Against Unchurchly InterPraise Revivalism


At this term’s InterPraise, on Wednesday night, I encountered practices that, while not at all unusual in the evangelical world, fall far short of what the Holy Writ delivers. I don’t mean to attack InterPraise or anyone who helped out, but I do insist on doing things in their proper places, by the means handed down from God. When God says to summon water by speaking to a rock, it will not do to strike the rock, even if God’s gracious enough to make water gush out anyway. As the Book of Common Prayer says, ‘There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted: As, among other things, it may plainly appear by the Common Prayers in the Church, commonly called Divine Service.’ This post, then, is my plea to ministers to use what God has already given in his revealed word, and to Christians to acknowledge what Christ has already instituted himself, that we may devote ourselves to God’s institutions over those of man.

The practice to which I turn my attention is the call to rededication to God. Rededication’s good and biblical in itself, as Nehemiah 9 shows us Israel’s rededication to YHWH’s covenant, but this good thing is improperly used when wrested from the right context. My concern is with this call’s removal from the bosom of the Church, a removal that comes with a host of distortions in faith.

There’s already a biblical setting for rededication

I, who the summer before the third grade accept-believe-confessedI note that this ABC mnemonic – accept Jesus into your heart, believe that he died for your sake, confess that you are a sinner – not only instilled infantile thoughts but got salvation backwards. Though I thank the Lord for his mercies, I cannot but say honestly that the method perverted even the abecedarian concepts of salvation. but, on account of the public demand for a baptismal ‘testimony’,And why, I ask, are we placing more currency on individual experience, which is uncertain, than on the faithful person of Christ, who is surer than the laws of the cosmos? was too timid to go to the waters of grace until such time as I should be ‘ready’ through rededication (which I performed at a retreat), believe no longer in these unchurchly rededications. ‘The [C]hurch,’ explains John Williamson Nevin, ‘is truly the mother of all her children. They do not impart life to her, but she imparts life to them.’ It may be in fashion to think that God doesn’t care where stuff happens, but God loves the Church he’s chosen out of sin, and he’s given her means, through the Holy Ghost, for unity with himself as one Body. These means are instituted already without man’s invention, and it’s these that he wants us to receive as gifts for the renewal of our souls, gifts bound by his covenant with the Church.

There are no grounds in the Holy Writ for such activities to be divorced from the liturgy of the local church, nor does right reason give warrant for it, because covenant renewal and rest is already held out to the believer every Lord’s Day. Week after week, in the Divine Service, YHWH calls us again as a people to confess our manifold sins and wickedness before him; week after week, he speaks to us with the voice of a multitude, the voice of love stronger than death, the voice of one who has already offered himself up to the death; week after week, he invites the weary to come to him and eat his Body and drink his Blood in the heavenly places. We who complain about spiritual highs, then, should see what the Lord already does, and does without need for retreats or (passion!) conferences or any other hyped-up, pumped-up, rocking extracurricular activity; oh, how he loves us!

Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all that thou hast to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt do no manner of work, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, thy man-servant, and thy maidservant, thy cattle, and the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.

Remember the quiet rest of Christ. He has conquered death and prepared a New Creation on the eighth day, wherefore we praise and adore him and rest in his finished work, no longer sacrificing the blood of goats and calves but resting on the final blood sacrifice of God himself. Having the Lord’s Day set aside to reflect the final rest inaugurated by the Resurrection, we can trust the Lord to provide for us fully.

Popular enthusiasm, an idolatrous symptom of human (claims of) autonomy

When people invent their own ways to worship God or to deliver his grace, problems crop up really quickly. Just ask the people who started using a golden calf as a representation of the mighty God who’d led them out of Egypt. Soon enough, problem breeds problem, and faith itself is perverted. Protestants often fail to realize that their criticisms against praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Christ’s Coredemptrix apply equally to some of their own devotional practices, practices that they often see as very important divine means of grace.

