Sovereignty and Evangelism

Q – Hi Jim,

I discovered your site on OnePlace and, like so many others, I have enjoyed your teachings. I have not completely read through your Q&A area so if this subject has already been covered, please feel free to refer me to the answer. No lengthy personal response is expected.

Jim – If you’ve listened to me preach at all you know that lengthy reponses just sort of come with the territory. While I have written peripherally on this topic, I haven’t addressed it in any real depth, so I’m happy for the opportunity. It’s important stuff.

Q – To give you some context to my question: I worship and serve in the Methodist Church surrounded by Wesleyan theology which more or less states that it is God’s grace PLUS your freewill that brings about salvation. However, over the last 5 years I have embarked on a serious study of God’s word. Long before I discovered your site or read any writings from a reformed or Calvinist perspective, I had already come to the conclusion that God was indeed sovereign and that in matters of salvation, He alone decides who will be saved. The scripture seems to be very clear about that. The bible is also clear that Jesus Christ is the central figure in all of creation and that everything (including me) exists for His purpose and for His glory. My friends are beginning to call me a “Closet Calvinist” but I don’t mind the association because the idea of freewill and resistible grace is proving to be less and less plausible as I understand the bible’s teachings more fully.

Jim – My journey was quite similar. I was likewise convinced by the text of Scripture long before I knew the term “Calvinism” or “Reformed.” In fact, I remember walking into the office of the pastor I was sitting under once I came to recognize God’s sovereign hand in all things and found a church that proclaimed that truth. The pastor had Calvin’s “Institutes” on his bookshelf.

“Oh,” I remember thinking, “so, this is Calvinism….”

I was not convinced by any creeds, denomination, systematics or commitment to a particular man’s teaching. I was convinced by what the Bible actually, genuinely says. That’s why I am so unwavering in my conviction. No one can open the Scripture and convince me otherwise because the only God that is found in the Bible is the God who does all things for His own good pleasure, after the counsel of His own will. So, I relate entirely to what you’ve written here.

Now you need to graduate out of the closet. 🙂

Q – My dilemma/question is this: I am having difficulty in understanding the role of evangelism in a strict Calvinist world view. If one’s name is written in the Book of Life from before the foundation of the world, and God will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy, then is it honest or even necessary to present the Gospel in the traditional evangelical way. In other words, how does one present the gospel to the lost in such a way as to solicit new believers?

Jim – I don’t know that we are to present the gospel “in the traditional evangelical way,” but we are certainly not excused from preaching it to everyone who will listen. If what we believe about God’s sovereign, gracious election is true, then it was well known to Jesus and Paul. Yet, Jesus sent His apostles out to preach the Word and announce the good news of salvation by grace through faith. Likewise Paul, the greatest predestinarian of the New Testament, devoted his life to preaching to the lost and becoming all things to all men in order to win the more to Christ. So, Biblical election/predestination is not contradictory to Biblical evangelization.

I once heard a strict Calvinist say that in all of Paul’s epistles he never once gives any instruction on evangelizing the lost. And that’s true. But, it’s not the whole story. Paul wrote to churches, teaching and admonishing them with sound doctrine and instruction on Christian living. And while it is true that he never presented a formula for converting to the lost, it is unquestionable that he did preach to anyone and everyone. But, it is equally obvious that Paul trusted God to convert people. If they heard his gospel, they were obviously God’s elect. If they rejected it, Paul didn’t appear to spend time backtracking to try and convince or persuade them. The preaching of the gospel was the line of demarcation that made every man’s state obvious.

We only know the gospel because someone preached it to us. Whether we learned it from a contemporary or from the pen of the Apostles, we still learned it because someone preached it. And the example we find in Scripture is a commitment to preaching the gospel of grace to everyone who will listen – to those who have “ears to hear.”

I have often said that it would be much easier on us if God would have made His elect more obvious. Maybe He could have made their hair stand up on one side, or given them a neon “elect” sign or something. But, since we do not know who God has chosen from the formation of the world, we are told to preach “to every living creature.” Those who are chosen will respond. Those who are not will reject it. But, we are called to preach it.

So, is it honest to preach to the unsaved? Yes, absolutely. It is the only hope they have. What if they will not hear it? That’s between them and God. But, the fact that some will not hear and believe the gospel does not excuse us from the responsibility to tell it. God has chosen to use “means” in the advancement of His kingdom. And the “means” He has chosen is the preached Word. That is method by which the elect are called out. So, we who know the gospel are assigned the task of promoting that gospel to everyone with the sure and certain knowledge that the elect of God will hear it and will respond.

