Election & Evangelism
Robert B. Selph
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 unnecessaryor, 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 churchto 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.
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 BibleIsaiah 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 gospelthat 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 programsfor "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:
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:
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.
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:
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 placedesperation. 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!
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:
One of Dr. Nettleton's contemporaries, Rev. Cobb, wrote concerning Nettleton's ministry:
Nettleton wrote the following statement in his diary during a period of awakening in Nassau, New York during the month of April, 1820:
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.
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 theologysecure 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:
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".
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 askedWhat 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:
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!