Calvinism and Evangelistic Method

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In my Evangelism class at The College at Southeastern, composed of both seminary and college students, the professor had the class form groups of four in order for each group to construct a gospel tract, each group having its own leader (chosen by date of birth). The leader of our group was taking advice from the other members and was very open to suggestions. When he declared that we were nearly finished, except for a few statements which needed to be nuanced, I responded, “Wait, but we have yet to inform the person what to do with this information.” He responded, “Well, I’m against anything like ‘pray this prayer after me.'” I agreed and said, “Is that our only option? We must tell the person to trust in Christ.” He was not fond of that idea.

I asked him, “How did you come to Christ?” He responded, “God opened my heart.” I asked, “And?” He responded, “And God gave me faith to believe.” I asked, “You’re a Calvinist, aren’t you?” He smiled and responded, “How could you tell?” (he was so proud of being called a Calvinist). I responded, “You’re bleeding it everywhere!” (I was not smiling.) I said to the group, “If you do not tell the person what to do with this information, all you have done is give the individual a presentation and nothing more. You have not led or invited the person to respond to the gospel of Christ. You must tell the person to place his or her faith in Christ.” The group leader was still hesitant. (Incidentally, he confessed to us that he was not a “people person,” and gave at least three reasons why he does not share the gospel on any sort of regular basis. Thankfully, he is not typical of some Calvinists whom I know personally.)

I liken this Calvinist’s evasive method of evangelism to someone telling a person that she has an illness which needs to be addressed. The person informs the girl that she shows all of the signs for the illness, and lets her know how she contracted the illness. The person even gives her a history lesson of the illness, and tells her of the consequences of ignoring the illness. But then the individual does not tell the girl how to respond to the illness. The person merely smiles and says, “God bless you,” hoping not only that the girl will see her need for the cure, but also assuming that a doctor will eventually reach her and irresistibly grant her the cure. (Heaven forbid the girl be told what the cure actually is, or what she must do in order to obtain the cure! That may take away the authority or honor due to the doctor!)

Is this a demonstration of consistent Calvinism, in that, if you tell someone that he or she has to do something in response to the gospel (i.e., trust in Christ Jesus), then one is robbing God of His sovereignty and glory? Or better, does such a notion conform to what Scripture teaches? Is there no condition to God saving an individual? Must one really not “do” anything in order to be saved? Is God’s saving action so passive that an individual does not even have to believe in Christ prior to regeneration? In Calvinism, the answer is yes.

When the apostle Paul and Silas were in prison, an earthquake shook open their prison doors, thus freeing all of the prisoners. Realizing that if his prisoners escaped he could lose his life, the jailer was about to kill himself, when Paul stopped him just in time. In amazement, the jailer asked the apostle Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30 NRSV) What do you suppose was the apostle Paul’s answer? According to a seemingly consistent Calvinism, the answer is, “Nothing.” You can do nothing. God will regenerate His unconditionally elect, and when He does, the person will believe in Christ. Faith is the result of regeneration. Unless God regenerates His unconditionally elect, in Calvinism, then the individual can literally “do” nothing in response to the gospel.

On the contrary, Paul answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). In order to be saved by God a person must put his or her faith in Jesus Christ. Scripture is insistent upon this truth. Jesus admits the very same sentiment. When asked by a crowd “What must we do to perform the works of God,” He answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). What many Calvinists have yet to understand (or at least articulate well) is that faith in Christ is not a work, and thus it does not diminish the glory or sovereignty of God: “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5 NRSV). This is a principle which Calvinist scholar R. C. Sproul, and most other Calvinists, have yet to learn. Dr. Sproul writes:

Usually Arminians deny that their faith is a meritorious work. If they were to insist that faith is a meritorious work, they would be explicitly denying justification by faith alone. The Arminian acknowledges that faith is something a person does. It is a work, though not a meritorious one. Is it a good work? Certainly it is not a bad work. It is good for a person to trust in Christ and in Christ alone for his or her salvation. Since God commands us to trust in Christ, when we do so we are obeying this command. But all Christians agree that faith is something we do. God does not do the believing for us. We also agree that our justification is by faith insofar as faith is the instrumental cause of our justification. All the Arminian wants and intends to assert is that man has the ability to exercise the instrumental cause of faith without first being regenerated. This position clearly negates sola gratia, but not necessarily sola fide.1

