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If everything is predestined, then why bother? This question takes a particularly sharp focus for the Christian church when applied to evangelism and missions. It is hard to talk to our neighbors about sin and salvation. It is even harder to send preachers around the globe. Someone may say, “If we believe that God is sovereign and will save whomever He has chosen, then we can sit back and watch while He does His will.” At least, that is the assumption that some people make about Reformed theology and its great teachers such as John Calvin.
This assumption does not square with the facts. Calvin taught evangelism. Though Christ gathers His church by supernatural power, he wrote, the gospel “does not fall from the clouds like rain” but is “brought by the hands of men to where God has sent it.” Christ teaches us that God “uses our work and summons us to be His instruments in cultivating His field.” Calvin said that God’s sovereignty encourages us to pray daily for Christ’s kingdom to advance, to patiently persevere when we do not see evangelistic success, and to hope in Christ’s victory. Yet Calvin also stressed our human responsibility in evangelism. God’s evangelism causes ours; we are His coworkers, and He allows us to participate in “the honor of constituting His own Son governor over the whole world.” As Christians, we should evangelize, Calvin said, because God commands us to do so; we want to please and glorify God, in thankfulness to Him for saving us; and it is our duty to both God and our fellow sinners.
History also teaches us that Calvin practiced evangelism. Calvin did not presume that everyone in his congregation in Geneva was saved, and he preached thousands of sermons calling people to follow Christ. Calvin established the Genevan Academy, which from 1555 until his death in 1564 sent out hundreds of gospel preachers. Many of these courageous men accepted calls in France, where they suffered persecution and death at the hands of Roman Catholic authorities. Before Calvin’s death, more than two thousand Reformed churches had been planted in France.
So, history dispels the illusion that Calvin’s doctrines discouraged evangelism and promoted passive uninterest in missions. On the contrary, the truths of God’s sovereign grace in Christ alone fueled a tremendous thrust of missionary endeavor. Whenever biblical, Reformed truth is rightly understood and believed, people go out to the nations for His name’s sake.
Calvin was not the first to wed the doctrines of grace and the necessity of evangelism, nor was he the last. Christian history is adorned with the names of godly men and women who poured out their lives to bring God’s Word to lost sinners in full confidence that the God who has determined the end also has appointed and will use the means.
The English Puritans, who were thoroughly Calvinistic in their teaching, strove to evangelize their fellow citizens through preaching and writing. Laurence Chaderton devoted his hundred-plus-year life to training ministers at the University of Cambridge with the aim that every part of England would hear the preaching of the gospel. Chaderton and his spiritual heirs treasured “plain” preaching that reached ordinary people, arrested the conscience, and brought sinners into God’s holy presence. The great theologian William Perkins evangelized prisoners on death row. By catechizing both the adults and children under their care, the Puritans brought their sermons home to their hearers in a personal way that was both evangelistic and edifying.
The Puritans’ grand view of Christ’s kingdom overflowed wherever God opened doors. John Owen called upon Parliament to support missionaries to Ireland. One important byproduct of the persecution and oppression of the Puritans and Presbyterians in Britain was the planting of the Christian church in North America as thousands of Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans went or were sent there. John Eliot immigrated to the New World and became a pioneer missionary among Native Americans. A century later, David Brainerd’s life was consumed with endeavors to bring the gospel to the indigenous peoples of New England.
The greatest evangelist in eighteenth-century England was George Whitefield. He evangelized crowds of many thousands, often preaching in the open air, traveling across Britain and the American Colonies for decades with the message of the new birth.
In the centuries that followed, we repeatedly find that believers in the Reformed gospel of sovereign grace were in the vanguard of missionary endeavors. William Carey led a courageous and enduring mission to India. Adoniram and Ann Judson suffered great hardships to introduce the life-giving gospel to Burma. John and Maggie Paton faced cannibals in the Pacific Islands so that by faith the natives there could eat the Bread of Life. Andrew Gordon and Andrew Watson and their coworkers planted Reformed churches in India and Egypt that endure to this day.
Moreover, we cannot neglect the gospel messengers that remained in their home nations. Ebenezer Erskine preached the gospel “in all its majesty” in Scotland. Charles Spurgeon proclaimed the doctrines of salvation by grace alone to thousands at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. On Sunday nights at Westminster Chapel, Martyn Lloyd-Jones devoted himself to evangelistic preaching. For every one of these well-known figures, there are thousands of forgotten but faithful Reformed evangelists who will be mentioned with honor on judgment day.
Faithful Christian activity flows from faith in biblical truth. God has linked the execution of His decree of election with the means of grace, including the free offer of the gospel (Acts 13:44–49). Election does not limit evangelism but guarantees that Christ will indeed gather His church out of the world by the preaching of His Word. Here are five encouragements for evangelistic activity that flow from divine election:
1. Divine election makes the believer bold in evangelism. Acts 18:9–10 recounts Paul’s arrival at Ephesus:
Then spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city. And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (KJV here and following)
This command and promise gave Paul boldness to preach and patience to persevere.
2. Divine election makes the believer patient in evangelism. Faith that God is sovereign in salvation liberates the evangelist from pressure to produce results by carnal and unworthy methods. Paul wrote to Timothy,
The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth. (2 Tim. 2:24–25)
The “mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16) should be proclaimed in a godly, Christlike way, in the conviction that God uses the “foolishness of preaching” (1 Cor. 1:21) to accomplish His saving purpose. Though we should be urgent in evangelism, we need not try to manipulate or force people into the kingdom, for it is God who grants repentance to the elect and leads them to eternal glory (2 Tim. 2:10).
3. Divine election makes the believer confident in evangelism. Faith in God’s sovereignty enables the believer to trust the Lord’s sweet promise: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). God’s purpose will not fail. His Word will save His elect. Therefore, we should never despair in sowing the precious seed of the Word.
4. Divine election makes the believer submissive in evangelism. Though it was Paul’s “heart’s desire and prayer” for his fellow Jews to be saved (Rom. 10:1), Paul bowed before God’s right as the Creator to leave some people to perish as “vessels of wrath fitted to destruction” (9:22). Even the doctrine of reprobation encourages evangelism, for it takes man off the throne. Salvation “is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (9:16).
5. Divine election makes the believer worshipful in evangelism. The doctrine of God’s free grace is a barrier against man-centered evangelism, not God-centered, God-glorifying evangelism. Let us not boast in any evangelist or his methods. Paul’s confession was: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6–7). As the gospel gathers some sinners to Christ but leaves others in their blindness, we remember that it is God’s election and effectual calling that distinguishes one from the other (1 Cor. 1:23–28).
This, then, is the legacy of Reformed evangelism: bold, patient, confident, submissive, worshipful Christians who speak the truth in love as servants of the sovereign God. Calvinism and evangelism are friends, not enemies. Without God’s election, no one would ever be saved. May we never be ashamed of the good news that our God reigns (Isa. 52:7), is merciful (Micah 7:18), and delights to save sinners (Ezek. 33:11).