The Sovereignty of God and Evangelism
by Paul Helm
Many people struggle with God’s sovereignty in election because they believe it excludes the activity of evangelism. If people are eternally elected or not, they ask, what good will preaching do? What difference will it make? However, as Scripture teaches, God’s sovereignty in election and the activity of evangelism are not enemies but friends. Evangelism is rooted in election, and while man may plant and water the seed of the gospel, God brings the growth.
Means and Ends
The sovereignt y of God in salvation is most clearly and vividly seen in Scripture’s teaching regarding election. Election is “unconditional,” that is, God’s choice is not based on anything good or meritorious in the one chosen, something deserving that inclines or biases God in His choice. Instead, God’s choice is made solely on the basis of His good pleasure.
It may seem that such a choice makes any human activity unnecessary. How could any creature affect anything? But consider this simple example: Suppose that God eternally wills that you receive a letter from me. For this to occur, other things must happen first. Obviously, I must write the letter and then use some means or other to get the letter to you. These activities — the writing and the sending of the letter — do not take place apart from the will and purpose of God Almighty but as part of His will and purpose. They are means to the end of you receiving a letter from me.
What does this show? It shows that in the divine purposes, means and ends are connected. Perhaps in electing people “in Christ,” God could have immediately glorified them. But according to Scripture, He has not chosen to do this. Instead, He uses means. He brings the good news of salvation to our attention. How does He do that? He could presumably have done this by imparting the news immediately to a person’s mind in a dream or by a “whisper.” But, in fact, He does it by the twofold agency of “Word” and “Spirit.”
Scripture has various different ways of making this clear. In the Gospels, there is the parable of the sower: “Behold, a sower went out to sow.” The seed is the Word; the various kinds of soil are different kinds of hearts. “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit” (Matt. 13:23). So, there is seed sown, and there is fruit, according to the type of soil. And this represents hearing the Word, understanding it, and being fruitful. No one can “understand” the Word without it first being “sown.”
Here is a second example. Let us consider the words of the Great Commission found at the end of Matthew’s gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that l have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19– 20). Jesus instructs or commands His eleven disciples to “make disciples.” And how are they to do that? By “teaching them [people from all nations] to observe all that I have commanded you.” Discipleship comes by being taught what Christ commanded His first disciples.
Paul uses very similar language to that of Christ in the parable of the sower as he describes his ministry, both its importance and its limitations, when he writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). What is he saying here? That he sowed the seed and his fellow preacher Apollos came along and, by what he taught, “watered” what Paul had sown. But who made it grow? Only God, by His Spirit, gave life — understanding, faith, and obedience — to those who became believers at Corinth.
Similarly, other things that Paul writes echo the teaching of Jesus’ Great Commission. For example, in Romans 10 Paul discusses the relation between calling upon Christ, belief in Him, and preaching the need to call on the Savior:
How, then, can [people] call on the one they have not believed in? 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? (Rom. 10:14—15)
Paul’s questions answer themselves: no believing, no calling; no hearing, no believing; no preaching, no hearing; no sending, no preaching.
All these passages have one thing in common. They reveal the connection, a connection set up in the wisdom of God, between communicating the gospel through preaching — sowing, teaching, calling, and watering — and belief — faith and calling on the Lord, conversion to Christ in its various aspects. So, under ordinary circumstances, preaching and teaching are the indispensable means of the Lord bringing men and women to faith in Christ. More than such preaching is needed, of course. God Himself must prepare the heart, and by His Spirit He alone can “give the increase.” But He ordinarily does this “by the Word” proclaimed by ministers of the gospel.
There is one passage above all others in the Bible that clearly sets forth the scope of this interplay of means and ends, from election on the one hand to glorification on the other. In Romans 8, Paul teaches that God’s ultimate purpose for His people is their conformit y to the image of His Son. How are we to understand this?
Paul’s answer is to first take the reader back to “those who are called according to his purpose” (v. 28). These, he says, are foreknown by God. That is, He knows before they are born who these individuals are, for He has chosen them. And He predestines them to be conformed to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ (v. 29). And what does this predestining involve?
“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (v. 30). In a few words, the Apostle takes the reader from eternity to eternity. To stress the certainty and completeness of this process, Paul uses the past tense, as if all of the saints were already enjoying glorification. But for our purposes, it is the two critical and important words called and justified that need highlighting. They underline the need for the elect to be glorified by being brought by the Spirit out of spiritual darkness — the new birth — and their need for change in status, as their sins are pardoned and Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to them.
When do these changes, regeneration and justification, occur? The answer is during the earthly lives of men and women. By what means? By the communication and presentation of the gospel through preaching and teaching. Moreover, these changes occur by the sovereign agency of God the Holy Spirit, who opens the eyes for understanding, renews the will, grants repentance and the faith that justifies, and enables the growth of Christian virtue, that is, sanctification.
The View from the Other Side
So, preaching is ordinarily an indispensable means for calling out God’s elect. In a parallel fashion, listening to and making an effort to understand gospel preaching is indispensable. This is not a bit of good reasoning: “Either I am elect or I am not. Either way, there’s no point in listening to good preaching. For if I am elected, God will bring me to heaven somehow. And if I am not, I can find better ways of spending my time than in going to church.” Jesus, for example, emphasized the importance of listening carefully: “He who has ears, let him hear (Matt. 13:43). What does Jesus mean? That we should listen intently, with the aim of gaining “understanding.” After His resurrection, Jesus spent time opening the minds of the disciples to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45). If we are puzzled and perplexed, we should continue to search the Scriptures for all we are worth (for Scripture interprets Scripture) and to pray to Jesus for understanding. Paul recounts how the Thessalonian Christians came to faith in Christ as follows: “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13).
The reasoning that says, “Either I am elect or not; either way it is pointless to attend to the Word of God,” makes the very same mistake as does the belief that God’s eternal election makes preaching unnecessary. We separate the end of election — renewal in the image of Christ — from those means of communicating the gospel through preaching and the other ways God has ordained. It divides what God has, in fact, united. “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”