May 6, 2014

Does Calvinism Thwart Evangelism? (Reprise)

by Nathan Busenitz

It was almost six years ago when 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”) deter 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 much 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 the most “Calvinistic” chapter in the Bible (Romans 9) is partnered with 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 is just the opposite.

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.
  • Lyndon Unger

    Amen. I often get this complaint tossed at me with the line “so if God does the saving, you can just stay home and not evangelize?”


    Good reminder brother!

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  • Mick McDaniel

    Nathan…I think part of the misconception is based on the modern definition of evangelism. In the SBC and many other realms, evangelism has become man’s effort to persuade and move the human will to an affirmation of certain biblical facts. In turn the “evangelist” declares all those who choose Jesus to be born again. In this new evangelism there is little regard for repentance, contrition for sin and most importantly humility of heart. Since the SBC has set the rules on what evangelism is (based on their tradition) it is easy for them to claim others are not adequately involved in it. After all…they have the numbers to prove their success.

    • brad

      Great point, Mick!

  • Philip

    “I am not only content simply to be a hammer, an axe, or a saw…”

    An interesting analogy. Isn’t a tool, like a hammer, an inanimate, non-sentient object incapable of thought and unable to choose a course of action?

    As I understand it, before time began, God determined who would go to Heaven and who would go to Hell. Let’s say we add up the total number of souls that are destined to go to Heaven and call that value X. Let’s add up the total number of souls that are destined to go to Hell and call that value Y.

    Now, if you chose to evangelize, will this increase the value of X and decrease the value of Y? If you fail to evangelize or chose to not evangelize, will the decrease the value of X and increase the value of Y? That is, can your decision to evangelize (or not evangelize) change either the value of X and Y?

    • eeellama

      Perhaps a better question… Is it true that our free will and God’s will exist in such a way that no matter what move we make on the chess board of life, He has already figured it into the equation to accomplish His will?

      This is the fault in your original question. Whether we increase or decrease the value of X or Y, all that is at stake *for us* is whether we were obedient or disobedient to God. God has already taken into account what we would do in the outcome He has ordained. He will still hold us accountable in the end, even if He chooses to send someone else to accomplish His will in the salvation of someone else. Your ability to increase or decrease X and Y is irrelevant to the outcome that has been ordained, it is only relevant to whether or not you did what you were commanded to do.

      • Philip

        I believe that you answered my question. The answer to the question “can your decision to evangelize (or not evangelize) change either the value of X and Y” is …. no.

        I suspect that you are uncomfortable with the answer to the question, so I see that you want to change the question or introduce a “better question.” Ok, but there’s no “fault” in the original question. It is what it is, and the answer is what the answer is.

        The answer to my question says that, ultimately, what we do or don’t do, has been predetermined. It’s been “taken into account.” We cannot change the predetermined outcome. You actions cannot change X or Y, your decision to evangelize (or not evangelize) cannot change either the value of X and Y, so what’s the point? Do or do not, it really doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t alter anyone’s eternal destiny.

        “…Even if He chooses to send someone else to accomplish His will.”

        Right, God is choosing. We are not choosing. We are essentially non-sentient tools.

        “He will still hold us accountable in the end.”

        If you fail to evangelize, can this change your election status?

        • Philip continues to totally conflate compatibilism with hard determinism, and refuses to understand that God sovereignly ordains the means (i.e., prayer and evangelism) with the ends (i.e., salvation). See him do it here, despite having the issue explained to him.

          Don’t feed the trolls.

          • Philip

            You and others here have made it very clear that you cannot change your ultimate fate. Your decision to evangelize (or not evangelize) will not change either your ultimate fate or anyone other person’s ultimate fate. Are these statements not true? I do not believe that I’m misrepresenting your position. You say that I don’t understand, but do you deny that these are accurate statements?

            By what ever “means” you arrive at your fate, you cannot change your ultimate fate. You can call it what you want. Call it ” compatibilism” if it makes you feel better or if you don’t like the idea of determinism. I don’t really care what you call it. The name you assign to it doesn’t change what it is.

            Call me a troll if you like. You cannot change your fate, right? Don’t I have this correct? Do you deny this? Why am I a troll? I’m just stating what you believe.

            In the end, this is all I want to know. One simple question. Can you change your fate? It’s a simple question, and an answer should end the trolling.

          • 4Commencefiring4

            If I may be allowed to chime in, as they say in the in-chiming business, I think you’re asking the wrong question, Phillip. “Fate” is how we humans label the unknown future. Rather than asking–and fretting over–if that future can be changed by us, I think it’s more helpful to simply ask if we’re being obedient to the command to be faithful in our witness.

