Book Review - The Surprising Work of God

[amazon 0801035708 thumbnail]

[amazon 0801035708]

Author: Garth M. Rosell

Publisher: Baker Academic (July 1, 2008), 268 pages.
ISBN-10: 0801035708
ISBN-13: 978-0801035708 

The history of the New Evangelical movement has been well documented in several volumes. From a New Evangelical perspective, George Marsden tells the story in Reforming Fundamentalism. He gives insight into the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary and the vision of Harold John Ockenga who served as its first president. Rolland McCune’s Promise Unfulfilled thoroughly documents the history of New Evangelicalism from a fundamentalist, separatist perspective. Students of 20th century American church history must read both volumes to see the same history verified from the two perspectives.

I believe Rosell’s book is another “must read” on this same subject. Merv Rosell was one of the prominent evangelists who embraced New Evangelicalism at its founding. The author of our present volume is his son, who has taught history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for several years. He grew up in a preacher’s home and witnessed the unfolding of the events he rehearses and interprets for us in this book. He wrote the book at the request of Ockenga’s widow (p. 11). The title of the book brings up the memory of the Great Awakening, and it borrows the title from Jonathan Edwards’ description of that movement and his book by that title. The reason for this title is that Ockenga, Billy Graham, Torrey Johnson, Merv Rosell, Jimmy Johnson, and other preachers believed that the wave of evangelism that swept across America during and after World War II was a revival sent from God and parallel to the earlier movement. Rosell says: 

And I remember the terrible urgency to preach the gospel that seemed to grip my father and all of his preacher friends. Like Jonathan Edwards before them, they were absolutely amazed that God had chosen them. They were thrilled to be a part of it all, of course, but they were absolutely certain that they had not caused it, and they all knew in their heart of hearts that if they dared to take even the smallest measure of credit from that which belonged solely to the sovereign Lord of the universe, “their lips would turn to clay,” as they often phrased it (p. 15, 16).

Rosell is a good writer and tells the story in a clear, easy to follow manner. He is a scholar and has thoroughly documented his work. You will find yourself consulting the footnotes as you read. The bibliography lists hundreds of references and covers thirty pages.

One might ask why another book on the history of the New Evangelical movement is needed, and why one who is a fundamentalist, separatist, and Baptist should read another history of the movement. The answer is in the fact that Rosell specifically explores the relationship between Harold John Ockenga (who was the philosopher and visionary for the movement) and Billy Graham (who was the movement’s spokesman). I found the book most helpful because of the new information I learned about Harold John Ockenga. That information yields further insight into Ockenga’s philosophy and why he fomented the change that brought New Evangelicalism into existence.

One of the new insights about Ockenga is his spiritual and theological background. The man was a unique mixture. Ockenga was born in 1905 and grew up in west Chicago. He was converted to Christ in a Methodist church, and his early years were spent in Methodist churches and ministries. After his conversion, he had a series of experiences that can only be described as the fruit of Wesleyan perfectionist preaching. Rosell speaks of Ockenga’s “second blessing” and “experience of sanctification” (p. 42). He received his college education at Taylor University, which was and remains a Wesleyan institution. This is important in the book and in Ockenga’s life. The section dealing with his conversion, call to the ministry, and college days at Taylor covers pages 40-49. A few paragraphs describe his conversion, but the emphasis on Wesleyan perfectionism permeates the entire section. Pages 167 and 168, in the section that deals with Ockenga’s desire to reclaim the culture, express the same emphasis. The influence of Finney on the anti-slavery movement years earlier influenced his thinking in a significant way. Pages 190-195 again deal with the ministry of Charles G. Finney and his influence on Ockenga’s thinking. A significant percentage of the 223 pages of text address Finney’s influence on the founder of New Evangelicalism.1

In addition to his Methodist roots, Ockenga must be understood in the light of his further education. He began his seminary training at Princeton and moved to Westminster with Machen and those who left Princeton over modernism. Ockenga was a contemporary of Carl McIntire. While serving as a pastor in Pittsburgh, Ockenga completed the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Pittsburgh. Both of his degree dissertations were on Marxist theories of economics and alternatives to them (p. 169, n. 34, 35).2 This greatly influenced his thinking and leadership concerning culture and social action.

