The undergraduate evangelism course I instruct is as good as any at the art of wandering down the rabbit trails of theological reflection.
Precisely just how one thinks the depths of evangelism can be mined in one term, frankly, escapes me. Despite a torrent of potential content, a common theme has arisen concerning one’s relationship to their family. The consensus, generally speaking, has been that one of the hardest—if not the hardest—place to witness to Jesus is within one’s own genetic pool.
Why? It would seem part of the struggle arises from our families intimate knowledge of our duplicities and hypocrisies. Better than any, they know the dirt, seeing through our thin veneers of shallow piety. Conversely, the space non-family relationships create forges a safe distance in the event of disagreement. When one disagrees with family, getting away isn’t as easy. Thanksgiving dinner still lurks on the calendar.
This can easily lead to a sense of great frustration. Tackling this, I’ve been tempted to reconcile that palpable emotional disturbance with God’s goodness that can redeem people despite our frailed human efforts. I admitted: God loves our own families more than we do. And that is comforting.
The class, almost instantly, sighs a breath of relief suggesting they felt liberated from some daunting responsibility. I immediately sensed within that sigh a danger, however—the danger of assuming that God’s sovereign love somehow lets us off the evangelism hook. For certainly God does love our families more than we do.
Any fail to witness that is rested upon a theology of God’s sovereignty is failing to grasp the relationship between the two.
God is all-powerful.
But, we’re still invited to act and speak and preach.
How can that be possible?
Sovereignty and irresponsibility
The relationship between God’s sovereignty and human action isn’t anything new. But it isn’t fleshed out either in many of our minds. For example, if one assumes that God sovereignly controls everything over creation, why do we pray? If God wills everything into existence, why should we feed the poor? If the earth is going to burn, why should I care for it? Clearly, the often-awkward tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is extremely vital to be understood (For instance, see John Goldingay, Model’s of Biblical Interpretation, 30.)
If God is sovereign, why must we do anything at all?
Spurred on by the sigh in my class, I would like to consider the intersection between God’s sovereignty and evangelism. We are immediately presented with a problem: what is one to make of Paul’s election theology where a follower of Jesus is “chosen…in conformity with the purpose of his will”? (Eph. 1:11) Does God’s sovereign election free us from the task of evangelism? Can we sigh a sigh of relief?
Many have dealt with this very intersection at great length. For example, J.I. Packer’s iconic Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (2012) sought to illuminate the intersection in the context of the Reformed tradition. Packer admits that wrongly interpreting Paul (and other texts) very well leads to a dead end of inaction, silence, or human irresponsibility. I agree. Taking a closer look, we find that while Paul reveals a strong election theology (however one wants to interpret it), he is similarly quick to strongly admonishes Christians to witness to Jesus—“How can they hear without having someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)
In the seeming same breath, Paul simultaneously preaches God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in the evangelism of the world.
Packer describes this “antinomy” between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility—“God’s sovereignty and human responsibility,” reflects Packer, “are taught to us side by side in the same Bible” (Packer, 27.) Far from removing human responsibility in the sharing of the good news, God’s sovereignty becomes the theology that gives it power—or, to borrow Packer, “sustain[s] it” (Packer, 14.) In this context, the responsibility to share the message is upon us; the miracle of salvation, however, is God’s alone.
Witness as calling
I appreciate the tension Packer presents. I recognize that the minute the world’s salvation is dependent upon me, I’m prone to manipulating others. Yet, if I play no role, I’m prone to capitulate, leading to a life of inaction. With all of this, I would not consider myself “Reformed” in the same way Packer would.
I believe God is sovereign, however, I simultaneously hold that humans are sovereign in their own unique way, created to make choices and volitions alongside the living God. We are “God’s co-workers.” (1 Corinthians 3:19) To put it plainly, it is in our freedom to “do as we will” that God locates his true sovereignty—our freedom proves God sovereignty.
Furthermore, admit that seeing God as a controlling agent can—for the person who suffers—result in a depth of despair where God is the problem and the solution. If God controls, then our problems are his problems. And that doesn’t work. While I’m not a Calvinist, I admit to learning a refreshing truth from a brother in Packer—I act, I preach, I teach, I minister, I plant churches, I do what I do because I really believe in the power of God’s sovereign love in the context of human responsibility.
I am shaped in taking responsibility. In recent months, I’ve been reading the prophetic literature of Ezekiel. What I’ve found is a man called by God to preach to a people that God assures him will not repent. God sends Ezekiel knowing that they would not turn because they will need the Babylonian experience.
It is odd to consider that had God sent Ezekiel to another nation or the Gentiles, there’s a good chance more people would have repented and turned to Yahweh. But God would have none of it—God sends Ezekiel to a people who wouldn’t listen. To echo another Reformed brother, John Calvin himself, “When God wishes to move us to obey him, he does not always promise us a happy outcome to our labor; but sometimes he wants to test our obedience to the point that he will have us be content with his command, even if people ridicule our efforts.” Ezekiel would have eaten that up.
Because we are called to preach out of faithfulness, not out of the promise of fruitfulness.
Witness in itself is the calling. Sometimes we are called to witness over a long period of time—like we are with our families—with little to no results. A persistent longsuffering is the key.
Consider for a moment that Luke uses the word “persuade,” peitho, through the book of Acts some eight times. Persuasion is long-term evangelism—the kind needed for family ministry. Those Christians, like us, are called to persistent, long-term, witness.
In short, we can learn to lean on God’s miracles as we do our work.
Butt-kicking and William Carey
I once heard that Soren Kierkegaard utilized a creative image for an evangelist. He imagines in his book The Point of View for My Work as an Author: A Report to History that an evangelist is like a person hiding in the bushes, who, when someone walks by, runs up to kick them in the fanny. The person then quietly returns to their lowly bush to hide once again. The person then walks home wondering what is going on?, who kicked them?, are they not alone as they supposed they were?
Back to my class. I told them about Kierkegaard. I assured them that they should be cautious to take Kierkegaard too literally—there are strict anti-kicking laws in Portland. But, I further assured them to be cautious of the sigh’s that I’d just heard. “Breathe not,” I say, “a sigh of relief. Rather, breathe a sigh of responsibility. There’s great work to be done.”
God’s sovereignty is not our freedom from the task of evangelism. Rather, it is the reason for it.
I love the story of William Carey, the father of modern missions. In 1786, when Carey was beginning his mission, clergy from the Church of England sought to stifle his passion. They told Carey: “Sit down, young man. If God wanted to reach the heath, he could do it without you.”
Carey’s response in the form his aptly titled An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens wrote the most succinct response to the intersection between God’s sovereignty and evangelism.
Carey wrote, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
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