Dr. Asahel Nettleton (1783–1844) is considered one of America’s greatest forgotten evangelists. He was a contemporary of Charles Finney and while Finney was conditioning converts and churning out spurious conversions with the anxious seat and altar calls, Nettleton believed this pragmatic “decisionism” was very superficial. In fact, Nettleton was the main opponent of Finney and the “new measures”. He did not seek for quick responses to an open invitation to “come forward” as Finney and his followers did.
It’s said Nettleton’s conversions lasted and bore fruit. For example, of the 84 converts in an 1818 revival atRocky Hill,Connecticut— according to their pastor’s report 26 years later — all 84 had remained faithful. Similarly, only three spurious conversions out of 82 professed commitments were noted by another pastor in his report on revival services held inAshford,Connecticut. What accounted for this success?
William C. Nichols, modern publisher of Nettleton’s sermons, reported that:
Nettleton was a thorough student of the human heart. He understood the windings and turnings of the depraved heart and knew how to expose its deceits to awaken the sinner to the desperateness of his lost condition. You who do the work of evangelism today: Are you such a student of the human heart? Do you understand how the unconverted heart operates? In his sermon on “Gospel Warfare” Nettleton said, “Preaching mere external morality will never bring one soul to Christ. That preaching which does not aim at the heart will never bring one soul to Christ. That preaching which does not aim at the heart, and take hold of the conscience, never attacks the strong holds of Satan.”
Nettleton frequently preached on such subjects as regeneration, self-examination, death, hell, and the final judgment. How often have you either preached or heard sermons preached on these subjects? Two hundred years ago it was common to hear sermons preached on the difference between true and false conversions. Asahel Nettleton frequently reminded his hearers of the signs of genuine conversion and warned those who heard him to beware of thinking they were converted when they were not. How often is this subject preached on today?
Eternity was the constant theme of his sermons. Nettleton continually reminded his hearers that their eternal destination was either heaven or hell. In his sermon on “The Contemplation of Death” he says, “Every sinner is now on trial once for all. He is now invited by…[the] bleeding Saviour, urged by all the horrors of [hell], to enter heaven. But death closes the [possibility] for ever [of making the right choice].”
Nettleton also preached on the necessity of the conscience being awakened to its danger prior to genuine conversion. He strongly believed that if the sinner was not awakened to his fearful state, he could not be saved. [He said], “The only remedy which can be applied for the salvation of sinners is the gospel. And the [gospel] never takes effect without alarming…the guilty conscience. Sinner! If you cannot be alarmed, you cannot be saved.” ~William C. Nichols, Asahel Nettleton: Sermons from the Second Great Awakening
Nettleton’s Calvinistic theological convictions were settled early after his graduation. Convinced that man was dead in sin, he believed that conversion was the work of God, not man. To Nettleton, new birth was a radical change that produced repentance and a life of growing holiness. In his final analysis, this transformation was the ultimate proof of salvation. His evangelistic strategies reflected these assumptions.
And how we need Dr. Nettleton’s God ever more than before in our day and age.