As I have been wrestling with theological systems and positions over the past three years, this question is one that is posed to me quite often. I consider myself to be Reformed, but not in the historical sense. I am not a Presbyterian. There are certain things that are historically consistent with Reformed theology, like paedobaptism, that I do not affirm. I align with what is being labeled as the New Calvinism. I am a member of a Southern Baptist church who embraces Reformed soteriology. The question typically posed to me goes like this,
“If God elects and effectively brings all of his elect to saving faith, why would you risk your money and life for missions and evangelism?”
The thought is that since God will save who he so chooses to save one way or another eventually, why do missions and evangelism? Or as Michael Horton poses the question that is typically asked of Calvinists,
“How can you really throw yourself into proclaiming the gospel to everyone if you are convinced that only some people are chosen and redeemed and will be effectually drawn to saving faith?”
I believe this is a fair question, although I believe in most cases it assumes a High Calvinistic theology. High Calvinists border on fatalism and are often not very evangelistic. For example, there is one account of a high Calvinistic preacher who taught that a believer should not even begin to share the gospel with someone until they were certain that they were of the elect. This is not only foolish, but it is dangerously unbiblical. This High Calvinism is typically counted to those in Reformed circles. So, for those who question Reformed theology in relation to evangelism they must have a proper understanding of Reformed theology.
Now, is it logical for a Calvinist to be zealous in evangelism?
I skip to this question because there is no doubting the fact that Reformed pastors and believers throughout the years have been some of the most passionate evangelists, missionaries, and disciple-makers. Calvin was missionary-minded as he sent many to evangelize in France. There is also no doubting the evangelistic/missions zeal of those in the Reformed tradition, including William Carey, Voetius, John Eliot, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, John Piper, David Platt etc.
However, is all of this zeal illogical and incompatible with Reformed theology? I do not believe it is. In fact, since switching over to the “dreaded” Reformed side of the theological spectrum, my own personal zeal for missions/evangelism has been increased. This is because I know that there are “other sheep who are not of this fold” (John 10:16) and that the Father has chosen a remnant of a sinful human race from every tribe and tongue (Rev. 7:9). And I am confident in proclaiming the gospel freely to all because I know that the true sheep will hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and he will call them by name (John 10:3, 16). The fact that I know God will effectually save the elect by means of the gospel (which is reason enough to proclaim it joyfully and sacrificially) gives me great confidence and fuels my soul to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19).
It is God who saves. Salvation belongs to the Lord. I can freely offer salvation to all, knowing that to those whom God has granted regeneration/faith/repentance, they will repent and believe on Jesus. It is God-glorifying and obedient to seek and to find those whom belong to God. How do we know who belongs to God? How do we know who he has elected to salvation? We preach the gospel to all and see who responds. All who respond in faith belong to God from eternity past based on nothing good or bad in them. It is the certain and sovereign work of God in salvation according to Reformed theology that leads to a zeal for missions for most who hold to it. In fact, it is this kind of confident and risk-taking evangelism and missions of Reformed theology that attracted me to it in the first place.
So, I conclude that it is an inaccurate assessment to say that churches and individuals in the Reformed tradition are not evangelistic. It is an unfair assessment and inaccurate in most cases. While it is a common criticism, I believe this criticism is unfair to true Reformed churches and individuals. And any Reformed churches or individuals who are not evangelistic or missions-minded stand in contrast to their theological system.
Evangelism and missions are not reserved for any particular theological camp. Caricatures and inaccurate accusations help no one. Arminians and Wesleyans who love Jesus and want to see his name proclaimed in all nations are brothers and sisters that do tremendous work for the kingdom. Likewise, Calvinists who love Jesus and want to see his name proclaimed in all nations are brothers and sisters who also do much work for the kingdom. Even within the SBC, where both Calvinists and non-Calvinists pitch their tents, there can be collective cooperation for the proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth through the Cooperative Program.
I pray that all Christians, Reformed or otherwise, would increase their missionary zeal regardless of their view on predestination and election. I have had so many joyful experiences doing evangelism and even missions with non-Calvinists and am glad that I agree with my Arminian brothers and sisters that Jesus is worthy of worship and his name must be proclaimed among all peoples of all nations for the praise of the glory of God’s grace! Though we differ greatly in our understanding of how God saves, we both can affirm,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” –John 3:16
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.