Election & Evangelism

Robert B. Selph
(Taken from the book: Southern Baptists and the Doctrine of Election)
Permission Granted by the Author

One of the first objections to the doctrine of election made by its enemies is the supposed effect it would have on evangelism. It is assumed by those trained in Arminian or pseudo-Calvinistic positions that to believe sovereign election, we would render evangelism unnecessary—or, at least, impotent. To many who name Christ's name, election must be incompatible with a heartfelt passion for hell-bound souls. How could we possibly give a sincere and free offer of the Gospel to every creature on God's earth? To embrace Unconditional Election would have to mean throwing the Great Commission in the refrigerator of hyper-Calvinism for cold storage and exclusivism. We can already hear the churches responding with "if they re going to be saved anyway, why be bothered with the urgency or task of world missions? It is hard enough trying to get the church burdened and mobilized for outreach as it is. This doctrine would once and for all kill, bury, and be done with the greatest commission Christ gave to His church—to reach a lost world with the gospel."

I would like to offer the reasons of God's word and from history as to why evangelism's greatest supporter, defender, interpreter, and motivator is none other than the doctrine of Unconditional Election.  Brother Gambrell certainly agreed.  Furthermore, I am convinced that great damage can come to many undiscerning souls by not being taught the fullness of gospel truth.  This is not to say that many have not become Christians through preaching which is unfamiliar with or even opposed to Unconditional Election.  But it is to say that with the various factors involved, gospel preaching not founded upon God s sovereign work of grace in the soul has caused much damage in Christ s church. It has populated the church with an over-abundance of unregenerate professors of salvation who show no life-changing fear toward or love for God.

Our Lord s Command

Our sovereign Lord of the harvest has not only established His eternal purpose to save certain and specific sinners by His grace, but, also, He has ordained the means by which they will be converted to Him.  He has commissioned His church in no uncertain terms to proclaim the "good news" of the gospel.  The church has been given the task and privilege to command all men everywhere to repent and to trust Christ alone for salvation. We see these commands throughout the Scriptures, and these commands alone ought to be sufficient reason to evangelize even if we humanly cannot reconcile this duty with God's sovereign election. Such passages include Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46, 47; Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 9:19-27; II Corinthians 5:18-20; and 11 Timothy 4:5.

We can also be assured that no one will be converted to Christ without the gospel being presented to him in some way (Romans 10:13-15). Missions is absolutely imperative in God's sovereign plan to save His people from their sin. He has so designed redemption that no one may be saved without believing the gospel of Christ, including the heathen who have never heard.

Guaranteed Success

We freely send the gospel call to every person in the earth. We do not try to determine their elect/non-elect status before offering the gospel. There are no national boundaries, a more likely color of skin, or any discrimination whatsoever toward individuals to whom we make known the gospel. God "will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matthew 24:31). His redeemed elect will represent every tribe, tongue, people, and nation of the earth in a heaven of glory (Revelation 5:9)—and He will use His church to bring the strangers home.

Jesus said in John 6:37, "All that the Father gives me shall come to me." We sow the seed of the Gospel with the certainty that all Christ s sheep will hear His voice and they will follow Him (John 10:27). Success in evangelism is not dependent on my persuasion, my skill, my programming, my personality. Success in evangelism is in God's hands. He alone can open a Lydia's heart. He alone can transform a Saul of Tarsus. He alone can bring repentance to a captive (II Timothy 2:25). We plant and water. It is God alone who gives the increase (I Corinthians 1:30). It is solely of Him that we are in Christ Jesus (I Corinthians 1:30)-and nothing of ourselves. He makes His people willing in the day of His power (Psalm 110:3), and causes the man whom He has chosen to come to Him (Psalm 65:4). Whether men reject or receive the gospel, the faithful gospel-sower is a victor (II Corinthians 2:14-17). Our first and last duty is to be faithful in the sight of God as a diffuser of the fragrance of Christ to all around us. In this we triumph, not in the securing of results (decisions) ourselves.

What a great encouragement! We know that God will save His people. We know that as we proclaim the great invitations of the Bible—Isaiah 55:1-3, "Ho, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters . . . "; Matthew 11:28, "Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden. . ."; and Revelation 22:17, "The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come! And let him who hears say, ‘Come! And let him who thirsts come. And whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely."—we are assured that God's elect will eventually respond (Acts 13:48).

Every soul who has been foreloved and predestinated will, without exception, respond to the powerful call of the Holy Spirit as the gospel is preached (Romans 8:29, 30). if folks do not respond to the gospel, the fault is not in a weak, helpless gospel or in an impotent savior who can do nothing to budge sovereign man (Romans 9:6-16). Man's response to the gospel is bound up in a sovereign God and His purpose of election (Romans 9:11-24), which is true not only for the Jews, but also for the gentiles of all nations.

