Ergun Caner, the Legacy of Revivalism, and Show Biz

UPDATE 28 JUNE 2010

CT takes a similar approach to the Caner story.

Since this post appeared, Caner has been removed from his position as Dean but remains a faculty member at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.

Original Post 30 May 2010

Ergun Caner, President of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Graduate School is in trouble for exaggerating or possibly fabricating his biography and conversion from Islam to evangelical Christianity. A number of news sources (e.g., the Huffington Post (HT: Lane Chaplin), the LA Times, and CT) are covering a story first uncovered by bloggers who questioned some of Caner’s claims about his background, his knowledge of Islam, and his claims to have debated Muslim scholars. According to news reports Caner is blaming the investigation partly on his “Calvinist” critics. It was not, however, a Calvinist who began to investigate Caner’s claims. It was a Muslim student. I am less interested in the details of Caner’s biography and conversion. For the sake of discussion let’s assume that Caner exaggerated elements of his story, that he embellished aspects of his Muslim childhood and his commitment to Jihad. Why would anyone do such a thing?

For anyone who knows anything about the religious world in which Caner lives, the answer is simple: drama. In the conversionist, revivalist, aisle-walking, just-as-I-am-singing piety in which Caner moves, it is essential to have a good, colorful, compelling conversion story. The essence of both drama and comedy is tension. In comedy the tension is created and resolved in an unexpected and delightful way. In drama the tension is created and resolved in a compelling, affective way, i.e., in a way that moves the emotions to sadness or pity. The greater the contrast between “before” and “after,” the greater the tension and the more powerful the resolution.

In revivalist-conversionist circles, there is a great, unspoken pressure to heighten the tension by exaggerating one’s pre-conversion biography. In truth few of us have dramatic conversion stories. Certainly they exist but most of our pre-Christian lives are quite mundane. Sure, our families and lives were full of the dysfunction that sin brings, but most sins are hidden from public and have relatively little entertainment value. It is, however, a lot easier to get a crowd worked up and sweaty and ready to walk the aisle during the invitation if the testimony includes some juicy details. Hence the embellishment.

I don’t remember what I said the first time I gave my “testimony” in church. I do remember, however, the intoxicating feeling I had from being in front of 300 people eager to hear a good story. I remember the approval I received from the pastors and from others. It was a powerful inducement to make smaller details larger than they really were. The first time I actually remember trying to find a dramatic episode to use for evangelism was not, however, in an Arminian SBC. It was during my training in Evangelism Explosion. I was a pastor in a small, struggling Reformed church. As part of the EE program one is supposed to tell a dramatic story. The really dramatic stories I could have told would have been violations of confidences and unfair to those involved and not relevant to my conversion. So I told a story about losing control of my car on the ice. I told that story on door steps and on cassette tapes distributed to hundreds of people. In truth losing control of the car happened so quickly and ended so well that it wasn’t frightening as much as it was amusing. The car just made lazy circles on the icy road until momentum carried it slowly and gently into a snow bank. Walking in sub-zero temperatures to my destination was more frightening but even that ended well as a passerby picked me up and dropped me off. There was nothing to see. Move along.

I embellished the story because the genre and program demanded it. If I didn’t have a story I couldn’t do the program and if I couldn’t do the program then I couldn’t do evangelism, at least not successfully. The tragedy of the entire Finneyite, aisle-walking, sinner’s prayer-praying model is that it’s about the wrong story completely. The truth is that we have a wonderfully dramatic story to tell. The tension is not between my pre- and post-conversion lives but between human sin and divine grace, between the mystery of the fall into sin and death, and the greater mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ for sinners.

The moral of the Caner saga is not one of Calvinist (or even Muslim) conspiracies but one of the subtle pressure to conform to a religious culture, a piety, and expectations created by the conversionist paradigm. The dramatic story we Christians have to tell, however, isn’t, in the first instance, about us at all. In the first instance, the story we have to tell is about God the Son incarnate, about his obedience for us, and his mercy to us. The subject of our story is not “we” or “I” but “He,” that is, the God who saved us in Christ. Yes, we are, by grace alone, through faith alone, now a part of that story. Jesus is our federal head. He acted for us and now that he has made us alive (sola gratia) by his Spirit, who operates through the preaching of gospel narrative, and has by faith alone (sola fide) united us to Christ by his Spirit, that story is our story.

That’s the only story we really have to tell. What we did or didn’t do before we came to faith, if we can even remember such a time, is inconsequential. Praise God many covenant children never remember when they did not believe. They feel no need to embellish their personal stories because they don’t live in an ecclesiastical culture where that sort of narrative is highly valued. Here is a concrete, practical difference between Reformed piety and conversionist, revivalist piety. The focus of Reformed piety is on the Gospel, and the Gospel tells me that what matters most of all is not what has happened in me but what happened for me, outside of me, in salvation history. What matters most is that I believe it now. Yes, that salvation history has powerful consequences for my personal narrative but that story is unfinished. The Gospel, however, is the story of a done deal: “It is finished.”

