Will Calvinism Kill Evangelism?

by Ernest C. Reisinger

The answer to the question is yes and no. Yes, it will kill unbiblical man-centered evangelism and some of the carnal unbiblical methods employed in man-centered evangelism.

   No, it will not kill God-centered evangelism where biblical methods are employed in the great work of carrying out our Lord's clearest command.

   Before discussing evangelism and Calvinism, it may be wise and helpful to make a few general comments in respect to some misconceptions about Calvinism. The subject is one that immediately arouses diverse feelings. There are bigots both for Calvinism and against Calvinism. The subject is also one that poses some vitally important questions that are very relevant at the present time in the SBC. I hear many sincere voices of inquiry, especially among seminary students and young pastors.

   There is no doubt that the founders and faculty of our first seminary as well as the majority of early Southern Baptist ministers, were committed, experiential Calvinists.

Calvinists are not followers of John Calvin

The root principles of the two great systems of theology are to be found embedded either in Calvinism or in Arminianism. However, these systems were in existence eleven hundred years before John Calvin was born. Then, these two systems were called Augustinianism and Pelagianism, so named after the two men of the fifth century who defined them. Yes, we call it Calvinism. We could, with justice, call it Augustinianism which would not mean we are following Augustine into the Roman Catholic Church but rather that we are following the principles of theology that Augustine taught. Indeed, John A. Broadus, a great Southern Baptist of the last century, was right when he said that this system goes back to the Apostle Paul. Hence, Broadus called Calvinism "that exalted system of Pauline truth."

   John Calvin may well have been the man who first formulated those doctrinal principles into a formal system, but as I have said, the doctrinal principles did not originate with John Calvin or Augustine but with the apostle Paul. Therefore, Calvinists are not followers of John Calvin, but rather, we hold to the doctrinal principles that he formulated into a system of Christian doctrine. (The same thing is true of the Apostles' Creed. The Apostles did not write the Apostles' Creed; the biblical truths of the creed were systematized many years after the Apostles were gone to their reward.) Therefore it is a serious mistake to say or imply that that we are followers of John Calvin. We do not baptize infants or have anything to do with burning heretics. We can safely say Pelagianism is the ancestor of Arminianism, so Paulinism and Augustinianism are the ancestors of Calvinism.

The Doctrinal Foundation Upon Which Calvinism Rests Is Not Predestination

   Moreover, the foundation principle upon which the whole doctrinal system of Calvinism rests is not predestination. No, the primary teaching of Calvinism rests on a much broader basis and one which, it is not too much to say, touches the very nature and character of God. The one rock upon which Calvinism builds is that of the absolute and unlimited sovereignty of God. It is, indeed, this doctrine of divine sovereignty that is held and emphasized by Calvinism, and which forms the source from which every other principle of Calvinistic teaching is founded.

   It is important that we understand that Calvinism does not center primarily on its doctrine of predestination separately considered. Predestination is simply the outworking or application of God's divine sovereignty to salvation. Calvinism asserts that the sovereignty of God is supreme in salvation as in everything else.

Our Calvinist Baptist Heritage

   In looking back to the rock from which we are hewn we cannot overlook some of our great Southern Baptist Convention fathers and leaders who were committed, articulate Calvinists.

   Take Basil Manly, Sr. for example. One historian said of Manly that he played the part of a concertmaster in orchestrating the events that resulted in the call for a conservative convention of Baptists. Manly produced a strongly worded six-point resolution which led to the separation of Northern Baptists and Southern Baptists. This resolution was "passed standing and unanimously." Basil Manly was a Calvinist of the first order.

In one sermon entitled "Divine Efficiency Consistent with Human Activity," Manly told a group of ministers:

Let us not then give up either the doctrine of human activity and responsibility, or that of the divine sovereignty and efficiency. Why should they be thought inconsistent? Or why should those who cling to one be disposed to doubt, or disbelieve, or explain away the other?

