Calvinistic Evangelism: An Oxymoron?

This is a very important question, especially in light of the fact that there seems to be an increasing tendency by non-Calvinists to view evangelism (including missions) and Calvinism (i.e. Calvinistic soteriology) as contradictory.  They believe that Calvinistic soteriology diminishes the need and therefore the motivation to evangelize.  Well, is evangelism a proper, and even a necessary, implication of Calvinistic theology?  Or, are Calvinists being inconsistent when they evangelize?

We all know that historically Calvinists have been zealously engaged in evangelism and missions (e.g. C. H. Spurgeon, George Whitfield, William Carey, Paul Washer (HeartCry Missionary Society), Jeff Rose (JeremiahCry Ministries).  However, sometimes we say and do things that aren’t exactly in line with our theological perspectives.  In this article I hope to show, from a biblical perspective, that evangelism and Calvinism do in fact go hand-in-hand.  I do not intend in this article to try to convince non-Calvinists of Calvinistic theology, only to show them that Calvinism is absolutely consistent with the biblical teaching of evangelism.  In other words, I believe that the teachings of Calvinism are fully in line with the biblical reasoning for evangelism.

Defining Terms

First of all, what is Calvinistic soteriology?  In essence, Calvinistic soteriology is centered on God’s sovereign grace in saving spiritually dead sinners.  All of mankind is born into this world with a corrupt nature, because of our first parent Adam (Rom 5:12ff; Eph. 2:1-3).  Mankind, in other words, is not neutral toward God, but is hostile toward God and ignorant of His ways (Eph. 4:17-19).  The only reason that sinners do come to repentance and faith in the gospel is because God, before the foundation of the world, chose them according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace; He then sent His Son to die in their place under the condemnation of their sin, and then sends the Holy Spirit to apply Christ’s work of redemption, sealing them for eternity (Eph. 1:3-14).  This, in a nutshell, is Calvinistic soteriology.  From beginning (before the world was) to end (into glory) it is God’s sovereign and gracious work.

So the question arises, If God has already chosen who will be saved, and those whom He has chosen will definitely be saved, then why evangelize?  This is a good question.  There are four points I wish to consider in answering it.

1. God is a God of Means

God uses means in bringing people to salvation.  There are two primary means and one secondary means.  The two primary means are the word (or the gospel) and the Spirit.  The 3rd question of the Baptist Catechism (presented by the Charleston Association, 1813) reads:

Q. 3: How may we know there is a God?

A. The light of nature in man and the works of God plainly declare there is a God; but His Word and Spirit only do it fully and effectually for the salvation of sinners. (Emphasis added.)

Do the Scriptures support this answer?  I believe they do, over and over again.  A few passages will suffice: [1]

1 Thessalonians 1:4-5a “knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction….”

2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.  It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.  For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”

These passages, and many others, reveal to us that lost sinners will not be saved unless they hear the gospel and the Holy Spirit works through the gospel to bring them to repentance and faith (cf. Jn. 3:3-8).  In other words, God uses the means of the word and Spirit to bring about the salvation of His elect.  It is also important to note the sovereign grace of God in these passages as well.

The secondary means that God uses are individual persons (e.g. preachers).  Paul makes this abundantly clear in Romans 10:14-15, 17:

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?  How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?  And how will they hear without a preacher?  How will they preach unless they are sent?  Just as it is written, ‘HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGs!’… So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

By secondary, I mean that we are merely instruments in the hands of God.  We ourselves do not effect regeneration, repentance, and faith in the sinner (to include ourselves), but the Spirit through the word does.  It is simply our responsibility to testify – proclaim the word.

We evangelize, knowing that Christ has “purchased for God with [His] blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9); and it is by the means of gospel proclamation that the Spirit applies the redemption won for them by Jesus Christ.

2. God’s Glory

Our evangelism must first and foremost be engaged with a view to God’s glory.  We evangelize to see the name of God and Jesus Christ exalted among the nations (Ps. 117; Isa. 66:18-19; Mal. 1:11; Rom. 11:33-36; 15:8-13).  Even if people do not believe in our witness God is still glorified by the proclamation of His good news.

