Theology Does Matter - III

Does Not Calvinism Destroy Evangelism?

It is argued that a belief in the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners would dampen the evangelistic fervor of Christians. Many believe that if God has predestined those who will get saved and will efficaciously save them, then there is nothing we Christians need to or can do, in the winning of these souls. Thus they who think so, firmly assert apathy as the end result of believing these doctrines.

However convincing this argument seems, there are some flaws in it. For God is not only the God of ends, but also the God of means. In other words, even though God has foreordained His purposes from the very beginning, He has also ordained certain means by which He will accomplish those purposes. It is when this truth is forgotten in this matter of evangelism that we end up with bad theology. A proper recognition of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and our evangelism will help us see how one is not against the other; but rather one supports and holds the other.

Reformed theology is emphatic in its assertion of the biblical truth that “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jon 2:9b, Rev 7:10,). It confesses a God who for the sake of His great Name, gathers a people chosen exclusively on the basis of the work and person of their Substitute Savior. It believes in a Savior whose life, death and resurrection is the sole reason why these people, so chosen, are gifted with not only forgiveness of sins, but also even the means of salvation - namely repentance and faith. It teaches a Spirit who effectually applies this redemption, so won by the Savior, on all those whom the Father has chosen. In view of this Trinitarian salvation, we need to see what evangelism is. It certainly cannot be that we are saving anyone [1], for salvation is entirely the work of the triune God.

Then what is evangelism? Evangelism is to faithfully herald the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that God might save sinners. Evangelism is thus that proclamation of the good news of Christ, which God is pleased to use as His means to save sinners. Thus God sovereignly saves His people, yet uses the heralding of the gospel by a preacher as the means for it (Rom 10:14). God could have done it without anyone's help, but has bestowed this great privilege upon His church, especially His preachers, to be coworkers with Him in this great enterprise of gathering His people (2 Cor 6:1; 1 Cor 3:9). Reformed Anglican theologian J.I Packer says "God's way of saving sinners is to bring them to faith through bringing them into contact with the gospel. In God's ordering of things, therefore, evangelism is a necessity if anyone is to be saved at all. We must realize, therefore, that when God sends us to evangelize, He sends us to act as vital links in the chain of His purpose for the salvation of His elect. The fact that He has such a purpose, and that it is (so we believe) a sovereign purpose that cannot be thwarted, does not imply that, after all, our evangelizing is not needed for its fulfillment. In our Lord's parable, the way in which the wedding was furnished with guests was through the action of the king's servants, who went out as they were bidden into the highways and invited in all whom they found there. Hearing the invitation, the passers-by came.(Mt 22:1 ff.) It is in the same way, and through similar action by the servants of God, that the elect come into the salvation that the Redeemer has won for them." [2] Thus a proper definition of evangelism would help us see how the truth of the sovereignty of God is not a hindrance to evangelism.

When this relationship is properly seen, we could say that the truth of the sovereignty of God in salvation is the real incentive for doing evangelism. For the success of reformed evangelism is found entirely in God. Only if God moves through His Holy Spirit and raises dead sinners to new life, will our evangelism bear any fruit. Thus our evangelism is entirely dependent on God. The benefits of this understanding in evangelism are many. First of all, it produces deep humility in the hearts of all those who are involved in evangelism. Secondly, it forces us to preach the gospel in all its purity, for the Lord will endorse only a faithful proclamation of His gospel. Thirdly, it protects us from leaning on our eloquence or Bible knowledge as the means for getting results. Finally it preserves us from being pragmatic and employing manipulative techniques aimed at speedy results.

The Bible is very clear that the strength of evangelism is not dependent on any technique. Rather it is powerful because of the gospel it preaches. Romans 1:16 does not say the gospel is about the power of God, rather it says the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Proclamation of this powerful gospel is the vehicle through which God unleashes His power to save sinners. Moreover it says in 1 Corinthians 1:21, that it pleased God to save believers through the foolishness of what is being preached. Again the Bible says in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 that God calls, those whom He has chosen from the beginning, to be saved through the preaching of the gospel. Thus the Bible presents a sovereign God, who uses the preaching of the gospel, as His means to accomplish His great purpose of saving sinners by Jesus Christ.