Manly continued:

The greatest reason . . . why the Christian family is divided on one or the other side rejecting one or the other of these great doctrines is that the doctrine of dependence on the Divine being, throws us constantly into the hands, and on the mercy of God. Proud man does not like it; [he] prefers to look at the other side of the subject; becomes blind, in part, by gazing at one view of the truth, alone; and forgets the Maker, in whom he lives and moves and has his being.

   Consider James P. Boyce. the principal founder of our first seminary (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Long after Boyce's death, one of his former students, Dr. David Ramsey, gave a Founders Day address on January 11, 1924, entitled James Petigru Boyce: God's Gentleman." A few lines from Dr. Ramsey's address will tell the story that Boyce was a committed Calvinist and that, at the same time, he loved the souls of men.

My contention is that no other theology than that of an overwhelming and soul consuming love for men will account for James P. Boyce and his career. This passionate love was the motif that directed his thinking in those early conferences and in the preparation of those papers which led to the establishment of the seminary. This purpose to help his fellow men ran through all his plans, through his conversation, his writings and his preaching and teaching as the scarlet thread that runs through every foot of cable of the English Navy. This zeal for souls called out the finest of his being as the morning sun causes the dew-laden flowers and plants to bend toward the god of day.

   His love for his fellow man was such that, after Boyce died, Rabbi Moses of Louisville said about him,

Before I came to Louisville, I knew Christianity only in books, and it was through such men as Boyce that I learned to know it as a living force. In that man I learned not only to comprehend, but to respect and reverence the spiritual power called Christianity.

   Boyce not only loved men, but he loved God. Ramsey said, concerning this point:

"Let the thought embrace both the subjective and objective love; man's love for God and God's love for man." Boyce's close friend and fellow founder of the seminary, John A. Broadus, expressed his own feelings about the theology of Boyce which we call Calvinism: "It was a great privilege to be directed and upborne by such a teacher in studying that exalted system of Pauline truth which is technically called Calvinism, which compels an earnest student to profound thinking, and when pursued with a combination of systematic thought and fervent experience, makes him at home among the most inspiring and ennobling views of God and the universe He has made."

   Boyce's legacy to us and to our posterity is the biblical theology expressed in the Abstract of Systematic Theology, which is nothing other than his classroom teaching. It is pure Calvinism.

   In defense of Boyce's Calvinism, William A. Mueller, author of A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said,

As a theologian, Dr. Boyce is not afraid to be found ‘in the old paths. He is conservative, and eminently scriptural. He treats with great fairness those whose views upon various points discussed, he declines to accept, yet in his own teaching is decidedly Calvinistic, after the model of ‘the old divines. Difficulties as connected with such doctrines as the federal headship of Adam, election and the atonement he aims to meet, not so as to silence the controversialist, but so as to help the honest inquirer.

   Rev. E. E. Folk, in the Baptist Reflector commented on Boyce's abilities and fruits as a teacher of theology:

You had to know your systematic theology, or you could not recite it to Dr. Boyce. And though the young men were generally rank Arminians when they came to the seminary, few went through this course under him without being converted to his strong Calvinistic views.

   Boyce and Manly were strong Calvinists. But they were not alone. Their theology was no anomaly in early Southern Baptist life. W. B. Johnson, first President of the SBC, was a Calvinist. R. B. C. Howell, second President of the SBC, was a Calvinist. Richard Fuller, third President of the SBC, was a Calvinist. Charles Dutton Mallary, first recording secretary of the SBC Foreign Mission Board, was a Calvinist. So was B. H. Carroll, founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Patrick Hues Mell, President of the SBC for seventeen years, longer than any other man, was a polemic defender of Calvinism.

   Mrs. D. B. Fitzgerald, a member of Mell's Antioch Church in Oglethorpe, Georgia and a resident in Mell's home for a number of years, recalls Mell's initial efforts at the church:

When first called to take charge of the church, Dr. Mell found it in a sad state of confusion. He said a number of members were drifting off into Arminianism. He loved the truth too well to blow hot and cold with the same breath. It was a Baptist church and it must have doctrines peculiar to that denomination preached to it. And with that boldness, clearness, and vigor of speech that marked him, he preached to them the doctrines of predestination, election, free-grace, etc. He said it was always his business to preach the truth as he found it in God's Word, and leave the matter there, feeling that God would take care of the results.