3. Compassion for the Lost

We desire to see lost sinners come to a true knowledge of their Creator, to have true life in His Son, and experience the joy and pleasures of God (Ps. 16:11; Rom. 10:1-4).  Now that we’ve had our eyes opened to the truth, we have compassion on those still in darkness, and so we want them to know and experience what we have come to know and experience – the one, true God through Jesus Christ (Jn. 17:3).  And in relation to the second point, God is glorified through the conversion of the lost (1 Cor. 1:31; 1 Thess. 1:2, 9; 2 Thess. 1:3).

4. Obedience to God’s Command

As Christians we have the responsibility to proclaim the good news and live in a manner worthy of it.  We are to evangelize because we have been commanded to do so (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; cf. Col. 4:2-6).

The Example of Paul: A Look at His Life & Teaching

The apostle Paul apparently saw no problem whatsoever with God’s sovereign grace and our responsibility to evangelize.  Romans 9, which emphasizes God’s sovereign will, falls in the context of salvation and evangelism.  In many of the passages already quoted or referenced the context is that of God’s sovereignty or sovereign grace, and yet it also speaks of the necessity of the proclamation of the gospel and the responsibility of man to believe.[2]

Paul understood his call to the ministry to be “for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness” (Tit. 1:1).  There are some who would wish to ground election in something man does (i.e. God foresaw who would believe and chose or elected them on that basis), but this only flips the biblical authors’ intent on its theological head (i.e. the purpose and will of God to the praise and glory of God; e.g. Eph. 1:6, 12, 14).[3]  Paul understood that God uses means, and he recognized that his calling to the gospel ministry was a means to the salvation of God’s elect.  Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:10 are nothing but explicit in this regard: “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen [i.e. the elect; ESV], so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.”  Again, God’s means of saving His elect is through the proclamation of the gospel, and the Holy Spirit working through that proclamation.  They must hear the gospel in order to be saved.  This does not mean that God will lose any that He has chosen, (He will save them, whether by means of our preaching or someone else’s), but that the responsibility to spread the gospel yet remains.

Paul even found comfort from Jesus, in the prospect of persecution, who assured him that He had people (i.e. elect) in Corinth (Acts 18:9-10).  In other words, God’s sovereign grace in salvation gives us assurance of fruit in our evangelistic endeavors (see 1 Cor. 1:17-2:16; 2 Cor. 4:1-6).  We press on, knowing that God has a people that have been redeemed, actually purchased by Christ’s blood, and therefore they will effectually be saved.  God will call His elect from among the nations.  Christ will receive the full reward of His redeeming blood (Rev. 5:9).

We can either embrace this straight-forward biblical teaching (as Paul did), which we may not be able to fully comprehend (as there is tension and our minds are finite), and so allow Scripture to inform and guide our theology; or we can attempt to reconstruct it in our own minds so as to make it fit more neatly within our already established theology, thus leading to an interpretation of Scripture that is more guided by prejudice, rather than sound exegesis.

Conclusion

God reigns.  He rules over His creation, including the salvation of mankind.  His sovereign choice of sinners in no way negates the necessity of evangelism, as we have seen, but rather establishes it, as evangelism is the means by which He brings His elect into the Church.  God is a God of means and has given us the responsibility to take His good news of salvation through Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.  We further do it because we want to glorify God among the nations, and because we have compassion on the lost.  His sovereignty in salvation gives us great hope and assurance in our evangelistic endeavors (that it is not in vain).  It also guards us from using manmade machinations that bring about forced or emotional responses, which saves no one.  It is to be considered a great privilege that He includes His people in this furtherance of His gospel and kingdom, for the sake of the praise of His glory.

If you are still struggling with this concept of God’s sovereign grace and our responsibility in evangelism, I highly recommend J.I. Packer’s book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.


[1] Scripture quotations are from the NASB.  See also 2 Cor. 4:3-6; Col. 1:3-8; 2 Tim. 3:15,16; 1 Pet. 1:2,3,22-25.

[2] Calvinists readily acknowledge and accept this biblical tension.  I have found that non-Calvinists tend to disagree with Calvinism and argue against it because they refuse to accept this tension.  For them, one of the emphases must subside.  For them, it’s God’s sovereign grace.  For hyper-Calvinists, it’s man’s responsibility.  For biblical Calvinists, we hold up both to be true.

[3] Note, for example, that God’s choice or election in 1 Thessalonians 1:4 can only be understood in this way, as Paul, in verse 5, basis it in the effectual work of the Spirit, not in anything man did.  Yes, they did believe, but as this text makes clear, it’s only because of the effectual work of the Spirit through the gospel (cf. Jn. 3:3-8; 6:44-45,65).

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