Posts tagged ‘Evangelism’

When A Missionary’s Zeal Turns Deadly

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The wisdom, or lack thereof, of John Allen Chau’s deadly decision to try to witness to an isolated tribe of indigenous people on North Sentinel Island, off the coast of India, is a topic of hot debate.   Initial reports portrayed Mr. Chau as a reckless explorer and mountain climber, seeking adventure in far-flung, exotic locations.  It quickly became apparent, however, that he was also a devoted missionary committed to preaching Christ to the Sentinelese people.  Although his initial overture to the tribe appeared clumsy – in his journal, he wrote about how he “hollered” to the tribespeople, “My name is John. I love you, and Jesus loves you” – he was also heavily vaccinated and linguistically and medically trained before embarking on his journey.  It turns out that Mr. Chau was not just some hotheaded adventurer.  He was a calculated planner, even if his planning finally proved to be woefully incomplete.

Among evangelically minded Christians, there is little debate over whether we should share our faith.  The call of Jesus Himself is to spread and share His message to and with the world.  There is much debate, however, over how we should share our faith.  Clawing your way onto a remote and, according to Indian law, off-limits island and confronting tribespeople who are known to be hostile toward, probably because they feel threatened by, outsiders hardly seems like an effective missionary method.

During this time of year, Christians celebrate the incarnation – that the God of the universe took on flesh in the person of Jesus in space and time in the little town of Bethlehem.  In His incarnation, Jesus carried out God’s mission by preaching God’s message and doing God’s work of dying for us and for our salvation.  Jesus’ incarnation, then, was part and parcel of Jesus’ mission.

In our outreach efforts, Jesus’ life can serve as our model.  Mission and incarnation should work together in our lives, too.  Our evangelization of any people should always be coupled with a careful contextualization.  This is what Mr. Chau appears to have overlooked.  He wanted to reach the people of this remote island, but did not have workable plan to enter into their culture and customs, as Jesus did when He became man.

The reality is that, because of the islanders’ hostility toward outsiders and the Indian laws that shield them from modern society, reaching these people will take more than one person’s plan.  Coordinated diplomatic efforts will probably be required so laws are not broken and, of course, a careful posture toward the Sentinelese people themselves is absolutely necessary.  Building trust with them will take much time and, frankly, in this case, probably nothing less than a miracle of God.  But that’s okay.  God is, after all, quite good at the miraculous.

I appreciate Mr. Chau’s passion to reach the unreached.  And I am saddened by his death.  I pray for his family and friends who are, I am sure, grieving.  Mr. Chau’s devotion to Christ’s mission is a laudable devotion for any Christian to have.  But learning from his dangerous and ultimately deadly strategy is also necessary.

The death of Mr. Chau should call every mission-minded Christian to take some time to learn and reflect so that we can better witness and love.  Jesus wants nothing less for the sake of the many souls who are still far from Him.

December 3, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

In Memoriam: Billy Graham (1918-2018)

Billy Graham was 99 when he entered his rest with Jesus last Wednesday.  The man who was a pastor to presidents and plebeians alike leaves a legacy that is difficult to overestimate.  Reverend Graham accomplished many things over his long ministry.  He founded what has become the practically official periodical of evangelical Christianity, Christianity TodayHe served as the president of Youth for Christ and headed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  He steadfastly, but also humbly, confessed a traditional, broadly orthodox Christianity, defending such doctrines as justification by faith, the sufficiency of Christ as the world’s singular Savior, the reality of heaven and hell, and the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.  He declared these doctrines at a time when many churches, especially in the mid-twentieth-century, were drifting into modernism and began to deny these, along with many other, core tenets.  But Reverend Graham will perhaps be most remembered for his moving crusades, where he preached the gospel to stadiums chocked full of eager listeners and curious onlookers.  His association estimates that he preached the gospel to an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries over the course of his ministry.

I remember attending one of Billy Graham’s crusades as a child.  His passion for the gospel was infectious as his preaching resonated sonorously through the stadium in which I was sitting.  At the end of the evening, as he always did, he invited people to trust in Christ and come forward to receive prayer.  Thousands walked down to the stage that night as strains of “Just As I Am” wafted across the hall.  To say the least, it was a moving experience.

