October 05, 2004

Soldiers of Christ, in truth arrayed

About a week ago, as the League of Reformed Bloggers was just starting up, Brad at 21st Century Reformation blogged an insightful article about the practical implications of theology: "Reformed: Does it Matter?"

Brad asked these two basic questions:

So my challenge is "How does being Reformed positively and negatively effect sanctification?" This is what we as Reformed pastors and reformed Christians need to consider deeply.

Another question is: "How does our theology effect our good works, especially evangelism?"

It's the second question I want to focus on here. Does theology affect our actions? Specifically, does it have an effect on the way we "do" evangelism? No question.

Whenever I am asked how theology affects evangelism, I have two book quotations I like to pull out that contrast the practical consequences of Arminian and Calvinist theology. The first is from pastor and church-growth guru Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Church (hereafter PDC) epitomizes an Arminian, man-centred, pragmatic approach to establishing and filling the assembly. (Just as an aside, in a more recent interview following the success of The Purpose Driven Life, Warren told Modern Reformation he held to monergism and the five Solas of the Reformation. That may be, but it sure doesn't come out in PDC.)

Warren writes:

It is a waste of time to fish in a spot where the fish aren't biting. Wise fishermen move on. They understand that fish feed in different spots at different times of the day. Nor are they hungry all the time. . . .

Is it good stewardship to continue badgering someone who has rejected Christ a dozen times when there is a whole community of receptive people waiting to hear the Gospel for the first time? I believe the Holy Spirit wants to direct us to the people he's already prepared to respond. Jesus told us not to worry about the unresponsive. Shake the dust off your feet and move on.

The Apostle Paul's strategy was to go through open doors and not waste time banging on closed ones. Likewise, we should not focus our efforts on those who aren't ready to listen. There are far more people in the world who are ready to receive Christ than there are believers ready to witness to them. . . .1

It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart. . . .2

The second citation comes from James R. White, an author, apologist, and evangelist whose ministry has proclaimed the Gospel to Mormons and others for twenty years. A committed Reformed Baptist and defender of historic Reformed theology, White writes:

[I]t is said that Calvinism undermines the motive for evangelism. Despite the popularity of this accusation, it is false. Those who evangelize out of concern for man's free will rather than out of obedience to Christ and His command, do so for the wrong reasons, and will soon be disillusioned as men reject their message and bring persecution against them.

This particular objection is most troubling to me personally. I have seen its falsehood first hand. For many years I have led volunteers in passing out Christian literature and witnessing to people who are attending the semi-annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. We are the only group who is in attendance at every single Conference. We have talked to Arminians who wonder why we bother, since "those are the hard cases anyway." Yes, they are the hard cases. And if I believed for a second that it was up to their "free will" and a grace that cannot change a heart, cannot renew a mind, I would never set foot outside that place again. But I do not believe in free will, nor do I believe in a grace that is a mere helping force and not the renewing power of God. That is why we keep going. That is why we see "hard cases" come out of Mormonism. When you believe that there is no power in heaven or on earth that can stop the Holy Spirit of God from drawing one of His elect to Himself (including the will of the creature!) you can preach the truth with boldness and trust God to save His people.3

To contrast these two opposing views, then:

To the Arminian, evangelism is based on man's effort. You can reel anyone in if only you can figure out what bait to use. Hence the "seeker-sensitive," innovating, marketing-oriented approach of PDC.

To the Calvinist, evangelism is based on God's power. God knows who his people are, and will draw them in his own good time. The evangelist's job is not to wrap the Gospel up in a slick package, but to proclaim it plainly and boldly and allow the Holy Spirit to do the hard work.

Because to the Arminian evangelism is based on his own persuasive skill, it must necessarily be defeatist. We see this in Warren's words, and in those of White's hypothetical critic. Why waste your time on the "hard cases"? Move on and find someone more likely to listen to you. (Picture, if you can, Paul remarking to Silas on the outskirts of Philippi, "Let's not stop here. I have a feeling we're just going to get thrown in jail. What's the next town on this road?") If salvation ultimately rests on the free choice of the sinner, then the success or failure of evangelism depends on the ability of the evangelist to persuade him to choose Christ. Hence the need for emotional music, drawn-out "altar calls" and other persuasive gimmicks. Even after all that, there are no guarantees.

But to the Calvinist, evangelism is necessarily victorious. It could be said that the evangelist cannot fail in his appointed task. Salvation is ultimately based on the free choice of a sovereign God who saves whom he wills, when he wills. The evangelist is the means by which God proclaims the gospel to the world. This does not mean that the evangelist has license to be complacent or slovenly in the presentation, since God is doing the "real work" anyway. But it does mean that he doesn't have to dress the gospel up in fancy presentations and crowd-drawing spectacles. Like Paul, we need only preach "Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:1) - "not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (2:4). (Speaking personally as a technical writer, I find the plain and straightforward approach immensely appealing.) Our job is not merely to persuade sinners, but to proclaim the saving Gospel. Since there can be no failure, since God's word "shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it" (Isa. 55:11), success is guaranteed.

It is often asked of Calvinists, "Why bother evangelizing if God is just going to save whom he wants anyway?" Looking at the two positions side by side, whose theology is really the killer of evangelism?

Footnotes

1 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 187-88.

2 Warren 219.

3 James R. White, The Potter's Freedom (Amityville: Calvary, 2000) 334-35.