Resisting the Influence of Evangelicalism, Part VI – The First of Evangelicalism’s Faulty Practices: Emotionalism, by Pr. Klemet Preus

(These posts are adapted from a presentation Pastor Preus made in Sweden for the North European Luther Academy in 2006 and which was republished in the recent edition of Logia, A Journal of Lutheran Theology. We recommend both groups to the Brothers of John the Steadfast. The other posts in this series are archived in the Brothers’ Cafe under Klemet’s name.)

Personal Experience as Mark of Grace


New World Protestants could not be certain of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the Gospel. Unlike Lutherans, who assert that the Spirit is always and inherently present and working in the words and sacraments of Jesus, these divines craved some type of sign which would let them know that their work was not completely in vain. Over time these churchmen began to identify the sureness of the Spirit’s activity through certain recognizable stages of conversion. And they carefully tracked the precise manner in which their parishioners experienced what has been called the “morphology of conversion.” [1] Since a person might have the necessary “historical understanding” without having known the “secret power of the spirit” as Calvin had said, it was necessary for any true church member to be able to testify to having experienced a certain pattern in his conversion. Edmund Morgan has described this “morphology of conversion:”


First comes the feeble and false awakening to God’s commands and a pride in keeping them pretty well, but also much backsliding. Disappointments and disasters lead to other fitful hearkenings to the word. Sooner or later true legal fear or conviction enables the individual to see his hopeless and helpless condition and to know that his own righteousness cannot save him, that Christ is his only hope. Thereafter comes the infusion of saving grace, sometimes but not always so precisely felt that the believer can state exactly when the where it came to him. A struggle between faith and doubt ensues, with the candidate careful to indicate that his assurance has never been complete and that his sanctification has been much hampered by his own sinful heart. [2]


By the time of the Great Awakening in the 1730s, 100 years after the arrival of the first Puritans, this morphology was completely entrenched in the ecclesiastical and social fiber of New England. The practice of Evangelicalsim has always been to cultivate a religious experience as the ground of faith.


In the early 1800s, when the second Great Awakening occurred, the “morphology of conversion” had evolved to the point that extreme, emotional experiences were considered mandatory for full assurance of God’s grace. The man who codified the experience was a pastor name Charles Finney. Possibly the most influential churchman in the history of America, he popularized the traveling itinerant preaching of the so called “revivalists” and was the most significant preacher in a long line of revivalist preachers including Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and, currently, Joel Osteeen.


Finney lectured extensively on the nature and importance of the conversion experience:


God has found it necessary to take advantage of the excitability there is in mankind, to produce powerful excitements among them, before he can lead them to obey. Men are so sluggish, there are so many things to lead their minds off from religion and to oppose the influence of the gospel, that it is necessary to raise an excitement among them, till the tide rises so high as to sweep away the opposing obstacles. They must be so excited that they will break over these counteracting influences, before they will obey God. [3]


The special working of the Spirit had to be felt in rather dramatic ways. Finney’s own conversion experience provided his assurance of salvation. In his Memoirs he shares it:


The Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed, it seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me like immense wings….I wept aloud with joy and love; and I do not know but I should say, I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried our, “Lord, I cannot bear anymore.” [4]


Touted as indispensable, Finney’s dramatic experience became the inalienable right of every Christian. Faith was defined as experience.


The experiential understanding of faith is propagated in America by what has been called the “Church Growth Movement” an amorphous movement within Evangelicalism which is centered and begun in Pasadena California at Fuller Theological Seminary. One of that movements chief advocates and proponents is a man named C. Peter Wagner who served as dean of the institute for Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary at which many of the leaders of the Lutheran churches have studied. Wagner, believes that the ideal sermon “is not intellectual, but emotional; it is not rational, but experiential; it is not exegetical, but allegorical; it is not doctrinal, but practical; it is not directed as much to the head as the heart,” the effect being “not that you learn more, but rather that you feel better.” [5] Notice that sermons are not ideal simply because they are gospel centered, orthodox, doctrinally sound or even coherent.


This stress on experience has found its way into the Lutheran churches. Within the Missouri Synod many pastors have been advocating a “style” of ministry that leads to the emphasis on emotion articulated by Wagner. David Luecke, a Missouri synod Lutheran and writer for the magazine Jesus First has articulated the difference between Lutheran and Evangelical expectations in his discussion of “village churches” and “camp churches.”


