Evangelism and God's Sovereignty in Salvation
Tony A. Bartolucci, B.S., M.A., Ph.D. in Progress
Theologically speaking, I'm a Calvinist. That is, I hold to the historic tenets of God's sovereignty in the justification of the elect, tenets that find their genesis in the history of the church from the first century onward. (It was the reformers, men like Luther and Calvin, who reawakened the church to the humbling truth of the doctrines of grace; this was in opposition to the semi-pelagianism of the Roman Catholic Church).
I've upheld the truth of God's absolute sovereignty for the vast majority of my Christian lifeeven before I ever set foot in a Bible College or Seminary classroom. My subsequent years of study have only solidified my belief in the biblical integrity of this truth. Therefore, I make no apologies for this foundational aspect of my belief.
I've often had people ask me, "If you believe in unconditional election (predestination), why do you believe in evangelism?" My reply is simple: "Why do I believe in unconditional election? Because it's taught in the Bible. Why do I believe in evangelism? Because it's taught in the Bible!" They are non-contradictory doctrines that must be upheld if one is to champion the truth of God's Word.
The Apostle Paul, upheld the truth of both election and evangelism. For example, consider what he penned in 2 Timothy 2:10:
For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen [elect], that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.
In this vein, Dr. Bob Ricker, former president of the Baptist General Conference, has written:
I am encouraged by the doctrine of divine election because I know "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me" (John 6:37). Even though people coming to Christ are entering into and believing the miraculous . . . I know that when a person is drawn by the Holy Spirit, he or she will come. It is a happy privilege of being part of this by our life and witness.
God's sovereignty in no way negates the need for evangelism. This is clear in passages such as Romans chapters 9-11. The positive result of God's sovereignty in evangelism is that God's sovereignty guarantees results in evangelism.
If salvation were solely up to the "decision" of sinful men, would any respond? And if they did respond, what would be their motive for doing so? Selfishness? Peer pressure? Hope to escape the penalty of hell apart from a desire to worship and serve Jesus Christ? No one truly seeks to selflessly submit himself to God simply because He is the benevolent Lord of the universe who demands our allegiance!
There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one. [Romans 3:11-12]
This is why the Bible declares that men cannot repent and believe of their own accord; they are literally dead to the gospel (Matthew 13:11-13; John 6:44,64; Acts 13:48, 16:14; Romans 8:5-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:1ff.; Colossians 1:21). Dead men don't believe. Dead men don't do anything. Dead men are . . . dead!
It's not as some would say, that lost men are in a deep hole waiting to be rescued and God refuses to rescue all, selecting some but unfairly leaving the rest crying for help. This view is erroneously masqueraded as Calvinism. The truth is that all of the men in that pit are dead. That God graciously rescues any is purely of His grace as none deserve to be delivered (and only those whom he calls even care to be saved).
According to Revelation 13:8 and 17:8, the names of the elect (those who will be saved from God's wrath) were written in the Lamb's Book of Life from the foundation of the world. In the mind and plan of God the issue is settled. Your unsaved neighbor has his name written there or he does not. Perhaps you have not come to saving faith in Christ. If so, think about this: either your name is written there or it is not. If this frightens you, then perhaps the Spirit of God is calling you to forsake your sin and believe in Christ as the one who died for your sin that you may find forgiveness and live.
To say that, because God is absolutely sovereign evangelism is unnecessary, is akin to saying that because a true believer in Christ cannot lose his salvation, there's no reason to live a godly life. The Bible is clear that those who come to salvation do so because God sovereignly regenerates their hearts enabling them to believe in Jesus Christ. Those who believe are thereby made new creations in Christ. They are born again to new life in Him and, therefore, demonstrate that change in their lives (Romans 8:29-30; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 1:3-5, 2:4-10; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). This is what makes Christianity unique from the myriads of false religions. Religion says, "Check out whatever religion makes sense to you and join it. It is an act of your will." Christianity says, "God grants sinners the grace to believe the gospel by changing their hearts. It is an act of His will."
John 1:12-13 puts it this way:
But as many as received Him [Christ], to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of men, but of God.
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To state, as verse 13 does, that salvation comes not by blood means that it cannot be inherited by birthright. In saying that it is not of men, means that no man can confer salvation upon another, as many religions teach. In saying that it is not of the will of the flesh means that salvation does not come by way of men unilaterally willing it upon themselves. The last three words of verse 13 sum up the truth of Christianity: only the living God can impart eternal life.
What about evangelism? The Bible is clear that believers are to share the gospel with a lost and fallen world. To deny unconditional election is to misrepresent God's Word and, therefore, God Himself. To deny personal responsibility in evangelism is not only to misrepresent the Bible, it's downright disobedient. That God uses secondary means, in this case our faithfulness in evangelism, to accomplish His purpose of salvation in no way denies the fact that He is the sovereign first cause of that salvation (cf. Acts 18:9-10).
The issue, therefore, isn't whether the elect will come to salvation, the issue is whether you and I will be obedient in sharing the truth that God uses to lead them there.
The fact that God grieves over the fallen estate of men should be reflected in our grief as well. As the great preacher of the 19th century, Charles H. Spurgeon once confessed:
"I would pluck my eyes from their sockets and cast them from me for they do not grieve for the lost as they should."
I admire how men like Spurgeon have maintained a biblical balance in a passion for evangelism as well as belief in God's sovereignty (and blessing!) in evangelism. We would do well to follow in their example.