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Unfortunately, I was required to read this book, A Pastor’s Sketches, in my evangelism class at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. The book is dangerous. A poor example of evangelism, a pastor who mistakes Calvinism for the gospel, and is out of touch with biblical spirituality. It concerns me that this book is required reading at Southern.
Spencer thinks we should be suspicious of someone’s coming to Christ in the midst of strong affections, for “when the affections take the lead, they will be very apt to monopolize the whole soul—judgment and conscience will be overpowered, or flung into the background” (175). He calls this kind of phenomenon “fanaticism” (175). Spencer believes that “the most clear perception of truth, the deepest conviction, is seldom accompanied by any great excitement of the sensibilities” (175). 9) It does not seem to be a good idea to Spencer, to present the doctrine of predestination at the outset to a sinner who still needs to learn repentance and faith (239).
Spencer here more than anywhere else demonstrates that he is out of touch with biblical spirituality. This brief post is not the place for a lengthy discussion of emotions and their role in the Christian life (I do a little of that here), but I will mention a few things in passing.
Part of conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit that causes the sinner to not only know they are sinful, but to feel contrition for their sin. This feeling I believe to be necessary for true conversion. When someone comes to Christ, it is not merely because they have understood doctrines, but it is because the Holy Spirit has wrought within them genuine affections for the person of Christ. They ought to be overwhelmed with affection for the Savior, having seen Him for who He truly is for the first time. How can such a vision not be attended with great excitement of the spirit of a man? Also, joy is an essential aspect in conversion (Matthew 13:44). Thus, we should expect strong affections to arise during conversion, and for the conversion of sinners to be accompanied by a “great excitement of the sensibilities.” Conversion affects the whole person, not just the mind. In fact, Spencer seems to be unconsciously aware of this reality, as he tells us he considers it part of his responsibility to impress truths, not merely on the mind, but on the “feelings” (52).
If you go to Southern Seminary (like I do), you are required to take a class in evangelism, and it’s usually one of the larger classes since it’s mandatory for almost any tract. If you take Dr. Beougher, he requires you to read a book called A Pastors Sketches. It’s an old book written by a Presbyterian minister named Spencer who was known as the “Bunyan of Brooklyn.” It’s basically his journalism about evangelistic encounters he has with people around Brooklyn and beyond. The first “sketch” of an encounter was actually quite fascinating and helpful. But as the book drags on, it becomes onerous to the critical reader in a variety of ways. I will be exploring several dangers of this book that may be influencing and effecting seminary students at Southern in the next few posts.
Spencer, Ichabod. A Pastor’s Sketches. Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2001. Reprint 2002. 285. $12.95.
Danger 1: Calvinism is Not the Gospel
Spencer believes that part of saving faith and understanding is to understand “the entire depravity of the heart” (127, emphasis mine). Reading between the lines that he is a Calvinist, believing the doctrines of grace, I assume he means by this that a person cannot be saved without an understanding of the doctrine of total depravity: “If he does not see that [the entire depravity of the heart], it is probable that he does not see his heart. And hence his repentance, his faith in Christ, and his reliance upon the Holy Spirit, will probably, all of them, be only deceptions” (127, emphasis mine). This perspective would explain why he is so intent on giving long indictment speeches to unbelievers (see “Election,” 230-255).
He seems to further imply that one must not only believe the doctrine of total depravity for there to be certainty of his true conversion, but also the other four doctrines of grace: “My observation continues to confirm me more and more in the opinion that to experience religion is to experience the truth of the great doctrines of divine grace” (127, emphasis mine). Because the following statement is made in the same context, it gives the impression that he considers these doctrines of grace, not as optional doctrinal positions, but as essential to Christianity: “And. . .I believed, and had always acted on the principle, that true experimental religion will always lead its subjects to a knowledge of the great essential doctrines of the Christian system—indeed, that to experience religion is just to experience these doctrines” (126). This principle is also evident when upon testing some young men who had supposedly been saved through a “camp meeting,” he questioned the validity of their experience because they did not have all the right answers to his questions (129).
I can’t help but think Spencer’s approach in this respect is legalistic and dangerous. Calvinism is not the gospel. While I myself believe that the doctrines of Calvinism are biblical, I do not believe any one of them is necessary to believe as a prerequisite to true conversion. If this were true, only Calvinists would be saved. (I’ve blogged about this before) Also, Spencer’s glib outlook on so called “revival” seems to result from this false notion. He says, “A true history of spurious revivals would be one of the most melancholy books ever written” (130). He appears at one point to attempt making a distinction between a person having a technical understanding of such doctrines (which he names as human sinfulness, divine sovereignty, atonement, justification by faith, regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the constant need of divine aid) and a persons being “substantially right” in their minds “on such doctrines” (130). However, it is not clear what the practical difference would be to him, especially since he was not satisfied with the answers given to him by the two young men in the chapter entitled “Excitement” (128-130). Also, Spencer almost seems jealous when members of his attend “revival” meetings or go to another church to be taught. In the section of his book entitled “Proselytying,” he immediately assumes that someone is “soliciting” them away from his preaching (182). He judges the situation too quickly, assuming that if these revival attenders are not immediately converted to Christ once they have changed churches that it is “manifest” that whoever they have gone to hear is simply “tickling their vanity and pride” with their attention (183). He seems pessimistic of all other churches but his own.