If They Won’t Listen to History, Then Take Them Before the . . .

Tim Brister —  November 28, 2007 — 6 Comments


That’s what Stetzer’s research showed in his recent presentation at the Building Bridges Conference. Every student of church history and Baptist history knows that the charge of Calvinists not being evangelistic or committed to the Great Commission is easily refutable, but alas, the caricature has remained among many who do not want to reckon with it. So it goes like this:

Explain the biblical doctrines of grace and how they fuel missions and evangelism, and if they do not listen, take two or three witnesses from church history with you, and if they refuse to listen, then bring them before the facts and empirical data of sociological research.

So here’s the facts of the recent study done by Stetzer and LifeWay Research:

1. Nearly 30 percent of recent SBC seminary graduates now serving as church pastors identify themselves as Calvinists.

2. In the last year of the study, 34 percent of those serving in SBC churches identified themselves as five-point Calvinists.

3. Calvinistic recent graduates report that they conduct personal evangelism at a slightly higher rate than their non-Calvinistic peers.

4. 27 percent of 1,234 recent seminary graduate respondents serving in SBC church leadership positions “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that they are five-point Calvinists, while 67 percent affirmed that God’s “grace is irresistible” and 58 percent said they believe “people do not choose to become Christians, God chooses and calls people who respond to him.”

5. Calvinistic churches, though they baptize fewer persons each year, have a “baptism rate” virtually identical to that of non-Calvinistic churches. Baptism rate is the number of annual baptisms relative to total membership, a statistic used to measure evangelistic vitality.

Now, before any of my Calvinist friends think we are off the hook and free from the inevitable attacks from anti-Reformed stalwarts in the SBC, we need to realize that our current commitment to evangelism and missions is simply unacceptable. I agree with Stetzer who says,

“Regardless of whether Calvinists are having a lower number of baptisms and a smaller attendance or baptizing the same in the baptism rate, the reality is none of these baptism rates or growth numbers should make any of us happy.”

To my Calvinist brothers, if we do not share the gospel to others as a dying man to dying men, imploring them to flee to Christ in repentance and faith on a regular basis, then it doesn’t matter how many points you hold to when you miss the main point of the gospel. It is not in the presence of Calvinists or Arminians that we live, preach, and share the gospel but rather Him who will judge the living and dead.

To my non-Calvinist brothers, there is much more to be done in our churches than to be telling people that Calvinists don’t believe in evangelism and missions. There are as many (if not more) anti-evangelism non-Calvinists as there are Calvinists. We need to get beyond these baseless and inaccurate attempts to demonize and marginalize Calvinists in the SBC.

The bottom line is that the gospel is not normative and central in our lives as it should be, and that goes for all of us. I will be the first to get in line and say that I am not as broken for the lost as I should nor am I as consistent in sharing the gospel as I should. From the looks of it, none of us have any ground to stand upon. Again, hear Stetzer reflecting on this reality:

“At the end of the day, Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike in our churches are failing to engage lostness in North America. This theological discussion has to lead to missional action and that missional action needs to cause Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike to love each other and to encourage each other and to provoke one another on to love and good deeds.”

Let us pray for one another, that we would take seriously the charge to deliver of first importance that which we also received – the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us display to the world know the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord and Treasure. And let the love which we have received from the Father through the Son be the distinguishing mark of our lives, in how we treat one another as well as how we minister to a Christless world.

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  • Did you know that 34.7% of statistics are made up on the spot?

  • I’m honestly puzzled here.

    none of these baptism rates or growth numbers should make any of us happy

    our churches are failing to engage lostness in North America

    I can accept that Calvinists would evangelize just out of obediance to the Great Commission, but for a Calvinist, why would any growth rate cause them to be unhappy? The Spirit is saving the elect, and the rest are what they are.

    You can mourn the fate of the lost, but how can we “engage” the lost any more than God allows?

    I’m also interested in thoughts on why Calvinists would have a higher rate of personal evangelism than non-Calvinists.

  • ChrisB — my thoughts on why Calvinists would have a higher rate of personal evangelism: God uses means to accomplish the miracle of salvation. The means he uses are the prayers of his people, and the proclamation of the Gospel. Therefore, when I share the Gospel with someone, I can have confidence that God is already at work! I can trust his sovereignty. I can know that God actually has the power to change the hearts of my hearers using the humble means of a Gospel presentation. This ought to make Christians desire to proclaim Christ with more fervor and passion, because they trust that the Lord has ordained their fervor as the means he will use to accomplish his unchanging purposes.