It’s one thing to gather during the week to praise God and worship him and confess our unworthiness before him, another thing entirely to use a service’s unseasonable hour (that is, its occasional nature) to throw the people off balance and work up a fervour, and to have a protracted meeting in which emotion-driven preaching (or ecstatically emotive, repetitive singing) hammers at the congregation until results appear. To be fair, this is not the extreme to which InterPraise went, but it belonged unmistakably to the same system, the altar call system that has evolved from the fanatical system of the heretic Charles Finney.Those who have heard of the 19c. revivalist, whose ideas are particularly popular in some Pentecostal-charismatic circles, generally have no idea that such an influential man could be anything but beyond reproach, since he’s said to have saved so many souls. Say revival and a herd of lemmings will follow, but it will rarely be genuine revival that strikes the Church: no abyss outside of Hell is great enough to contain such a diabolic scheme. I’m confident, however, that ‘the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places’, to what’s really needed. John Williamson Nevin, in The Anxious Bench (1843), makes perhaps the most probing critique of Finneyism and the New Measures that has ever been written.

The altar call, of course, is a device belonging to the evangelistic crusade, the device aimed for conversions that in its grosser forms will pound the weak believer – I speak from experience – into merciless questioning of his own sincerity, since this weak believer’s led to believe that his own sincere heart is what determines whether his salvation’s real. This quest for sincerity and absolute purity of mind is a lapse back into the mediæval ideas of perfect contrition (repentance motivated purely by love for God and not by, say, common decency or fear of hell) that spawned the erroneous doctrine of purgatory. By God’s gracious providence, however, the catholic truth has remained even in the Papists’ funerary texts: ‘I sin every day and am not penitent; the fear of death upsets me: Because in hell there is no redemption. Have mercy upon me, O God, and save me. God, in thy Name save me, and in thy virtue set me free.’ The one who’s justified by faith has no need for endless navel-gazing: knowing that what God sees in the heart is sin and cholesterol (‘it’s foul,’ as the speaker said), he can yet be content that Jesus Christ has a pure heart, and that the Father in his mercy sends the Holy Spirit to join the Church to that sacred heart. In Christ – I can’t stress this enough – the sinner is secure, because what matters is that he believe, not that he examine his heart to death.

Applying conversionistic techniques to professed believers, then, betrays a harmful lack of distinction between the Church, whom Christ has bound to himself with a covenant, and those outside the Church, to whom Christ is not so bound. The practical erasure of the distinction between pagan and believer reeks of Semipelagian thought, the heretical doctrine – alas, far too common! – whereby man, Christian or not, will first reach out to God with his sincere heart before God will come to him. In urging a distinction between Church and heathendom I affirm nevertheless that no one can live without the gospel. The Christian does need the gospel, each and every day, and not just at conversion: the gospel’s not merely a prerequisite for life, but in Christ it is life itself. But this is the very reason that such irregular things as InterPraise and retreats cannot be the means by which the gospel’s urged upon the believer. If it’s the Spirit we want, and not the flesh, we need the means that the Father has decreed and the Son has founded and the Holy Ghost has recorded in words that cannot err.

God’s own sacramental institution: churchly life

Christ our Passover is sacrificèd for us. There is a way, a way so glorious that Christians in St Augustines’s day used to applaud when they heard it alluded to in the appointed Scripture readings, as at the mention of manna (likewise the Red Sea as a figure for baptism). Listen again to the phrase altar call: hear altar and remember what altar alone can be meant. Only one altar applies under the New Covenant, the mercy-seat of Christ himself. The sacrifice can only be the Church, united by the Holy Ghost to Christ crucified, joined to his one complete sacrifice in the only commemoration that the Holy Writ has given. This remembrance, bearing witness before both God and his elect people, is the Lord’s Supper and nothing else. As a certain hymn testifies of this gospel comfort,

Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus, ready, stands to save you,
Full of pity, joined with pow’r.
He is able, he is able;
He is willing; doubt no more.

Lo! th’ Incarnate God, ascended,
Pleads the merit of his blood.
Venture on him; venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.
None but Jesus, none but Jesus
Can do helpless sinners good.

As anticlimactic as it may seem to urge believers to rededicate themselves in the next Divine Service and then keep doing it weekly, this is the classical Christian practice. If God himself has provided this climax, this seal to our covenant-renewing weekly worship, we can do no better. This is the point to which our God has gathered us together, to be seated together with him in the heavenly places, ‘that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus’.