Keep the Standard High

God saves men by His truth. Our duty is to deliver the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Please do not read into this statement a lack of love. In matters of such eternal importance it is less than true love that would not be completely honest with people about their souls. We are not peddling the Word of God (II Corinthians 2:17), nor do we hide or disguise any part of the gospel—that would be dishonest (II Corinthians 4:2,3). Paul said, "We speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15), but we must make certain that we speak the whole truth.

Jesus set the tone by preaching repentance and also by pressing repentance. He didn't leave the doctrine of repentance in the pulpit. He applied the implications of repentance to individual hearers. He pressed the rich young ruler about his god of material wealth. He pressed the woman at the well concerning her life of lust. He warned any who would be His followers that it would mean self-denial, dying to self, and devoted obedience if they would be true Christians (Luke 9:23-26). He called folks to count the cost of a disciple's life of hardships (Luke 9:57,58; 14:25-33) in such a way that it appears at times that He tried to talk men out of following Him. Jesus was painfully honest about specific matters of sin and obedience. The Master Fisherman used the Ten Commandments in evangelism to let people see how their lives were an offense to a holy God, how disobedient they were, how guilty they were and what a life of righteousness really consisted of.

Today, because of our silence about repentance, the gospel has been cheapened. Our membership rolls are filled with many people we cannot find, and many others who show no evangelical obedience to Christ. According to Sunday School Board statistics, 49.3% of the baptized membership of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1985 did not participate in any activity at the churches of which they were members. The Church Training Department has even begun a program to reclaim inactive church members. This figure does not account for members who attend a service occasionally and others who have no involvement in Christ s Kingdom. The average SBC church has only 20-30 per cent of its "members" actively serving Christ, and yet many boast of their great memberships. How did the churches get so top- heavy with uncaring, unspiritual, disobedient professors?

The pulpits have gone "soft" in laying out the demands of the gospel by shelving the all-important truth of repentance. The modern gospel of "accept Jesus" is simply a watered down result of unwillingness to preach the necessity of repentance. Modern pulpits, attempting to stimulate sinners into a "decision for Christ" are generally afraid to lay out the costs of discipleship because of the probability of turning away many that otherwise would boost baptism ratios and attendance campaigns.

It is presumed that to press repentance we would establish a "works salvation." Yet we cannot reconcile the methods Jesus used in His own evangelism to accepted methods today. By our evangelical standards today, Jesus really should have won the rich young ruler. The young man wanted to go to heaven. He even appealed directly to Jesus for the way to eternal life. Any honest preacher today knows that in most churches the young man of Mark 10:17 would have been ushered into a counseling room, given four things to know, and led in a prayer of decision. He would be encouraged to be regular in Sunday School and Church Training in order to find out what had happened to him and how to grow in his new-found faith. After all, he could deal with his greed and love of money later as he grew.

How different this scheme of evangelism is from that of our Lord. The Lord Jesus, in Luke 9:23,24, said that a man cannot be considered a Christian until there is a radical resignation of self and a surrender of life to the daily authority of God s Word. There must be a radical change in a person's thinking that will radically change his lifestyle.

The evangelism of Jesus shows the superficiality of today's shallow, soul-deceiving appeals, such as "simply believe" and "all you have to do is ask Jesus into your heart." What would happen to our baptism statistics if we laid out the gospel demands as Jesus did? The number of people not interested in being seriously obedient to Christ as Lord after their supposed conversion is staggering. The churches are blamed for poor follow-up programs—for "winning them and dropping them," as if a super follow-up program will produce heart convictions in a dead soul that now is under the pretence of a genuine conversion. God's Word does not teach, offer, or insinuate "follow-up" programs. If people were truly born of the Spirit, there was no need for appeals or programs to entice their attendance and devotion. Lowering the standard of gospel evangelism with man's shallow techniques and candy-coated appeals may boost per-capita baptism ratios but will fill the pews of hell with the self-deceived. By introducing the gospel with the word "repent," Jesus did His "follow-up" work prior to conversion.

Unconditional Election encourages us to keep the standard of evangelism as high as that of Christ. We should have no fear of turning men away with an unnecessarily "hard requirement" if it is compatible with Christ's own practice. Repentance, being a response to God's sovereign work of regeneration in the soul, will come if God is pleased to save a person. God uses the gospel of repentance to change the heart inside.

Aim For the Heart

Unconditional Election directs us to go for the heart of a man in the preaching of the gospel. The will of man is not to be the center of attention. "Decisions" for Christ are not our main target. As we have seen, man s heart problem is much more incapacitating than would afford him the ability to just decide to exercise his unfree will. J. I. Packer speaks to the error of aiming at man s will:

"Let us work this out. If we regarded it as our job, not simply to present Christ, but actually to produce converts—to evangelize, not only faithfully, but also successfully—our approach to evangelism would become pragmatic and calculating. We should conclude that our basic equipment, both for personal dealing and for public preaching, must be twofold. We must have, not merely a clear grasp of the meaning and application of the gospel, but also an irresistible technique for inducing a response. We should, therefore, make it our business to try and develop such a technique. And we should evaluate all evangelism, our own and other people's by the criterion, not only of the message preached, but also of visible results. if our own efforts were not bearing fruit, we should conclude that our technique still needed improving. If they were bearing fruit, we should conclude that this justified the technique we had been using. We should regard evangelism as an activity involving a battle of wills between ourselves and those to whom we go, a battle in which victory depends on our firing off a heavy enough barrage of calculated effects. Thus our philosophy of evangelism would become terrifyingly similar to the philosophy of brainwashing. And we would no longer be able to argue, when such a similarity is asserted to be a fact, that this is not a proper conception of evangelism. For it would be a proper conception of evangelism, if the production of converts was really our responsibility.

