Yesterday’s post concerned the legacy of Charles Grandison Finney, one of America’s foremost evangelists — and Pelagians — of the 19th century. Even today, his legacy reaches the Protestant church in subtle ways.

The following first-person story from a Lutheran pastor explains why Finneyism is alive and well in the 21st century. The Revd Matt Richard is a regular contributor to a confessional LCMS pastors’ blog, Steadfast Lutherans (The Brothers of John the Steadfast) [see my blogroll].

Recently, Pastor Matt shared the story of his journey into confessional Lutheranism. Now one might think that he must have been this way since he was a child, considering that he is ordained. However, such is not the case. What he has to say concerns not only Finneyism but the outer holiness legalism of another large Protestant movement that has over the centuries pervaded many denominations.

What follows are excerpts from ‘My Journey into Confessional Lutheranism (Part 1 of 2)’, a fascinating account. Emphases mine below:

Church of the Lutheran Brethren? Chances are you haven’t heard of this small denomination. However, for me it has been all that I’ve known since infancy.

This denomination was founded in 1900 as five independent Lutheran congregations met in Wisconsin to form a new synod. These churches were not splitting from another synod or denomination but gathered together with the main purpose of compiling resources to send missionaries overseas …

For myself, I have often jokingly said that I am a spiritual mutt. I grew up in the Church of the Lutheran Brethren, my Father is a practicing Roman Catholic and my Mother has roots in the American Lutheran Church.  Through my childhood Christian education and youth group, as well as my college years of working at an Evangelical Christian Bookstore, I developed what I’ve come to call “Folk Lutheranism.” My Folk Lutheranism was a mixture of Lutheranism and Fundamentalistic Finneyism, coated with Evangelicalism and saturated with Pietism. Needless to say, I spent a lot of my time in legalism as well as constantly taking my spiritual temperature to see if I loved Jesus enough.  I virtually had no assurance.

After college I applied to Lutheran Brethren Seminary in Fergus Falls, MN … Frankly, I was unprepared for seminary and found myself crushed by the academic weight of the classes. Furthermore, the theology that I encountered also attacked my old nature and worldview. I can recall … longing for the Gospel that they presented, yet warring with it in my mind. About this time in seminary I gravitated towards the Church Growth Movement and really sunk my teeth into Rick Warren’s books, “The Purpose Driven Life,” and, “The Purpose Driven Church.” Therefore, when I received a call right out of seminary to go to Rancho Cucamonga, California, I was a Fundamentalistic-Finneyistic Lutheran Pastor, coated by Evangelicalism, saturated with Pietism and driven by Purpose.

add the Emergent Church Movement to my list.   How can all these “isms” be embraced cohesively? They can’t, as much as I tried. All of the plethora of theologies were beginning to make up a perfect storm; that is to say, an epistemological crisis

I can remember it like yesterday reading Matthew 9:10-12 during my struggle … As I read this passage, the Word hit me. I… I am sick. Jesus came for me! It sounds so simple now, but you have to understand that from my Folk Lutheran perspective the Gospel was merely what got you “in.”I had carelessly assumed the Gospel, and at this point I was gracious[ly] delivered the Gospel.  I was reminded that it was for me, a sick sinner who was confused, dead and broken. Thus my journey into Confessional Lutheranism had just begun.

You can read more about the Church of the Lutheran Brethren and its seminary.

The point of these spiritual journeys is that many of us carry influences other than the denominations to which we adhere now. Pastor Matt was affected by a Finneyistic pietism and legalism under a Lutheran umbrella. Yes, it seems contradictory, but it’s probably not that unusual a story. In fact, the mix of denominational and cultural influences is probably pretty common to many, especially in North America.

I have read accounts of Assembly of God Pentecostalists with seminary degrees moving to the Anglican Church and acquiring a strong Calvinistic influence along the way. Why they wouldn’t join an orthodox Presbyterian denomination instead is puzzling, but there you go.

It’s not right or wrong, it just is. As one cannot choose one’s family, it seems that one cannot choose one’s childhood church, either. However, one can end up with a fair amount of baggage and spiritual issues to work through later.

It also seems that our childhood denominations can help to determine our responses in various situations. Some longtime denominational adherents develop trigger reactions to various words or vocal intonations from others in the secular world.

It takes a lot of determination and a lot of grace to work through these struggles. And human nature dictates that we, for whatever reason, enjoy legalism. Quite possibly, it gives us the illusion that we are in control of our own religiosity, perhaps our own salvation.  Being able to jump through all the legalistic hoops of pietistic, Finneyistic Christianity day after day connotes personal success for many people.

Thank goodness God stopped Pastor Matt in his tracks and transformed his life.

For those of us welcoming newcomers to our churches, let’s remember to practice patience, kindness and fellowship.  And, when we are in the quiet of our own homes, let’s remember them in our prayers, that they may come to know the doctrine of grace.

As an ex-Evangelical, now a Reformed pastor and seminary professor, Dr R Scott Clark, said:

Now, a word to those congregations (such as mine) who find themselves host to such pilgrims. Please remember that our new friends are probably disoriented. The language, customs, and food are strange to them. They bring with them expectations not shaped by the Reformation. Our emphasis upon the gospel, sacraments, and the visible church may strike them as overly formal. We have two choices. We can pretend that we really belong to their tradition or we can gently, gradually welcome them to ours. I recommend the latter. It may take time for Americans raised on religious fastfood to learn to enjoy a new diet, language, and culture. If we try to become what the pilgrim has left behind, what use are we to the pilgrim? (Matt. 5:13). Let us welcome our brothers and sisters with open arms, open Bibles, and warm smiles.

More Evangelicals are beginning to make their way towards liturgical and confessional denominations. I’ll have a few posts on this soon.

Tomorrow: Pastor Matt’s Journey into Confessional Lutheranism (Part 2)