Whenever I remember my experience at this Billy Graham crusade, I am reminded of a conversation that Jesus has with Martha shortly after her brother Lazarus has died of a devastating illness.  Martha, understandably, is distraught and politely registers her disappointment that Jesus was not around before her brother died to lend some help and, perhaps, a miraculous healing to him.  “Lord,” Martha complains, “if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).  Jesus, who never intended to heal Lazarus of the sickness that ailed him, but instead to raise Lazarus from the death that overtook him, responds, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26).  These words are some of the most famous in Scripture not only because they describe what Jesus would do for Lazarus, but because they reveal who Jesus is for everyone.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  What is less famous, however, is the question that Jesus asks Martha next: “Do you believe this” (John 11:26)?

This simple question was the question behind every Billy Graham crusade.  After Reverend Graham would proclaim Christ and His death for sinners, after he would declare that Christ’s resurrection can mean your resurrection, and after he would explain how Christ can bear your burdens and carry your cares, he would ask, “Do you believe this?”

When Jesus asks this question of Martha, she responds, “Yes, Lord” (John 11:27).  When Reverend Graham asked it of millions, they responded with a “yes” as well.

As one who is part of the Lutheran confession of the Christian faith, I have, over the years, heard many in my tradition criticize Reverend Graham for the way in which he often spoke of faith in terms of a “decision.”  His ministry even publishes a magazine titled DecisionIt is certainly true that Scripture does not speak of faith as a decision of the will, but as a gift from God.  The apostle Paul writes, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).  Unfortunately, some in my tradition have become so concerned about the possibility of implying that faith is somehow an act of the will that they refuse to invite people to faith at all.  They forget to ask Jesus’ question: “Do you believe this?”

It is in this precious question of Christ that we can best come to understand and appreciate Reverend Graham’s legacy.  He was never afraid to ask this question.  And neither should we.  Sometimes, a simple invitation, because it is a reflection of Jesus’ invitation, bears the fruit of faith.  This is why this question is the question our world needs.  When was the last time you asked it?

Even without a sermon, a choir, and a stadium, when you ask this question, someone might just answer, “Yes.”  And all of heaven will rejoice (Luke 15:7) – including, with what I would guess might be an especially bright smile, Billy Graham.

February 26, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Herod, John the Baptist, and Sharing Our Faith

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St. John the Baptist before Herod, by Mattia Pretti (1665)

In Mark 6, we are treated to a fascinating flashback.  The chapter opens with Jesus teaching and then quickly turns to Him sending out His twelve disciples to preach, drive out demons, and anoint the sick.  The chapter then shifts again, this time to a ruler named Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, the ruler who tried to kill Jesus when He was just a toddler because he considered the lad a threat to his throne.  Herod Antipas, however, was not so hostile toward Jesus as he was curious about Him, especially when he heard a rumor that Jesus was “John the Baptist…raised from the dead” (Mark 6:14).  Cue Mark’s flashback.

In his flashback, Mark recounts how John the Baptist died.  It turns out that Herod Antipas had thrown John in prison because he had preached against Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias.  But it was not just Herod who was upset with John.  It was also his new wife, Herodias.  In fact, Mark says that she “nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him” (Mark 6:19).  And one day, she saw her opportunity.  When Herod was throwing a party, Herodias’s daughter came and danced for Herod and his inebriated guests.  Herod was so pleased by her performance that he offered this girl anything she wanted, including up to half his kingdom.  Prompted by her mother, the girl asked Herod for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  Interestingly enough, Herod, instead of being delighted that he would finally be able to get rid of this man who had preached against his marriage, was devastated.  Mark 6:26 explains that “the king was greatly distressed.”  The Greek word used for “distressed” is perilupos, a word that Jesus Himself uses the night before He goes to the cross when He says to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).  The Greek word used for “sorrow” is again perilupos.  Clearly, Herod was deeply grieved, even to the point of death, by this girl’s request.  But why?

As it turns out, Herod had what might be called a “love-hate relationship” with John.  Mark describes their relationship like this: “Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20).  The same man who threw John in prison also protected him, because he knew there was something different about him.  He knew he had a righteousness and holiness that went beyond anything he had ever encountered before.  Moreover, he liked to listen to John, even though he had a hard time understanding what he was talking about and, obviously, did not always heed what he said.  Herod, even as he was offended by John, was also attracted to John.

