Thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s and others’ slanderous writings, people have a very definite image of a Calvinist. He’s an up-tight, self-righteous bigot (doubtless a hypocrite to boot) who believes that he is going to Heaven because he’s so good while everybody else is going to Hell. He’s basically a Pharisee who calls the multitude accursed and doesn’t want to do anything to help them because he knows nothing he will do will ultimately make a difference.
A common critique we Calvinists get is, “Why should we do the things God told us to- i.e., good works, evangelism, prayer, etc.- if we don’t believe it’s going to make any difference?” Well, many of you know Anne Hutchinson was kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritans for saying just that. It’s called antinomianism- the belief that we don’t have to live by the Law because we’re saved anyway.
Well, evidently the Apostle Paul had this come up too. He asked rhetorically, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” and answered, “God forbid! How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1-2, KJV). It’s a paradox of Reformed theology that we are not saved by works but that we are not saved without works. The resolution is that, if God has changed your heart such that you love Him and believe in Him, you’re going to want to do good works. He’ll be recreating you as a good tree that bears good fruit. As a child of God, you’ll want to resemble Him and emulate your father. Put another way, if you don’t want to follow the Law because you think you’re saved anyway, you probably aren’t saved in the first place. The fact that Anne Hutchinson was expelled for preaching antinomianism should show you that Calvinists take doing good works very seriously.
As far as evangelism goes, why should we go out and preach if people are going to Heaven whether we proclaim the Good News to them or not? The Westminster Confession explains this brilliantly when it deals with Providence in Chapter 5. It states that, while everything goes according to God’s plan as the primary cause, “He ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes.” In other words, God has picked people out to save, and our evangelizing is the means He’s chosen to bring it about.
One thing I’ve learned about God is that He loves to delegate. Can He save people without us preaching? Of course! But, then, did He need the widow of Zarephath and her oil to feed Elijah? He could have kept feeding Elijah through the ravens or made the cakes appear through an angel like He did later. Instead, He wanted to involve another person in the process so He could save her soul.
The Great Commission is God’s love and wisdom in action since it’s a win-win-win situation. The first Christian gets the joy of sharing the Gospel and the eternal reward that comes from it, the convert gets saved from eternal ruination, and God gets the glory from both. I’ve heard of at least one group of so-called Calvinists that don’t do evangelism because they don’t care about others, but that’s overwhelmingly not the predominant Calvinist attitude.
Most of us are deeply committed to evangelism. George Whitefield, one of the greatest evangelists in history, was a Calvinist, as was Jonathan Edwards. I know you’re thinking now, “Jonathan Edwards. Ugh. ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’- bad!” but consider this: He was out taking the Gospel to Native Americans, whom his fellow colonists regarded as subhuman and targets for exploitation. That’s how great his commitment to evangelism was. William Carey, who metaphorically wrote the book on modern mission work, was a Calvinist. The Calvinist David Livingstone was all but crippled by a lion attack during his far-flung travels to preach the Gospel to Africans, but he didn’t let that keep him from evangelism.
And prayer. I love the way the late Dr. R. C. Sproul explained this. People want to know if prayer is any use from a Calvinist point of view, or, as they put it, can it actually change God’s mind. Dr. Sproul asked them, “What exactly do you think you’re going to tell God that He hasn’t considered already?” So, clearly there’s no way your prayers are going to dissuade or persuade God from His plan. But there are those secondary causes at work again. He wants you to pray because that’s the way He wants to work out His plan. That’s how James can say, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (5:16) while Samuel affirms, “And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent (that is, change His mind), for He is not a man that He should repent” (I Samuel 15:29, KJV).
This next one I’m not sure why I’m bothering with because I have never disabused an Arminian of this despite it being an outright falsehood. I’m just being thorough here. Every Arminian I’ve talked to believes that Calvinists believe that God chose them because they were more righteous than others, which Arminians at least claim they think is unscriptural. Well, it is unscriptural. It is also uncalvinist. When we say God is absolutely sovereign in His election, we mean He doesn’t owe us a thing. With Paul we ask, “What then? Are we better than they?” (Romans 3:9, KJV) and answer that we “were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Ephesians 2:3, KJV). When we say everybody is born into a state of non posse non peccare, we’re including ourselves.
We really don’t know why God chose us, but if anybody believes God chooses them on the basis of their righteousness, it’s Arminians! I’m thinking of the famous dispute over what exactly is going on when Paul says, “For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestine…” (Romans 8:29, KJV). As everyone knows, Calvinists say “foreknew” means, “loved beforehand,” and Arminians say “foreknew” means, “foresaw their choice of Him.”
I’ll make the obligatory Calvinist explanations in passing that proginosko refers more readily to a relationship (as the word “know” is frequently used in the Old Testament) than to knowledge of facts and that it is translated, “foreordained” in I Peter 1:20. What I’m really interested in here is the Arminian explanation. It says, “God picks me because He foresees that I will choose Him.” Or, perhaps it can be phrased this way: “God picks me because He knows I’ll do something righteous that this other fellow won’t.” Well, we all know that’s unscriptural. It flies in the face of the Apostle John’s explanation that, “We love Him because He first loved us” (I John 4:19, KJV). It even more blatantly contradicts Jesus’ words that, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16, KJV).
So how accurate is the caricature of a Puritan that’s been part of American culture for two centuries? I hope you can see that Calvinism isn’t a hindrance to evangelism and a help to self-righteousness. If a Calvinist grows lax in missions or thinks God owes him his salvation (and I’m sure that does happen), it’s a sign that their Calvinism is defective.
Next blog post: the obligatory theodicy (vindication of God’s righteousness).