The Three Rs of Moody's Theology
“I want to be frank with you, Mr. Moody,” one of his listeners once told him. “I want you to know that I do not believe in your theology.”
“My theology!” Moody exclaimed. “I didn’t know that I had any. I wish you would tell me what my theology is.”
Was Moody serious? Did he not have a theology?
Obviously, D.L. Moody was not a professional theologian, not even an ordained minister. He was a lay evangelist who preferred to be called, simply, Mr. Moody. But he was quite aware that theology was implicit in his preaching. While Moody tended to sit loose to the finer details of theological debate, he had no doubt that what one believed was important.
Near the end of his life Moody told a reporter for the Detroit Journal, “Some people in Minneapolis the other day declared that Moody’s theology is thirty years old. Well, if I was sure it wasn’t six thousand years old, I’d pitch it into the Mississippi. I believe that sin is the same today as then and that its remedy is the same. I’m an Abelite. If I could go back behind Abel for my theology, I’d do it, but I can’t.”
The Source of Moody’s Theology
Moody had no formal theological training and only the doubtful equivalent of a fourth- or fifth-grade education. Although he said he read the works of the great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Moody did not read widely. What he learned from others he learned in conversation. Moody would typically ask ministers for their best thought for the day or ply them with questions about the Bible and doctrine. On one such occasion, Henry Moorhouse, the well-known British Bible teacher known as the Boy Preacher, advised, “If you will stop preaching your own words and preach God’s Word, he will make you a power for good.”
From that point on, Moody determined to be a preacher of the Word. He avidly read the Bible and mastered its factual content. Many of his sermons consisted of the biblical narratives retold in the vernacular of the common people who attended his meetings. The key themes of his sermons were the themes he found in the Bible. If it was not in the Bible, it was not worth believing. But if it was in the Bible, there could be no question about believing it.
When preaching on heaven, for example, Moody introduced his sermon with a question. “On this important matter how are we to gain reliable in formation? Simply by Scripture. Here then is our guidebook, our textbook—the Word. If I utter a syllable that is not justified by the Scriptures, don’t believe me. The Bible is the only rule. Walk by it and it alone.”
Reflecting at least an awareness of developing liberalism in the churches, he warned of any minister who used a “penknife on the Bible, clipping out this and that part because it contains the supernatural or something he cannot understand.” Moody had no use for the so-called higher criticism of the Bible. He told a reporter, “You want to know what I think of the effect of higher criticism upon the Bible and upon Christians? Frankly, I don’t know anything about the higher critics of late. I haven’t seen ’em. I’ve been six months in the wilderness of Judea calling upon people to repent.” Moody had no patience with anything that would undercut the source of Christian belief—the Bible—because that source contains the very heart of Christian belief—the gospel.
Three great Bible truths were central to all of Moody’s preaching. W. H. Daniels, compiler of a book of Moody’s sermons, reported that Moody customarily spoke on the “three Rs” of the Bible and that his evangelistic campaigns were structured around these. Indeed, so far as Daniels could see, Moody did not engage in theological speculation beyond the three doctrines.
Ruined by the Fall
The gospel message began with the fact that Adam’s sin made everyone absolutely helpless and morally corrupt. "There are no naturally good men.… ” Moody said. “The natural man I declare to be morally unsound from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot.” Human efforts to heal spiritual helplessness and sinfulness are doomed to failure. “We may try to patch up our old Adam nature, but it is of no use. It will be a failure. Men have tried to do it for six thousand years, and what God cannot do, men need not try. God has said that it is bad.… When I was born of my parents in 1837, I received my human nature from them, and it was a very bad nature, too. The nature they received from their forefathers was bad also, and we might trace it right back to Adam.… You might say that the earth is a vast hospital. Every man and woman coming into it needs a physician. If you search, you will find everyone wounded. By nature we are sinners.”
To Moody, inherited sin places everyone under the sentence of hell. To deny that fact is a delusion and a snare of the devil. However, Moody seldom preached on hell, and when he did, one gets the impression he did so grudgingly, just often enough to demonstrate his orthodoxy and to leave his listeners without excuse. He once started a sermon on Luke 16:25 with this story: “A man came to me the other day and said, ‘I like your preaching, because you don’t preach on hell. I suppose you don’t believe in that doctrine?’ I don’t want any man to rise up in judgment and say that I was unfaithful while here—that I preached only one side of the truth.… The same Bible that pictures to me heaven, with all its beauty and glory, tells me of hell.”
Nevertheless, researchers are hard-pressed to find any Moody sermons devoted solely to this dismal subject, and it is seldom mentioned in his sermons. Why this strange silence, when other revivalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used description of the torments of hell as a basic tool of their trade? The answer is profound in its simplicity. God wants to draw sons to himself by love, not to draw slaves by fear. Moody had grasped that to manipulate crowds by appeals to fear was out of character with God and did not produce the results that God desired.
