April 14, 2015

Does Calvinism Discourage Evangelism?

by Nathan Busenitz

Seven years ago, a group of fifteen Southern Baptist evangelists met together to bemoan the growth of Calvinism within SBC circles.

When asked about his concerns, Jerry Drace (the evangelist who initiated the meeting) explained that some Baptist pastors are so Calvinistic “that they almost laugh at evangelism. It’s almost to the extent that they believe they don’t have to do it. So [Calvinism] gives them an excuse not to do evangelism.”

Drace’s comments raise an important question. Does an affirmation of God’s sovereign election in salvation (commonly called “Calvinism”) discourage people from faithfulness in evangelism?Calvin and Company

An answer to that question could be approached from several different angles.

One could, for example, consider evangelistic efforts among Baptists — comparing those who embrace the doctrine of election with those who do not. An SBC study “found that Calvinistic recent graduates report that they conduct personal evangelism at a slightly higher rate than their non-Calvinistic peers.”

A better place to go, of course, would be the Word of God. There are many passages to which we could turn (from John 6 to Acts 13 to Ephesians 1); but I would start in Romans 9–10. Pardon the anachronism, but it is no accident that one of the most “Calvinistic” chapters in the Bible (Romans 9) is partnered with the one of the most “evangelistic” (Romans 10). Clearly, the apostle Paul saw no disconnect between the reality of God’s sovereignty in salvation and his own evangelistic zeal.

We could also look to church history. As Mitch Cervinka explains:

One needs only examine Protestant history to see that Calvinists have been on the forefront of evangelism and missions. George Whitefield was outspoken in affirming all five points of Calvinism, yet he was one of the most zealous and effective evangelists of the Great Awakening. Wherever he traveled, both in England and America, people would turn out by the thousands to hear him preach in the open fields. The modern missionary movement began in 1792 when the Calvinistic Baptist, William Carey, left England to minister the gospel in India. With the help of William Ward and Joshua Marshman, he founded 26 churches and 126 schools, and translated the Bible into 44 languages including Sanskrit. In 1812, Adoniram Judson, another Calvinistic Baptist, sailed to Burma, becoming the first American to depart for the overseas mission field. . . . Other Calvinistic evangelists and missionaries of note include Jonathan Edwards, Asahel Nettleton and Charles H. Spurgeon. More than this, the Protestant Reformation was perhaps the greatest evangelistic movement of modern history. The Lord brought it about through the evangelistic zeal and unfailing courage of men who believed that God is fully sovereign in salvation—men such as Martin Luther,William Tyndale, John Calvin and John Knox, as well as lesser known men such as William Farel, George Wishart, Martin Bucer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and countless others.

One of my favorite accounts from church history in this regard is the testimony of George Müller.  When he first encountered the doctrines of grace (such as mankind’s total depravity and God’s sovereign election), Müller tried to reject them. He would later describe his initial distaste in his autobiography, “Before this period I had been much opposed to the doctrines of election, particular redemption, and final persevering grace; so much so that . . . I called election a devilish doctrine.”

But as he continued to study God’s Word, Müller reached an unexpected conclusion. He wrote:

I went to the Word, reading the New Testament from the beginning, with a particular reference to these truths. To my great astonishment I found that the passages which speak decidedly for election and persevering grace, were about four times as many as those which speak apparently against these truths; and even those few, shortly after, when I had examined and understood them, served to confirm me in the above doctrines.

Müller initially feared that embracing the doctrine of election would quench his passion for evangelism. But he soon found it had the opposite effect. Consequently, he noted:

In the course of time . . . it pleased God then to show to me the doctrines of grace in a way in which I had not seen them before. At first I hated them, “If this were true I could do nothing at all in the conversion of sinners, as all would depend upon God and the working of His Spirit.” But when it pleased God to reveal these truths to me, and my heart was brought to such a state that I could say, “I am not only content simply to be a hammer, an axe, or a saw, in God’s hands; but I shall count it an honor to be taken up and used by Him in any way; and if sinners are converted through my instrumentality, from my inmost soul I will give Him all the glory;” the Lord gave me to see fruit; the Lord gave me to see fruit in abundance; sinners were converted by scores; and ever since God has used me in one way or other in His service.

