“Think like a Calvinist. Preach like an Arminian.”
That is how one preaching professor taught his students to call people to faith in a sermon. He couldn’t reconcile a theological system that embraces God’s sovereignty in salvation with a plea for sinful people to change. Ultimately, this prof thought Calvinism makes sense biblically and logically, but not practically.
Perhaps you have struggled with this, too. I know I have.
There was a season of my ministry where I didn’t call people to believe the gospel. I preached the gospel, of course, but only with the hope that the Spirit would use his word to regenerate spiritually dead teenagers against their will. I merely implied that they must believe the gospel.
But I have turned from this mindset. This is not because my pendulum has swung to a more balanced position between Calvinism and Arminianism—-I don’t believe there is such a thing. It’s because I’ve grown to understand what Calvinism is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t.
It is Calvinistic to call people to respond with faith in the gospel.
Eschewing theological labels for a moment, it is biblical and Christian to call people to believe in the gospel. This is, after all, how Jesus began his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). You don’t have to know Greek to recognize the imperatives.
But we Calvinists love to quote Ephesians 2:8. “Faith is a gift from God!” we exclaim. “It doesn’t originate in the person!”
The question is: When non-Christians do repent and believe the gospel, do they express faith in Christ? Or does God grant the gift of faith in Christ to men? Yes! Why? Scripture teaches that faith in Christ includes both an objective and a subjective aspect. This is not a contradiction. Rather, the two must be held in tension.
Objectively speaking, faith is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8, although the “gift” is the whole work of salvation, not just the faith). Subjectively speaking, the person exercises faith in the gospel (Eph. 1:13). This is why Paul thanks God (the objective side) for the Ephesians’ faith in the Lord (the subjective side; Eph. 1:15-16).
Since faith is both objective and subjective, we are right, as Calvinists, to call unbelievers to put their faith in Jesus.
Hyper-Calvinists inappropriately overemphasize the objective aspect of faith. Therefore, they have a hard time calling people to put their trust in Jesus. Arminians, on the other hand, inappropriately overemphasize the subjective aspect of faith, as ultimately the responsibility of the individual.
Calvinism, and more importantly the Bible, appropriately emphasizes both, which is why we can (must!) call unbelievers to put their faith in Christ, and mean it.
Calvinists believe there is power in the call to respond.
Someone might respond, “Okay, faith is objective and subjective. But if the person hasn’t been regenerated, the call to faith falls on spiritually deaf ears, and therefore will necessarily be ineffective.”
But this response fails to recognize that the power for a person to change lies not in their current spiritual condition. The power lies within the preached Word through the work of the Holy Spirit. “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
The Word is what works the change: Jesus told the paralytic to get up. God told the light to show up. Jesus told Lazarus to come out.
Charles Spurgeon once said:
The effectual call of grace is precisely similar [to that of Lazarus]; the sinner is dead in sin; he is not only in sin but dead in sin, without any power whatever to give to himself the life of grace. . . . Sovereign grace cries, either by the minister, or else directly without any agency, by the Spirit of God, “come forth!” and that man lives. Does he contribute anything to his new life? Not he; his life is given solely by God.
By God’s grace, his Word, proclaimed by sinful people, contains the power to change hearts.
Calvinists pray for unbelievers to respond to the call.
Is there a point in praying for people to respond to the gospel if the number of those who will respond is fixed in God’s plan from eternity?
Paul seems to think so: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Rom. 10:1). Who is Paul praying for? Israel, who seeks to establish a righteousness of their own through the works of the law (Rom. 9:31; 10:3) rather than by faith in Christ.
Does it shock you that Paul prays for Israel’s salvation in his most extensive section on God’s sovereignty in election? Perhaps a prayer like this sounds Arminian to you. Perhaps it sounds like the future is open for the souls we preach to, and that they have not been predestined one way or the other.
But to pray for someone to be saved is thoroughly Calvinistic. Why? Every prayer for God to save someone is at least an implicit confession that they can’t respond to the gospel in their own power, whether or not we explicitly acknowledge this to be the case. When you pray for God to save someone, you say, “God, you must do the work to save this person, because otherwise, they won’t turn to you.”
How to think like a Calvinist and preach like one.
Where do we go from here? This discussion boils down to three ways Calvinists ought to proclaim the gospel:
- Explicitly call the unregenerate to believe in the gospel.
- Trust that the Holy Spirit will do the work to make that call effective in the elect.
- Pray that God would save people through the inherent power of the gospel.
More than just being practical, Calvinism contains the power for calling sinners to respond to the gospel in faith.