Responding to criticism of his methodology, the evangelist conducting a soul-winning seminar at my home church retorted,
“Well, I like the way I win souls better than the way you don’t.”
The questioner fell silent, and I – an impressionable teen at the time – thought the evangelist had convincingly silenced his detractor.
The evangelist did have a sharp presentation – a binder filled with colorful laminated pages of Scripture and leading questions (this was in the 1960’s). Anyone who invested the time to master the method could expect a high rate of success in getting people to decide for Christ.
However, a few weeks later I experienced my first doubts as a lady in our church shared her experience with the evangelism method taught at the seminar. She told how she had led a friend through the presentation, getting positive responses at all the appropriate places. When they came to the crucial question: “Wouldn’t it make sense to accept Jesus as your Savior?”, her friend could produce no reason why she should not pray to receive Christ. So she prayed. But as soon as she finished praying, the new convert said, “Wait a minute. You tricked me. I didn’t believe in Jesus when you came, and I don’t really believe in him now.”
Though I was troubled by that response, and consequently did not use that evangelistic method, my theology of evangelism remained fairly intact through high school, Bible School and into my first pastoral charge – a theology that sought a decision at all costs. However, I was not long in Christian ministry before I realized that one could, if clever enough, convince people to make all sorts of decisions – even the decision to receive Christ. However, over time it became apparent that many decisions were simply that – just a momentary decision with no lasting result.
God used those early experiences to draw me toward a better theology of evangelism. Through continued study of Scripture, reading reformed writers – past and present and by meeting godly, reformed believers, I was introduced to the doctrines of grace. As I embraced a reformed soteriology, I experienced a shift in my evangelistic approach. I was no longer driven to get that decision, but rather to faithfully articulate the gospel message. Though I still asked people to make a decision, I knew that a true decision would come only as the Spirit of God opened their eyes and imparted new life.
The following reasons undergird my commitment to a reformed understanding of personal salvation.
All people are lost in sin, and in need of salvation (Psalm 14:1-3; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:23; 6:23).
Because of sin, all people are spiritually dead and unable to respond to the gospel without God’s intervention (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:1).
It is the Spirit of God that imparts new life – that brings a person from spiritual death to spiritual life (John 3:3-8; Titus 3:5-6).
When it come to evangelism, an authentic reformed understanding of salvation acknowledges that God takes the initiative in new birth – our role is to make the message plain (Romans 10:14-15). Salvation is truly by the sovereign, electing grace of God.
I do not believe this means people make no decisions. Every true Christian decided to trust in Jesus Christ alone as Lord and Savior. Indeed, more than once we find the evangelists in Scripture seeking a response from their listeners – asking them to make a decision for Jesus (Acts 2:38-39; 16:31; 26:27-29). Throughout the history of the church, many adherents of a reformed soteriology have not hesitated to ask for a decision from those hearing the message.
The beauty of reformed soteriology is not that we are free from the obligation to plead with sinners to get right with God. On the contrary, we are commanded to proclaim the gospel to the whole world – to every man, woman, girl and boy (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:18-20). The beauty is that we know God will honor the clear, passionate ministry of the gospel in his own way and in his own time – the results of our evangelism are in his hands, not ours. In speaking of his own gospel ministry in the ancient city of Corinth, Paul highlighted God’s role in conversion: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6 ESV).
Too many reformed believers have wasted precious time debating the merits of a genuine free offer of the gospel. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament shows that we are mandated to encircle the globe with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8). Not one shred of Biblical evidence can be produced, excusing Christians from seeking to share the gospel with every person on earth.
Having said all this, there is one question that remains. Why is it that ministries built upon a reformed understanding of salvation – ministries reveling in the power of a sovereign God to save lost sinners – are so often the small, struggling evangelical works in town? It is a question addressed some years ago by Joseph A. Pipa, President of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (South Carolina). After listing several valid reasons, Pipa writes:
“…one of the primary reasons for the relatively small success in our Reformed congregations is lack of prayer”
“A Missing Ingredient”, The Banner of Truth, August/September, 2005, p.1.
Developing this thought, Pipa reminds readers that lack of faith does not weaken God’s ability to work, but rather that as a divine principle, “God does not normally operate in a context of unbelief.” Prayerlessness is an expression of unbelief.
Let us do more than give an intellectual nod to the power of sovereign grace. Let us go further than simply writing and preaching about this wonderful truth. Let us take this grace-filled message into the public spaces of our world, boldly and compassionately proclaiming Jesus as the only hope for a lost world. And as we preach, let us simultaneously storm the courts of Heaven, pleading with God to pour out his blessing in revival and new birth. Those who do this are truly reformed and evangelistic.