The Means God Uses
I noted earlier that one of the common complaints against the doctrine of election is that it encourages passivity and fatalism. If salvation is entirely God’s work, then what remains for anyone to do?
This common complaint betrays a serious confusion between the authorship and the means of salvation. To say that God in His electing grace has purposed to save sinners, tells us little, if anything, about how He proposes to do it. If I may be permitted a rather simple analogy, no one ordinarily confuses a person’s plan or intention with his or her manner of realizing this plan. Good intentions, as we often say, are not enough! You have to act upon your intention. You have to execute your plan. You have to take the steps necessary to realize what you have in mind. In a far more profound and significant way, the same is true of God. His intention to save His people may not be confused, however important and foundational it may be, with the manner in which He wills to bring that intention to pass. He graciously elects to save His own in Christ from before the foundation of the world. But, in order for that purpose to be accomplished, He ordains and employs the means necessary to do so. The gospel of Christ’s saving work on behalf of His people—as well as the application of that work by the Holy Spirit—describes the way whereby God realizes His saving intention for His people.
Indeed, it is one of the more curious objections to the doctrine of election to say that it diminishes history or the use of means in procuring the salvation of sinners. Those who offer this objection seem not to notice that history itself, in all of its extraordinary richness and complexity, is the realization of God’s all-comprehensive counsel and purpose. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism classically defines it, Gods’ “decrees are, His eternal purpose, according to the counsel of His will, whereby, for His own glory, He hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (Q. & A. 7). All of the works of the Triune God, whether in creation or in redemption, represent the realization of His counsel and purpose for all things. Encompassed within the counsel of God are all of the actions of free creatures (Eph. 1:11; Acts 2:28; Gen. 50:20; Isa. 45:7). Though some might argue that this threatens to do “violence” to the will of creatures, the counsel of God actually establishes “the liberty and contingency of second causes” (WCF Chap. III, i).
Only by means of the ministry of the Word and Spirit, communicating Christ and His saving benefits to His people, does God bring sinners to salvation. The work of evangelism represents the work of the Triune God, through the means He has sovereignly appointed to that end, in bringing His elect people to salvation. Sovereign election does not diminish these means. Rather, sovereign election calls for the use of these means as God’s chosen method of granting salvation to those whom He loves. The difference between evangelism viewed from the perspective of divine election and from the perspective of human ability, then, is not that the former encourages passivity and the latter activity. Not at all. Difficult as it may be for us to fathom, the sovereign counsel of God provides the only adequate basis for history and human responsibility.1 The creature’s freedom finds its place within the sovereign counsel and purpose of God, and not outside of it.
Thus, Reformed believers are as committed to the importance of the use of means in the communication of the gospel as anyone. Though we will have occasion to reflect more directly on these means in subsequent articles—when we consider such topics as the covenant of grace, the church as the “mother of believers,” the means of grace, and the like—it should be evident that the doctrine of election in no way minimizes the importance of evangelistic work. If God’s people are to be saved, then the gospel must be preached to them (Rom. 10). If the nations, which are encompassed within the generous reach of God’s electing love, are to be discipled, then the church must go and disciple by teaching and administering the sacraments. If sinners are to be brought back to life from the dead, the Spirit will have to get hold of them for the sake of Christ. Only in the way of vigorous preaching and teaching will God’s elect find salvation. Only when there are shepherds who seek out and find those who are lost, who are moved with compassion toward those who are outside of the household of God, will God’s purposes for His chosen people be realized (Luke 15). Not one act, large or small, required for the salvation of any sinner is excluded from the realization of God’s sovereign and saving purposes.
For God’s Glory
Within the perspective of divine election, the salvation of sinners represents the triumph of God’s grace in overcoming the radical consequences of human sinfulness and rebellion. Nothing less than the Father’s electing love, the Son’s atoning work, and the Holy Spirit’s application of that work, is sufficient to the need of any sinner. No doctrine of Scripture more eloquently attests the glory of God’s sovereign grace than the doctrine of election. When the apostle Paul, therefore, closes his treatment of God’s sovereign purpose of election in the salvation of His people, Jew and Gentile alike, in Romans 9–11, he ends with a song of praise to God: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! … For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33,36). God’s gracious election is “to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). In this age and in the age to come, God wills to “show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7).
This means, as John Calvin often noted, that the Triune God has joined His glory to the salvation of His people. Never is greater occasion given for praising and glorifying God than when He brings sinners to salvation. Never are sinners more profoundly blessed than when they enter into the fullness of spiritual blessings in fellowship with Christ (Eph. 1:3). What is to God’s glory, the salvation of sinners, is likewise the sinner’s comfort and blessedness.