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56 comments

  1. Amen.

    “most sins are hidden from public and have relatively little entertainment value. “

    But just as damning.

  2. Pastoral/theologican question about conversionism v. revivalism:

    I would presume that you would deny that the elect are justified before the foundations of the earth and they are born just as wicked (eschatology speaking) as anyone else (covenant child or not), and they have a need of being born again or regenerated. That being said being Reformed we believe that God saves his people in a variety of ways (both dramatic and just plain old fashioned catechising! and everything in between) and we should rejoice that people join the church by profession of faith no matter how God saved them. But do you believe it is helpful/theologically correct to say/preach that covenant children need to be converted and call them to cling to Christ? Of course we know that conversion is in one sense a life long thing, but there is initial regeneration that happens in response to the proclamation of the promises of God in the Gospel. In other words, is there a difference between being a conversionist verses being a revivalist? And where would you stand on that?

    • Joseph,

      The Reformed confess (see the Canons of Dort) the necessity of sovereign, prevenient grace to regenerate (bring to life) dead sinners. When I say “conversionist” I’m not questioning the need for dead sinners to be brought to life. I am questioning the “conversionist” paradigm for piety.

      We may not be able to mark a time when we believed. I used to think that I knew when I came to faith. I can look back and recollect moments of awakening but I’m much less confident that I know when it was exactly that I came to faith. I think the desire to know exactly when I came to faith is another form of QIRC. The ground of my certainty is not my experience but the promises of God in Christ.

      So, no, I don’t think there’s is much real difference between the “conversionist” and “revivalist” paradigm.

    • Dr. Clark,

      I agree with what I perceive you to basically be saying here (…hows that for an equivocation). However, would you say that there is in fact “a moment in time” (viz. a sequential element of the Ordo Salutis) when the Holy Spirit imparts the gift of faith to the elect – and that some (though not all) persons may be keenly aware of this event?

    • Phil,

      Yes, of course. This is what I was trying to say in the comment above. We don’t confess eternal justification. Murray was right. Redemption is accomplished in time and applied in time by the Spirit.

      There is a distinction to be made, however, between the fact of the regeneration in a moment in time and my immediate consciousness of it. What matters is that I believe now not that I can name the time, date, and place when it happened. The quest to know exactly when it happened is less about faith and more about unhealthy inquisitiveness and introspection. What is needed is regeneration and what promised to us is salvation not necessarily a shattering experience of the same.

    • Joseph,

      Wondering if you are familar with Schenck’s book on the presbyterian view of the covenant? The book is primarily historical, but highly persuasive. I would make three responses:

      i) while all are naturally in need regenerating grace, there is nothing in Scripture to say that such grace cannot be applied before birth;

      ii) such examples as we have (John the Baptist, Jeremiah, King David) suggest that such experiences are possible, and perhaps mainstream. Some dismiss these as exceptions, but we have even less (zero, to be precise) examples of covenant childhood conversion experiences. The example of childhood salvation given in Ps. 22 and Ps. 139, suggest to me a normal experience, seeing they were given to the church to sing.

      iii) Covenant children, like other members of the church, must be urged to ‘make their calling and election sure’. But we have no more right to slander the good name of o three month old brother in Christ by doubting his salvation than we have to make slurs on the faith of a goodstanding pastor or elder.

    • what you have just described is actual new birth in Jesus Christ by the power of the Word of God. So new birth wherever God’s Word goes is to be expected in the elect. Hence I know in-the-womb new birth is more common than just Samuel, Jeremiah and David. I don’t know who is born again in the womb, I just know God as Word. That means, among other things, that abortion is killing the flesh of some brethren in Christ, not ‘fetuses’.

      In contrast, when the power of the Word of God is denied, as in is necessary in free will theology, ( there has to be one big meta speech in total reality that never interferes with the ‘free’ will of man in order for ‘free’ will to seem logical and in that seeming logic, that speech takes an idealized threshold of experience to successfully manipulate ‘it’ into choices ) the term ‘new birth’ may be mimicked, but the whole show depends on an accumulation of an idealized will-neutral, powerless speech and idealized experience in putting that idealized will-neutral ‘stuff’ into practice as idealized ‘decisions’. Hence the arminian view against infant baptism and for the ‘age of accountability’. It’s a tough sell to get people to kill their children in the womb AND have new birth in the womb AND have to explain how anyone is born again in the womb without ‘making a decision for Jesus’. So the usual pattern is:

