Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the Synod of Dort. Previous post.
Several years ago, the popular anti-Calvinist writer Dave Hunt summarized many evangelical Christians’ opinion when he said Calvinists “bring the gospel to the world not because of their Calvinism, but only in spite of it.” The logic goes that since we believe in eternal and unconditional election, since we believe that Christ’s satisfaction of God’s justice on the cross is effective only for some, and since we believe that all people are dead in sin and can do nothing of their own will to save themselves, then no matter what, some will be saved and others not. So according to Hunt, in spite of all this, if you’re a Calvinist, your desire to bring the gospel to the world is inconsistent because, it is alleged, people will be saved or not saved regardless of our efforts.
Anti-Calvinists have been saying this for centuries. But saying it doesn’t make it true. It is because I believe Jesus laid down His life effectively for a particular people that I preach the gospel and want to see it preached everywhere. That’s basic, historic Reformed doctrine. Remember what we saw before in the Canons of Dort 2.3–4 about the sufficiency of Jesus’ death to satisfy for the sins of a thousand, million, or infinite worlds. Then the canons say this:
Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel. (2.5)
As I’ve said before, this canon was deliberately written this way. “Moreover” (caeterum) is not as strong as “therefore” (ergo). The canon is not explaining the precise relationship between Jesus’ sufficiency and preaching so that it may allow for the different ways of expression among Reformed theologians. But what it does clearly say is that if your view of “limited atonement” limits your evangelistic outlook, you don’t understand the historic Reformed view. Far from limiting evangelizing and witnessing, this doctrine frees us to sow the seed of the gospel freely (Matt. 13). Why? Because we know that there are those whom the Father elected, for whom Christ died, and whom the Holy Spirit will powerfully and effectually bring to faith. Listen to the echo of Jesus’ command to His Apostles in Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:15 here in canon 2.5: “This promise . . . ought to be declared and published to all nations.” And the language of preaching “without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people” is drawn from texts such as 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul said he sought to “persuade others” (v. 11), to proclaim, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (v. 17), and to “implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (v. 20) because he was compelled by “the love of Christ” who “died for all” (v. 14) and because “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself . . . God making his appeal through us” (vv. 19–20).
A Universal Promise
Should we preach to all people? Yes, because Jesus has universal authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). In this authority, He makes a universal promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This promise of His presence is joined to the church’s universal task to baptize and teach the nations. Canon 2.5 speaks narrowly of “the promise of the gospel” and cites John 3:16: “Whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life.” In Matthew 28, Jesus speaks in the broadest terms of baptizing and teaching everything He has commanded.
He does this in fulfillment of Scripture. God made the world in order that through Adam’s obedience all would be blessed to live in everlasting fellowship with the Creator. But Adam sinned. Then the Lord intervened with promises to save the world. To Abram He said, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). The Psalms celebrated this future promise in poetic prayers and songs: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (Ps. 22:27). The prophets longed for that day to come: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it” (Isa. 2:2). “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 1:11).
“Ah, but you Calvinists can’t really proclaim ‘whosoever believes’ because you can’t say to sinners, ‘Christ died for you.’” Have you heard that before? No doubt many of us have. But nowhere in Scripture do we ever read Jesus or the Apostles saying to anyone, “Christ died for you.” Instead, we read them stating that Christ died to save sinners, and we can proclaim that promise.
“But look at world evangelism. Where are the Calvinists?” They are everywhere. The Reformed church of Geneva sent missionaries to Brazil in the 1550s. John Eliot of Massachusetts (1604–90) went every other week to preach to and catechize the children of Native Americans beginning in 1646. The Calvinistic English Parliament created the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England in the seventeenth century. The Synod of Dort began a missionary school. David and John Brainerd preached to the Housatonic people in the mid-1700s. William Carey, the father of modern missions, founded what came to be called the London Missionary Society. Robert Moffat (1795–1883) and David Livingstone (1813–1873) gave themselves to South and Central Africa. Robert Morrison (1782–1834) translated the Bible into Chinese by 1818. And the list goes on.