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.”1 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.2 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).3
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.
A Universal Command
Should we preach to all people? Yes, because in His universal authority our Lord gave a universal command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). But here is how anti-Calvinist George Bryson states it:
From a thoroughly Calvinistic perspective . . . just as no amount of preaching will help the unelect, no failure of Christians to reach out to the elect will hinder them from coming to Christ. Thus, while the Gospel is to be proclaimed, it is difficult to see why we should be all that concerned—Calvinistically speaking. After all, according to Calvinism, the elect will be saved, period. The unelect will be damned period.4
In contrast, here is how the Calvinist William Carey opened his famous work on the obligation of Christians to spread the gospel: “As our blessed Lord has required us to pray that his kingdom may come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, it becomes us not only to express our desires of that event by words, but to use every lawful method to spread the knowledge of his name.”5
It is precisely because the number of the elect is known only to God, precisely because Christ died effectually for the elect, and precisely because the Holy Spirit brings the elect to faith through the means of preaching that we preach the gospel. Our doctrine is no disincentive—it is the incentive. The same Paul who quoted God Himself, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom. 9:15), and said, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom. 9:20), also said: “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? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14–17).
We have a command to go, to baptize, and to teach. We have a command to issue to all: “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.” I don’t want you to miss this, but the canon just said that in God’s love for the entire human race, He sends the gospel. The phrase above, “good pleasure,” is the Latin beneplacito. When our Reformed forefathers read the Bible, they saw it speaking of God’s love for everything outside Him in three senses: toward all creation, toward all humanity in general, and toward His elect.6 The word above was chosen deliberately to express love that is more than that which is just toward creation but less than that which is toward the elect.
This good pleasure of God in sending the gospel to whom He wills is seen in Matthew 28. It’s also in Jesus’ words that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:14). It’s in Jesus’ postresurrection teaching: “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). It’s in Jesus’ words just before His ascension: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It’s in Paul’s words about “the hope of the gospel . . . which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:23) and “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Rom. 1:5).
Should we preach to all people? Some say we shouldn’t because it’s inconsistent with our theology. But Jesus says we must preach to all. So let’s start praying for the lost. Let’s start witnessing to them. Let’s continue preaching the good news.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on December 4, 2018.
- Dave Hunt, What Love Is This? Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God (Sisters, Ore.: Loyal, 2002), 29. ↩︎
- Lee Gatiss, For Us and For Our Salvation: “Limited Atonement” in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry (London: The Latimer Trust, 2012), 81. ↩︎
- See on Calvin’s exegesis of “Arminian” texts, Michael A.G. Haykin and C. Jeffrey Robinson Sr., To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2014), 31–51, 53–63, on God’s use of means including our need to pray and be zealous and not to sit back. ↩︎
- George Bryson, The Five Points of Calvinism: Weighed and Found Wanting, http://evangelicalarminians.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Bryson.-THE-FIVE-POINTS-OF-CALVINISM_-WEIGHED-AND-FOUND-WANTING.pdf, accessed August 15, 2017 (emphasis original). ↩︎
- William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (Leicester, England: Ann Ireland, 1792). ↩︎
- See “amor Dei,” in Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1985), 31–32. ↩︎