Q284 : Evangelism and Predestination

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Q284 : Evangelism and Predestination

The mystery of predestination was a subject on the forefront of my mind the past couple years. Watching my friend battle with his own salvation was a huge eye-opener to just how beyond human understanding it is. I share a similar perspective to yours about the four points of TULIP (TU and IP) and why limited atonement is in direct conflict with several passages in scripture. Being that one of my acquaintances is a fairly passionate Arminian (at least last we talked about it), I get challenged on the subject from time to time.

My question would be, do you think in the difficult balance between God's sovereignty and the responsibility of man, that there is any human choice involved in salvation at all? I think of passages like Genesis 15:6 (and again in Romans) and in the New Testament where it refers to "the obedience of faith." However, it seems some translations specify "the obedience that comes from faith" in some of those passages so maybe that's another translation issue. Obviously we are to treat evangelism as if there is human choice involved, right? Is that just out of obedience to God? Why would the gospel be presented as "repent and believe in God" if we can't actually do that? I realize this is kind of an age-old question.

A284 : by Tony Garland

Regarding your question, Why would the gospel be presented as "repent and believe in God" if we can't actually do that? I would answer: we can. But only those who are called, and only because of God’s work on their behalf.

When I was sharing recently with a young man for a number of weeks before he came to trust in Christ, I never attempted to sway or manipulate him toward belief, as might be the temptation if I didn’t believe that God is the One who does the work behind-the-scenes. I didn’t lead him toward the “sinners prayer,” or any packaged “N-steps to salvation” approach. At the same time, I also knew that he is required to exercise faith: to trust in the work of Jesus on his behalf. So the issue gets back to the coordination between God’s sovereignty (He elects, calls, predestines, births) and man’s responsibility (believe). So, from this man’s perspective, he had to “believe in the Lord” so it would be “accounted . . . to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Just like Abraham.

In response to your question, do you think in the difficult balance between God's sovereignty and the responsibility of man, that there is any human choice involved in salvation at all? I would answer that human choice is involved: real human choice. But it can only take place as a result of God’s predestination and calling. In other words, since the Fall, every person is born spiritually separated from God — -biased against Him — and will not respond to God unless God steps in and “does something.” He does that for the elect, enabling them to exercise saving faith. I wouldn’t say that just because God takes the first step (predestination), allowing the response of those who will be saved, that it negates the validity of their choice in response. Of course it would seem that way to (limited) human logic: if they are among the elect and predestined so, then how could they do differently? Can I answer that dilemma to anybody's satisfaction: no. But neither can I answer the puzzle of the Trinity. The key here is not “what makes sense to limited human logic,” but “what does Scripture reveal when all the passages are considered?"

In answer to your question, we are to treat evangelism as if there is human choice involved, right? I would answer, yes. But I would say that is because there is human choice involved: the choice to believe. It’s just that the choice will only be made positively by God’s elect — all others will reject the message. The key, from our perspective, is that we don’t know who the elect are. So whether our views of Scripture tend toward Arminianism or Calvinism is not a determining factor in our motivation to evangelize: we desire all to be saved, we present to all, realizing that only some will be saved (Mat. 7:13-14; Luke 13:23-24), the ones drawn and given to Jesus by the Father (John 6:37, 44, 64-65). We have no idea which. Of course those of the Arminian persuasion nearly always assert that Calvinists are not evangelistic, nor will they be because “God does it all.” I would answer as follows:

  1. Scripture commands us to preach the gospel to all mankind — we are the mechanism God has ordained by which men are saved (Mark 16:15; Rom. 10:15).
  2. Consider George Whitefielda and John Wesleyb. Both Whitefield (Calvinist) and John Wesley (Arminian) were outstanding evangelists during the same era of history. Whitefield believed that only the elect will be saved. Wesley believed that all men can be saved. Whitefield evangelized all men not knowing which were elect. Wesley evangelized all men not accepting that some were non-elect and would never respond. Large numbers of people came to Christ under both men’s ministries.
Where the Arminian/Calvinist viewpoint has more serious ramifications is the way in which evangelization is done. The Arminian is more likely to resort to cajoling, manipulating, swaying — doing everything possible by human means — to bring a person to the point of “making a decision for Christ.” This is because they believe the locus of salvation is within the individual — their freedom of choice. The Calvinist believes the locus of salvation is God’s election — that it is impossible for any of the elect to be lost. For the Arminian, it is “the evangelists job” (aided by the Holy Spirit, to be sure) to try and win over the listener to faith. For the Calvinist, it is “God’s job” — our part is merely to present the gospel, to “give a defense for the hope that is within us” (1Pe. 3:15). The Arminian position can lead to churches with a greater number of people who profess Christ, but have never truly been born again — they are sitting in church, but not among the elect.

The Arminian/Calvinistic dichotomy also influences how churches “do church.” Arminian churches will tend to place great emphasis on trying to get unbelievers to attend church and then do everything possible in church “not to offend” unbelievers so they can slowly, carefully, be cajoled into making a “decision for Christ,” often with the help of an emotional appeal, music, candles, and the like and by taking some action, such as walking the aisle or raising one’s hand. Calvinistic churches tend to focus on the actual purpose of the church: equipping believers (Eph. 4:11-13) and avoid tweaking or dumbing down things to cater to unbelievers. The Arminian position tries to arrange the church environment and presentation to influence people to believe. The Calvinist position believes that God will save whomever He elects, so long as the church is faithful to do what it is called to do — and purposefully avoids manipulating those who attend because it can interfere with the clarity of salvation by causing non-elect individuals to make false professions.

