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Does Preaching the Doctrine of Depravity Lead to Revival?

April 20, 2008

Those who attended the Together for the Gospel Conference last week in Louisville, KY heard a stirring defense of the doctrine of absolute inability from pastor John MacArthur. This doctrine, also known as total depravity, states that men and women apart from Christ are both unwilling and unable to come to Christ and to be saved, or to do anything good at all. MacArthur’s exegetical defense of the doctrine was superb, and his implications of the doctrine should be useful for the pastor. Asahel Nettleton, the influential revival preacher of the Second Great Awakening, serves a reminder that when we hold to this doctrine we are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. If there were two points that were exceedingly clear in Nettleton’s revival preaching, they were that man is responsible to repent and believe in the gospel, and that unregenerate man is unable to repent and believe in the gospel. A contemporary of Nettleton described his preaching thus:

The power of his preaching included many things. It was highly intellectual as opposed to declamation, or oratorical, pathetic appeals to imagination or the emotions. It was discriminatingly doctrinal, giving a clear and strong exhibition of doctrines denominated Calvinistic, explained, defined, proved, and applied, and objections stated and answered. It was deeply experimental in the graphic development of the experience of saint and sinner. It was powerful beyond measure in stating and demolishing objections, and at times terrible and overwhelming in close, pungent, and direct application to the particular circumstances of sinners . . . His revivals usually commenced with the Church in confessions of sin and reformation. He introduced the doctrine of depravity, and made direct assaults on the conscience of sinners, explained regeneration, and cut off self-righteousness, and enforced immediate repentance and faith, and pressed to immediate submission in the earlier stages. (Charles Beecher, ed., The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher [New York, 1864; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961], vol. 2, 363-5; quoted in Murray, Revival and Revivalism, 199)

There are many, especially among those likely to attend a Together for the Gospel conference, who would hold to the doctrine of total depravity. However, I suspect the public proclamation of this doctrine is not always present even when the doctrine is assumed. In contrast, Nettleton would actually tell sinners in his sermons that they were so depraved they could not repent and believe, but that they were held responsible to do so by God. This type of preaching emphasized to lost sinners how desperate their plight was before God, and thus caused many to seek God for his mercy.

Furthermore, the doctrine of depravity influenced how Nettleton dealt with those who were under conviction. It is commonplace today to lead the sinner under conviction in a prayer for salvation in order to relieve him or her of distress. Nettleton’s approach was to do no such thing. Rather, he would leave the sinner alone under the mighty hand of God. Although willing to give personal counsel to those who sought it, his usual advice to those in distress was to return home quietly and to seek God earnestly in private prayer, avoiding all other interactions with people along the way. By this manner, many were regenerated by God and exercised faith in Christ and repentance of sins.

An anecdote will, I believe, help to elucidate the result of dealing with converts in this manner. B. M. Palmer, a pastor in Savannah, GA in the early 1840s, was experiencing a time of true revival in his church. During this period a young man approached Palmer and confronted his supposedly contradictory preaching that men must repent and believe even though they are unable to. Palmer responded by saying “there is no use in our quarreling over this matter; either you can or you cannot. If you can, all I have to say is that I hope you will just go and do it.” Palmer did not raise his eyes from his work and so did not see the effect his words had on the individual. After a few moments of silence the young man chokingly confessed “I have been trying my best for three whole days and cannot.” Palmer records his response in his journal: “Ah,” responded Palmer, raising his eyes and putting down his pen, “that puts a different face upon it; we will go then and tell the difficulty straight to God.” We knelt down and I prayed as though this was the first time in human history that this trouble had ever arisen; that here was a soul in the most desperate extremity, which must believe or perish, and hopelessly unable of itself, to do it; that, consequently it was just the case for divine interposition; and pleading most earnestly for the fulfillment of the divine promise. Upon rising I offered not one single word of comfort or advice . . . So I left my friend in his powerlessness in the hands of God, as the only helper. In a short time he came through the struggle, rejoicing in the hope of eternal life. (T.C. Johnson, The Life and Letters of B.M. Palmer [Banner of Truth, 1987], 83-4; quoted in Murray, Revival and Revivalism, 373-374)

In light of the comments of MacArthur and the example of Nettleton, I submit that the doctrine of depravity needs not only to be believed, but also applied afresh in our day. Perhaps one reason for our lack of effectiveness in evangelism is that we fail to tell people the full extent of their depravity. We are not helping the lost when we tell them they are better off than they truly are. As MacArthur stated, “Soft preaching makes hard hearts.” Furthermore, we should remember the doctrine of depravity in counseling the lost. We can and must respond to their inquiries with biblical truth, but must also remember that the doctrine of absolute inability implies that regeneration is God’s work alone. We should not offer quick relief, but instead point them to Christ who alone is able to make them alive.

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