Herod’s relationship with John can serve as a model for what the world’s relationship with us, as Christians, can look like.  When people watch you, do they see a righteousness and a holiness beyond anything they have ever encountered before because, instead of your righteousness and holiness being merely meritocratic, it is Christocentric?  And when you speak about your faith to others, even if they are puzzled by what you have to say, do you leave them wanting to hear more?

Just as Herodias hated John, there will be some who hate us simply because we are Christians.  But there will also be others who are intrigued by us.  May we never forget to engage these people, model Christ for these people, and speak the gospel to these people.  For what they are puzzled by today may just be the very thing they believe in tomorrow.

August 7, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Mike Pence and Dining with Your Spouse

58th Presidential Inauguration

It can be fascinating to watch which stories bubble to the top of our cultural conversation.  In a news cycle where the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, a battle royal over a Supreme Court nominee, questions about the surveillance of political actors, terrible chemical attacks against Syrian civilians by a feral Assad regime, and ominous sabre rattling from the North Koreans have dominated the headlines, a heated debate has arisen over a profile piece in The Washington Post on Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, which cited an interview with The Hill from 2002, where the vice president, following the lead of the vaunted evangelist and pastor Billy Graham, explained that he would never eat alone with a woman who was not his wife or one of his close relatives.  Writing in a separate article for The Washington Post, Laura Turner warned:

It will be difficult for women to flourish in the White House if the vice president will not meet with them.  Women cannot flourish in the church if their pastors consistently treat them as sexual objects to be avoided. The Billy Graham Rule locates the fault of male infidelity in the bodies of women, but “flee from temptation” does not mean “flee from women.”

I agree with Ms. Turner that it is important not to confuse fleeing from temptation with fleeing from women.  Sin is what is to be feared.  Not women.  Nevertheless, because of my vocation as a husband and because of my position as a pastor, I have chosen a practice that echoes that of the vice president.  I will not dine alone with a woman who is not my wife or close family member.  I will also not meet alone with women after hours at the congregation where I serve.

Why do I maintain such a practice?

It is not primarily because I am terrified that if I were ever to be alone with a woman, I would not be able to restrain myself from sexual immorality, though I am not nearly so naïve as to believe that I could never fall prey to a compromising situation.  I know far too well from Scripture that my heart is woefully depraved and deceitful and I have seen far too many marriages and ministries wrecked by sexual immorality to believe that I am somehow so spiritually privileged to be above certain kinds of sin.  I also know that merely jettisoning private dining appointments will not expunge me of my sinful nature.  No pious-looking constraint, no matter how carefully contrived, can regenerate a sinful heart.  Only Jesus can do that.  Sin avoidance is not the primary reason I have the practice I do.

I have the practice I do primarily because I respect women, most especially my wife.  I know that if another woman were to invite me to dinner, one on one, that would make my wife – as well as me – uncomfortable.  I also know the people with whom I work well enough to know that if I were to invite a female staff member at our church to dinner one on one, that would more than likely make her feel extraordinarily uncomfortable.  I do occasionally meet privately with women in my office when personal pastoral care needs call for such meetings.  But even then, there are other staff members right outside my office door working through the daily flurry of church activities.  And I have never had any trouble meeting with everyone I need to meet with on campus with others around rather than off campus in one on one settings.

I also I maintain the practice I do because I do want to do my best to remain “above reproach,” as Scripture asks men in my vocation to be.  An unfounded accusation of immoral behavior with another person would not only compromise the credibility of my ministry, it would compromise that other person’s credibility as well.  As much as I desire to protect the integrity of my ministry, I also have a deep desire to protect the reputations of those I know and care about.  Protecting others’ reputations is simply part and parcel of being not only a colleague and a pastor, but a friend.

