Five Ways the Doctrine of Election Encourages Evangelists;
Or: The Doctrine of Election as the Great Divide!
Or: The Doctrine of Election as the Great Divide!
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18.
One of the most ardent sermons of John Wesley was his attack on predestination titled, “Free Grace,” preached in A.D. 1740. The heading for Wesley’s last point in this sermon was, “Predestination is a doctrine full of blasphemy.” In that section, Wesley discussed reasons he felt that adherence to the doctrine of predestination was blasphemous to the loving purposes of God as described in the Bible. For one thing, said Wesley, the doctrine of predestination paints Jesus as a deceiver of the people:
“To say, then, he did not intend to save all sinners, is to represent him as a gross deceiver of the people. You cannot deny that he says, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden.’”
That same year George Whitefield penned a response to Wesley, addressing him directly:
“When you were at Bristol, I think you received a letter from a private hand, charging you with not preaching the gospel, because you did not preach up election. Upon this you drew a lot: the answer was ‘preach and print.’ I have often questioned, as I do now, whether in so doing, you did not tempt the Lord. A due exercise of religious prudence, without [the drawing of] a lot, would have directed you in that matter. Besides, I never heard that you enquired of God, whether or not election was a gospel doctrine.”
Then, in his public letter, Whitefield went on to answer the arguments of Wesley’s sermon, “Free Grace.”
Meanwhile a doctrinal guillotine had dropped. Divided were the evangelistic efforts of the two primary traveling evangelists of the First Great Awakening. The momentum of that movement soon mitigated.
This debate of theirs was not new in Christian circles. That same cleavage was canonized, with equivocal language, in the Second Council of Orange (A.D. 529). Orange dissuaded any who dared believe in predestination by condemning its logical antithesis: double-predestination:
“We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.”
By anathematizing double-predestination, the Second Council of Orange tacitly anathematized predestination. Orange used a tactic called “plausible deniability”—thereby being capable of plausibly denying that it disaffirmed predestination—while turning the table on believers in predestination. Orange put believers in predestination on the defensive, forcing them to explain why and how they did not believe in double-predestination.
Meanwhile it is only logical that a state-endorsed church would need to adapt its doctrinal principles to include all citizens of that state. Hence, by necessity, Orange had to affirm general atonement.
The position of the Second Council of Orange was clarified in a lesser known council that took place 56 years before Orange. The state-church’s clear antagonism to predestination was communicated in the AD 473 Council of Arles. A certain Presbyter Lucidus was required by this council to retract certain opinions on the doctrine of predestination. The following excerpt of Lucidus’ retraction is cited from Denzinger (2005 edition):
“From now on, according to the recent statutes of the venerable council, I condemn with you all this opinion: ...
- That says that Christ our Lord and Savior did not undergo death for the salvation of all;
- That says that the foreknowledge of God violently compels men unto death, or those that are lost are so by the will of God;
- That says that after having legitimately received [infant] baptism are dead in Adam whosoever sins;
- That says some are assigned to death, and others are predestined to life.”
The Presbyter Lucidus signed off on these retractions to his views of predestination. So important was his retraction, that the Bishop Faustus of Riez immediately sent it to the thirty bishops of Gaule (France). As predestination was an issue in Fifth Century France, so it was also an issue in the 18th Century United States. The dictum of Solomon stands true: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).
The rupture that rent Wesley and Whitefield tore apart Christians long before it divided Wesley and Whitefield.
For any evangelist wondering when chill winds fell on New Testament evangelism in the Western Church, the 473 Council of Arles and the 529 Second Council of Orange are good places to start. As the light of biblical evangelism dimmed in the Sixth Century Western Church, so the new believers saved by the light of the gospel proclaimed during the First Great Awakening dimmed in doctrinal dissension.
Evil purposes have long found beneficial to their cause the biblical axis where intersects God electing purposes and man’s freewill. This fulcrum has proven expedient in dividing born-again Christian brothers who believe the Bible.
