C.S. Lewis used the term "a great cataract of nonsense" to
describe how people use a modern idea to construe Bible theology. One such
example, perhaps the best example, is a conversion method called the Sinner's
Prayer. It is more popularly known as the Four Spiritual Laws.
Lewis used this term to describe what happens when someone looks backward
at the Bible based only on what he or she has known. Instead, an evangelical
should first discern conversion practices from Scriptures and then consider
the topic in light of two thousand years of other thinkers. As it is, a novel
technique popularized through recent revivals has replaced the biblically
Today, hundreds of millions hold to a belief system and salvation practice
that no one had ever held until relatively recently. The notion that one can
pray Jesus into his or her heart and that baptism is merely an outward sign
are actually late developments. The prayer itself dates to the Billy Sunday
era; however, the basis for talking in prayer for salvation goes back a few
Consider the following appeal:
"Just accept Christ into your heart through prayer and he'll receive
you. It doesn't matter what church you belong to or if you ever do good works.
You'll be born again at the moment you receive Christ. He's at the door
knocking. You don't even have to change bad habits, just trust Christ as
Savior. God loves you and forgives you unconditionally. Anyone out there can
be saved if they ... Accept Christ, now! Let us pray for Christ to now come
into your heart."
Sound familiar? This method of conversion has had far-reaching effects
worldwide as many have claimed this as the basis for their salvation. Yet,
what is the historical significance of this conversion? How did the process of
rebirth, which Jesus spoke of in John 3, evolve into praying him into one's
heart? I believe it was an error germinating shortly after the Reformation,
which eventually caused great ruin and dismay in Christendom. By supplying a
brief documentation of its short, historical development, I hope to show how
this error has served as "a great cataract of nonsense".
Although things weren't ideal after the Reformation, for the first time in
over a thousand years the general populace was reading the Scriptures. By the
early 1600s, one hundred years after the Reformation was initiated, there were
various branches of European Christendom that followed national lines. For
instance, Germans followed Martin Luther. There were also Calvinists
(Presbyterian), the Church of England (Episcopalian), various branches of
Anabaptists and, of course, the Roman church (Catholics). Most of these groups
were trying to revive the waning faith of their already traditionalized
denominations. However, a consensus had not been reached on issues like
rebirth, baptism or salvation--even between Protestants.
The majority still held to the validity of infant baptism even though they
disagreed on its significance. Preachers tended to minimize baptism because
people hid their lack of commitment behind sayings like "I am a baptized
Lutheran and that's that." The influence of the preachers eventually led
to the popular notion that one was forgiven at infant baptism but not yet
reborn. Most Protestants were confused or ambivalent about the connection
between rebirth and forgiveness.
The Great Awakening
The Great Awakening was the result of fantastic preaching occurring in Europe
and the eastern colonies during the early to mid 1700s. Though ambivalent on
the practice of baptism, Great Awakening preachers created an environment that
made man aware of his need for an adult confession experience. The experiences
that people sought were varied. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield and John
Wesley furthered ideas of radical repentance and revival. Although there is
much to be learned from their messages, they did not solve the problems of the
practices associated with baptism and conversion.
Eventually, the following biblical passage written to and inspired for
lukewarm Christians became a popular tool for the conversion of
"To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of
the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation.
....Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here
I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the
door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." (Revelation
This passage was written explicitly for lukewarm Christians. Now consider
how a lecturer named John Webb misused this passage in the mid 1700s as a
basis of evangelizing non-Christians:
"Here is a promise of Union to Christ; in these words, I will come in
to him. i.e. If any Sinner will but hear my Voice and open the Door, and
receive me by Faith, I will come into his Soul, and unite him to me, and make
him a living member of that my mystical body of which I am the Head."
(Christ's Suit to the Sinner, 14)
Preachers heavily relied on Revelation 3:20. By using the first-person
tense while looking into the sinner's eyes, preachers began to speak for Jesus
as they exhorted, "If you would just let me come in and dine with you, I
would accept you." Even heathens who had never been baptized responded
with the same or even greater sorrow than churchgoers. As a result, more and
more preachers of Christendom concluded that baptism was merely an external
matter--only an outward sign of an inward grace. In fact, Huldreich Zwingli
put this idea forth for the very first time. Nowhere in church history was
such a belief recorded. It only appears in Scripture when one begins with a
great cataract of nonsense. In other words, it only appears in the New
Testament through the imagination of readers influenced by this phenomenon.