   I could go on and on giving names and biographical sketches of our Founding Fathers who were equally committed Calvinists and strong on evangelism, but I will just name one more. Dr. John A. Broadus, a great preacher and one of the founders of our mother seminary said,

The people who sneer at what is called Calvinism might as well sneer at Mont Blanc. We are not bound in the least to defend all of Calvin's opinions or actions, but I do not see how anyone who really understands the Greek of the Apostle Paul, or the Latin of Calvin or Turretin, can fail to see that these latter did but interpret and formulate substantially what the former teachers taught.

Let me summarize by pointing out five things that Calvinism is not.

1. Calvinism is not anti-missionary, but gives the biblical foundation for missions. (John 6:37; 17:20, 21; 2 Tim. 2:10; Isa. 55:11; 2 Pet. 3:9, 15).

2. Calvinism does not destroy the responsibility of man. Men are responsible for whatever light they have, be it conscience (Rom. 2:15), nature (Rom.1:19, 20), written law (Rom. 2:17—27), or the gospel (Mark 16:15, 16). Man's inability to do righteousness no more frees from responsibility than does Satan's inability to do righteousness.

3. Calvinism does not make God unjust. His blessing of a great number of unworthy sinners with salvation is no injustice to the rest of the unworthy sinners. If a governor pardons one convict, is it an injustice to the rest? (1 Thess. 5:9).

4. Calvinism does not discourage convicted sinners, but welcomes them to Christ. "Let him that is athirst come" (Rev. 17:17). The God who convicts is the God who saves. The God who saves is the God who has elected men unto salvation. He is the same God who invites.

5. Calvinism does not discourage prayer. To the contrary, it drives us to God, for He it is who alone can save. True prayer is at the Spirit's prompting; and thus will be in harmony with God's will (Rom. 8:16).

   Calvinism is authentically, historically Baptist. Unlike the liberal movement, the Charismatic movement, the Dispensational or the Keswick movements, Calvinism is the only one that can claim to be endemic to our Baptist history, heritage, and teaching. Until this last century with its pragmatism, Southern Baptists and their progenitors have always been Calvinists. The present day resurgence of Calvinism is simply an effort to restore our theological past, which will have a profound effect on our evangelism.

What About Calvinism and Evangelism?

   First, what is evangelism? Evangelism is the communication of a divinely inspired message that we call the gospel. It is a message that is definable in words, but must be communicated in word and power. "For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance..." (1 Thess. 1:5). That message begins with information and includes explanation, application and invitation.

   The information is how God, our Creator and Judge, in mercy, made His Son a perfect, able and willing Savior of sinners. The invitation is God's summons to mankind to come to that Savior in faith and repentance, and find forgiveness, life and peace.

"And this is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment" (1 John 3:23). "Jesus answered and said unto them, this is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent" (John 6:29).

   One definition of evangelize is as follows: "To present Jesus Christ to sinful men, in order that they may come to put their trust in God, through Him to receive Him as their Savior and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His church." You will notice that this definition includes the church. Our Lord gave the commission to the church.

Evangelism Must Have a Doctrinal Foundation

   The doctrinal foundation for biblical evangelism is as important to the work of evangelism as the skeleton is to the human body. Doctrine gives unity and stability. It is the doctrinal foundation that produces the spiritual strength that enables evangelism to endure the storms of opposition, hardship and persecution that so often accompanies true evangelism and missions. Therefore, the church that neglects the true doctrinal foundation for biblical evangelism will soon find its efforts weakened and spurious conversions will be produced. The lack of a doctrinal foundation will work against unity and will invite error and instability in all evangelistic efforts. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of a sound biblical foundation for true God-centered evangelism.

   Doctrine shapes our destiny, and we are presently reaping the fruits of unbiblical evangelism. The great apostle, instructing a young minister to do the work of an evangelist, tells him that doctrine is the first purpose of Scripture. 2 Tim. 3:16 "All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God and is profitable for DOCTRINE." Evangelism without a doctrinal foundation is building on the sand (cf. Matt. 7:24—26). It is like cut flowers stuck in the ground without doctrinal roots; they will wither and die. Calvinists have a doctrinal foundation for evangelism.

