The doctrines of grace and the gospel of Christ
Having briefly outlined the teaching that is commonly known as “Calvinism,” we must necessarily face one major objection that is often levelled against the system: Does it not hinder the work of the gospel?
The story is frequently told that, when William Carey expressed his desire to take the gospel to India, he was told by Dr. John Ryland, “Sit down, young man; when God wants to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without your help and mine!” If man is indeed wholly incapable of contributing to his own salvation, and if God alone can effectually call sinners to repentance, is there any point in us calling sinners to repent and believe the gospel?
The command to evangelise
The answer to this question is quite simple: There is indeed every reason to evangelise, for the Lord has commanded us to do so (Matthew 28:18–20). We have no business disobeying a clear injunction of Scripture simply because we don’t understand the mysterious hand of God.
Though God alone can effectually call sinners to repentance, he has chosen to do so through means—specifically, the means of preaching (Romans 10:13–17). And in order for preaching to take place, preachers must be sent! God is sovereign not only in the end of salvation, but also in the means to that end.
The hope in evangelism
The vital point that is often missed by critics of Calvinism is the great hope that it gives in evangelism and missions. Arminianism teaches that God made salvation possible for all, but that fallen man must ultimately decide whether or not to believe. The preacher, then, has no guarantee that anyone will believe his preaching.
Calvinism, on the other hand, teaches that God has elected some from every people group on earth, and that he will certainly save those whom he has elected the save. The preacher, then, has great hope as he goes forth declaring the gospel. God’s elect will hear and will certainly believe. They may not do so the first time they hear, but they will certainly do so eventually. Calvinists take great heart in God’s words of encouragement to Paul: ‘And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people’” (Acts 18:9–10). As Monergism.com states,
Apart from God’s unconditional election, evangelism and missions would be utterly hopeless. Naturally, there is none who is capable of obeying the gospel, believing in Christ, understanding the things of the Spirit, or seeking God (John 3:3, 27; 6:44, 65; 8:43–45; 10:26; 12:37–41; 14:17; 1 Cor 2:14; Rom. 3:10–11); so then, the doctrine of God’s sovereign election, which overcomes those impossible barriers, is a necessary foundation for missions.
The history of Calvinism
It is a matter of historical record that the gospel has flourished most where and when the Lord’s people have affirmed the doctrines of grace. William Carey was a thoroughgoing Calvinist when he left his shoemaker’s shop to evangelise for Christ in India. Andrew Fuller, who helped form the Baptist Missionary Society, was another thorough Calvinist, as was David Brainerd, missionary to the native Americans, who wrote in his journal, “I then had two desires: mine own sanctification, and the ingathering of God’s elect.” George Whitefield’s Calvinism never hindered his passionate preaching of Christ. Instead, it was said of him, “With what divine pathos did he exhort the sinner to turn to Christ!”
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Andrew Bonar and William Burns were all Calvinists and passionate evangelists. Seaton concludes:
Martyrs, Reformers, leaders of Christ’s church on earth, when they tell of the gospel that they preached and died for, tell out the gospel of God’s saving grace to His own elect flock. How could one begin to list them? Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, Latimer, Knox, Wishart, Perkins, Rutherford, Bunyan, Owen, Charnock, Goodwin, Flavel, Watson, Henry, Watts, Edwards, Whitefield, Newton, Spurgeon, are but a few of God’s noble army of witnesses to the truth of sovereign grace. Was any of their work for the Lord hindered by what they believed? And what did they believe? They believed that God was sovereign Lord. They dared to believe that they worshipped and served a King who “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” Well did that prince of preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, put it when he said, “I have known men bite their lip and grind their teeth in rage when I have been preaching the sovereignty of God…. The doctrinaires of today will allow a God, but He must not be a King.” And did Spurgeon hinder the gospel? And yet, how many rose up in strife against him on account of his doctrine!1
Spurgeon longed to see this gospel revived in his own time. “That old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach today, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth, I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox’s gospel is my gospel; that which thundered through Scotland, must thunder through England again.”2
Would to God that it would thunder through, not only England, but through the entire world until the knowledge of the glory of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea!