Corrupted Evangelism and the Recovery of Means
Last Friday, I posted this article over at Strange BaptistFire (SBF). I am posting it here for two reasons: 1) I have two finals tomorrow to study for and don't have the time to post anything today, and 2), I was interested in your interaction and feedback. So if you are so inclined, I would love to hear what you think. Thanks.
One of the greatest critiques made against Calvinists is the claim that they are not passionate about evangelism. Recent attempts have been made both from the scholastic (see Steve Lemke’s white paper) and popular level (see Bobby Welch’s newsletter, this sermon, and of course BaptistFire’s recent article). Of course, such a critique cuts both ways as Tom Ascol has shown that numerical growth in churches does not necessarily mean that a church is a healthy, New Testament church (here and here). So the question must be asked: Are Calvinists really passionate about evangelism?
Let me begin with a quote from Dr. Tom Nettles, Southern Baptist historian and scholar concerning zeal in evangelism:
When devoted to evangelism it [zeal] is good; but when the evangelism to which it is devoted takes shortcuts around the gospel, zeal may be a catalyst for theological dissolution. The coincidence of evangelistic minimalism and encroaching modernism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made strange bedfellows for theological deconstruction. Renewal in the work of evangelism involves a cordial embracing of full-orbed theology as friendly to, not destructive of, evangelism, along with a purposeful execution of a theology of means—or methods ordered by God for the effectual operation of his gospel message.
Two things I want to bring out from this quote: one, taking “shortcuts” around the gospel, and two, the “purposeful execution of a theology of means.” First, concerning the gospel, there is no question that a zeal for numerical growth coupled by the pressure of pragmatic novelty has crippled our understanding of the gospel. Churches are filled with unregenerate church members with a false sense of security of having prayed a prayer or walked down an aisle as evidence of being born again. Decisional regeneration and the guarantee of proven techniques has produced untold number of illegitimate “converts” who find themselves either with a yearly “rededication” or written off as being a part of the “carnal” crowd (to research decisional regeneration, a bibliography can be found here). At this point, we must go back to the beginning and ask ourselves, “What kind of gospel are we preaching?”
I submit to you that we cannot be passionate about evangelism unless we are first passionate about the gospel. If we fail in understanding the gospel, it does not matter how eloquent, passionate, or winsome you are, you will not bear fruit becoming of Christ. I remind you, of the four soils in which the seed of the gospel was planted, the only one who brings forth fruit was the one that “hears the word and understands it” (Matt. ). But we must ask, “How does one understand it?” By presenting the latest acronym and “plan of salvation” complete with all the transition statements? This leads me to my second point.
Calvinists are passionate about evangelism because, not only are we passionate about the gospel, but we are committed to the God-ordained means through which God saves sinners. The 1689 London Baptist Confession makes two points which I want to point your attention to. First, concerning God’s providence, it says:
Ordinarily, in His providence, God makes use of means; yet He is free to work without them, to give them efficacy above what they normally possess, and even to work contrary to them, at His pleasure. (Isa. 55:10,11; Dan. 3:27; Hos. 1:7; Acts 27:31,44; Rom. -21)
Time and time again, it is said of Calvinists, “If God has elected those who are going to be saved before the foundation of the world, why evangelize? If God has elected them, they are going to be saved anyway!” What our brothers have spoken of, concerning the predestined end of one’s salvation, they have neglected the ordained means to bring about that end, namely, the preaching of the gospel. For instance, take 1 Peter 1. Three times Peter mentions that the salvation which they received came through the instrumentality of the Word and efficacious working of the Holy Spirit. Verse 12 has a three-part phrase that says “through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven”; verse 23 adds that “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;” and verse 25b concludes by saying “and this word is the good news that was preached to you.” Peter made it clear to the “elect exiles” (1:1) who were caused to be born again by God’s great mercy through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1:3) that their salvation came through a specific means—the preaching of the good news.
So do we really believe the gospel is the power to save (Rom. )? Then why are we so ashamed to preach it fully and clearly and not resort to shortcuts and man-centered methods to convince ourselves otherwise? It is evident that the instrumentality or means by which Arminians say we are saved is through free will. The efficient cause is not God nor his mercy or election, but our choosing of God. Nettles reveals how this affects one’s understanding of evangelism. He writes,
The theological Achilles’ heel of Arminianism lies in its tendency to minimize the impact of sin on the will. This in turn realigns the relation between the divine and the human in salvation; this realignment, sadly, has often led to a diminished estimation of the character of the Redeemer and of course a reconceptualization of the nature of evangelism.
So how can one be passionate about evangelism when the “Lord of the harvest” is not really Lord but subjected to the will of man? Is salvation “of the Lord” or is it not? The Confession cuts through the theological fog today when it states that
The gospel is the only external means of making Christ and saving grace known to men, and it is completely adequate for this purpose. But that men who are dead in their sins may be born again—that is to say, made alive, or regenerated—something further is essential, namely, an effectual, invincible work of the Holy Spirit upon every part of the soul of man, whereby a new spiritual life is produced. Nothing less than such a work will bring about conversion to God. (Ps. 110:3; John 6:44; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4,6; Eph. 1:19,20)
God will effectually work his salvation through the operation and execution of His ordained means, to which you and I are responsible. We must preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2), for what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord (2 Cor. 4:5). Before God we must plant and water, with the promise that God will give the growth (1 Cor. 3:6). What then are we? “Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Cor. 3:7). And this is why Calvinists are passionate about evangelism. God could have chosen to save everyone himself without any other means, but in the kind intention of his will, he has placed the responsibility upon us to preach the gospel to all nations and all people.
This same Paul who wished that he were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his kinsmen (Rom. 9:3), whose hearts desire was for their salvation (10:1), understood that “the Lord knows who are His” (2 Tim. 2:19) and that the Potter will be glorified through those whom he has mercy as well as those whom he hardens (Rom. 9:14-18). Paul knew that election did not nullify evangelism but rather inspired it. God’s sovereignty in salvation does not let us off the hook regarding the souls of men, but reveals whether or not we are truly saved. As Piper has stated before, those who call them Calvinists who are not passionate about evangelism and missions are not true Calvinists. But then again, one who is not intensely concerned about the souls of men must consider whether or not their own soul is possessed by God.
Theological reductionism has led us to the place of mere nominalism where gospel presentations are calling people to “their best life now,” that Jesus is “your thrill ride” and guaranteeing that for every $48 you give to a ministry, a soul will be saved. To say that theology does not matter is tantamount to concluding that Jesus is someone other than the Truth. If we were all honest with ourselves, I would dare say that any of us are as passionate about evangelism as we ought to be. This is a call to repentance, beginning with me. But as we rise from a broken and contrite heart, we still are faced with what gospel we will preach. Any gospel which cheapens the grace of God to make man co-operative with God’s saving purpose is no gospel according to Scripture. My friend, it is not enough to be passionate about sinner’s being saved; we must also be passionate about the Message and the One who has sent us, lest we find ourselves asleep with strange bedfellows in our day.
Tom Nettles, Ready for Reformation? Bringing Authentic Reform to Southern Baptist Churches.
A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689.
Tom Nettles, Ready for Reformation?, 43.
A Faith to Confess, 48.
Due to the work of bloggers, the “Thrill Ride” curriculum is being/has has been changed. Bailey Smith’s $48 club was also removed from their website, although the practice still exists.