  • The village church recognizes parish boundaries. The camp church has boundaries determined by the members having a “self professed personal relationship with Jesus,” and a “born again” experience.
  • The village church looks to its creeds and theology for guidance confident that these reflect the teachings of the Bible. The camp church uses only the Bible and the people “make up their identity as they go along.”
  • The village church has members who are born into it and who “belong before consciously believing.” The camp church expects its members to have a “consciousness of that life-transforming event” which is their “only reliable basis for initiating fellowship in Christ.”
  • The village church emphasizes the baptism of infants as the way in which people become part of the church community. The camp church emphasizes initiation through “intense religious experiences.”  
  • The village church expects the Holy Spirit to come through God’s word and Sacraments “predictably.” The camp church expects the Spirit to come through the word but unpredictably, “quickly and decisively and right now.”
  • The village church stresses instruction and confirmation. The camp church stresses the importance of people being “ready to open up their feelings for Him to move them in spontaneous ways to unexpected decisions.”  
  • The village church expects God to work through “prescribed liturgies, lessons, and authorized leaders.” The camp church has little use for these “customs.” [6]


Luecke queries, “Is there anything inherently wrong with a camp church? I think not.” “Which is the right view? I believe the Scripture allows both ways.” “Which is the right view? They both can be.” [7]


Luecke’s comments should be sobering for those Lutheran pastors and congregations who have been lifelong Lutherans. The danger which this type of thinking poses should be obvious. If we would take his advice the practices of our churches would be radically changed. Gone would be “prescribed liturgies, lessons and authorized leaders.” Gone would be the practice of teaching the text of the catechism before a “conscious understanding” of it is achieved. Sooner or later the practice of infant baptism would be gone since that sacrament clearly initiates a person into church membership before there is a “consciousness of a life changing event.” Gone would be the creeds for these formal expressions of faith are not the best way to confess the faith according to Luecke.


An alternative used by many other Christians over the centuries is experiential language – expressing faith in terms of personal experience. Such language has phrases like: This is what God did in my life. Here is how I found new peace in the Lord. I found new meaning in the Gospel when…When I am getting to know individual Lutherans better, I have found it productive to inquire about when they felt closest to God or what they remember as a mountain-top spiritual experience, or when their faith means the most to them. [8]


In fact, if Luecke’s “camp-church” paradigm prevails among Lutherans then all Lutheran distinctives, all Lutheran tradition, the entire Lutheran ethos, the Lutheran understand the Means of grace, all Lutheran doctrine, the Lutheran Church itself, and, not to put too fine a point on it, the saving gospel of Jesus are in jeopardy.

Even non-Lutherans recognize this. D. G. Hart, a conservative and traditional Presbyterian says, “American pietism [9] dismissed church creeds, structures, and ceremonies as merely formal or external manifestations of religion that went only skin deep. In contrast, pietists have insisted that genuine faith was one that transformed individuals starting with their hearts and seeping into all walks of life.” [10] When religion is conceived as primarily “in the heart,” “strict denominational lines [are] blurred” in deference to “common religious patterns.” According to Hart, revivalism “directed mainstream American Protestantism…away from the formal and corporate beliefs and practices of the church toward the informal settings and personal affairs of believers.” [11] The result was the increasingly “small role the institutional church plays in the religious life of” [its members]. [12] The clash between the established churches and revivalism was inevitable as “traditionalist Protestants resisted” revivalism because it “undermined the importance of creedal subscription, ordination and liturgical order…[and] spoke a different idiom, one that was individualistic, experiential and perfectionistic, as opposed to the corporate, doctrinal and liturgical idiom of historic Protestantism.” To Confessional Protestants, the revivalists blurred all denominational distinctives expecting a “generic” type of Christianity of “sincerity, zeal, and moral life” [13] but void of meaningful doctrine.


American Evangelicalism does not simply disparage the Lutheran doctrine of the means of grace. The movement also attacks such ancient Lutheran practices as the use of creeds, liturgies, ordination, the confession, the sacraments, church orders and the catechism. Why? Because these practices promote the Lutheran doctrine of the means of grace just as effectively as do textbooks on Christian doctrine. And the Evangelical community has at least a tacit understanding that our practices conflict with their understanding of experiences as the indicator of the true church. The entire discussion is soteriological to the core even though it is often expressed in matters of church practice.

[1] Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1963) p. 68.

[2] Ibid. 91. See also Paul Conkin (1995) p 119 ff.

[3] Charles Grandison Finney, “What is a revival   of Religion is” (1864) In William McLoughlin, The American Evangelicals, 1800-1900: An Anthology, (New York: Harper and Row, 1968) p. 87.

[4] Charles G. Finney, Memoirs of Charles G. Finney, (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1903) p. 20.

[5] Peter Wagner, Look out the Pentecostals are Coming (Carol Stream Il: Creation House, 1973) p. 39-40

[6] David Luecke Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1989) pp. 53-56.

[7] Ibid. p. 54, 55, 56.

[8] David Luecke, Apostolic Style and Lutheran Substance (Lima, Ohio: Fairway Press, 1999) p. 92-93.

[9] American Piestism is the expression Hart employs when speaking of what others have called “American Revivalsim” or “new Evangelicalism” or “American Evangelicalism.” It is not the same as what many Scandinavians mean by the term “pietism.” To Hart the word “Pietism” refers to a specific American movement and not to the proper emphasis on leading a pious life which the gospel of Christ certainly and always suggests.        

[10] D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, (Lanham, MD Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002) p. xxiii.

[11] Hart, p. 23.

[12] Hart, p. 21

[13] Hart, p. xxiv.



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