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Hunting Down the Truth

There has never been a shortage of attacks on the theology of Calvinism for its alleged lack of evangelistic motivation.

  • Adam Kuehner,
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Calvinism on Trial

There has never been a shortage of attacks on the theology of Calvinism for its alleged lack of evangelistic motivation. John Wesley called predestination “a doctrine of blasphemy [which] represents God as worse than the devil,”[1] arguing that “Calvinists … very much retard the work of God.”[2] Charles Finney opposed Calvinism because he thought it “crippled the true gospel ministry and made evangelistic success practically impossible.”[3]

In a recent book, Dave Hunt echoes these sentiments, labeling Calvin’s teachings “a libel against our loving and merciful God.”[4] Calvinism, he argues, “has caused many to turn away from the God of the Bible as from a monster.”[5] Ultimately, Hunt accuses Calvinism of being inconsistent with evangelism.[6]

But is this really the case? Does the Calvinistic belief that God definitively purchases and preserves His chosen people in Christ Jesus undermine the church’s responsibility to obey the Great Commission? According to Calvin, it does not. In no uncertain terms, he declares that “it is our duty to proclaim the goodness of God to every nation.” [7] In Calvin’s estimation, the truths of God’s sovereignty should inspire Christians to reverently obey all God’s commands, including the command to evangelize.

Calvin’s Heart for Evangelism

Calvin’s opponents often characterize him as a cold-hearted, ivory-tower theologian with no interest in evangelism. This unfair caricature, however, represents neither the Calvinism of Calvin, nor the Calvin of history. Basic to Calvin’s thought is a strong emphasis on both local evangelism and worldwide kingdom expansion. “It ought to be the great object of our daily wishes,” he writes, “that God would collect churches for himself from all the countries of the earth, that he would enlarge their numbers, enrich them with gifts and establish a legitimate order among them.”[8] These words reveal Calvin’s deep-seated passion for world missions.

Few pastors have been more active than Calvin, who preached “some 4,000 sermons after his return to Geneva: more than 170 sermons a year.”[9] His sermons “were never short on application; rather the application was often longer than the exposition.”[10] During Calvin’s tenure in Geneva, scores of Reformed missionaries were nurtured, trained, and sent out to convert the nations. All told, by the time Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, had retired, the Geneva Academy had trained 1,600 men for Christian ministry. Most labored in France and other parts of Europe, while others ventured as far as South America![11] In addition, Calvin’s vast writings inspired large-scale evangelistic efforts all across the globe in the centuries that followed. Among the many Calvinists noted for evangelistic endeavors during this period are such familiar names as Samuel Davies, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, and David Livingstone. The combined missionary efforts of these men serve as a conspicuous testimony to the unassailable correlation between Calvin’s Calvinism and evangelistic zeal.

The Dismal Hope of Arminianism

Arminians often reason that it is preferable for a preacher to enter the pulpit believing that every single person in the audience might be converted. The idea that only the elect of God will be drawn to repentance seems, on the surface, to significantly limit the possibility of gospel success. “After all,” contends the Arminian, “How can I preach confidently to all people knowing full well that not all are able to repent?” Arminians seem to have a peculiar fascination with potential success. Their evangelistic hope lies not in the fact that anyone will believe the gospel, but that everyone might do so. Such an approach leaves open the possibility that although all might believe, none actually will. Though initially brimming with potential, such a hope pales in comparison to the comforting Biblical pronouncement that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

The future is a sad prospect for the consistent Arminian. According to Hunt, God desires “that all should be saved and none should be lost.”[12] Yet, he elsewhere maintains that “only a small percentage of mankind is willing … to come to Christ in repentance and be born again by the Spirit of God” and that “the vast majority of people will continue to reject Christ in the future as they have in the past.”[13]

