In the early years of my life as a theological student, an article appeared in a journal intended for candidates for ordination. It bore the title, “Evangelism and Election: friends or foes?” Well, to be honest, at that stage in my Christian life, if you had pressed me for an answer, I think I might well have said “foes.” Did not the doctrine of election teach that God had already chosen a people for himself before the foundation of the world? And didn’t the wider doctrine of the sovereignty of God imply that God was in complete and final control of everything in the universe? Then what is the point of calling people to come to Jesus Christ for salvation?
Shortly afterwards, there was published a book by Dr. J. I.Packer entitled, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. It was the very book I needed, and I devoured it. The most useful thing I could say in this article is that if you have not already done so, you should devour that book also. It clarified to me that, far from being an obstacle to evangelism, the doctrines of divine election and divine sovereignty were the key secret to driving our evangelism and saving us from becoming discouraged and daunted in it. The rest of this article will seek to justify that statement.
God’s Sovereign Redemption
Let me begin with the Apostle Paul’s experience in Acts 18. He is the evangelist par excellence, but in Corinth he was facing blasphemous opposition to his evangelism. Paul was discouraged, but the Lord spoke to him in a vision “Do not be afraid” He said, “but go on speaking and do not be silent.” And then God gave him the reason for this encouragement, “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9–10).
Now the striking truth is that these people of whom God is speaking had not yet believed the Gospel. Many of them had not heard it, but God declared that they were His. They had been, as Luke puts it in Acts 13:48 “appointed to eternal life.” Now this is the doctrine of God’s sovereign initiative in salvation, but used in the way Scripture uses it. That is, not as a bullet to be fired by Calvinists, nor as a bomb to be dropped on Arminians, but as a bulwark for God’s people, to save them from discouragement, fear and a lack of confidence in God and the Gospel. Paul heard these words and “settled there a year and six months, teaching the Word of God among them” (Acts 18:11). As John Stott puts it, “This conviction of God’s sovereignty in salvation is the greatest of all encouragements to an evangelist.”
It is important to clarify why this is so. Earlier, in the fourth chapter of Acts, in a situation of even greater crisis, the Apostles are driven into the presence of God in prayer. The word they use in addressing God is rightly translated in some versions “Sovereign Lord,” and they go on to ascribe absolute sovereignty to God in both creation and redemption. Listen again to the way they describe what happened in the darkness of Calvary, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27–28).
You see, the essence of the apostolic conviction is that the Sovereign Lord was the ultimate moving power behind everything in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. When human wickedness seemed to have reached its nadir, the sovereign, controlling hand was God’s. Jesus put the same truth to Pilate in this way in John 19:11, “You would have no authority over me, unless it had been given you from above.” So in history’s darkest hour, the fact of God’s sovereign rule encouraged and enabled the Apostles in two vital areas: prayer and preaching.
Most of us have been involved in conferences focussing on the most effective evangelistic methods for our generation. What I miss is an emphasis on the primary evangelistic method, which of course is prayer. Do you know these words of E. M. Bounds? I will never forget the day I first read them:
“We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organisations to advance the Church and secure enlargement and effficiency for the Gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man, or sink the man in the plan or organisation. God’s plan is to make much of the man. This vital, urgent truth is one that this age of machinery is apt to forget, and the forgetting of it is as baneful in the work of God as would be the striking of the sun from his sphere. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods but through men. He does not anoint plans but men––men of prayer.
The searching question we need to ask in the light of that is, why then is it that in so many evangelical churches and ministries, prayer is supplemental rather than fundamental? Could it be that the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation is not as fundamental and supreme as it should be? Or could it be that we do not really believe that God, and only God, can save the lost and raise them into new life in Christ? Of course there are so many things we can do. We can persuade people intellectually, we can move them emotionally, and much else. But only God can regenerate them spiritually, and it is a work of regeneration for which we are seeking, is it not?
As the Sovereign Lord, this is the other area in which God empowers us. The first implication of that is that when God takes a man up and uses him in the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, the result should not be that people come out from the occasion saying “What a man!”. Rather, the most natural thing to escape their lips would be the words “What a God!”, “What a Saviour!”, “What a Gospel!”. It is for this reason that Paul says “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5). Significantly, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty does not ever inflate the human ego, or make a man self-important and proud. By contrast, it humbles us from two sources. One is the nature of the biblical gospel which insists, as Archbishop Temple once said, that “the only thing of my very own which I contribute to my salvation is the sin which makes it necessary.” The other is the teaching of Jesus about fruitful Christian service in John chapter 15: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself . . . neither can you unless you abide in me . . . apart from me, you can do nothing.” Of course, growing in the likeness of Jesus Christ is growing in genuine selflessness and humility, as John the Baptist saw so clearly when he said “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
I will bring this article to a conclusion by setting out five principles which I believe should guide our ministry of pulpit evangelism:
The Word of God in Holy Scripture is our only infallible authority for the substance of the gospel message. One implication of that is that all our preaching should in some sense be an exposition of Scripture. In pulpit evangelism, we shall of course be careful to expound relevantly in relation to the people who are present.
The gospel’s theme is Jesus Christ as the only Savior of sinners (cf. Peter’s preaching in Acts 2).
The Christ who saves is the Christ who is revealed to us in the whole of Scripture. That means that we should find the Holy Spirit convicting and saving sinners through the message of the whole Bible and not just from a few “Gospel texts.” This is the example Jesus gives us in Luke 24:27 on the road to Emmaus, “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.”
4. We must be clear that it is not the Bible which saves us. It is Christ who saves us. But the only Christ who saves is the Christ who is revealed in the Bible.
2 Corinthians 5:14–21 is a significant passage in connection with evangelistic preaching. It makes clear that there are two elements in the preaching of the message of the Gospel. The first is proclamation, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” The other is appeal, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Don’t miss the remarkable truth here: as Christ is the agent through whom God achieves the reconciliation of sinners, so we are the agents through whom He appeals to them, or “begs” them. We are nothing less than God’s ambassadors. As John Stott puts it with typical neatness, “There must be no proclamation without appeal, and there must be no appeal without proclamation.”
My own impression is that while most of us would be confident that we know what the proclamation involves, we are less certain about the appeal. This is partly because the word appeal is associated with a procedure seen at evangelistic occasions in many parts of the world. Whatever we think of that kind of public “going forward,” it is certainly not what Paul is referring to. What he is speaking about is an appeal to the heart and conscience of his hearers to receive by repentance and faith the riches of God’s grace in Christ. Now while Scripture makes it clear that both repentance and faith are gifts from God, it is equally clear that God does not repent or believe for us.
But that must never diminish the idea that it is God Himself who implores sinners through our preaching to lay aside all forms of resistance, and come gladly and eagerly to Jesus Christ to receive the salvation He has gained for us at the cross. We must never get used to the mystery that the Sovereign Lord of the universe should stoop so low as to make redeemed sinners His ambassadors.
What differences should resting on this doctrine make to the man in the pulpit? I think there are chiefly two: 1. It should make him an intercessor even more than an expositor, and 2. It should make him quietly confident, but not self-confident.