Evangelical Christians Are Sick

The movement is driven by a painful awareness that the heart—each of our hearts—is desperately wicked.
Evangelical Christians Are Sick

‘The scene to me was new and passing strange,” wrote Presbyterian pastor Barton Stone as he witnessed a revival in Kentucky in the spring of 1801. “Many, very many fell down, as men slain in battle, and continued for hours together in an apparently breathless and motionless state—sometimes for a few moments reviving, and exhibiting symptoms of life by a deep groan, or piercing shriek, or by a prayer for mercy most fervently uttered.”

Small revivals like this kindled that bonfire we call the Cane Ridge Revival, what historian Paul Conkin said is “arguably … the most important religious gathering in all of American history.”

One witness described the scene as events at Cane Ridge reached their climax: “Sinners dropping down on every hand, shrieking, groaning, crying for mercy, convoluted. Professors [believers] praying, agonizing, fainting, falling down in distress for sinners, or in raptures of joy! Some singing, some shouting, clapping their hands, hugging and even kissing, laughing; others talking to the distressed, to one another, or to opposers of the work, and all this at once.”

So affecting was this event, that in the decades that followed, the prayer of camp meetings across the land was “Lord, make it like Cane Ridge.”

Revivals like Cane Ridge are the most dramatic illustration of the point made in the first essay in this series. Historian Perry Miller called Puritan faith a version of Augustinian piety, a piety that is found in the best of American evangelicalism. As Miller put it in talking about the Puritans:

As long as it remained alive, its real being was not in doctrines but behind them; the impetus came from an urgent sense of man’s predicament, from a mood so deep that it could never be completely articulated.

Evangelical Christians at their best suffer from a sickness of soul with a genesis in this “urgent sense of man’s predicament.” They instinctively feel Jeremiah’s lament that “the heart is desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). They feel the weight of failure, of weaknesses, of inadequacy, of sins. The burden makes their whole body ache and groan. Between them and God lies a deep chasm they cannot bridge. Across the chasm, they glimpse the beauty of God’s holiness, and they despair. If they attempt to cross it, it will only lead them to plunge into darkness. And even if a miracle planted them suddenly on the other side, into the very presence of a holy God, they know it would be their death, for they know that no sinful human being can look on the face of God and live (Ex. 33:20).

This is the classic crisis that evangelicals of each generation endure. We see its archetypal expression in the revivals, when the evangelical soul can literally throw the evangelical body onto the ground, in spasms of agony. In its purest form, evangelical faith is a bodily religion. Even evangelicals who embrace a less outwardly emotional faith like Anglicanism do so, in part, because its worship engages all of the bodily senses, as well as engaging the body in movement (kneeling, sign of the cross). It is not the rational religion of the Deists, nor the calm, respectable religion of much of mainline Protestantism. It is a religion in travail, certainly at the beginning, and that travail can be so great, it makes the body itself moan or fall to its knees in repentance.

Augustine describes the days leading up to his conversion, saying,

Finally in the agony of hesitation I made many physical gestures of the kind men make when they want to achieve something and lack the strength, either because they lack the actual limbs or because their limbs are fettered with chains or weak with sickness or in some way hindered.

He then suggests that he tore his hair and banged his forehead and clasped his knees. What was causing this torment?

Lord, you turned my attention back to myself. You took me up from behind my own back where I had placed myself because I did not wish to observe myself , and you set me before my face so that I should see how vile I was, how twisted and filthy, covered in sores and ulcers. And I looked and was appalled, but there was no way of escaping from myself. If I tried to avert my gaze from myself, his story continued relentlessly, and you once again placed me in front of myself; you thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it. I had known it, but deceived myself, refused to admit it, and pushed it out of my mind.

Augustine expresses the sense that this turmoil is a personal encounter with God, who forces the issue upon us, by turning attention on ourselves and our sorry state, by “convicting us of sin,” as the classic evangelical phrase puts it. This agony, we finally discern, is a gift of grace that highlights our complete helplessness, that points us to our only Help. But in the meantime, it is travail.

Of course, this season of travail does not always make itself known in dramatic bodily expressions. But the inner anguish is nonetheless powerful. As noted in the last essay, the slave George Liele experienced like this, saying:

[I was] convinced that I was not in the way to heaven, but in the way to hell. This state I labored under for the space of five or six months. … I was brought to perceive that my life hung by a slender thread, … and I found no way wherein I could escape the damnation of hell, only through the merits of my dying Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

As Liele notes, the evangelical crisis is not about this life only. It’s not merely about the failure to live a moral life, to live up to our finest ideals. It’s not merely a psychological crisis, but an eschatological one. It’s about life and death, about present and future, about one’s eternal destiny. To not put too fine a point on it: It is the fear of hell and the loss of heavenly bliss.

