Do the “Doctrines of Grace” Affect Evangelism?

Some Calvinist’s aver that ideas like limited atonement, unconditional election, and selective regeneration really make no difference in the nature of the evangelistic endeavor, i.e. these are tertiary or irrelevant to the proclamation of the gospel. To wit, God being secretly pleased to withhold salvation from a vast proportion of the humanity that He created does not affect the nature of propagating the gospel.

Regarding God’s secret will to deliver some by unconditional election, J.I. Packer says, “But this does not help us to determine the nature of the evangelistic task, nor does it affect our duty to evangelize universally and indiscriminately. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty in grace has no bearing on these things.”[1] (italics added) REALLY! Maybe it is due to my intractable obtuseness, but the claim that the so called doctrines of grace do not affect the “nature of the evangelistic task” leaves me bewildered. With all due respect to those who believe such, that claim seems to me to be no more than a galactic ocean of nothingness.

It seems appropriate to ask, if Calvinism’s understanding of God’s sovereignty in grace has “no bearing on these things,” then why do Calvinists need a “good faith offer,” and reject the straightforward meaning of verses like John 3:16, 1 John 2:2, and 1 John 4:14; additionally, why use such guarded language in gospel proclamations that make “whosoever will may come” abstractly true for calling out the elect while ever avoiding saying to an individual (or the world at large) “God loves you and desires for you to flee the wrath to come and accept His forgiveness in Christ who died for you” as the Scripture so compellingly and lucidly announces?

Additionally, if these things are tertiary (have no real relevance to the “nature” and “duty” of spreading of the gospel), this seems to beg the question to whom are they tertiary? An unencumbered reading of a host of the simplest and most straightforward gospel verses does not so engender such a conclusion (John 3:16, 20:31). It does not seem to be tertiary to Jesus unless everyone He addressed were the elect (John 6:29). Clearly, such doctrines (unconditional election, selective regeneration, and limited atonement) are not tertiary for the sinner that hears Jesus speak of His mission and offer (Luke 18:10; John 1:29, 5:24). Relevance is not determined by whether one fully understands all related doctrines or the inescapable disquieting realities of such (for I am convinced many who don the title Calvinist do not fully understand these), but rather does it meaningfully relate to the subject at hand? In this case, we are talking about evangelism and the gospel, which fall under the theological heading of soteriology (doctrines of salvation)—exactly the same place we find unconditional election, etc.

Also, relevance can be determined by whether or not beliefs affect what is being offered, what is actually available, and whether such is determinative of the language used and not used in the presentation. Determining whether something is relevant or not can be illustrated by the answer we can give when someone asks “Does God love me and want me to be saved?” I fail to grasp how a listener’s lack of being a theological sophisticate, and therefore unaware of a secret will of God that inviolably excludes him (if he is a non-elect) from accepting the offer before him (because such offer does not actually exist), or his obliviousness to the speculative soteriological doctrines of Calvinism makes these truths tertiary.

I would suggest that these things are not really even tertiary to the Calvinist, which is evidenced by the creation of the “good faith offer.” Every time an informed and consistent Calvinist shares the gospel, he is very aware of these other issues that reduce the gospel presentation to merely a “good faith offer” as opposed to that of the New Testament, which gives every indication of being nothing less than a “good offer.”

The fact is, the doctrine of regeneration preceding faith dictates that the gospel—good news— is really not the good news at all because it cannot be received by anyone who just hears the good news, not even the elect. The real good news, if Calvinism is correct, comes when one finds out his name is written on the secret list of the unconditionally elect. Then, and only then, come the hallelujahs. Such knowledge comes via selective regeneration followed by a predetermined free act of faith that results in receiving the promises of the gospel. Correspondingly, the gospel is reduced to announcing what people on the secret list receive. Moreover, the straightforward gospel, both definitionally and as biblically portrayed, becomes a mere phantom gospel—something of illusive power or efficacy—because the real power is in the secret list.

When speaking face to face with a lost person, even a Calvinist’s language is guided by these undisclosed truths; consequently, they are not merely disassociated tertiaries from the gospel. If I am perishing in a fire, and you offer me directions to a doorway which leads out of the fire, I can assure you that whether or not the doorway is actually accessible or divinely barricaded is neither tertiary nor even secondary but emphatically paramount.