“These six things the LORD hates, Yes, seven arean abomination to Him: A proud look, A lying tongue, Hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that are swift in running to evil, A false witness who speaks lies, And one who sows discord among brethren.” Proverbs 6:16-19.
Sowing discord among brethren stands at the climax of the seven abominations to the Lord. The intersection of divine election and man’s freewill has been used as an ax-head to split the evangelistic momentum of revival movements since the beginning of the church. What was in the past continues into the present. Evil purposes do not sleep; they still sow discord in every generation of the church.
However, the practice of biblical evangelism demands that both God’s predestination and man’s freewill be held synchronously.
In God’s providential foreknowledge, both man’s freewill and God’s electing purposes must be maintained simultaneously. Each sheds divine light on the practice of evangelism. The doctrine of election endues evangelism with twofold realism:
- Realism as regards biblical precepts and examples of evangelism; and
- Realism as to evangelism counters in the present day.
THE DOCTRINE OF ELECTION
While generality can lead to unrealistic expectations of openness among lost people, the doctrine of election prepares the evangelist for rejection—in the same way that Jesus prepared His disciples for promised rejection in Matthew 10:
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.” Matthew 10:16-17.
“Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Matthew 10:21-23.
“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!” Matthew 10:24-25.
Perhaps the first lesson impressed upon the evangelist is the small percentage of people who are genuinely interested in the gospel. This truth is taught when he encounters rejection or disinterest from most people. The Apostle Paul learned this lesson first hand from God. Paul explained this experience in his testimony to a hostile crowd in Jerusalem:
“‘Now it happened, when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I was in a tranceand saw Him saying to me, “Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, for they will not receive your testimony concerning Me.” So I said, “Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on You.And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” Then He said to me, “Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.”’ And they listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!’” Acts 22:17-22.
Paul very quickly learned that, although God loves the world, the vast majority of the world does not and will not love God back.
“He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” John 1:11.
Even years after the fact, Paul’s hearers in Jerusalem still burned with murderous rage at Paul. They pronounced on him an immediate death sentence because he dared evangelize, and to do so in Gentile territories—outside the reach of the Sanhedrin’s authority. By the time he shared his testimony before that hostile crowd in Jerusalem, Paul bore on his body many scars of the world’s hatred of Jesus.
Whereas generality assures the evangelist the false expectation that all people will be saved—if only the gospel is properly communicated to them—, the doctrine of election counters by clarifying that only those with a “hearing of faith” will be saved.
The problem with a universalism comes at the point of a “hearing of faith.” Only a minority of those who hear the gospel will have a “hearing of faith” according to Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. Universalism leaves the naïve evangelist with the false expectation that everyone with whom he shares the gospel should and will have a “hearing of faith.” When this false expectation is dashed in the laboratory of real life, fear and introspection can destroy any of his future efforts in evangelism. Through using harsh rejection of the gospel, Satan succeeds in closing many Christian mouths from ever sharing the gospel again!
But not all people have a “hearing of faith.” It is given to only a few. Paul explained the importance of a “hearing mixed with faith”:
“For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.” Hebrews 4:2.
He also discussed the role of a “hearing of faith” in Galatians:
“This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” Galatians 3:2-3.
The Bible clearly communicates in a number of places and in a number of ways that “narrow is the gate and difficult the way” that leads to salvation, and “few are those who find it.”
Whereas generality can misplace the world’s hatred as being rooted in something other than rejection of the gospel—leading to an endless search for what we are doing wrong—, the doctrine of election reminds the evangelist that Christ continues to be hated by the people of this world.