"This shows us the danger of forgetting the practical implications of God's sovereignty. It is right to recognize our responsibility to engage in aggressive evangelism. It is right to desire the conversion of unbelievers. It is right to want one's presentation of the gospel to be as clear and forcible as possible. If we preferred that converts should be few and far between, and did not care whether our proclaiming of Christ went home or not, there would be something wrong with us. But it is not right when we take it on us to do more than God has given us to do. It is not right when we regard ourselves as responsible for securing converts, and look to our own enterprise and techniques to accomplish what only God can accomplish. To do that is to intrude ourselves into the office of the Holy Ghost, and to exalt ourselves as the agents of the new birth.

"And the point that we must see is this: only by letting our knowledge of God's sovereignty control the way in which we plan, and pray, and work in His service, can we avoid becoming guilty of this fault. For where we are not consciously relying on God, there we shall inevitably be found relying on ourselves. And the spirit of self-reliance is a blight on evangelism. Such, however, is the inevitable consequence of forgetting God s sovereignty in the conversion of souls." 77

Our main objective in heart evangelism is twofold: to bring the law of a sovereign and righteous God to bear upon a sinner s heart to the point of desperation, and to direct the sinner to flee to Christ in a total abandonment of sin and self to plead for mercy and for a new life. The key word that we are after in this objective is desperation. Sinners must be brought by the Holy Spirit to be desperate. Inherent in the very nature of fleeing to Christ is desperation (Hebrews 6:18). Look at every conversion in the Scripture and you see desperation after God's mercy in the man's soul. Whether folks were bitten by serpents or listening to Peter at Pentecost, be it a Philippian jailer or a blind Bartimaeus, there was desperation after mercy. Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones said, "It is made perfectly clear in the pages of the New Testament that no man can be saved until, at some time or other, he has felt desperate about himself."78  If partially-fallen man has a sovereign will to decide for Christ anytime he pleases, there is no desperation.

The divine method we are to employ in evangelism is a God-centered approach and not a man-centered one. Our choice of approach, based upon theology, will determine what we want the sinner to know and feel. If the sinner is made to know and feel what he needs to know and feel by the regenerating work of the Spirit, he will make a right decision. No one will have to talk him into doing anything. He will certainly not grip the pew with unbelieving reluctance until his knuckles turn white before he finally gives in. The Scripture knows nothing of such conversions.

Desperation is the key. How do we evangelize in order to see a sinner brought to desperation? We lay out Bible truths with compassionate concern in full dependence upon God's Spirit to sovereignly take them to the heart. These Bible truths include the following:

I. The Nature of God — People need to understand something of who God is as Creator, Sovereign Sustainer, Lawgiver, Judge, and Savior. This is exactly where Paul began every time he presented the gospel to untaught gentiles (Acts 17:22-31). Men need to be bowed before God's righteous majesty and see Him as Moses described—"Glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders."

2. The Holy Law of God — People should understand something of their transgressions and offenses before this Holy God as revealed through the Law (Romans 3:19, 20). They need to understand how the law has been broken, not only by outward actions, but by the heart in desires and motives (Matthew 5:22, 28). They need to see not only their guilt as lawbreakers, but also their inward corruption, bondage, and vile nature. The law must do the work in them as it did in Paul (Romans 7:7-13) until they see their sin as exceeding sinful. Fearful desperation needs to bring trembling men before a Holy Sovereign who is angry with them as they take each breath. Is this not the very language of the sweet singer of Israel in Psalm 5:4-6 and 7:11, 12? Did not John the Baptist warn of the wrath of God presently on the head of every sinner (John 3:36)? And was it not the Apostle Paul in New Testament fashion who said that sinners are presently treasuring up for themselves wrath against the day of wrath (Romans 2:5)? Every man's sin is great in the eyes of the Lawgiver.

3. Jesus Christ—Crucified and Risen — The only remedy for a lost man is found in Jesus. His atoning blood is the only refuge for a guilty man. His shed blood is the only cleansing agent to purge and wash a soul clean. His righteousness freely given to sinners is the only way to be made accepted with God. Only through the risen Christ is there victory over sin and the grave. He alone gives new life and new freedom. Only Jesus! Only Jesus! Only Jesus! (John 14:6)

4. Man s Duty—Repent and Believe — The only person to be saved is the person who radically turns from sin and trusts in Christ. This is a duty and is given as a command. God's Word promises the sinner salvation only on these gospel terms and not upon anything less than these terms. God, in His love, will receive sinners with open arms and will cast none away, but only those who come on His terms will be received . Salvation's benefits should not be dangled before the sinner as an appealing bait with which to hook him. He must repent and believe even if there were far less benefits than there are. Emphasizing benefits only capitalizes on a sinner s selfish condition.