      1. new preacher preaches free will while claiming kinship with Calvinism ( he is a 4-pointer or says he likes Calvin )
      2. taboos about killing children in the womb are lessened in the congregation as ‘what a christian can ideally be’ is lessened to an intellectual construct that someone in the womb can’t possibly perform. The de-humanization of that individual is then complete because if “God didn’t care to make a way for the fetuses to gain salvation in the womb, why should we, with our free will?”
      3. suddenly, out of nowhere, a new doctor just happens to be available to do the abortions or new pills are suddenly available to kill those idealized to be ‘left-out’ of God’s plan of salvation.
      4. the ‘freedom’ of abortion fits exactly with what the new preacher was saying about being free ‘in Christ’ ..and its guilt free!
      5. the free will angle employs the drug dealers and pornographers as everything is reduced to ‘choice’ and the only immoral thing to do is ‘not choose’. A populace who knows it does not have the free will to buy narcotics does the drug dealers no good. The basic starting point is that the consumer MUST be deceived they have free will before the drugs arrive as a ‘choice’.

      6. the literal witches hate Calvinism because the truth itself as doctrine demonstrates they are now murderers and drug dealers and not ‘good people with bad theology’. A campaign against Calvinism then gets in full swing and uppermost is that ‘Calvinism takes away our freedoms!’ ..led by those who formerly said they thought Calvin had some good things to say.

      There is more to the free will based show than just the ‘conversions’ and a desire to gain adherents in competition against other religious systems. The adherents are gained in order to destroy them both soul, body and family.

      The reality of new birth in Jesus Christ in the womb destroys the temptation to abort a child. Beware –why– someone would debate new birth in the womb, not just their particular arguments.

      Matthew 7:20 By their fruits then surely ye shall know them.

      timothy

      In the Name of Jesus Christ, amen

  3. Dr Clark,
    Your experiences with this reflect mine. Shortly after my conversion I began attending an evangelical church that heard my testimony and then threw me in front of the crowd to share it. I too felt like it needed a little embellishment. It was interesting to me to see all the attention it got me after the service as well as a few Sundays following. Unfortuneatly, at that time, I thought this was a sort of right of passage. Baptism if you will. Over time, no one mentioned my story to me, but I noticed that there were other stories being shared with the same emotional variences, a sort of new poster child for conversion was presented about every six months.

    A few years down the road as a marriage conference was coming up I was approached with sharing my story again. You see, Christ had saved my marriage. This time I refused. RC Sproul had taught me through a study that once we had forgiven anyone or they forgave us it was to be forgotten. I wasn’t going to hash all the trash again.
    Amen, to what you said about it being about HIM, not about me.

  4. I have yet to hear anyone articulate as clearly as you have what the real issue is here. You are spot on.

    Having spent most of my Christianity under this kind of erroneous thinking I am grateful to say that God has led me out.

    You said, ” In revivalist-conversionist circles, there is a great, unspoken pressure to heighten the tension by exaggerating one’s pre-conversion biography.” Oh my, how true.

    Among the many dangers that this kind of thinking opens the Christian up to is the compromise of truth. A little stretching here and a little stretching there. Before you know it, you’ve lost your ability to discern right from wrong. What a dangerous thing it is to chip away at the bedrock of Christianity: Truth. Integrity? What’s integrity? Drawing them in and wowing them with your story is what matters. The people will be encouraged. Facts? Don’t worry if you are not entirely truthful…it’s under the blood anyway.

    Thankfully, no one ever asked me to share my testimony but I can say that I’ve been pretty close to Christians who have absolutely lost their footing and shipwrecked their faith because for a brief moment in time — they got the glory when Jesus should have.

    May God have mercy.

  5. Scott, I don’t know where you had your EE training, but that was NOT what I was taught about “testimony.”

    My EE training was at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Nov. 2004 and January 2005.

    The point was one positive here and now benefit of knowing Christ, and “but the best thing is that I KNOW that I have eternal life.”

    “May I share with you how I came to know for certain that I have eternal life and how you can know also.”

    • I should add, that that was “testimony” for those who were converted in adulthood. There is also “testimony” for those who know no time when they did not know Christ.

    • Roy,

      I think the point here isn’t so much to trade EE experiences as it is to point out the vast differences in pieties, one inward and the other outward (well done, Scott).

      But even if one thinks he still must say something about himself—which I don’t think is altogether wrong—I am fond of saying that I don’t have a testimony, I have a history, which still points up a vast difference even when it comes to how one speaks about his experience. And to be quite honest, aren’t personal histories way more interesting than personal testimonies? Seems like the difference between good cinema and two-bit carnival shows.

  6. R. Scott Clark,

    I would be interested in hearing your beliefs on the use of personal testimony in evangelism. What lesson should we take from Paul giving his testimony in the book of Acts?

