Calvinism and Evangelism

Calvinism and Evangelism February 14, 2015

Calvinism and Evangelism

One of the misconceptions about Calvinism (here meaning belief in T.U.L.I.P. and the eternal decree deciding who will and who will not be saved) is that Calvinists cannot or will not do evangelism. Or, to put it more mildly, that Calvinism undermines evangelism.

In all such cases we have to distinguish between two things: the descriptive and the prescriptive. Descriptively, American evangelical Calvinists do evangelism. Some of the greatest evangelists who have been Calvinists; most of the contemporary evangelical Calvinists do or at least encourage evangelism. Prescriptively, however, it is fair to say that a Calvinist ought to tailor evangelism to Calvinist beliefs.

John Piper, for example, is well-known as a major advocate of evangelism and missions. I once heard him preach on how Calvinism is the best, if not the only, sound basis for missions and evangelism. His reasoning was that all people are dead in trespasses and sins and would never accept the gospel with faith unto salvation unless God had chosen them. The fact of the elect makes evangelism possible.

Of course that begs several questions and overlooks Arminian belief in prevenient grace, but that’s for a different blog post. It also overlooks the fact that for many people, anyway, the motive and urgency for missions and evangelism is precisely that if we don’t “go” some may go to hell who otherwise might not go to hell. Much evangelical missions and evangelism has been motivated by the intent to “rescue the perishing.”

Nevertheless, we must admit that Calvinism has not damaged or hindered evangelism and missions, at least in the past century. Calvinists have been in the forefront of much evangelism and missions.

The question that I am concerned with here, however, is what a Calvinist can say and cannot say in evangelism. Some Calvinists have been sufficiently concerned with consistency between faith and practice to limit what Calvinist evangelists may say to unbelievers—whether individually or in a crowd.

Some years ago Christian Reformed pastor-theologian Herman Hoeksema argued that Calvinists ought not to offer salvation indiscriminately to people. That is, according to Hoeksema and those who agreed with him, Calvinist preachers ought not to regard God’s offer of salvation to unbelievers, the lost, in an indiscriminate manner by assuring them of God’s love and willingness to forgive if they repent. Hoeksema wanted to limit evangelism to proclaiming the gospel of what Jesus Christ did for sinful humanity and leave it to the Holy Spirit to draw the elect to himself through the gospel proclaimed. To put his point in technical terms (drawing on the language of the CRC controversy of that time), according to him God’s offer of forgiveness through Christ is not a “well meant offer” except to the elect. Therefore it is disingenuous to offer it indiscriminately to everyone in a crowd.

Hoeksema’s “hyper-Calvinism” created a crisis in the CRC that reverberated beyond it among Calvinists generally. The outcome was that Hoeksema and his followers were expelled from the CRC (or left when it became clear the CRC was embracing a different view) and founded a rival Reformed denomination. The CRC declared that God’s and our offer of forgiveness upon a faith response to the gospel is a “well meant offer” even to the non-elect (reprobate). That is, according to the decision of that time (and I assume the CRC today), even God’s offer of salvation to the non-elect is a well meant offer. This made it possible for CRC pastors and missionaries (and by extension Calvinists who look to the CRC for guidance) to evangelize indiscriminately.

Still, the question remains: What can a Calvinist say to an individual unbeliever and group of people among whom there may be unbelievers about the offer of salvation?

First, I admit to being somewhat confused and a bit nonplussed by the claim that even God offers forgiveness as a “well meant offer” even to the non-elect. Remember, according to this theology, God has already decided they will not be saved; he will not give them the “inward call” but only the “outward call.” But the outward call is a well meant offer of grace? This seems to me to make God disingenuous. I appreciate the CRC’s and other Calvinists’ intentions, but I think they are inconsistent with their doctrine of election.

Second, I do not see how a Calvinist preacher, evangelist or missionary can say to any individual or crowd of people “God loves you, Christ died for you, and you are invited to repent and believe in Jesus Christ and if you do you will be saved.” The problem isn’t with the “if you do,” that is a proper qualification because in the Calvinist’s mind only the elect will “do.” The problem is with “God loves you, Christ died for you, and you are invited….” Can God who has already decided not to save certain individuals really invite all people (through our preaching) to come to him for forgiveness?

In my opinion, hyper-Calvinism (of the Hoeksema variety) is consistent Calvinism. If I were a Calvinist I would believe as Hoeksema did. I would reject indiscriminate evangelism and the “well meant offer” of salvation to everyone. I would know that neither I nor anyone else know who are the elect and the non-elect, so I would not attempt to restrict my evangelism to the elect. That doesn’t even make sense. (Although I once knew of a CRC church that send invitation letters only to newcomers to the city with Dutch last names!) But I would look at any individual or group and realize that God may have already rejected him or some of them. Then I would craft my message and especially my invitation to that reality. I could not believe that the offer of salvation to all of them is a well meant offer. I would limit my offer and invitation to saying what God has done for his chosen people through Christ and invite all who are convicted and drawn to repent and believe to do just that. I could not say to everyone “God loves you and Christ died for you; God wants to save you.”

I suspect that a great deal of Calvinist success in evangelism and missions is due to the fact that many Calvinists offer the gospel and salvation in a manner inconsistent with their own theology. I’m glad they do that. But, then, they should stop pointing accusing fingers at Arminians (and others) for being (allegedly) inconsistent.

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