5. Sovereign Mercy The "boxing up" principle79 is leaving men in the hands of God at this point, having explained the gospel and having urged them to repent and believe. We err by explaining precise movements and by giving explicit directions to a sinner as to how to come to Christ, as though he will bring about his own regeneration. Often people walk an aisle or pray a prayer to come to Christ, assuming they did what was required, and we have effectively turned salvation by grace into salvation by works. They think that because they took the instructed steps that they have obtained a change of heart. The counselors are careful to tell them that they "must mean it with all their hearts," but the question remains, "How do we or they know if they mean a sinner's prayer with all their hearts?" Didn t Jeremiah say, "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?" How do we know this person is not a stony-ground hearer or a thorny-ground hearer as he received the gospel (Matthew 13:3-23)? So often, in our sincere desire to see men converted, we prematurely abort the necessary work to be done in the heart by explicit instructions that we hope will bring a true heart conversion. The sinner just needs to be left in the hands of the sovereign God and if God is pleased to save him, we will know it by the desperation after Himself that will be evident.

The "boxing up" principle is putting the sinner into the pressure cooker of divine grace with several other ingredients. These include God s Law, God s Love and Grace, and God s Sovereignty.

A. God s Law — After the gospel presentation, we must pray that God will bring about the powerful, yet painful, agonizing effect that Paul described (Romans 7:7-13). There must be contrition and sorrow for sin, not because sin has hurt us, but because our sin has displeased God. This will provide the basis for true heart repentance. The old divines termed this heart activity as "law work," and it must operate deeply and thoroughly.

B. God s Love and Grace — There is mercy with the Lord. There is salvation through Christ. The sinner must be made to believe the person and work of Christ is God's demonstration of wondrous love and the only provision for man's sin and salvation. "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). The infinite and loving grace of God was manifested as a certainty chiefly when God sent His own Son to be the propitiation for our sins (I John 4:10). No greater love has ever existed!

C. God s Sovereignty — Man must also understand that he is locked up on death row without a key. God has the key. Man does not decide anything. He should be told of all the things he cannot do.

1. He cannot understand - I Corinthians 2:14

2. He cannot hear - John 8:43

3. He cannot see - John 3:3

4. He cannot come - John 6:44

5. He cannot be subject to God s Law - Romans 8:7

He should be told "God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy and He will have compassion on whom He will have compassion" (Romans 9:15). He should be reduced to utter hopelessness and helplessness apart from the sovereign mercy and grace of God. The decision is in God s hands—to harden the sinner's heart by leaving him to his natural desires and free choices to perish in hell, or to grant to him the free grace of repentance and saving faith as a gift that will glorify His own name in the ages to come (Ephesians 2:7-9).

You see, in this presentation there are no bargaining tables, no truces, or peace treaties. The sinner falls humbly before the throne of an exalted Christ to beg for mercy. Salvation is in the hands of a sovereign Christ (John 17:2), and He will give it to whomever He is pleased to give it (John 5:21).

This does not mean the Lord is reluctant to receive sinners. He stands ready graciously to receive all who flee to Him in the desperation of repentance and faith. The fact remains, no man will flee to Christ except the Spirit bring him. This work of the Spirit is at the sovereign disposal of the Almighty.

"God s Just Liberty"

Jonathan Edwards preached sermons to the cold and dead churches of New England. The Almighty was pleased to use these sermons in the converting of many and the spread of a "Great Awakening." While Edwards preached the truth of justification by faith alone (which was rare in these churches) he was convincing men of the futility of works to earn God's favor or to obligate God's blessing. Many present-day evangelists would say "yea and amen!" However, Edwards followed up these discourses with others in which he taught God's "absolute sovereignty in regard to the salvation of sinners and His just liberty in regard to answering the prayers of mere natural man.

The idea of "God's just liberty" was a powerful part of Edwards gospel presentation. It included all that is meant in the doctrine of election. This is what Edwards meant by "God's just liberty"—First, God s liberty is perfect. There is nothing the natural man has done or can do to impair or bind God to decide favorably in his case. God is at perfect liberty to grant the sinner "saving faith" and "heart repentance" or to withold such grace. The sinner may repeat the "sinner s prayer" over and over to no avail if God does not grant a changed heart by the new birth. The sinner may call on the name of the Lord and never receive the saving mercy that leads to real conversion (Matthew 7:21).

