All Calvinists are Evangelicals. This is more or less one of the unalienable truths of the universe. It is also one of the odder ones, because the most central tenets of Calvinism completely eliminate any possibility of the efficacy of evangelism. Put simply, if you’re a Calvinist, your beliefs state that evangelizing to someone will have no effect on his or her conversion.
Many Calvinists are aware of this paradox, but the most common response is “What do you mean Calvinists can’t be evangelicals? The greatest evangelicals in history have been Calvinists,” and a subsequent list of names:
This criticism seems most unfortunate to me since historically just the opposite has been the case — Calvinists have been leaders in the history of evangelism. (Luther’s Stein)
The man acknowledged as “the Father of Modern Missions” was William Carey, and William Carey was a Calvinist. (Colin Maxwell)
Names like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, Adoniram Judson and many, many more could be given. (Fundamentally Reformed)
In Calvin’s day, Geneva became a great center for church planting, evangelism and even “foreign” missions… (Christianity Today, quoted on A Defrosted Calvinist)
I’ve never actually heard anyone deny that Calvinists can be Evangelicals, and no non-Calvinist is even likely to contest that they were effective. The problem is that, according to their own views, all the sign-holding and extremely overt Bible-reading in the world could never actually accomplish anything.
The second defense Calvinists usually use is actually an offensive tactic: that Calvinist evangelism is effective because good evangelism is based on good doctrine:
The doctrine of predestination is the only grounds of evangelism. (Colin Maxwell)
Yes, that’s a nasty one. They’re saying “Calvinists are good Evangelicals because they actually believe what the Bible teaches, unlike all you guys.” We’ll let that slide, but that doesn’t change that, according to them, the Bible implies that they’re wasting their time.
As a non-Calvinist, I can at least imagine a mechanism by which evangelism would work. It goes something like: I talk to someone about Jesus. My words cause God to plant a proverbial seed in his heart. He gets interested in knowing more about Jesus, I talk to him some more, this causes the work of the Holy Spirit in him, and eventually he accepts God into his heart and becomes a Christian. Whether or not this is actually how it happens isn’t really important, because as long as that scenario cannot be ruled out, there’s at least one possible path to salvation in which my evangelism plays a key role.
Alternately, I could just claim that salvation is a mystery. We don’t know how it works and shouldn’t speculate, or at the very least shouldn’t let our speculation cause divides within the church, but we know that our evangelism helps to bring it about and that we’re called to do it.
Calvinists, of course, can’t claim either of those. My first scenario sounds nothing like the way Calvinists believe salvation happens, and they can’t claim it’s a mystery because they’ve plotted the process out in excruciating detail, built an entire movement around it, and as often as not called everyone who doesn’t believe it a heretic. Of course, they sometimes talk as though my scenario were true, as in the deuterocanonical John Piper’s sermon on the subject, but Calvinists often have to talk as though they believed things they didn’t, because their actual beliefs run so contrary to the way the world appears to operate. For instance, my earlier blog post (linked to through “deuterocanonical”) notes that my church sang “Come, now is the time to worship,” as though people could actually use their own motive force to come worship.
The parts of Calvinism that should preclude evangelism are the T, U, and I of TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, and Irresistible Grace. The relevant part of total depravity is that unregenerate man, without the help of God, has no capacity to turn to God and want to be saved. Combine that with election–God picks some people but not others–and you have the problem that preaching endlessly to the non-Elect will never accomplish anything because God has chosen to not allow them to come to faith.
“Sure,” say the Calvinists, “But who cares about the non-Elect? We’re called to preach to the Elect.” In other words, we are the instrument through which God’s grace acts. This is vastly the most common defense of Calvinist evangelism:
But it is important to recognize that the God of the Bible ordains not only the end (salvation) but also the means to the end (the proclamation of the gospel). (OPC)
Hyper-Calvinists believe He has ordained the end but not the means, non-Calvinists believe that He has ordained the means but not the end, Calvinists alone consistently take the balanced view that He has ordained both. (Colin Maxwell)
Furthermore, we understand Scripture to clearly teach that no one gets saved apart from the gospel, and almost always people must be involved in spreading that gospel. (Fundamentally Reformed)
[W]hen God decrees or elects a person to salvation, election does not make evangelism or prayer for that person unnecessary, it simply guarantees that the use of those means in the case of that individual will be absolutely effective. (Luther’s Stein)
But this can’t be the case if God’s grace is truly irresistible, because if it is irresistible, the person will be saved whether you evangelize or not–God’s grace is not slave to the will of the human evangelist. John Piper says that we are to “speak words of truth about Christ so that when the people’s eyes are opened, there is something to believe.” However, since God’s grace does the entire work of salvation and the will of the person being saved is never actually involved (and to believe otherwise would be that most heinous of heresies, semi-Pelagianism), it can’t be a matter of the person’s eyes being opened and then he choosing to believe the truth he sees. God is in charge of the whole process, rendering it moot whether the evangelist put anything there or not. Because the grace is irresistible, once God began to act on the person’s heart, his salvation was inevitable. That means that the information provided by the evangelist must be superfluous: whatever knowledge of God one can come to based only on God’s work on one’s heart without any outside assistance must be sufficient to be saved, now and forever.
