Calvinist Evangelism

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)

Maxwell is reaching for straws by this point. The Gospel offends, so if you’re not offending people, you’re doing it wrong.

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.



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20 responses to “Calvinist Evangelism

  1. even if they all chose not to evangelize, the person would still be saved.

    There are no “if’s” in the Providence of God.

    Colin Maxwell
    (Named in article above)

    • katz

      Then no one need intentionally evangelize, because you will inevitably end up doing any evangelizing God has ordained you to do whether you make an attempt or not. Moreover, you cannot possibly fail to evangelize: if you never mention God in your entire life, it isn’t a failure on your part, because it simply means that God didn’t have any evangelizing for you to do.

      Indeed, no Christian need put any effort into attempting to do God’s will, because if the Providence of God is really so very sovereign, whatever the believer does–up to and including sinning–must inevitably have been God’s will.

  2. bryce1618

    Very good, and thank you for the link.

    However, I have a question; my Calvinist-by-default uncle (since he finds Arminianism uncompelling) suggests that the reason for evangelization has something to do with what the evangelist is to gain. What do you think about that?

    • katz

      This is a good point. I’ve heard a similar idea in discussions on the efficacy of prayer: prayer works by changing the heart of the one who prays. It is no doubt true that both evangelism and prayer have a positive effect on the agent, and that this is one of the reasons why they should be done.

      However, in both of these cases, the effect on oneself is not the primary goal (assuming you’re praying for something in the outside world, rather than praying directly for change in your own heart). It would be deceptive, and therefore anathema to God, for these institutions to exist purportedly for the purpose of affecting the outside world, when in reality they only benefit the person doing them.

      Say, for instance, I pray for my friend who has cancer. Praying for him will have a positive effect on me by helping me come to terms with his disease, but that isn’t the primary reason I pray (if that was my main goal, I would have simply prayed for God to help me come to terms with my friend’s cancer). I pray because it may have an actual effect on him and his cancer. Not that God is required to heal him because I prayed, or that, if he isn’t healed, prayer isn’t effective, but prayer isn’t effective unless there is some possibility that the thing you are praying for (assuming it is in line with God’s will, of course) will come about.

      Returning to evangelism, it can be a good thing to simply proclaim the truths of God because that makes us appreciate them better, but that isn’t really evangelism. We evangelize because we believe that there is some possibility that someone will come to salvation as a result who otherwise wouldn’t have. If that isn’t possible and that isn’t the reason we’re doing it, we should abandon the pretense and call it something more accurate.

  3. Thanks for the mention! I used to find the concept of Calvinism to be repulsive as well, and would not have been as fair with it as you are in this post. I really mean that.

    Are you familiar with Hyper-Calvinism? Some of the things you say here would be true of a hyper calvinist. (it’s late, so I’m not going to fret too much with capitalization) Here’s a link to a good article explaining common differences between “HC” and the common Calvinist. The classical Calvinist is much more common than you may realize and much less annoying that most people think. Generally speaking, hypers are more apt to speak up and annoy everyone around them.

    Taken from that article, A hyper-Calvinist is someone who either:
    Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
    Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
    Denies that the gospel makes any “offer” of Christ, salvation, or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal), OR
    Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace,” OR
    Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.

    While it is true that many Calvinists can come across as some sort of “better Christian than you” this is also false. In fact, any Calvinist who tries to make you feel like less of a Christian because you don’t hold to the exact understanding they do is in sin. They can try to convince others of their view as long as it is done with love and as long as they do not attempt to question your salvation unless you agree with them. And if they think they are better somehow, then they need to go back to the Calvinist teaching of Total Depravity, which means that the fall has affected every aspect of man so that there is nothing about us that should cause God to give us any favor.

    It is ONLY the righteousness of Christ by which we can be saved. Any personal goodness is a filthy rag before the standard of Jesus, and there is no good Christian. Even the apostle Paul understood this, referring to himself as a wretched man and begging God to save him from his body of sin. If we try to add to our salvation, we deny the sufficiency of Christ.

    In closing, we do have a part in the salvation of others. We proclaim the gospel to the lost and trust God to provide hearing in those to whom we preach.

    Romans 10
    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!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

    • katz

      I’d like to address the rest of your comment in the morning, but for now, thank you for talking about humility. I do attend a Calvinist church and most of the people there, especially our pastor Ron Boomsma, are humble, Godly, and generally awesome people. (In Calvinism, as in all other areas, the exceptions are always the loudest, and consequently always seem more numerous than they really are.)

  4. Hi,

    There are two great truths out there: Man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty. We should never pit one against the other. Anyone who blames the sin of laziness on God’s sovereignty has a lot of reading still to do :o)


    • katz

      Your previous comment that there are no “ifs” indicates that you believe that, if God intends a Christian to evangelize, the evangelism will happen–God’s sovereignty makes it impossible for the Christian to refuse His call. (Correct me if I’m misrepresenting your view, of course.)

