The One About Calvinism and Evangelism

If you read enough blogs over a long enough period of time, you will inevitably begin to see patterns emerge. You will see that certain subjects are addressed time and again by writer after writer. One such article that has been written a hundred times by a hundred people, myself included probably, is the one about Calvinism and evangelism. Many Calvinists have felt the need to defend their tribe against the age-old charge that Calvinism diminishes evangelism and that Calvinists therefore make poor evangelists.

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The article is rarely as far as its third paragraph before the writer begins to provide historical examples of Calvinists who carried out great evangelism ministries. George Whitefield is usually mustered to the cause, as are William Carey and Charles Spurgeon. All of these men were indeed exemplary in their zeal for the lost and their commitment to the cause of saving souls. The world was Whitefield’s parish and he saw countless converts in Europe and America; Carey was the founder of the modern missions movement and committed himself to long and costly labor in India; Spurgeon powerfully preached the gospel and beckoned all who heard to come to Christ and be saved. Truly, Calvinism has a noble history when it comes to evangelism.

Having turned to history, the writer then makes appeals to Scripture and the Reformed tradition. He shows how a Calvinistic understanding of election, predestination, and effectual calling do not infringe upon a robust doctrine of evangelism. He distinguishes between the internal call and the external call. He shows how Scripture and confessions emphasize both divine sovereignty and human responsibility when it comes to men’s salvation. He shows that, in fact, Calvinism provides the robust theological framework that kindles a passion for evangelism.

Well and good. As one who holds to Calvinistic theology, I’m convinced God calls us to be zealous in reaching out to the lost and extending to them the gracious offer of the gospel: Come to Christ and be saved! I’m convinced the call to repent and believe should be prominent in our formal sermons and informal conversations alike. I’m convinced that as individuals and as churches we need to be deliberate in our outreach to friends, families, and strangers. I’m convinced that Calvinism and evangelism are dear friends rather than fierce foes.

But still, there is a difference between saying “Calvinist theology promotes evangelism” and “Calvinists actually evangelize.” There is a difference between saying “Calvinists have historically evangelized” and “Calvinists do evangelize right now.” After all, isn’t it possible that we may fail to live up to our theology? Isn’t it possible that we may fail to live up to the best examples of our history? And if a charge is so frequently leveled against us by concerned brothers and sisters in Christ, shouldn’t we at least consider that there may be some element of truth behind it?

While it is important to answer the critiques against us from theological tradition and historical representatives, it is better still to answer them from contemporary example. As we point to the truths of Scripture, we ought to be able to point to the ways we faithfully and zealously live out those truths in our own lives. As we point to the example of those who have gone before us, we ought to be able to point to the example we are setting right now. There’s a great chasm between saying “Calvinists evangelize” and “this Calvinist evangelizes.”

And it is right here that we come to the heart of my concern. While I do know some Calvinists who are exemplary in their evangelism, I know many others who are not. While I can point to some brothers and sisters who are committed to not only taking every opportunity to evangelize but also creating contexts that will generate new opportunities, I know many others who are far more apathetic. To my shame, I would have put myself in the second category rather than the first. I myself am a Calvinist who has a strong theory of evangelism but a weak practice. I’d rather read a book about it than go out and do it. I’d rather study technique than actually enact it. And I know I’m not alone.

So I suppose my encouragement to those of us who write that article about Calvinism and evangelism, and those of us who face the critique that our theology breeds apathy, is that we should be able to head it off by simply pointing to ourselves. Just as the Apostle Paul was willing to say, “imitate me” or “be imitators of me,” so should we. Let’s stop pointing to our confessions unless we not only believe them but also exemplify them. Let’s stop coasting off the accomplishments of our forebears unless we are faithfully imitating them. Let’s prove through our own lives that our Calvinism gives us motive, gives us zeal, gives us passion for the salvation of the lost.