Election and Evangelism: What God Has Joined Together Let Not Man Separate

brown rock formation on sea shore

On Sunday, our church considered one of many passages in John where the Beloved Disciple unites God’s sovereignty in salvation with the responsibility of man to repent and believe. With perfect, Spirit-inspired balance, John records the way God gave a particular people to the Son (i.e., the elect) and how these people will come to faith, as God calls all men and women to repent and believe. Indeed, what God has joined together—his sovereignty and man’s faith—cannot be torn apart without doing damage to the doctrine of election and the duty of evangelism.

For those familiar with the debates surrounding the doctrine of salvation, one of the longstanding charges against the doctrines of grace (Calvinism, if you prefer) is that the doctrine of election undermines evangelism and missions. Sadly, there have been some who have defended the doctrine of election without possessing an equal passion for the lost (i.e., Hyper-Calvinists, which means more than Calvinists with zeal). But biblically, election is one of the greatest motivations for evangelism.

This is evident in John’s Gospel and throughout the rest of the New Testament. And in what follows I want to highlight the connection between evangelism and election. In particular, I will show seven places, starting with John 6, where election is found in the same context as evangelism. Rather than hindering the gospel ministry, these passages teaches that the doctrine of election always spurs on missions and evangelism.

Seven Places Evangelism Is Spurred On By Election

John 6:37–40, 44, 65

A few years ago I highlighted the connection between election and evangelism in John’s Gospel, and here I will only hit a few high points, focusing chiefly on John 6:37–40, 44, 65.

37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

The language of God the Father ‘giving’ Jesus a people is used regularly in John’s  Gospel (6:37, 39; 10:26-29; 17:2, 9ff.), and in each case it describes a people (the elect) whom the Father promised the Son before the world began. Indeed, hungry and thirsty souls will come to Christ because they have been given to the Son (John 6:37–40), and the Son will give them the Spirit to come (John 6:63). Moreover, without this prior giving, John 6:44, 65 indicates no one will come. While such a negative statement might appear to limit evangelism, it should do the opposite.

John 6:37 says that whoever comes will be received and not cast out. And thus, because we do not know who will come and who will not, and because we do not know who is elect before they believe, we preach the gospel to all, with the promise that everyone who comes will be received. At the same time, our confidence that many will come is found in the fact that there are people whom the Father has chosen who will repent and believe when they hear the gospel.

So much more could be said in John’s Gospel, but this post is about the New Testament. So let’s look at Matthew next.

Matthew 11:25-30

In the Bible, Jesus himself is the primary teacher who joined together election and evangelism. This is true in John 6, but also in Matthew 11, where we find Jesus giving the widest invitation for salvation right after he explained the way that God reveals himself to some and hides himself from others.

In Matthew 11:28, we find this great invitation: “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” In this setting, Jesus announces himself to be the True Sabbath Rest (see Matt. 12:1ff) and all who are tired of their sin and Israel’s restless Sabbath can come to him. Yet, we should not only see what comes after this verse, but what before it. In Matthew 11:25–27 we read,

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things form the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.  All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one know the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

In a unified reading of Matthew 11, it becomes evident that God has an indiscriminate call for all to come to Christ (see v. 28). This is sometimes called the general call. At the same time, there is a special, effectual call whereby God reveals himself to those whom the Father gave the Son before the world began (see v. 25–27). Jesus defines these two groups as the “wise and understanding” and “little children.” In God’s good pleasure, it delights him to reveal himself to his own and to hide himself from those who love themselves and hate him.

As a result, some believe and others do not. From a human vantage point, we might be able to give reasons why some believe and others do not. But Scripture gives us something more—God is the one who ultimately decides whether someone believes or not.