      All evangelism that was supposed to be done consequently will be done. Therefore, any evangelism that was not done was not supposed to be done.

      Assuming we’re defining the sin of laziness as something like failure to do what God wanted you to do, then given the premises above, it is impossible to be guilty of the sin of laziness regarding evangelism, because it is impossible for you to fail to evangelize if God wants you to.

      Unless you’re postulating that it’s possible to sin while obeying God’s plan?

  5. Our guiding star in all things is the revealed will of God i.e. the Bible. It is not for us to pry into the un-revealed will of God. As said above, I have a responsibility to evangelise. If I refuse to do so, for whatever reasons e.g. doctrinal reasons (Hyper Calvinism being an example) or laziness or my heart being greedy and wanting to spend all my waking moments making money etc.,) then I sin. If God chooses to leave me to my sin, the sin is still mine. It is here that I should target my thoughts i.e. on what is revealed rather than what lies hidden from my view. This helps us avoid those profitless questions of which the Apostle so rightly warns.


    • katz

      While you make a compelling case, I have a hard time believing that God would consider it a sin of omission to fail to do something that wouldn’t have changed the outcome anyway. (I’m not arguing that the end justifies the means here, by the way, merely that the end should influence the means.) Of course I also don’t think it’s fair for God to hold us reprehensible for actions when we couldn’t have done anything else, but that’s obviously going to be a point of inherent disagreement between us.
      Consider, though, use of time as a resource. I argued above that it would be better for a Calvinist to spend his or her time doing something other than evangelizing. Since the elect are going to be saved one way or another and your efforts won’t change that, you’d be advancing God’s kingdom better by doing something with a positive effect that could influence the outcome (helping the poor, promoting justice, etc).

      • If I didn’t know better, it almost sounds like you are trying to talk the Calvinist out of evangelism!

        There is a term often used for churches that teach about social matters being more important than spiritual matters. They are called liberal churches. Loving your neighbor is important, and the best way to love them is to care for their most pressing need. That most pressing need is best met through evangelism, though clean water or aid to the orphan will also be given.

        Besides, what did Jesus say to Pilate regarding the realm of His Kingdom?

      • katz

        I’m not trying to suggest that social matters are more important than spiritual matters. However, from a Calvinist perspective (which I’m not, in case it was unclear, I’m not, although I attend a Calvinist church), since who will and will not be saved has already been decided, you might as well do a good work that hasn’t already been decided. Whether a given African orphan will or will not go to Heaven was determined before the dawn of time and you can’t change that, since (as established below) if the orphan is Elect, he or she will be saved whether or not you evangelize. You may be able to change whether he or she starves to death.

  6. You write: Since the elect are going to be saved one way or another and your efforts won’t change that

    But if I get involved in (say) an open air street meeting, and directly through this someone gets saved, then my effort did change the situation in that I was part of the means that God used to translate a soul from darkness into light.

    Besides, the written of word of God is clear on the matter: Preach the Gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15) The duties are ours – the consequences are God’s.


    • katz

      You were part of the process, but the end result was inevitable. Thus, you didn’t change the end result, but merely the process. Injecting yourself into the person’s conversion may have been good for you, but it didn’t matter for them.

      You’ve talked evangelism into a process that exists entirely for the benefit of the evangelizer. I do it because God tells me to, because God will judge me guilty of sin if I don’t, because I might get more stars on my crown in heaven, because I’m filled with the desire to proclaim the Gospel. Regardless of the merit of these motivations, it still makes evangelism into a farce because the surface goal of evangelism is outward focused. If the outward focus is completely foregone, I’d rather have some truth in advertising and hear evangelism preached as something we can do for our own benefit rather than something that can benefit others.

  7. Then you are assuming that a Calvinist believes God to be sovereign over the eternal souls of all mankind, but not of whether a child starves to death? Even the winds and the waves obey Him! Calvinism isn’t a concept that cements all of past present and future into some scripted farce of reality.

    Lets take it a step farther. Does your pastor teach supralapsarianism? It would seem so, based on some of your conclusions about Calvinism.

    • katz

      Calvinism isn’t a concept that cements all of past present and future into some scripted farce of reality.

      If there really are no “ifs,” then it is.

  8. For some strange reason, you have chosen to comment on only some of the 7 reasons why I, as a Calvinist, evangelise, even ignoring the claim that I evangelise for the glory of God (3rd reason) (The original page from where Old Truth, with my permission, took the article)

    It certainly mattered to me when someone, under God, brought me the gospel. Hence it matters to others when I bring them the gospel. To say that it doesn’t matter reflects poorly upon the gospel, not the bringer of it, and if upon the gospel, then it reflects badly upon the Supreme Author of the Gospel.

    I know little about you, but your arguments are those of a Hyper Calvinist.


    • katz

      I actually did address that point; I even quoted you. I addressed all your points except for the last one.
      I’ve updated the links to the above URL. Sorry; I thought the Old Truth page was the original posting.

  9. Pingback: Cognitive Dissonance « Chimaera

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