In order to align a general view of the atonement with the rejection faced in evangelism, the Christian is forced to seek out “What went wrong?” Because of general atonement, coupled with a misguided anthropology (that men will not by their sinful nature reject Jesus), the blame for rejection falls on the evangelist. Because of the fallacy of the original premise—being, “If I communicate the gospel rightly all persons should receive it warmly”—, an acceptable diagnosis for rejection is not possible, aside from abandoning the gospel altogether. The generalist evangelist is left “striving after the wind”—seeking a natural solution for supernatural problem, the problem of lost people rejection of Christ.
Yet Jesus warned His disciples of the rejection of the world:
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” John 15:18-19.
Whereas generality can shift antagonism to the gospel to the means, manner, or method of the proclaimer, the doctrine of election assures the evangelist that lost souls will reject even a proper gospel presentation.
Paul reminded the Corinthian church of the foolishness of the message preached to the ears of those who are perishing:
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:21-24.
While God makes no efforts to make His gospel palatable to all men, some modern practitioners appear to make it their life’s goal to do so. Steve Sjogren, David Ping, and Doug Pollock began their book, Irresistible Evangelism (2004), proposing “A Fresh Outlook on Evangelism”:
“Most Christians want to see the people around them make faith commitments to Christ. Some are desperately looking for ways to become more effective at the task, but many others have given up.”
One of the three authors, Doug Pollock, was introduced as follows:
“His passion to see people experience new life in Christ compelled him to try out and evaluate just about every possible approach to evangelism. He has reached the conclusion that most of our methods for sharing the good news leave both Christians and pre-Christians with bad tastes in their mouths.”
While this book has many helpful ideas and suggestions, its use of “pre-Christian” seems to ignore the doctrines of total depravity and total inability. Rather they appear to communicate an implicit generality. This generalist view of Sjogren, Ping, and Pollock forced them to scan the horizon of their combined experiences to find a methods of evangelism that:
- Would not leave a bad taste in the mouth of the proclaimer or the hearer;
- Would be irresistible to all people; and
- Would allow the proclaimer to avoid persecution for the gospel.
Whereas generality places the focus of the evangelist on his words, his personality type, his communication style, his cogent arguments, his persuasive techniques, and/or his cultural relevance, the doctrine of election drives the evangelist to keep his focus on the spiritual weapons of the gospel and the word of God.
Paul made a strong distinction between spiritual weapons and carnal (or worldly) weapons. It appears that false teachers were persuading the house churches in Corinth to focus on carnal weapons rather than spiritual ones.
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare arenot carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds.” 2 Corinthians 10:3-4.
Borrowing terminology from Jeremiah 1, Paul showed the need for spiritual weapons and methods over the need for the world’s weapons and methods.
On the other hand, in a frantic search to improve the world’s reception of the gospel, the rejected and misguided evangelist grasps for every source of truth he can find. Consider the words of the aging evangelist Charles Finney in his foreword to his Systematic Theology (1851):
“The discovery of new truth will modify old view and opinions, and there is perhaps no end to this process with finite minds in any world. True Christian consistency does not consist in stereotyping our opinions and view, and in refusing to make any improvements lest we should be guilty of change, but it consists in holding our minds open to receive the rays of truth from every quarter and in changing our views and language and practice as often and as fast, as we can obtain further information.”
Finney’s pitfall was to modify his old opinions “from every quarter … as often and as fast, as we can obtain further information.” This quote shows that the early Finney—the 1821 Finney with his Lectures on Revival—did not represent the later Finney. Once he lost the Bible as the sole arbiter and ground for truth, Finney no longer had an anchor.
For the evangelist who understands God’s electing purposes. The outcome is quite different. He is not blindsided by persecution, either to compromise his method to be palatable to a lost world or to shut his mouth altogether. He continues in humble submission to Christ who has given His gospel as the message and has taught how His gospel should be proclaimed.
The evangelist uses the spiritual weapons God has made available to him, including the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
When, however, the Bible no longer remains as the sole authority for faith AND PRACTICE, a vacuum is created, only to be quickly filled with ideas from “every quarter”—except for the Bible! The slippery slope is lubricated with concepts from public relations, marketing, sales techniques, and mass persuasion. The Finney quote above portrays the attitude that began the descent of this evangelist down a doctrinal slippery slope.
