It is strange that it should be supposed that the relationship between the Reformed Faith and evangelism is uneasy and uncomfortable. It is stranger still that men should charge that the Reformed Faith and evangelism are incompatible. Yet this is the case. Many outside of the Reformed Churches contend that the Reformed Faith makes evangelism (or “soul-winning,” as they like to call it) impossible. Many who profess to be Reformed are now echoing this charge. What is worse, they are busy radically revising the Reformed Faith in the interests (they say) of evangelism. Read the studies that set forth the foundations, the messages, and the methods of missions: universal love; universal atonement; salvation dependent upon the free, sovereign choice of the sinner. Listen to the evangelists: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”; “Christ died for you”; “You can have this wonderful salvation and be born again, if only you will accept Jesus.”
Then, there is the danger that those who love the Reformed Faith as God’s own truth become suspicious of evangelism; openly or secretly grant the validity of the charge that the Reformed Faith and evangelism are incompatible; and decline to engage in the work of evangelism.
It is the duty of those to whom God has given the inheritance and responsibility of the Reformed Faith to show the perfect harmony of this Faith and evangelism. To do this, we must ourselves see clearly that they are compatible.
What Evangelism Is
Over the years, in our country at any rate, a certain, definite idea of evangelism has developed. It is necessary, first of all, to subject this idea to the test of Scripture. Speak of evangelism, and one probably thinks of an elaborate, expensive campaign to gather many people to a meeting that will be conducted by a specialist, the “evangelist.” One thinks of a specific kind of religious meeting—one in which the music, the message, and the other elements are carefully geared to get men to make a decision for Christ. One thinks of an activity that culminates in “the invitation,” or “altar call.” And one thinks of a religious work which concludes by reporting, how many hundreds, or thousands, “got saved,” or “came forward.”
This is evangelism in the popular mind. To do evangelism is to do something like this; and to oppose this is to run the risk of being criticized as unevangelistic, not mission-minded.
This whole great structure, fondly regarded as evangelism, imposing and impressive as it appears, needs to be tested by Scripture. Take, for example, the element so important to modern evangelism, and so prominent, the invitation, or altar call. The altar call is thoroughly un-Biblical, apart now from the perverse theology which underlies it—the theology of the goodness and freedom of the will of the sinner and the sovereignty of his will in salvation, what Paul repudiates in Romans 9:16 as the teaching that salvation is of him that willeth. It is un-Biblical to demand, in Christ’s Name, that someone express the spiritual activity of repentance and faith by walking to the altar. It is un-Biblical to equate coming to the front with these spiritual activities and, thus, with salvation. It is un-Biblical, grievously so, to obtain this result by the psychological, emotional pressures that are exerted. The Christian Church never knew of such a thing before the early 1800’s, when Charles Finney introduced it.
For the answer to our question, “What is Evangelism?,” we do not look to popular notions, but to, Holy Scripture.
In reality, evangelism is the preaching of the gospel. This is the meaning of the word, evangelism—a Biblical word in the Greek of the New Testament. The usage of the word shows this to be the meaning. In Luke 2:10, the angel says to the shepherds, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. . . .'” “I bring you good tidings” is, in the Greek, “I evangelize you.” When the apostle tells Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist,” in II Timothy 45, he is telling him to preach the Word of God; as the preceding verses prove. Evangelism is the activity of publishing, or announcing, the “evangel,” the gospel, i.e., the glad tidings of Jesus the Christ, crucified and risen.
This answers the question, whether a Reformed Church believes in evangelism and whether Reformed saints are to be zealous for evangelism. The gospel must be preached! This must be done within the established church, among the saints already called out of the world; for their ongoing comfort and edification, they are continually to hear the good news. This is why we come to church every Lord’s Day.
But the gospel must also be preached outside of the church already established in. the truth; this is necessary for the saving of the as yet unconverted and the straying. This is what we mean when we speak of evangelism: the activity of proclaiming the good news to those outside the congregation. Evangelism, then, is the same as missions.
We may take our definition from the “Form of Ordination of Missionaries” of the Reformed Churches. It distinguishes between ministers who” labor in the congregations already established and those called and sent to preach the gospel to those without, in order to bring them to Christ: “. . .it is necessary’ that some labor in the congregations already established, while others are called and sent to preach the Gospel to those without, in order to bring them to Christ” (The Psalter, pp:74, 75). Evangelism, therefore, is the activity of preaching the gospel to those outside the congregation already established in the truth, in order to bring them to Christ.
Evangelism is not limited to work done with heathen, with those who make no profession of faith in Jesus the Savior. On the contrary, it includes the work of the Church with those who profess Christianity and belong to a church, but who are either ignorant of the truth of the gospel or have departed from it. To bring the gospel to such is not “sheep-stealing,” but sheep-gathering; it is not “fishing in troubled waters,” but fishing for men.
When Jesus in Matthew 9:37, 38 instructed His disciples that the harvest is plenteous, but the laborers few, and that they, therefore, must pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into His harvest, His reference was not, primarily, to the heathen, but to the multitudes of God, under the care of the priests and scribes. By false doctrine, apostasy, and simple lack of the Word of God, these people were spiritually sore distressed and, therefore, proper objects of evangelism.
Paul’s ministry shows that the work of evangelism is not exclusively with professed unbelievers. He brought the Word to the Jews first; and when confessing Christians strayed, as they did in Galatia, the apostle urgently evangelized them.
John Murray, the Presbyterian theologian, contended that evangelism must not be limited to work among the unsaved.
The word “evangelism” has generally been understood to apply to the propagation of the gospel among the unsaved. In dealing, however, with the obligation that rests upon the church of Christ to witness to the gospel it does not appear that the various activities of the church that may properly be embraced in the work of evangelism have exclusive reference to those who are reckoned, in the judgment of the church, as without God and without hope in the world. Particularly is this true when it is remembered that many believers in Christ have so inadequate a knowledge of the gospel, and so impoverished a conception of the Christian life, that a considerable part of the work of the church, properly regarded as evangelism, must needs have as its aim the instruction and edification of such believers. The evangelism that the true church of Christ undertakes must therefore contemplate the bringing of the gospel in its full import and demands to those who, though believers, are nevertheless the victims of ignorance, unfaithfulness and compromising associations: (“The Message of Evangelism,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 1, p. 124, published by The Banner of Truth Trust).
This is why the Reformation was an evangelistic enterprise, a missionary activity. Some have dared to criticize the Reformers for a lack of interest in missions. Defenders of the Reformers, seemingly stung by the charge, have responded that the Reformers were too busy for missions, but that Calvin once sent several missionaries to Brazil. The truth of the matter is that the Reformation itself was missions—a gigantic, energetic, world-wide mission work, with abundant and enduring fruits. The gospel was proclaimed to multitudes in many nations who were fainting and scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd, perishing in the ignorance and lie of Roman Catholicism.