Knowing that is a great comfort and a great terror. It’s a comfort to know that God’s word will indeed accomplish the very thing He intends. As we preach, some people will definitely convert, repent and come to a saving knowledge of Christ. That’s a built-in guarantee. But, it’s a terror to know that some people will reject it. They will be held eternally responsible for the fact that the truth was proclaimed to them and they turned from it. Preaching the gospel is the “means” by which God both saves and condemns. Therefore, we are called to follow in the footsteps of the apostles and proclaim these truths, knowing that it is God who will give the increase.

As for “How does one present the gospel to the lost in such a way as to solicit new believers?” – I present it the same way to absolutely everyone, believer or not, because I know that it is not my presentation, my cleverness, my earnestness, or my persuasive abilities that will save a man. It is only the grace of God that will quicken the Word to a person. My job is not to convince them or solicit them to sign up. My job is to tell the truth. If they belong to God, He will see to it that their hearts are opened – as Lydia’s was – so that they can attend to the things we are saying. If they are not God’s, no amount of coaxing or cajoling on my part will produce genuine salvation. So, I just tell the truth in every circumstance to everyone. How they react is between them and God.

Q – For instance, I am involved in prison ministry but I am finding it increasingly difficult to stand in front of a group of inmates and say something like “Christ has made salvation available to any and all of you if you will just accept His free gift” – knowing full well that the bible states that some of them have been chosen for salvation and others for wrath. By offering this “gift of salvation” to someone who God intends to harden, I am at best wasting my time and at worst, misrepresenting God – who has no intention of saving them anyway. Obviously, I have no way of knowing who in that group may be “elect” and who isn’t, but does their response to my invitation even matter? The gospel presentation that is based on what I call “Universal Availability” is all I have ever known.

Jim – You realize the vital point: we do not know who the elect are. Consequently, it is completely honest for you to proclaim the gospel of grace and present the One who fully redeems sinners. I don’t know about the language of “Christ has made salvation available to any and all of you if you will just accept His free gift.” I don’t think that’s exactly accurate. It would be more Biblical to proclaim the full, finished atoning work of Christ that does not make salvation merely “available,” but makes it absolute and definite to all of God’s people. I don’t really ever “offer” salvation to people and wait to see who will take the “free gift.” Rather, I unabashedly proclaim the majesty of God in Christ and wait to see who flinches. Proclaiming the sovereignty of Christ will sort people out pretty quickly.

I understand your discomfort with the notion of “universal availability.” It’s not biblical. However, it is the tradition that most of us have grown up with. But, I don’t make “offers.” I don’t have “altar calls.” I don’t coerce people into making a profession and then comfort them that they are eternally secure on the basis of that profession. Those simply aren’t biblical ways of dealing with sinners. As I said, I proclaim the truth and leave it up to God to move on their hearts and call His people out.

The sovereignty of God and the necessity of preaching go hand-in-hand. Telling people the good news of salvation through faith in Christ’s finished atonement is the most important work we can do. But, you never see anyone in the Bible struggling to convert the lost. Rather, you see them proclaim the truth and celebrate when God brings about repentance and conversion.

The point is, since we do not know the hidden wisdom of God, we must follow His command to preach, trusting that He is actively drawing His people to Himself and has deigned to use our mouths as instruments in that process.

Q – I mean no disrespect but I do not know how to ask this question tactfully… Do you and your congregation seek out the lost in your community? If so, what is your message? What does an altar call sound like in your church… if you even have one?

Jim – No disrespect taken. Do we seek the lost? Yes. How? Through preaching the Word to everyone who will listen. I do believe that God ordains opportunities to proclaim His word in our day-to-day lives. However, we do not stand on street corners and accost people. We follow Peter’s instruction, “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)

I am so convinced of God’s absolute sovereign control over all things, that I am certain He will bring His elect to a time, place or circumstance where they will hear the truth and respond. I don’t argue with God’s enemies. I leave them in God’s hands. And I do not pretend to have the power to convince, persuade or save people. But, I am always ready to give a defense for the Christian faith to “everyone who asks.”