A method originated during the 1730s or '40s, which was practically forgotten
for about a hundred years. It is documented that in 1741 a minister named
Eleazar Wheelock had utilized a technique called the Mourner's Seat. As far as
one can tell, he would target sinners by having them sit in the front bench
(pew). During the course of his sermon "salvation was looming over their
heads." Afterwards, the sinners were typically quite open to counsel and
exhortation. In fact, as it turns out they were susceptible to whatever
prescription the preaching doctor gave to them. According to eyewitnesses,
false conversions were multiplied. Charles Wesley had some experience with
this practice, but it took nearly a hundred years for this tactic to take
In 1801 there was a sensational revival in Cane Ridge, Kentucky that lasted
for weeks. Allegedly, people barked, rolled over in the aisles and became
delirious because there were long periods without food in the intense heat. It
resulted in the extreme use and abuse of emotions as thousands left Kentucky
with wild notions about rebirth. Today it is generally viewed as a mockery to
The excesses in Cane Ridge produced expectations for preachers and those
seeking religious experience. A Second Great Awakening, inferior to the first,
was beginning in America. Preachers were enamored with the idea that they
could cause (manipulate) people into conversion. One who witnessed such
nineteenth century hysteria was J. V. Coombs who complained of the
"The appeals, songs, prayers and the suggestion from the preacher
drive many into the trance state. I can remember in my boyhood days seeing ten
or twenty people laying unconscious upon the floor in the old country church.
People called that conversion. Science knows it is mesmeric influence,
self-hypnotism … It is sad that Christianity is compelled to bear the folly
of such movements." (J.V. Coombs, Religious Delusions, 92ff).
The Cane Ridge Meeting became the paradigm for revivalists for decades. A
lawyer named Charles Finney came along a generation later to systemize the
Cane Ridge experience through the use of Wheelock's Mourner's Seat and
It wasn't until about 1835 that Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) emerged
to champion the system utilized by Eleazar Wheelock. Shortly after his own
conversion he left his law practice and would become a minister, a lecturer, a
professor, and a traveling revivalist. He took the Mourner's Seat practice,
which he called the Anxious Seat, and developed a theological system around
it. Finney was straightforward about his purpose for this technique and wrote
the following comment near the end of his life:
"The church has always felt it necessary to have something of this
kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles, baptism
answered this purpose. The gospel was preached to the people, and then all
those who were willing to be on the side of Christ, were called out to be
baptized. It held the place that the anxious seat does now as a public
manifestation of their determination to be Christians"
Finney made many enemies because of this innovation. The Anxious Seat
practice was considered to be a psychological technique that manipulated
people to make a premature profession of faith. It was considered to be an
emotional conversion influenced by some of the preachers' animal magnetism.
Certainly it was a precursor to the techniques used by many twentieth century
In opposition to Finney's movement, John Nevin, a Protestant minister,
wrote a book called The Anxious Bench. He intended to protect the
denominations from this novel deviation. He called Finney's
"heresy", a "Babel of extravagance",
"fanaticism", and "quackery". He also said, "With a
whirlwind in full view, we may be exhorted reasonably to consider and stand
back from its destructive path." It turns out that Nevin was somewhat
prophetic. The system that Finney admitted had replaced biblical baptism, is
the vertebrae for the popular plan of salvation that was made normative in the
twentieth century by the three Bills --- Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and
Dwight Moody and R. A. Torrey
However, it wasn't until the end of Finney's life that it became evident to
everyone and himself that the Anxious Bench approach led to a high fallout
rate. By the 1860s Dwight Moody (1837-1899) was the new apostle in American
evangelicalism. He took Finney's system and modified it. Instead of calling
for a public decision, which tended to be a response under pressure, he asked
people to join him and his trained counselors in a room called the Inquiry
Room. Though Moody's approach avoided some of the errors encountered in
Finneyism, it was still a derivative or stepchild of the Anxious Bench system.
In the Inquiry Room the counselors asked the possible convert some
questions, taught him from Scripture and then prayed with him. The idea that
prayer was at the end of the process had been loosely associated with
conversion in the 1700s. By the late 1800s it was standard technique for
'receiving Christ' as Moody's influence spread across both the United States
and the United Kingdom. This was where a systematic Sinner's Prayer began, but
was not called as such until the time of Billy Sunday.
R. A. Torrey succeeded Moody's Chicago-based ministry after his death in 1899.
He modified Moody's approach to include "on the spot" street
conversions. Torrey popularized the idea of instant salvation with no strings
attached, even though he never intended as much. Nonetheless, "Receive
Christ, now, right here" became part of the norm. From that time on it
became more common to think of salvation outside of church or a life of
Billy Sunday and the Pacific Garden Mission
Meanwhile in Chicago, Billy Sunday, a well-known baseball player from Iowa,
had been converted in the Pacific Garden Mission. The Mission was Chicago's
most successful implementation of Moody's scheme. Eventually, Sunday left
baseball to preach. He had great public charm and was one of the first to mix
ideas of entertainment with ministry. By the early 1900s he had become a great
well-known crusade leader. In his crusades he popularized the Finney-Moody
method and included a bit of a circus touch. After fire and brimstone sermons,
heavy moralistic messages with political overtones, and humorous if not
outlandish behavior, salvation was offered. Often it was associated with a
prayer, and at other times a person was told they were saved because they
simply walked down his tabernacle's "sawdust trail" to the front
where he was standing. In time people were told they were saved because they
publicly shook Sunday's hand, acknowledging that they would follow Christ.