    Blessings,
    Jason Smathers

    • Jason,

      There was an excellent discussion about this on a recent White Horse Inn episode. You should give it a listen. I couldn’t improve on it. By way of partial reply I can say that I am not the apostle Paul. I haven’t seen the risen Christ. I haven’t survived shipwrecks, stonings, drownings, beatings, and assassination attempts etc. Since we’re not canonical actors in the history of redemption we should recognize that distinction and be witnesses to Christ’s Christ obedience, death, and resurrection. My story is of little consequence. Surely we must be able to give witness to the faith and to our own personal appropriation of that faith but the focus has to be on the former.

  7. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for this article. I came out of that type of church where the main focus is evangelism. It really is a numbers game. How many people can we get to the altar? That is the main focus of the meetings. The huge productions that cost thousands of dollars, the flying in of special guest speakers, the dramatic testimonies of church members, who, when the story is over the top, become the flavor of the month and their story is quickly put in the latest book or DVD that is produced by the Senior Pastor. And the majority of these stories are stretched for the purpose of adding a dramatic effect. But that is ok, because the bottom line is souls and by hook or crook, as long as people walk down the aisle, the story stretching and flat out lies are tolerated. Besides when you try to point these things out in turn they point to the number of people who responded to the altar calls as justification and proof that God is using it.

    Yet year after year, despite thousands of people responding to altar calls there seems to be so little fruit. But that is ok, they can hold up the cards that were filled out and say to the people, “Look all your labor and giving has produced a great harvest”, then they ask for more money to produce more dramatic presentations for the purpose of fulfilling the great commission. Yet there is no true biblical teaching and instruction for those who do truly respond, and what happens is that a spiritually dysfunctional church just keeps adding members one after the other and the church produces more dysfunctional members who’s only purpose is to work within the four walls of the church and serve so that the church can continue to produce bigger and better productions to win more dysfunctional members.

    Yet this church has a reputation of being alive and well and one of the greatest church’s in America. Yet the majority of its members are biblically illiterate and simply go along with the program.
    The verse that comes to mind is Revelation 3:1 “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”
    How many churches in America simply exist for one purpose, to dazzle the crowds with stories and drama so that they will respond to an altar call. Yet as my current pastor recently stated, “Do you want to see a true modern day miracle? Find a church today that is preaching the true Gospel of Jesus Christ! That is a miracle”.

    If these churches would simply stop providing entertainment and start preaching the Gospel and making disciples, they would no longer need to resort to the Hollywood type antics that many modern day churches have fallen prey to. But the sad fact is that many of the preachers themselves do not really know what the Gospel is.

    The sad thing is that the majority of church goers want the dramatic Ergun Caner stories. I believe that this is partly true because they are not being fed the true Word fo God that satisfies the thirsty soul. Therefore they settle for Hollywood.

  8. The culture that produced the Caners is definitely the show biz shallow decision type evangelisalism of Finney, Billy Graham, and the shallow decisionists such as Falwell, etc. This religious culture promotes gimmicks as ‘part’ of the Gospel of grace. This theatrical show biz type of evangelicalism has produced its worst in televangelists. And politicians, such as Paige Patterson, RIchard Land, etc. It will continue to use gimmicks as ‘part’ of the Gospel and will continue to produce next Canners. The constituents of such movement has been trained to thirst for more and more sensationalism. They don’t learn doctrine. They go to church to see performance. The most obnoxious ones are the most popular among this group

  9. Preach it brother! You’re absolutely right about the underlying dynamics at play in this situation. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we feel pressure to make our sin spectacular when in most cases sin is really sad, ugly, pathetic, and mundane. It’s what we are saved TO that’s spectacular — not what we’re saved from. Blessings …

  10. Superb. God bless you for sharing your own failings in this.

    I remember one charismatic minister telling me about a guy who used profanity when sharing his testimony in front of the church, i.e. “Before I was a Christian I was miserable, now I feel ****** brilliant!”

    • I remember growing up in my evangelical church thinking that I needed to go out, get drunk and sow my oats just so that I’d have a great testimony and a neat before and after picture to prove I was “saved”. I don’t know what caused this misunderstanding, but I’m sure the testimony tradition contributed to this.

  11. Thanks for your clear comments on this important topic.

    The sad fact is that the Church in the West is terribly worldly. Take a look at the alumni/donor magazines that most seminaries send out. They are full of stories about the professional athlete or musician turned preacher and almost never write about the vanilla Reformed pastor who is faithfully working to build up his 45 member congregation through the ordinary means of grace. There always has to be an angle. I could add that the students in the promotional materials tend to be better looking than the average student on campus. How does that happen?

    • Fair enough, there’s a little revivalist left in all of us.

      Would you read a magazine if we put a plain or ugly person on the cover? I’m not sure that’s about revivalism as much as it is about human nature.

      FWIW, we do honor the ordinary, means-of-grace using, Reformed pastor here. The faculty is composed of such and that’s what we’re trying to help our students to become. Ordinary, however, need not be mediocre. I’m sure we agree about that.

