Decisional Regeneration and Southern Baptist Eisegesis

Offline this week, I am writing a paper examining how Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney each understood conversion and revival. Finney’s legacy is widely known for his “new methods,” many which where welcomed into Southern Baptist life in the twentieth century. Some of the remnants of decisional regeneration can be found in prominent Southern Baptist evangelist who tell their audiences, “If you are 99% saved, you are 100% lost!” or “I’d rather be saved twice than lost once!” Other times Revelation 3:20 is employed to state that God is knocking on the door of the sinners heart. The preacher then says that the door has only one handle, and it is on your side. If you are going to be saved, it is up to you to open the door yourself and “accept Jesus into your heart.” God can only beg and plead for you to respond to his appeals, having only made salvation possible but not effectual. It is like this illustration that was used in Moody’s day:

Decisional regeneration has had free reign for decades, and anyone who would challenge the techniques or methods that produced decisions, whether it was walking down an aisle, raising a hand, or praying a prayer, would be considered to be doing the work of the devil (what I call the “Momma Boucher” complex for all you Adam Sandler fans). Indeed, decisional regeneration has become a control belief and justifying motif for various practices that accompany the man-centered, attractional philosophy of ministry. But just how far has it gone? Could it be so controlling that it is leading Southern Baptists to misunderstand and even re-write Scripture? Surely not.

Last month, I received a copy of Sunday School curriculum developed by First Baptist Church Jacksonville, Florida entitled “Lifestyle Evangelism Made Easy.” Chapter two is entitled “The Simplicity and Variety of Witnessing” where three figures are examined: Andrew (John 1:35-42), Lydia (Acts 16:11-15), and Ananias (Acts 9:10-22). The lesson aim is “to lead our students to develop a personalized witness or invitation.” Now check this out.


Did you catch that? The SS teaching says,

“It is interesting that she ‘opened her heart‘ (NASB) to the Gospel and that it made a difference in her life.”

But is that what the Bible says? Is that what the NASB that they quote says? Acts 16:14 in the NASB says,

“A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.”

This Sunday School curriculum is not just merely a bad interpretation of Scripture; it is a complete re-write of Scripture! When this massive error was made known to church leaders, their first response was that it was “lost in translation.” Later they shirked it off as a “typographical error.” No formal correction was made.

When I was in elementary school, I was taught basic English grammar like sentence structuring and what is a subject, verb, and object. Not wanting to insult your intelligence, for the sake of this illustration, let’s be clear that the subject does the action and the object receives the action. So when I say, “The boy hit the ball,” we all can agree that the subject (or the one performing the action) is the boy, and the object (receiving the action) is the ball. English 101. Theology aside, basic English grammar tells us that when a sentence says “the Lord opened her heart” that God is performing the action, and Lydia’s (her) heart is receiving the action.

Now that we have covered, let’s go to Theology 101. The Bible says that “if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). We hear that quoted often in evangelistic messages. But how often do you hear the first five words of the next verse? 2 Cor. 5:18 begins,

“All this is from God . . .”

What is “all this?” It is being a new creation in Christ.

Again, take John 1:12 which says that “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” This, too, is often used (“believe and receive”). But what about the next verse? John 1:13 says,

“who were born, not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

There it is again. If we are born again, it is not of us or our doing. It is entirely “of God.” This is why Paul can say things like “He [God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus” so that in his divine choosing of us, not a single person can boast that they had anything to do with it (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26-31). But what about Peter? Does he say the same thing? At the beginning of his first letter, Peter writes,

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).

So who is causing us to be born again? What brings about our salvation? God, in sovereign mercy, “has caused us to be born again.” The scriptural testitmony is clear. If we are saved, given the right to be children of God, new creatures in Christ, and born again, it is God who accomplishes our salvation.

This lies at the very heart of the gospel. When the Bible says that “God opened her heart,” it is saying that God did the miracle of regeneration in the heart of Lydia by sovereign mercy and free grace. To say that Lydia opened her own heart is to strike down the gospel at the very heart of its meaning. Friends, this is no little matter. The good news of Jesus Christ is that God has purchased for Himself a people for His own possession through the shed blood of His own Son. God did not make salvation a mere possibility and then left the final act up to us! God the Father who planned salvation before the foundation of the world and God the Son who fully and perfectly accomplished salvation on the cross has sent the Spirit to effectually draw us to Himself while applying the work of redemption and supplying the evangelical graces of repentance and faith.