The doctrinal foundation of God-centered evangelism guarantees its success. First, because God the Father has some chosen ones:

•John 1:18 "I know whom I have chosen"

•John 15:16 "You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you."

•Eph. 1:4 "Even as He chose us in Him."

•1 Thess. 2:13 "God chose you from the beginning unto salvation."

•John 6:37, 39, 44, 64, 65: "All that which the Father gives me shall come to me... this is the will of him that sent me, that of all that which he has given me I should lose nothing... No man can come to me except the Father which sent me draw him..."

   That sounds to me like a guarantee of success!

   The second guarantee of success is found in the fact that God the Father gave his Son, the Great Shepherd, some sheep and the Great Shepherd made atonement for the sheep that the Father gave Him.

   The atonement that we are considering is a planned atonement—the cross was not an accident. God planned it. He was not sleeping or caught off guard at the cross. He had an unchangeable, immutable plan, and it was being carried out. The apostle Peter preached this as part of his first message:

"Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain" (Acts 2:23).

   The apostles not only preached it; they prayed it. Hear their prayer in Acts 4:27—29:

"For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done."

God was the master of ceremonies at the cross.

   Jesus also taught that God the Father had an unchangeable, immutable plan and power to execute it:

For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me. And this is the Father s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day (John 6:38, 39).

I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep (John 10: 11).

I know my sheep. (John 10:14-15)

   Jesus makes clear why some do not believe on Him. Have you ever wondered why some do not believe? Well, Jesus answers that question here:

But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you (John 10:26).

He describes two characteristics of His sheep:

My sheep hear my voice [a disposition to know His will], and they follow me [a disposition to do His will] (John 10:27).

   This truth, that the atonement was for the sheep, is underscored by our Lord s prayer found in John 17. Hear His prayer:

"As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him" (John 17:2). "I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me, for they are thine" (John 17:9). "Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24).

   This view of the extent of the atonement makes the cross a place of victory, because what the Father planned, the Son purchased, and these He prays for. This is consistent with that great declaration in that messianic prophesy of His coming: "He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities" (Isa. 53:11).

Jesus teaches the same thing in John 6:37:

"All that the Father giveth me shall come to me..." Not, maybe they will come, or, it would be nice if they came, or, if they decide they will come, but rather, "shall come." This, then, is an important element of the message of the cross, the message of evangelism. This means that Christ s death was not in vain, but rather, everyone for whom He savingly died, will come. It is interesting to note that when the angel announced His birth to Joseph, the angel was straight on this point: "And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21).

   Please note the text says, "save his people," not every single individual, but His people—the sheep.

   God used the fact that He had some people, some sheep, to encourage the evangelizing of that wicked city of Corinth. The great apostle was afraid to go to Corinth, and God encouraged him by saying, ". . .be not afraid... for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city" (Acts 18:9, 10).

1. His coming was for His people (Matt. 1:21): "And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins."

2. His purchase on the Cross was for the sheepHis people (John 10:11, 14, 15): "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep... I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep."

3. His prayer was for all that the Father gave Him (John 17:2, 9): "As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him... I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine."

   Is this the message of the cross that you have heard? A Christ whose death is not in vain and will not fail to accomplish all that was intended? Or, have you heard the message of a poor, impotent, pathetic, and sometimes, effeminate Jesus who died just to make salvation possible and who is standing impotently by, waiting to see what these mighty, powerful sinners are going to do with Him?

   This is not just a different emphasis. It is a different content of the message of evangelism. The biblical gospel is God-centered, God-honoring, and good to sinners. God-centered evangelism has a doctrinal foundation, and this foundation guarantees its success. If your concept of Calvinism kills evangelism, I suggest that you examine your understanding and study J. I. Packer's book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Walter Chantry's Today's Gospel and my book, Today's Evangelism, Its Message and Methods. These books can be obtained fromChristian Gospel Book Service, Cape Coral, FL.


1 J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press).

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