Carl G. Hecker
The resurgence of Calvinism in recent years has brought about a need for a fresh look at emotion and its proper place in the religion of our Lord. When one begins with error, everything is perverted.
The doctrine is called Calvinism because John Calvin (1509-1564) gave it wide-spread acceptance in his day. Many modern denominations have built their theology upon his false assumptions. The first and basic error is that man is under a curse of God. Babies are born totally depraved, and incapable of doing anything good, until God acts directly upon them. This divine act is always an emotional experience which must be recited to, and then approved by, those who have themselves claimed a similar emotional experience. It is a kind of comparing oneself with oneself.
It is easy to see how following feelings rather than facts flows from the Calvinistic misconception of “original” sin. It is difficult to understand how such error could get into the church of our Lord, but it has happened! Emotionalism presents a threat to the doctrinal purity of the church.
Webster defines emotionalism as “the cultivation of the superficial emotions; the tendency to yield to the emotional or exalt the emotions; to view matters more from feeling than reason or morals.” An emotionalist is “one who practices the art of exciting emotions in others, a sensationalist.”
It would be terribly wrong to suggest that Christianity is unemotional. Deep feelings of joy, a solid sense of security, a firm feeling of duty, responsibility and purpose in life are all proper emotions. A Christian benefits by a real fear of sin, deep grief of his fellowman being in bondage to sin, and even jealousy, in a good sense, of the church and the gospel. Man emotes!
However, emotions are the result of information, of evidence presented to the mind. Man is first a rational being. He is an intelligent, thinking reasoning being. He can control, his emotions, and his actions by the exercise of his will. God holds the individual responsible for doing just that!
Sin, guilt, punishment, and their counterparts, obedience, forgiveness, heaven are all illogical, unreasonable and totally unacceptable ideas, if man is, in fact, born totally depraved. If man has no ability to respond to God, he cannot be responsible to God! If man must wait for an exclusive act of the Holy Spirit for some emotional, miraculous experience before he can become obedient, then God alone would be responsible for his condition. Man would not be responsible, for he is helpless. The sacred Scriptures do not teach this preposterous view.
Let us look at what the Bible teaches. “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain” (Jam. 1:26). James tells us to control our tongue. We are responsible for what we say! We will be judged by our words (Mat. 12:37). We must also control our emotions. “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (Jam. 1:20).
While giving the spiritual qualifications of men who serve as elders, Paul uses three words: “not soon angry…sober…temperate” (Tit. 1:7-8). These three words demonstrate the need of an elder, in the Lord’s church, to be able to control his emotions. Uncontrolled feelings interfere with one’s ability to reason, evaluate, and to make right decisions.
The Greek word sophron, which occurs thirteen times in the New Testament, is translated, discreet, sober, temperate, self-control, sober minded, sound-minded. Another Greek word, nepho, found seven times, includes the idea of being watchful, awake, alert. The word semnos, also used seven times, adds the dimension of seriousness, gravity, levelheadedness, or an evenly controlled, emotional state.
The Word of God sets the standard. It describes what God wants us to be. We grow into maturity. We come to Christ by the process of learning. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Mat. 11:28-29). We gradually change into the image of Him who died for us (2 Cor. 3:18). Faith in the Word of God that produces compliance is a living faith (Jam. 2:24). That is, it produces the character our heavenly Father desires in us.
Beneficial emotions derive their strength from the Bible. Our feelings should be the result of our faith, not the source of it. The gospel is the only basis for saving faith (Rom. 1:16). Faith that is the result of hearing the Word of God, and that compels obedience to that Word, will produce joy, peace, and good feelings.
The tendency of the modern pulpit is to tickle ears and excite groundless emotions. Much of our preaching has no higher purpose than to make people feel good through the use of smooth speech. Smooth speech is generally the trademark of the false prophet. We multiply the blunder of ancient Israel, “Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits” (Isa. 30:10). God’s answer remains the same: “Because ye despise this word, and trust in oppression and perverseness, and stay thereon: Therefore this iniquity shall be to you as a breach ready to fall” (Isa. 30:12-13). Sermons ought to teach and apply truth. The hearers will react to the faithful preaching of sound doctrine with emotions appropriate to the message, and their own spiritual discernment. Some will be pleased. Some will be grieved. Some will reject the message, and turn away in disgust. Some will weep. Some will rejoice. All will emote!
Emotionalists in the pulpit often seek to please the audience by appealing to fleshly desires. The strong feelings he arouses always fall far short of spiritual maturity. Spirituality results from a rational response to revelation, rather than an emotional upheaval, and artificial, worked-up fervor. Tear jerking, and pulling at heartstrings will not produce full grown men in Christ. Jesus made no such cheap attempts to manipulate people, nor should we.
Unbridled feelings are not a proper source of religious conviction. All emotions are fleeting, flimsy and unreliable. To feel good is not enough. We must be good.