Calvinist Evangelism and Dispensational Culture

Introduction: Calvinists and Evangelism

Often non-Calvinists claim that evangelism is inconsistent with Calvinism. If all and only the elect are saved, and if God does the electing and the saving, and if even the person thus saved has no determinative role in the process, then what role is there, pray tell, for some third party? The elect will certainly be saved, whether I do anything or not; the non-elect will certainly be lost, no matter how many times I tell them the gospel. What difference does it make? Why ought I to evangelize?

Certainly some Calvinists have made the same arguments, and have chosen not to evangelize for exactly these reasons. But many others have had better sense. Scripture plainly instructs that believers proclaim the gospel, and since God is not the author of nonsense, they have sought a rationale for doing so.

[I should insert a disclaimer here: I am not a Calvinist of any stripe, following neither Dort nor the Remonstrants — it’s their common assumptions that are the problem. However, I read Calvinists and have Calvinist friends, and what I’m about to relate as Calvinist motives for evangelism is what they tell me.]

Their answer is twofold. First, God ordains means as well as ends. The means that God has ordained to bring about the salvation of the elect includes the proclamation of the gospel. God has ordained that His people proclaim the gospel, in order that the elect will certainly hear the gospel and be saved. It is the privilege of God’s people to be part of the means by which He brings His saving message to elect sinners. God’s people, of course, have no idea who is elect and who is not, and therefore simply proclaim the gospel to everyone — as God has instructed them to do.

But this, I think, is only part of the answer. Consider the implications if this were the whole answer. Suppose I were planting particularly bad corn, with a germination rate of only 20%. Not knowing which seeds would germinate, I would plant each seed. I would tend the ground where each seed was planted. I would water them all equally, and so on. But the earth is cursed because of sin, and 80% of my tender care would ultimately be wasted: 80% of the seeds would rot instead of sprouting.

Compare this to evangelism. Let us say that 20% of the people I evangelize will ultimately be saved before they die. If “God ordains means as well as ends” were the whole answer, then I would have to conclude that 80% of my effort would ultimately be wasted.

Yet my Calvinist brethren do not conclude this. If God is pleased to regenerate this man as he hears the gospel, then it is the aroma of life to him, and he is saved, to the glory of God. This much is obvious. However, if in His infinite wisdom God has not elected this person, then my proclamation of the gospel is a stumbling block and a foolishness to his ears, and to him it is the stench of death. This, too, my Calvinist brother insists, is to the glory of God. He may not be able to explain exactly how-although some have tried-but he nonetheless insists that it glorifies God. It is not wasted effort, because nothing done to the glory of God is ever wasted.

This brings us to the idea of calling. God has ordained that believers should preach the gospel. In God’s great plan, this preaching may be a means to an end, but since He has called us to do it, for us it is an end in itself. We need no further inducement than that God has called us, and we exult in doing His will, for ends that, many times, remain a mystery to us. For me as a believer to joyfully fulfill my calling is never a waste of effort; it is always worth doing.

Thus, although a superficial case can be made that Calvinists ought not to have motivation to evangelize, in fact they do, first because God ordains means as well as ends, and second because that which an obedient believer does to the glory of God is never a waste of effort.

Godly Culture: An Outgrowth of Consistent Dispensationalism

With these things in mind, let us turn to dispensationalism and culture. We dispensationalists are often accused of having no theology of culture, and making no real contributions to culture. To our considerable shame, the accusation is true at times. In fact, it is true often enough that our opponents-particularly the postmillennialists-have come to view abandonment of, and antipathy toward, culture as a necessary consequence of premillennial, dispensational theology.

I will grant at the outset that there are dispensationalists who hold exactly this position, and use their theology as an excuse to disobey the clear commands of Scripture, just as there are Calvinists who use their theology as an excuse not to evangelize. But I suggest that these are parallel cases in other respects as well. In both cases, the reasoning is specious, and for very similar reasons.