That is why the author of the famous hymn, Amazing Grace, said,

“If I had a proper call, I would undertake to prove, that to exhort and deal plainly with sinners, to stir them up to flee from the wrath to come, and to lay hold of eternal life, is an attempt not reconcilable to sober reason upon any other grounds than those doctrines which we are called Calvinists for holding; and that all the absurdities which are charged upon us, as consequences of what we teach, are indeed truly chargeable upon those who differ from us in these points. . . . As to myself, if I were not a Calvinist, I think I should have no more hope of success in preaching to men, than to horses or cows.”

John Newton knew that grace was not amazing if it was not efficacious. He knew that “a proper call” (general call) would be “an attempt not reconcilable to sober reason upon any grounds” than what Calvinists hold (namely the doctrines of grace). He knew that the best preaching in the world would be exercises in futility to bring about salvation if God did not open up people’s hearts. So whenever you sing that song Amazing Grace, remember that if it wasn’t efficacious, we would be singing the same song of horses and cows.

This curriculum being disseminated in SBC churches called “Lifestyle Evangelism Made Easy” would be better entitled “Lifestyle Evangelism Made Impossible.” In the effort to evangelize, we must remember to get the evangel right. Lifestyle evangelism where men open up their own hearts is impossible, for men dead in their trespasses and sins can do no more to open a door as a corpse can open a coffin.

So how did we get to this? How is it that Sunday School curriculum is being passed out to Southern Baptist churches that get the gospel wrong and even re-write Scripture in the process? How did we get to the point that decisional regeneration and man-centered theology become so dominant that it clouds our ability to see what the Scripture says, let alone interpret it correctly? How can we think we have the luxury to say what we want the Bible to say more than what it actually says? Such eisegesis is an indictment for those who fought to recover the truthfulness and authority of Scripture.

Some of you will probably consider this an overreaction. Perhaps so. But I love the gospel. I love to sing Amazing Grace. I love to see the miracle of conversion where God opens up sinners hearts to new life, conviction of sin, and repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. And that is why this grieves me so, why those evangelists imbibing in the methods of Finney and selling decisional regeneration are so hurtful to the cause of the gospel. This legacy in the SBC is one, in my opinion, that needs to be forgotten.

It also shouldn’t be taught in Sunday School either.

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25 Comments on “Decisional Regeneration and Southern Baptist Eisegesis”

  1. johnMark Says:

    That “election ballot” irks me when I read it here and does so when I hear it preached. It certainly puts God and satan on an equal level almost implying that you save yourself.


  2. Adam Brown Says:

    The school I just came from was a poster child for decisional regeneration. Those who would hold a worship service and offer no invitation were labeled as ‘heretics’. Such a large emphasis was placed on walking down an aisle, one would think the walking was doing the saving. There is a great little book I have called “The Invitation System” by Ian Murray. It examines the movement largely by examining the revivals of Billy Graham. I have a couple Timmy if you don’t have one I can bring one Sunday, it’s a good source, it’s short about 40-50 pages.

  3. Thad Says:

    Great posts this week, brother.

    That election ballot is unbelievable (well, not really). “Make your calling and election sure”? What if the person in the ballot box is blind, illiterate, or worse, dead? He might need a little help checking off the right box.

  4. John Says:

    It’s interesting that the ballot looks like something tominthebox or another satirical site would put out, but it’s really a serious attempt at evangelism from the 1800s.

  5. James L Says:

    Nothing but a mighty reformation will turn the SBC away from this decisional regeneration garbage. May the Lord rend the heavens and make it so. As an aside “Making Many Glad” about Daniel Baker will do much to show how this Finney stuff came in like a flood and how a real evangelist had to encounter it. Not to mention the biography oh Asahel Nettleton and Iaian Murray’s “Revival and Revivalism.”

  6. Ben Says:

    I read somewhere about the ballot box anology somethin along these lines. Satan was bound and could not vote, you were to young to vote, so the only vote that counted and was placed was God’s.

    Or something along those lines.


  7. Wayne Roberts Says:


    I assume you already know about this, but you never know. There will be a conference at Kenwwod Baptist here in Louisville on November 2 & 3 led by Sam Storms. The title of the conference is Signs of the Spirt: The Substance of True Spirituality. I believe it will be based on Dr. Storms book, “Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections”.

  8. Wayne,

    No I did not know that. Thanks for the heads up!

  9. Greg Alford Says:


    The Church which produced this “Heresy of Lydia’s Salvation” Sunday School material… Just held the most successful Vacation Bible School / Circus it has had in many years, complete with a petting zoo and train in the parking lot… It was such a success that the Florida Baptist Witness did a large article on how many decisions were made (i.e. for you Calvinist that means little children were saved from the fires of Hell) all because of a petting zoo and a train in the parking lot!