The first implication of the doctrine of election for evangelism has to do with its prospects for success.
Though “success” may not be the most desirable term, I mean to refer by it to the likelihood that the evangelistic preaching of the gospel will bring about the intended result, namely, the salvation of sinners.
One remarkable feature of many objections to the doctrine of election, particularly ones that score it for its negative implications for evangelism, is that they undermine the only sure basis for the confident expectation that the preaching of the gospel will bring sinners to salvation. How can we be sure that sinners, who are by nature hostile to God and the call of the gospel of Jesus Christ, will turn to God in faith and repentance and so be saved? What confidence may the church have that its work in evangelism will not be in vain?
Historic Arminianism teaches that God loves and seeks the salvation of all sinners, without exception, in the same way. This means that God elects all whom He foresees believing the gospel promise. He provides a universal atonement through the work of Christ for everyone without exception. His Spirit strives in the same way, but with the same limitations, when the gospel is preached to anyone. But nothing the Triune God does actually saves anyone. Without the free and persistent cooperation of sinners, not one single person would be saved. Indeed, it is conceivable that the combined efforts of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, would not lead to the salvation of a single person.
The great comfort of the biblical doctrine of election, which gives encouragement and good hope to the church in her mission to preach the gospel to the nations, is that God will undoubtedly accomplish His electing purpose. Nothing in all creation can frustrate His saving purposes (Rom. 8). Not one of those for whom Christ shed His precious blood, and in whose heart the Spirit works through the gospel, will fail to come to him in faith and repentance. In this sense, the doctrine of election lends wind to the sails of the gospel preacher, and for that matter to every Christian in his or her witness.
Our Means of Success
Furthermore, the doctrine of election answers the question as to the means of success in evangelism. In the history of the church, particularly the history of the evangelical church in North America, we often witness the sad spectacle of the church, in the name and cause of evangelism, resorting to a variety of less-than-biblical strategies to secure the salvation of sinners. From Charles Finney’s “new measures” to the more extravagant excesses of the church growth movement, any number of techniques and means have been employed to obtain success in reaching sinners with the gospel.
The doctrine of election reminds us that God’s work must be accomplished in God’s way. If God has ordained the end as well as the means of evangelism, then it is incumbent upon the Christian church to disciple the nations in accord with God’s appointed method. If God is pleased, for example, to magnify His own power through the weakness and foolishness of preaching, then what business does the church have in devising a substitute method (1 Cor. 1:18–31). Evangelistic methods that “guarantee” success, whether the gospel is faithfully preached or the Holy Spirit works through the Word, do not honor God or save sinners. Only the Triune God saves, and He saves by the working of His Spirit and Word.
God’s Glory and the Salvation of Sinners
There are two related implications for evangelism of the theme of God’s glory in the salvation of His elect people.
First, God is not glorified when, in the work of evangelism, He is not acknowledged as the one whose sovereign grace alone brings salvation. Nor is He glorified, when the means used virtually assume that salvation can be effected whether the Spirit and Word of God are present or not. The salvation of sinners is of and unto the glory of God!
But second, God is not glorified when the salvation of sinners is not the great interest and preoccupation of the church. After all, if the Triune God is pleased to be glorified in the display of His grace toward His people in Christ, then nothing glorifies Him more than seeking and saving the lost. Who can claim to represent God before a lost world, but have no compassion or interest to welcome sinners in His name? Who dares to profess the God of Scripture, and yet be unmoved by the plight of those who are like sheep without a shepherd.
The Triune God of the Scriptures has revealed the fullness of His grace and truth in the person of His only-begotten Son, who came to seek and to save that which is lost (1 Tim. 1:15). Those who are His children, who are being conformed to the image of His Son, must share His heart, a heart that is full of compassion and unwilling to rest until His house is filled (Luke 14:23).
1For a fine statement of this point, which answers the objection to “decretal” theology that says it diminishes the importance of history and human responsibility, see Richard A. Muller, “The Myth of ‘Decretal Theology,’” Calvin Theological Journal 30/1 (April, 1995): 159–67. The following observation is typical of Muller’s argument: “The world is a contingent order dependent in its every moment, its every bit of matter, its every activity, on the divine will. If, then, God did not ordain ‘whatsoever comes to pass,’ nothing would come to pass. The eternal decree does not, therefore, abolish history—it makes history possible” (165, emphasis Muller’s).
Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.