We must also understand Ockenga’s philosophy in the light of New England’s history. He seems to have embraced something akin to a covenant view of the United States’ place in history, saying that it “has been assigned a destiny comparable to that of ancient Israel” (p. 12). In this he was heavily influenced by Winthrop and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop cast that group as the “New Israel” (p. 29).

He viewed the movement of God in the World War II years and following as something akin to The Great Awakening. He adopted JonathonJonathan Edwards’ marks of evangelical Christianity. They were “a shared focus (the cross), a shared authority (the Bible), a shared experience (conversion), a shared mission (worldwide evangelization), and a shared vision (the spiritual renewal of the church and society)” (p. 13). He was convinced that evangelical Christianity cannot be divorced from revival. He seems to be as heavily influenced by Jonathoan Edwards as he was by Charles Finney.

His Pittsburgh education, the influence of Finney’s anti-slavery activism, and the ministry of A. J. Gordon in Boston all combined to shape his thinking on social action. Part of his reaction against Fundamentalism was because he felt it had forsaken legitimate social action.

The above information in the book made much of Ockenga’s thinking easier to understand. However, one issue still leaves the reader mystified. That is Ockenga’s “blind spot” on the subject of separation. A reading of the book yields several instances where Ockenga reiterated his belief in the authority of Scripture. In the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals, he wanted an organization that could answer and provide churches an alternative to the Federal (later National) Council of Churches. He led in the founding of Fuller Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Seminary to provide places where future servants of Christ could receive biblical education for the ministry. He was passionately committed to personal godliness, to revival, and to world evangelism. And yet, he thoroughly repudiated separation. Pages 174-178 describe what influenced his thinking and his rejection of separation as “wrongheaded and dangerous.” In that section he charges that fundamentalist separatists operate from a flawed ecclesiology. His attitude toward 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 is surprising. His insistence on cooperating with unbelievers negated the very good he so passionately espoused.

This review is already long and it could be longer. I will leave it to you to read the book and to learn as I did. It is worth the money to buy, and it is worth the time to read.

Please allow me to close with an exhortation. When I wrote Be Ye Holy in the early 1990s, I quoted Carl Henry and made the observation that he had tacitly admitted that New Evangelicalism’s philosophy of infiltration rather than separation had failed. I observed that the strategy had to fail because it was unbiblical. Before the book went to press I sent the pertinent section to Dr. Henry and solicited his response. He wrote back to me saying, “I have no argument with what you have written.”

I am not trying to say “I told you so.” I am wondering what those early leaders of the New Evangelical movement must have thought when they looked back over forty years and saw the tragedy of their compromise. I also remind myself and all of you to maintain a sane, biblical, kindhearted, but firm position of obedience to all of God’s Word, including what it says about separation from unbelief and sin.


1 Remember that Finney denied original sin, held the Grotian theory of the atonement and embraced the perfectionist emphasis of Wesley. The Grotian theory of the atonement does not teach that Christ died as a substitute for our sins, paying the penalty for them. Rather it teaches that Christ’s death demonstrated how seriously God views sin. God then accepts Christ’s death graciously as a substitute for the penalty of sin. For further information read Strong, Erickson, or Grudem on the theories of the atonement. A number of Wesleyan Arminians hold the Grotian or “governmental” view of Christ’s death.

2 This is not to imply that Ockenga embraced Socialism. He explored alternatives to Marx and identified himself politically as a libertarian.

Dr. Fred Moritz is on faculty at Maranatha Baptist Seminary in Watertown, Wisconsin, and splits his time between there and the Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL area. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he also travels, preaching and representing Maranatha throughout the year. Prior to moving to Wisconsin, he served as executive director at Baptist World Mission in Decatur, Alabama from 1985 to July 2009, and now holds the title of Executive Director Emeritus there. You can follow Dr. Moritz’ itinerary at his website.

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Joel Tetreau's picture


Thanks for the work. I'll plan on reading.

Straight Ahead!


Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (; Regional Coordinator for IBL West (, Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

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