Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Calvinism and Missions
by Rev Ronald VanOverloop
1. TOTAL DEPRAVITYA “Calvinist” is one who maintains the truths of the Reformed faith as summarized in the creeds of the Reformation. These truths have been summarized in the Canons of Dordrecht: total depravity, unconditional election, limited or definite atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. It could be said that all of these truths are summarized in the truth of the sovereignty of God. A “Calvinist” maintains these truths, not because they were taught by a man or by men who were instruments of God to bring about the great church reformation of the sixteenth There have been many who have denied and even hated these truths of the Reformed faith. A frequently century, but because he finds these heard criticism is that a Calvinist cannot successfully do the work of mistruths taught conclusively in the Bible. There have been many who have denied and even hated these truths of the Reformed faith. A frequently heard criticism is that a Calvinist cannot successfully do the work of missions. It is stated that one cannot preach effectively unless he proclaims a universal love of God and a universal atonement of Christ. It is said that to maintain the truth of irresistible grace makes mission work virtually unnecessary. And it is said that to maintain the truth of total depravity results in the missionary beating his head against a wall, that it is folly to tell the unconverted that they are dead in sins and incapable of believing apart from God’s regenerating grace. These assertions, often made without even an attempt to prove them, are considered sufficient to discredit the whole of the Reformed faith. It is the intention of this rubric to examine each of the five points of Calvinism in light of their use in and application to the work of the missions. We begin with the truth of total depravity. Total depravity is an essential part of the Reformed faith and it is clearly taught in our confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism states that “our nature is so corrupt, that we are all conceived and born in sin” and that we are “so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of any good, and inclined to all wickedness” (q. 7, 8). Man’s will is active and free to desire, but it is able to desire only evil. The Belgic Confession declares that “through the disobedience of Adam original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God, that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind” (Art. 15). The statement of the Canons of Dordrecht is that “all men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation” (III-IV, 3). The Westminster standards are equally articulate in their description of man’s total depravity (Confession, chapter VI; Larger Catechism, Q. 21-29; Shorter Catechism, Q. 13-19). The truth of total depravity is also biblical. “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” “There is none righteous, no, not one.” “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (Gen. 5:6; Rom. 3:10, 23; Rom. 5:12; I John 1:8, 10). When the apostle Paul preached on the mission field he was very conscious of the fact that those to whom he was preaching were totally depraved. He told the Corinthians that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14). The knowledge that he was facing such alienation to the truth did not stop the apostle from obedience to the commission of his Lord to go into all the world and teach all nations that they must do everything Jesus commanded. Paul and all the apostles of Christ knew that by nature every one to whom they brought the gospel was totally depraved. He tells the Ephesian and Colossian believers that they “were dead in trespasses and sins” and that they “were sometimes alienated, and enemies in your mind by wicked works” (Eph. 2:1; Col. 1:21). Concretely this meant for the apostles, and it means for every missionary today, that those to whom the Gospel is brought will not want to hear what is preached. Further, the objects of mission work would not even be able to receive spiritual things. The natural man does not believe the Gospel, does not love it, and therefore refuses to conform his life to it. Spiritual truths are foolishness to him. And the reason these spiritual truths are foolishness to all men, as they are by nature, can be found in man’s natural condition: natural man is not able to know them; he cannot know them. The reason for this helplessness of natural man with regard to spiritual things is that the things of the Spirit are “spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14). The truths of the Gospel require a spiritual faculty to understand them, which faculty the natural man lacks. This faculty is a gift of God’s regenerating grace. He that is born of the flesh is flesh, and, therefore, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:6, 3). In spite of charges to the contrary, the missionary who believes in the Reformed truth of total depravity is not unable to do the work of missions. He is not stymied in his work. Nor is he doomed to failure before he begins. Much to the contrary, the truths of Calvinism, including that of total depravity, properly equip one for being a missionary. The first main area in which the Reformed missionary is equipped for his labors is the all-important one of perspective. First, the truth of total depravity prepares the Reformed missionary for what he will face as he brings the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the unconverted in this “present evil world” (Gal. 1:4). He is not surprised that the truth is not understood and readily accepted. This truth spares him much personal frustration and disappointment. As he strives faithfully to obey his Lord’s commission, he does not count success by the number of conversions, or by the size of his audience and of largess of the offering. He knows that his Lord knows personally the difficulty of the labors, and that in his Lord’s judgment success is measured by faithfulness in labors rather than by the greatness of visible results. Secondly, the Reformed missionary sees no need to be ashamed in the proclamation of the message of the Gospel when he faces those who consider it folly. He sees no need tat be hesitant or afraid to bring the Gospel, because his motivation to go and teach is derived not from seeing positive results on his work, but from gratitude for the gracious wonder of the salvation of rebellious sinners, of whom he is chief. The second main area in which the truth of total depravity equips the Reformed missionary is that of methodology. First, this truth teaches the Reformed church that conversions will not come because of the charisma of the missionary or because of the nature of the advertising used. The total depravity of those who are the objects of mission work is such an obstacle that it cannot be overcome by the wit or power of man. It can only be overcome by the power of the sovereign God. He alone can and does open hearts (Acts 16:14). Before the omnipotence of the almighty Spirit, the natural man’s hatred of the truth is like wax before the sun. When God works in the elect true conversion, then He “powerfully illumines their minds by his Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God.” It is the sovereign God who “by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; he opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, . . . infuses new qualities into the will” (Canons of Dordrecht, III-IV, 11). The Reformed missionary may not have trust and confidence in himself and in his abilities, but he does have trust and confidence in the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth to be able to convert the most hardened sinner. There is no sinner that the Reformed missionary considers beyond hope. Secondly, the Reformed and biblical truth of total depravity gives the Christian the tool to show the unconverted his need. The unsaved are of the opinion that the Gospel is foolishness. They are convinced that it is foolishness because they are of a superior mind. The reality of the matter is that they are blind. Total depravity shows them that their mind is darkened. This truth puts them on their knees and fills their mouth with the petition, “Lord, that I may be able to see!” Along with the apostle Paul, every sincere minister of the gospel must proclaim “the whole counsel of God.” The book of Acts (which records the missionary labors of the church, including a record of many of the sermons first preached in various mission fields) does not use the word “love,” while it proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures were used to speak of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. Paul called each of his audiences to repentance. The proclamation of man’s natural depravity harmonizes with the gospel call, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Although many will hear the proclamation of the gospel, only those who are convicted of sin will “labor and be heavy laden.” They will know the voice calling them and they will come to Jesus in sorrow and repentance seeking forgiveness and rest for their souls. Finally, the truth of total depravity puts the Reformed missionary on his knees. The Reformed missionary is greatly aware of his dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit. He prays that the sovereign Lord will use his efforts as instruments which God may be pleased to use for the conversion and edification of those for whom Christ died. His hope in preaching and witnessing is that as he does his work the Holy Spirit will change the natural heart into a spiritual heart. The emphasis of his labor is not on finding the most effective method, but on “simply” being faithful in his calling and in cultivating the spirit of prayer. A prayerful attitude is a monument to the truth of total depravity. Simply to say that one believes in the truth of total depravity is not sufficient unless one prays God to convert and edify. The consciousness that if God does not give a new heart it will never be done must live strongly in his heart. Then the Reformed missionary will preach and witness with the same disposition that framed his prayers. Then he is looking unto God, that God may be pleased to bless his preaching and witnessing. and make it effectual in the hearts of men and women and children.
2. UNCONDITIONAL ELECTIONWhy do some respond favorably to evangelistic efforts and others do not? And why do some reject every effort to win them to Christ? Why do some believe the preaching of the gospel and repent? And why do others remain in their sins and under the just condemnation of God? Often the answers to these questions center in the person of the missionary or witness, or on the method used. Reflecting Scripture, the Calvinistic Canons of .Dordrecht answer these questions differently. “That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree” (Canons I, 5). Some are saved because God, before the foundation of the world, merely of grace, and only according to His own sovereign good pleasure, has “chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault . . . into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ” (Canons I, 7). The elect are by nature no more deserving than others, but God decreed to give them to Christ, to be saved by Him. Also God decreed to give to the elect faith through the preaching of the Gospel. This was for the demonstration of His mercy, and for the praise of His glorious grace. Therefore, the sole basis of this gracious election is the good pleasure of God, according to which He is pleased, not to select certain qualities and actions of men as a condition of salvation, but to adopt a definite number of specific persons as a peculiar people unto Himself (Canons I, 10). That God is the One who determines who shall and who shall not be saved is one of the clearest teachings of Scripture. The ones who believe are “as many as were ordained to eternal life” (Acts 13:48). “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation” (II Thess. 2:13). “But the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded” (Rom. 11:7 b). “He [the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ] hath chosen us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:4-6). “For the children [Jacob and Esau] being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth” (Rom. 9:11). “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom. 9:18). The elect are “predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11). The Calvinistic answer, even though it accurately reflects Scripture, is the object of much criticism and even ridicule. “What is the use of preaching at all, if the number of the saved is unchangeably determined.” “How can one be zealous and beseeching in preaching if there is election, and especially if the election is unconditional.” “If God determined everything beforehand, including who will believe and who will not believe, then why do anything?” The critics believe that one cannot be effective in winning souls (Prov. 11:30) if he holds to the doctrine of election. Therefore, some deny election altogether. Others acknowledge that the Bible teaches that God chose from before the foundation of the world. But in their mind this seems to deny man’s responsibility. So they hold to an election which is conditional, an election according to which God chooses those whom He knew (foresaw) would believe. Calvinism has always maintained unconditional election. It is so very important to remember that man can do nothing to earn either salvation or election. It is equally important to remember that God could deny salvation to everyone, without doing an injustice to anyone. The reason for both is man’s total depravity. No one may say, “It isn’t fair,” if God should not save. The reason is that all deserve hell. Is it unjust for a judge to sentence someone to what he deserves? Natural man deserves condemnation, for he has never done anything to remove his guilt or to atone for his sin. Natural man has never done anything whereby he obliges God not to punish him as he deserves. The Canons of Dordrecht, in Article 9 of the First Head of doctrine, beautifully portray the teaching of Scripture concerning election. The sovereign and gracious purpose of God in the election of His people is the only source and sole basis of faith. Election is not and cannot be based on the fact that God foresaw some virtue or action of man, which virtue and action God had previously appointed as the necessary qualification for election. Foreseen faith, obedience of faith, and holiness are not the cause or condition of election. Rather, those who are elected