Billy Sunday died in 1935 leaving behind hundreds of his imitators. More
than anything else, Billy Sunday helped crusades become acceptable to all
denominations, which eventually led to a change in their theology. Large
religious bodies sold out on their reservations toward these new conversion
practices to reap the benefits of potential converts from the crusades because
of the allure of success.
Both Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday admitted they were somewhat ignorant of
church history by the time they had already latched on to their perspectives.
This is highly significant because the Anxious Seat phenomenon and offshoot
practices were not rooted in Scripture nor in the early church.
Billy Graham, Bill Bright
Billy Graham and his crusades were the next step in the evolution of things.
Billy Graham was converted in 1936 at a Sunday-styled crusade. By the late
1940s it was evident to many that Graham would be the champion of
evangelicalism. His crusades summed up everything that had been done from the
times of Charles Finney through Billy Sunday except that he added
respectability that some of the others lacked. In the 1950s Graham's crusade
counselors were using a prayer that had been sporadically used for some time.
It began with a prayer from his Four Steps to Peace with God. The original
four-step formula came during Billy Sunday's era called in a tract called Four
Things God Wants you to Know. The altar call system of Graham had been refined
by a precise protocol of music, trained counselors and a speaking technique
all geared to help people 'accept Christ as Savior.'
In the late 1950s Bill Bright came up with the exact form of the currently
popular Four Spiritual Laws so that the average believer could take the
crusade experience into the living room of their neighbor. Of course, this
method ended with the Sinner's Prayer. Those who responded to crusades and
sermons could have the crusade experience at home when they prayed,
"Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins.
I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You
for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne
of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be."
Later, in 1977 Billy Graham published a now famous work entitled, How to Be
Born Again. For all the Scripture he used, he never once uses the hallmark
rebirth event in the second chapter of the book of Acts. The cataract (blind
spot) kept him away from the most powerful conversion event in all Scripture.
It is my guess that it's emphasis on baptism and repentance for the
forgiveness of sins was incompatible with his approach.
The Living Bible and Beyond
By the late 1960s it seemed that nearly every evangelical was printing some
form of the Four Spiritual Laws in the last chapter of their books. Even a
Bible was printed with this theology inserted into God's Word. Thus, in the
1960s, the Living Bible's translation became the translation of choice for the
crusades as follows:
"Even in his own land and among his own people, the Jews, he was not
accepted. Only a few welcome and received him. But to all who received him, he
gave the right to become children of God. All they needed to do was to
trust him to save them. All those who believe this are reborn! --not a
physical rebirth resulting from human passion or plan--but from the will of
God."(John 1:11-13, Living Bible, bolds mine)
The bolded words have no support at all in the original Greek. They are a
blatant insertion placed by presuppositions of the translator, Kenneth Taylor.
I'm not sure that even the Jehovah's Witnesses have authored such a barefaced
insertion in their corrupt Scriptures. In defense of Taylor's original
motives, the Living Bible was created primarily with children in mind.
However, the publishers should have corrected the misleading verse in the
1960s. They somewhat cleared it up in the newer LB in the 1990s, only after
the damage has been done. For decades mainstream evangelicals were using the
LB and circular reasoning to justify such a strong 'trusting moment' as
salvation, never knowing their Bible was corrupted.
A whole international enterprise of publishers, universities and
evangelistic associations were captivated by this method. The phrases,
"Receive Christ," and "Trust Jesus as your personal
savior," filled airwaves, sermons, and books. James Kennedy's Evangelism
Explosion counselor-training program helped make this concept of conversion an
international success. Missionaries everywhere were trained with Sinner's
Prayer theology. Evangelicalism had the numbers, the money, the television
personas of Graham and Kennedy and any attempt to purport a different plan of
salvation would be decried as cultic and "heresy."
Most evangelicals are ignorant of where their practice came from or how
Christians from other periods viewed biblical conversion. C.S. Lewis regarded
it as chronological snobbery when we don't review our beliefs against the
conclusions of others:
"Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not
that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future,
and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic
assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which
seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has
lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his
native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some
degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press
and the microphone of his own age." (Learning in Wartime, 1939)
While most do this unknowingly, evangelicals are skewing church auditoriums
all over the world from a clear picture of conversion with a nonsensical
Used by permission: Steven Francis Staten, Congregation Elder of the
Chicago Church of Christ, http://www.chicagochurch.org/