The Evangelical Hustle

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Did the apostle Paul have "a brand?" To ask the question, it would seem, is to answer it. But appearances can be deceiving, and the question is more complicated than it might appear.

A few years ago, historian Harry Stout upset some evangelicals with his book The Divine Dramatist by suggesting that the great preacher George Whitefield was not entirely dependent upon the invisible influences of the Holy Spirit alone. It appears that he used "advance men," and was a master of publicity. The fact that he was a world-class orator didn't hurt either. According to Jonathan Edward's wife Sarah, the actor David Garrick once said that Whitefield could make audiences weep or tremble through varying his pronunciation of the word Mesopotamia.

But the consternation is caused by an instance of the either/or fallacy. Either one uses "means" or one does not. If one uses means, then does this indicate that you are not trusting God? For example, there is a long tradition in evangelical circles of thinking that preparation for sermons is inconsistent with reliance on the Holy Spirit (Mark 13:11). We may note in passing, and with some amusement, that Jesus wasn't talking about sermon prep, but rather on what to do in court when you get arrested. But very few Christians think that we should instruct our attorneys to do no preparation whatever.

But there is another tradition best represented by Oliver Cromwell when he once told his troops to "trust in God and keep your powder dry." Make sure your faith is rightly ordered, but still do all the work necessary. This view, which is my own, means that we can accept what Stout says about Whitefield without thereby assuming that Whitefield was relying on the arm of the flesh somehow. "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Cor. 3:6-7, ESV). Planting and watering is not inconsistent with an understanding that only God can give the growth.

One time years ago, when our children were small, one of them asked my wife whether farmers grew their own food. Yes, came the reply. And then the inevitable question came back to her, "But don't they know how to cook?" Not an easy question to answer -- but only because it is another example of our either/or problem.

Of course, the apostle Paul said that he was not a Bible-monger. "For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ" (2 Cor. 2:17, ESV). He also took a shot at those teachers who think that "gain is godliness" (1 Tim. 6:5).

So if you are not selling the Word of God, then why would you advertise it? If you are not selling something, then why would you give a rip about "your brand," or what the word on the street is? Would the apostle Paul ever google his own name? It is easy for us to look shocked and say no, of course not, but Jesus once asked His disciples about what the current rumors were (Luke 9:18), and whether #Elijah was trending.

North American evangelicalism is represented by two streams, yea, even down unto this day, two streams which come from the First and Second Great Awakenings respectively. Those who are descended from the First Awakening, represented by men like Whitefield and Edwards, know how to hustle, but they also know that all the hustling in the world will not accomplish anything if God decides not to bless it -- which He might not. This is the Calvinist stream, which has widened considerably in the last few decades.

In the opposite corner, one of the most notable teachers from the Second Great Awakening was Charles Finney, and he is the one who made the fatal move to autonomous self-sufficiency in religious ministry. Finney taught that if you did it right, revival was guaranteed. If you want the blessing of God, you need to whistle it up. It is to this notion that we owe the curious phenomenon, seen across the Bible belt, of churches that have signs out front announcing that there is going to be a "revival" the week of September 7-14. It makes you wonder who the Holy Spirit's booking agent is. And how on earth did the secretary at Antioch Baptist Church get his number?

The former view says that hustle is necessary, but not sufficient. The latter view says that hustle is sufficient. To the outside observer, the whole thing looks like a teeming mass of evangelical hustle, and the disagreement I have described looks to them like a trivial dispute about "words and names and your own law." and so it is that a modern secular Gallio drives us all from his court (Acts 18:17).

But if the Calvinists are right, what happens next is not up to us -- or to Gallio either.

Douglas Wilson is the Senior Minister of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Follow him on Twitter @douglaswils.

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