Common Question: What’s the Relationship Between Predestination and Evangelism?

September 14, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Jesus LambI first encountered the question when I was in college. “If God is the One who chooses people for salvation,” a buddy asked me, “then why do we need to worry about spreading the gospel? Isn’t God going to save people regardless of whether or not we share our faith with them?”

At the heart of my college buddy’s question was the relationship between two important doctrines: the doctrine of predestination – that God does all the work for our salvation, even down to the level of our wills, by taking the initiative to choose those who are saved – and the doctrine of evangelism – that we, as God’s people, are charged with going forth and spreading the gospel to all the world so that people may believe and be saved.

At first glance, these two doctrines do indeed seem contradictory.  The apostle Paul writes of predestination:

[God] chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will – to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves. (Ephesians 1:4-6)

If God has already chosen people for salvation “before the creation of the world,” as Paul says, then what is the point of sharing the gospel so people will come to faith in Jesus and be saved? Isn’t everything a done deal?

When seeking to explain how these two doctrines work together, two errors have regularly been made.

The first error is that of conditional predestination. This error posits that God only chooses people for salvation on the condition that they first choose to trust in Him. This belief was famously promoted by the Five Articles of the Remonstrance, which outlines the basic tenets of Arminian theology:

God has immutably decreed, from eternity, to save those men who, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, believe in Jesus Christ, and by the same grace persevere in the obedience of faith to the end; and, on the other hand, to condemn the unbelievers and unconverted. Election and condemnation are thus conditioned by foreknowledge, and made dependent on the foreseen faith or unbelief of men.[1]

According to the Five Articles of the Remonstrance, God will not choose a person for salvation unless that person first chooses to have faith in Christ.  For the Arminian, then, the burden of sharing one’s faith with others is heavy. After all, how can a person choose to have faith in Christ if he is not given a choice? And how can a person be given a choice if someone does not share with him that there is, in fact, a choice? Presenting to people the message that there is a choice to be made to have faith in Christ is the foundation of evangelism in Arminianism.

But such a theological system is not without problems. First, Scripture does not present God’s choice of us as contingent on our choice of Christ. God’s choices are unilateral. Second, by making God’s choice of us contingent on our choice of Christ, our salvation ultimately becomes dependent not on Christ Himself, but on our ability to choose Christ.  It should be noted that Arminians teach that our wills, before our conversions, are helped along by divine prevenient grace, which is supposed to enable and enliven our wills so they can choose Christ, but such a teaching does not comport with Scripture. Scripture clearly teaches that our wills are anything but enabled and enlivened, especially before our conversions. Paul says of his own will: “What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). To make God’s choice of us contingent on our choice of Christ is a recipe for disaster. We will inevitably choose poorly because our wills are broken by and enslaved to sin.

The second error that is often made when trying to explain the relationship between predestination and evangelism is that of conditional proclamation. In this error, predestination is rightly held up as God’s unilateral decision to choose people apart from and in spite of their fallen, sinful wills. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which forms the basis for Calvinist theology, outlines this view:

Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature.[2]

This synopsis of predestination is certainly much more in line with how Paul talks about the doctrine in Ephesians 1, but even this understanding is not without its problems.

Calvinist theology runs quickly into trouble when it posits that God not only chooses people for salvation, but that He also chooses people for condemnation.  Again, from the Westminster Confession:

By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.[3]

This is most certainly not how Paul speaks of predestination in Ephesians 1 and must be rejected. Predestination is not about God’s condemnation.  It is only about His salvation.  In predestination, God rescues people out of their default destination of damnation by choosing them for salvation. Predestination does not work the other way around. God does not predestine people to hell.

Second, because their doctrine of predestination both to salvation and condemnation is so strongly held, some Calvinists can become hesitant to invite someone to believe in Christ because they do not know whether the person they are inviting has been predestined from eternity for salvation or condemnation.

Perhaps the most historically notable example of such reticence comes in one of the most famous sermons of all time:  Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards’ rhetoric is robust and his portrait of hell is horrifying, but his hope of salvation falls flat:

And let everyone that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God’s Word and providence … God seems now to be hastily gathering in His elect in all parts of the land; and probably the bigger part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and that it will be as it was on that great outpouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles’ days, the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded.[4]

Notice that Edwards is careful not to extend God’s promise of salvation to the whole congregation. This is because, in Edwards’ thinking, some are predestined for salvation while others are doomed for condemnation and Edwards cannot know for certain who is who. So he simply states the facts of predestination to salvation and condemnation as he sees them.

