Chinese Church VoicesEvangelism

Evangelism, Reformed Theology, and Church Life, Part 2

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.


Last week we posted the first part of an article from ChurchChina about the impact of Reformed theology on evangelism in “Y" Church. Part one discussed the current situation of Y Church. The second part describes in more detail how the research findings reveal the impact of Reformed theology on Y Church’s evangelism. The third part will give recommendations for Y Church’s evangelism efforts. This is part two.

The Impact of Reformed Theology on the Church's Gospel Ministry–A Case Study of "Y" Church's Evangelism, continued

The Impact of Reformed Theology on Y Church's Evangelism

1. The effect of the doctrine of predestination on evangelism

(1) Half-baked understandings of Calvinist theology likely cause a loss in urgency in evangelism.

In Killing Calvinsim, Greg Dutcher shares about a time he urged his friend to share the gospel with his seriously ill mother. His friend replied, "Greg, I've never talked with her about the gospel. I know that this is a 'Calvinist violation,' but we both know that it doesn't matter. If she wasn't chosen, she wasn't chosen. Case closed."[1] On account of his understanding of the five points of Calvinism, his friend never shared the gospel with his dying mother. "Certainly it would have been one more piece of 'evidence' of the catastrophic effects of Reformed theology on evangelism."[2]

(2) Using the Calvinist doctrine of predestination as an excuse weakens evangelistic urgency.

Based on these examples, members of Reformed churches do not necessarily have a clear understanding of Calvinism. Many have a smattering of knowledge or place a particular emphasis on God's sovereignty while ignoring humanity's responsibility. This naturally leads to a loss in urgency in evangelism, even using "God doesn't need help" as an excuse to get rid of the responsibility and opportunity to share the gospel. Dutcher says, "My friend was not divulging a secret that the Reformed community had spent years trying to cover up."[3] Many people who misunderstand predestination say something like that. It's perhaps all too common in today's Reformed churches that people don't evangelize; they don't have passion to evangelize; and there is a loss in the sense of urgency to evangelize.

As we can see from the above response [see charts in part 1] regarding "sense of urgency in call to personally evangelize," only 5% of people have a sense of urgency to evangelize, 8.4% fairly urgent, and the remaining 86.6% of people have no sense of urgency.

(3) Will sarcastic comments from those who oppose predestination actually come true?

If this is the first time someone has heard of the five points of Calvinism or is already opposed to Calvinism, they will no doubt read the above reasons with a bit of sarcasm. Dutcher gives several examples of this.[4]

Well, then, what's the point of evangelism?

Why pray?

I guess we can just sit on our behinds and let the "elect" come to faith all by themselves.

Even the great John Wesley mocked the Calvinism of his dear friend Whitefield in one of his sermons: "One might say to our adversary, the devil, 'Thou fool, why dost thou roar about any longer? Thou canst only entice; but his unchangeable decrees, to leave thousands of souls in death, compels them to continue in sin, til they drop to everlasting burnings. Thou tempest; he forceth us to be damned; for we cannot resist his will. Thou fool, why goest thou about any longer, seeking whom thou mayest devour?"[5]

We of course have to object and say that this is only a misunderstanding of Reformed theology. But, as we said above, there is some underlying truth to this sarcasm.

2. A lack of understanding of God's sovereignty has become an obstacle to enthusiasm for evangelism.

J.I. Packer tells in his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God of an incident with William Carey in which a pastor said to Carey said, "Young man, sit down! When God pleases to convert the heathen, he'll do it without consulting you or me." He believed that "The idea of taking the initiative in going out to find men of all nations for Christ struck him as improper, and indeed, as presumptuous."

To this Packer wrote, "He learned to take the sovereignty of God perfectly seriously. His mistake was that he was not taking the church's evangelistic responsibility with equal seriousness. He was forgetting that God's way of saving men is to send out his servant to tell them the gospel, and that the church has been charged to go into all the world for that very purpose."[6] Far from inhibiting evangelism, faith in the sovereignty of God's government and grace is the only thing that can sustain it, for it is the only thing that can give us the resilience that we need if we are to evangelize boldly and persistently, and not be daunted by temporary setbacks. So, far from being weakened by this faith, therefore, evangelism will inevitably be weak and lack staying power without it.