Calvinists serve up the cod-liver oil (the scandal of the cross) knowing the elect will surely swallow it down — regardless of taste. Arminians are more likely to sugar-coat the cod-liver oil to try to make it palatable so that “as many as possible” swallow it down.

In my view, neither position “solves” the riddle of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility — as taught within Scripture. Both are taught — which presents a logical dilemma, akin to the Trinity. But Arminians try to artificially solve this logical dilemma by “making salvation logical,” and don’t do justice to the many clear passages on election/predestination/calling.1 The Arminian, it seems to me, is like someone who feels they must explain the Trinity in a “way that makes sense.” In the process, you always wind up with something less than the Trinity. (To be fair, 5-point Calvinists make a similar error: they conclude limited atonement must be true for Scripture to be logically consistent as understood by human logic: “why would Christ die for the whole world if only the elect are actually saved?” Both systems — especially in their extremes — bend the Scripture to conform to human logic which leads to conclusions that contradict clear statements in Scripture.)

In response to your question, Why would the gospel be presented as "repent and believe in God" if we can't actually do that? I would answer, we can. But only after we are drawn by God (John 6:44, 65; Romans 9:16). In other words, people who are saved do exercise saving faith. It is a true expression of faith/trust/response. But, to overcome the fallen condition, God must woo them by the Holy Spirit to make that possible. All are lost, unable to respond positively to God, but the elect experience God’s grace and are enabled to believe. The non-elect do not, as explained in Romans 9.

Speaking of Romans 9, another significant problem with the Arminian position is, if true, one can’t adequately explain why Paul wrote Romans 9 — especially Romans 9:18-22. If Arminianism is true, then there is no basis for the question, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” because, in the Arminian view, unbelievers have resisted His will that all be saved (1Ti. 2:4). The question asks why God still blames those who reject Him if He is sovereign over that rejection (they are not among the elect). Paul is saying here, “If God elects those who are saved, how can we say the lost are at fault — since God was sovereign in the outcome?” Neither those who are saved nor those who are lost have resisted His will — so how can any be blamed? This question is out-of-place in Arminianism because God, in their system, is not the ultimate determiner of who gets saved: all men can be saved and those who fail to respond reap the due punishment for their independent rejection. Therefore, God can find fault because some have rejected His will that they be saved: rendering Paul’s question here moot.

Regarding, “repent and believe,” which some people treat as two separate actions where repentance must precede faith, I would say that repent/belief are two sides of the same coin. When we believe in Jesus, we are agreeing with God concerning our condition and the need for salvation. In the New Testament, “repent” is a Greek term (metanoia) which actually means “to change one’s mind.” It does not have in view a change of behavior prior to believing. Those who claim repentance is a separate step on the way to salvation need to explain:

  • Hundreds of passages which only mention “belief/faith” as the one condition of salvation (e.g., Gen. 15:6; John 3:16; Acts 10:43; 16:30-31; Rom. 3:28)
  • How the gospel of John, which describes the signs of Jesus, “...that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31) never mentions repentance (metanoia)
The close relationship between faith (pistis) and repentance (metanoia) can be seen in the following definition for metanoia found in the New International Dictionary of the New Testament: “change of mind, repentance, conversion . . . be converted . . . a decision by the whole person to turn around”2 [emphasis mine]. The relationship between repentance and faith is also evident in Peter’s first evangelistic sermon which omits the word faith: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins . . .” [emphasis added] (Acts 2:38). Peter asks them to repent: decide to turn from their own way to follow God, which will result in the remission of sins.

For more on the biblical teaching regarding salvation, I can recommend our study on soteriologyc (the Greek term for salvation) by Andy Woods.


1.A sample of passages which touch on election, predestination, or calling: Ps. 65:4; Eze. 3:17; Mat. 24:24; Mat. 24:31; Mark 13:20; Luke 10:22; Luke 18:7; John 1:13; John 6:37; John 6:44; John 6:65; John 13:18; John 15:16; John 15:19; John 17:2-11; John 17:24; Acts 2:39; Acts 13:48; Rom. 1:7; Rom. 8:28-31; Rom. 8:33; Rom. 9:15-16; Rom. 9:23; Rom. 10:20; Rom. 11:5; Rom. 11:7; 1Cor. 1:2; 1Cor. 1:9; 1Cor. 1:21; 1Cor. 1:26; 1Cor. 1:30; Gal. 1:15; Eph. 1:4; Eph. 4:1; Php. 3:12; 1Th. 1:4; 2Th. 2:13; 1Ti. 6:12; 2Ti. 1:9; 2Ti. 2:10; Tit. 1:1; Heb. 9:15; 1Pe. 1:2; 1Pe. 1:10; 1Pe. 2:9; 1Pe. 5:13; 2Pe. 1:3; Jude 1; Rev. 17:14.
2.Ref-1206, metanoia


Ref-1206Verlyn D. Verbrugge, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000). ISBN:0-310-25620-8d.

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