Just as the doctrine of election gives staying power to the persevering evangelist, so also does the Bible’s universal appeal and man’s need to “Call on the name of the Lord to be saved.”
A hidden freewill is lodged in men that God reveals in the context of gospel proclamation. It outwardly appears that a person is receptive to the gospel OF THEIR OWN FREEWILL when one approaches them with the gospel and they hear, repent, and believe. Yet behind that open reception lies a host of hidden divine actions:
- The Holy Spirit bringing life to the Scriptures;
- God opening a person’s heart to be receptive to the gospel;
- The Holy Spirit applying each word of Scripture to the heart in a proper way; and
- The Holy Spirit convicting of sin, righteousness, and judgment.
For the receptive heart, consider God’s powerful working in the heart of Lydia. She was found to be among several other women, the others apparently remaining unreceptive.
“And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia was listening. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. Acts 16:13-14 (My adaptation of v. 14).
Here the Lord operated as the Agent opening Lydia’s heart to attend and respond to the gospel that Paul was sharing with the group of women. The general group of women were untouched by the gospel Paul was proclaiming. Yet, through the same words, God wrought salvation in the heart of one hearer, Lydia.
From Paul’s perspective, it may have seemed like Lydia’s freewill was drawing her to Christ. Man cannot see the heart of others. Only God sees the heart:
“For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7.
What looks like freewill to man has been lodged in the purposes of God since before the foundation of the world!
General atonement is quite different. For general atonement, at the cross God opened the heart of all men. The divine power of God is not necessary to open individual hearts of men and women as they hear to the gospel. They just need the opportunity to hear the gospel. Then the choice is theirs.
The scenario where God works in every heart, leaving it to man to make a decision does not match with God’s working in Lydia’s heart. While man making the choice appears true, it overlooks all the divine elements mentioned above. Yes, Christ died for all men. But God does not act on all men. God did not open the hearts of all the women at the riverside. He opened Lydia’s heart to be attentive to the things spoken by Paul.
Even so, universality does play an important role in evangelism.
Universality is also found in the New Testament. There is a clear universality to the Great Commission. Christ commanded His people to preach the gospel to every creature. The New Testament makes it clear that God loves the whole world. Jesus’ death was the propitiation “not for our sins only, but for those of the whole world.” There is a universal aspect to the New Testament that cannot be ignored. It is not for the Christian to question what God has clearly communicated on the anvil of His word. Indeed, God’s universal mandate and Christ’s sufficient atonement drive intentionality and expectancy in evangelism.
- With Intentionality we must go to every tribe, tongue, and nation.
- With Expectancy we share with all that some will have a “hearing of faith,” repent and believe.
- With Intentionality we proclaim the gospel with every possible person that we encounter.
- With Expectancy we trust that some will repent and believe in Christ the very first time they hear His name.
- With Intentionality we use the very words of the Bible because the Holy Spirit is the agent of salvation in the life of all who believe.
- With Expectancy we understand that the Holy Spirit will work in, with, and by God’s word and the gospel of Christ.
- With Intentionality we call receptive people to commitment in obedience to Christ’s command, and following the examples of Scripture.
- With Expectancy we rejoice by faith in the plentiful harvest that Jesus promised.
“For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” 1 Timothy 4:10.
Both election and freewill have their place in God’s sovereign work through the preaching of the gospel. The greatest danger is allowing Satan to tear apart these essential Bible teachings and to use them as a wedge to split God’s people. The sword of the Spirit gives unity and power. The scalpel of Satan slices and dices, bringing discord, disharmony, and constant strife.
Enough of allowing the Evil One to use divine election and man’s freewill as a ploy to divide God’s people. Rather than spreading discord, may we work to be faithful proclaimers and peacemakers.