Calvinism & Evangelism – Friend or foe? (part 3)
Read: Calvinism & Evangelism – Friend or foe? (part 1)
or Calvinism & Evangelism – Friend or foe? (part 2)
Now I’m going to cut to the chase with this one, so that I don’t get distracted from my primary question:
“What’s the point of evangelism if God is totally sovereign over who is saved?”
Well, firstly, we can rule out a few things.
The point of evangelism is NOT to change the destiny of someone who otherwise would go to hell.
That destiny has been chosen or “predestined” by God before that person had even come into existence.
It is true that until they respond to the gospel, then from our earthly perspective, that does not know the mind of God, their eternal destination is also unknown and the only thing we do know is that we all deserve to go to hell, so it is right to tell people that they are going to hell, even if they are destined to be saved. In fact, the reason why we tell them about hell is because we hope that they will be saved.
So should you tell people they are going to hell, if indeed they may be going to heaven (by God’s grace and sovereign choice)? Well, maybe you should answer people in the way that I did when a workmate asked me straight out, “So do you think I am going to hell?” I simply replied, “Well, why wouldn’t you?”
Secondly, the point of evangelism is not to change people’s hearts so that they respond to the gospel. This is definitely our hope and we trust that God uses our words to bring about that change, but it is God that makes the change happen. As Paul writes, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believeâ€”as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.Â So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7) The hope of evangelism is that people will respond to the gospel, but it is God’s Spirit, not the evangelism, that does this. Consequently, evangelism is not about changing people, but it is, by God’s design,Â integratedÂ in their change.
I believe in God’s sovereignty, in the necessity of God’s Spirit to bring people alive in order to respond to the gospel and the unchangeable choice of God that knows and ordains who will be saved before the whole story begins. I believe all these tough, Biblical, Calvinistic ideas, and still I believe in evangelism.
In a nutshell here is what I think the point of evangelism is all about…
I believe the purpose of evangelism is to give God the opportunity that he loves to use to save people.
The gospel – the good news about what Jesus has done in his death and resurrection – is described as the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection is the only basis by which sinners can hope to have their sins forgiven and their spiritual death paid for. What Jesus has done is indeed good news and it is the only power for salvation that there is. God uses no other means to save people from hell, for there is no other grounds for forgiveness apart from Jesus’ death. God is holy and just and so your sins will be punished and condemned… either in you by spending eternity in hell, or in Christ through his perfect sacrificial death.
This is the gospel and this is what God uses to save people. But how does God love to use the gospel in saving people? He could do it in any way, but for his glory and our joy, he has ordained that this gospel is to be spoken. The speaking of the gospel is the primary way that God loves to use the gospel to save.
Get this clear. It is not the speaking of the gospel that saves, it is God that saves, through the gospel. The speaking is just the tool that God loves to use to do this.
Think about when God created the universe. In Genesis 1 it gives us a beautiful picture of this event. God had infinite creative power at his fingertips and yet, he still delighted in using spoken words as the vehicle for his creative power to beÂ exercised. God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light. God did not need to speak, and I believe the gospel does not need to be spoken for God to use it to save people, but God LOVES to use spoken words as the vehicle for his power to go out.
So what then is the point of evangelism?
As I said before, it is to give God the opportunity that he loves to use to save people.
God can and will save whoever he wishes to save, but he loves to do it through the gospel being spoken. Therefore, when we speak the gospel, we give God the opportunity to do something that he loves to do. It does not force him to do it. It does not persuade him to do it. It merely gives him the opportunity to do it, if he so wishes to in that circumstance.
Now does this mean that if we do not speak, we are limiting God’s opportunities?
My answer is… yes.
If we do not speak, then clearly God can not use our speaking as a vehicle for his powerful gospel changing people. He may chose to use someone else’s speaking, or in his wonderful, ironic sense of humour, he may even use our lack of speaking for some purpose towards our friend’s conversion. Our silence does not rob God of the opportunity to save the person that he has elected to save, but it is clear that we only give God the opportunity to use our speaking, if we actually speak!
So, to use the planting analogy as the Bible often does, God loves to create plants through the process of seeds being planted and them being watered. If God does not turn the cold stone heart of the person into moist fresh soil, then no matter of planting or watering will do any good. God makes things grow. And it is also true that God can make things grow without us planting a seed with our own hands. He can get seeds to wherever he wants in whatever way he wants, but God loves the process of a sower going out and sowing seed. This is his favourite way and so the sower should go out and sow as much seed as possible! He will throw much of the seed on rocky soil that won’t respond, but God willing, he will throw some seed on to good soil where the seed will take root and grow and bear fruit. God wants the sower to be a part of this process for his glory and the sower’s good. The sower must never think that his sowing holds any power in itself, and he must never try to shape the seed so that it better fits the soil that he has in front of him. He must simply faithfully and joyfully sow as much seed as he can and trust that God is able to make plants grow.
