When we approach the subject of incursions into evangelical theology, we should view such conflicts within established faith and practice with a wide angle lens, for developments are many and varied. Whether following a favorite teacher or group, or engaging an unfamiliar doctrine or practice, internecine interruptions in fellowship interfere with the unity of faith in local churches and their affiliations. Spiritual conflict was assumed by the apostle when he addressed first-century Corinthian Christians, “I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor. 11:18).
In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, perfectionistic doctrines regarding sanctification arose that clouded the apostolic standards which saints are obediently formed (Rom. 6:17). In this essay, I will focus on those feeling-oriented evangelical enthusiasts who embraced a formulaic quest for ideal sanctification that extended from the 1960s into the Deeper Life and Charismatic Movements of the 1970s. Highlighting a few key primary sources from these earlier periods, I will identify representative contributors to evangelical thought and practice that constituted victorious or deeper life evangelicalism in the 1970s.
Often the latest flowers spring from ancient seeds. Yet, only by returning to earlier periods can we understand the events of our present and recent past. To that end this essay will examine briefly the contributions of John Wesley, Charles Grandison Finney, and the American Holiness movement.
These early synergistic connections within Higher/Victorious/Deeper life evangelicalism are not the only roots but are primary ones. These three foundationally representative connections each yielded discernable continuity and lasting contributions which appear demonstrably in the decade of 1970’s evangelicalism and beyond.
First, we must considered the perfectionism of John Wesley (1703-1791). An Anglican clergyman influenced by the perfectionist teachings of Jacobus Arminius (d. 1609), William Law (d. 1761), and Jeremy Taylor (d. 1667), Wesley founded what has become known as Methodism. Wesley saw within Jesus’s command toward perfection in Matthew 5:48 both a goal which Christians must attain and a command to be kept. Of Wesley’s numerous published works, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection appeared in 1777.
In this pivotal work, Wesley stated, “A Christian is so far perfect as not to commit sin.” Wesley’s anthropocentric perspective became central to Methodism, the major denominational advocate of perfectionism. He distinguished between “absolute perfection” and “Christian perfection,” the latter he perceived as freedom from sin to the extent that one avoided voluntary transgression of the law as it was known to one’s conscience.
For Wesley and his successors a state of Christian perfection was received instantly by the faith of the believer and confirmed in the heart by the personal witness of the Holy Spirit. This process was understood by Wesley to involve the eradication of sin. These concepts became far-reaching and were maintained by Wesley’s spiritual heirs not only within Methodism but also within the Holiness movement. This subjective idealism was passed on in the Higher, Victorious, and Deeper Life movements.
Finney’s Theology and Revival Methods
Next, the revivalist Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) initiated a novel and deeply man-centered approach to evangelism in America and beyond. After conversion at age twenty-nine and subsequent ordination as a Presbyterian minister, Finney revolutionized the manner in which revival services were conducted. Finney’s “new measures” provided sensational results throughout the eastern United States. Finney’s methods of “soul massage” (my term) included the introduction of protracted meetings, inquiry meetings, and the use of an “anxious seat” for preparing potential converts.
Finney’s precedents became apparent in his evangelistic results. He yielded many professed conversions, but this was only by using extreme means to impact consciences for immediate decisions in public and private evangelism. Tragically, his man-centered methods resulted in demonstrative apostasy in upstate New York, a region that came to be known as “the burned-over district.”
This father of modern revivalism contributed significantly to the theological development of a subjective spirituality and evangelistic synergism—a pragmatism and confidence in mere human ability to persuade sinners by their natural ability to make “mere decisions.” The diminishing regard for the Holy Sprit’s sovereign operation in regeneration carried over eventually into Deeper Life evangelicalism’s appeal for human governance of a victorious but unsustainable optimism in the Christian life.
The Holiness Movement and Its Successors
Finally, the Holiness Movement took Wesley’s perfectionism and “methodized” it all the more. Ideologically, western holiness doctrine has its roots in such diverse movements as Platonism, Montanism, Pelagianism, and medieval Roman Catholic mysticism. Its influence is observable in American Christianity from about 1880 to the present.
Camp meeting speakers and preachers of “holiness” shifted away from dogmatics toward the interior life. This was in opposition to the outward and more objective nature of the Reformation and its cardinal tenets of sola Scriptura and sola fide. Anxiety over lack of personal holiness led many to seek the promises of release from sin’s domination and contributed to a Higher Life Movement and a popular Victorious Life Movement, both emphasizing the experience of full rest and power in the Christian life through relinquishing one’s will to the Spirit.
Most famously, Hannah Whitehall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (1875) proved a popular handbook for searchers who expected quicker achievements in sanctification. The Keswick Bible conference began in 1875 and popularized these Victorious Life teachings. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones termed this modified Wesleyanism “Psychological Perfectionism,” and soon it was having appeal on both sides of Atlantic—liberating some, but more often binding others.
The Quest of a Frustrated Evangelical
One such frustrated evangelical was James Inell Packer. Known widely to British and American evangelicals alike, J. I. Packer experienced perplexity over his quest for this popular trend in evangelical tradition.
