Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Reformed Evangelism: A Challenge To faithfulness
by Paul T. Murphy
Those Churches that consider themselves to be truly reformed have done an excellent job of preserving the faith, and for this they should be commended. However, when it comes to propagating the faith they have failed miserably, and for this they should be rebuked. We cannot claim to be truly reformed and NOT be engaged in the work of evangelism. We are those who believe in preaching "the whole counsel of God" and that INCLUDES the great commission! We must be faithful to that whole counsel.
My intent is to call us as "conservatives" to repent of former failures and return to future faithfulness in our mission. We shall look at the challenge, the motivation, and the demonstration of reformed evangelism.
The Challenge of Reformed Evangelism
My thesis in this article is simple. You cannot be truly reformed unless you are evangelistic. Conversely you cannot be truly evangelistic unless you are reformed. This thesis reflects the inherent relationship between theology and practice.
This is the Biblical model. In Paul's letters, he normally sets forth doctrine first, then proceeds to set forth the practical duties that are based on or flow from that doctrine. We, as reformed Christians, have emphasized the importance of correct doctrine for this very reason. We recognize that godly living proceeds from sound doctrine. This has been a strength.
What we have too often failed to recognize is that the way we live reflects what we truly believe. An example might help. If we read Romans, then went out determined to live the upright, moral life Paul describes in Chapters 12-16 IN ORDER TO BE right with God, we would only demonstrate that we do not have our doctrine straight. Paul tells us that we live upright and moral lives not in order to be justified but because we have been justified. Justification by faith produces good works, not the other way around. This is simply to say that the way we live reflects what we truly believe just as what we believe is reflected in the way we live.
How does this apply to the area of evangelism? It is impossible to say you are truly reformed and then do nothing in evangelistic work. Our doing nothing demonstrates that we either don't believe what it means to be reformed, or that we are disobedient to that truth, or both. Being reformed has always meant being evangelistic. And the best evangelism was always done by those who were reformed. This is confirmed not only by the Bible (Paul certainly believed in sovereign grace, yet was also the greatest missionary) but also by church history.
Every revival that has been blessed by God occurred when the doctrines of sovereign grace were faithfully proclaimed. The reformation itself was a huge missions effort as the gospel of sovereign, free and full forgiveness was propagated. The great evangelistic preachers, Spurgeon, Whitefield, 'Edwards, etc. were Reformed. And an astounding fact often overlooked is that every mission society formed in the golden age of missions was formed by Reformed Christians! By contrast, how many are Reformed today? The history of the Church confirms that God honors those that honor Him. It is the reformed faith that is the truest, most faithful and God-honoring expression of Christianity. God has blessed His truth as it has been faithfully and fearlessly proclaimed in the past. And that is the challenge God presents to us today.
We must therefore repent of our former failures! We believe that God deals with His people covenantally, that is, blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. I submit for your consideration that we "conservatives" are being judged for our disobedience. The unfaithful methods and practices that are complained about are judgments from God on US for our failures. Where there was nothing being done, something filled the void which was left due to our disobedience. Let me be perfectly clear. Before anyone condemns what someone else is doing, they better examine themselves to see if they are not guilty (Matt. 7: 1-5). If you have not faithfully exercised YOUR responsibility, then you have lost all credibility in criticizing others. At least they are doing something while you do nothing!
Let us not be hypocrites in condemning others for what is really our fault! We need to repent! And begin to practice what we preach! Then and only then will God bless us. That is the challenge of reformed evangelism!
The Motivation of Reformed Evangelism
The greatest mistake we can make is to think that being reformed is a hindrance to being evangelistic. Yet this seems to be the mindset of many people, even "conservatives." I have been in many conservative churches and their tract racks are often filled with literature that is Arminian. The sentiment appears to be "reformed people don't do evangelism" or "only Arrninians do evangelism." This is a gross distortion and an unfortunate caricature.
Yet I believe it is an accurate reflection of the present state of affairs in the Church. Again, this sentiment has developed because of the failure of "truly reformed" people to be obedient. However the reformed faith is our greatest asset (as we shall see in the next section) and our greatest motivation to be evangelistic. We need to return to, recapture, and be compelled by three characteristics:
I) The Glory of God - Some have suggested that the great end and motive for evangelism is the salvation of the lost. This is not true. As great an end and motive as that is, it is not the greatest. We must be crystal clear that the great end of evangelism is the glory of God. SOLI DEO GLORIA is the cry of the reformed. And it is no less our cry in evangelism. By means of the faithful and fearless proclamation of the glorious gospel of Christ, God will be glorified. He will be glorified in the salvation of the elect as well as the damnation of the reprobate. God's Word does not go forth void; it will glorify God.