Such a way of presenting salvation and condemnation is problematic because it strips the Christian witness of its power. No longer can people be invited to believe through the hearing of the Word (cf. Romans 10:13-15). The proclamation of the gospel is simply a window dressing for what is a fait accompli in predestination.

Thus, in some manifestations of Arminian theology, predestination is stripped of its promise because it is made contingent on a person’s decision while in some manifestations of Calvinist theology, evangelism is stripped of its power because it has no real effect on what is already a foregone conclusion from eternity. So what is the way out of this conundrum?

Because predestination takes place outside of time and because we, as God’s people, live in time, God’s eternal decrees in predestination need a way by which they can delivered evangelically into our time and space. Theologically, the vehicle by which God’s eternal decrees are delivered into our finite world is His Word. When God’s people share God’s Word, which, by the way, is the soul and substance of the evangelical task, faith is awakened in hearts and God’s decrees from before time come to pass within time and, most importantly, within lives, as they do in Acts 13:48 when, after Paul and Barnabas preach the gospel to the Gentiles, “all who were appointed,” that is, predestined, “for eternal life believed.” Without God’s people evangelically sharing God’s Word, God’s choice of people from eternity cannot be known or believed. And where there is no belief, there is no salvation. Thus, it is not just that predestination and evangelism do not conflict with each other. It is that they need each other. Predestination must travel from the timeless to the temporal in order to deliver its promise. Speaking God’s Word evangelically is the vehicle by which this promise gets delivered.

Recently, I have heard some within my own confession of faith of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod criticize those who characterize Christ’s evangelical mission as “emptying out the future population of hell,” or as “building a bigger heaven tomorrow by reaching people today.”  They assert that such language undermines the doctrine of predestination by making our witness to the world, rather than God’s choice of His elect, responsible for people’s salvation.  They prefer to speak of Christ’s mission in terms of “reaching the elect.”  Though I understand their concern and share their aversion to making a person’s salvation in any way dependent on human effort, I am much more comfortable with the language of shifting populations of heaven and hell than they are.  After all, such language indicates that God’s eternal decrees in predestination have entered time and space through the evangelical proclamation of the Word and have actually accomplished something!  Real people are really being converted right here and now much to the real chagrin of the devil and his minions.

Those who criticize the language of shifting eternal populations would do well to remember that characterizing Christ’s mission as “reaching the elect”– even as it carries with it a clear and helpful confession of divine monergism – comes with its own set of pitfalls.  For one thing, it should be noted that, exegetically, Christ promises to gather His elect not so much in time missionally, but at the end of time eschatologically (cf. Mark 13:26-27).  The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13:24-30 makes this clear enough.  Such language can also mistakenly lead to the implication that no real conversion takes place in people in time because everything has been taken care of ahead of time in predestination. The Church is simply reminding those who are already Christ’s that they are already Christ’s. But if no real conversion takes place in people in time, then there is no real slavery to sin from which people need to be converted. And if there is no real slavery to sin from which people need to be converted, then there is no real need for a Savior to step into time to die and rise for sinners. It’s already all been taken care of ahead of time. Thus, the cross gets stripped of its power.

As it turns out, Christ’s incarnation becomes the proof in the pudding, so to speak, that what is before time in predestination doesn’t stay there. For Christ is not only the Word spoken to us evangelically, He is the Word who steps into time to die and rise for us salvifically. In a very real sense, then, the future population of hell is being emptied and the glorious population of heaven is being filled by Christ’s work as it is proclaimed by Christ’s people today. Real conversions are taking place. And what began outside of time – predestination – is coming to fruition in time and in Christ for us and for our salvation. Praise be to God for this indescribable gift.

____________________________________

[1] Five Articles of the Remonstrance (1610), First Article.

[2] Westminster of Confession of Faith (1647), III:5.

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, III:3.

[4] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Enfield, CT (7.8.1741).

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