Secondly, God s liberty is also just. Joseph Tracy analyzed Edwards use of "God s just liberty" in this way:

"Sinners have merited and now deserve instant damnation; and God's liberty to inflict it upon them now, or defer it for the present, or save them from it wholly, according to his own pleasure, is a most "just liberty." When the sinner sees and feels this doctrine to be true, he knows that no course remains for him, but to call upon God for mercy; and he knows that when he calls upon God, there is nothing in his prayers that at all impairs God's "just liberty" with respect to hearing him, and that he has nothing to depend upon, as a ground of hope that he shall be heard, but the mercy of God in Christ. He can make no appeal to the justice of God, for that only condemns him; nor to any other attribute but mercy, which, in its very nature, is free, and not constrained. And he can find no satisfactory evidence that God is disposed to be merciful to sinners, but in the fact that he has given his Son to die for them. Here is his only ground of hope. Here he must present and urge his prayer, knowing that he deserves to be rejected, and knowing that nothing of his own, not even his prayer, diminishes God's ‘just liberty', to receive or reject him according to his good pleasure. And this is the point to which he needs to be brought. This is the dependence which he needs to feel, the very feeling which will drive him to God in prayer.

"It teaches him to resign himself to the disposal of God, sensible of God's ‘just liberty , and not knowing first what God will do with him; but encouraged by the goodness of God as shown in the death of his Son, to hope for acceptance and salvation. And this is faith; and faith ‘works by love , and transforms the whole character." 80

It was when men like Edwards began preaching such sermons in the 1730s that the "Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and wonderfully to work among us" and many began to be savingly converted.

This is a far cry from the modern appeals to sovereign sinners to decide to open their heart's door and let the poor, helpless, handcuffed Jesus come in. Men are told, "God has done all He can do; now it is all up to you." This is nonsense! Was this the impotent Jesus that confronted Saul of Tarsus and summoned him to repent and obey from that day forward? Man is not on the throne-only the LORD!

As the Holy Spirit uses the powerful truth of "God's just liberty" the sinner is made to fear for his soul. His hands are emptied of all possible plans or schemes to deal with the matter of his soul at a more convenient time. He is made to see the mercy of God as the only hope for his guilty, sin-laden soul, and that it is very possible that the sovereign God will give him what he justly deserves in spite of formal petitions for salvation. He is made to see that even his prayers and petitions to God for salvation can be of a self-serving nature rather than of true heart repentance and faith which alone result in a changed life. He is made to see that God is not obligated to give salvation even though he takes all the "required" steps.

He is reduced to the position of a Bartimaeus who had no idea whether the Messiah would stop and have mercy upon him. Bartimaeus was desperate enough that he began to cry out, and continued to cry out until the Savior stopped. How presumptuous sinners are today who think, "Of course Jesus will save me —I asked Him to, didn't I?" This is not the faith of Bartimaeus.

If God is pleased to save a man, these truths will be taken to the heart with the result of desperation. The pressure cooker of Divine Grace will have done its work. This is not saying that all sinners are saved by the same outward experience, by the same Scripture verses, or in the same time sequence. God's mysterious work is as varied as every fingerprint. In fact, it is much of modern evangelism that simply gives the same presentation of the same three or four poimits to every individual in a canned approach. Our Lord's evangelism began with a varied approach every time, depending on the individual s starting point. Nevertheless, everyone who is truly converted was eventually brought to the same place—desperation. We want to see sinners get to the place where the leper was—".. . Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean" (Luke 5:12); and where Bartimaeus was—"Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me" (Mark 10:47); and where the publican was—". . . God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13). This is how God uses the "boxing up" principle. We can only shut sinners up to God and His truth, stand back and see the salvation of the Lord!

Altar Calls

These are the very reasons why I do not employ an "altar call" after preaching the gospel. First, there was never any directive or example given in Scripture for the use of altar calls. In fact, the Christian Church knew nothing of an altar call for over 1800 years. Surprisingly enough, people were converted without them for many years, and the church did just fine. This, of course, is an understatement. The Gospel under the Spirit s power was sufficient to transform lives through the ages without the church having to adopt extra-Biblical measures.

In addition, this "mechanistic" approach easily falls into a "works salvation" trap. Much like those who pretend to be regenerated through baptism, there are many who attribute their new birth to walking the aisle, agreeing with the counselor s presentation, and praying a prayer. As Spurgeon and others fought the heresy of "baptismal regeneration", so we would not want to be guilty of a "decisional regeneration". God, not man's will, blows the new birth upon the soul by His sovereign grace (John 3:8). Anyone can take these mechanical steps, and yet how duped they are to think that because they took the required steps they will receive the new birth. These directions have the effect, not of throwing men upon God for His mercy, but of throwing themselves upon their own acts.

In the third place, sinners should be left "boxed up" with God's Law, God's Love and Grace, and God's Sovereignty until God has brought new life to the heart. We short-circuit what good has been done in the preaching by setting up an immediate response. We are duty-bound to call for an immediate response of repentance and faith, but we have no authority to do the Holy Spirit s work in setting up and walking a sinner through what we think will effect heart regeneration.

Fourthly, the public profession of faith is done at baptism. This is exactly the purpose that baptism was given to accomplish. Baptism is God's appointed means to publicly confess the Lord, not an altar call.