    Oh, and yes this is Jerry Vines church… you remember Dr. Jerry Vines… he’s the one who, with the financial help John Sullivan and the Florida Baptist Convention recently mailed his Hyper-Anti-Calvinist CD’s in which he calls Calvinism “Un-Orthodox doctrine” to every Baptist Pastor in the state of Florida…

    I am sure everyone can connect the dots for themselves. Petting Zoo’s and Trains in the parking lot produce results… the Bible on the other hand?

    Grace to all,

  10. connie Says:

    I caught that right a way and was heading for my NAS–KNOWING that it says “the LORD opened her heart”–as I continued reading your post and saw that you provided the MUCH NEEDED correction! So sad, that matter was handled so flippantly and not corrected.

  11. So, Timmy, Can’t we see your marginal notes??? They seem to have been cropped out!

  12. Guillaume,

    I will post it on Flickr. It was actually not my notes but rather from the person who provided the material (SS teacher who was preparing their lesson).

    Would you like to hear another quote from this same SS curriculum? Here is what the curriculum says about the relationship of prayer and evangelism:

    “Our wise Heavenly Father learns of our true desires through our ceaseless praying.”

    That’s right. God figures out through our praying what we want. Our “wise” heavenly Father “learns?” Is this not a tacit admission of open theism? Is God’s foreknowledge not exhaustive? I though he knows our thoughts and intentions from afar (Psalm 139).

    But I digress . . .

  13. “…tacit admission of open theism?”

    Yip, THAT is exactly what jumped to my mind while reading your recent comment. Sigh…come quickly Lord Jesus. 🙂

  14. jk Says:

    If God regenerates us prior to faith, then the debate with Nicodemus was a pointless and contradictory waste of time. Jesus didn’t tell Nicodemus “if when I have told you earthly thing and the Holy Ghost will not make you beleive them, how will the Holy Ghost make you beleive when I tell you spiritual things?” Nay, but rather, Jesus says “if I have told you earthly things and you do not beleive, how will you believe when I tell you spiritual things?” Jesus does not place the blame for Nicodemus’ lack of regeneration on the Holy Spirit, but on Nicodemus. Why was Nicodemus not born again? Because the Holy Spirit refuse to regenerate Nicodemus? If so, Jesus was arguing with the wrong man, err, uh, the wrong spirit rather. But clearly Nicodemus was unregenerate not by a refusal of the Holy Spirit, but by a refusal of Nicodemus. Jesus says that a man must be reborn “of water and of the Spirit” in John 3:5. The baptismal context of the passage is undeniable, being that the Pharisees had rejected John’s baptism in John 1, then Jesus is believed on in John 2 by some Pharisees whom Jesus subsequently rejects, and now Nicodemus comes to Jesus in John 3 as the spokesman of these believing and yet rejected Pharisees saying “we beleive you are a teacher from God” as if to elicit sympathy from Jesus, but Jesus immediately tells Nicodemus that they must be born again to be accepted by him. Then, after Nicodemus tries to dodge the issue as if he doesn’t know what Jesus is talking about by the phrase “born again,” Jesus plainly tells him he refers to a rebirth “of water and the Spirit” and the chapter closes with Jesus illustrating the importance he places on baptism by taking up John’s ministry for a while and baptizing more disciples than John the baptist himself. When you add to this Peter’s words in Acts 2:38-39, that if a believer will repent and be baptized into Christ in order to receive the forgiveness of sins, that believer will receive that very thing plus the gift of the Holy Spirit, which promise Peter says is for your children and all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call. This clearly establishes that the rebirth, regeneration, is effected by the Spirit inside water baptism and not prior to faith.

  15. jk,

    I don’t think I have ever met you before, so I am assuming that this is your first comment here. Your excursis, though appreciated, is tangential to the post and prima facia incoherent. The idea that John 3 supports baptismal regeneration and that the reason why Nicodemus was not regenerate because he it was a refusal of himself is logically untenable and hermeneutically unsatisfactory. In case, I do not plan on hijacking this post to debate you on this point.

  16. genembridges Says:

    If God regenerates us prior to faith, then the debate with Nicodemus was a pointless and contradictory waste of time. Jesus didn’t tell Nicodemus “if when I have told you earthly thing and the Holy Ghost will not make you beleive them, how will the Holy Ghost make you beleive when I tell you spiritual things?” Nay, but rather, Jesus says “if I have told you earthly things and you do not beleive, how will you believe when I tell you spiritual things?” Jesus does not place the blame for Nicodemus’ lack of regeneration on the Holy Spirit, but on Nicodemus.

    Notice JK’s obvious equivocation between “believe” and “regeneration.” Where is the supporting argument? Jesus places Nicodemus responsibility for lack of UNDERSTANDING on Nicodemus – but this is wholly consonant with Calvinism, since in Calvinism the only thing that keeps a person from believing is his own love of his sin. His ignorance is moral.

    The point of the conversation is that Nicodemus, as one of the religious leaders – one who lived on the end of the Old Covenant, should have understood these things. He had the whole canon of Scripture at that time before him. He came from a tradition that elevated and studied them greatly.

    Further, Nicodemus is not held out as one who does not believe. On the contrary, he is presented here as the exception to the rule. He is the only one of the Pharisaic party who actually comes to Jesus. Look at verse 2. This statement is exactly the OPPOSITE of the majority of the other Pharisees. He is coming a representative of the pious ones who did believe, not those who did not.

    He then goes on to talk about the Spirit moving like the wind, a mystery. The Spirit goes where He will. At no point does Jesus say, “be baptized to be born again” in this entire text.

    JK apparently believes in baptismal regeneration, but 3:5 is an allusion to Ezekiel 36:25 – 27, not a statement about baptismal regeneration.

  17. Billy Birch Says:


    I agree with so much of what you have stated concerning these issues; So Much! That Election Ballot was absurd! And as far as one opening up his or her own heart, I am simply speechless.

    Regarding man’s “free will,” James Arminius wrote, “The Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace” (Works, Vol. II, 192).

    Though I know you to be a committed Calvinist, and though I know you will not agree wholeheartedly with what Arminius taught, you can at least witness for yourself that the aberration in that Sunday School literature was not true, classical Arminianism — much of S Baptist SS lit. is not! Pelagianism is alive and well.

    Good post and good food for thought from you and Newton. I will thinking on these things.


  18. Billy Birch Says:

    “I will thinking on these things.” I type too fast. Nonetheless, I will BE thinking on these things. I am a bit of a perfectionist and hate to see mistakes. Ha.


  19. Billy,

    You are correct that Arminius affirmed total depravity while it appears that some Southern Baptists do not (i.e. semi-Pelagianism or outright Pelagianism). So in the Arminian scheme of things, how would you make sense of God opening the heart of Lydia? Does Arminius have any comment on Acts 16:14?

  20. Billy Says:


    Arminius would say that the “opening of the heart” is esential: “It follows that our will is not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to [will the] Good, unless it be made free by the Son through His Spirit . . . For when a new light and knowledge of God and Christ and of the Divine Will have benn kindled in [the] mind; and when new affections, inclinations and motions agreeing with the law of God, have been excited in [the] heart and new powers have been produced in him; it comes to pass that, being liberated from the kingdom of darkness and being now made ‘light in the Lord’ (Eph. 5.8), he understands the true and saving Good . . . being made capable in Christ, co-operating now with God he prosecutes the Good . . .” (Works, Vol. II, 194-195).

    I know this goes against the theory of Irresistible Grace, but nonetheless, this is what he taught and what Arminians believe; God must do the work in the heart, but that work is not irresistible. I realize we part ways theologically at this point.

    God bless. (I like your blog)


  21. genembridges Says:

    Of course, this also assumes libertarian freedom.

    1. Where it the argument for Universal Prevenient Grace?

    2. Where is the argument for libertarian freedom?

    Why does one man believe and not the other. Smuggled into Billy’s view is the assumption that grace is quantitative not qualitative. Where is the supporting argument?

  22. DR.PAUL FOLTZ Says:

    Satan is having his heyday, making havoc of the message of the church.

  23. Dear Brother Foltz: Decisional regeneration is silly, but the folks who don’t understand that regeneration precedes and is the cause of conversion are multitudinous. Many I think are saved. Let’s wait on the Lord in prayer that He might in His own good time open their eyes. Jn.3:3-8 and Jas. 1:18 are a help in grasping the reality that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit like the conception in Mary, and conversion also involves the Holy Spirit in the use of the word of truth as the instrument to draw forth the new life. We as ministers and witnesses are the means to convey to the word the Spirit uses to bring the chosen to a conscious commitment. Your comments are well-taken. Now let us demonstrate how this approach, our approach, is far more effective in evangelism. I strive to do it, but, alas!, it is true I fail frequently. What a grief to me. You are backed up by E. C. Dargen, J.P. Boyce, the circular letter on the Holy Spirit in the Philadelphia Baptist Assn., John Gano, and Dr. John Gill. Great company don’t you think.

  24. Dr. Paul W. Foltz Says:

    Dear Brother Willingham,
    I thank you for your gracious words. Those on this blog forget that in John 3 Christ was drawing a contrast between the natural and spiritual. When these two meet there is always conflict.

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