Thus a proper understanding of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and biblical evangelism would not lead someone to mere apathy, but to zealous preaching of the glorious gospel. History bears witness to this truth that those who were Calvinistic were also mightily evangelistic.

Even during the Reformation days, men like John Calvin used to send people from churches in Geneva to the Continent as missionaries. Most of them were martyred for their preaching of the gospel. During the Evangelical Awakening in the United Kingdom, Calvinists were equally active in evangelism as others. Men like George Whitefield, Howell Harris and Daniel Rowlands toiled with great joy to see the gathering of God's elect. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Great Awakening was mostly lead by Calvinistic leaders. The well known leader of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards best known for being a formidable theologian, later became a missionary to the Indians. In the 18th century, it was Calvinistic men like William Carey and Andrew Fuller whom God used to start the modern missionary movement. The late James Montgomery Boice says "the modern missionary movement received nearly all its initial impetus and direction from those in the Calvinistic tradition. The list includes William Carey, John Ryland, Henry Martyn, Robert Moffat, David Livingstone, John G. Paton, John R. Mott and others. For all these the doctrines of grace were not an appendage to Christian thought but were, rather, central, firing and forming their preaching and missionary efforts."[3]

The list of Calvinistic evangelists and missionaries who gave their life for the cause of Christ goes on and on. Perhaps it will be enough to say that the greatest evangelist the United Kingdom has ever seen – Charles Spurgeon and the greatest evangelist to set foot on the American soil – George Whitefield, were both convinced Calvinists. For them, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God was not a hindrance, but a fuel for their passion for evangelism. It gave them reasons to exult in God and His glorious gospel.

For, a true understanding of these and other doctrines of reformed theology will make one profoundly gospel centered. In fact it is the definitive mark of a mature Calvinist that he under the influence of these doctrines makes much of the gospel in his life and ministry. Let this be a word of warning and of comfort: A warning to the young, restless and reformed ones, to check their affections towards the gospel and be not satisfied in merely figuring out a system of theology; and a comfort to those who are skeptical about Christians being meticulous in thinking doctrinally. For doctrinal thinking and heartfelt zeal for the gospel goes hand in hand and one cannot be divorced from the other. If you believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation, in the efficacy and sufficiency of His grace, then an inevitable mark will be a zealous and passionate proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.



[1] Even though we are not saving anyone in Evangelism, we are certainly called to aim at the conversion of sinners. J.I Packer in his classic "Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God" says -

The word "convert" is a translation of the Greek epistrepho, which means - and is sometimes translated - "turn". We think of conversion as a work of God, and so from one standpoint it is; but it is striking to observe that in the three New Testament Passages where epistrepho is used transitively, of "converting" someone to God, the subject of the verb is not God, as we might have expected, but a preacher. ... When the Scriptures speak in this way of converting and of saving too, as a task for God' s people to perform, they are not, of course, calling in question the truth that, properly speaking, it is God who converts and saves. What they are saying is simply that the conversion and salvation of others should be the Christian's objective. The preacher should work to convert his congregation; the wife should work to save her unbelieving husband (1 Cor 7:16). Christians are sent to convert, and they should not allow themselves, as Christ's representatives in the world, to aim at anything less. Evangelizing, therefore is not simply a matter of teaching, and instructing, and imparting information to the mind. There is more to it than that. Evangelizing includes the endeavor to elicit a response to the truth taught. It is communication with a view to conversion. It is a matter, mot merely of informing but also of inviting. It is an attempt to gain (KJV) or win (ESV) or catch our fellow men for Christ (see 1 Cor 9:19ff; 1 Pet 3:1; Lk 5:10). Our Lord depicts it as fishermen's work (Mt 4:19; cf 13:47).

[2] Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I Packer.

[3] Foundations of the Christian Faith by James Montgomery Boice.

Theology Does Matter is a series aimed at answering common objections raised by people who are new to Reformed theology. The series is consciously succinct in its answers and seeks to be a good introduction to these biblical doctrines and the glorious God they teach.


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