Fifthly, the gospel is no less proclaimed without an altar call. The good news is to be heartily and boldly set forth. The warnings and promises, the duties and blessings of the Gospel, and all the appropriate applications of the gospel are to be declared with a burning passion and a holy urgency. We are to pray for burdened hearts, crying to God for the lost to be saved, much like John Knox did when he said, "Give me Scotland or I die!"

The following thoughts on presenting the gospel to sinners are from Dr. Asahel Nettleton. This nineteenth-century evangelist from the New England area stood in contrast to his more popular contemporary, Charles Finney. Though Nettleton was believed to be the means of bringing no less than thirty-thousand souls to Christ, his memory and methods are conveniently laid to rest in a Christian culture known for its shortcuts and doctrinal superficiality. Nettleton's obscurity, next to Finney, was largely due to his Calvinistic and careful style of evangelism. In contrast to Finney, Nettleton would have nothing to do with the "new measures" of bringing men to Christ, namely the employment of altar calls. He believed the "new measures" to be "Calamitous" and opposed to careful, heart-searching evangelism. Let us hear his comments and those about him made by other men on the gospel concepts raised in this book. May I urge the reader to compare them with those of J. B. Gambrell. These quotes are taken from The Life and Labors of Asahel Nettleton:

"He (Nettleton) felt it to be of the first importance to preach the doctrines of grace with great plainness in revivals of religion. He had no confidence in those revivals in which these doctrines could not be preached. His opinion was, that while the preaching of divine sovereignty and election, with their kindred doctrines, was eminently fitted to check fanaticism, and put a period to a spurious religious excitement, it was equally adapted to promote a genuine revival of religion."

Nettleton explained:

"I have seen churches run down by repeated excitements, in which there was emotion merely, without instruction." "In the first stage of a revival," said he, "while depravity is yet ascendant, and conscience asleep, I would preach the Law, with its awful sanctions and solemn claims on sinners to be holy, and that immediately. But when the first moments of a revival are past, and sinners are settling down on presumptuous confidences, I would preach Election. Conscience is then roused enough to make a cord which sinners cannot break. Their own convictions are on my side, so that they cannot escape; and I would hold them fast, and repeat my strokes under the fire and hammer of divine truth."

"He (Nettleton) was cautious in admitting persons to the Church. He would not encourage any to make a profession of religion till they gave satisfactory evidence of a change of heart."

"In his (Nettleton's) own management in times of revivals, by preaching and personal intercourse, nothing was more deserving of being studied and imitated, than his thoroughness, caution, and discrimination. In these respects there was a heaven-wide difference between Dr. Nettleton and some of the most noted of his professed imitators. Being thoroughly ' rooted and grounded in the truth himself ', his presentations of it were clear, pungent, and searching. His revival topics were systematically and admirably arranged. In his discourses he began at the beginning. A full believer in the total depravity of the human heart, he arraigned sinners, whether young or old, as rebels against God; and made the threatenings of the law thunder in their ears, as but few preachers have power to do. With him, acting as an ambassador of Christ, there was no such thing as compromise. The rebels must ‘throw down their arms‘, and submit unconditionally, or he would give them no hope of pardon. Hundreds, if not thousands, can witness what a terrible dissector he was of the ‘joints and the marrow‘. At the same time that he shewed the impenitent they were lost, he made them feel that they had ‘destroyed themselves‘. It was difficult to say which he made plainest--their danger or their guilt; their immediate duty to repent, or the certainty that, without being drawn and renewed by the Spirit of God, they never would repent. It was in vain for them to retreat from one refuge to another. He was sure to strip them of all their vain excuses, and deliver them over to their consciences, to be dealt with according to law amid justice. He preached what are called the hard doctrines—such as divine sovereignty, election, and regeneration—with great plainness, discrimination, and power. His grand aim was to instruct, convince, and persuade: to this end his appeals were constantly made to the understanding, the conscience, and the heart. The passions he never addressed, nor were his discourses at all calculated to excite them. Any outbreak of mere animal feeling he was always afraid of, as tending to warp the judgment and beget false hopes. His grand aim was to instruct his hearers as thoroughly, and point out the difference between true and spurious conversion so clearly, as to make it difficult for them to get hopes at all without good spiritual evidence on which to found them. Knowing how apt persons are to cling to their hopes, whether good or bad, he depended much more upon holding them back, till they had good evidence, than upon shaking them from their false foundations."

"The chief excellence of his preaching seemed to consist in great plainness and simplicity, and discrimination—in much solemnity and affectionate earnestness of manner—in the application of the truth to the heart and conscience—in taking away the excuses of sinners, and leaving them without help and hope, except in the sovereign mercy of God. In short, it was conformed to the work for which the Spirit was sent into the world,—viz., to reprove or convince the world of Sin, of Righteousness, and of Judgment. This characteristic was most striking. His manner of dealing with awakened sinners was peculiar. While it served to deepen their convictions, and lead them to Christ, it gained their confidence, and secured their belief of the truth. He knew, too, how to search those who expressed hope. And while he detected the hypocrite, and encouraged the desponding, he was regarded by all with affection and reverence."

