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Calvinism and open-air preaching

November 2005 | by Alun McNabb

A recent ET correspondent asked – ‘What about a special piece by a Calvinist on starting up open-air preaching?’  So I make an effort to oblige.

There is a general view abroad that Calvinism impedes evangelism. This, of course, is a myth. The thing that impedes evangelism is spiritual laziness, and there are as many lazy Arminians as there are Calvinists. That should be admitted by both sides.

Evangelism and theology

The theology of the Calvinist makes him ideally suited for evangelism anywhere, and especially for open-air preaching. Believing the Bible’s teaching about the condition of man, he knows him to be a sinner and therefore in need of the gospel. Believing him to be ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (including his will) the Calvinist knows that only supernatural power can raise him from his spiritual deadness.

Believing in the grace of God, he knows that it is God’s intention to save sinners. Believing in free grace rather than in free will, he knows that the Holy Spirit can bring the most reluctant to spiritual life.

Believing in election, he knows that some will certainly be brought to life. Believing in the mercy of God, he knows that he can expect some of the worst to be saved. Believing in the eternal purposes of God’s grace, he knows that no one Christ died to save will be lost.

Believing in the great commission he knows he is under an obligation to ‘go into all the world and preach the gospel’.

Vicious circle

How, then, is the Calvinist hindered in his evangelism? Certainly not by his theology. His theology is tailor-made to offer Christ to the vilest offender. He dare not hide behind the excuse that ‘all the elect will be saved anyway’, because he has the commission of the Saviour in his Bible — exhorting him to go with the gospel to every creature.

So only spiritual laziness can hinder him from being an

evangelisticChristian. His theology is no hindrance but rather a marvellous spur — especially his belief that God is able and willing to save any that he will.

With what confidence does the Calvinist go forth with this ‘glorious gospel of the blessed God’! The open-air ministry is so suited to our day. Every empty pew is a challenge to go outside.

We often hear the criticism that there is so little gospel preaching these days. One of the chief reasons for this is that the preacher knows so often that all his hearers are believers.

So he ‘feeds the saints’ — and the saints sense that if they should bring unsaved friends to the service there will be nothing for them. So it becomes a vicious circle.

Market place

But let that same preacher stand in his local market place and it can be guaranteed that his preaching will take on life and vitality in the gospel. He will become evangelistic because of his congregation.

It is said that some evangelical preachers have not preached the gospel for years. This is not because they do not believe in the gospel but because they are not preaching where the unsaved sinners are.

In many pulpits there is a terrible lack of realism. The world is often denounced but the world is not engaged. ‘Go into all the world’ surely implies more than standing preaching to the same group of believers every week.

In concentrating on ‘open-air preaching’, of course, we do not forget the faithful one-to-one witnessing of those who constantly testify to their faith in Christ. One way or another, the important thing is to get the gospel

outsidethe building where the unbeliever will not come.

Judging success

How much success will we have? In a day when Evangelicals judge all they do by ‘success’ we are not likely to persuade many of the importance of open-air preaching. At Dudley we have had open-air preaching for 30 years. Yet the congregation is hardly packed with those who have come as a result!

We do not preach in the open air because of its success rate but because that is where we find unsaved sinners. Noah preached, doubtless in the open air, for 120 years and when he had finished he had a congregation of seven — eight including himself.

But he did it because God told him to do it, and one of the reasons according to Hebrews 11:7 was ‘to condemn the world’.

Unfortunately, today’s ‘John Evangelical’ is not very interested in condemning the world. He is rather more drawn to the idea of turning the church into some kind of show to which Mr Worldling can come — and feel happy and at ease. Not surprisingly, the preaching is tailored to suit.

No doubt some watched Jesus dying on the cross and wondered at the ‘success’ of it all. It must have seemed a disastrous failure. But God’s day was about to dawn.

Wisdom in the streets

Because sinners are out there, it is

wisefor the preacher to be out there also. In Proverbs 1:20-21 we are told where wisdom sites her pulpit: ‘Wisdom cries without: she utters her voice in the streets. She cries in the chief place of concourse, in the opening of the gates’.

This tells us clearly enough where it is wise to do our gospel preaching. So why don’t we do it? Is it because of our Calvinistic theology? Not at all. It is because taking to the streets is hard work. And whether Calvinist or Arminian, the temptation to keep the gospel indoors is the same.

What examples we have in history of Calvinistic gospel preachers — Luther, Knox, Bunyan, Whitefield, M’Cheyne and Spurgeon, to name but a few. These men knew where the sinners were and preached in those places. And who better example than the dear Saviour himself, as he preached to the ones and twos and to the multitudes in the open air.

Today’s Calvinists can join in, if they have a mind to do so. They can join the despised, mocked and ridiculed band of faithful gospel-lovers who stand where sinners are and preach ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’.

Making a start

How do we begin? Gather a few like-minded people and sally forth. And if there are no like-minded people, still sally forth. And what of ability? If you are able to preach, then preach. If you are not, then read the Bible in the public place. And repeatedly tell the people what you are reading, for they will not know.

And what of the voice? Use what you have. If amplification is permissible then use it. If not, do what you can. But be warned about the sound of the raised voice. Wanting to make the people hear, and wanting to condemn sin, it can sound as if the purpose is to give the people a good ‘telling off’.

Condemning sin is necessary, but commending the Saviour is necessary also. The balance needs to be right. As John Wesley would say regarding singing: ‘Do not bawl’. There is a difference between loud preaching and bawling. When you approach some open-air meetings it sounds as if a fight is going on.

I used to exhort the men: ‘Try to sound as if you love the people’. Surely that is our first business, to love sinners. It can make a world of difference when it sounds as if we do.

So a Calvinist’s theology is no hindrance to open-air preaching. Indeed, the Calvinist has a great incentive to do it, believing as he does in the grand doctrines of the sovereignty of God.

May the blessing of God be on all our present-day open-air preachers. They testify to wonderful opportunities to reach and speak to many who would never darken the doors of our churches.

‘Rise up, O men of God!’