Packer is correct and maintains our position on Reformed theology. But, it takes a long period of pastoring and learning to really understand the sovereignty of God. Doctrinally speaking, the gospel is systematic. From a biblical theological view, the gospel is thematic. The gospel is also a narrative. If someone can clearly and systematically expound the gospel, or if someone can preach the entire thematic narrative of the gospel, it means this person has received extensive theological training. The typical member of a Reformed church is unclear or uncertain in their understanding of Reformed theological doctrine regarding God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. The survey showed that among these church members who firmly believe in Reformed theology, about one-third are very clear in their understanding of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility while the others are relatively unclear. See the figures below:

In reality most church members lack knowledge about God's sovereignty and man's responsibility in Reformed theology. They not only lack a real impetus to share the gospel, but at the same time, according to the figures below, believers discover that they had evangelized wrongly in the past. As a result they do not know how to share the gospel. They do not even know how to open their mouths.

3. The "threshold" of Reformed evangelism

In regards to obstacles to evangelism, see the questionnaire results below: 

Of the people surveyed, 26.8% said they are "too shy to open their mouths" and 24.6% said they "can't explain [the gospel] well." The numbers show that, for a Reformed church, another contributing factor for Y Church’s weak evangelism is the high "threshold" for Reformed evangelism. Reformed theology places great emphasis on the understanding of God's sovereignty and on the gospel as God's own almighty work. Evangelizers are only instruments in God's hands. The outcome of our evangelism efforts entirely lies in God's hands. As Paul said, "I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase" (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Reformed theology is very concerned about whether the gospel itself is clearly understood and precisely explained. It rejects mistaken and misleading evangelism.

Reformed theologians are very serious about asking the questions "Share the gospel? What gospel? Is it the correct gospel?" Even J.I. Packer believes that anything apart from the true gospel is "toxic." But, this can lead to a high threshold for evangelism.

(1) Criticism against sharing a false gospel.

Reformed theologians detest the sharing of a false gospel:

Most of the so-called evangelism of our day is a grief to genuine Christians, for they feel that it lacks any scriptural warrant, that it is dishonoring unto God, and that it is filling the churches with empty professors.[7]

No matter how delicious toxic food tastes, it is a threat to the health of the body. In the same way, a defective gospel is in the end a threat to the spiritual health of the church. [8]

The biblical gospel of the atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus saves. Counterfeit gospels that leave out the bloody cross and neglect the empty tomb damn.[9] (Daniel Akin)

Mark Dever says that it's very easy for people to mistake a "green leaf" for a "red flower." In his book 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, he highlights the following points about mistaken evangelism:

One of the most common and dangerous mistakes is to confuse the results of evangelism with evangelism itself. This may be the most subtle of the misunderstandings. . . . Other people may mistake apologetics for evangelism. . . . Defending the virgin birth of Christ or the historicity of the Resurrection is very important, but it is not evangelism. . . . Some think of a personal testimony as evangelism. Certainly a testimony of what God has done in our lives may include the Good News, but it also may not include it. In telling other people how much Jesus means to you, you may not have told them the Gospel at all.[10]

What does Mark Dever believe true gospel proclamation is? He says,

The Gospel is the Good News of God's action, the Father electing, the Son dying, the Spirit drawing; and that conversion is only our response to God's giving us the grace-gifts of repentance and faith; and that evangelism is our simple, faithful, prayerful telling of this Good News—if you don't actually believe these things, then I'm concerned that you will actually damage the evangelistic mission of the church by making false converts, filling churches with people who don't really know Jesus. You will tell them stories in such a way that they will cry, their hearts will be tugged, and they will make a sincere decision, but they will not be confronted by the reality of their sins, by their need to repent, and by the Holy Ghost. Such a method will not give them new life. "[11]

The 1974 Lausanne Congress defined evangelism this way: "To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe."[12]

(2) Numerous definitions of the gospel cause great confusion for Christians

Several scholars have defined the gospel in a way that most Christians can't make sense of. So, it's understandable when 24.6% of respondents say that they "can't explain [the gospel] well."

[Editor's note; In the interest of brevity, several gospel definitions are omitted. See original article for definitions.]

Trevin Wax says this about the gospel: “There's the gospel story (grand narrative of Scripture). There is the gospel announcement and the gospel community.”[13] This summary of the gospel finds the core of its message in the biblical narrative of the gospel. But, the simple line ordinary church members profess, "Believe in Jesus to have eternal life. If you don't believe in Jesus, you go to hell" is a practical gospel profession, and it's actually more a presentation of the results of the gospel. The speaker on the podium more often talks about parts of the gospel narrative. Church members in the past would share in evangelism about the applications of the gospel. The two are actually not in contradiction. But speakers at Y Church constantly preach on doctrinal aspects of the gospel and the narrative details of the gospel saying, "This is the gospel."

After hearing this believers are led to believe that the gospel they often share is false. In the end, they think they don't share correctly. They can't share the gospel the way these preachers share (narratively) without being equipped with special theological training, so they just passively share the gospel, if they share it at all.