"He (Nettleton) shewed the sinner that his unregenerate prayers for a new heart, his impenitent seeking, striving, and knocking, would be of no avail; and that absolute, unconditional submission to a sovereign God, was the first thing to be done..

"His (Nettleton's) visits among the people were frequent, but short and profitable. He entered immediately on the subject of the salvation of the soul, and the great importance of attending to it without delay. He did not customarily propound questions and require answers, lest by this means he should turn the attention of sinners from their own wretched state, by leading them to think ‘How they should reply to the minister‘. He was so well acquainted with the human heart, that he seemed to have an intuitive perception of what was passing in the minds of those whom he was addressing. Thus he could so direct his conversation as to produce silence and self-condemnation, and confine their thoughts to their own lost and ruined state, sometimes remarking: ‘You have no time to spend in conversation before the salvation of the soul is secured.‘ When any indulged a hope which was not satisfactory, he would say: ‘You had better give it up, and seek your salvation in earnest."

"A young female, who had been for some time in a state of religious anxiety, said to him: ‘What do you think of the doctrine of Election? Some say it is true; and some say it is not true, and I do not know what to think of it. ‘—‘And what do you wish to think of it? said Dr. Nettleton. ‘I wish, said she, ‘to think that it is not true. — Suppose, then, said Dr. Nettleton, ‘that it is not true. The doctrine of repentance is true. You must repent or perish. Now, if the doctrine of election is not true, what reason have you to believe you ever shall repent? After a moment's reflection, she replied: ‘If the doctrine of election is not true, I never shall repent. Her eyes were then opened upon her true condition. Every refuge failed her. She saw that she was entirely dependent on the sovereign grace of God; and, there is reason to believe, she was soon brought out of darkness into God s marvelous light."

One of Dr. Nettleton's contemporaries, Rev. Cobb, wrote concerning Nettleton's ministry:

"As the revival became more interesting and powerful, he preached more doctrinally. He brought from his treasure the doctrines of total depravity, personal election, reprobation, the sovereignty of divine grace, and the universal government of God in working all things after the counsel of His own will. And these great doctrines did not paralyze, but greatly promote the good work. Never had brother Nettleton such power over my congregation, as when he poured forth in torrents these awful truths. And at no time were converts multiplied so rapidly, and convictions and distress so deep, as when these doctrines were pressed home to the conscience."

Nettleton wrote the following statement in his diary during a period of awakening in Nassau, New York during the month of April, 1820:

"I have since thought that the effect of my leaving them as I did —in the advanced stages of their conviction—was evidently beneficial. It drove them from all human dependence.

The following is an extract from the letter of an English preacher. He wrote it after observing several revival meetings in America. Nettleton concurred with him 100 percent.

"Terrific sermons and other means are artfully contrived to stimulate the feelings of ignorant people. In compliance with the call given at the period of the highest excitement, they repair to the anxious seat by scores. As their fears are soon aroused, they are generally as soon calmed; and in a few days many profess to entertain hope. Many such converts soon lose all appearance of religion; but they become conceited, secure, and Gospel-proof; so that, while living in the open and habitual neglect of their duty, they talk very freely of the time when they experienced religion."81

We have come to a point today that to imagine a Gospel meeting or church service without an altar call would be bordering on heresy or liberalism. Altar calls have become evangelicals sign of "real evangelism." The presentation of the Gospel is not complete to many if the "sawdust trail" is not the great climax of a well-planned meeting.

However, not one word of the Holy Scripture supports such an "essential tradition." This practice is only the consistent outworking of Arminian theology—secure decisions. Altar calls are the invention of the Anninian delusion—"you can do it"—"you can come to Christ"—"All you have to do is pray this prayer." While the Scriptures teach that men must flee to Christ, it also, in no uncertain terms, teaches that man cannot come to Christ. To concoct a method whereby men are "walked through" the prescribed steps to effect the new birth is to try to produce an effect which only the Sovereign Spirit of God can do. Anninians think that if men just pray the prayer, it all happens. How deceived we are! This was not the faith of our founding fathers, and it ought not to be today.

We must, with passionate entreaties, press men to flee to Christ. They must earnestly be urged to believe, to call, to cast their souls upon Jesus immediately. But for the Lord's sake and for the sake of deluded professors, let us not do anything in our evangelism that might contribute to the cauterizing of consciences due to the fact that they have made "their decision" for Christ by taking the required steps.