Brethren, pillory no more the things that the Lord has given us, lest we despise the Body and Blood of Christ and eat and drink the condemnation of sacrilege upon ourselves. See the Sacrament, the work of the Holy Ghost, and know what Christ declares therein. Let that be God’s own altar call to baptized Christians, to come together to feast on the risen Christ who’s given his life for us and render our thanks for the great benefit we’ve received at his hands. There are some who cry, Results, results! to discount something so seemingly routine. To them I say, against the autonomy of man in worship and evangelism, Christ crucified, and Christ alone: the Holy Writ will judge results, not results the Holy Writ.

In accordance with the words of St Paul, ‘here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee.’ YHWH be with his people, and to him be glory and dominion, world without end.

4 thoughts on “Against Unchurchly InterPraise Revivalism

  1. Just because something is done in Scripture, does that fact alone make it something that should be done? Does the fact that worship was conducted a certain way at a certain point in Scripture mean that is the only correct way to do it?

    I would answer “no” to both of these questions. Although I wasn’t at InterPraise this fall and am not entirely sure of what you speak, I am aware that there is a wide variety of forms of worship practiced by Christians today. I do not believe that there is any one “right” form of worship, so long as that worship is in spirit and in truth, as Jesus puts it in John 4:23. Indeed, in that passage, the Samaritan woman is attempting to get Jesus involved in the “worship wars” of her own time, but he does not take the bait, instead cutting to the core of the matter: what is the posture of our heart in worship?

    Or consider Paul, who says that he became all things to all people so as to win them to Christ (1 Cor. 9:22). There are many forms of worship and Christian practice that may be acceptable to God. We have, as Paul says, freedom in Christ. The ceremonial law has been abolished (Col. 2:16–17).

    Although I will not dispute those who have critiqued Charles Finney and his insidious influence on the evangelical church (see, e.g., Warren Cole Smith, A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church, 138–42), I hesitate to extend this criticism to all altar calls. After all, is the altar call so different from John the Baptist’s calls for the Jews to repent and be baptized (see Luke 3:1–18)? I would argue that many of those who are in the church but who have not truly embraced the Gospel (and there are many, I hope we can agree) need to hear John the Baptist’s message just as much as the Jews did in his time.

  2. » Just because something is done in Scripture, does that fact alone make it something that should be done? «

    Not automatically. Many have concluded from the realities of post-Constantinian faith – rightly, I believe (though I haven’t given the matter as much thought as I should) – that the precedent in Acts of property sharing in the Church could no longer work the same way.

    » Does the fact that worship was conducted a certain way at a certain point in Scripture mean that is the only correct way to do it? «

    In the details, no; in the outlines or in the essence, yes. The basic structure and the elements used from the beginning encode the apostolic faith, doctrinally and otherwise, in ways that radicalism never will. There are indeed notable differences among the Didache, Luther’s Deutsche Messe, the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Calvin’s Strasburg liturgy and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, as one may expect, but also considerable continuities. Several of these, in turn, are ‘the same’ but also celebrated differently in different cultures (compare the Slavs, the Greeks and the Arabs).

    While recognizing the place of diversity, however, we do need a somewhat principled way to discern good and bad. Though not a Regulative Principle partisan (because there’s always been a degree of creative reimagining, and all the more now that the freedom and maturity of faith has come to Jew and Gentile alike), I do think good intentions or the mere possibility of edifying effect are both insufficient measures of whether a given kind of worship is good or appropriate. If things are conducted in such a way as to displace or undermine not only venerable tradition but dominical institutions themselves, I object.

    Even absent wrong hearts in an individual case, similarly, I might question or oppose some kinds of applause during Lord’s Day worship as unedifying. My view is that applause is reserved for God alone during worship, from beginning to end, but I may oppose clapping for guest speakers or for newcomers even when those who are clapping are doing so in praise to God for his goodness in providing a guest speaker or a place for newcomers, because such applause – arguably much more than the much-maligned sign of the cross – so easily becomes misunderstood and then misapplied.