Piper tries to avert this conclusion by adding:
The Holy Spirit never opens the eyes of the heart until there is gospel truth in the mind to believe. That’s our job.
This, however, can’t be true, because it opposes the doctrine of the Elect. God has preordained that certain people will be saved since before the dawn of time. Therefore, it has also been preordained that the Holy Spirit will work on their hearts; He’s not just waiting around for some human to preach to them so that He can get to work. The doctrine of the Elect is what really kills the idea of Calvinist evangelism. Since they have been chosen to be saved, they will be saved, whether or not you do anything. It is impossible for your evangelism to have an effect, because that would be changing who is saved, which is tantamount to changing God’s master plan.
Tim Challies has come up with the weak defense that we don’t know who is and is not Elect, so we should preach to everyone:
It is divinely predestined that this will happen and it is impossible for it not to happen. But God has not shared with us two vital pieces of information. He has not told us just who the elect are and how they will be brought to repentance. He has decreed that we are to share the message with everyone, in every way possible (within the bounds He sets in His Word).
This doesn’t seem convincing. Our ignorance of the exact nature of the outcome doesn’t change that the outcome is set, regardless of our actions. This view makes evangelism into a ridiculous pantomime that we perform because it looks like it works from our perspective, even though it really doesn’t.
Many Calvinists point out that God tells us to evangelize, and that’s reason enough to do it:
First, my Lord Jesus Christ commands me to do so (Mark 16:15). (OPC)
Even if we had no other reason, we would still evangelize…because it is a clear command from God. (Colin Maxwell)
If we are to be messengers of the king, how can we be good and faithful servants if we do not proclaim the message we have been given? (Coffee Swirls)
Moreover, refusing God’s command would make us disobedient, stiff-necked, and unregenerate–possibly a sign that we were never saved in the first place. I suppose churches that don’t allow women to lead are used to obeying commands from God that don’t make any sense and seem pointless or even counterproductive, but common sense dictates that you should interpret God’s commands in light of the realities of the world. For non-Calvinists, that could mean evangelizing when people’s hearts appear to be open and holding off when people are being antagonistic and preaching to them would just make them angry and close their hearts even more. For Calvinists, it means never evangelizing at all. Kick back at home, safe in the knowledge that Heaven will contain exactly the same number of souls as it would have if you had been handing out tracts.
Colin Maxwell at Old Truth tries to fix this problem by saying “If we don’t evangelize, someone else rightly will.” Thus, salvation requires evangelism, but someone else will step up if you drop the ball, and you’ll appear like the lazy son who didn’t follow his father’s orders. Of course this doesn’t help because the other evangelist–indeed, every other evangelist–can make the same choice, and even if they all chose not to evangelize, the person would still be saved.
This sounds lazy, but choosing not to do something pointless isn’t lazy. It’s strategic. As a scientist, I choose what experiments to perform based on what will yield the information I want to know. I don’t perform experiments that won’t tell me anything or ones that will only tell me things I already knew. A would-be Calvinist evangelist should instead spend his time on things that God commanded that can potentially have an effect, such as helping the poor.