Please hear the words of C. H. Spurgeon on the issue of altar calls:

"Let me say, very softly and whisperingly, that there are little things among ourselves which must be carefully looked after, or we shall have a leaven of Ritualism and priesthood working in our measures of meal. In our revival services, it might be as well to vary our procedure. Sometimes shut up that enquiry-room. I have my fears about that institution if it be used in permanence, and as an inevitable part of the services. It may be a very wise thing to invite persons who are under concern of soul to come apart from the rest of the congregation, and have conversation with godly people; but if you should ever see a notion is fashioning itself that there is something to be got in the private room which is not to be had at once in the assembly, or that God is more at that penitent form than elsewhere, aim a blow at that notion at once. We must not come back by a rapid march to the old ways of altars and confessionals, and have a Romish trumpery restored in a coarser form. If we make men think that conversation with ourselves or with helpers is essential to their faith in Christ, we are taking the direct line for priestcraft. In the Gospel, the sinner and the Saviour are to come together, with none between. Speak upon this point very clearly. ‘You, sinner, sitting where you are, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, shall have eternal life. Do not stop till you pass into an enquiry room. Do not think it essential to confer with me. Do not suppose that I have the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, or that these godly men and women associated with me can tell you any other Gospel than this. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life."

"Go home alone, (he would say,) ‘trusting in Jesus . (Spurgeon now quotes the sinner) ‘I would like to go into the enquiry room. ‘I dare say you would, but we are not willing to pander to popular superstition. We fear that in those rooms men are warmed into fictitious confidence. Very few of the supposed converts of enquiry rooms turn out well. Go to your God at once, even where you are now. Cast yourself on Christ, now, at once, ere you stir an inch!

"God has not appointed salvation by enquiry rooms.. . For the most part, a wounded conscience, like a wounded stag, delights to be alone that it may bleed in secret." 82

Finally, the wisdom of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is clear as he writes in his book Preaching and Preachers. The "Doctor" was giving eight reasons against "calling for decisions".

"Most would agree with my sixth point which is that this method tends to produce a superficial conviction of sin, if any at all. People often respond because they have the impression that by doing so they will receive certain benefits. I remember hearing of a man who was regarded as one of the ‘star converts‘ of a campaign. He was interviewed and asked why he had gone forward in the campaign the previous year. His answer was that the evangelist had said, ‘If you do not want to "miss the boat" you had better come forward. He said that he did not want to ‘miss the boat‘ so he had gone forward; and all the interviewer could get out of him was that he somehow felt that he was now ‘on the boat‘ . He was not clear about what this meant, not what it was, and nothing had seemed to happen to him during the subsequent year. But there it was; it can be as superficial as that.

"...That is the kind of thing that may happen even when an appeal is not made. But when an appeal is made it is greatly exaggerated and so you get spurious conversions. As I have reminded you even John Wesley, the great Arminian, did not make appeals to people to ‘come forward‘ . What you find so often in his Journals is something like this: ‘Preached at such and such a place. Many seemed to be deeply affected, but God alone knows how deeply. Surely that is very significant and important. He had spiritual understanding and knew that many factors can affect us. What he was concerned about was not immediate visible results but the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. A knowledge of the human heart, of psychology, should teach us to avoid anything that increases the possibility of spurious results." 83

Does Election Really Kill Evangelism?

It is often claimed that the preaching of doctrine and certainly the doctrine of Unconditional Election, will sap the church of evangelistic zeal amid drive. Churches reportedly have grown ice-cold under the influence of this high doctrine.

If their claims be true, one searching question must be asked—What happened in the Southern Baptist Convention for eighty years? It has been clearly shown that Unconditional Election was the foundation of all doctrinal views that ignited the convention to be the great evangelistic and missionary force that it was. How did it happen? How did these "hyperCalvinists" ever get untracked and have any evangelistic concern if these claims be true?

History provides all the evidence necessary to prove the ludicrous nature of such claims. Consider all the major missionary movements, along with the Great Awakenings in America. Consider the great Protestant Reformation in Europe. it is easily demonstrated that believers in Unconditional Election have led the way in missionary zeal and effort.

Spurgeon loved to speak to this topic:

"The greatest missionaries that have ever lived have believed in God s choice of them; and instead of this doctrine leading to inaction, it has ever been an irresistible motive power, and it will beso again. It was the secret energy of the Reformation. It is because free grace has been put into the background that we have seen so little done in many places. It is in God s hand the great force which can stir the church of God to its utmost depth. It may not work superficial revivals, but for deep work it is invaluable. Side by side with the blood of Christ it is the world s hope. How can men say that the doctrine of distinguishing grace makes men careless about souls? Did they never hear of the evangelical band which was called the Clapham sect? Was Whitefield a man who cared nothing for the salvation of the people? He who flew like a seraph throughout England and America unceasingly proclaiming the grace of God, was he selfish? Yet he was distinctively a free-grace preacher. Did Jonathan Edwards have no concern for the souls of others? Oh, how he wept, and cried, and warned them of the wrath to come! Time would fail me to tell of the lovers of men who have been lovers of this truth." 84

As Brother Gambrell indicated, if you really want to be invigorated in your faith and renewed in your courage to the task of evangelism, reflect upon how God has used the preaching of the historic doctrines of grace (election, predestination, etc.) to bring many to Himself in salvation!


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