are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. God has determined that those chosen “should be holy and without blame before him in love” (Eph. 1:4). God saves “not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (II Tim. 1:9). We answer the critics of unconditional election and of the preaching of election by saying that the church must preach. She is commanded to do so. And part of that which she must preach is the truth of election. The church really needs only one reason for preaching, and that is that God has commanded her to “preach the word” (II Tim. 4:2). Faithfulness to God demands obedience, not questions and objections. All we need to know is that God has ordained “by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (I Cor. 1:21). Is it necessary to preach the doctrine of election and predestination, including reprobation? Is it legitimate to believe it, but not preach it? Would it not be better to dwell on the love of God and on the responsibilities of man? These questions are not recent ones. The authors of the Canons also faced these questions and the charges implied in them. In Article 14 they point out that the doctrine of election was preached by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the apostles. They also note that the declaration of election was according to the most wise counsel of God. Additionally, the doctrine of election is clearly revealed in the Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testament. These spiritual fathers conclude that it is still to be published in its proper place. They caution that the truth of election and predestination must be published with the spirit of discretion and piety, and without vainly attempting to pry into the secret ways of the Most High. Further, the Canons say that the declaration of these truths must be for the purpose of the glory of God’s most holy name and for the enlivening and comforting of God’s people. The preaching of election and reprobation puts God in His rightful place. Whether that preaching is in the established congregation or in the mission field, it gives the hearers the only proper view of God, namely, a high one. God must always be viewed as “high and lifted up” and as perfectly holy (Isaiah. 6). The proper preaching of election establishes God’s sovereign right to do whatsoever He is pleased, without being arbitrary or wishy-washy. The proclamation of election manifests the glory of God, for it exalts and magnifies God’s always effective grace in His undeserved favor toward His people in Jesus Christ. The preaching of predestination also puts man in his proper place, namely, as undeserving of any good thing and worthy only of condemnation. Through his own fault man has fallen from his original state of righteousness, which makes every man “deserving of eternal death, so that God would have done no injustice by leaving them all to perish, and delivering them over to condemnation on account of sin” (Canons I, 1). Before the holy God man is to reply only as did Isaiah, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the Ring, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah. 6:5). The preaching of predestination takes away all in which our flesh might glory, and leaves us only God. The apostle Paul concluded his presentation of predestination in Romans 9-11 with a doxology of praise to Him to whom is to be the glory for ever (Rom. 11:33-36). The preaching of election on the mission field and in the established congregation is to be with the same care that one preaches any other doctrine of Scripture. No single truth must be taken out of its place in the “whole counsel of God.” The Scriptures set the boundaries for all preaching, including that of the truth of predestination. We are warned not to pry inquisitively into this truth, lest “men of perverse, impure and unstable minds wrest (distort) to their own destruction” (Canons I, 6). The preaching may not present predestination as a “mystery” which contradicts God’s love. The preaching of election may not take the place of, or weaken, the earnest call of the gospel to the sinner to repent and believe. The truth of election and reprobation does not give anyone the right to make judgments as to who is elect and who is reprobate. That is blasphemy. All the pastor and missionary must do is preach the whole counsel of God, resting in the fact that the Lord will use the means of the preaching to draw to Himself all He has chosen, and that God will use the means of the same preaching to be “justly terrible to those, who . . . have wholly given themselves up to the cares of the world, and the pleasures of the flesh, so long as they are not seriously converted to God” (Canons I, 16). The twofold test for proper preaching of predestination is whether it glorifies God and whether it comforts the believing sinner. The preaching of election is a source of “unspeakable consolation” (Canons I, 6) in the mission field as much as in the established congregation. The elect are taught they can gain the assurance of their “unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God – such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.” (Canons I, 12). This sense of election gives believers only more reason for humiliation before God, “for adoring the depth of his mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to him, who first manifested so great love towards them” (Canons I, 13). The proper preaching of election warns against carnal security and against any laziness toward responsibilities. The preaching of predestination does not prevent anyone from coming to, Christ. Further, those who wish a greater assurance of election must not be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, but must persist in the use of the means which God has appointed for the working of this assurance and wait prayerfully for a season of richer grace. The truth of election gives every preacher, whether pastor or missionary, the assurance that his efforts are not in vain. This assurance arises from believing that God has elected some and that it is His good pleasure to send others to hell in order to show “his wrath and to make his power known” (Rom. 11:22). We do not need to feel guilty if all do not respond favorably to the preaching. The assurance of the preacher that his efforts are not in vain arises from believing that the dispensing of salvation is in the hands of the Holy Spirit who calls, through the preaching, those whom God has predestinated. In God we cannot be defeated in all our labors. Over against the total depravity and corruption of natural man is the truth of God’s sovereign, irresistible, and irreversible election of grace. The preaching of the truth of predestination frees the preacher from having to save. Faithfully preaching the whole counsel of God, the godly minister and missionary can rest in the Lord to save unto Himself those whom He has chosen. “May Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who, seated at the Father’s right hand, gives gifts to men, sanctify us in the truth, bring to the truth those who err, shut the mouths of calumniators [false accusers] of sound doctrine, and endue the faithful minister of his Word with the spirit of wisdom and discretion, that all their discourses may tend to the glory of God, and the edification of those who hear them. Amen.” (Conclusion to the Canons of Dordrecht.)