Let’s examine the reasoning. According to dispensational premillennialism, human efforts at cultural righteousness are ultimately doomed in the sense that the cultures of the world will some day inevitably descend into the conflagration of the Great Tribulation, only to be redeemed by Jesus returning to set up His Kingdom. “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?” the dispensational barbarians ask.

Because the fact of the Great Tribulation is not all that the Bible says about culture. Since Adam, tending and keeping the earth has been the task of humanity, a task renewed and intensified in the Noahic mandates to include eating animals and executing criminals. We are all children of Adam through Noah, and therefore subject to these mandates. For so long as the Holy Spirit restrains the wickedness of the world, culture can only get so bad, and for so long as Messiah tarries, culture can only get so good. We will not descend into the Great Tribulation of our own accord until God permits it, and we cannot ascend to the Kingdom of our own accord in any case. However, between these two great boundary conditions, there is a lot of play, and between these two great boundary conditions, believers are to “do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [their] God.” This cannot but include submission to God’s first command to tend and keep the earth, which is the root from which all culture springs. Engaging all of life in a Christian fashion — in other words, righteous culture — is the task of God’s people, and always has been. Therefore, there is no discipleship without righteous cultural engagement.

Is that polishing the brass on a sinking ship? From one perspective, it is. The culture I improve today may descend into the abyss tomorrow, or in the next century. But does that make my work a waste of time?

It is not obvious that it does. God ordains means as well as ends, and it isn’t hard to see that a production such as Handel’s Messiah adorns the gospel with musical beauty. Surely the number of people who were first attracted to Christ through this and other artistic productions is not insignificant. A Christian political and socioeconomic philosophy, even when imperfectly implemented, similarly adorns God’s message to the world (see Deuteronomy 4:5-8, 1 Kings 10:4-9). Solomon’s implementation of the Law was obviously imperfect, and yet by God’s grace it still had the desired effect. Christian cultural development need not be perfect to be productive; we need not speak of abstract, hypothetically perfect cultural development untainted by sin, and unfortunately unobtainable in this world. There is great utility in the creations of flesh-and-blood, sinful saints working to the glory of God.

Second, and I think more important, is the idea of calling. We are the children of Adam through Noah, and their mandates are ours as well. Thus, to be human is to be called to culture.

To be sure, our cultural production will descend into the conflagration of the Tribulation, if it is not destroyed or forgotten long before. But Solomon, too, was well aware that the attempt to create enduring cultural institutions is grasping the wind, and that didn’t stop him from doing it. I doubt the Queen of Sheba considered it all a waste of time. Should we?

Moreover, we must remember that while various Christian cultural innovations may die out in history, the Christian creators of those innovations will live on in the resurrection, perhaps carrying their sanctified inventions with them. Certainly we will sing many songs in the Kingdom; who is to say that “Amazing Grace” or “Shout to the Lord” will not be among them? Failing all this, if we cannot quite make out what eternal value our cultural production might have, we need only reflect, as our Calvinist brethren do, on the fact that nothing done to the glory of God is ever wasted.

We are called to culture. We may not be able to explain God’s plan for our cultural productions as well as we would like, but we may nonetheless exult in fulfilling our calling to the best of our ability. Though in our fallenness we may not understand yet, and in our finitude we may never fully grasp our place in God’s plan, in our obedience we do better than we know.

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2 Responses to Calvinist Evangelism and Dispensational Culture

  1. raymet says:

    You may enjoy reading Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics, by Dr. Mal Couch.
    Dr. Couch is a moderate Calvinist and a Dispensationalist. He has a whole chapter on the early Dispensationalists, all of whom were essentially Calvinistic in their Theology, yet Dispensational.
    It’s book worth studying in detail.
    Sincerely,
    Ray Metcalfe

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Ray,
    Thanks for the heads-up. I read the book some time ago, but haven’t revisited it lately.

    I didn’t mean to posit some sort of opposition between dispensationalism and Calvinism. As you say, many are both, particularly among the early dispensationalists. I used the points of comparison that I did because the conservative Christians who criticize dispensationalists on the grounds of cultural poverty tend to be covenant postmillennialists, and most of those are Calvinists as well.

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