“In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.” Ephesians 1:5-6
”Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19
It is likely you have heard the common statement, “if God predestines only certain people to salvation, what’s the point of sharing the gospel?” This line of thinking is common among non-Calvinistic conservative Christians when they consider the doctrines of grace. The simple answer is, “because we don’t know who the elect are, only God knows, so we share the gospel with everyone.” To an extent this statement is true, but is that really the best answer? If God predestines only certain people to heaven, and by default, only certain people to hell, what’s the point of evangelism at all, and how should we go about it?
The Gospel and Particular Atonement
Dr. David Allen, Dean of Southwestern Seminary’s School of Theology, pointed to a similar concern over limited atonement and evangelism at the Connect316 banquet earlier this year (June 2016). Dr. Allen was quoted as stating, “When you offer salvation to everybody, if you’re a preacher who believes in limited atonement, you’re offering something to a group of people in your audience that does not exist. . . How do you justify that?”
His concern, shared by many, is how can we say to a group of people, “Jesus died for all of you,” if He really only died for some of you? If we hold to Calvinistic soteriology, we certainly can’t justify making a blanket appeal regarding the extent of the atonement when presenting the gospel. But is this really an issue? Should we lay down our doctrinal positions, that many throughout church history have affirmed are so clearly displayed in Scripture, because it doesn’t seem like the best way to present the gospel to a crowd?
Which leads to the next question, are methods of revivalist-style evangelism driving theology in some circles? Surely that is not the case with seasoned theologians, but it seems to be part of the emotional objection to limited atonement we hear many times from everyday churchgoers. We must be sure that emotional and traditional leanings are not negatively effecting interpretation of Scripture. If a person finds that their objections are the result of a predetermined evangelistic method, they must attempt to look beyond these common traditions that are so prevalent in American Evangelicalism. Dealing with the text objectively, remaining open to the Spirit’s leading, provides the means of understanding.
God’s Will is Sovereign, Even if We Don’t Understand
“Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” Romans 9:20-21
As Romans 9 points out, who are we to question God in His sovereign plan? If He has created some in the crowd to be destined to eternal punishment, and some in the crowd to be destined to eternal glory, how can we pronounce judgement over God’s decree? We are all evil, wicked, and depraved which is a reality I hope we can agree on (Matt. 15:19, Jeremiah 17:9, Ephesians 2:1-5). If God chose to destroy every single human on earth, without the opportunity of redemption, He would be glorified in His righteous act of judging evil. The Father doesn’t have to save anyone, and when He deals out His wrath on deserving sinners He is glorified in His actions (Psalm 7:11). He punishes sin, both in Christ’s atoning death, and also in the spiritual death of the unbeliever.
But Christ’s death did not atone for the sin of those who God will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire (Matthew 25:41).” Christ’s death was sufficient for all, but effectual only for those who are His chosen people. How can Christ have atoned for the sin of those who will spend eternity in hell? Atonement is the effectual means of salvation, and cannot be universal.
No man pays a ransom without the certainty of the deliverance of those for whom it is paid. It is not a ransom unless it actually redeems. And an offering is no sacrifice unless it actually expiates and propitiates. The effect of a ransom and sacrifice may indeed be conditional, but the occurrence of the condition will be rendered certain before the costly sacrifice is offered. – Charles Hodge
I don’t think we want to believe in a God who sends Christ to die on the cross and then crosses His fingers, hoping that someone will take advantage of that atoning death. – Dr. R. C. Sproul
For a review on the extent of the atonement check out Dr. Sproul’s book “What is Reformed Theology?”
How Do We Present This Reality?
Christ’s sacrifice atoned for the sins of all who are “called according to His purpose. . . whom He foreknew.” This is the truth we preach, relying on the Spirit to do the work of conversion. We don’t have to give a blanket statement regarding the atonement to present the gospel. If you believe the truth, repenting of your sin, bearing fruit in keeping with repentance, Christ provides atonement for your sin. When we realize it is the Holy Spirit who is sovereign over salvation, we understand that our evangelistic method is to simply preach truth. It is wonderful to know that when we present the gospel, as it is laid forth in Scripture, we can rest assured that the Spirit will work as He sees fit. We don’t have to worry about coming up with strategies to convince people to “make a decision for Christ,” we simply must stay true to the text, expositing God’s word as it is presented.
But Why Share the Gospel if Only the Elect Are Saved?
So back to the original question, if some are predestined to glory and some are predestined to wrath, what’s the point of evangelism?
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called. . . Romans 9:22-24
“Because God told us to” is certainly part of the equation (Matthew 28:19). But notice the sections of the above passage I have underlined. The overarching reason why we participate in evangelism is because, no matter the outcome, it ultimately glorifies God. The truth is, whether a person accepts Christ or not, as long as we have preached the full gospel, it is honoring to God. If a person rejects Jesus as the Christ, God’s wrath and power is shown through their demise and eternal punishment. Likewise, if a person accepts Christ upon hearing the good news, God is praised in His wonderful mercy. Whether a person accepts the truth, or rejects the truth, God is still exalted. He is either glorified as the merciful Savior, or the righteous judge, but His name is always lifted up.
Declaring the Gospel is Worship to Christ
So, we spread the truth of the punishment of sin, and Christ’s merciful sacrifice, as an act of worship to our Savior. We carry the good news throughout the whole world praising Jesus for what He has done, bearing witness to both believers and non-believers. This proclamation rightfully condemns those who reject Christ, and provides the means for the Holy Spirit’s work in those who are being drawn to God. The righteousness of God is illuminated by the Spirit as we faithfully speak the truth of His word.
The lost then begin to clearly see the great chasm that exists between the holiness of God and evil of man. They realize their utter poverty before Him, and see clearly the injustice of sin being cast on a perfect Savior as He bears the burdens of many on the cross. The Spirit changes the heart of the wicked and turns them towards the cross in repentance. What a terrible but also glorious reality the cross is. This is why we share the gospel, because we owe it to Christ. We owe Him everything, and whether a person accepts His sacrifice or not, we seek to praise our wonderful King for the sovereignty of His will that has made salvation possible. Praise be to God, the merciful Lamb, and mighty Judge. Soli Deo Gloria!
Sproul, R. C. What Is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005.
Roach, By David. “2016 SBC Annual Meeting.” 2016 SBC Annual Meeting. Accessed September 10, 2016. http://www.sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc16/newsroom/newspage.asp?ID=150.
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. New York: Scribner’s, 1871.