3. LIMITED” ATONEMENTThe only way to do the work of evangelism and missions is by proclaiming a “limited” atonement! “But,” it is objected, “how can mission work be effective if you cannot say that Christ died for all?” “How can one press the claim of the Gospel upon an individual, if it cannot be said to that person that Jesus died for him?” For centuries these rhetorical questions have been stated as charges against the Reformed faith, as objections which are supposed to show the fallacy of this faith. A girl in my congregation recently was bluntly told, “You don’t believe in missions, or in witnessing.” The Reformed fathers faced and answered these same objections. Those in whom the faith of our fathers is living still must also answer these objections. A son of the Reformation, Francis Turretin, wrote the following words in the late 1600s. Notice how biblical his presentation is. The mission and death of Christ are restricted to a limited number – to His people, His sheep, His friends, His body – and nowhere extended to all men severally and collectively. Thus Christ is called Jesus' because: Matthew 1:21
- "And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for
he shall save his people from their sins."
- "For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body."
- "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
- "And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad."
If Christ died for everyone of Adam’s posterity, why should the Scriptures so often restrict the object of His death to a few? How could it, with propriety, be said absolutely that Christ is the Saviour of His people and of His body, if He is the Saviour of others also? The Reformers and the Reformed faith contend that only a “limited” atonement is definite and sure, that only the proclamation of a “limited” atonement makes the preaching the power of God unto salvation. The only way to do the work of evangelism and missions is by proclaiming a “limited” atonement! Did Jesus offer up Himself a sacrifice as an atonement for the whole human race, that is, for every individual without distinction, or was His sacrifice of Himself with special reference to a definite number of humans? Was His sacrifice intended to make salvation possible for all men, or was it intended to make salvation certain for those who had been given to Him by the Father? Did He die for all men, or did He die for the elect only? By the way, do not overlook the fact that everyone “limits” the atonement. One either limits its extent or its power. The Calvinist believes that the extent is limited, for it does not apply to all individuals. The Arminian believes that the atonement is limited in its power, for in itself it does not actually save anyone, since it needs the consent of each person if he is to be saved. When the atonement of Christ’s death is made universal, then its inherent value is destroyed. If even one of those for whom Jesus died is lost, then salvation is not certain for anyone. If salvation is made objectively possible for all, then the atonement did not, actually, save anyone. The best approach – no, the only approach – to the question of the extent of the atonement is from the viewpoint of the atonement itself. So often the discussion immediately goes to and stays on what should be the first word, the adjective: limited, universal, definite. First we should consider the other word, the noun. You will know which adjective to use when you know what atonement is and what the Bible says about atonement. Atonement is a satisfaction for a debt. The atonement spoken of in Scripture is the full payment of the debt of sin. Atonement means, first, that all men are fallen in Adam and therefore deserve eternal death. The atonement is made necessary by the fact that all men as sinners must be punished according to the demand of divine justice. Let us learn from the way in which the Reformed fathers answered the universal atonement of the Arminians in the “Second Head of Doctrine” of the Canons of Dordrecht. They began their defense of limited or definite atonement by declaring the biblical truth of the atonement and man’s need for it. Article 1: God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. And his justice requires that our sins committed against his infinite majesty should be punished, not only with temporal, but with eternal punishment, both in body and soul; which we cannot escape, unless satisfaction be made to the justice of God. Atonement means, secondly, that a substitute was provided to take the place of sinners. God made His own Son to be the Substitute. Article 2: Since therefore we are unable to make that satisfaction in our own persons, or to deliver ourselves from the wrath of God, he hath been pleased in his infinite mercy to give his only begotten Son, for our surety, who was made sin, and became a curse for us and in our stead, that he might make satisfaction to divine justice on our behalf. Concerning this substitutionary atonement made by God’s Son, consider two thoughts. First, there is no injustice in the fact that Christ died for some and not for others. No one deserves from Christ a chance to be saved, for all are fallen and deserve only hell. It is only out of abounding grace that Christ died for any at all. And second, so perfect and so complete is His substitution that though all who will go to heaven are completely destitute of any merit of their own, they do go to heaven; and they do so only on the basis of their Substitute. “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin: and is of infinite worth and value” (Canons of Dordt, II, 3). Before we defend our proposition that the only way to witness or to do the work of missions or evangelism is by proclaiming a definite atonement, consider the argument of the Puritan John Owen. God the Father in His judgment and wrath punished His only begotten Son at the cross for either: 1. All the sins of all men;
- "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood."