Exhausted by futile mental exercises for sustained victory over sin, this troubled Anglican, during his baccalaureate years in classical studies at Oxford University, sought absolute surrender of his will and a reassuring promise of peace and power sustained by the Holy Spirit. His evangelical mentors promised protection against failure, victory over sin, and the acquisition of enablement beyond human ability. One had only “to yield, surrender, and consecrate oneself to God . . . in the prescribed way” as the path to sustained victory over sin. The formulaic confession “Let go, and let God” was prescribed to him as a popular formula for Christian living.
The problem was that Packer experienced repeated defeat. He did his best to empty himself and release the power of Christ by exchanging self-exertion for sustained, victorious rest. He experienced exhaustion and failure as he consistently sought that never reachable “carrot” held before him, that is, consistent victorious Christian living released by his faith in Christ’s life (Preface to J. C. Ryle’s Holiness, by J. I. Packer).
He was rescued by Puritans. Being a bookish fellow, Packer found particular consoling correction among the writings of John Owen. Volumes six and seven of The Works of John Owen brought particular relief to Packer, as Owen treated the mortification of sin in believers, the grace and duty of being spiritually minded, and a treatise of the dominion of sin and grace. Finally, Packer understood that growth in holiness was not a one-time event, but a life-long struggle accomplished in reliance upon the Holy Spirit. Present evangelicals struggling with a “Let go and let God” theology would do well to follow Packer’s example.
Popular Deeper Life Formulation in the 1970s
Coming to the 1970s, we find many ways Wesley, Finney, and the Holiness Movement continued to influence a generation of young Christians. For instance, among the followers of the Jesus Movement, many remember the influence of Watchman Nee’s numerous publications. In particular, The Release of the Spirit served foundationally in the movement. Instead of a more biblical dichotomist view that sees humanity comprised of body and soul/spirit, Nee advocated for a trichotomist view that sees humanity divided into body, soul, and spirit.
Similarly, Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), followed Finney’s evangelistic method of prompt conversion decision, as seen in his Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws (1965) with Have You Experienced the Spirit-Filled Life? (1966). Every time a preacher calls for people to close their eyes and raise their hand if they want to follow Jesus, Finney’s decisionism spreads its influence.
1. Editor’s note: These two tracts remained in circulation even into the late 1990s, when I (David Schrock) was in college.
Following the holiness pattern of trichotomist sanctification similar to that of Watchman Nee, Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts maintained a perception that assured sinful patterns would be broken for those who followed the Gothard-interpreted principles, ostensibly derived from the Bible. At the same time, in 1972, Francis Schaeffer encountered the experience-oriented seekers who came to his L’Abri Fellowship in Huemoz, Switzerland, “emphasizing external signs and manifestations as tests of spirituality,” with subjective experience-based faith leaps, which he termed “the new super-spirituality,” instead of the biblical content that constituted faith (Francis A. Schaeffer, The New Super-Spirituality, 14–17).
Back in America, a Deeper Life ministry among Southern Baptists called Fulness House, Inc., published Fullness magazine, subtitled “A Magazine Dedicated to Encouraging in Knowing the Fulness of Christ.” The November-December 1981 issue: “A New You,” featured the article, “Turkeys and Eagles,” by Peter Lord. In it, he outlined the following principle: “We are who the Word of God says we are, not necessarily what our experience says we are or who other people say we are.” Relying on David Needham, a theology professor at Multnomah, readers were informed of their new identity by the analogy of an eagle reared by a flock of domesticated turkeys.
2. In particular, Peter Lord relied on David Needham’s Birthright: Christian Do You Know Who You Are? (Multnomah, 1979).
This analogy specifically addressed the mindset of the movement. The eagle represented the misinformed Christian as to his true identity. While rejecting the nay-saying, grounded, domestic turkeys, the eagle discovered latent abilities unique to itself—it could realize its abilities, escape, and even soar high above the limitations of the terrestrial turkeys—and, indeed, did so, representing the true identity of the Christian who had succumbed to a “miserable-sinner” mentality but could escape to life on a higher plane by the Spirit. The maintenance of this realized experience retained a mystical quality. This is a colorful example of the way the Deeper Life movement infiltrated and affected evangelicalism.
In summary, the Deeper Life movement carried forward perfectionistic tendencies that persisted in replicating an inadequate view of sin. In the presence of sin, a state of perfection is impossible (see 1 John 1:8–10). The believer, at times, experiences misery with the realization of a profound sinfulness during this current age. Christians who know their limitations due to indwelling sin inherited from Adam should agree with John Bunyan, “I no longer consider myself merely a sinner; I am sin from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet.”
The one who seeks for perfection in this life characteristically repudiates “the miserable sinner mentality”—that is to say, perfectionism misses the ongoing grace of God, because it is ignores the ongoing need for forgiveness of sins. It is true that a Christian may experience a period without consciousness of sinful motivations or acts, for example, at a time of sensible, joyous infilling unction by the Holy Spirit; however, the believer remains aware of the corruption of his own heart. Nonconformity to the law of God remains what it is— transgression.
We thank our Lord for His deliverance from the body of death that reminds us of our wretched estate apart from His sovereign, saving grace, the grace in which we stand and rejoice in our Lord Jesus Christ. An objective understanding of sin upholds perfection in its realized sense, at Christ’s Parousia. The Lord will sanctify His beloved own completely, resulting in faultless standing in union with Christ before the Father forever with great joy. This is our great gospel hope, and by learning how perfectionism in various forms has entered into the evangelical church, it prepares us to better declare and defend the good news that Christ alone saves completely and that heaven alone sanctifies entirely.