Moody responded to his critics on this point. “A great many people say I don’t preach up the terrors of religion. I don’t want to scare men into the kingdom of God. I don’t believe in preaching that way.… If I wanted to scare men into heaven, I would just hold the terrors of hell over their heads and say, ‘Go right in.’ But that is not the way to win men. They don’t have any slaves in heaven; they are all sons, and they must accept salvation voluntarily.”
Even though helpless sinners ruined by the Fall are destined for hell, it is the message of God’s love that breaks the rebellious heart. The goodness of God produces repentance. “It was the love of God,” Moody testified, “that broke my heart years ago.” And so Moody preached the love of God.
Redeemed by the Blood
The center of the gospel is that God’s love provides a remedy for human ruin; the blood of Jesus redeems. “There is nothing, my friends, that brings out the love of God like the cross of Christ; it tells of the breadth, the length, and the height of his love. If you want to know how much God loves you, you must go to Calvary to find out.”
Redemption by the Blood was as prominent in Moody’s preaching as hell was absent. He called himself an Abelite because he understood Abel’s offering as redemption by the shedding of blood. His great sermon “Tracing the Scarlet Thread” followed the theme through Scripture. Adam by his disobedience had broken the law of God, and there is no law without penalty. But God intervened, and Moody found the principles of substitution and the blood atonement implied in the coats of skin that God provided for Adam and Eve. Moody saw it again in the sacrifices of Abel and of Noah. The theme continues in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, the account of the Passover lamb, and the entire sacrificial ritual of the Book of Leviticus. These all pointed to the blood of Christ.
“The first man that went to heaven went by the way of the blood, and the last man that passes through those pearly gates must go the same way. We find not only Abel, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, but all of them went through an atonement. We don’t start from the cradle to heaven, but from the Cross. That’s where eternal life begins—when we come to Calvary.”
Because of Moody’s emphasis on God’s love, a few historians have argued that he did not believe in a substitutionary atonement. But in so doing, they totally miss the relationship between God’s love and substitutionary atonement in Moody’s sermons, and they simply fail to read what Moody so clearly said. “This atonement is the only hope of my eternal life. Take the doctrine of substitution out of my Bible, and I would not take it home with me tonight .… If Christ did not teach it, and also the Apostles—if Christ did not preach it, then I have read my Bible wrong all these years.”
Regenerated by the Spirit
Still another reason why Moody refused to scare people into heaven by preaching hellfire was that he had a profound awareness that regeneration was the work of the Holy Spirit. For the same reason, Moody did not conclude his sermons with high-pressure invitations. Those concerned for their soul’s well-being were directed to the inquiry room—a calm, sober place where seekers were encouraged to respond to the Spirit’s movement. The Spirit was responsible for conviction, conversion, repentance, and faith.
“Every dead soul brought to life must be brought to life by the power of the Spirit.… The idea of educating people into the kingdom of God is not the way. You may educate them and educate them, but they will be as far from conversion as ever. How many people have come to me and said of some one, ‘I cannot bring him into the light of Christ!’ You can’t? That’s not extraordinary. My friend, you can only bring people to a certain length, and then the Spirit of the Holy Ghost must show them the light; and when he does it, he will do it thoroughly. We cannot force inquirers into the kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit must quicken.”
Moody also warned of the preachers of reformation who supposed that regeneration was not necessary. Regeneration was not going to church, being baptized, being confirmed, saying one’s prayers, reading the Bible, doing the best one could, or turning over a new leaf. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, much less inherit it!”
Moody probably preached the “New Birth” sermon more frequently than any other [see The New Birth]. His notes show that between October 1881 and November 1899 he preached it from Savannah and Scranton to Cambridge and Oxford—183 recorded instances; and he was as preaching the same sermon at least six years prior to existing notes.
As Far As Doctrine Goes
The triad at the heart of Moody’s theology is: Ruined by the Fall, Redeemed by the Blood, and Regenerated by the Spirit.
But Mr. Moody would not want us to leave a discussion of his theology at that. He would tell us that while what one believes is important, in whom one believes is of ultimate importance. Theological propositions, doctrines, and creeds are not the objects of saving faith. Having a correct theology is as important as taking the right road home, but it holds no value if one does not enter in the door. “Doctrines are all right in their places,” Moody said, “but when you put them in the place of faith or salvation, they become sin. If a man should ask me to his house to dinner tomorrow, the street would be a very good thing to take me to his house, but if I didn’t get into the house, I wouldn’t get any dinner. Now a creed is a road or a street. It is very good as far as it goes, but if it doesn’t take us to Christ, it is worthless. ”
Moody would ask us not only if we have found the right road and the house, but also if we have entered in.
Stanley N. Gundry is publisher for academic and professional books and general manager of Zondervan Publishing House in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His book Love Them In: The Life and Theology of D. L. Moody (Moody, 1976, and Baker, 1982) is the definitive study of Moody's theology.
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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