  12. Dr. Clark,

    I don’t want to be a nuisance here, but I would genuinely appreciate further comment on your statement about there being an “unhealthy inquisitiveness and introspection” in terms of trying to recognize that we are saved. Even in agreeing with this statement, would it be correct to at the same time say there is ALSO such a thing as a “healthy” inquisitiveness and introspection in this regard?

    For example, WLC Q.80 says, “Such as truly believe…[may ‘be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace’]…by the Spirit enabling them to discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made…” Doesn’t this speak of a proper form of introspection that is necessary in order to be assured that we indeed have true faith in God’s provision for us – and even “an inner awareness” of the application of that provision to us personally? WCF 18.2, 3 also seems to speak of this kind of introspection as being an important part of what is meant by the command to believers to “make their calling and election sure.”

    In other words, I think there can both be a proper form of introspection (the one that the Standards are pointing to – i.e. discerning “that” salvation has occurred – and an improper form (the one I think you are pointing to – i.e. perceiving a necessity to discern exactly “when” salvation occurred). Or am I misunderstanding the Standards on this issue?

    (I guess one reason I believe some precision is needed in this area is to counter a teaching that has been expressed by some FVers that one shouldn’t engage much in the exercise of spiritual reflection or introspection, but rather the real questions to ask ourselves are, “Were you baptized? Are you a member of God’s covenant community? – If so, then primarily rest in that.”)

    Thanks.

    • Hi Phil,

      Understood in their original context, the divines were addressing two problems: presumption (and antinomianism) among those who held to eternal justification and unhealthy introversion by the doubting.

      To the presumptuous they preached the law by warning them about the danger of presumption. To the doubting they counseled grace and peace. They were realistic about the struggles that believers often endure. In this they sounded quite like the Synod of Dort. True faith is what is but our experience of faith is not always what it should be.

      So, as in Heidelberg Q. 86 fruit has a secondary role in assurance. That’s the practical syllogism:

      1. Believers produce fruit 2. I produce fruit 3. Ergo I’m a believer

      Fine but what happens when someone says, “Believers produce x amount of fruit”? Oops, suddenly assurance becomes more dodgy, doesn’t it?

      Thus, for all the Reformed, the first step in assurance is to ask: “what are promises of God?” They, not my conversion experience, are the bedrock of assurance. Only after that may I find some additional comfort in the Spirit’s unfinished work in my life. If I turn, in the first instance, to myself it is like going to a garbage dump to find flower (I know I stole that from someone but from whom i don’t remember).

    • Thanks, Dr. Clark, for this clarification. In other words, the proper emphasis is always to put first things first – read, understand, and believe the promises and conditions of salvation declared by God in His Word. I totally agree.

  13. Good stuff. When I was a kid at an evangelical church, 6th grade was when most everyone got baptized, and as part of that you were supposed to give your testimony. My testimony was something like, “I was blessed to grow up in a believing household, I’ve been a Christian my entire life.” Not very exciting.

  14. Then shall this general Confession be made, in the name of all those that are minded to receive the holy Communion, by one of the Ministers; both he and all the people kneeling humbly upon their knees, and saying,

    ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    1662 BCP.

    Dr. Clark, commendable article. Thank you.

  15. Ergun Caner’s revivalistic perspective is man-centered, too often to the point of forgetting God’s grace and Justification.

  16. Dear Scott,

    I had your post passed on to me and found it interesting reading.

    It is, however, a bit of a straw-man argument. You have set up EE as requiring you to embellish your testimony (aka lying) and focusing on extreme drama in your life (which you labeled as Finneyism), ending in your dramatic conversion as you “walked the isle”. This teaching has simply not now or ever been true within EE.

    So, while you have done an effective job of putting down such nonsense, the only problem is that it is just that…

    In EE, we teach people to speak of God’s faithfulness. This is the only purpose of our short (three minute or less) testimony. We never focus on us. It’s not about us. It’s about God. We have two versions of the personal testimony—one if you came to Christ as an adult, and the other if you came as a child. The child’s version only focuses on the after, not the before. Either way, it is not about your conversion or what happened at your conversion, or how you walked the aisle. If the pastor prefers, he can instruct his teams to use the church testimony which focuses on the need of the church to communicate effectively the truth of Christ to our community.

    I’m sorry that you felt the need to lie when you gave your testimony. I’m certain that did not help to illuminate the truth of Christ in other’s lives. But you really shouldn’t blame that on EE (genre or program…).

    We agree that the focus is on God and His faithfulness. He has so graciously made our lives full (as He said He would in John 10:10). We are not the same because of His grace. Whether you convey that with drama, or a simple story of gratitude, it is a reminder of how great God is.

    And, by the way, you can share the Gospel without sharing your testimony. No problem. Go for it!

    May the Lord bless you as you do.