Ms. Turner appeals to Jesus in support of the stance she takes in her Washington Post piece:

Jesus consistently elevated the dignity of women and met with them regularly, including His meeting with a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day. Scholars suggest that the woman would have gone to the well in the noon heat to avoid interacting with her fellow townspeople, who would have gone at a cooler time of day. Samaritans and Jews were not particularly fond of each other. Yet this Jewish man met this Samaritan woman in broad daylight, asked her for water from the well, and in turn offered her eternal life. The woman, widely thought to be an adulteress, had been married five times and had no husband when she met Jesus. Yet He didn’t flinch from meeting with her. He didn’t suggest that His reputation was more important than her eternal soul. As a result, she lives on as one of the heroes of the faith, a woman who evangelized to her entire city.

All of this is completely true.  But evangelizing someone in broad daylight when Your disciples do not seem to be far away is a far cry from having dinner alone, away and apart from any accountability.  The latter can be a coup de grâce to one’s integrity.  The former is just a coup of grace for a weary soul.

There may indeed be times, as the case of Jesus and the Samaritan woman illustrates, when it is necessary to spend time with someone of the opposite gender privately, especially for the sake of the gospel.  But there are also many more times when it is good not to, especially if a task at work can be accomplished just as well with others around.

May we have the wisdom to discern which times are which.

April 10, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Ministry Myth: Jesus Always Addressed Felt Needs

Jesus Heals ParalyticA while back, I was in a meeting with church leaders from across the country who are devoted to bringing Christ’s gospel to all nations.  In our discussions, one of these leaders pointed out that, as important as church programs and friendly atmospheres may be for engaging people who don’t know Christ, ultimately, what reaches people is the preaching of the gospel.  “It is the Word of God,” he said, “that touches and transforms hearts.”  To this, another person replied, “Yes, the gospel is important.  But we can’t start with the gospel because the gospel alone won’t reach people.  We need to begin with people’s felt needs. Jesus always began with people’s felt needs.”

Well, yes He did…except when He didn’t.

Like the time a paralytic’s friends brought him to Jesus.  Jesus saw that they had faith enough to bring their friend to Him for healing.  But He did not respond to their felt need for healing – at least not right away.  Instead, He said, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5).  Jesus dealt with this man’s deeper need – his need for forgiveness – before He dealt with this man’s felt need – his need to be healed from his paralysis.

Or how about the time one of Jesus’ dearest friends – a man named Lazarus – fell ill?  His sisters, Mary and Martha, begged Jesus to hurry over and heal him.  But Jesus did not meet their need.  Instead, He intentionally let His dear friend die.  Why? So that Jesus could address humanity’s deeper need – the need to be rescued from death – which far outweighs the felt need of being temporarily healed from a frustrating ailment.  This is why Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that Jesus never began by addressing people’s felt needs.  After all, He fed a crowd of 5,000 by miraculously multiplying loaves of bread before declaring Himself to be the bread of life (cf. John 6:1-35).  He began with a felt need for physical food before He moved to a deeper need for heavenly food.  Jesus does sometimes initiate an engagement by addressing people’s felt needs.  However, Jesus does not always begin this way.  Indeed, sometimes, He flat out denies people’s felt needs as He challenges them with their deeper needs.

The problem with felt needs is that, often, felt needs are not helpful needs.  Sometimes, felt needs can even be sinfully selfish needs.  Jesus has little interest in meeting our felt needs for riches, for ease, and even for happiness.  Thus, for us to begin and base our ministries on what people think they need, and then to try to meet those needs before we share Jesus, can devolve, if we are not careful, into merely enabling sin.

I have learned over the years that Jesus has a funny way of resisting the easy ministry models we like to apply to Him.  To those who say that Jesus always begins by addressing people’s felt needs so they will be open to the gospel, I must say, “I think you’re wrong.”  But then again, to those who say that Jesus never begins by addressing people’s felt needs as a foray to share the gospel, I also must say, “I think you’re wrong.”  Jesus does both.

We should too.

Perhaps we would do well to learn to pray a slightly modified version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous, though contested, Serenity Prayer as we seek to faithfully reach the world with the gospel: “God, grant me the tenderness to address people’s felt needs at certain times, the boldness to challenge them with their deepest needs at other times, and the wisdom to know when to do which.”

That’s my prayer as I seek to reach out with the gospel.  Will you join me in praying the same?

