If God is sovereign in salvation, why evangelize?
7/16/12 Geoff Willour
If God is sovereign in salvation, then why evangelize? That is to say, if God has already chosen which sinners He will save and which sinners He will pass over and leave in their fallen condition, and if that sovereign choice is unconditional and fixed with absolute certainty by the sovereign decree of God, then why should the church bother to evangelize? Someone might object to the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election or sovereign predestination along these lines: “If God has already decided who will be saved, and if those chosen ones are absolutely guaranteed salvation, then why bother to evangelize? After all, the elect will be saved no matter what, and the non-elect will be lost no matter what.” One of the major objections to “Calvinism” or “the doctrines of grace” (those doctrines being a vital part of Reformed theology) is the conviction that these doctrines undermine the evangelistic and missionary task of the church. How should we who are Reformed and Presbyterian Christians respond to these types of objections?
(1) First of all, the chuch must engage in evangelism and missions because God in His Word commands His church to do so (Matt. 28:18-20; see also Lk. 24:46-49; Acts 1:8; etc.). In our finite capacity as limited creatures we might not be able to completely or exhaustively understand how God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s genuine responsibility can co-exist without contradicting each other. But if the omni-sovereign, Almighty God — the God who alone is able to save sinners by His omnipotent grace — commands His church to evangelize and engage in missions, then the church has the responsibility to engage in these activities even if it (or some of its members) hasn’t fully figured out how the evangelistic and missionary tasks of the church can be harmonized with the church’s witness to the absolute sovereignty of God in election. Our call as the church is to obey our Divine Master, and to leave the results up to God.
(2) Secondly, the Word of God teaches that God ordinarily chooses to carry out His sovereign plan in human affairs through the use of ordinary, secondary means. For example, God ordinarily answers our prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” not by dropping food into our laps directly from heaven or through other types of extraordinary or miraculous means, but through giving us the strength to labor for our daily bread. Under normal circumstances God provides us with our daily bread through the ordinary means of us getting up in the morning, going to work, and earning a living. Likewise, contrary to the idea that God saves His elect “no matter what” or without means (an idea that historic Reformed theology has never taught), both the Scriptures and the scriptural system of doctrine known as Reformed Theology teach that God ordinarily brings His elect into an estate of salvation through the means of their being evangelized through the church’s proclamation of the gospel! “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?…Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14-15a, 17, NIV) As the biblically-based answer to Shorter Catechism Question # 89 (“How is the word made effectual to salvation?”) puts it: “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.” It is through the means of the gospel message (read or heard) that the Holy Spirit supernaturally brings the elect into an estate of salvation by effectually calling them to saving faith in Christ and repentance unto life; and it is through the diligent use of the ordinary means of grace which Christ has entrusted to His visible church (namely, the Word, sacraments and prayer, in the fellowship of the church) that God preserves and keeps His elect in an estate of salvation until that time when He calls them home to Himself (either at their death or when Christ returns in glory). Thus, the elect are not saved without hearing the gospel and participating in the means of grace; rather, they are saved by means of hearing the gospel (“faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God”); and they are strengthened and preserved in their faith by means of their diligent use of God’s ordinary means of grace (the Word, sacraments and prayer). Therefore the church must be diligent in proclaiming the gospel to those outside the fold of Christ, that Christ’s lost sheep (the elect) might be called home to their Good Shepherd (Christ) and into the protection of His fold (the church); and likewise the church must diligently administer the Word and sacraments to those sheep already within the fold, that they might be strengthened and confirmed in their faith, and thus protected from those wolves who would seek to devour and destroy Christ’s precious sheep.
So God’s sovereignty in election is not a hindrance to a robust engagement in missions and evangelism. On the contrary, the sovereignty of God in salvation should be a great incentive and boost to the church’s evangelistic labors, for the simple reason that the unconditional election of God’s people guarantees the church’s evangelistic success. Because God’s elect will (in God’s timing) come to respond positively to the gospel message, the church can proclaim the gospel with confidence, knowing that sooner or later God will call all of His elect to Christ through the church’s proclamation of the gospel. How freeing to know that our evangelistic success in the church does not depend upon us, upon our own skills or persuasiveness, but rather upon the sovereign God who calls sinners to Himself by His omnipotent grace through the church’s (often weak and feeble) proclamation of His Word! To God alone be the glory!
But, in closing, someone might ask “Should we in the church seek to evangelize everyone, or should we limit our evangelism to the elect?” In answer to a question such as this we need to remember the scope of the great commission and the fact that through the gospel God calls all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). The fact is that there are only two persons who can know whether or not you are elect: God and you. If you are a true believer in Christ, then you are one of the elect, and you can know it as you see the evidences of God’s grace in your life (read First John for a fuller explanation of the evidences of grace). But you cannot infallibly judge the hearts or spiritual condition of others. You cannot know whether or not an unbeliever with whom you are seeking to share the gospel is one of God’s elect. That is God’s business, not yours. All you need to know is that those who are currently in a state of unbelief and impenitence are sinners who desperately need a Savior, and that Jesus Christ is an all-sufficient Savior who is perfectly suited to meet their need for salvation. The church is to seek to bring the gospel message to the whole world, and to proclaim the good news of salvation to all who are apart from Christ, calling all people everywhere to repent and believe upon Christ for salvation. Those who are elect will (sooner or later) respond with true faith and repentance; those who are not elect will continue to harden their hearts against the gospel, and will have only themselves to blame on the Judgment Day for having spurned the grace of the gospel that was offered to them. But in the meantime the church is to proclaim the gospel indiscriminately to all sinners far and wide, so that the great multitude of the elect whom no man can number (Rev. 7:9) can be brought to Christ and brought safely into His fold.