I find this picture of evangelism incredibly liberating!
There is no guilt involved, no pressure and no pride.
There is only joy!
Joy in being used by God. Joy in seeing God work. And joy in joining God in his joy – namely, using the weak and awkward speaking of his children to spread the gospel and through it, reconcile people to himself.
“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospelâ€”not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.Â For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;Â the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.‘ Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?Â For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.Â Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom,Â but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,Â but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.Â For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.Â But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.Â He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised thingsâ€”and the things that are notâ€”to nullify the things that are,Â so that no one may boast before him.Â It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from Godâ€”that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.Â Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.‘
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.Â I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.Â My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,Â so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” – 1 Cornithians 1:17-2:5
For me, understanding Calvinism and what the Bible says about God’s sovereignty and election, doesn’t make me think that evangelism is pointless. It make me think that evangelism is joyous.
And this is one of the main reasons why people don’t share their faith – a lack of joy.
I don’t mean a lack of emotionally pumped up enthusiasm. I mean a deep, abiding, awe-inspiring, heart-expanding, rock solid joy in the wonder of God, the graciousness of Jesus and the power of the gospel.
If God wasn’t as great and powerful and sovereign as the Bible and Calvinism teaches, and if the gospel wasn’t as true and life-changing as I have experienced, then I would have no joy. I would not want to share the message about a weak God and I would be burdened and frozen by the impossible task of trying to persuade people to respond to the gospel. I would as many do, fall into the trap of beating myself up for not evangelizing enough and live in fear that the eternal damnation or salvation of my beloved friends and family was up to me and my abilities to share the gospel persuasively.
In believing in a Sovereign God, I am free to share the gospel wherever and whenever I like, without fear of my lack of ability or persuasiveness being the primary factor.
I am free to speak boldly and unashamedly, knowing that until God moves I should not expect anyone to respond favourably and at the same time knowing that by God’s predestined activity, anyone could respond at any time.
So I share the gospel with a duel expectation. I expect no one to respond and I expect God to change that fact.
I said in part 2 of this blog series that we often think of evangelism as “persuasion”, but the word evangelism comes from the greek word euangelizo, which means “to proclaim good news”. This is what evangelism is about – proclaiming the good news that God has entered humanity in Christ, that he lived a sinless life, that he died to take our place and bear the judgement that our sins deserved, that he rose again to bring new life and forgiveness to all those who put their trust in him and he is going to return to fully restore all of creation!
We proclaim this news because it is good!
May you know the joy that this good news brings and may you join in God’s joy in sharing it with the world.
p.s. I know this blog may have raised some valid questions for you like “Does this mean we should never try to be persuasive in our sharing of the gospel? And doesn’t Paul in Acts 18:4 and 2 Corinthians 5:11 clearly say that he works hard at trying to persuade people to convert and that he uses all possible means to save some (1 Corinthians 9:22)?”
Or you may have lots of questions about Calvinism and the concepts of predestination, the will of Mankind or the Sovereignty of God.
Please share your thoughts by writing me a comment!
I can’t answer everything, but I’ll enjoy looking for an answer and hopefully we both can grow in understanding.
To turn your question on its head… why should a non-believer listen to evangelism? If they lack the life to respond and the evangelism cannot persuade them what purpose does it have for them? There is a cost to listening even if its just loss of time and peace ( the most commonly preached gospel messages aren’t calming to an unbeliever) so if theres no difference if we don’t listen can we be excused? 🙂
By “listening to evangelism” I also mean all forms of seeking God actively or passively or the traditional converts prayer. it seems to me that not only does your theology allow you to evangelise without the weight of concern for others souls but allows your audience to ease their own concern about it. That’s a far less scriptural position methinks but a clear conclusion from the “its out of our hands” position.
You ask what purpose does evangelism have for a non-believer?
It’s purpose is to tell you the truth.
If a doctor has knowledge of the fact that you have cancer, but doesn’t trust that you’ll believe him, he will still tell you.
Why should a non-believer listen to evangelism? Because it is the message that points you to life and away from death. If you can hear it, then God is being merciful to you. If you can understand it, then God is being merciful to you. If you can respond to it with faith, then God is being merciful to you.
If you have any inclination that it could be true, then you should pursue it with all your might and energy, crying out to God that he be merciful to you.
That’s what you should do. Plain and simple.
If you are able to do it. Do it.
If you feel unable to do it, but you want to do it, then ask God to have mercy.
If you feel unable to do it, and you also have no interest in responding to Jesus, then you neither want nor will receive God’s mercy… that is, at least, for now.
It is possible that God may still be merciful by giving you more opportunities to know and respond to the gospel and changing your heart to be willing to respond, before you take your last breath.
As they say, while there’s life, there’s hope!
That is my prayer.