2. All the sins of some men; or
3. Some of the sins of all men. It must be one of the three, therefore we see: 1. If the third is true, all men still have some sins to answer for, and then ozone will be saved. 2. If the second is true, then Christ suffered for all the sins of the elect in the whole world, and these are truly delivered by what Christ finished in His death on the cross. 3. But if the first be the case, why are not all men freed from all their sins and saved from the punishment of hell? My friends, there is no substitute for the time-honored, God-exalting truth of substitutionary atonement – that Christ our Lord actually bore the sins of those for whom He died specifically. He stood in the place of the “many” who would actually experience complete deliverance from all their sins! Read Isaiah 53:11; Matthew 20:28; Matthew 26:28; Mark 10:45; Hebrews 9:28; and John 10:11. My Lord Jesus Christ substituted for “sheep” given Him by the Father, and not for the devil’s “goats!” The impact that the truth of definite atonement has upon the work of evangelism and missions is immediate and great. The doctrine of limited atonement puts no restrictions on the proclamation of the Gospel. Some say it does. But this objection does not arise from Scripture. Nowhere in the Word of God can it be found that to be able to preach the Gospel to all nations one must have the message that Christ died for all the sins of all men. The church must proclaim the promise of the Gospel that “whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish but have everlasting life” to “all nations and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.” Therefore, those who do not repent and believe in Christ are themselves to be blamed, and it is not “any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross” (Canons II/6, 7). As we strive to be obedient to the command to teach all nations, we are sure that the sovereign God is using us and our preaching as His means to apply to the consciousness of the elect the atoning sacrifice of His Son. We obey by going forth, preaching and teaching. We do not have to tell our audiences that Christ died for them. Such a statement cannot be found anywhere in Acts, the “mission” book of the Bible. We do not find Christ and the apostles saying, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” They did not say, “Jesus died for you.” We are commanded to preach, not worrying about which ones are those for whom Jesus died, not worrying about who are the elect and who the reprobate. We preach His Gospel. God saves His people. We do not have to use the trick of telling everybody in our audience that they should not leave the begging Christ, who died for them, outside of their heart and life. As a minister of the Gospel I do not have to labor under the burden of the impossible, namely persuading people to do for themselves what Jesus left undone. Of this Gospel we are not ashamed, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes (Rom. 1:16). With the Bible we declare that all humans are sinners and that from their sinfulness and sins arise all their problems and difficulties, which are a partial expression of the wrath of God (Rom. 3:23; Rom. 2:5-9). We preach the biblical truth that no one is saved by works, that good deeds do not justify anyone in God’s sight (Rom. 3:20). We preach that out of free grace God was pleased to send His own Son, Jesus Christ, to be the perfect Substitute and Redeemer (Rom. 3:24). Because the identity of those for whom Jesus is the substitute is unknown, we proclaim to all the command to repent and believe the truth of the Bible concerning God’s Son. We teach that God uses the instrumentality of faith in Christ’s sacrifice to bring the consciousness of justification and salvation (Rom. 3:24, 25; Rom. 4:5). We preach that the ability to believe, to have faith, is a gift of God, and that it is no more a work than is circumcision (Rom. 4:11, 16). We preach the assurance of salvation and of peace with God to all who believe that salvation is only in Jesus (Rom. 4:24–Rom. 5:1). This is the Gospel Paul was inspired to preach. And this is the Gospel we strive to be faithful to preach. We rejoice to be able to preach the Gospel in such a way that men are called to a real and actual salvation. We preach an atonement full and free. We preach a powerful redemption. On the contrary, the preaching which declares that Jesus died for all cheapens the Gospel and its proclamation. Such preaching cheapens the precious blood of the Son of God. Such preaching makes the value of His death to be little. It makes the Gospel and its preaching, not the power and wisdom of God unto salvation, but a possibility and potentiality. It is the personal experience of the power of the atonement that constrains us to preach the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the mission field (II Cor. 5:14). The love of God, which freely gives to us forgiveness of all of our sins and the consciousness of a perfect righteousness constrains us to preach. That God reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation provides us with more than enough motivation to present the Gospel in missions and evangelism. If it is merely a potential atonement until my faith takes hold of it, then I will be motivated; but the motivation would be fear, not love. It would be the fear of not being strong enough in my faith, not good enough in my works. It is the conviction that Christ’s blood graciously atoned for all of the sins of wretched sinners that constrains us to go into all the world and to preach and witness to every creature.
4. IRRESISTIBLE GRACEIt is a commonly held position in the church world that one either accepts or rejects Gods efforts to save. It is said, too, that the only way to do the work of evangelism and missions is by seeking to persuade the objects of that work to accept Christ as their personal Savior. It is said that everyone must be told that it is his responsibility to open his heart and to let the waiting Savior into his heart and life. Whether anyone is saved or not is, thus, ultimately dependent upon the exercise of his freewill to accept or reject Christ. And when this commonly held position is challenged by an insistence that God’s grace cannot be resisted, the response often given is the generalization that there is then no need to do the work of evangelism and missions. Throughout history the Reformed fathers have faced and answered this unbiblical teaching and the rash generalization which accompanies it. They have answered with theology clearly based on the Word of God, and with a practice of prayerfully and unceasingly doing the work of evangelism and missions. When their position was ridiculed with slanderous caricatures, these Reformed fathers defended their position with more Scripture and with more ardent labors in missions. The truth of the matter is that the Bible teaches that God’s grace is always effectual, that is, irresistible. It is equally true that the only way to do the work of missions and evangelism is with a firm grasp of the truth of the irresistible grace of God. It is a tremendous reassurance to know that every sinner can be overcome by the power of God’s grace, to know that the most hardened sinner can be like putty in the hands of the sovereign Potter. What a relief it is to know that the dispensing of salvation is not dependent upon how often or how well I witness. What courage is given me at the thought that the God, who uses weakest means to fulfill His will, can use my best but still very feeble efforts to be His means to cause the devil to flee. Then, in my mission work, I do not need to restrict my witness to the less than worst sinners, but the Word of God can be presented to all with the assurance that God is able. Nor do I need to resort to tricks to make my witnessing have greater impact. You see, I believe in sovereign, irresistible grace. Calvinism rejoices in the truth that saving grace is irresistible! It might be better to call it “effectual” or “efficacious” grace. These words would avoid the idea that grace forces or compels, a possible implication of “irresistible.” God’s grace does not force one to be saved against his will, but grace changes one’s will. Also, the use of “effectual” instead of “irresistible” avoids an apparent conflict. It would seem that “irresistible” conflicts with Acts 7:51, where Stephen said that the Israelites “always resist the Holy Ghost.” When we speak of efficacious or irresistible grace, then, we are speaking of the internal operation of grace, not of the external means grace uses. Acts 7:51speaks of the refusal to comply with the demands of the gospel to repent and