But Liele’s testimony also points to our only hope: “the merits of my dying Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Evangelicals are, as the previous essay suggested, Jesusy people, and by that, they mean something specific. To become a Christian, we “accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”

The order is important. We do not customarily say we believe in Jesus as “Savior and Lord.” Yes, in one sense, the evangelical narrative that goes like that: We are saved by Christ, and then we begin to obey him as Lord. To put it theologically, justification and then sanctification. That is certainly the chronological order of our spiritual journey.

And yet, we habitually talk about Jesus not as “Savior and Lord” but as “Lord and Savior.” The order is crucial for evangelical theology. Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, became our perfect substitute on the cross. Our theology is certainly not sophisticated as we writhe in travail, but our spiritual instincts are that of the great church father Athanasius, who recognized that

What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace … as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and his alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father his consistency of character with all. For he alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.

In short, only God can save us from our tragic predicament, and thus, Jesus, even before he is Savior, must be Lord. In another essay, we’ll look at the evangelical theology that arises out of this existential journey—that is, Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross. But here I note that evangelicals are vehemently committed to this view of the atonement because it’s the one that makes the most sense of our crises, the one that most fully explains the solution to the urgency of “man’s predicament.” For evangelical Christians, atonement theology is grounded in atonement experience. Christ’s substitutionary death—which is grounded in his Lordship—makes existential sense to us. It’s the picture of Christ’s work that turned the lights on in our darkness, that made wells of living water well up in our dry and parched souls.

The anguish of crisis finally ends, and the experience is equally palpable. Again, Augustine’s conversion is the archetype. As he wrestles with himself and with God in a garden, he hears a voice to “take up and read” a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, which he had been reading.

I seized it, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit: ‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’ (Rom. 13:13–14). I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.

At Cane Ridge, it looked like this. After “praying, agonizing, fainting, falling down in distress for sinners” there came “raptures of joy! Some singing, some shouting, clapping their hands, hugging and even kissing, laughing.”

Again, evangelicals come with a variety of emotional makeups, so the outward exuberance is not always evident. And it isn’t necessarily instantaneous for many. Conversion might come with a series of small conversions or a gradual dawning of the reality of Christ’s forgiveness and the new way of life offered in him. Some evangelicals don’t recognize how much in travail they had been until they experience the release. In any event, the journey taken as a whole is dramatic in the sense that the course of our lives has taken a crucial turn, one that has been made not merely with our minds, but with our very bodies and with the deepest part of our being.

This drive to experience and express faith with our bodies continues as we grow in faith. Thus we see hands raised and faces looking heavenward as we praise God in worship, hoping and praying each week that something akin to a conversion will happen to us again and again. It’s an evangelical sacrament of sorts. (I’ll explore more on how we worship in future essays.)

The question we have to ask, of course, is to what degree this journey continues to be characterized by serious attention to our sinfulness, an intuitive grasp of God’s holiness, and unrestrained joy at the death of Christ on the cross. Of course the answer is, it depends. Many evangelical churches (I’ve noticed this especially among immigrant churches and overseas) continue to teach and preach these themes regularly. But a fair number seemed to have abandoned them—and for good reason in some cases.

We’ve been rightly disgusted with revivalists who can work people up into a frenzy, to entice them to walk the sawdust trail, to experience a cathartic moment of release—all with the tools of social psychology. We also don’t want to return to the days when we described ourselves as “vile” or “worthless” or “worms.” God forbid that we should ever return to days characterized by such bad theology and manipulative preaching.

But as studies have revealed, too many of our congregations, in the cause of meeting people where they are, have adopted a bland version of Christianity called moralistic therapeutic deism, in which a vague notion of a kind God is preached to salve our psychological wounds and help us live respectable middle-class lives. Jesus is still present, but not usually in any full-throated biblical sense. And as other studies have shown, some sectors of the evangelical church (especially globally) are tempted by some version of the prosperity gospel, in which God wants nothing more than to make us successful in worldly ways. It seems fair to say that to the degree that one abandons the classic wrestling with “an urgent sense of man’s predicament,” the less one is evangelical in any meaningful sense.

That some parts of our movement have shifted their emphasis is not surprising, as evangelical faith is constantly shifting and changing, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. But it’s at its best when it takes our moral and mortal lives with full seriousness—even if that makes people uncomfortable—and yet points them to our only comfort in life and death.

Evangelical Distinctives
Christianity Today's editor in chief considers what it means to be an evangelical Christian today, drawing on the movement's history, theology, and spirituality.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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