            We’re told to paint the wall, not see to it that the paint lasts five years. Just paint the wall; He will see to its duration. It’s not our job to overthink it. Just be a witness and let God sort out how it affects–or doesn’t affect–X or Y.

          • Philip

            Sorry, I think I put this in the wrong place.

            “Rather than asking–and fretting over–if that future can be changed by us, I think it’s more helpful to simply ask if we’re being obedient to the command to be faithful in our witness.”

            I understand what you are saying, but if your actions do not alter the future, what’s the point of your actions? The future has already been determined. We are simply automata following a pre-determined program, We are poor players
            who strut and fret our hour upon the stage and then are heard no more.

            “Just be a witness and let God sort out how it affects–or doesn’t affect–X or Y.”

            The problem here is that this is not quite worded correctly.

            “Let God sort out…” suggests that the sorting has not already occurred, that is, it suggests that you will witness and then God will sort. But of course, the sorting has already occurred. The effect of your witness and the sorting was determined before time began.

            Now, this is the point in the discussion where Mike likes to make a big about ends and means. You can’t have the ends (salvation) without the means (evangelizing), and so one should want to choose to evangelize or be motivated to evangelize.

            However, if an ends (salvation of Person A) must occur, and if the ends cannot occur unless the means (evangelization of Person A) occur, then the means must occur, too. The means are as pre-determined as the ends. The means cannot fail to occur. The evangelizing cannot not occur. It’s all part of one continuous action or event.

            So, you see, whether or not you were going to evangelize has already been determined. It’s not a choice or a decision that you make. Whether or not you are to be obedient to God or not has already been determined, too. You think that you are choosing or deciding to be obedient to God, but this is an illusion.

          • So, you see, whether or not you were going to evangelize has already been determined. It’s not a choice or a decision that you make.

            Wrong. Whether or not I was going to evangelize has already been determined, and it is a choice or a decision that I make. This is where your inability to distinguish compatibilism from determinism causes you to misunderstand. Compatibilism holds that God can ordain that we make specific choices, and yet that we are not automata as long as we are not coerced in those choices.

            Libertarian free will is not compatible with divine sovereignty. And if you define “making choices” as having LFW, then you’re correct. We have to choose between God’s sovereignty and our freedom. However, LFW is an unbiblical philosophical construct. It is not what the Bible speaks of when it speaks of man’s choice. Folks of our theological stripe define “free will,” not as LFW, but as simply doing what one wants to do; i.e., not being coerced. If God has ordained that in a particular circumstance I evangelize, I still have to choose to do it, because He’s ordained that I choose to do it. But it’s still my choice. It’s not the power of contrary choice, but I’m not being coerced or forced to do something against my will. Rather God’s sovereignty is working with my will, which is why it’s called compatibilism. The two are compatible.

            So, God has ordained the ends (Person A’s salvation), and the means (my proclamation of the Gospel). And He’s ordained that my non-coerced but nevertheless-ordained choice to obediently evangelize would play a part in the accomplishment of His sovereignly ordained ends.

            I remind you, Philip, that these truths simply cannot make sense to someone whose mind is actively hostile to God, which yours is (Rom 8:7-8). You do not submit your mind to God’s law, and so you cannot understand the things which are to be understood only through the regeneration and illumination of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:14). If you are to have any hope of understanding these realities — of understanding who you are and how the world you live in works — you need to acknowledge the reality that you’re a sinner, that you’ve fallen short of God’s standard of perfect righteousness (even short of your own standard of imperfect righteousness, whatever that is), and that means you face God’s just judgment and punishment. And that punishment is sure, as sure as God is holy.

            But because God is compassionate, by nature a Savior, and because of His love for mankind, He’s sent His Son to live the perfect life that we were commanded to live but couldn’t live, and to die the spiritual death that our sins required of us but which death we could never survive, so that if you would abandon all of your confidence in yourself for your acceptance with God, and would trust in Christ alone for that righteousness — God promises that He will have treated Christ as if He lived your life when God punished Him on the cross, and that He will treat you as if you lived Christ’s life and accept you for the sake of His Son. There’s no other way to get your sins forgiven, and yet they can be forgiven through repentance and faith in Christ.

            Don’t persist in your foolishness, Philip. Life is offered to you, freely, by faith alone! Repent and believe in Christ while there is still time.

  • Tom, the comment thread is no place for copying and pasting personal emails. If you have a specific question or a specific point to make, please feel free, but let’s try to keep a reasonable scope for the discussion.