I am quickly losing my respect for such so-called “scholarly” Calvinists. If this is the best that they can do in critiquing Arminian theology, then there is little hope for a befitting dialogue between Calvinists and Arminians. First, though trusting in Christ is good, that is not synonymous with doing a good work. One would think that Dr. Sproul could distinguish between the two. The apostle Paul is emphatic that trusting in Christ cannot remotely be considered as a good work. Second, Arminians affirm that the Holy Spirit must grace an individual in order for him or her to freely trust in Christ. Unregenerate sinners do not possess the inherent ability to believe or trust in Christ, as Mark Driscoll erroneously insists regarding Arminian theology. This is the doctrine of Prevenient Grace, which is anything except a negation of sola gratia, as Sproul erroneously states.

To add insult to injury, Sproul states, “Then why say that Arminianism ‘in effect’ makes faith a meritorious work? Because the good response people make to the gospel becomes the ultimate determining factor in salvation.”2 Again, such a statement further proves my thesis that the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism is one of hermeneutics, and little else, because Sproul, like all Calvinists, has his hermeneutic firmly in place, and interprets the tenor of Scripture thereby (as does everybody else). Calvinists operate their theology under the rubric that salvation must be entirely passive in order for God to be considered sovereign, and for humanity not to be considered to be robbing God of His sovereignty and glory. They have defined sovereignty as “dominion” over His creatures, to “do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever Himself pleaseth.”3 Why do Sproul and other Calvinists think that Arminians “in effect” make faith a meritorious work? “Because,” writes Sproul, “the good response people make to the gospel becomes the ultimate determining factor in salvation.”

First, note that Sproul could not admit that faith is “the good work people make” for the gospel, but that faith is “the good response people make” for the gospel.This is because faith is not a work. But neither is a work synonymous with a response. Second, Sproul, as do all Calvinists, neglects the condition of salvation. God saves no one irrespective of faith in Christ Jesus. Since God saves people through regeneration (Titus 3:5), and since He saves (i.e., and regenerates) no one irrespective of faith in Christ Jesus, then faith precedes salvation and regeneration. As the apostle Paul notes: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Col. 2:13 ESV). Note the order: first one is forgiven (“having forgiven,” which precedes being “made alive”) of his or her sins (which we know is accomplished through justification, which is imputed by faith in Christ), and then one is made alive, or regenerated (and saved). Hence faith precedes regeneration.

God is the ultimate Determiner in salvation, and His word confesses that He is pleased with and determines to save “those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). The condition of God saving anyone is stated throughout the New Testament, which collectively amounts to the same notion: trust in Christ Jesus. For example, Whoever “calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13). The condition to being saved is established. “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30). The condition to being saved is established. If one confesses with one’s mouth “that Jesus is Lord” and believes in one’s heart “that God raised Him from the dead,” that one will be saved (Rom. 10:9). The condition is repeated. Does Scripture anywhere teach that we are saved by God regenerating us apart from faith in Christ? The answer is clearly no. We are saved on the condition that we believe in Christ. Scripture insists as much. What Calvinists erroneously insist upon is a condition-less salvation. What must one do to be saved? For Calvinists, one can do absolutely nothing: a person must wait to be regenerated by God.

Someone will, no doubt, argue against what is written here. I welcome the complaints. But what I welcome more is for Calvinists to show us where we are misunderstanding or misrepresenting their theology. I hear and read people state that Calvinists are among some of the most missions-oriented or missions-minded Christians today. After all, Calvinists write books on missions, preach sermons on missions, teach seminars and hold conferences on missions, and talk so much about missions. And? Writing books about — preaching sermons about — teaching seminars and holding conferences about — talking about — missions is not doing missions nor is it being evangelistic. Being evangelistic is actually sharing the gospel, calling upon those with whom we share the gospel to trust in Christ. Believe me, without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6), and without faith, no one will be saved. If all one does is present the gospel without calling others to trust in Christ then such a person is hardly “missional” or “evangelical.”

1 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 25.

2 Ibid., 26.

3 The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter II “Of God, and of the Holy Trinity,” in Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 2176. Chapter V “Of Providence” reads: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.” (2177)