Should a Calvinist be urgent about evangelism, missions and prayer, and do our actions in these areas really matter? That’s a question posed to me by several individuals in the last month, and I’d like to reflect on it. This question sometimes comes from Arminians who want to make the point that real human responsibility must rule out or greatly minimize divine sovereignty. But it can also come from those who adopt a hyper-Calvinist position, who push a view of divine sovereignty that rules out or greatly minimizes human responsibility.
The problem, I was told, is this—“as a Calvinist you believe in God’s unconditional election, and in the five points, etc.. According to this view, since God has already elected who will be saved, why witness, why send missionaries, why give money to them, why pray, and why get in a sweat about any of this?” The problem is really my problem, according to these individuals, because “you can’t believe in both of those things at the same time.”
My reply is—“who says I can’t?” The reason I do is because the Bible affirms both. It affirms the sovereignty of God in salvation (or as one of my students put it—“God’s God and you’re freaking not!”). But it also affirms the responsibility we have to bring the news of salvation to others with urgency and passion.
We can rejoice in God’s marvelous saving grace which rescues helpless people like us. But we can also rejoice that God invites people to himself through people like us. He commissions us– “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28.19).
Why do we go? Not only because we are commanded to. We also go because “the love of Christ compels us.” In 2 Corinthians 5 we read that Christ committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are his ambassadors. God makes his appeal through us. So Paul concludes “we implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5.14-20).
The doctrine of election is not an excuse to do nothing. And perhaps that is the problem of only speaking of the so called “five points of Calvin.” Calvin believed a lot more than five points. If you know your church history, those five points were part of a very important theological debate that took place in Holland after Calvin was dead. Calvin himself was a Bible preaching pastor. Before he was a great theologian, he was a teacher of the Word. What he found in the sacred Scriptures was much more than five points, and he tried to be faithful to all that he found in the Bible.
Of course he believed in God’s sovereignty. But he also believed in human responsibility (as seen through his pastor training and church planting efforts). And while he, like I, do not fully understand how these things hang together, he submitted to God’s Word and rejoiced in the truth and mystery of both.
I’ve often thought of myself as a Bible Calvinist, rather than a systems Calvinist. I love the great Reformed confessions, but I love God’s Word even more! Consequently, I too believe in a lot more than just “the five points.” In his Word I find not only doctrines of grace, but also find gracious and passionate pleading with people to “come” and take the free gift of the water of life.
There was an urgency in Jesus’ preaching when he told people to repent and believe. And yet he also said, “you did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15.16).
Paul, knew that his conversion was due to God’s sovereign grace, and yet he became the preeminent evangelist and missionary of the early church. There was an urgency in Paul’s preaching when he told people to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” While in Ephesus, he said that for three years he never stopped warning people night and day with tears (Acts 20.31). Paul prayed with tears for his unregenerated Jewish countrymen (Romans 10). Yet he is also the one who wrote that “In him we were chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1.11).”
The Bible begins with a classic statement of God’s sovereignty over everything in Genesis 1.1. Yet the Bible ends with the Holy Spirit, and the bride, (the church), extending an invitation to everyone who hears to “come” to Christ.
Here is the wonder of it: The sovereign God includes us in his redemption story. Not because He needs us, but because He wants us! That is why evangelism and missions for the true Calvinist become a matter of great joy—because we get to be a staff in the shepherd’s hand which helps bring people into his fold.
It is for all these reasons that so many Calvinists through history have been passionate about evangelism, missions and prayer.
Calvin himself said we must do everything possible to draw people to God. So he urged diligence in faithful gospel preaching, with zeal and burning desire so that everyone would be saved. (See his sermons on the book of Acts).
Calvinist William Carey is often called “the father of modern missions movement.” Carey urged his fellow Christians to “exert themselves to the utmost “ in fulfilling the Great Commission.
Calvinist John Bunyan pleaded with the people of his day to “flee from the wrath to come.”
Calvinist pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards pleaded with people to flee hell and cherish heaven. He said, “Sinners. . . . should be earnestly invited to come and accept of a Savior, and yield their hearts unto him, with all the winning, encouraging arguments for them…that the Gospel affords.”
Calvinist pastor Charles Spurgeon urged people as he preached. He did not just present them mere information. He pleaded with them. He once said, “If there be any one point in which the Christian church ought to keep its fervor at white heat, it is concerning missions. If there be anything about which we cannot tolerate lukewarmness, it is the matter of sending the gospel to a dying world.”
Some may find it interesting that the founder and first president of Reformed Theological Seminary—Sam Patterson—was not a theologian, but an evangelist. Like myself, he understood that the God who ordained the ends of salvation, also ordained the means by which we are saved. Those chosen means include obedience, prayer, evangelism, missions, loving service, and urgent declarations of the gospel.
It is for all these reasons that I, as a president of a Reformed seminary, want to commit myself to help fulfilling the Great Commission, and want us to be a gospel driven seminary that prepares pastors and leaders for the global church of the twenty first century.