That perspective fueled Müller’s evangelistic zeal — from the 10,000 orphans he helped to care for in England to the over 200,000 miles he traveled as an itinerant evangelist, taking the gospel to dozens of foreign nations. Müller’s example is one of many powerful answers, from history, to those who would allege that an affirmation of God’s sovereignty in salvation kills evangelism.

Whether we look to Scripture or church history, we quickly learn that a belief in God’s sovereign election — properly understood — is no deterrent to a passionate witness. In reality, it has the opposite effect.

A right understanding actually motivates the missionary spirit. As Charles Spurgeon explained to his students, “We must have the heathen converted; God has myriads of His elect among them, we must go and search for them somehow or other.”

That is the kind of passion for evangelism that ought to characterize all who call themselves “Calvinists.” If it doesn’t, it calls into question the authenticity of the label.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Justin’nJennifer Sagert

    Looking at it from their perspective, Calvinist generally speaking will not do the crusades, the alter calls, and sinner’s prayer. So to them, who have been using these methods for decades, Calvinists don’t do evangelism.

    • Gordon Hazell

      This is what I always respond to that charge. It depends on what one means by evangelism. If you mean badgering people with Jesus talk with little explanation of the gospel and it’s implications and then driving them to pray a prayer after you then I’m guilty as charged.

      • Josh Randall

        Nailed it! Exactly right Gordon.

        • Archepoimen follower

          Ridiculous, while a firm believer in the truth that no one can respond without God thru Christ first calling them, to claim that that non-Calvinists badger people without the Gospel being presented is a serious misrepresentation of fellow believers!

          • Josh Randall

            Certainly that does happen, but I wouldn’t broad brush and say all non-Calvinists are guilty of that. However, I think the problem is when a hyper focus is placed on “making a decision” or praying the sinners prayer.

          • Gordon Hazell

            This isn’t hear say. I’ve seen it so often it isn’t funny. And it’s sickening to see so many decisions that amount from false conversions that only last the moment. If there are people who carefully explain the gospel and are not calvinist then fine but that’s not what I’m talking about. So I stand by my statement.

  • nc’debaca

    This is a great look at men of the faith that held to sound doctrine. The problem today is men don’t want to give God “all the glory”. Because if you are such a brilliant witness, well then you get a little credit, some pats on the back, and applause of men.

  • Shoobacca

    It seems like the Apostle Paul had those “having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (i.e., “the elect”) on his heart and mind throughout his evangelistic efforts …

    Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 2 Timothy 2:10 (NIV)

    And what did Paul endure?

    Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 (NIV)

    To me, there seems to be room for the apprentice of Jesus to embrace both election and evangelism.

    • Tom1959

      One of the things that the doctrines of grace has done for me (not perfect at it) is it frees me to realize that as I proclaim the Gospel, I am not responsible for the results. Before, I almost felt guilty if the person didn’t respond positively to the message. There were even times this froze me from even sharing the Gospel.

  • Arminius

    You’ll never change the reality (“methinks you protest too much”) that since Calvinists believe that the saved are arbitrarily and completely saved by God’s choice I don’t have to tell this lost person about God because in God’s sovereignty someone else most certainly will if he/she is in the elect.

    That is world’s apart from the thinking that this lost person might get ONE CHANCE to hear the Gospel and that one chance is ME. Obviously God might choose to providentially connect this person with someone else in the future but I don’t know that and can’t know that. All I know is they are lost, and if I don’t say something they may stay lost.

    That’s a far cry from “if they’re saved, they’re saved, and if they’re lost they’re lost so what I do here doesn’t really matter much.” That Calvinists can’t see that is truly amazing.

    There’s so much that is unbiblical and far from true about Calvinism … this is just one byproduct of a system that cannot be found in Scripture. If you are a Calvinist do some googling and at least LOOK at “What Love is This” (Dave Hunt) or many of the other sites/books that present an alternative to Calvinism’s lies.