I do clearly recognize that there are a host of secondary and tertiary issues related to various areas of Christianity. In this case, they may be associated with various theological headings, e.g. Bibliology and Eschatology (doctrines regarding Scripture and end times respectively), etc., but the matters to which we are referring all fall under the heading of Soteriology. That is to say, what is God’s plan of salvation, and whatever that is, that is what we are to be communicating.

We are not interjecting concepts from other theological categories such as eschatological positions or nuanced ecclesiological positions (doctrines of the church). While they are, in their own right, clearly important, they are not primarily relevant to someone being saved or how we communicate the opportunity to be saved or who can be saved and why. However, Calvinism’s unique and speculative soteriology is inextricably connected to the nature of the gospel and their communication of it. It is extravagantly difficult for me to comprehend how a person who truly understands Calvinism and the Scripture and has witnessed to a variety of people, who in turn ask a galaxy of questions, can really suggest that these issues have “no bearing on these things.”

The truth is that without the extra-biblical concept of the “good faith offer,” there is no evangelism in Calvinism, at least as it is regularly practiced by Calvinists. The very idea incorporates the conclusion that Jesus merely made a “good faith offer” rather than a genuine offer to the rich young ruler whom He loved, agapao, (Mark 10:21) and to every other person who asked Him about salvation (John 6:28-29). The same can be said about the offers of the apostles. It seems insurmountably difficult to find such in a simple reading of the biblical presentations because they so indubitably seem to be what they appear to be, good offers!

Analogically, the fundamental difference between Darwinists and Creationists is the former say that the cosmos appears to be designed, but it is not; whereas, the latter say it appears to be designed because it is. Similarly, the Calvinists say the gospel appears to be simple and accessible to all, but it is not; whereas the non-Calvinists say it appears to be simple and accessible to all because it is.

Suppose that I extended the most gracious of all invitations for all of you and your families to come to my house for a meal of eternal life, which is actually the only real eternal meal in existence. What is more, I not only invited you, but I commanded you to come and warned you of dire consequences if you refused. If that were not enough, grace upon grace, I actually offered to afford you whatever you lacked in order to make the journey possible. I did this in spite of the fact that none of you deserved such an opportunity, and actually all invitees deserved to starve. I think we would all agree that this invitation can only be seen as the sublime of loving and gracious invitations. However, in stark contrast to the invitations, I concomitantly masterminded a secret plan to make the road leading from most of your homes to mine absolutely impassible, resulting in eternal death for your spouses, children, and you. What would you think of me?

Now, would we not readily conclude that it would have been more honorable for me to have told you the truth that I actually desired for most of you to perish rather than giving every indication that I desired for all of you to live? When all the facts are known, it is undeniable that I did not offer real love or opportunity to those who perish; although none could detect such from the invitations themselves. I dare say that rather than considering such to be a “good faith offer,” or me an honorable benefactor, we would consider it nothing more than a cruel nefarious trick of an unscrupulous ignoble blackguard.

This example, or the biblical reality of the gospel, has nothing to do with the invitees being undeserving (or incapable on their own) or the host being just in withholding from anyone or everyone, and for Calvinists to so answer is to burke the issue at hand. What kind of God devises the plan to secretly exclude the majority of those whom He invites in the most unambiguously loving and gracious terms, yea commands and urges? I for one find no such suggestion in Scripture.

This helps to highlight the fact that while the “good faith offer” may provide some measure of serenity from the haunt of duplicity for the Calvinist, it offers not the slightest protection from duplicity for the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit who actually devised the plan.

The scriptural gospel is better news because it is a real offer of opportunity, by the grace of God, for everyone who hears. It is lexically described as “news that makes one happy” or “information that causes one joy” or “words that bring smiles.”[2]

God’s gospel is more consistent with the meaning of the word gospel, “news that makes one happy.”[3] It is simple, straightforward, and dependable with its inarguable meaning of good news for anyone who hears it. What it means, is good news from God to His creation, not merely good news for some and ghastly news for most.

[1] J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, (Downers Grove, Ill., InterVarsity Press, 1961), 97.
[2] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 412.
[3] Ibid.