At the same time, we broadcast the message of grace far and wide, in writing and in audio forms, knowing that God will see to it that it falls on the very ears He intends to hear it. So yes, we do seek the lost. We want nothing more than to see sinners come to Christ. But, the message is always the same: Christ died for the sins of His people, fully accomplishing their salvation and reconciling them with a holy God. Eternal life is available through Christ and no other. I don’t sugarcoat it or dumb it down. I trust that God will quicken it in the hearts of His people.

No, I don’t have altar calls. God can reach into the heart of a person sitting in the back row. Conversion can happen anywhere at any time. I don’t suppose that God is somehow more present or more powerful at the front of the room just because that’s where I happen to be standing.

Again, salvation is God’s enterprise. I leave it to Him to perform His saving work.

Q – How do you present the Sovereignty of God to an “unsaved” individual? (I put “unsaved” in quotes because if one is predestined to salvation through God’s sovereignty then there was never really a time when they were actually unsaved… they were only ignorant of their salvation. Is that correct?)

Jim – Yes, that’s absolutely correct and I couldn’t have said it better. You have probably already deduced the answer to this by now, but I do not present the Sovereignty of God to the unsaved any differently than I do to the saved. I just tell the truth.

Here’s a principle you can rely on: God’s people are not offended by God’s word. Sheep love sheep food.

Just tell the truth about God and it will attract the very people God intended it to attract.

Q – I understand my thinking is clouded by years of evangelical theology but I can’t seem to get how the message that says “you are either saved or you aren’t but either way, it’s not up to you” works to bring in new believers!

Jim – Well, that’s not what we say! That’s not what Paul went around proclaiming. He proclaimed the core truths of the gospel. To wit: Men are sinners. God is holy. There is no way for sinful men to please or satisfy the wrath of an eternally holy God. We needed a Savior to stand in the gap. God provided just such a Savior in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ there is no law, no bondage, and no condemnation. If Christ is in you and you are in Christ, then God accepts you eternally on the basis of Christ’s finished work of propitiating God’s wrath, paying our sin debt and imputing His righteousness to our account. Hence, we are “accepted in the beloved,” guaranteed to stand before the Holy God without a spot, sin or blemish! That’s the good news!

Some people will be stirred by that message because God will reveal to them their sinful estate and need of a Savior. God will begin the process of drawing men to Himself. Others will reject that message out-of-hand and continue to attempt justifying themselves before God on the basis of their works. You do not (and indeed cannot!) know who will reject it and who will accept it. So you preach the exact same message to everyone.

In time, those who are being drawn will come to recognize and understand the grace of God that bought them. But, no one in the Bible preached to the unconverted by saying “you are either saved or you aren’t but either way, it’s not up to you.” That’s not the biblical method. It may be true, but that’s the kind of doctrine that comes with “strong meat.” New converts need the milk of the Word – the basics of sin, redemption and eternal life.

Q – Or do you just wait for people to come to Christ through other more evangelical denominations by their supposed freewill and then just straighten them out doctrinally after the fact?

Jim – That’s very funny; I have a fellow preacher friend who says, whenever Calvinists start complaining about Arminians, that if the Arminians weren’t out there saving people the Calvinists would have no one to convert.

I do know people who were saved under the doctrines of grace and have never known anything else. Honestly, I envy them. I had to learn, un-learn and re-learn many things during my Christian journey. I have been through the proverbial theological wringer. But thanks to God’s grace, in His own time He revealed His truth to me in the person of His son. I thought I knew Christ long before I actually came to grips with the Jesus of the Bible.

The gospel of grace is fully capable of saving sinners. In my experience, some of the sinners most in need of saving are sitting in church pews, satisfied with their self-righteousness and content in the traditions of their religion.

But, let me be clear – salvation is not in a doctrinal position. I do believe that many sincere, God-loving, Christ-honoring saints are confused about biblical theology. But, as long as they are looking to, and trusting in, Christ for their full redemption, I am certain that they are among His elect people. God has the first million years in eternity to straighten out their doctrine. In fact, I think we’ll all be surprised at how little we know. And thankfully we are not saved based on what we know – we are saved based on who we know.

Q – Again, please forgive me if I sound flippant or argumentative. I truly am seeking an answer. Thanks for your time and your teaching!!

Jim – That’s exactly how you came across: as a guy seeking honest conversation about important matters. And you’re welcome. I hope I’ve helped a bit. If I stirred up more questions, feel free to drop me a line anytime.

Yours in Him,

Jim Mc.