We might think, this truth would stifle missions, but if we are following Jesus, it seems to do the opposite, for Jesus turns to his audience and invites any and all to come to him. Though it defies our human logic, God’s logic is that he can invite all to come, even as he knows that not all will come, because in his wisdom he has revealed himself to some and not others. Moreover, the general call, in the end, serves as a confirmation of his final judgment upon those who refuse him. Such a divine prerogative to choose whom he wills, and pass over whom he wills, does not undermine evangelism in the mind of God, it fuels it. This is true in the Gospels and in the letters of Paul.

Romans 9-10

The problem of Romans 9–11 is how Israel can miss the covenant blessings promised to them. The underlying question is: Have the promises of God failed? Paul seeks to answer that question by exploring God’s plan in redemptive history, and so he answers the question from two perspectives—(1) from the angle of God’s sovereignty and (2) from the angle of Israel’s rebellion. For our purposes (i.e. seeing how election and evangelism hold together in Scripture), I want to draw our attention to God’s sovereignty in salvation in Romans 9 and then the proclamation of the gospel in Romans 10. You can also see  my lessons on Romans 9.

First, it is likely that Romans 9 is the most “Calvinistic” passage of Scripture in the Bible, and the reason for that is obvious from a cursory reading. Consider a few verses.

I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.  So then it depends no on human will or exertion [lit., not of him who wills or runs], but on God, who has mercy . . . So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (v. 16, 18)

 Likewise, Paul appeals to history to prove that God’s purposes of election stand.

When Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told ‘The older will serve the younger.’ (v. 10-12)

 And again,

 For Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (v. 17)

 Finally, Paul answers some of the most poignant logical objections to God’s sovereignty in salvation,

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?  (vv. 19–24)

Clearly, to grasp Paul’s understanding of election, one must wrestle long and hard with these verses, but the emphasis is clear: God is the sovereign Lord of salvation. Still, Romans 9 in no way truncates evangelism, missions, or the need to preach the gospel. In fact, Paul follows Romans 9 with a chapter that is perhaps one of the most evangelistic in the New Testament. Consider again, a few verses.

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. . . . For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (10:9, 13–17)

After quoting from Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10:5–6, a passage of Scripture that speaks about the proximity of God’s word, Paul says that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. In short, Paul declares that salvation comes through faith in the Word preached, and that it is available to all who will hear God, turn from sin, and believe. Indeed, so great is his passion for this preached gospel, Paul spurs on the Romans to send out preachers. That’s even why Paul wrote Romans, so that this church might assist him in reaching more Gentiles.

Put together, Romans 9–10 serve as a powerful reminder that election and evangelism are not antithetical.  If anything, they work together. From one angle, God has declared from eternity that he will save those whom he chooses (Rom 9:16–23). And from another angle, God has called men in time to go and call the nations to repent and believe, so that whoever confesses the name of Christ will be saved. In Romans 9–10 gives the greatest explanation of this, but it is not the only place. We also find it in his ministry.

Acts 18:9–10

In Acts we find a window into the mind and ministry of Paul, the New Testament’s greatest missionary and theologian. What we find in this chapter shows how Paul’s understanding of election moves him towards preaching the gospel.

In a city where opposition to the gospel was great, Paul might have been tempted to move on, but the Lord visited Paul in a vision of the night and gave him a word to keep going. In Acts 18:9–10, we find Christ’s words,

“Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” 

In these two verses, Jesus says two things. First, he promises his presence, his power, and his protection.  These are great reasons for Paul to stay. But second, he commands Paul to keep preaching, because “I have many in this city who are my people.”

As I read this, I take it to mean, “Paul, stay and preach the gospel because there are many sheep who will follow me when they hear my voice in the message you preach.” In other words, God has people in Corinth, who will believe when they hear him preach (cf. 13:48). The promise of finding God’s elect in the city results in Paul staying 18 months to keep preaching the gospel. For Paul then, election did not squelch evangelism, it supported it (cf. 2 Timothy 2:9-10).