    • MR

      What makes the person who believes different from those who don’t?

    • Tom1959

      Arminius-Show me a Calvinist that believe as you said “I don’t have to tell this lost person about God because in God’s sovereignty someone else most certainly will if he/she is in the elect.” And what you actually showed me is a Hyper-Calvinist. Whether or not you agree with us or not, Calvinists believe that God uses the proclamation of the Gospel to save His elect.
      Something else you may or may not know, is that CH Spurgeon who was a 5 point Calvinist probably spoke against hyper-Calvinism more than he did against Arminianism.
      I don’t mind you disagreeing with Calvinism, after all much like George Muller, there was a time that I didn’t even like Calvinism. However, if there is one thing I dislike it is misrepresenting another’s position. That would also include a Calvinist misrepresenting the Arminian position.
      Speaking of the book you mentioned by Dave Hunt, are you aware that he stated that CH Spurgeon wasn’t a 5 point Calvinist? This despite the fact that before his book went into print, some of his Arminian friends told him he was wrong about CH Spurgeon. Yet despite that, he chose to insist that Spurgeon wasn’t a Calvinist.

    • Curt

      That book by Dave Hunt was unbelievably laughable. I could not believe the argumentation he used. Going from memory – “You don’t find the words “Total Depravity” in the Bible so Calvinists shouldn’t teach it.” His spliced quotes from John Calvin…absolutely brutal! I was loaned this book to read, hearing it was an eye opener about Calvinism. After reading portions of it I thought, “If THIS is the best refutation there is….okay”. You might find it handy to read Dr James White’s book, “The Potters Freedom”, for an exegetical look at this subject, rather than relying on Hunt’s emotional take on it.

      • Tom1959

        Curt, that is interesting about Dave Hunt’s argument about ‘Total Depravity’ not being in the Bible. If he was consistent he would need to say that seeing the word ‘Trinity’ isn’t in the Bible Christians shouldn’t teach it.
        I wonder if Dave Hunt knows that there are many Arminians past and present that believe in “Totally Depravity”? For example John Wesley believed in “Totally Depravity”, yet remained an Arminian because he believed in a doctrine called “Prevenient Grace”.

        • Curt

          Tom1959, I’m not super familiar with Wesley so I can’t comment on him. Mr Hunts book was truly shocking in its absurdity – I mean that in all sincerity. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it or not but if you get a chance to thumb through it you may very well come away with a similar reaction.

  • Mick McDaniel

    Evangelism as defined by an Arminian is a sales pitch that seeks a sinners affirmation of their sinfulness and their belief that Jesus died on the cross for their sin. Next, the Arminian evangelist closes the deal by having the sinner say the “sinners prayer.” In this type of evangelism, there is no end for contrition or understanding of the holiness of God.

    • jonick

      I don’t really care to label my self an arminian … In reality… Any evangelism not tied to discipleship (the true evangelism) is not evangelism at all… Whether it be a Calvinist or Arminian approach.

      • chrisleduc1

        So what Philip did with the Ethiopian eunuch was not evangelism? Or when the disciples went out to proclaim the gospel while Jesus was still on the earth, that wasn’t evangelism?

  • MR

    Thanks for the great article. A few years ago I was listening to a podcast of a SBC mega church pastor speaking about spreading the gospel. He asked his congregation to take out their phones and txt a lost friend or coworker to church the following Sunday. Sadly, this is believed to be evangelism for many Christians.

  • Jason

    The Charles Spurgeon quote seems to do the best job of describing the difference between my evangelism before and after discovering the Biblical reality of election.

    Before I would spend my time trying to convince obviously disinterested people why they should start being interested because it was “my job” and all that was in the way was their ignorance.

    Now I’m on the lookout for the hearts God has prepared and actually discipling them because I’m excited to help a new brother or sister in Christ.

    It also changed my perspective on the church from “a group of people who chose God and got their check mark” into “the family of God redeemed out of the world and called to grow together into spiritual maturity”.