believe. Stephen does not say that they resisted what God wanted to give to them. But by killing the prophets they rejected and rebelled against God’s Word to repent. In this connection, the Rev. Robert C. Harbach writes, God is always Almighty God! Therefore they who did resist the Spirit, did not resist the Spirit in them for they were devoid of the Spirit. That resistance is to the Spirit in the prophets and in the ministers of the Lord; it is resistance to the external calls and reproofs through the preaching of the Word. But when the Spirit is in men in His grace . . . He thus makes them willing and turns them to Himself. “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power” (Ps. 110:3). (Calvinism, the Truth.) It is a truism that God does not save any man against his will. However, “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Let every reader remember that all mankind is so totally depraved that there is not one that doeth good, no not one (Rom. 3:10-12). No human, of himself, has a desire for the true God (Job 21:14) or a desire to be saved. If God had left mankind in this terrible state to go to “everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46) it would have been most just and right. But God did not do so, for it pleased Him, before the foundation of the world, to choose in Jesus Christ some of mankind unto everlasting salvation to the praise of the glory of His grace (Eph. 1:4-6). The rest of mankind God chooses to leave in their sins to the praise of the glory of His power and wrath (Rom. 9:22). For those whom God chose from eternity to be in Christ, God sent His Son, who died for their sins (Rom. 5:8; I Cor. 15:3). In the summary given in the previous paragraph everything follows an orderly fashion determined and controlled by an all-wise and all-powerful God. From this point forward do we stop with God’s powerful work, and is everything left to the will and whim of sinful and fickle man? Can God elect some of mankind for nothing? Can God give His Son to die for nought, just because some are able to resist Him – resist Him whom the Scriptures call “the Almighty”? Are God’s hands tied at this point? Is it possible that He could fail? Could it be that God is foolish enough not to have counted the cost before He started to build, so that He “is not able to finish it” (Luke 14:28, 29)? Are not such questions blasphemy? The God who determined salvation for His elect and gave His own Son to die in their place will “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). There is no reason to fear or doubt, for “He will save” (Zech. 3:17)! Grace is the favor and love of God. The power of grace is the power of the favor and love of God Himself. Therefore, it is fitting to speak of “irresistible” grace, for God is an irresistible God. Does not the Holy Spirit inspire Paul to ask the rhetorical question, “Who hath resisted His will” (Rom. 9:19)? Therefore God has mercy “on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth” (Rom. 9:18). If God’s grace can be resisted, then God can be overcome. If God’ will and desires can be frustrated, then He is not God. Such a god is no greater than the idols of the nations. The church father Augustine said, “The nature of the Divine goodness is not only to open to those that knock, but also to cause them to knock and ask.” Our Reformed fathers in the Canons of Dordt properly and beautifully reflect Scripture when they draw a parallel between election and this dispensing of God’s grace. “As He has chosen His own from eternity in Christ, so He confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness and translates them into the kingdom of His own Son, that . . . they may glory not in themselves, but in the Lord” (III/IV, 10b). Note well that the result is, as it must be, that God receives all the glory. In fact, earlier that same article speaks more clearly to this point. “But that others who are called by the gospel, obey the call, and are converted, is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of freewill whereby one distinguishes himself above others, . . . as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains; but it must be wholly ascribed to God.” On the eve of the moment of His ascension to the right hand of power of the Almighty God, Jesus said, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18). Before His “all power” none can stand. Listen to the Scriptures. Of His sheep Jesus said, “Them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice” (John 10:16). Notice that Jesus does not say He will try to bring them. After all, He suffered for sin, “that He might bring us to God” (I Pet. 3:18). “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44). He said, “and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). He will do it! It is not that He will try to do it, but that He will accomplish it. Because not every man is drawn to the Lord, the obvious implication is that Jesus is speaking of all kinds of men, all men without distinction of race, class, or conditions. “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me” (John 6:37). Every one of them come to Him, and nothing and no one can stop them from coming to Him. The sheep do hear His voice (John 10:16, 27). Another passage of God’s Word which clearly implies efficacious or irresistible grace is Acts 13:48: “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” God’s ordination unto election was an effectual act, because all that were ordained believed. In addition, God calls everyone whom He predestinated, and every one of them He justifies (Rom. 8:29, 30). Jesus said that He “gives eternal life to as many as” the Father gave Him (John 17:2). Every man, by virtue of his relationship to Adam, is at enmity with God and “will not come to” Jesus (Rom. 8:7;John 6:40). If God’s grace is not effectual or irresistible, how could any man be saved? That someone believes is not because he wanted to believe. Nor is it because he began to strive to believe, and so God helped him. Nor is it because he cooperated with God’s grace. Nor is it because he finally yielded to grace. But that anyone believes is because he has been regenerated by the sovereignly effectual, saving grace of God. The Spirit of God graciously gave faith and repentance. That any one does not believe is because he has not been regenerated by this irresistible grace of God. The natural man does not receive the things of the Holy Spirit, “for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14). The Spirit’s effectual work of grace upon someone does not destroy his person, nor any of his faculties. Rather, the Spirit works through each elect’s faculties. Listen to the language of the Canons of Dordt. When God accomplishes his good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, he not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by his Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; he opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, …infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory (stubborn, resistent), he renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions” (III/IV, 11). Later these Reformed fathers declare that the work of the Holy Spirit in the elect is truly supernatural, “not inferior in efficacy to creation, or the resurrection from the dead.” Therefore, “all in whose heart God works are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe” (Canons, III/IV, 12). The irresistible, efficacious nature of God’s grace in saving the elect does not diminish the responsibility to preach the gospel in the established congregation or in the mission field. Nor does it diminish the earnest and serious proclamation of the gospel call to faith and repentance, together with the promise of salvation to all who believe. We have every reason to be encouraged in our proclamation of the gospel, because it is the means God is pleased to use to bring sinners into His kingdom. We can be confident that the Spirit will effectually use the gospel proclamation to bring to salvation and keep in salvation. We have no reason to wonder, doubt, or fear about God’s use of that preaching which proclaims God’s Word. He will use it. Our evangelism and mission work can be performed in the confidence and assurance that God can and will call unto Himself whomsoever He will, and that He will use our faithful efforts to proclaim His truth to accomplish that end. God’s salvation is not mere potential, but it is “the power of God” (Rom. 1:16). The gospel does not proclaim a Divine possibility of salvation, but it is Divine application of salvation. God will, without fail, use the means of faithful preaching to draw all of His people unto Himself.
5. PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTSWe have tackled the “toughies.” Those who have difficulties with the doctrines of “Calvinism” ordinarily have their problems with the doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and especially the doctrine of limited atonement. With those we have dealt in previous issues. Some, but fewer, have a problem with the fifth and last of the doctrines of “Calvinism,” namely, the perseverance of the saints. Many who deny the previous four points of Calvinism profess to maintain the fifth. They say that they hold to the preservation of the saints, but they often speak of it as “eternal security.” It should be noted that these Arminians of today are inconsistent when they do not have a problem with the preservation of the saints. They ought to. Their spiritual fathers did, and they let it be known that they did. The Remonstrants or Arminians in the Netherlands stated their doubts in the fifth of the five articles they presented to the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618. The old Arminians said there could be no certainty as to a believer’s continuance in salvation and in the state of grace. It is obvious that if grace can be resisted, then there always remains the possibility that one who accepts grace today might resist it or not cooperate with it tomorrow. So the Remonstrants, or Arminians, concluded that it is not biblical to teach that true believers will persevere in salvation. Just as the five points of Calvinism stand or fall together, so also do the five Arminian positions stand or fall together. Consider with me the great and wonderful comfort which can be derived from being able to preach the perseverance of the saints, especially on the mission field and in the work of local evangelism. Every convert to the faith soon finds that he begins to doubt his salvation. He joins every other believer in needing a reassuring and biblical answer to the doubts and fears he has about the reality of his salvation and about the possibility of his remaining saved. Sometimes he may even wonder whether he ever was saved. These doubts and fears arise because he finds sin remaining in himself. It is the universal experience of the child of God that, though he is saved and forgiven, he still battles sin. He believes that Christ gave His life a ransom for him, but he is not entirely free of the ruts of sin. He knows that he is freed from the dominion of sin, but sin is still very much present in him. He knows that sinfulness clings even to his best works. Daily he must fight against sin. He recognizes in himself the capability and possibility of falling into grievous sin, as did David and Peter. The presence of sin and of this sinfulness can make the believer wonder whether he is really saved, and whether he might not be destined for eternal damnation. The devil delights in nothing more than in giving the adopted children of God doubts about the reality or the continuance of their adoption. It is to this present reality of sin within every convert that the Calvinistic or Reformed missionary pastor has an answer. His answer will not leave the convert in a worse state than when he began with his doubts. He will not tell these converts that there is the very real possibility that some day in the future they might choose not to cooperate with God’s grace, and that they might fall from grace. Nor will he tell the believer who is frightened by his sin that he is not really as bad as he thinks, or that his sins are not to be considered serious. Such a response belittles the horrible nature of all sin. It also errs by focusing attention on the sinning believer rather than turning and keeping one’s attention fixed upon God. With respect to the question of giving or maintaining salvation, the Calvinist and Reformed pastor has been taught by the Scriptures to focus on the unchangeable and most merciful God. The Reformed missionary will teach that every believer, left to himself will easily stumble into specific sins and will certainly fall away from grace. This is as certain as the rising of the sun every day. Also the Reformed missionary will be teaching with an abundance of scriptural proof, that there are many reasons why the believer is never left to himself and will never fall out of favor with God. Briefly, those reasons ate: God’s eternal plan cannot change; God’s promises cannot fail; God’s calling cannot be revoked; the merit of Christ’s life and death cannot be destroyed; and the sealing of the Holy Spirit cannot be withdrawn. Simply put, the Calvinist who is active in the work of missions can and will proclaim the biblical and Reformed truth that God is the Almighty and ever faithful God. God is Almighty. His power is the greatest. Therefore, those whom He is pleased to regenerate are regenerated unto” an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (I Pet. 1:4, 5). All who are born into the family of God shall gain their inheritance because not only is it reserved for them, but also they are kept for it by the omnipotent power of the Almighty. God is the One who “is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless” (Jude 1:24). This is His power. Also, to Christ was given “all power” in heaven and on earth to save. As the Captain of our salvation He has never suffered defeat. This is an integral part of the message of the Reformed missionary pastor. The Reformed missionary will also be teaching to fearful Christians the biblical truth of God’s faithfulness. He who began a good work in them will not leave them until that work is fully done in the day of Christ’s return (Phil. 1:6). “God is faithful” (I Cor. 1:9) to His own eternal decree of election. The eternally determined decree of election cannot be frustrated by any weak creature. God is faithful to those whom He has spiritually adopted to be His own