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According to the Reformed understanding of salvation, God is totally sovereign in his grace bestowed to sinners. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…And those whom he predestined, he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:29-30). “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, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4b-6). It is by God’s grace alone that sinners are saved through Christ. And it is according to the infinite wisdom of God that anyone is saved.
Because of God’s sovereign grace in electing some sinners to salvation, while leaving other sinners in their sin, salvation “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). In the words of theologian Bruce Demarest,
“On this showing, God gives to some more than they deserve, but no one gets less than they deserve. Why God chose to bless some sinners and willed to leave others in their sins has not been revealed. Yet God’s elective purpose richly displays his mercy and justice” (The Cross and Salvation, Loc. 2297).
If a Christian believes that God saves in this manner—electing some to salvation from eternity past (Eph. 1:5)—should he or she evangelize? Is it not illogical to proclaim the gospel if God has elected all those whom he will save? Its not like we can thwart the purposes of a sovereign God. So, why do evangelism? On the surface this is a valid question. It seems logical. Those who believe that God is utterly sovereign over all things certainly should just sit back and allow God to save whom he will save without moving a finger, right?
If you are in the camp of accusers or the camp of the accused with regard to this question, it is important to have a biblically grounded and theologically sound answer. In order to answer this question, let’s first look at the biblical meaning of both the sovereignty of God and evangelism.
The Sovereignty of God
God’s sovereignty is not something any Christian would deny, and it is most certainly not something any Christian would truly want to deny. This can be seen in the fact that all Christians pray. If you pray, you are practically recognizing the sovereignty of God. You thank him for good gifts and graces given to you, for you know that they come from God. You ask him for things and to work in a certain situation because you know only he can fulfill what you ask (Matt. 7:7-11). This is evidence that you recognize God’s sovereignty over your life.
Indeed, there is tremendous comfort in knowing that our God who is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love is the almighty Sovereign over our lives. We all also acknowledge God’s sovereignty in salvation. This is why we pray for God to save our loved ones. God’s sovereignty is summed up quite nicely in Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” And also with regard to God’s sovereignty in salvation, Jonah 2:9 succinctly defines the term for us: “Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
It is his! He is the one responsible for your salvation. If you have repented of your sin and trusted Christ (conversion), why have you done such a thing? Was it due to your own goodness? Of course not! Was it due to your own wisdom that you chose to trust Christ for your salvation? No! Your conversion is solely due to the goodness of God’s grace to lead your heart to crave him. It is God who saves and he does so solely by his sovereign grace. This is why we pray for God to save our loved ones, because we believe it is he that brings it to pass. This is the sovereignty of God in salvation.
Simply stated, evangelism is the delightful duty of every Christian to proclaim the gospel to our fellow man from every tongue and tribe. Taking the message of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement to the lost whom he came to save (Luke 19:10) is the mandate of the church (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). Even more than a message, it is a call—a call to repentance and faith in Christ. Theologians call it the “Gospel call.” Christians call sinners to Christ through the proclamation of the gospel. J.I. Packer writes, “The Christian is sent into the world as God’s herald and Christ’s ambassador, to broadcast this message as widely as he can” (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 91). This is evangelism.
The question now becomes, how can the latter be practically done with confidence in the former. How can I practically evangelize and believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation? I believe there are four reasons for doing evangelism in light of God’s sovereignty.
1. The Bible commands us to evangelize. We are commanded as Christians to proclaim the gospel message of God’s salvation of sinners through Jesus to all men to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; cf. Matt. 24:14). We see pictures of evangelism throughout the book of Acts in the early church and most notably in the apostle Paul. He took the message of Christ as Savior (1 Tim. 2:15) and Christ as substitutionary sacrifice (Gal. 3:13; Rom. 3:26) to all men. So, in light of God’s sovereignty over salvation, this does not nullify the biblical command to evangelize.
2. God uses means to save sinners. God does nothing haphazardly. He is very purposeful in all that does, which is a testament to his infinite wisdom. God saves sinners through the work of his Son on their behalf. Sinners receive this salvation by God’s grace through hearing and responding to the call of the gospel. God saves through the gospel, which is why Christians should strive to live gospel-centered lives. God is sovereign to save sinners, but he does so through the means of the gospel. So, in light of God’s sovereignty, we should evangelize because God uses the gospel to redeem fallen man. “[I]f you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:9, 17).
3. There are sheep that are not of this fold. God’s people are likened to a flock. God through Christ is the shepherd. In John 10, we are given a picture of gathered sheep and sheep that have yet to be gathered. It is for this reason that we evangelize. Though it is God who draws these sheep to himself, there are those sheep who are not of the ingathered fold (John 10:16). The purpose of evangelism is to draw the sheep into the fold by God’s grace in the call of the gospel to repent and trust Christ. God is sovereign in choosing his sheep and drawing them, but we are to go, for we do not know who will hear the shepherd’s voice and heed his call (John 10:16, 27). Only the sheep will repent and believe in Jesus for salvation, but it is through evangelism that they are gathered.
4. God’s sovereignty in salvation gives us hope in evangelism. Truly our only hope in calling rebels to trust in the one whom they willfully disobey is in God’s sovereignty and power to save them. If I bring someone drowning in a pool a message of salvation without a lifeguard who is able to save him or her, my message contains no hope. Evangelism is grounded in God’s sovereign grace to save sinners. We can gladly and confidently proclaim the gospel knowing that his sheep will hear his voice and respond in faith.
Salvation belongs to the Lord (Jon. 2:9)! Our God is in the heavens and he does all that he pleases (Ps. 115:3). It pleases the Lord to shower unworthy sinners with his grace (Eph. 1:3-6). Because of these realities, we must fearlessly evangelize. I encourage you to share Christ with your neighbors, family, and coworkers today and everyday with the confidence that it is God who saves and it is under his sovereignty that all whom he seeks, he finds.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.