    John Sorensen
    President
    Evangelism Explosion International
    http://www.eeworks.org

    • For the record, John was gracious enough to call and we talked. We probably do disagree on some important assumptions (e.g., every-member ministry). As we talked I noted that in the testimony structure of EE (my training was 20 years ago) there to be a contrast between “then” and “now.” That contrast invites exaggeration. Yes, I’ve repented of my exaggeration (lying). I wish now I had stuck simply to the objective story of God’s work for sinners in Christ.

      We probably also disagree about the role that our own story or that the story of God’s faithfulness to us personally plays in “evangelism.” That I have the fruit of the Spirit (to the degree that I do) isn’t the good news. Some days are better than others. Some days are more like Ps 32:3-4 and some days are more like Ps 150. My experience is variable but the promises of God are not.

      One resource that I recommended to John from which others will doubtless benefit is the recent (May 9, 2010) White Horse Inn broadcast on this very topic. I can’t link directly to it but you subscribe to the WHI via iTunes it will show up in your podcasts. Everyone should hear that show and the show previous and the show after (well, every single episode really — what else have you got to listen to?)

      I think that there is a subtle, unspoken and unintended manipulation in the whole business of telling “before” and “after” stories. This is, first of all a business technique. We’ve all seen the ads. I still remember the Joe Weider ads in the back of my Captain America comics! Implied is the message, “you can have the ‘after’ if you’ll only do x.” We’re not marketing the “after.” We’re proclaiming Christ and him crucified.

      Yes, there’s an “after” but it’s messy and uncertain we don’t want people looking to it. We want them looking to Christ who never ever disappoints.

    • Functionally, EE is little different than the SBC.

      From EE website: “Evangelism Explosion is a ministry that trains people how to share their faith in Christ and how to bring people from unbelief to belief.” Huh?! “Bring people from unbelief to belief”?! Only God has such power and right.

      “Steps to Life”??? What?! Little steps? BIG steps? Baby steps, Dr Marvin? http://www.eeworks.org/pages/page.asp?page_id=31469

      From Step 5: “Jesus Christ bore our sin in His body on the cross and now offers you eternal life (Heaven) as a free gift. This gift is received by faith.”

      I thought that we say as Calvinists that God in Christ sovereignly and unilaterally BEQUEATHS eternal life, not merely offers it upon condition of our “acceptance.”

      Aren’t we to preach Christ and call men to repent and believe the good news?

      From Step 6: “The question that God is asking you now is would you like to receive the gift of eternal life?” It is?!

      Step 7 “Commitment: Steps to Life” is but an Arminian/ Bill Bright type prayer: http://www.eeinternational.org/pages/page.asp?page_id=31460

      …with the same bogus absolution: http://www.eeinternational.org/pages/page.asp?page_id=31459 !

      How does EE differ from Ergun Caner’s, Rick Warren’s, or any other Arminian evangelism?!

      See EE & compare Bright’s 4 Spiritual Laws or Rick Warren’s “pray-and-I’ll-call-you-saved” method. The similarities are greater than the differences. No thanks.

      Not that God cannot and does not use such (his Word will not return to him void, and many give out his efficacious Word in Arminian evangelism); I’m sure he does bless the efforts, but in part IN SPITE OF the bad methods and false teaching therein.

      Sadly,
      Hugh

  17. As a child, I traveled with a singing group (they were popular in the 70’s) to do prison ministry and church concerts, etc. The members of the group would give “testimonies” at one point in the concert. One guy had a drug background. As a child, I would recite the list of drugs he used with him silently whenever he’d get up to talk. It was like an informal drug education. The problem is, the list kept growing longer and longer every time he told the story. Apparently, the guy got bored with his initial use of pot and cocaine and decided to add a few in there to jazz things up. As the certified bad boy of the group, he enjoyed a certain celebrity status as a convert. Unfortunately, he ended up falling off the evangelical wagon and was homeless in about 5 years time. I have witnessed this culture first hand. Nobody likes a good story better than a bunch of evangelicals. Sad.

  18. As one who grew up in revivalist churches, I never led a rebellious, bohemian, drunken life, so when it came time for me to give testimony, it was a forlorn and colorless thing. I envied those who had really sinned. They were aware of it, too, and became vain and refused to associate with me. For I had no standing in their circles on account of my low reputation.

    It was only AFTER my revivalist “conversion” experience that I became a sinner and drank and lied. I thought this would improve my standing but there was no interest in post-conversion bohemianism. I was once again an outcast in their eyes, and decided to reform and swear off drinking and calk up some of my lies.

    I learned later that post-conversion sinning was a Comstock load if it could be worked up into a backsliding story. But because I hadn’t had any booze in a good while — because of the reform you know — I had taken up swearing.

  19. I don’t know if you came of age in these circles, Scott. I did. Freddy Gage crusades and all. There are exceptions, but generally speaking this post is spot on. Often what’s missing in the glorification of such testimonies is the truth that the past actually is dark for a lot of people—it still hurts and they’re still living and working through its consequences.

    I’m reminded of what Keith Green (of all people!) once said, “You’ve heard the testimonies before—I don’t need to tell you mine. But the part of every testimony I love, is when they get to the bottom of their list—I put Jesus on the bottom of my list.”

    Or as the famous preacher reminded himself every time he walked into the pulpit: “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

  20. I attended an evening plenary session of a SBC convention a while back, and the emphasis was on bragging. One after another went to the podium to brag about themselves, and ‘their’ ministries. They all claim to change the world. Da world. This mentality. This man centered desease is so so strong in this evangelical sub culture, it is nauseating. It is all about man and his/her accomplishments. It is about the cult of personality. The SBC is still in the business of producing personality cult. The conventions are all about braggamonies. Ergun Caner happen to be the most reckless of them all, but not the only one. Those leaders who mentored him (e.g., Paige Patterson, Richard Land, etc.) are quite now because they are the ones who taught him the tricks by manipulative political examples and maneuvers. They are very slick. Not holy. Their silence betray their Pilate cowardice to stand on the side of truth. Their silence is not biblical spiritual silence. It is a political silence. Their silence is as shallow as their theology is. After all their braggamonies do not have content beyond demoniacal self-centeredness–the Canners of the SBC says: I don’t answer to you all, I don’t answer to no one, only to God (ME).

    • Hi John,

      I appreciate your passion but you might want to re-think your rhetoric. I don’t think you want to or should suggest that folk, however much you disagree with them, are demonic.

      It’s this sort of rhetoric that makes those outside the Reformed world look at us as if we’re crazy.

      I’ve seen plenty of preening in Reformed ecclesiastical assemblies. It’s easy for any gathering of ministers to turn into a discussion of the killer B’s: Buildings, Bodies, and Budgets. There are psychological reasons for this. We often don’t have much concrete stuff to show for our work and the world rewards concrete stuff so we tend to focus on the stuff for which we get rewarded. It’s Pavlovian.

      Back to rhetoric, it’s fine to disagree but let’s not raise the temperature more than it needs to be.

    • John:

      In the military chaplaincy, I also met some of these SBC Braggonomists. I like the neologism you offer: braggonomies. We should develop nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs for the word “braggomony”….for these revivalist SBC Braggonomists. I rightly grow in my dislike for these revivalists as I age.

      Regards.

      D. Philip Veitch

  21. To “Your Sister”:

    I may be “puffed up with knowledge” but I still have a comment policy which requires you to identify yourself and use a real email address.

    You’re welcome to re-post your comment and take responsibility for your words.

  22. Not to go off on a tangent, but….

    He was outed by bloggers. This is more proof that blogging is evil and “blog” is a four letter word! It is imperative that we throttle the flow of information and restore the information monopoly that those in power have always enjoyed. How else can we get anything strategically planned?

    Anything less than a total return of information dissemination to those in power is to violate the Ninth Commandment, to engage in “blogsip”, and be unloving and just plain not nice. Especially if they’re Calvinists.

  23. Food for thought, as usual, on many levels. The celebrity culture in all sectors of the church is disgusting, yes, even in the Reformed world where our focus is supposed to be on Christ and His completed work and not on ourselves. Emotions can be manipulated and tickled by the Enemy, but so can the intellect (Federal Vision especially), and I think that we monergists should take notice of that danger. The Enemy will do whatever it takes to distract me from my need for true repentance and faith and my utter helplessness as a sinner. What should our takeaway be other than revivalism is bad?

    I’m reluctant to conflate revivalism with conversionism, although I need to listen to the WHI podcast. What are we to make of Jesus’ admonition to Nicodemus to be “born again” when Nicodemus was a child of the covenant as far as I can see. Or John the Baptist’s call for the people of the covenant to repent in preparation for the coming of the messiah? I’m asking all you theologically educated guys to help me out here, because I only know that the Holy Spirit regenerates sinners, and only those whom the Father has chosen…

    • Memo to self: listen to recommended WHI podcast before commenting. I found some very helpful insights there on the topic here.

  24. Very, very good article, Dr. Clark. Thank you. And this SO much needed to be said–the circus atmosphere of evangelical revivalism spawns these actions. And thank you for what you have to say about assurance–that we look first to the promises of God. I am passing the article onto others.

  25. Thank you again, Dr. Clark. Your article reminds me of being asked several times to “give my testimony” over the course of many women’s retreats. I always told the requester that I would think it over and pray about it. I always ended up politely refusing. It always came down to this: Telling about the sinful life I lived before the Lord called me would serve no useful purpose for the hearers or for me. EVERY BELIEVER had a sinful life before the Lord called them. And I thought, these are my sisters, my friends. Why would I want to throw my old, discarded “mud” all over them? Why would I want to “hash the trash” again, as someone said above? God has forgotten it, why should I bring it to mind again, much less share it in public?
    As Mad Magazine would express it, “YECCH!”

