All sincere Christians have a God engendered desire to take or send the gospel to the lost peoples of the earth because they know that Christ is their only hope for salvation from sin. Yet the question sometimes arises in theological discussions as to the relevance of the doctrine of election in the missionary enterprise. There are some in the history of the church who have contended that a belief in Calvinism, including one of its key tenets of sovereign election, puts a damper on the missionary’s motivation to evangelize and preach the gospel to the nations. Why go and preach, they say, if God has already decided who he’s going to save and who he’s not? This was the essence of the question presented to William Carey by one of his Baptist elders when he proposed going to India with the gospel in 1792. Such a statement, however, did not deter Carey from his conviction that he needed to bring the gospel light to the darkness of the heathen peoples of India. He sailed in 1793, was greatly used of the Lord in India, and never returned to England.
Adoniram Judson was the first missionary to leave the shores of America to carry the gospel to a pagan people. His goal in life was to translate the Bible into a tongue for a people who did not have the scriptures in their own language. His complementary goal was to see a church of 100 people raised up among this same people group. God in his grace enabled Judson to accomplish his personal goals and even more among the people of Burma. Since his departure from America soil in 1812, many thousands of missionaries have followed him in the ensuing years in the noble and God-honoring task of carrying Christ’s gospel to the four corners of the earth.
Judson was a very hardworking and single minded missionary, and God gave him an extraordinarily fruitful ministry. Yet the secret of his success did not rest ultimately in his linguistic skills nor in his focused dedication to the work. The success of Judson’s ministry and every other missionary’s ministry rests in the secret councils of God himself from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-5). The simple biblical fact is that God saves sinners throughout the world because he has determined before the universe was created that he would save a people for his own name’s sake from among all the peoples of the earth.
Both Judson and Carey were Baptist Calvinists who believed in the electing grace of God. The doctrine of sovereign election teaches that God in love chose from before the foundation of the earth, out of the lost race of humanity, a special group of people upon whom he will have mercy by sending his Son to die for their sins on Calvary’s cross.1 The Bible teaches that the whole human race is guilty and deserves eternal punishment because every person without exception has pursued their own private agenda in life to the neglect and even rebellion against God and his holy will. Such self-centered, God-ignoring creatures deserve nothing but anger and wrath from the almighty God whom they have conveniently pushed aside in their headstrong pursuit for self-comfort and self-glory.
Every human being who was ever born has his feet and arms hopelessly entangled in the totally captivating net of his own sin. The all-consuming power of sin is actually a force within man that he is born with – he got it honestly – it was passed down from Adam. This first man created by God was the human race’s head and representative, whose rebellion and disobedience to God brought disaster down not only upon his own head, but upon the heads of all other humans descended from him (Romans 5: 12-21).
Such are the people we find in the world. They speak different languages, live on different continents, eat different food, and have different colors of skin, but their essential internal nature is absolutely the same wherever man is found. That internal nature, according to the Word of God, is pervasively (Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 1:21) and hopelessly (Eph. 2:17) corrupt, with absolutely no power or will to deliver itself from the chains of spiritual, moral, and intellectual defilement.
Yet Christ commanded us, the church, to take the gospel to the peoples of the earth, baptize those who believe, and disciple believers in all the will of Christ. What our Lord has called us to do is an impossible task. How can we, mere mortals, set men and women free from the chains of self-love and God-neglect and God-rebellion – especially when they are quite content to remain in that state and are not even aware that they are in any danger?
Is there anything we can do to help the situation? We can, thankfully, do something; we can go to them with the gospel. In fact, if we do not go to them with the gospel (or send our brethren with the gospel) there is no chance of them hearing of Christ who is their only hope. “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14). The scriptures teach that God ordains not only who will be saved but the means by which they will be saved, which is the preaching of the gospel.
It is the hearing of the gospel message that resonates in the minds and hearts of unbelievers and stimulates them, by the action of the Holy Spirit, to repent of their sins and believe in Christ. The amazing thing and the great encouragement to the missionary preacher is that the elect will respond to the gospel message! In fact, they will unfailingly respond at the appointed hour because God will so work within them that they will respond most willingly and gladly. This is the great promise of the Lord Jesus: “All that the Father gives me will come to me…” (John 6:37).
When the Paul and his companions entered Antioch of Syria on his first missionary journey they preached the good news of Christ and met with a mixed reaction by the population. Some believed and some rejected the message. What was it that made the difference? Luke, the author of Acts, tells us: “…as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” It was God’s ordination of his elect people that caused them to believe as the Holy Spirit worked within them (Titus 3:4-7). Later Paul and his brethren went to the Macedonian city of Philippi and preached the gospel to a group of women who met for prayer outside the city on a river bank. One of those who heard the message was Lydia, a seller of purple goods. “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14-15) and she was baptized. What was it that brought Lydia to faith in Christ? It was the Lord himself, who opened her heart. Could Paul have opened her heart? Not even with all his intellectual skill, biblical knowledge and persuasive power could even the great apostle have done spiritual surgery on this woman. All Paul could do was to preach the gospel and pray and wait to see whose hearts were opened.
Every missionary today, every Christian who shares the gospel with his neighbor or family member or co-worker, is in the same situation as Paul was that day on the river bank outside of Philippi. There is only so much we can do, but what we do is essential. We declare the gospel with all the accuracy and sensitivity and persuasion we can use. But then ultimately it is all up to the electing grace of God. If God has set his love upon that person, he or she will come mostly gladly in the day of salvation. That person will not fail to come; because God has ordained his or her salvation in his eternal councils. This is the great hope and confidence of the missionary.
It is because the spiritual deadness of man is so real, and his ability to believe and repent so impossible because of his captivity to sin, that the only thing that can bring life where there is spiritual death is the intervening, initiating grace of God to sinners who merit absolutely nothing from God. If there is one thing that can be said about a lost sinner in any culture it is this: without the sovereign mercy of God, that person has no hope. He cannot free himself from his spiritually dead condition; he does not even want to free himself. The Holy Spirit must show him his sin and the beauty of the Savior and break his stubborn will and give him the desire to flee most needfully to Christ.
When Paul began his gospel preaching ministry in the pagan Greek city of Corinth he met with a time of discouragement and fear. But the Lord came to him in a vision one night and said, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking…for I have many in this city who are my people.” Here again, God had a plan to save these people and he was using Paul to carry to fruition his plan. The electing grace of God had come to particular people in the city of Corinth whom God had set his love upon (Rom. 8:29-30) from long ago.
When the Lord enables us to understand his scriptures regarding the doctrine of election, it is a great encouragement to the missionary. It gives him confidence that God will call out his people. God’s purposes will go forth. He has ordained the salvation of a great multitude from “every tribe and language and people and nation” who are ransomed (purchased) by the blood of his Son (Rev. 5:9). As we are sensitive to the Spirit and the leading of God, we can go and be used of God to call his people out of darkness into the light of his Son. Without the electing grace of God, the missionary enterprise would never see one true convert. But because he has elected a people for his name’s sake, we can go forth in hopeful and trusting anticipation that God will use us to bring his own people to himself through faith in his Son. Is the truth of election important? It is what gives the missionary hope and confidence that his preaching is not in vain and that in due time God will use the message delivered to create saving faith in the hearers whom God has loved from before the creation of the world.
-by Jeff Gregory
1 Wayne Grudem’s definition of election: “Election is an act of God before in creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign good pleasure.” p. 670, Systematic Theology.