There’s one more tack that I hadn’t ever heard a Calvinist take until I was preparing this article and ran across it at Luther’s Stein. It’s possible to preserve the evangelist’s role as an instrument of God’s saving grace if we assert God’s sovereignty over the evangelist’s actions. In other words, just as the person you are evangelizing is compelled to be saved, so you are compelled to evangelize. It’s meaningless to ask what would have happened if you had not evangelized, because that would be impossible. Luther’s Stein follows my hypothetical argument above remarkably closely:
Calvinists believe that God, in his infinite wisdom, has planned the entire course of history and that His plan, upheld and maintained by His sovereignty, will be infallibly accomplished [the doctrine of God’s Decree]. Yet, they also recognize that God does not simply purpose things into happening — rather, God is at work in His creation in order to bring his purposes about in the world. This is where the doctrine of Providence comes in — Providence teaches us how God accomplishes what He decrees. Providence is that biblical teaching that God sovereignly superintends over everything in the world by guiding, cooperating, directing, and working with various means in order to accomplish His purposes.
I have two objections to this argument. First, by this point you have achieved such a total disconnect between what appears to be happening and what is actually happening as to make discussion pointless. For instance, it would be meaningless to talk about what someone should do, since he is incapable of doing anything other than what God wants him to do. Second, this argument actually reinforces the idea that you should not evangelize, since whatever you end up doing is God’s will, so if you choose not to evangelize, then God must not have wanted you to evangelize in the first place. God laid out the precise steps of His plan and they will inevitably be accomplished, so if you sat at home watching TV instead of being a missionary in Asia, that must have been part of His plan.
Calvinist causality is dizzying, isn’t it? It reminds me of karma, where you have to do good because otherwise you will be punished by karma, but everything you do (good or bad) is justly carrying out the karma of those it affects, and therefore arguably the right thing to do. The difference is that karma is a little bit more defensible.
I’d like to wrap up by addressing some minor arguments.
Evangelism is glorifying to God:
[G]iven that my chief duty (and delight) is to glorify God, I am moved by the fact that the Father is honored whenever the Son is honored. The supreme means of honoring the Father is preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 5:22-23)! (OPC)
Just to recount the old, old story of Jesus and His love thrills our soul and leads us to praise His name. We glorify God when we proclaim the gospel. (Colin Maxwell)
I’ll give you this point. However, let’s get some crowbar separation between merely exhorting the Gospel of Christ because of its truth and power (I love to tell the story because I know ’tis true) and preaching the Gospel specifically for the purpose of saving the lost.
Evangelism fulfills our duty to the non-Elect, so that we’re not reprehensible and they are:
I know that when the nonelect reject the gospel, as they are wont to do, preaching leaves them all the more without excuse when they receive the condemnation they justly deserve. (OPC)
Is it just me, or does this sound a little…sadistic? Like maybe the author is kind of enjoying the idea of these people getting punished? Also, I think that “God made me incapable of salvation” (or, more precisely, “God decided not to make me capable of salvation”) is a pretty good excuse and your evangelism doesn’t make a speck of difference; it’s like asking a quadriplegic to walk and then insisting that he has no excuse for not walking because you asked him to. A slightly softer tack on the same topic:
Evangelism gives us the opportunity to unburden our souls for the lost. We cannot be silent while souls around us are bound for hell. (Colin Maxwell)
Sorry, but you’re not sounding like you care about the lost–after all, you believe that they will inevitably go to Hell. You sound like you care about yourself and want to get their punishment off your chest. Evangelism gives you an excuse to say “Well, it’s not my fault they’re in Hell. I did everything I could.”
We get a prize if we convert people:
There is a great reward awaiting for soul winners (Daniel 12:3) …but even if there wasn’t, we would still labor just for the sheer joy of being in God’s work and spreading His word. (Colin Maxwell)
I’m not sure why God would reward people for being part of a foregone result, but that aside, if this is your motivation, you should admit that you’re being selfish and trying to convert people so that you’ll do better in Heaven.
It’s important for Christians to make people angry:
Evangelism gives us an opportunity to bear reproach for the name of Christ. (Colin Maxwell)
In conclusion, I want everyone to know that I am in favor of evangelism. I am not asking any Calvinist to turn from evangelism. Not at all. I am asking you to see the disconnect in your beliefs. Calvinism and evangelism are not compatible. To embrace the latter, you must turn from the former.
Two arguments that I saw frequently but didn’t feel the need to address above are: first, that we should pray for the lost because God acts through prayer, and second, that Calvinism should give evangelists hope because it means that people will be saved whether they seem receptive or not. I didn’t discuss these points because the first is not about evangelism and the second is really an encouragement rather than an argument.
I found almost no allies in my argument against Calvinist evangelism, but Theological Musings from an Amateur featured a short but incisive analysis here. It’s got enough good ideas that I’m adding it to my blogroll.
The full story of the sign-holder linked to above can be found here, by the way.