Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Dwight L. Moody in their respective centuries found ways to communicate the doctrines of sin and repentance to reluctant people. They transformed churches, universities, and nations with their message. No one has ever liked being called a sinner, but the great revivals in history began when people were convicted of their sin. We need a way to help today's listeners to confess and turn from their sins. Their approaches can help us.
Luther's sin detector
Martin Luther put together a teaching device that he called a small catechism. Once widely used, the catechism has been gradually abandoned. But our post-Christian culture is beginning to resemble Luther's culture of biblical illiteracy and confusion over who God is and what constitutes sin.
Luther's catechism included the Ten Commandments, the Apostle's Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and instruction on sacraments. The Ten Commandments in particular were the mirror into which many people looked and realized they had offended God and sinned.
When I was at Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, researching for a biography I was writing of C. S. Lewis's wife, a woman asked why I was studying about her.
"I'm a mid-life convert to Christianity," I said. "Lewis and his wife were also mid-life converts, and his writings had an impact on bringing me to my faith. Are you a believer?"
"Have you had any exposure to the faith?"
"I was raised a Methodist, but I have nothing to do with it anymore."
"Since you grew up in the Methodist church, you must be familiar with the Ten Commandments. Have you ever committed adultery?" (I don't know why I picked this commandment.)
She was clearly shaken so I quickly added, "Don't answer that question. But if you have, I can't help but believe you're dealing with some deep guilt. The beautiful thing about my Savior is that he can clean you and bring you back to God."
It's much easier to talk about sin with someone who was taught a catechism earlier. She looked at me stunned. Her eyes began to tear, and she said, "I need to think about that."
When John Wesley looked across Great Britain's Anglican Church in the 1700s, he saw dead formalism. He realized that when people came to Christ, they needed to change and grow, not merely stand on the terms of a contract. In other words, they may have been converted, but their lives were not transformed. They were baptized, confirmed, and churched on Sunday, yet they lived like hellions the rest of the time. Wesley concluded that the people of the church needed to be regularly confronted and challenged to confess their sins and repent.
Wesley realized that the Great Commission is not just to make converts; it's to make disciples. As he preached, people gave their lives to Christ in droves. And then Wesley did something we often do today—he put them into small groups.
The purpose of Wesley's small groups was not simply encouragement and Bible study, but to provide a safe place for confession and accountability, an intimate environment for transformation into Christlikeness.
In 1995, God brought revival to Wheaton College. It broke out in a student-led Sunday night service. Confession and repentance continued Sunday night and every night through Thursday. Eight or nine hundred students repented of their sin.
During one of those evenings, a student confessed that she'd lost her virginity the summer before. She was carrying terrible guilt and wanted to confess her sin. The man sitting next to me elbowed me and said, "Prof, get this thing shut down. This is terrible. She didn't sin publicly. She shouldn't be confessing publicly. If that was my daughter, I'd feel terrible."
I said, "You're right. She didn't sin publicly. But she's having to confess here because …" I paused, "because I've preached in your church, and it's not a safe place to confess sin or to be held in loving accountability."
That night's events and conversations were the seeds that inspired my wife and me and some friends to plant a church. And every Sunday after the service we provide trained prayer and communion ministers, so people have a safe place to confess sin.
We don't forgive their sins, but we tell them, "Jesus Christ forgives your sins and cleanses you from all unrighteousness." And then we try to follow up with them the next week by asking, "How are you doing on this thing? Staying clean?"
Moody's listening team
Despite the flood of conversions under his preaching, Dwight L. Moody kept his focus on the individual. At the end of the service he would say, "If anyone here has questions or would like prayer, we'll be in another room and can pray for you."
Moody told those who would pray with people, "When someone comes up, look at her. Listen to her. Pray, listen to the Holy Spirit, and ask him to help you listen to her. As you're working with her, another person might come up, too, and be looking at her watch. But don't worry about her. Take the first person seriously and keep working with her." As soon as people were heard and prayed with, Moody made sure they were connected with local pastors and lay leaders who would continue that kind of listening.
At a conference on the eastern seaboard, I was similarly challenged to ignore the multitudes and focus on one person. I had just read an intriguing, little, second-hand book written for Catholic priests who were going to hear confessions. The book focused on listening to people while seeking the Spirit to hear what they're not saying—like Moody instructed his trainees. The book contended that some people don't know what they want to say or ask, but as we seek the Spirit, he can work in the unseen things of their hearts.
The night of the conference, the preacher concluded his message by asking people who desired to pray to come forward. As soon as he said it, so many people streamed forward that he called the ministry team to come up and help him.
I asked a man, "How can I pray for you?"
"I don't know," he said.
So I prayed, Lord, show me what I might do with this man. Show me how to pray for him. I put my arm around him and began to pray as I felt led.
He began to weep uncontrollably. "How did you know how to pray for me?"
"I didn't; the Lord knows your need. He told me how to pray for you."
I didn't minister to anyone else that night. For five more days at the conference I got together with him regularly. And for six years after that, we met at that conference to talk.
As Moody taught, "Listen well. Take this soul seriously. And listen to the Holy Spirit as you do."
In her Christianity Today article, "Whatever Happened to Repentance?", Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote, "The more we see the depth of our sin, the more we realize the height of God's love." This vision of sin and love transformed the life of my friend from the conference. Luther, Wesley, and Moody can help us offer the same vision to our churches.
Lyle Dorsett is professor of Christian ministries and evangelism at Wheaton College and pastor of Church of the Great Shepherd in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.