Not only will God be glorified, but he must be glorified! Psalm 110:1 records the words of God the Father to God the Son: "Sit at my right hand until r make your enemies a footstool for your feet. "When we see this used in the New Testament, it is to show that Christ is reigning now and shall reign until the nations become His inheritance (Ps.2:8) and His enemies become His footstool. He must be glorified, but how?
We are ambassadors of Christ, as though God were making His appeal through us. Every believer is a prophet, priest, and king. Acts 1:1 tells us that Luke in his gospel "wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach .... " The clear implication is that what he will now tell us in Acts is what the risen and exalted Lord Jesus continues to do and to teach through His Body, the Church. In every chapter of Acts, Luke records for us how the Word of God spread until it reached Rome, the end of the (then known) earth (cf 1:8).
There remains much work to be done until every nation, tribe, people and language has heard the Word of good news. Christ must reign until ALL His enemies are made a footstool for His feet. He will be glorified and He must be glorified as every believer spreads that Word. This is the end of evangelism; it is also the motive of evangelism.
'The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever" (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.l). Unbelievers, in their rebellion against the Almighty, are not glOrifYing God. "For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him ... "(Romans 1:21). God is being robbed of the glory that is rightfully His. Does that fact grieve you? Do you really believe that every creature owes God glory? Will this not then motivate you to tell them this, so that God will receive His due?
This is what motivated our reformed forefathers. This is what made them so zealous and passionate in, their labors. They knew that the more people that were saved, the more glory that would be brought to the name of God. William Carey, David Brainerd, Henry Martyn and George Whitefield were moved by this singular passion. They were moved to the wilderness, to the colonies, to the ends of the earth in order that greater glory would come to God. Those who today confess SOLI DEO GLORIA must be roused by the same desire and motivated by the same passion.
2) Obedience - Reformed people are big on obedience and rightly so. We recognize that Jesus is not only Savior but also Lord. As such we owe Him allegiance and obedience. It is Jesus Himself that has given us the great commission. Evangelism is our duty. We ought not to be complacent until everyone in the area of our responsibility (the local Church) has been confronted with the claims of Christ.
This is why we must confess our failures as sin - the sin of omission. Evangelism in most reformed churches has become the great omission! Why is this so serious? Because God takes it seriously. "When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand."(Ezekiel 3:18). Paul speaks similarly in Acts 20:26-27.
"Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God." We are far from having done all that we could to make sure that everyone has heard the gospel. Our duty to our Lord should motivate us to evangelism.
3)Compassion--We are to be initiators of God (Ephesians 5:1). We should exhibit the same compassion for the lost that Jesus did. What constantly amazed people and often angered them was Jesus' compassion to sinners (Luke 15:1-2). The grace that He has given to us should make us gracious and compassionate to others.
Do we really believe that sinners will be eternally damned in the flames of Hell without Christ? Do we really believe that people are without God and without hope? Do we really believe that our fate would have been the same except for the grace of God? If so, then we must be moved with compassion.
After all what is a Reformed Christian? A Reformed Christian is one who has looked into the fires of hell and seen its terror. A Reformed Christian is one who knows that he is a Hell deserving sinner. A Reformed Christian is one who has been drawn to the foot of the cross and seen Christ in all His glory as a Savior for sinners. A Reformed Christian is one who knows that Hell is where, but for the sovereign grace of God and no other reason, he belongs. A Reformed Christian is one who has experienced compassion and thus should be one who is filled with compassion.
Paul taught the sovereignty of God more than anyone and yet also said "since then we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men . . . far Christ's love compels us" (1st Corinthians 5:11,14). May God teach us that fear and that love such that we would be compelled as Paul was, to persuade men to be reconciled to God. MAY THE COMPASSION OF CHRIST MELT OUR HEARTS AND return us to the path of faithfulness. When our hearts are gripped by these characteristics, then we will be faithful.
The Demonstration of Reformed Evangelism
I have contended that the reformed faith is our greatest motivation for evangelism. It is also our greatest asset. Far from being a hindrance, it is the most powerful instrument for the work. This is what far too many fail to realize. I suspect that the reasons for throwing out our theology are more pragmatic than theological. Some have begun to define evangelism in terms of results, success in terms of numbers. This is a sad state of affairs and is to be deplored. Success in Christ's service is always defined in terms of faithfulness!