Pastor Hu believes that the norm at Y Church is to be highly critical from the pulpit of those who change aspects of the essential nature of the gospel in order to cater to people's evangelism strategies. Before coming in contact with Reformed theology, many people shared about their own experiences, testimonies, visions, etc. when evangelizing. After the pastoral care of Y Church, they started feeling regret over how they evangelized in the past. They felt they truly didn't share the gospel. Now, they have no way to grasp the pure gospel and know even less about how to share the gospel. And, they haven't been taught ways to evangelize. Their original enthusiasm for and methods to evangelize have been dashed. They also can't meet the above criteria for evangelism (the threshold), causing members to not dare to or to be unwilling to share the gospel.

4. Differences in understanding evangelism

Typically, the targets of evangelism are non-believers who have never been to church. So, it's natural to share with those outside of the church. But, J.I. Packer believes that as long as preaching [presents Christ] as the Bible does, it's preaching the gospel. So, delivering a message from the pulpit of the church will naturally spread the gospel.

In Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God Packer notes,

All proper sermons, therefore, will of necessity declare Christ in some fashion and so be more or less directly evangelistic. Some sermons, of course, will aim more narrowly or exclusively at converting sinners than do others. But you cannot present the Lord Jesus Christ as the Bible presents him, as God's answer to every problem in the sinner's relationship with himself, and not be in effect evangelistic all the time.[14]

Following on Packer's view, it's not difficult to explain why only 13.4% of Y Church members said they feel a sense of gospel urgency. Yet, the number of Y Church members did not lessen but actually substantially increased. In five years, the number of members increased from 30 to 300-400 people. This shows that it's not that they are not evangelizing, but that they primarily evangelize from the pulpit and seldom hold evangelism rallies (the last was held in 2011). Members have excuses for not evangelizing: some don't know how to share, so they don't. Some don't share because their past ways were not necessarily correct. Only a small number, some small group leaders and deacons who have received a little more training, still have a sense of urgency to share the gospel. But, 93.1% of the members praise the messages from the pulpit to be in accordance with biblical preaching and teaching. The ability and frequency of Y Church members' personal evangelism is relatively weak. But, their gospel preaching is relatively strong. In the end, the number of people at the church won't decrease and growth will be normal.

5. Summary: The influence of Reformed theology on Y Church's evangelism

Based on the information from the survey, Reformed theology has had an impact on Y Church's evangelism. Whether it is because the doctrine of election has increased the zeal for evangelism among a small number of people, or because of the high "threshold" and fear of members to evangelize, both are reasons that have greatly impacted Y Church. Just looking at the data, ordinary members have weakened in evangelism because the "threshold" is too high. But, because of the systematic nature of the preachers and the pastor's doctrine, there is more consistency in narrative themes that has increased firm belief in Reformed theology and strong gospel preaching. These two factors (one a weakness and one a strength) have still resulted in weak church growth.

Author: Qiu Zhi, 2017-01-26

Original article: 改革宗神学对教会福音事工的影响 ——以Y教会为例谈传福音   (教会- ChurchChina)

Image credit: Chinese Bible by Wesley Fryer via Flickr.

Notes

  1. ^ Greg Dutcher (葛瑞格·逹徹), Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside, 《谁杀了加尔文主义》, translated by Luo Hongming, (Taipei: Reformation Translation Fellowship Press (台北: 骆鸿铭译, 改革宗出版有限公司出版), 2015), 54.
  2. ^ Dutcher, 56. 
  3. ^ Dutcher, 57. 
  4. ^ Dutcher, 55. 
  5. ^ John Wesley, Free Grace: Readings in Historical Theology, ed. Robert F. Lay (Kregel, 2009), 327.
  6. ^ J.I. Packer (巴刻), Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God 《传福音与神的主权》, translated by Zhao Zhonghui (Taipei: Reformation Translation Fellowship (台北: 骆鸿铭译, 改革宗出版有限公司出版), 2014), 28-29. 
  7. ^ A.W. Pink, Present Day Evangelism," Zhao Zhonghui translation, 1.
  8. ^ Trevin Wax, Counterfeit Gospels, translated by Wang Weicheng (Chinese Tianen Press), 3.
  9. ^ Trevin Wax, 5.
  10. ^ Mark Dever (狄马可), 9 Marks of a Healthy Church《健康教会九标志》, translated by Tang Lingli (唐玲莉) (A Kernel of Wheat Ministries,美国麦种传道会), 179-180. 
  11. ^ Dever, 191.
  12. ^ John Stott, The Biblical Basis of Evangelism, 69.
  13. ^ Trevin Wax (泰文·威克斯), Counterfeit Gospels《真假福音》, translated by Wang Weicheng (Chinese Tianen Press), 17-18. 
  14. ^ Packer, 51. 

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