Calvinism and evangelism: friends or foes?
Some years ago I was leading a house party in Les Avants sur Montreux, Switzerland, when one of the guests asked what she may have thought was a ‘killer question’ – ‘How do you reconcile election and evangelism?’
I replied, ‘Election is a doctrine we are called to believe and evangelism is a command we are called to obey, so I believe the first and obey the second. Where is the problem?’
That may sound rather glib, yet years later I still believe it encapsulates an important truth. The 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth is an excellent opportunity to show that election and evangelism are not enemies that need to be reconciled, but friends confidently joining hands in Scripture and in the history of the church.
What is evangelism?
Let’s begin with definitions. Evangelism is ‘the communication of the evangel, whether in print, in person, or by any other means’.
Defining Calvinism will take a little longer! A headline definition would run something like this: ‘Calvinism is a theological system that emphasises the rule of God over all things’. Many other theologians have contributed to this model, but it commonly bears the French reformer’s name because of his massive input into the confessional and ecclesiastical debates relating to it.
Today, Calvinism is more or less a catchphrase for Reformed faith or Reformed theology, though in popular use even those terms are too broad. When speaking of Calvinism, many people mean the famous ‘Five Points’, which were drawn up at the historic Synod of Dort, held in the Netherlands in 1618-1619. Of course Calvin was not there, as he had died over fifty years earlier, but the link is an interesting one.
In 1561, as a protest against Roman Catholic oppression in the Netherlands, the Reformed preacher Guido de Bres drew up the Belgic Confession of Faith, leaning heavily on earlier work by Calvin. In Germany two years later, Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevuianus framed the Heidelberg Catechism, which followed similar lines but in a different form.
Enter Jacobius Arminius (1560-1609), a professor of theology at the University of Leiden. Arminius rejected three major points of Reformed teaching and questioned others, and a year after his death his followers issued a Remonstrance (Protest) listing five points of disagreement. An unholy row followed, eventually leading to the Synod of Dort.
The Synod – it met for 154 sessions! – rejected what Arminius had taught and set out the now well-known Five Points, which it judged to embody the scriptural position on the issues concerned.
Easily remembered by the acronym TULIP, these are Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and the Perseverance of the Saints. The question becomes: ‘Are these doctrines compatible with evangelism?’ Let’s look at each in turn.
All in the same boat
Firstly, total depravity. Ever since man’s original fall into sin, God’s verdict on the human race has remained unchanged: ‘They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts’ (Ephesians 4:18).
Far from having the innate moral ability suggested by Arminius, man is both polluted and powerless. While his intellect, affections and will are fully operative, their natural bent is always in the wrong direction.
Created in God’s image, fallen man still has immense dignity and significance, but he is what someone has called ‘a majestic ruin’. Total depravity does not mean that we are incapable of thinking or doing anything with moral merit, but that set against God’s glory even ‘all our righteous acts are like filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6).
Martin Luther put it like this: ‘Sin is in us, like the beard. We are shaved today and look clean; tomorrow our beard has grown again, nor does it cease growing while we remain on earth’. Left to himself man ‘cannot please God’ (Romans 8:8), ‘cannot understand the things of the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 2:14) and ‘cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3).
At first glance, this seems to cut the very nerve of evangelism. What is the point of preaching to those who are ‘dead in … transgressions and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1)? If we lean solely on logic (a charge sometimes levelled at Calvinists!) the argument seems persuasive, but we must keep to Scripture.
There, we read that the gospel is ‘the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes’ (Romans 1:16) – a power that can overcome man’s enmity against God, open his eyes to spiritual truth, and draw him willingly to Jesus Christ as his Saviour.
When Jesus told a lame man, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’ (Mark 2:9) the man might have complained that he could do none of these things. But with the command came the power to obey it; the patient did so and was healed.
The gospel, joined with the Bible’s insistence that God ‘commands all people everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30), has the same mysterious power. As William Gurnall said, ‘It strikes … not only the sinner’s sword out of his hands … but the enmity out of his heart’. Far from being a stumbling block to the gospel, recognising one’s utterly hopeless condition is the first step to seeking God’s saving grace.
Who has free will?
Arminius accepted that God has chosen people to salvation, but only because he foreknew that they would repent and believe of their own free will. Dort roundly rejected this and insisted that God’s election to salvation was subject to no human condition.
The Bible is crystal clear. It says that God’s choice of his people is ‘not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace’- and underlines the fact by adding that this saving grace ‘was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time’ (2 Timothy 1:9-10). The free will is God’s not man’s.