If we want to be truly evangelistic, it is necessary to be reformed. This will be demonstrated by going through the five points of the Reformed faith (TULIP). TULIP is by no means an exhaustive exposition of the reformed faith. It is only the marrow as it were. But we shall see how helpful it is in our task.
This does not teach that we are absolutely depraved, that is, as sinful as we could be. But it teaches that we are totally depraved. Sin has affected the whole man. Sin has affected the mind, the will, the emotions. This has implications for evangelism.
Man does not have a free will. He is a slave to sin, a child of the devil; Satan has taken him captive to do his will. If it were up to our wills we would not choose Christ since we love sin. We are totally unable to choose the good. In fact we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1,5).
We also need to recognize that man's problem is not intellectual but moral. Out of the heart are the issues of life. The heart of sinful man is in love with sin (John 3:19) and hates God (Romans 8:7). Man does not believe because he does not want to believe. It is not because the unbeliever lacks knowledge. Rather he doesn't like the knowledge he has (Romans 1:18-21).
The majority of gospel proclamation ignores this today. Failure to recognize these implications leads to the dishonesty of decisionism. This decisionism is prominent in such methods as altar calls, evangelism explosion, four spiritual (f)laws, evidence that demands a verdict, and others.
Decisionism of the Arrninian type assumes that faith (a decision) precedes regeneration. Thus "believe and be born again." The problem with this is that dead men can't believe. No matter how long or how loud I might preach in a cemetery, no one is going to come out of the graves. The same is true with unbelievers. It is deceptive to lead them to trust in a decision for their salvation.
Decisionism of the other variety mistakenly assumes that the problem with unbelievers is intellectual. If they were presented with enough information or evidence they would be convinced for Christianity. The failure here is that a shallow and merely external mental assent is all that is called for. Man must be persuaded in order to achieve results. This accounts for the emphasis upon methods and techniques in the Church.
The Biblical pattern, taking full account of total depravity, is quite different. It aims for the heart. It aims to get man to see himself as God sees him. It is honest in informing man that he is desperately in need of radical heart surgery and totally unable to do anything to save himself. In so doing we seek to elicit a total reliance upon Christ to save.
How is this accomplished? First by the communication of Biblical truth about God, man, sin, and Christ. The criterion should always be, "How much, not how little truth was conveyed?" Paul is reported to have disputed, reasoned, taught, and persuaded. This presupposes that there was much time taken to communicate. A brief dispensing of a few facts is deficient.
Second, in order to get men to see their true selves as God sees them, we must use the Law. The Heidelberger is quite helpful here. Note the order. Misery then deliverance. How do you come to know your sin and misery? The Law of God tells men (Q &: A 3). Only when the Holy Spirit and the Law have done their work in a person's heart will he see ills need of deliverance.
THIS TEACHES THAT GOD, BEFORE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD, CHOSE A CERTAIN NUMBER and only that number to be saved. The reason for this is none other than for His own good pleasure. Simply put, there are two individuals, one is saved and the other is not. Why is the one saved and the other lost? Arminians teach that it is because one believed. The Bible teaches that it is because God only chose one to believe. This has four implications for evangelism.
1) This saves us from despair in our work. The easiest thing to occur in evangelism is to be discouraged by the lack of response. But if it is God alone who saves and it has been determined from before the foundation of the world, then we are not responsible for results. We are responsible to put the message out; "the man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose," but the responsibility for someone being saved is God's "who makes things grow' (1st Corinthians 3:7-8). This has incorrectly led some to then say that it doesn't matter whether or not we evangelize. But this is a distortion as we see in the next implication.
2) Election is a great motive for evangelism. Jesus said "And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd." (John 10:16). The elect are out there and they must come! "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14). While some think that election evacuates motive from missions, we see that it is no less motivating for a Reformed Christian. We recognize God uses means, the preaching of the Word, therefore we tell others. They must and they will come as that message is spread.
3) The insufficiency of merely believing. One is not elect because he believes. While this may appear self-evident to reformed people we need to be sure believing isn't presented as a work in evangelism. We love because He loved us first.
4) The need to preach election. I speak here especially to ministers and missionaries. I have heard some say that election is a difficult teaching and should be reserved for the seasoned Christian. I disagree. Jesus taught election and so should we. This is of great benefit in evangelism. Those whom the Holy Spirit has quickened respond and the sheep are separated from the goats.