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  • Look, we can make fun of the SBC all day to make ourselves feel better but it doesn’t change the fact that by and large, we who are Calvinist/Reformed/Whatever are not very good at taking our faith to the lost. What we have been good at is convincing other Christians of our theology, therefore swelling the ranks and giving a false sense of accomplishment. We’re also really good at conferences that are attended by many where we affirm one another and “grow in discipleship.” For the most part though we almost refuse to engage in society. Our theology is great and should transfer into grace based ministries to the poor, minorities, literally everyone around us but instead it more often than not remains an academic exercise.

    • Elle

      YES! Thank you, this is one of the best comments I’ve ever read on this blog.

    • MR

      No one is making fun of the SBC, only discussing legitimate concerns about wrong ideas about election and evangelism. If you don’t like discussion about such things, I wonder why you are visiting a blog that does just that?

    • RonS

      If you will click on the link in the body of the article and read the Baptist Press article you will find that a Lifeway Research study showed that “Calvinistic recent graduates report that they conduct personal evangelism at a slightly higher rate than their non-Calvinistic peers” (also quoted in the above article), and that “the baptism rates between Calvinist and non-Calvinist led churches are virtually identical.” So your assertion that “we who are Calvinist/Reformed/Whatever are not very good at taking our faith to the lost” may be true in your experience but is not backed up by the data – unless you are making the point that both Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic SBC members are not good at sharing our faith, which I would agree with.

      • chrisleduc1

        I’d really love to know more about how they came up with their numbers. They sure don’t match my experience. Just because a small group of their grads does “evangelism” as much as their non-calvinist friends, so what? How are they even defining “personal evangelism”? I love to go out and share the Gospel and I am a calvinist. But I started when I attended a Calvary Chapel and was NOT a calvinist. In south Florida, we did a lot of intentional street evangelism. I know quite a few others who do it there as well. Only one couple is calvinist. And all the time I was doing evangelism, we never, literally NEVER encountered any calvinists doing evangelism. And we did it a lot. When you run in those circles, you know who is doing what. So unless you are talking about people doing “friendship evangelism” or some other type of secret evangelism, those stats dont hold up where I was.
        Then I moved to the NE. Started doing evangelism on the local college. Found out that the ONLY people doing evangelism there are the Calvary Chapel folks. Not a calvinist there. At this point I was a calvinist. I had to team up with the local Calvary because they were the only church that was solid in the area and the only ones doing any evangelism. then we started going into Philly. Go introduced to the other groups who go into Philly and the group who are situated in Philly. The non-calvinists outnumber the calvinists 10-1. Then we started going on trips to various beach towns. Same thing. You spend enough time in a town out doing evangelism, you quickly learn who does evangelism and where and how. People talk, word gets around. Then I moved to southern CA. I was here a few week and the first AND ONLY people I met out doing evangelism was …. the local Calvary Chapel! Imagine that. Now, I know my church does local evangelism and they are definitely calvinist. But the fact is Ive been to three corners of the country and every time not only have the non-calvinists shamed the calvinists, but the Calvary Chapel folks in particular have shamed us calvinists. It’s really sad. I hate to hear about how calvinism deadens evangelism and how it’s really only the hyper-calvinists, but fact is, my experience across this county says that the Calvary folks shame everyone else, hands down, every day of the week.

  • 1cor118

    You use terms such as “properly understood,” and “a right understanding.” So, please explain the “proper” understanding of this doctrine.

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  • Jordan

    I think it’s not a coincidence that the two churches that are most active in street evangelism in my city are Calvinistic (“Reformed”) churches.

  • RGB Rao

    In my experience both Calvinists and Arminians share the Gospel quite well and I have not seen any of the kitchy evangelistic stuff. Of course thats just my experience. Its not based on any social research.

    One more way to think of this:

    “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”
    ~ Luke 12:48

    So if you have been given a greater understanding of grace than others, then it is expected that you will be sharing the Gospel far more than those whose theology is not quite together.

    “Calvinistic recent graduates report that they conduct personal evangelism at a slightly higher rate than their non-Calvinistic peers”

    If Calvinists – of which I am one btw – have a much greater, yea grander, understanding of grace then why is the personal evangelism rate only “slightly higher”?

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