Friday, December 06, 2002

Evangelism and God's Sovereignty (part 1)

In this recent post, I discussed an antinomy in physics, the wave particle duality. That was a segue into a discussion of a biblical antinomy (for the sake of our discussion, antinomy can be taken to mean the same as paradox): the sovereignty of God, and man as a responsible moral agent.

I will borrow heavily from J. I. Packer’s Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God. Packer begins his discussion by noting that everyone acknowledges the sovereignty of God when they pray. After all, it makes little sense to pray to a God that isn’t sovereign. Commenting on the ceaseless Calvinism-Arminianism debate, Packer writes: "on our feet we have arguments about it, but on our knees we are agreed."

He uses this famous conversation between Charles Simeon and John Wesley to "demonstrate" that on the matter of sovereignty we all are in agreement, even if we don’t think so:
(Simeon begins the conversation)"‘Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have sometimes been called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions, not from impertinent curiosity, but for real instruction... Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God if God had not first put it into your heart?’ "Yes, I do indeed.’ ‘And do you despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?’ ‘Yes, solely through Christ.’ ‘But, Sir, supposing you were first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?’ ‘No; I must be saved by Christ from first to last.’ ‘Allowing then that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?’ ‘No.’ ‘What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?’ ‘Yes, altogether.’ ‘And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto his heavenly kingdom?’ ‘Yes, I have no hope but in him.’ ‘Then, Sir, with your leave, I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is, in substance, all that I hold: and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.’"

Wesley’s reaction to Simeon’s declaration was not recorded.

God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are often apparent in the same passage and even in the same verse. For example:
39This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. 39And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:39-40) and

And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!" (Luke 22:22)

The verse from Luke is particularly apropos: Christ’s death is according to God’s plan, but Judas is still responsible for his betrayal.

Packer’s basic argument is this: We must embrace the antinomy: God is sovereign; man is a responsible moral agent. God is our King, and our Supreme Judge. Deal with it.

He warns of the two errors associated with emphasizing one aspect to the detriment the other:

  • Deemphasizing God’s sovereignty results in Arminianism.

  • Deemphasizing man’s responsibility results in (a form of) hyper-Calvinism, leading to, in the extreme, a denial of the necessity to evangelize.
The latter error (rightfully) concerns Packer. Arminians are, to their supreme credit, zealous evangelists. Packer is worried about Calvinists neglecting their biblically mandated duty to evangelize.

The source of the hyper-Calvinism error is a deceptively simple argument: If God has an elect and all of them will be saved, why bother to evangelize? Why not simply trust in the sovereignty of God? Whatever happens none of the elect will perish.

One of the more famous examples of this error occurred when William Carey was rebuked in his desire to send out missionaries. The head of the missionary society denounced him, saying: “Young man, sit down: when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine”.

In this argument, God's sovereignty is properly esteemed. However God's commandment to envagelize is ignored.

This is hyper-Calvinism is in direct violation of scripture and leads to cold, dead churches.

Packer focuses on the how and why of evangelism in light of the Calvinist’s supreme regard for God’s sovereignty. He bases it on the sublime beauty of the dual message. In Chosen by God, R. C. Sproul says it a bit differently:
Evangelism is our duty. God commanded it. That should be enough to end the matter. But there is more. Evangelism is not only a duty, it is a privilege.
Sproul is absolutely correct. In the next installment, we will look at the nitty-gritty details.

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