Helping Tim Challies and Other Calvinists with Evangelism
Originally published January 29, 2015
Yesterday, I was sent the following article about Calvinist evangelism written by blogger Tim Challies: How To Offend a Room Full of Calvinists. Miffed by the suggestion that somebody knows better than me how to offend Calvinists, I immediately read the article.
Apparently, according to Challies, Calvinists get offended when people suggest that their soteriology hinders evangelism. According to Challies, the argument goes like this:
Many people are firmly convinced that there is a deep-rooted flaw embedded within Reformed theology that undermines evangelistic fervor. Most blame it on predestination. After all, if God has already chosen who will be saved, it negates at least some of our personal responsibility in calling people to respond to the gospel. Or perhaps it’s just the theological-mindedness that ties us down in petty disputes and nuanced distinctions instead of freeing us to get up, get out, and get on mission.
Protestants en masse think Calvinism’s greatest sin is weak evangelism, and of course, that makes them very angry because it’s supposedly the last criticism standing. I could start with the fact that Calvinism is works salvation under the guise of faith alone, or progressive justification, or salvation by antinomianism. Pick one; any of the three will work. But I have a mountain of data on that subject already; let’s do something different. Yes, let’s use Challies’ own words in the post to refute his argument. Before we call on Challies to refute his own protest, we will address his take on church history.
We go to history to show that the great missionaries, great preachers, and great revivalists of days past were Calvinists, and that Reformed theology was what fueled their mission… There are only so many times I can point to Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and the Great Awakening, or William Carey and the great missionary movement of the nineteenth century, or Charles Spurgeon and the countless thousands saved under his ministry. Sooner or later I have to stop looking at my heroes and look to myself. I can’t claim their zeal as my own. I can’t claim their obedience as my own.
In the post, Challies argues that we know that a straight line can be found from Reformed theology to evangelistic zeal because of history. Supposedly, Calvinists throughout history were driven directly by this deterministic gospel to reach thousands. It is very interesting when you consider the examples given which will aid in making my point.
The Great Awakening had absolutely nothing to do with Reformed soteriology. We should know this as a matter of common sense to begin with because the Holy Spirit doesn’t colabor with a false gospel. The Great Awakening was fueled by the ideology of the American Revolution and was expressed to a great degree in churches, especially among African Americans. Fact is, guys like Edwards and Whitefield then got on their horses and rode around the countryside bloviating and taking credit for the freedom movement tagged with “The Great Awakening” nomenclature.
Fact is, the Great Awakening was a pushback against the Puritan church state driven by Reformed soteriology that came across the pond as a European blight on American history. I would liken Challies’ assessment to our present President taking credit for things he is against when the results are positive.
What about Spurgeon? That example is just too rich because it makes the last point for me. Spurgeon, who once said Calvinism was no mere nickname but the very gospel itself, was the poster boy for getting people to come to church in order to get them saved. That’s important, hold on to that because it’s our last point.
But before we get to the last point, let’s look at the major point: Challies argues against the idea that fatalism hinders evangelism, and then confesses that he doesn’t evangelize like all of the great Calvinists in history because of…fatalism. Calvinism doesn’t cause fatalism resulting in lame evangelism, but Challies doesn’t evangelize because of fatalism.
After all, if God has already chosen who will be saved, it negates at least some of our personal responsibility in calling people to respond to the gospel… We go to the pages of Scripture to show that God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are not incompatible, but that people truly are both free and bound, that God both chooses some while extending the free offer of the gospel to all.
So why does Challies not evangelize according to him? First, because he just doesn’t, but secondly, he is responsible:
It is my conviction—conviction rooted in close study of God’s Word—that Calvinism provides a soul-stirring motivation for evangelism, and that sharing the gospel freely and with great zeal is the most natural application of biblical truth. But it is my confession—confession rooted in the evidence of my own life—that my Calvinism too rarely stirs my soul to mission. The truths that have roared in the hearts and lives of so many others, somehow just whisper in me. The fault, I’m convinced, is not with God’s Word, or even with my understanding of God’s Word; the fault is with me.