This teaches that Christ died on the cross for the elect only. He did not die for everyone but only for those the Father had chosen in eternity. It is important to realize that everyone limits the atonement. Arrninians limit the effect. They say that Jesus died for everyone. But they realize that not everyone is saved so they qualify their statement by claiming that Christ's death made salvation possible for everyone. Perhaps you've heard the statement such as "God sent His Son, He died on the cross, He's done His part, now the rest is up to you." With all its well meant sincerity, this is sincerely wrong. What's more, it is offensive to God.
By limiting the effect, they put God in a position of desiring salvation but unable to accomplish it. He has only made salvation posSible. It is now out of God's hands and up to the indiVidual to be saved or not. This is not good news at all but the worst possible news there could be.
On the other hand, the reformed position limits the scope of the atonement. Christ actually accomplished the salvation of everyone for whom He died, that is the elect. Salvation is not possible but actual for all who sincerely repent and believe. This is good news indeed and there are two implications for evangelism.
1) This saves us from manipulation. Those for whom Christ died must and will come. We need not engage in emotional or psychological practices intended to get someone to make a decision. We can instead have full assurance that when the message of the gospel is faithfully, preached, the Holy Spirit will apply it. Our only responsibility is to be faithful. What a relief to be free from methods and techniques and tricks that are not only intricate, but cheapen the gospel at the same time.
2) We must not and need not tell people that Christ died for them. It is thought that this enhances the gospel message but in fact it is deceiving. And it is not necessary. If they are convicted of their sin by the Holy Spirit and see their need of a Savior, when Christ, in the full glory of His life and death is presented, they will come.
This teaches that the Holy Spirit never fails to bring to salvation those sinners whom He personally calls to Christ. We distinguish here between the external call presented when the gospel is preached and the internal call which alone is of the Holy Spirit. The latter alone is effective. That is the work of grace in an individual heart enabling him to understand and believe spiritual things. Here also there are implications for our work.
1) Faith and repentance are divine gifts. They are not the products of men but the gracious gifts of God. Here we see that regeneration precedes faith. The only way anyone will beheve is if they are given faith.
2) The gospel is imperative. It is not an option but a command. God now calls all men everywhere to repent and beheve (Acts 17:30). We must not only inform people's minds and hearts. We must also impress upon them the urgency of our message. We speak of eternal matters here and they should be presented as such. Preach as a dying man to dying men!
Perseverance of the Saints
Those whom the Father chose in eternity are those for whom the Son died and also those to whom the Holy Spirit applies salvation. Those elect persons shall certainly endure to the end. What does this have to do with evangelism? Two things:
1) It Is the perseverance of the saint not the sinner. Those people who profess the Name of Christ but evidence no change of life, persisting in ungodly living are subjects of evangelism. Those who are in Christ will grow in holiness.
This is necessary to understand in our day because of an unbibhcal teaching prevalent that says that Jesus can be Savior without being lord. Yet the Bible teaches that it is only because Jesus is lord, that He is also Savior. Without this emphasis many have been led to think they are saved when there is no fruit evident This not only deceives them but disgraces the Name of Christ.
They are deceived because they will wake up on the other side of death to fearful judgment. But more seriously, Christ's Name is dragged in the mud as those who call themselves by His holy Name live unholy lives. Furthermore this leads to the destruction of the church when there is little difference in effect between her and the world. She will have. become full of professors but not possessors.
2) The matter of assurance. It has become common practice to assure those who have "made decisions" for Christ that they have eternal security. There is no Biblical warrant for this practice. We are taught that we shall know them by their fruits not their decisions.
Assurance is the work of the Holy Spirit As such we should not be presumptuous and assure people of something we cannot be certain of at that point. If they persevere, the Holy Spirit will testify with their spirit that they are children of God.
I hope it has been sufficiently demonstrated that the reformed faith is not only the truth and God honoring, but also an indispensable asset for the evangelistic ministry. To attempt to be evangelistic and not reformed is only to end up deformed.
Hopefully you have also been challenged and motivated to the task. Now you must be faithful. May our great God richly bless our labors so that His elect are gathered, His Kingdom advanced, and His Christ glorified!
A native New Yorker, Rev. Paul T. Murphy was raised in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx. At the age of 29 he was conformed to the image of Christ as the Lord broke down the barriers of his heart and captivated his life. He became pastor of the Dutton Christian Reformed Church, in Dutton, Michigan. Rev Murphy now Pastors the Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship in Manhattan, New York, a member congregation of the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA).