Book Review: The Heart of the Gospel: A.B. Simpson, the Fourfold Gospel, and Late Nineteenth-Century Evangelical Theology, by Bernie A. Van De Walle
Maya Angelou once said, “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.” She’s right. If we desire to understand the present, we profit from learning about the past.
And yet the difficult part about gazing into our past is that there are periods we’d rather forget. I’m still grateful that no one had camera phones to document my early 90s grunge phase. For many pastors and Christians, the latter half of the nineteenth century tends to be one of phases we’d rather forget.
Most of my brothers in ministry love reflecting on the First Great Awakening. Our shelves are full of books by and about men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. This time in the history of the American church is encouraging and inspiring to many, especially in a day and age when the American church desperately needs revival. And yet I doubt many pastors have a host of books on what transpired just a century later. The Second Great Awakening—a misnomer to many—saw the rise of religious fervor sweep across the country due in large part to manufactured, premeditated “revivals” led by men like Charles Finney.
Many pastors possess at best a superficial knowledge of this era; sadly, some are wholly ignorant of it. While many books on this period either champion the revivalists’ methodology or denounce their efforts, Bernie Van De Walle takes an entirely different approach. His scholarly work The Heart of the Gospel focuses not on nineteenth century revivalism but rather on the theology of the men behind the movement, most notably A.B. Simpson.
A.B. Simpson (1843–1919), the reluctant founder of the Christian & Missionary Alliance, was a Canadian Presbyterian minister who eventually left his denomination after coming under the influence of the holiness movement. Simpson’s heart for missions and reaching the unreached led him to move to New York, where he began a preaching ministry focusing on immigrant dock workers. To this end, he started various ecumenical parachurch ministries. Van De Wall states that Simpson’s desire wasn’t to create “an ecclesiastical body, but a fraternal body of believers, in cordial harmony with Christians of every name.”
Simpson recognized that literature, if well produced, could help him achieve this goal. His Fourfold Gospel and the theology behind it were widely distributed and became influential in shaping the ministry that dominated nineteenth-century American evangelicalism. It also birthed the Pentecostal movement. While Simpson would be better described as a charismatic evangelist with a heart for missions, not a revivalist, it’s not hard to see how he was a crucial figure in fueling the revivalism of his day.
THE HEART OF THE GOSPEL: THE FOURFOLD GOSPEL
J.I. Packer once said, “I am one of those who believe that this notion [penal substitution] takes us to the very heart of the Christian gospel.” The heart of the gospel, to be clear, is the message of Christ bearing the wrath of God meant for sinful mankind so that man could be declared righteous.
Yet Van De Walle uses that phrase to summarize all four parts of Simpson’s “fourfold gospel”: Christ is our Savior (soteriology), our Sanctifier (sanctification), our Healer (continuationism), and our Coming King (eschatology). It’s an enlarged heart, one might say, which inevitably shifts what people will count as most important, as we’ll see in a moment.
Van De Walle observes that this gospel was proclaimed throughout this period of time by men like D.L. Moody in Chicago, A.J. Gordon in Boston, and A.T. Pierson in Philadelphia, which then shaped
their methodology and ministry tactics.
CHRIST OUR SAVIOR
To begin with, Simpson’s understanding of “Christ Our Savior” impacted how a revivalist like him would plan, coordinate, and execute revivals. Van de Walle states: “At the heart of late nineteenth-century revivalistic soteriology was a belief in the freedom and ability of the human will” (p. 26). Simpson and other nineteenth-century revivalists pursued revivals on the firm basis that, while mankind has total depravity, he does not have total inability. Man’s ability to freely choose God drove them to believe revival could be systematically implemented under the right conditions.
This assumption was different than that of an earlier generation of revivalists like Jonathan Edwards, observes Van De Walle: “[Jonathan Edwards] believed the revivals of the eighteenth-century to be unexpected, altogether independent, and even surprising’ works of God.” He also adds that Edwards firmly believed “no human action can stimulate revival. It remains the exclusive work of God” (p. 25). Edwards’ view contrasts sharply with Simpson’s contemporaries who “believed that while revival may be sparked by or flow from some miraculous event, revival itself is the result of both human decision and divine action. Revival involves nothing more miraculous than humanity’s engaging in the right use of the [divinely] constituted means. … If the means were rightly implemented, revival would follow” (p. 26).
CHRIST OUR SANCTIFIER, HEALER, AND COMING KING
Van De Walle doesn’t spend too much time explaining how Simpson’s other three positions also drive revivalistic methodology. Nonetheless, they are useful if you want a comprehensive picture of what was happening during this period of church history. For example, Van De Walle explains that Simpson’s doctrine of sanctification (which was heavily influenced by the Holiness Movement) points to a common theme in nineteenth-century revivalism: the shift of focus from justification (as espoused by Whitefield and Edwards) to sanctification. The holiness movement and its belief in total sanctification and higher life theology had shifted the voice of the revivalist. “You can be justified through Christ!” had turned into a different promise: “You can be totally sanctified through Christ!”
Van De Walle also looks at the positions of “Christ Our Healer” and “Christ our Coming King”. Simpson’s continuationism and promises of divine healing drove flocks of hurting people to these meetings in hopes of experiencing physical healing. His hope of a coming king helped raise up a new generation of Christians who held to premillennial eschatology.
I try to be charitable in the books that I read. I don’t want to only read books from “my camp.” At the same time, I don’t appreciate ad hominem attacks, fallacious strawman arguments, and mischaracterization of my theological positions. Who does! Gratefully, Van De Walle, though he agrees with the revivalist’s methods, does good history as he faithfully presents the men from both their First and Second Awakenings, their convictions, their influences, and their methods in an unbiased way.
Spurgeon once said, “I am not an admirer of the peculiar views of Mr. Finney, but I have no doubt that he was useful to many.” While I’m not an admirer of all the positions and practices Simpson had throughout his lifetime, I am grateful for Van De Walle’s scholarly work. He presents greater insight into this man and presents his research in such a way that the reader can walk away with a better understanding of where we have been so that we can better see where we are going.
 Christian Alliance, Christian Alliance Yearbook (1888), 48
 J.I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?” (1973) Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture
 Charles Spurgeon, “Lectures to my Students” page 185