Yet another crucial element of the message of evangelism is repentance: heartfelt, godly sorrow over one’s sins. In Luke 24:47, Jesus charges that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached.” In obedience to the Lord’s mandate to him, Paul showed all men “that they should repent.” Then he called them to “do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20). Repentance is the way, the only way, in which sinners receive and enjoy forgiveness. This is exactly Jesus’ meaning in Luke 24:47: the apostles are to preach repentance as the way to have forgiveness.
Here, someone will say, the Reformed Faith is unable to do what is necessary for evangelism. Obviously Jesus intends that the disciples call men to repent and that they proclaim the promise that everyone who does repent will have remission and, thus, salvation. But the Reformed Faith cannot give the call of the gospel; nor can it promiscuously proclaim the promise. So says the critic of the Reformed Faith. At the critical point, the Reformed Faith proves to be impotent.
The charge, or fear as the case may be, is groundless. There is not a shred of truth to it. It is true that the Reformed Faith cannot and will not extend a well-meant offer to all hearers, i.e., an offer of salvation supposedly made by God to all hearers in love for them, with a sincere desire to save them, and on the acceptance of which by the sinner salvation depends. For the well-meant offer is nothing but a variation of the Pelagian-Arminian “whosoever will gospel.” Long ago, the stalwart Presbyterian theologian, B.B. Warfield, devastated this pretender-gospel:
It is useless to talk of salvation being for “whosoever will” in a world of universal “won’t.” Here is the real point of difficulty: how, where, can we obtain the will? Let others rejoice in a “whosoever will” gospel: for the sinner who knows himself to be a sinner, and knows what it is to be a sinner, only a “God will” gospel will suffice. If the gospel is to be committed to the dead wills of sinful men, and there is nothing above and beyond, who then can be saved? (The Plan of Salvation, Eerdmans, 1966, p. 49)
But the Reformed Faith can and does call, with authority and urgency, in the Name of Jesus the Christ, all who hear, to repent and believe; and it can and does proclaim that everyone who does repent and believe shall be forgiven and saved eternally. It preaches repentance.
The repentance which it preaches includes a life of godliness. Repentance, in the Reformed view, is a radical change of mind about sin and, therefore, a radical change of life—a spiritual turning, a conversion. Reformed preaching outside the congregation does not hide from the hearers that the gospel—call is a call to discipleship, to cross-bearing, to self-denial, to Jesus as Lord as well as Savior. It is sometimes overlooked that in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus told the apostles to disciple the nations and that conversion and baptism are followed by instruction “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Evangelism does not end with “getting someone saved,” but continues in their being taught to confess the truth in the true church; to love one another; to honor marriage; to submit to civil government; to live in separation from the world and its works; and to keep all the commandments of King Jesus. Reformed evangelism will do this. Much of non-Reformed evangelism leaves this completely out of sight. For this reason, it is also essential in the work of evangelism that those brought to the saving knowledge of the truth be directed to join a true church, a soundly Reformed church. No Reformed missionary could say to a convert, “Now join the church of your choice.”
These are essentials of Biblical evangelism. The Reformed Faith, so far from being embarrassed by any of them, proclaims all of them as no other faith can.
But what of the distinctive truths of the Reformed Faith, the “doctrines of Calvinism,” on account of which men charge that the Reformed Faith is unable to evangelize? Granted that the Reformed Faith can preach repentance unto remission, does it leave the great doctrines of grace in the pulpit of the established church? God forbid! The Reformed Faith preaches the misery of men to be sin; and it preaches the extent of that misery to be total depravity. It passes upon every sinner the judgment of the gospel, that he is dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1), incapable of any good (Romans 3:9-18), and guilty before God (Romans 3:19). Specifically, it judges the sinner to be unable to repent, believe, and come to Christ, as the gospel commands him to do. The Reformed Faith preaches this in evangelism. To the man who objects to this as poor evangelism, it responds by pointing out to him that this was the evangelistic message of the Chief Evangelist Himself. In John 6:44, Jesus cries out to His audience, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.” Thus, the sinner is made to know his great need and utter helplessness.
The Reformed Faith preaches that the coming to Christ required in the gospel-call, as the only way of salvation, is God’s drawing of a man. We come, but our coming is the work of God in us to draw us efficaciously. Repentance and faith are Divine gifts, not human works. The grace of God is irresistible by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Reformed Faith proclaims this in evangelism. To the man who objects to this as poor evangelism, it responds by pointing out to him that this was the evangelistic message of the Chief Evangelist Himself. In John 6:44, Jesus declared, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.”
In addition, the Reformed Faith preaches, in evangelism, that all such coming is grounded in the eternal, gracious election of God. That one comes to Christ is due to God’s gracious election of him in eternity. Election is preached on the mission field, election involving and accompanied by reprobation—the only election that Scripture knows. Sinners being drawn to Christ are not left in doubt whence all this springs. Penitent and believing hearts must be assured of the eternal purpose of God’s love for them and must glorify God with the confession that salvation,their salvation, is of the Lord. This was the evangelistic preaching of Jesus. As He preached Himself to the Jewish multitudes and called them to come to Him, He exclaimed, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).
The Reformed Faith can do evangelism, because it has the gospel to preach. A message of possibility of salvation is no gospel. A message of a Jesus Who likes to save, but cannot save, is no gospel. A message of salvation dependent on man’s running or willing is no gospel. As Warfield wrote, in The Plan of Salvation, this is merely another form of “autosoterism”—the gloomy news that man must save himself.
It is only in almighty grace that a sinner can hope; for it is only almighty grace that can raise the dead. What boots it to send the trumpeter crying amid the serried ranks of the dead: “The gates of heaven stand open: whosoever will may enter in”? The real question which presses is, Who will make these dry bones live? As over against all teaching that would tempt man to trust in himself for any, even the smallest part, of his salvation, Christianity casts him utterly on God. It is God and God alone who saves, and that in every element of the saving process.
Our objection to the free-will preachers is not so much that they offer salvation, as it is that they have no salvation to offer. All who believe their message are themselves proper objects of genuine evangelism. We call them to turn from the dead idols of their own works and will, and to trust in the living God.
We have a message, the like of which there is not in all the world: not a new requirement for man to do something for his salvation, but the announcement of God’s gift of salvation. True, we call men to repent and believe; but this repentance and faith are not works of man that accomplish salvation, but the way of receiving salvation. They are not human effort, but the renunciation of all human effort. They are not man’s contribution to salvation, but the gift of God to men. True, we call repentant sinners to a life of good works, a life on a “narrow way”; but this life, the life of holiness, is itself part of God’s deliverance of us from sin, His work of sanctification. Besides, our holy life is not meritorious, but thankfulness.
The message of the Reformed Faith is the message of grace. It is good news, the “evangel.”