  26. Thank you for a very good article on a very sad trend in the Church in America today.

    I did not read through all of the comments so this may be a repeat of what someone else has mentioned: Ergun Caner has also made money from these fabrications from the sale of many books, being called as an expert in Islam on many programs and broadcasts; and also in being given a position as head of a Seminary.

    He became a Christian in his mid teens and could be considered no more of an expert in Islam than a churchgoing teenager could be considered an expert in Christianity.

    It is no mystery that he holds the position that he does and sells the books that he does because of the descriptions of his past that are false. I know that is not what you are pointing out here but I believe money and position are added reasons for his continued refusal to just come clean.

  27. I had a very dear friend who was a prison chaplain and would be invited to speak at different types of churches where when asked to give his testimony he simply recited HB Q and A 1.

  28. I had an interesting experience with this. Not only do the testifiers sometimes exaggerate their testimonies but other can exaggerate on their behalf. I have an ok “testimony” not terribly dramatic but ok in terms of the before and after. My best friend first witnessed to me in the course of a workout. He had gone to an FCA camp where he “prayed to receive Christ” and came back and told me about it. I was intrigued and that led to my praying to receive Christ. He and I gave our “testimonies” at a few FCA events and were kind of trophies for FCA in our town. A couple of years later I heard how someone who had heard our “testimony” at a meeting told our story at a separate meeting that we weren’t at. When he told our story it was embellished to the point that my friend was preaching vociferously at me (he would never do that in real life) and I was getting angry, which I wasn’t. In this version of the story I angrily started to walk out on him and he shouted at me that if I walked out the door I would die and go to hell. At which point I fell to my knees and dramatically prayed to receive Christ. This version had no truth in it at all, but in the movie version of my life that’s the one we’ll use. It just goes to show, in revivalistic settings drama is the key when it comes to testimonies.
    Also, sorry to make this so long but I was certified in EE back in the 80’s and have taught it in several settings. When I taught it to youth the church kids always stumbled when it came to the lesson on the testimony. Even using the “churched” version of the testimony they never could shake the feeling that theirs wasn’t dramatic enough.

  29. Dr. Clark,

    The revivalist arminian paradigm of LU kingdom and SBC culture in general are BIG on man-centered braggamonies, funny, and incredible stories. I guess they brag about numbers and big things man do (how great Ergun Caner is), NOT the Gospel. The Gospel is one of the tools Ergun Caner and LU use for personal and institutional gain. It is not about soli Deo gloria.

  30. If Dr. Caner had adopted this dishonest testimony from the start of his ministry, I would be more willing to credit “pressure” as producing the changes. However, he made the changes (apparently) rather abruptly when the events of 9/11 made the advantage of the revisions obvious. This is opportunism at its finest, character at its lowest and deserves no sympathy.

  31. This is very helpful, Scott. I have to say, I am forever grateful to the Lord that I cannot remember ‘becoming’ a Christian, even though I can remember a time when I was not and a time when I was. Of course, there is a peril in that I must not find myself saying, ‘I thank thee, God, that I am not like those Arminians…’! But it has meant that I have nothing to hang my faith on except Christ and his work: no prayer, no moment of crisis, just a growing realisation, which continues to grow, that Christ died for me.

  32. Sadly I think that not only a culture of drama spawned this but also a culture of bigotry underpinned among the sea of Christian culture vis a vis the Left Behind series, Fox News, Glenn Beck, Islamophobia, John Hagee, Christian Zionism and Dispensational theology.

    I know it seems like much but as someone who is sensitive to the bigotry I have had my eyes open, for years to the various people, places, directions and forms this bigotry comes from. Sadly, Christians are not immune.

    “Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Caner, Shoebat, Saleem and others like them belong to an “industry” that is often perpetuated by fundamentalist Christians.” in today’s Washington Post
    People like Caner are just a sub-industry of the Christian Zionist/ Dispensational enterprise.

    And it’s not just something to blow off. Genuine Christians have sat under Craner’s, and other so called Jihadis turned converts, teaching or read their books and their entire world view of events like 9-11 or the Muslim/ Arab world are based on the testimony and fraudulent “scholarship” of these charismatic characters. This is something we need to take seriously. The damage is very real, there are very real consequences of their lies as the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine will attest, as well as many of your Arab or Muslim neighbors.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there was someone with more political weight than Caner encouraging him to spice up his testimony and teaching. Of course I could be wrong, but I am thinking of others I know who were financed by people with money and influence in Christian circles. Our churches and seminaries are not immune to these kinds of profiteering.

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