Turning the World Right Side Up
The apostles came into one of the bastions of paganism in the ancient world, and the cry went up that “these men who have turned the world upside down have come here also …” (Acts 17:6b). Now that is an amazing compliment, though it wasn’t intended to be one, that in such a brief period of time the apostles already were seen as those who had transformed the world. Now what those pagans didn’t know is that long since — since the fall of man — the world has been upside down, and what the apostles were doing was turning it right side up. But from the pagan perspective, as always, up is down and down is up; right is wrong and wrong is right.
This makes clarity of thought in doctrinal matters all the more crucial. We are not to allow our theology to be swayed by the upside-down mentality of the world. Right doctrine, indeed, Reformed doctrine, serves as the impetus for biblical evangelism. Many would suppose the opposite, as if the sovereignty of God in election is somehow opposed to the preaching of the Gospel. Our evangelism must be informed by sound, orthodox theology. What, then, does such theology look like?
“Orthodoxy” can be paraphrased as “straight thinking.” It means the truth of the Christian faith — the historic truth. Now I must confess that I had a number of professors in seminary that did not believe in that, and they did their best to twist the minds of the students to get them also to disbelieve it. But despite the attempts of such men, we are to learn the historic orthodoxy of the faith. Some of those are called the fundamentals of the faith: the verbal plenary full inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures; the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ; the divine Trinity; the atonement of Christ; the resurrection of the body of Christ; His second coming. Those, of course, and many other great truths we are to learn, like the great truths of the Reformation — the five solas and the doctrines of grace.
Readers of Tabletalk are no doubt familiar with these, but do not be surprised when even ministers do not know what the doctrines of grace are. Not knowing what they are is tragic, indeed.
The doctrines of grace are sometimes called “the five points of Calvinism,” and these five points are called the doctrines of grace for this reason: to whatever extent you deviate from one of them, you deviate from grace. But what help are these five points to the evangelist? Why should salvation be by grace alone? In order that it may be of God. Salvation is of God, from alpha to omega, from infinity past to infinity future, beginning and end — it is all of God and for His glory.
This is what the doctrine of total depravity, for example, protects. It means not that man is as bad as he could be, but that every aspect of man’s being has been corrupted and tainted with sin. His mind, his understanding, his heart and affections, his will and volition are all corrupted. From the top of his head to the soles of his feet he is one huge sore and corrupt. Therefore, he is incapable of doing anything good in the sight of God, or even understanding. Not only does he have total sin, he also has total inability to understand or deal with spiritual things: “But the natural man (the unsaved man) receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 KJV). Jesus taught us that the unregenerate man, the natural man, as he is called before conversion, has eyes and sees not spiritual things; he has ears and hears not; his mind is darkened and veiled; his heart is a stone and is at enmity with God.
Therefore, since the will always does what the mind and the heart tell it to do, it will always reject Christ, because basically the unsaved man hates God. He is hostile to God. He will never admit that, but that is the truth. Total depravity and inability describes man’s condition — there is nothing he can do to gain his salvation.
This was the orthodoxy of the church back from the very beginning, exemplified when Augustine labored and fought with Pelagius. The question was: Is natural man born dead in sin? Is he born alive and well, or is he merely sick? If he is dead, he needs God to resurrect him. If he is merely sick, then all he needs is a physician with whom he can cooperate. In that case, Jesus and he will do the saving. Glory be to them both. Always man is trying to gain some part of his salvation. If he is well, all he needs is a little instruction, and he will stay in the way everlasting and will never fall into sin.
Contrarily, the church from the very beginning taught what is now called Augustinianism, namely that man is dead in sins and, therefore, needs Christ to resurrect him. “You hath he quickened who was made alive, which were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1 KJV). How many people today seem to think that unsaved man has some ability to cooperate in his salvation? It is as if Jesus said to Lazarus: “Lazarus, if you will just come out of that tomb, I will make you alive.” And so Lazarus got up and walked out of the tomb as a dead man, and then Jesus made him alive. If you believe that, you will believe a lot of popular Arminian preaching of our time.
But Jesus spoke the word. He said, “Lazarus, come forth.” And that word, combined with the work of the Holy Spirit, made him alive. His mind began to function, his heart began to beat, the blood began to course through his body. His ears began to function, he heard reverberations, and he said to himself: “It is the voice of my Beloved. I will arise and go unto Him.” As the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches: We are made willing by His grace and quickened so that we can come to understand and respond to the Gospel (chap. 10, sect. 1).
God chooses us, not because of some foreseen faith or repentance or merit or goodness or anything in ourselves. Paul says, “For ye see your calling, brethren … how that not many mighty, not many noble are called” (1 Cor. 1:26 KJV). Not many of the great and wise men of this world are called. But who is it God has called? God has chosen the foolish things of the world and the weak things of the world and the base things of the world. I am looking at them and so are you, in order that no one may glory in His presence. So if election is conditional upon some foreseen faith or goodness in us, then grace to that degree is corrupted and destroyed.
Particular redemption, which means that Christ didn’t just pay a penalty and a payment for an indiscriminate mass of people — but that He purchased the salvation of His elect — doesn’t simply make salvation possible. He makes it certain because the debt of sin was paid. Thus the burden of successful evangelism is not our own. Evangelism is founded upon the pure grace of God.
Perhaps the greatest preacher of all time, Charles Spurgeon, a great Baptist in London more than a hundred years ago, when he moved into the great Metropolitan Tabernacle, preached a week-long series of dedicatory messages. And what were they on? They were on the doctrines of grace. I hated to be outdone, so when we moved into our new building I preached for six months on the doctrines of grace found in the Word of God.
This should be taken as an illustration of the commitment to evangelism found in the Reformed tradition. It is a great thing to be able to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to tell people the wonder of His love that took Him to Calvary, to describe the agony of His sufferings as He died in our place as our substitute and purchased for us eternal life. These are marvelous truths. But I want to tell you this: Just preaching it will not change the world. We must not only preach the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must equip Christians to follow the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
At Evangelism Explosion clinics, I have often used an illustration on the difference between preaching and the equipping of laypersons. In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us that we are to equip laymen to do the work of ministry. And what is the difference? The difference is either going backward or forward.
If the mass evangelist preached every night of the year to thousands of people and claimed many converts — where will he be at the end of his life? He will be further behind than when he started; the reason is that the world’s population is growing faster daily than the amount of people converted at his evangelism services, so every day he would be getting further behind. Not only that, his retrograde motion would be accelerating, so he will be getting further behind faster with each passing decade.
I don’t care how faithfully we stand up in a pulpit and preach the Gospel, if we are not doing what the Bible tells us to do — equipping the saints to do the work of ministry, we are going to be further behind when we die than when we started. Evangelism Explosion, which has been established in every single nation on earth, and now in every territory on earth, has far exceeded any other evangelistic program’s reach. But without the irresistible grace of God, it would all be for nought. It is God the Holy Spirit who effectually quickens and draws unto Christ those who have been saved and elected by the Father.
The Reformers understood this, and God made them transformers of society. John Calvin, John Knox, the Puritans, and many more who confessed the sovereign grace of God sought to transform their cultures. Jesus said we are not only to be light, but we are to be salt. We are to proclaim the good tidings of the Gospel, but also we are to keep the world from being utterly corrupted.
May we day by day surrender ourselves anew, seeking God’s guidance and filling, and be used by Him in changing lives and changing the society in which we live. For it is all to the glory of God alone.