    » I hesitate to extend this criticism to all altar calls. After all, is the altar call so different from John the Baptist’s calls for the Jews to repent and be baptized (see Luke 3:1–18)? «

    The point exactly of John’s baptism, as far as I know, was to herald Christ for specifically that time, which is probably why the Old Testament prophets didn’t baptize penitent Israelites (but cf. Lv 8.6 on baptism as part of the priestly ordination rite). Since Christ has already come, we have by his institution the much greater baptism in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. This progression seems to point again to the sacraments as the normative setting for God’s gracious action.

    » I would argue that many of those who are in the church but who have not truly embraced the Gospel (and there are many, I hope we can agree) need to hear John the Baptist’s message just as much as the Jews did in his time. «

    There will always be tares, of course, both at any given time and at the end of the age. But my thought probably mirrors Nevin’s: if baptism is God’s own pledge given once and only once to each member of the covenant (despite the protests of the Donatists), the point’s to call all the covenant members, whether currently true believers or not, to believe now and continually, receiving Christ with faith as declared in his word and offered in the Eucharist.

  3. What’s wrong with a little Christian gatorade? Is the altar call that you’re blasting so different from a Franciscan retreat, or an exuberant fascination with a trendy new theologian? Or is it just messier? I was “saved” in a Pentecostal church, so I’m feeling your qualms about the manipulative potential of corporate ecstaticism (purposefully a suitable nonword), but go easy lest you trip up your Christian brothers.

    You’re obviously very bright and well-read, perhaps even atypically consistent and stable, but in targeting individualized redemption or renewal, don’t look past your own subjective (a fundamental portion of the human gift of free will) interpretation of the Gospel – which after Jesus necessarily involves the Holy Spirit. I have seen many Christians (you would refer to them as herds of lemmings, I suppose) respond well to revivals. Of course, charismatic churches are most influential among the poor (less holy?) among us. Christians that are still dealing with drug abuse, sexual perversions, etc., can find great encouragement in variations of altar calls like those you discuss.

    You may pick apart my statements like you did John’s, and I’m sure that you are fully capable of citing numerous texts to support your position. Just don’t hammer the keys so forcefully that you drown out the chorus of heavenly hosts rejoicing for the wandering souls turning back towards Christ, however that may be.

  4. Sorry for the delayed reply, but I seem not to have gotten an email alert for your comment.

    I’ll readily admit my discomfort with some distortions in Pentecostalism, perhaps the existence of Pentecostalism itself, though the problems I point to are at least several decades older than either Pentecostalism or the charismatic movement. While not an absolute cessationist regarding tongues and prophecy, I do regard the manifestation of these things today as irregular: in these last days, the author of Hebrews notes, YHWH has spoken to us by his Son, the final revelation.

    My main concern’s with the shortcircuiting of genuine Christian piety through the omission of the regular ministry already given by God in the preaching of the word and the giving of the sacraments, a ministry that no calling on earth can exceed in godly authority and dignity. No doubt many Christians want to find the Holy Spirit elsewhere, but ‘in these last days’ (for the last days began with Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost) I’m convinced that what Christ has instituted must remain central to how we understand the work of the Holy Ghost. One interesting Pentecostal theologian interested in developing a mature theology of the Church is Simon Chan, whose Liturgical Theology is available for preview on Google Books.

    Certainly a Franciscan retreat, like a tent meeting, can become a mountaintop experience that Christians come to demand as a means of sustaining grace (and likewise the writings of, say, N. T. Wright or Stanley Hauerwas), but in my view this is exactly what necessitates my caution on the most commonly abused events (revival-style meetings with their Second Great Awakening trappings) in favour of what God has given since the days of the apostles for the life of the holy Church throughout all the world. My aim is not to quench revival, nor primarily even to fight Montanism, but to urge honest evaluation of future practices and focus on the core practices of the faith.

    As for after Jesus, I’m very hesitant to use such a phrase: by the Holy Ghost working we do have Jesus, unmitigated, and the point is that Jesus is the key. Many Christians do deal with a very painful past and a very painful present, but ‘come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you’ applies no less to the Holy Supper than it does to what the human mind deems most encouraging to itself. Where the Holy Ghost has worked and Christ been glorified, let all give thanks, lest we blaspheme Christ by excluding those we think unworthy. ‘We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.’ But let the Church act responsibly to follow the way set forth from the beginning and handed down through the centuries.

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