by Mike Ratliff
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison– that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Colossians 4:2-4 ESV)
From the moment the Lord opened my heart to understand the necessity of having the right understanding of salvation in light of His sovereignty; I have been seeking to understand how He saves His people. I dug deep into reformation theology books and articles, prayed for wisdom and understanding, and listened to godly reformed teaching and preaching. I now have a fairly complete understanding of the doctrines of grace, the five solas, and salvation by grace. However, I have realized that majoring in these doctrines to the exclusion of evangelism is a huge error. Being a logical and reasoning disciple of Jesus Christ, I became perplexed about how to reconcile, within my service of my Lord, how to preach and teach the gospel to the lost according the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) while never compromising God’s sovereignty to the determent of His glory.
After a disturbing encounter with some militant Arminian “Free Will” adherents last Sunday in my class, I sought the Lord to lead me into His knowledge and understanding. When we humble ourselves before God seeking His wisdom and understanding, He will answer our prayers according to His will. (James 1:5) I have been in listening mode all week as His presence has been close and intimate. Since my week started with the horror of a disrupted class followed closely by a strong sense of being lead by the Spirit into prayer and Bible studies, I knew something special was coming. Our God is a very good God. He is gracious, yet He is sovereign and in complete control.
What I am going to share in this article may not be a surprise to anyone who reads this; however, it is a new way to perceive the mystery of salvation to me. The reformed view of salvation, historic Calvinism, is correct. It is based entirely on God’s sovereignty and Man’s inability to save himself. The five points of Calvinism are correct, but if we approach evangelism entirely with that perspective, we tend to lose the fire to be effective in our preaching the gospel. Why? We tend to look at people as elect or non-elect. There is a tendency to put little priority on evangelism because we feel God will save His people anyway. Then why did God command us to preach the gospel to everyone?
On the other hand, the Arminian approach to evangelism is to forget all about election and God’s sovereignty. Instead, they see the whole population of planet Earth as potential Christians who need to hear the gospel. Most of these people (the ones who actually do evangelize) have a heart for the lost; however, their theological understanding is flawed. With this deadly combination, there are large numbers of converts, but very few of them grow into any spiritual depth. In fact, well over 80% of their “converts” do not last more than a few weeks or months. Most of the churches who operate like this have large memberships, but well less than half of their flocks ever show up for services. Those who do stick rarely grow into any spiritual depth. Why? They are under the false impression that their salvation came because of their “decision for Christ.” With that false assumption, they also believe their “sanctification” or spiritual growth is in their hands as well. They do not submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in order for them to grow in grace because they do not know they are supposed to. Their teachers and preachers do not lead them to do that. Instead, the lessons and sermons they hear are geared towards seeker sensitive, watered-down issues that have no spiritual power behind them.
The reformed Christians tend to lack evangelism while the Arminians steal God’s glory by believing the “decision for Christ” is what saves people. The problem between these theological issues is one of viewpoint. What am I talking about? Well, let’s say that Calvinism reveals to us the truth of salvation, but it is all from God’s viewpoint. Think about it. God sees Man as totally depraved and unable to seek Him for salvation because he is spiritually dead. ( Romans 3:10-18 ) He has elected those whom He will save. (Ephesians 1:3-12) The purpose of salvation is to save those whom He loves so that they will be Jesus’ brothers and sisters. To accomplish this he must call or draw each of His elect in such a way that they “CAN” be saved. (John 6:44) That means God must perform a miracle of rebirth with his efficacious Grace. This new birth makes the sinner Born Again. Now he or she can believe. Read Romans 8:29-30 for the rest.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t use God’s viewpoint in our approach to evangelism. Why? Well, we do not know whom the elect and non-elect are do we? Of course not! So, how should we evangelize? We should approach it the same way the Arminians do. We should preach the gospel to everyone, no exceptions. However, we must understand that when we do that we are not in any way sending out the efficacious Grace of God with our witnessing. The preaching of the gospel is the general call of the gospel. God takes that preaching and applies it to the hearts of the lost. These lost will be both the elect and non-elect. All must hear the gospel. The call must go to all.
When people respond to the preaching of the gospel we must NOT do as most Arminians do in declaring them all “saved” simply because they walked an aisle and said a sinner’s prayer. Instead, we must attempt to lead them to an understanding of the gospel. The approach I prefer is Evangelism Explosion because it reveals the essential understanding of the gospel to the sinner. However, we must not look at the prayer they pray at the end of the process as what saves them. Instead, we must observe them over several days, week or months (whatever it takes) in order to see if the rebirth has actually taken place in their lives. In other words, we must disciple them. The Great Commission was a command to make disciples not to create masses of unsaved converts. Without God’s efficacious Grace regenerating the heart of the sinner so he or she is reborn unto a new creation, there is no salvation no matter how many sinner’s prayers they pray.
So, how should we approach evangelism? We must see it as part of the process of fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples from all races, ethnic groups, countries, nations, and peoples. Making disciples requires a much larger commitment than simply employing hit-and-run evangelism. It means that when God has opened the hearts of His elect as the gospel is preached, we must be ready to disciple them into a proper understanding of God and their role in His Kingdom. That means they must learn that when they did “choose” to turn and repent in belief, it was not through their own pre-salvation will. Instead, it is was because of God’s saving grace, which gave him or her the faith to do so. We must teach them that they are responsible for “cooperating” with God in their sanctification. We must teach the doctrines of grace to the saved. It makes little sense to approach the lost that way. In fact, that is why God has directed us to simply preach the gospel and make disciples. We must leave the rest up to Him. When we approach evangelism from this viewpoint, we must pray for God to save those we witness to then we must obediently take each of those who respond aside to be examined and discipled.
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21 ESV)
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.