated ending up leading to so many false converts.

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul. said...


"Yet, I also am very aware that it is the Holy Spirit Who is expertly capable of keeping true believers true."

A hearty amen from this blog.

davidinflorida said...


It only took 8 comments to bring out the dreaded "H" word.

I dont know everything about Osteen or Dollar, but I`ve heard enough to know that they are brothers in Christ. See Mark 9:38-40.

Maybe some should be more concerned about what goes on in their own SBC before they degrade others.

As the pastor of the SBC church I attended until 14 months ago once said " we have almost 1500 members on the rolls, about 500 attend every week, as for the other 1000, not even the FBI can find them"

What kind of doctrine did they have on salvation?

GeneMBridges said...


Or as lowly as some Baptists hold confessions in general, "No creed but the Bible" and all that you know...


What's truly pitiful is that much of what passes today for "doctrinal preaching" is considered by many to be "too hard" for the people in the pews. I imagine the people of FBC Charleston, SC in centuries past being amazed by that attitude, but then, they didn't live in the day when "Jesus Junk" was the biggest section of the Christian bookstore, next to the table with "Your Best Life Now" on it and the markdown copies of PDL and The Prayer of Jaebez.

DL said...

I think what is just about as amazing as Nettleton's gospel-success was the fact a pastor could give a progress report twenty-six years later! Surely the long-term shepherding of those converts in one place had a preserving effect on the flock. I am thankful that folks like Wade (and many others) model pastoral longevity for those of us coming up from behind.

Scott Dollar said...

Thanks for the humor yesterday. People in our church have had good laugh over it all day.
I have read about Asahel Nettleton before and his commit was inspiring.
I also read that he would (I might have some of the details wrong) walk new converts through the Word, especially the seed thrown on the road and would tell them that time would tell them that their life would tell if their commitment to Christ was genuine.

jasonk said...

I knew Finney was a fake when I read that he said revival was just a matter of applying the specific tools. He said it was no more a miracle than a crop harvested by a farmer--apply the right methods, and the farmer harvests a crop. When I read that to a group of farmers, they laughed, because they knew that every crop they harvest is a miracle. If a revival is not a miracle of God, it is not a revival.

david b mclaughlin said...

Great point Darby!!!!!!!!!

My grandparents pastored the same church for 41 years. You cant buy or learn roots that deep.