children, though they may fall into sin, even deeply and bitterly. Also, God is faithful to His just determination of righteousness when He declared them justified. So nothing will alter His judicial decree. God is faithful! The Reformed preacher proclaims the good news of the Gospel that He who gave the Holy Spirit will never take Him away, even though the Spirit may be grieved by the sins of those in whom He dwells. The Spirit’s presence in a believer is the “earnest,” or guarantee, that full redemption shall be given (II Cor. 5:5). Believers are “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance” (Eph. 1:13, 14). After all, the work of the Spirit is sovereign, irresistible, and efficacious; so He and His work cannot be stymied or frustrated by any believer’s fall into sin. In addition, the Reformed missionary pastor will preach and teach that God and Christ would never leave those for whom Christ died. If Jesus gave Himself unto death for those who were ungodly and sinners, how much more will He not, by His life at God’s right hand, ever work to save them to the uttermost (Rom. 5:10). He tells us that He gives “unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:28, 29). What a comfort this knowledge is to the believer. This knowledge calms his fears and assures him of the certainty of his salvation. The Reformed missionary pastor also can comfort those who are converted, because he can proclaim the God who is “rich in mercy” (Eph.2:4). There are no limits to God’s riches. His riches are infinite. And so is His mercy. This mercy He extends to His people. And His mercy endures forever (Ps. 136). God’s mercy is accompanied by God’s “great love” (Eph. 2:4), which never slackens, and is unchangeable, though the manifestations of this love may vary. The security of the saint does not depend on the state of his feelings, but on the great love of God. The Holy Spirit, through Paul in Romans 8, defies anything in heaven or on the earth to separate a single object from this love of God in Christ. Is there any passage of Scripture which states our assurance of salvation more powerfully? And the Reformed missionary tells those converted to God that when they begin to wonder whether they might fall away from salvation, they need not fear, for the honor of Christ’s name (Matt. 1:21) is at stake. His name declares that He saved from all their sins every one of those the Father gave to Him. The Savior will certainly preserve those for whom He came to earth in order to save from their sins! This is the comfort the Reformed under-shepherd proclaims to the sheep of the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. It has been said that the Calvinistic doctrine is a dangerous doctrine. Some have made a caricature of this doctrine by re-defining it as “once saved, always saved.” Then the beautiful doctrine of the preservation of the saints is presented as meaning that once someone makes a profession of faith, they can be assured of going to heaven regardless of how they live the rest of their life. It has been said that the preservation of the saints means that things are so settled that we can enjoy the pleasures of sin. It is good to remember that this caricature is not new, but was exactly the opposition the Arminians put up against the Reformed position at the Synod of Dordt. Note well that those who wrote the Canons of Dordt deliberately identify the Fifth Head of Doctrine, not as the preserving, but as the perseverance of the saints. The selection of this word was deliberate. And notice that this is called the perseverance of the saints, i.e, the holy ones. Not everyone who professes to believe is a saint, for some deny their profession with a life and life-style which are contrary to it. Those who are preserved by God in the faith do persevere init. The true believer shows God’s preservation by persevering. Those who sincerely profess a true faith, howbeit with weakness, will accept the responsibility of living a life of gratitude, a life worthy of his profession and of the God he professes to have saved him. God preserves through the use of means. These means are the hearing and reading of God’s Word, and meditation on the exhortations, threatenings, and promises of God’s Word. Believers persevere by using these means. Saints are responsible to use the means that God has given to produce and to preserve faith. The saint will desire to use and will be diligent in using the means God has ordained for strengthening his faith and his walk of obedience. The Reformed missionary will proclaim from the pulpit and in private conversation that anyone who would sincerely call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom. 10:13), and all who come unto Him shall in no wise be cast out (John 6:37). The Reformed missionary declares that anyone who says it does not make any difference how a believer lives is either not regenerated or does not know God’s Word. Those who have faith live for Him who saved them. They will not say that it does not make any difference how they live. The Reformed missionary is quick to point out that this, in turn, does not mean that the believer does not sin. We sin, even terribly! But while a Christian may be overtaken in sin, yet he mourns over it. He repeatedly repents and earnestly desires to flee from his sin. And he persists in using the means God is pleased to use for his perseverance. Those chosen in Christ shall by grace certainly persevere.
Rev Ronald J VanOverloop is the pastor of Bethel Protestant Reformed Church in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. His Pastorates have been at Hope, Walker, MI - 1972; Home Missionary (AL) - 1979; Bethel, Roselle, IL - 1989; Georgetown, Hudsonville, MI - 1994; Byron Center, MI - 2004; Grace, Standale, MI - 2008. This article first appeared in the Standard Bearer, Vol 68 Issue 21 on September 15, 1992.