April 25, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

How Starbucks (Didn’t) Steal Christmas

Credit: Starbucks

Credit: Starbucks

It was the coffee kerfuffle that wasn’t. When a story about Christian outrage over Starbucks’ plain red holiday cups began trending on social media, something about it seemed off to me. Sure, there was a video of a self-styled evangelist shoving a red Starbucks cup into the camera and shouting about how Starbucks employees are not allowed to say Merry Christmas and explaining in a Facebook post that “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus.” And sure, there were the stories about all the controversy it was igniting in the Twittersphere. But as I checked my own social media feeds, what I saw was not Christian outrage over the Starbucks’ minimalist holiday cups, but outrage over the fact that there was so much outrage over something as inane as a coffee cup. Outrage over outrage. Is it just me, or does this all seem, well, outrageous?

I have a funny feeling that the evangelist who opined his offense at Starbucks’ holiday cups on Facebook may have done so more for clicks and shares than out of earnest conviction. In my opinion, this is little more than a shoddily manufactured controversy. But even if I am right and this controversy is manufactured, I am grateful that commentary by Christians on the controversy has been largely thoughtful. Take this from Ed Stetzer:

Folks, we really need to calm down. If you’ve posted an outraged Facebook update, take it down.

Starbucks cups are red because of the Christmas season. Starbucks is not persecuting you. Starbucks may be attempting to respect those who don’t celebrate Christmas – and that’s OK. That’s their choice. They’re a business that exists to serve all customers without preference, regardless of what winter holidays they do or do not celebrate. If they choose to do that by means of a plain, red cup, that’s their call …

Here’s what I would say – this is the wrong fight and being done in the wrong way. And, it’s just making Christians look silly, like so many of these fake controversies do.

We have a better story to tell than one of faux outrage. So let’s tell it. It’s not the job of your barista to share the gospel. It’s your job to share the gospel.[1]

Ed Stetzer is exactly right. It’s ridiculous and embarrassing when a man trying to start a faux movement to protest red coffee cups gets more attention than the Church who has been charged to be an ongoing movement to spread the gospel.

Setting coffee cups aside for a moment, it is important to understand that this kind of unhelpful outrage has implications far beyond the clear-cut inanity of supposedly, but not really, offensive coffee cups. Far more serious ethical and cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and stewardship of creation and treatment of the poor have ignited no small amount of outrage. And make no mistake about it: we, as Christians, should have plenty to say about these issues. But if we become so embroiled in outrage over these issues that we lose sight of the joy of sharing the gospel of Christ’s death for sinners, we have become lovers of issues rather than people. And when this happens, we lose sight of the gospel.

It is interesting to me that for all the well-documented differences between conservative and liberal Christians, they can both often fall into the same trap. Sure, more conservative-leaning Christians may beat the drum about issues like abortion and same-sex marriage (and they should) while more liberal-leaning may beat the drum about issues like stewardship of creation and treatment of the poor (and they also should). But in both instances, each side can easily wind up becoming so obsessed with current ethical and cultural issues that they lose sight of the evangelical and soteriological cross of Christ. In this regard, both sides, whether conservative or liberal, have traded Billy Graham for Walter Rauschenbusch. The soteriological gospel has been sacrificed to the social gospel.

It is this that takes us back to the Starbucks, ahem, brew-haha. The evangelist who posted his now viral Facebook tirade suggested that customers tell baristas their name is “Merry Christmas” so servers will be forced to write “Merry Christmas” on their holiday symbol-less cups. Besides the fact that I am pretty sure that this will do little to nothing to shift cultural sentiment concerning Christmas and what it represents, I am even surer that it adds nothing to the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified. Thankfully, most Christians already know this. That’s why they have rejected his strategy.

So let’s take this lesson from a bout of Starbucks silliness about what’s most important and use it to keep our priorities straight as we engage our world on much more pressing topics. Our witness to the world on these topics must never be only ethical and cultural. It must be first and foremost evangelical and soteriological. For without Christ and Him crucified, ethics and culture become nothing because they save no one.

Crux sola est nostra theologia.

________________________________

[1] Ed Stetzer, “When We Love Outrage More Than People: Starbucks Cups and You,” Christianity Today (11.9.2015).

November 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments

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

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.

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[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).

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

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