He is responsible, but not often stirred. And what’s his solution? There isn’t one, it is what it is; he is responsible, but not called to evangelism. No corrective solution is offered in the post. Why not? Because, as he said, we are responsible, but unable. Responsibility and inability are not incompatible. So, Calvinism doesn’t hinder evangelism, but if you don’t evangelize, there is no solution. Others did it, and you don’t, the end. Well, I suppose that approach doesn’t prevent evangelism either!
And funny he should cite Edwards. Susan is doing a session on Edwards for TANC 2015 and is studying his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. She approached me and wanted to discuss something about the sermon that she was perplexed about. Edwards spent the better part of an hour addressing the total hopelessness of man and his likelihood of ending up in an eternal hell, but in the end offers no counsel on how to escape. Why? Because if God is going to do something, he is going to do it, and man is responsible either way.
This now brings us to the final point with a bonus; we are going to help Challies with his evangelism shortcomings. There is, in fact, a solution for Tim’s lack of evangelistic zeal. He doesn’t properly understand Calvinism and its history. This isn’t about saving Tim from the false gospel of Calvinism, this is about being a good evangelist in the context of Calvinism. If I can’t save a Calvinist, I can at least teach them how to be a better Calvinist. Really, it’s disheartening when Calvinists don’t properly understand Calvinism.
This is how we will help Tim Challies. We will bring him back to the historical significance of Spurgeon using some of his own observations. First, let’s get a lay of the land; how does true Calvinistic evangelism work? First, it is the “sovereign” gospel which means the subject must not be told that they have a choice. This is some fun you can have with Calvinists. Ask them if they tell the recipients of their gospel message that they have a choice. Most will avoid answering because they don’t want to admit the answer is, “no.” By their own definition, that would be a false gospel speaking to man’s ability to choose God.
Secondly, if God does do something, if “the wind blows,” that puts the subject in two categories according to Calvin: the called and those who persevere. The called are those that God temporarily illumines, but later blinds resulting in a greater damnation. Those of the perseverance class are the truly elect. So, the “good news” is that you have a chance to make it. But, if you don’t make it according to God’s predetermined will, your damnation is greater than the non-elect. God has either chosen you for greater damnation or the jackpot, but I guess it’s worth a try if God so chooses.
But hold on, and this is huge: all of that can be bypassed by Calvin’s “power of the keys.” What’s that? If you are a formal member of a Reformed church, and the elders like you, whatever they bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever they loose on earth is loosed in heaven.
Furthermore, according to Calvin, sins committed in the Christian life remove us from salvation, but membership in the local church and receiving the “impartations of grace” that can only be found in church membership supply a perpetual covering for sin. And here is the crux: one of those “graces” is sitting under “gospel preaching” of which Spurgeon was chief. In one way or the other, Spurgeon sold this wholesale and the results speak for themselves.
See, the solution for Challies is simple. There is a solution for the disobedience he himself is responsible for: simply invite people to church in order to “get them under the gospel.” And that often looks like this…
Or perhaps it’s just the theological-mindedness that ties us down in petty disputes and nuanced distinctions instead of freeing us to get up, get out, and get on mission.
Problem solved. That’s how Calvinism is a straight line from its theology to evangelism—you are saved by being a formal member of a Reformed church, and your salvation is sustained by remaining a faithful member of that church and obeying everything the elders tell you to do and think. But let’s not call it intellectual rape, let’s call it “keeping ourselves in the love of Jesus.” Let’s call it “preaching the gospel to ourselves every day.” Let’s call it “being faithful to the church every time the doors are opened.” Let’s call it “putting ourselves under the authority of Godly men.” Let’s call it “trusting God with our finances.”
You’re welcome Tim, glad I could help.