Robert D. Decker is professor of New Testament and Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Evangelism is Reformed

The Rev. Robert Grossmann, Associate Professor of Ministerial Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Orange City, Iowa wrote an excellent article under this title in the April 1986 issue of Mid-America Messenger. In our times there is much emphasis on the Social Gospel, Arminianism has made alarmingly deep inroads into Reformed Churches, and theological liberalism has all but won the day, Grossmann contends, and rightly so, that only the truly Reformed can do evangelism biblically and effectively. We quote the article in its entirety with permission.

While there are some, usually in the Arminian camp, who would argue that being Reformed and being concerned with evangelism cannot naturally be associated with each other, and even are in principle opposed to each other, we would say that the two cannot properly be separated from each other. Indeed, we hold that only the truly Reformed in doctrine can do evangelism biblically and effectively.

The argument that disassociates evangelism from being Reformed is usually based on the idea that the doctrine of predestination makes evangelism unnecessary. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As R. B. Kuiper points out, election demands evangelism because “all the elect must be saved,” and “the gospel is the means by which God bestows saving faith upon them.”

The present situation with respect to evangelism in the western world is that never have so many been “evangelized” with so little effect upon their personal lives or on the lives of the nations in which they live. That fact alone makes it necessary that the church once again examine just what it is that is being called “evangelism.” Considering that modern methods of “evangelism” amount to little more than a popularity poll for heaven versus hell (“Vote now, come forward, while heads are bowed!”), it is amazing how many do not come forward. It is our contention that modern “evangelism” in the western world has never escaped the badly Arminian presuppositions of Charles Finney, the inventor of the “altar call” method.

Interestingly effective results ever recorded in the history of American evangelism belong to the ministry of a man almost totally unknown in our day. The ministry of Asahel Nettleton from 1812 to 1842 was blessed with the entrance of between fifteen and twenty thousand true believers into the churches of New England, who for the next fifty years were the pillars of their congregations. None of them had come forward for an “altar call,” for this was against Nettleton’s principles. This happened long before the advent of radio and television, at meetings no larger than those normal for a small New England town. Not surprisingly, the Rev. Mr. Nettleton has received little acclaim from the world, even from that part of the “Christian” world which claims to be interested in biblical evangelism. However, there are presently two biographies of him available: The Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton by his contemporary Bennet Tyler (1975; Banner of Truth Trust, Box 652, Carlisle, PA 17013); and God Sent Revival by John F. Thornbury (Evangelical Press, Box 2453, Grand Rapids, 49501).

It would be hard to overestimate the adherence of Asahel Nettleton to classical Reformed Theology. . When asked what a man could do to be “born again,” Nettleton agreed with Jonathan Edwards that a man can do no more to effect the work of the Holy Spirit than a windmill can do to make the wind blow. To stand on the hill waiting is equivalent to standing in the presence of the preaching of the Word of God, but to then presume to direct the work of the Sovereign Spirit of God is both foolish and sinful. In answer to the further question as to whether perhaps such a man might pray for the Holy Spirit to regenerate him, Nettleton quoted

James 1:6-8.

Since such a man is by definition an unbeliever, he is by nature double-minded: “Let not that man, again I say, let not that man think he shall receive anything of the Lord.”

It is clear that Nettleton’s productivity as an evangelist is the result of God’s blessing upon his biblical theology and principles, not a blessing in spite of them. Therefore the main aspects of those principles should be of great interest to the Reformed community truly seeking the salvation of the nations.

What Nettleton did do is preach the wrath of God against sinners, and the necessity of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. This is in clear contrast to the present-day invitations to “dedicate your life to Christ,” or to “invite Jesus into your heart,” neither of which appear in the Bible at all. This call to true repentance (see

II Corinthians 7:9-10

on the difference between godly sorrow and the sorrow of the world), which is almost always absent and seldom very serious in today’s “gospel,” is the heart of the biblical good news.

No religion except biblical Christianity takes sin seriously enough to realize that God’s punishment of it is inevitable and that therefore man’s greatest problem is not meat and drink nor war and peace, but God’s anger against sinners. Only when the point is driven home that unbelievers will taste the fires of hell far more keenly than the “now generation” savors a Pepsi, will the gospel of Christ crucified make absolutely heavenly sense. Only when our unbelieving neighbors know that we Bible-believing Christians around them actually expect the gates of hell to welcome them to their final place of unrest, will we evangelize them with the Gospel of Jesus and Paul.

It is to the preaching of this sinner-saving, God-glorifying and devil-defying biblical Gospel that we who hold to the historic Reformed faith must dedicate ourselves. This requires above all that we do not hide our Reformed light under the twin Arminian bushels of fundamentalism or modernism, but that we place it high upon a candlestick that it may give light unto all.

To this we add two comments: 1) Arminianism is incipient modernism and 2) Belonging to the “Arminian bushels” is the error of Common Grace’s well-meant offer of the gospel.

Women Elders

In spite of all the rhetoric and decisions of its synods this issue will not die in the Christian Reformed Church. According to a news report in The Banner(April 28, 1986):

Classis Rocky Mountain has asked a Colorado church to reconsider its decision to use both men and women as elders.

The classis, meeting in early March, told Immanuel Christian Reformed Church, Fort Collins, Cola., that the use of women elders could not be affirmed because the Christian Reformed Church has not opened the office of elder to women. Classis urged the congregation to be patient and to report back to classis after reevaluating its decision.

Immanuel CRC is not currently using women as elders, but the church decided, after four years of discussion and research and by a majority of 78 percent, to allow women to serve as elders. Several women were nominated in 1985 to be elders, but in a June congregational meeting none were elected, said the church’s report to classis.

Since the time they studied the issue and voted to allow women on the consistory, however, church members have expressed concern about the congregation’s relationship with the rest of the denomination, so Immanuel brought the issue to classis, said Immanuel elder Larry Kieft.

According to Kieft, the church chose to nominate women because:

—the church’s growth has caused it to use “anyone with commitment to Jesus Christ” in ministry;

—families joining the church are young, educated couples in which the women have functioned as equals with the men. Some of the women have been elders and deacons in other denominations.

—a majority of the church’s leadership has favored allowing all qualified members to hold office;

—the church’s experience of having women serve on the council has been very positive.

Immanuel’s classical delegation asserted that “our loyalty to the CRC is not the issue here. . . . Agreement on every polity issue is not the prerequisite for loyalty and love. . . . Real unity is based on our theological unity around Reformed theology and unity of purpose and mission. We believe our stand is ethically correct and necessary for our witness in this community.”

This is not an issue of mere “polity.” The issue in all this is what does one do with the Scriptures which clearly forbid women to preach, teach, or rule in God’s church. (Cf. I Timothy 2:8-15.) Noteworthy is the fact that, according to the report, neither elder Kieft nor Immanuel’s consistory make any appeal to Scripture or the Reformed Confessions to support their actions.