“In fact,” states Hunt, “setting up the kingdom of Christ is an impossibility, even for God,” which even Christ Himself “can’t do.”[14] He says, “How could the church be expected to establish the kingdom … when even God cannot accomplish that without violating man’s freedom of choice?”[15]

In order to distinguish between Calvinism and Arminianism, we must first acknowledge the role of “total inability” in each system. For the Calvinist, the total inability of fallen man to produce saving faith requires the regenerating work of a sovereign God. For the Arminian, the total inability of God to definitively save souls requires the sovereign stamp of man’s free will. Hence, it is perfectly consistent for Hunt to deny all hope for future revival, since Arminianism denies God’s ability to sovereignly accomplish His intended will. The Arminian hope, therefore, leaves the church with little more than empty faith in embellished human potential.

The Glorious Hope of Calvinism

For the Calvinistic preacher, all hope rests squarely on the faithfulness of God to accomplish all that He has purposed. Successful evangelism is, therefore, twofold. Through the universal call of the gospel, God’s people command every soul to repent and embrace Christ for eternal life. Meanwhile, God’s effectual gospel call produces regeneration and saving faith in the lives of the hearers whom He has “appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:48). While man plays an active part in declaring the gospel message to all, God alone bestows the gift of faith.

True Calvinists have an overflowing abundance of hope for world evangelism, stemming from the definite nature of Christ’s redemptive work. Charles Spurgeon, the great Calvinist and Baptist preacher, writes, “Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.”[16]

Calvin preached a Christ whose kingly reign at the right hand of God is as definitive and certain as His saving work at Calvary. The same Christ who “gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11) also promised to build His church such that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). For Calvin, Christ’s glorious reign guarantees missionary success. He writes, “Our doctrine must tower unvanquished above all the glory and above the might of the world, for it is not of us, but of the living God and his Christ whom the Father has appointed King to ‘rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth.’”[17] To read such words and conclude that Calvin lacked a zeal for world missions is utterly absurd. The doctrines of grace, which he taught so faithfully throughout his life, prove again and again to be none other than mighty catalysts for worldwide evangelism. This steadfast hope of Calvin, after all, is the earnest hope of every true Christian: to see Christ believed on in the world worshipped by all nations.

[1] Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750–1858 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 179.

[2] John Wesley, excerpted from sermon 128, preached at Bristol in 1740 from a larger collection of his sermons entitled Free Grace, published in 1872 and edited by Thomas Jackson.

[3] Revival, 290. Quotation is a summary of Finney’s opinion by Murray, but pales in comparison to the harsh criticisms levied against Calvinism by Finney, of whom it was said that “Wherever [he] went he always left behind him scores of young men ‘emancipated from sin and Calvinism.’” (Revival, 291–2).

[4] Dave Hunt, What Love Is This? Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God (Sister, OR: Loyal, 2002).

[5] Ibid., 287.

[6] Ibid., 324.

[7] Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2004), 57.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid., 59.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 60–67

[12] What Love, 301–2.

[13] Dave Hunt, Whatever Happened to Heaven? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988), 178, 274. Originally cited in Kenneth L. Gentry’s He Shall Have Dominion (Tyler, TX: ICE, 1997), 21.

[14] Dave Hunt, “Dominion and the Cross,” Tape 2 of Dominion: The Word and New World Order (Ontario, Canada: Omega-Letter, 1987), 250. Originally cited in Gentry’s He Shall Have Dominion.

[15] Dave Hunt, Beyond Seduction: A Return to Biblical Christianity (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1987), 250. Originally cited in Gary DeMar and Peter Leithart’s The Reduction of Christianity: A Biblical Response to Dave Hunt (Atlanta: American Vision, 1988), 192.

[16] David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1989), 40.

[17] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960) Vol. 1, 12. Originally cited in Gentry’s He Shall Have Dominion.

  • Adam Kuehner

Adam Kuehner is a graduate of Christ College, where he studied church history and homiletics under Dr. Roger Schultz.  He is a member of Triangle Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA).  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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