    Before I was reformed, I had zero confidence that the person’s salvation rested on anything but my skill in answering their questions plus their own desire or lack of desire to submit their hearts to the Lord.

    …my two cents.

  • Chris,

    I’ve answered similar questions like this. All Christians will likely grant that God is the giver of daily bread. Yet Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike work to earn their bread. And if the fruit of their labors doesn’t buy enough bread (a certain lifestyle), then they aren’t satisfied that “God’s will” is being done. They work harder, or longer, or smarter. Evangelism is similar, in that, though God is ultimately the bearer of fruit, that gives no right for complacence on the part of his human means.

  • Chris,

    The line of thinking,

    “The Spirit is saving the elect, and the rest are what they are. You can mourn the fate of the lost, but how can we “engage” the lost any more than God allows?”

    is not the testimony of Jesus or the early church (especially Paul!). The errors lie on both sides: denying God’s sovereignty, the other denying human responsibility.

    Paul understood this, for in the chapter where he devotes most of his time explaining unconditional election and divine sovereignty, he sandwiches them with two passionate pleas for the salvation of his kinsmen (Rom. 9:1-3; 10:1). There is no contradiction to Rom. 9 and Rom. 10. Calvinists believe in a “whosoever will” gospel. It is just that we know that the Bible reveals that God knows who that “whosoever” is, and He will make them “willing” through the regenerating work and effectual calling of the Holy Spirit. The Calvinist is actively sharing the gospel because we know that the greatest evangelist of them all is the Holy Spirit. To not share the gospel is to grieve the Spirit and live contrary to His purposes in your life, not the least of which is being witnesses of Christ in our Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the world (Acts 1:8; cf. John 15:27).

    I would argue that God allows us to engage the lost more than we realize. A strong belief in the sovereignty of God allows no room for personal disobedience to God’s call to proclaim the gospel, make disciples, and labor in the harvest field. It is *his* harvest field after all, and it *he* who is sending us there. The means of preaching and prayer, the instrumentality of God’s Word along with the agency of the Holy Spirit, have always been believed by evangelical Calvinists. Any Calvinist who is content that sinners are perishing or are not broken over the damnable state of sinners is not worth his salt.

  • I think that there is an answer to why evangelism is at low pace. The job of evangelism does not belong to the layman. Before the timer goes off on the sacred duty bomb, let me say this, everyone is a witness. There feel better? I believe one of the things that has happened in both camps is that we have forgotten the particularity of calling. I agree with Martin Lloyd-Jones that the office of Evangelist is still operative today. And, beyond that I believe that the duty of evangelism primarily belongs to the Elders. Paul told Timothy: “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” Timothy was a Pastor, and Elder. Among the qualifications of an Elder is: “…sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…” These were attributes that Paul says Timothy is to have. Hospitality comes from two roots which can be rendered “Philos, one of the bridegroom’s friends who on his behalf asked the hand of the bride and rendered him various services in closing the marriage and celebrating the nuptials…and…Xenos, a foreigner, a stranger, alien (from a person or a thing) without the knowledge of, without a share in new, unheard of …”

    It is true we are a priesthood of believers and all that was in Christ has been made ours by adoption through the power of the holy spirit. Although we are all priests, the priests had different functions and this particularity of function is followed through in the NT. What this does not mean is that we are to stop teaching and studying to show ourselves approved and to be ready to give every man an answer when they ask of the hope that is in us, instant in and out of season. What it does mean is that the Church is a orchestrated effort with given structure and functions that are meant to be passed on by teaching and instruction. Out of this mixture of gifts which the Lord has placed in the body He calls some to particular funtion. And, one of those functions is to evangelize and, in doing so to teach and lead others to do the same by example.

    This is a considerably different paradigm than we are used to because of the model that we have in place for the most part is that of Pastor/Elder/CEO. In Ephesians, again, I would consider Martin Lloyd-Jones to be correct when he assigns “for the work of ministry” to the “some” who are called. This perfectly fits with Acts 6: ““It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And I place here the emphasis on two complimentary ideas, “preaching…the ministry of the Word.” And, as we follow the careers of these men we see them, and not the congregation at large, evangelizing. We do have Steve, who upon opportunity, witnessed, and there are other examples where it is evident that laypersons shared their faith. Still, the order of the church is that the primary duty of evangelism belongs to those God has called out for that particular task.

    And I believe this, if we were to return to the model of the “regenerate” church and the proper intra-member” relationships we would have a more effective evagelistic ministry model.

    Just thoughts.