In fact, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about their salvation, he not only recalled his preaching the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1–3), but also their election. First Corinthians 1:27–29 puts it like this,“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise… God chose what is low and despised in the world… to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” For Paul, election was not a doctrine to hide under bushel; it was a doctrine to hold out for missionaries struggling in difficult places. Indeed, history has proven that when Calvinists rightly understand election, it prompts evangelism, missions, and suffering for the sake of the elect, as we see in a handful of Paul’s other letters.

1 Thessalonians 1:4-5

Writing to another church in another city where he suffered much, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of how he knows they are elect. In 1 Thessalonians 1:4–5, he begins,

4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.

According to 1 Thessalonians 1:4, Paul knows that the Thessalonians have been chosen by God, because of their faith. Often, it is thought that election undermines assurance in salvation, but this is not how Paul presents it. Straightforwardly, Paul thanks God for the election of the Thessalonians, and he does so for three reasons: (1) the gospel has been received; (2) the Holy Spirit was at work to convict; (3) the power of God was evident in changed lives. In short, Paul knows that the Thessalonians have been chosen by God because of their faith working itself out in love.

According to Acts 17, Paul came to Thessalonica preaching the gospel, and now in his letter he speaks of their election. Importantly, he doesn’t preach election. He preaches Christ. Similarly, he doesn’t look for the elect. Again, he preaches Christ. That said, when sinners repent and believe, and suffer for their faith, he knows who the elect are and he has no qualms announcing their names (cf. Acts 13:48). As a side note, this is what church membership is: announcing the elect of God based upon their evident faith and repentance.

In the end, 1 Thessalonians teaches us that election is a blessing for which we should worship God (see also Eph. 1:3–14). While not a necessary part of the gospel presentation, election is a blessing that elicits praise when Christians come to faith. Moreover, the doctrine of election grounds the faith of believers, as they discover God’s eternal plans for their salvation (cf. Rom. 8:28–39).

2 Timothy 2:10

To round out our survey, we can look at 2 Timothy 2:10 and Titus 1:1. In the first passage, which comes in Paul’s last letter, the apostle recalls his suffering and his gospel preaching (vv. 8–9). Then he explains why he suffered for the sake of the gospel. In 2 Timothy 2:10, he writes, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect” (v. 10).

Again, election does not negate missions, evangelism, preaching, or prayer. Indeed, it gives confidence that suffering for the gospel is worth it. God not only elects the men and women who will hear and believe the gospel; he also ordains the men and women who will take the message to them (see John 10:16). He ordains the ends—and the means to those ends!

Titus 1:1

Finally, we consider the opening verse of Titus, a short introduction packed with doctrinal truth. Paul begins, “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle ofJesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.”

In his greeting, Paul casually uses the term elect to speak of those for whom he is laboring. And what is he doing for them? He is working for their faith. He is proclaiming the gospel, so that those who are elect would hear the voice of their shepherd and believe that God sent his Son to die for them.

The connection between evangelism and election is once again plain. Paul knows nothing of the idea that says, “If God has elected some, he will save them. Therefore, I don’t need to participate in the Great Commission.” As Lorraine Boettner illustrated it, such fatalism is predestination in Islamic dress (p. 320). To deny the means of prayer and preaching, strategizing and suffering is to deny the way God works in the world.

Indeed, for Paul and all the New Testament apostles, the biblical doctrine of election serves as a motivation for his ministry. It never hinders missions and evangelism. God’s unconditional election gives gospel preachers—in the Bible and today—confidence that our works will bear fruit. And this is good news that underwrites the good news!

What God Has Joined Together Let No Man Separate

To be sure, there is more to be said and more Scripture to be considered. But hopefully, from these seven passages you can see why evangelism and election are never at odds, but always held together. This is the way of God’s Word and the way of salvation in eternity and time.

May we labor to understand both the biblical doctrine of election and to carry out the mission to preach Christ in all the earth, so that all God’s sheep might hear their Shepherd’s voice and come to follow him. Indeed, none will be lost, and all will be found. And for that reason, we should happily and heartily put our hands to the plow and go to work in the harvest fields of the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds