The following blog post was originally published on February 27, 2015. —ed.
Does an unregenerate man bear a spark of the divine that draws him to a relationship with God, or is he utterly lost in the total depravity of his sin nature?
While that might seem like an obscure theological question, don’t dismiss it as merely fodder for academic debates. It’s an immensely practical question—with implications for the church and for your own life. And it’s at the heart of the consumer-driven movement in the church, commonly known as seeker sensitivity.
The Original Seekers
Sometimes the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. Sadly, that’s particularly applicable when it comes to church history. The fifteen hundred-year-old heresy of Pelagianism is just one example.
Pelagius developed doctrines concerning the nature of man that were as subtle and seductive as they were damnable. Pelagius wanted to do away with the doctrines of original sin and the federal headship of Adam (the biblical teaching that Adam’s sin has been passed on to all men and we are all born with a sinful nature—Romans 5:12-18).
Augustine, who opposed Pelagius, was committed to the doctrines of divine sovereignty and human depravity. Any compromise on these two pillars of gospel truth would do violence to the glorious gospel of God’s grace—man’s inability to save himself (John 6:44) and his need for a sovereign Lord to intervene on his behalf (Romans 3:21–26).
The Council of Ephesus condemned Pelagianism as utterly heretical in AD 431, but it has survived in various forms since then.
Charles Finney ignited an enormous “revival” in Pelagian theology in the nineteenth century. Although Finney remains enormously popular among many contemporary evangelical and charismatic churches, few know how “depraved” his theology actually was. Finney clearly articulated his “doctrine of man” in his own Systematic Theology where he wrote:
Moral depravity cannot consist in any attribute of nature or constitution, nor in any lapsed or fallen state of nature. . . . Moral depravity, as I use the term, does not consist in, nor imply a sinful nature, in the sense that the human soul is sinful in itself. It is not a constitutional sinfulness. Charles Grandison Finney. Finney’s Systematic Theology (unabridged text of the complete 1878 edition of Lectures on Systematic Theology) (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1994), p. 245.
In other words, people do not have a sin nature. Without a sin nature, there is no need for the Spirit’s work of regeneration. And without need of the Spirit, we can use any means necessary to make the gospel appealing to people.
Finney’s man-centered ideas live on vibrantly in many modern churches today. The seeker-sensitive consumer-driven approach tailors church services and sermons to the “felt needs” of the sinner. It is a tacit denial of the biblical view that “no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11, ESV). This is the ugly modern legacy of the fire that Pelagius lit and Finney stoked.
It is an inescapable truth that those who pioneered the seeker-sensitive megachurch juggernaut in America were practical Pelagians. Effectively denying the total depravity of unregenerate man, they reclassified spiritually curious unbelievers as people “seeking after God.” They designed their services—really, their entire churches—to appeal to the interests and attractions of the world.
Seeker-sensitive guru Rick Warren is just one example of neo-Pelagianism. In his book The Purpose Driven Church, the megachurch pastor proudly describes how he spent twelve weeks surveying the unsaved residents in the surrounding neighborhood before he planted Saddleback Church in Southern California. He went door to door, asking:
1. What do you think is the greatest need in this area? This question simply got people talking to me.
2. Are you actively attending any church? If they said yes, I thanked them and moved on to the next home. I didn’t bother asking the other three questions because I didn’t want to color the survey with believers’ opinions. Notice that I didn’t ask, “Are you a member?” Many people who haven’t been inside a church for twenty years still claim membership in some church.
3. Why do you think most people don’t attend church? This seemed to be a less threatening and offensive wording than “Why don’t you attend church?” Today many people would answer that question with “It’s none of your business why I don’t go!” But when I asked why they thought other people didn’t attend, they usually gave me their personal reasons anyway.
4. If you were to look for a church to attend, what kind of things would you look for? This single question taught me more about thinking like an unbeliever than my entire seminary training. I discovered that most churches were offering programs that the unchurched were not interested in.
5. What could I do for you? What advice can you give to a minister who really wants to be helpful to people? This is the most basic question the church must ask its community. Study the gospels and notice how many times Jesus asked someone, “What do you want me to do for you?” He began with people’s needs.Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995), pp. 190-191.
A survey like that might be helpful if you wanted to start a business, open a country club, or stake out a political platform in that area. But the church is none of those things, and should not operate as such. And yet Warren proudly attests that hundreds and perhaps thousands of churches have used his survey to similarly guide their growth and inform their outreach.
Moreover, by dismissing out of hand the answers of anyone who professed faith or allied with any church, Warren guaranteed that his church would be driven by the most worldly, least sanctified interests available. Either he didn’t know or didn’t care that depraved minds were helping shape his church.
Wrong Priorities, Wrong Practice
Biblically, the inverted priorities of seeker-sensitive churches are pretty easy to spot. In his book Ashamed of the Gospel, John MacArthur explains how consumer-driven methods diverge from the biblical model.
Scripture says the early Christians “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, ESV). In our generation the world is turning the church upside down. Biblically, God is sovereign, not “unchurched Harry.” The Bible, not a marketing plan, is supposed to be the sole blueprint and final authority for all church ministry. Ministry should meet people’s real needs, not indulge their selfishness. Above all, we must bear in mind that the Lord of the church is Christ, not some couch potato with the remote control in his hand. John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2010.), p. 63.
Essentially, seeker-sensitive proponents completely ignore the biblical view of unregenerate man. The Bible makes it clear that unbelievers want nothing to do with God. Jesus said this plainly:
This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (John 3:19–20)
Paul invalidated the entire seeker-sensitive church growth philosophy in five words: “No one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11, ESV). It is truly astounding that such a massive movement could be built in such clear defiance of the New Testament’s most prolific author, as well as the Savior they claimed to preach.