Again, this seems to vitiate evangelism – but surely it vitalizes it? Such is the depravity of the human heart (and here we find the Five Points beginning to interlock) that without God’s unconditional choosing, none would ever be saved – for there is ‘no one who seeks God’ (Romans 3:11).
In Calvin’s words, ‘The general character of men’s lives is nothing else but a continual departure from the law of God’. Yet in this dire situation God says, ‘I was found by those who did not seek me’ (Isaiah 65:1). God does elect his people to salvation, and the mystery is not that he did not choose all but that he chose any! No one deserves his love and grace.
But why bother to preach the gospel at all if only the elect will be saved? The immediate answer is that we are commanded to preach to all, ‘whether they listen or fail to listen’ (Ezekiel 2:7). When Rowland Hill was told that he should preach only to the elect, he told his critic to chalk a mark on the elect and he would then gladly preach to them only!
Preaching in the hope that sinners might somehow stir themselves to respond is crying for the moon; if election is false, evangelism is futile. Yet we can preach without constraint, in complete confidence that God will cause the gospel to take root in the hearts of those he has chosen to salvation.
Possible or certain?
The big question over the cross is, ‘For whose sins did Christ atone?’ If for every-one’s, then everyone will be saved – a just God cannot require punishment for sin twice. If Christ did not actually atone for anyone’s sins, but only made atonement possible, then nobody would be saved, for man has neither the desire nor the power to respond to the gospel.
The biblical position is that while the value of Christ’s death is certainly sufficient to secure the salvation of every person in history, it was intended only to secure the salvation of those chosen by God.
Jesus came ‘to save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21); he himself said, ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’ (John 10:15); Paul makes it clear that ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25). If Christ’s death made salvation possible for everybody, it made it certain for nobody.
So, is ‘limited atonement’ inimical to evangelism? Hardly! What is offered in true gospel preaching is not the possibility or opportunity of salvation, but salvation itself! Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, George Whitefield, J. C. Ryle and C. H. Spurgeon (to name but a few) never found their belief in limited atonement a barrier to their gospel preaching.
Nor did Calvin, who was instrumental in sending 1300 Geneva-trained missionaries to preach in France. The man whose message offers not just a chance to be saved but instead offers the Christ who saves has no need to stammer!
Arminian teaching said that man has the power to resist all God’s overtures and that the Holy Spirit cannot bring the sinner to salvation until he chooses to repent and believe. The Synod rejected this and said that the Holy Spirit’s call to the elect is ultimately irresistible. This does not mean that grace cannot be resisted – even Paul knew what it was to ‘kick against the goads’ (Acts 26:14) – but that God eventually overcomes this resistance in the elect and graciously makes them willing to repent and believe.
The evangelist is commanded to preach the gospel fully and freely – all the time knowing that his hearers cannot of themselves respond to his message. Yet he knows that the promise of salvation holds infallibly good ‘for all whom the Lord our God will call’ (Acts 2:39).
It was because God told Paul, ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking … I have many people in this city’, that he remained in Corinth for another eighteen months, ‘teaching them the word of God’ (Acts 18:9-11). The doctrine of irresistible grace should cause a preacher to persevere, not capitulate.
Home at last
Arminius taught that believers could repudiate or lose their faith (in effect become unbelievers) and that their final salvation was therefore conditional on their remaining faithful.
Dort endorsed the importance of remaining faithful, but taught that God so operates in the hearts and lives of true believers that they do persevere in the faith and are eternally secure. Paul tells us that ‘those [God] foreknew he also predestined … those he predestined he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified he also glorified’ (Romans 8:29-30).
This is a statement of such massive certainty that the final verb (‘glorified’), though referring to the believer’s future state, is in an aorist (that is, past) tense. The message could not be clearer: all the foreknown are predestined, all the predestined are called, all the called are justified, and all the justified will be glorified!
When the Bible says that ‘he who stands firm to the end will be saved’ (Matthew 24:13) it does not mean that the believer’s endurance earns salvation, but that it proves it. As John Stott puts it, ‘Endurance is the hallmark of the saved’. This can hardly be a barrier to evangelism!
The Five Points are by no means a body of divinity, but they are landmarks in any truly biblical theology. Yet our allegiance is not to a system but to a Saviour. Man is endemically lost; God has chosen multitudes to salvation; Jesus atoned for the sins of every one of these; none of them can ultimately resist God’s saving grace; and all who respond in repentance and faith will spend eternity in his glorious, sinless, painless, deathless presence.
Happy the preacher with such a message!