Mention that you adhere to the doctrines of grace, or “Calvinism” if you prefer, and you can expect to be questioned about evangelism. Sadly, there is a perception in modern evangelicalism that Calvinism kills evangelism. Many people can’t understand how the two go together. Unfortunately, this question arises from of broad lack of knowledge about church history and Protestant doctrine. Evangelical churches in general have adopted the pragmatic evangelism methodologies that came hand-in-hand with that loss of knowledge. Our modern approaches to missions and evangelism arose in the late 19th and 20th centuries, so for many of us, modern methods are what we grew up with. Its just the way things are. So when the Calvinists come along and have a different method, one that seems at odds with the free offer of Christ to all, evangelicals understandably scratch their heads in confusion and ask “How can you be an evangelical and a Calvinist?”
The concern is this: if we Calvinists believe in predestination and election, and that God’s will for His elect cannot be thwarted, then why bother with evangelism? Why bother preaching in the streets? Why bother sending missionaries? After all, won’t God’s elect will get saved no matter what? The error in this thinking is deep, and many men have written on this theme before and done a thorough job – I will link to some good articles with a more intensive treatment. But the short answer is this: Because God commanded us.
The Great Commission is a Command
The command of our Lord to evangelize is most clearly found in Matthew 28:18-20″, the “Great Commission”
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV)
We believe that this commission, given to the church through the Apostles, applies to everyone who is a Christian. It is a command given by our Lord Himself, and to ignore it would be sin. We must go or support evangelism because Jesus said so. That command is reason enough. We could stop there, but God has generously given us so much more than cold, hard commands.
The Use of Means
In addition to that, we affirm that God uses means to accomplish His will. If the end goal is the saving of sinners for God’s glory, how does that end come to pass? Christians who preach the gospel are the means by which the elect are brought into the church. This is an immense privilege for believers. The Bible is clear that no one but God the Father knows who the elect are, so evangelism casts a very broad net. The gospel call goes out to all people (we call it the “general call” or the “outward call”) and we plead with them to come to Christ. We use the Bible and preach salvation through Jesus Christ, we call men to repentance, and we pray for a great harvest. This is our duty, our privilege, and our joy. Our hope is that those elect among the people will be awakened by the Holy Spirit (we call that awakening the “inward call”) and will respond to the proclaimed gospel. In Matthew 10:27, Jesus explains that “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” How can the sheep hear their Master’s voice unless someone preaches the Word of the Master to them? Romans 10:14-15 ponders this truth:
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (ESV)
The Bible is clear – we must preach the gospel to all men, we must evangelize. To do anything different is to disobey a direct command from Christ that employs men as a means to the end.
“Decisions for Christ” or Gospel Preaching?
We believe that Calvinists are in a position to be extremely effective at evangelism. Because the work of salvation is God’s work through men, as opposed to men’s efforts and labors alone, the weight of performance-based evangelism is lifted. Calvinist evangelists are liberated from pressure to manipulate men into church and to extract “decisions for Jesus” out of the maximum number of people. Performance-based evangelism has typically generated emotional responses and confessions by guilt-manipulation, which is why so many evangelicals leave the faith – they never had a true conversion but felt pressure to respond to an impassioned plea. But guilt, peer pressure and emotional manipulation are not Biblical reasons to come to Christ. Brokenness over sin, deep conviction and a desperate hope to be restored to God are the effects of gospel preaching.
Recently, I acquired a telling collection of “Prize Winning Evangelistic Sermons“. This book, published in 1976, contains what the publisher considers the top ten evangelistic sermons of that year. Sadly, they were a collection of anecdotal stories, tales and caricatures interwoven with Bible verses, many taken out of context. The sermons seemed to be relying on the pastor’s ability to scare people out of Hell than their ability to present to Word of the Lord to sinners. In all fairness, these evangelists seem to be passionate for Christ and seem to genuinely have a heart for the lost, but impassioned genuineness is not the power to save sinners. According to the Bible, only the gospel itself is powerful to save sinners. We must evangelize according to the Bible’s own method, and allow the Bible to define success.
A Wrong Measure of Success
Sadly, many evangelical churches still measure success by numbers. The emphasis shifts from a passion for lost souls to a passion for growth, numbers and decisions. The pure gospel is frequently laid aside because it is considered irrelevant to modern society since it does not appeal to the masses. Preaching repentance does not generate big enough numbers, so pragmatic methods are implemented. This kind of evangelism is common in many churches. Once again, to be fair, a passion to save many souls from the horrors of condemnation is commendable, but compassion for sinners does not give us license to change the message. Unfortunately, today’s evangelism has little in common with the Bible.
The Power of God for Salvation
Calvinists seek to rely on the Word of God preached in fulness – first law then the good news. We try not to implement novel methodologies or to appeal to the masses. We avoid being culturally relevant because we believe that the relevance of eternity trumps it. We trust that the Lord’s Word is sufficient to save sinners because Paul teaches us that the gospel itself “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” (Romans 1:18)
We are in good company too. Without a doubt, the greatest evangelists in history have been Calvinists. George Whitefield, David Brainerd, William Carey, and George Müller all come to mind. As I mentioned in my article Are You Baptists, or Calvinists, many great theologians and pastors who have been strongly evangelical were themselves Calvinists, such as Charles Spurgeon, A.W Pink, John Gill and John Bunyan. Few people realize that John Calvin himself commissioned and sent out over 500 missionaries from Geneva, his missionary efforts stretched as far as the jungles of Brazil.
The charge that Calvinism kills evangelism is not grounded in the Bible nor in history. Instead, God’s commands and His use of means teaches us that for Christians, it is our duty and privilege to preach the gospel, evangelize, plead with the lost and send missionaries to the most distance regions of earth.
For some more treatments of this topic, please see the following helpful articles.
- A Calvinist Evangelist? by Keith Mathison
- What Should We Think Of Evangelism and Calvinism? by Ernest Reisinger
- Does Calvinism Kill Evangelism? by Nathan Busenitz
- Seven Reasons Why Calvinists Believe in Evangelism by Colin Maxwell