Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Evangelism and 5 Point Calvinism

Or, "How to witness for Jesus to a total stranger and not feel like you are lying to them when you tell them God loves them and that Jesus died for them, even though you don't know if they're elect."

Or, "How to tell someone that Jesus died for them."

Calvinists haven't always been the greatest at evangelism. At least not since the days of Edwards, Whitefield, Judson and the great missionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries (David Livingston "Dr. Livingston, I presume?", William Carey and David Brainerd are other Calvinist missionaries of renown).

But, hold on. Calvinists may travel land and sea to make a convert, but will they tell the cashier at the gas station that Jesus loves them? Not so much. Why? Well, that's because of the 5 points. The 5 points are Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace, Limited Atonement, and Perseverance of the Saints. The problems are bent mostly on Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement.

Let's just take a closer look at Limited Atonement. This doctrine teaches (rightly, I believe) that Jesus' death on the cross--his atonement--fully pays for all of this sins of his elect, his chosen people. That is, the atonement actually, and fully saves them. It is the atonement that saves, and nothing else. No human work or decision or act of the will, but only the atonement, and it fully saves to the uttermost: "He was put to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification," (Romans 4:25). A comforting doctrine for those who belong to him.

But that means that Jesus didn't die for everyone, or that possibly his atonement is sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect only. That is, the atonement is applied only to God's elect. So, if Joe Schmoe behind the counter isn't one of God's elect, Jesus didn't really die for him--or--Jesus' atonement was sufficient for Joe, but the Father has no intention of applying the sacrifice of his son to Joe. Joe isn't elect, and Joe denies Christ. Joe is lost.

But surely a good Christian would want to tell Joe about the good news? What then? Well, Calvinists have typically told the good news impersonally: "Joe, I have good news for you."

"What's that?"
"Christ died for his own people."
"Yes, he did. And if you repent and believe, you will be saved."

That's how it's done. You see, the Calvinist doesn't know if Joe is elect, so he can't tell him that God loves him, because the Calvinist might be lying to Joe. He might be stating a falsehood and misrepresenting God himself. The Calvinist doesn't want to do that! So he speaks in the 3rd person: "Christ died for his own."

That's not too personal, is it?

If you read my previous post, you read how I told a total stranger in an Ethiopian gift shop--a Muslim girl--that Jesus died for her. How can I do that and not be lying, or guessing? After all, I believe in election and in limited atonement.

Here's how. And I thank my good friend Norman Shepherd, a retired Calvinist theologian and pastor for helping me out in this. In his book, "The Call of Grace," he tackles this problem head on. The problem is that Calvinists have wrongly interpreted the Scriptures through the lens of the 5 points when it comes to evangelism. Instead they should interpret the Scriptures through the lens of covenant.

Norman tells me in a personal conversation, that you start with the story of Scripture, and the story of the covenants of God. First, Adam broke covenant with God and lost fellowship with him by sinning in the garden. But God had a plan. Many years later, God made a covenant with Abraham, that through Abraham's seed (Christ [Galatians 3:16]) God would bless all the nations of the earth (Genesis 12:3). Then the Lord created a special people all unto his own: the nation of Israel. He saved them from slavery in Egypt. Then, the Lord destroyed the wicked nations of the land of Canaan (don't tell Christopher Hitchens and gang about that), and gave the land to Israel. He gave them the law through Moses, but the people rebelled against God. But God still had a plan. He brought his people to himself through Judges, and kings, and he gave Israel King David. Still the people rebelled, and God sent his people into exile. But God brought his people back to the land of Israel and in the fullness of time, Jesus came....

Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. Jesus is the Lord from heaven, and he has come to bring not just the Jews, but all nations to himself and to God the Father. Jesus tells his followers to go into all the nations and preach the gospel and to teach all the nations to obey Jesus and be baptized into his name. Jesus has died for the sins of the world, not just Jews. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life." Jesus said this to a Jewish teacher, Nicodemus.

So you tell this to Joe. And Joe says, "I'm not a Jew. You're telling me that Jesus is my Messiah too? Jesus died for me too?"

And what will you say?

I've had Calvinists tell me that I am not qualified, and neither are they, nor is anyone else, to tell a total stranger that Jesus died for them. They act this way because they look at life through the lens of the doctrine of divine decrees (election), and not through the story of the Bible--the doctrine of the covenant. God has made a covenant not with Israel, but with all nations--the world. This is why, when we read the "all" passages and the "world" passages, that Calvinists should not be threatened, because they read these texts through the covenantal lens, not the electionist lens.

So yes, Joe: Jesus died for you. Repent and believe and be baptized and you will be saved.

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