January 16, 2021

The Choice, The Treasure: Calvinism and the Language of Believing

calvininsignia.jpgWhen I first encountered Calvinism in a Southern Baptist Church, it was with several of my church members criticizing the use of the public invitation. Particularly, they objected strongly to my use of any appeal to “decide” or “choose” in any way.

[I generally avoid the use of the public invitation in the way I experienced it growing up. I have written three major essays on problems with the public invitation. Leave Your Seat; Leave Your Sin Parts 1, 2 and 3. Nonetheless, I do believe that if the Gospel is rightly proclaimed and manipulation and false assurance are avoided, a public invitation can be appropriate and even helpful. I remain convinced that Baptism is the profession/confession of faith scripture calls for, but I am not unalterably opposed to all invitations or instructions to seekers. I’ll be glad to discuss this more in the comments section as I have time.]

These good Calvinist friends looked at any use of the words “decide” and/or “choose” as dishonoring to the sovereignty of God and misrepresenting the depravity of human beings. We can’t “decide” or “choose,” they would say, and it was wrong of me to ever ask anyone to “make a decision” or to “choose” the gospel.

This troubled me greatly, to say the least, and I spent weeks in my Bible trying to get some peace on the matter. These were evangelistic and missions-minded Calvinists, at least as far as I knew, but they avoided and condemned the language of choice/decision like poison. When I came close to it, they confronted me with all the passages that humans are “dead” in sin, and can’t choose or decide. Asking such people to respond to an invitation or choose Jesus was simply offering false assurance to the unconverted.

I have continued to hear this kind of commentary from Calvinist friends and critics, and I have moved several times in my personal response and understanding. I continue to endorse the essays linked above. I believe the kinds of invitations that are common in Southern Baptist life run the gamut from horrendous to helpful, depending on the kind of preaching they follow and the ethics of the person giving the invitation. But I find myself having some pretty deep disagreement with this kind of reaction to any call to make a “decision for Christ.” Here are some of my reasons.

1) The full teaching of Calvinism on this subject includes the affirmation that, under the power of the Holy Spirit, human beings do respond in faith to the preaching of Christ. Calvinists differ as to whether this work of the Holy Spirit amounts to complete immediate regeneration or whether there is a work of “drawing” and “awakening” that may exist separately from or prior to complete regeneration and faith. (Yes, this raises the possibility that some sinners may respond to the work of the Holy Spirit, but not be regenerate at that time or in the future. This raises some serious questions that should be addressed elsewhere.)

If the Holy Spirit promises to draw, awaken or regenerate human beings, then the language of evangelism need not be narrowly restrictive. It must be plain that the command is to “believe on and trust in,” but there are a number of ways to direct sinners to place their faith in Christ, all honoring the intent of Biblical texts. I believe that if the Gospel is presented Biblically, it is not wrong to speak of “deciding to follow Jesus Christ” or “choosing Christ.” I believe those terms must be correctly contextualized, but they are usable.

2) In fact, in some cases, preaching a “choice” or a “decision” for Christ may be the most helpful and clearest way to present the gospel.

Take, for example, Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man in Mark 10. What is Jesus asking the young man to do? What is the passage asking the reader to do? Is it really distorting the passage to say we are being asked to make a choice or a decision to follow Christ?

This seems to be the case in a number of Jesus’ teaching, particularly in parables, where the audience is aware of the claims of Jesus, and the competing claims of sin or the world. For example, is Jesus the treasure? Is he the pearl of great price? We must make a decision, a choice, in order to encounter and respond to these texts personally.

I do not believe we can listen to the teaching of Jesus without being confronted with choices about the nature and presence of God, the nature of reality, the value of Jesus and the good news of the Gospel. The Gospel is an announcement, but to believe it is to choose and decide, as well as to believe and trust.

3) It becomes rather bizarrely one-sided to say we are empowered to believe, but to “decide” is an act of human will. Belief has always been a term that needed definition, especially in contemporary culture. So other terms, with proper definition and illustration, can be just as Biblically and essentially accurate.

There is no way to say that the reality of belief is labeled in some unseen way, so that “believing” is an acceptable term, but “choosing” and “deciding” are not. The work of the Spirit is described in the Bible, but it is not restricted to one English word or another. The reality of a spiritual experience is multi-faceted and can be offered and described in a number of ways as long as the Biblical context is maintained.

It is interesting that John Piper has often invented and promoted entirely new vocabulary and descriptives, and some of these terms are non-Biblical, but frequently used in evangelism. Take note of how Piper uses the terms “savor” and “treasure” to describe faith. Would it be unacceptable to say you should savor Jesus Christ? To treasure him? Would these terms be misleading?

4) I believe that hyper-Calvinism lurks around the edges of this discussion. I read hyper-Calvinistic reasoning frequently in the reformed blogosphere, though this would be frequently denied. This is the insistence that the parameters of evangelistic language are extremely narrow, and those who do not use an approved vocabulary or follow an accepted list of necessary points, then the gospel has been neglected and denied.

In fact, this is a dangerous denial of the process of communication that is essential to missions and translation work. The key is surrounding our language with Biblical context and content, not following an approved vocabulary. Those patrolling the outer regions of the blogosphere looking for offenders who aren’t following specific lists of allowed terms and language are, in my view, functional hyper-Calvinists.

In my preaching situation, I rarely give an invitation. (Since we aren’t a church, we don’t baptize.) I do invite students to choose Jesus as Lord. I tell that a decision to follow Jesus as Lord is my goal for them. I invite them to have conversations and ask questions. I describe faith Biblically, but I also use as many language pictures and illustrations as possible. As one called to announce the gospel, I believe the communication of the message of Jesus is a matter of keeping to the truth, not following a script.

Comments

  1. jmanning says

    I think A.W. Pink did some wonderful things for many Baptists…good books that made many reconsider their beliefs on the sovereignty and aseity of God. However, many people I know who have read Pink, spout the same kind of things you were just talking about. After all this talk of God being sovereign, and immutable, then they start acting like God can’t use this or that method. These anti-methods Calvinists do look sideways at anyone saved under any “strange” methods. I can’t quite say I’m as thankful for Pink’s influence in this area. (I haven’t really read much of him though)

    Baptists have ruined the idea of discipleship by making it “decisionship”. Instead of abiding under Jesus’ teachings, we are taught to decide this or that for God. It makes us buzz around from spiritual conquest to spiritual conquest like ants. If you aren’t deciding to do something for Jesus, you aren’t doing anything, etc.

    Europe had a similar problem early last century, where preachers and theologians emphasized “abandonment” to Christ. You had to abandone with reckless surrender certain things that would keep you from Christ. Problem was, a lot of people abandoned things that were good but not best, instead of sowing into them godly means and reaping from them what they had sown.

    I think any method that pushes the will besides the mind is not in line with biblical thinking. Look at various passages at how we are saved/renewed. The mind is important. Yet a pastor also has to know how to get his “heady” over-educated flock to move it from their minds to their feet (i.e. Paul with the Galatians). So it seems a mixture of invitations/”METHODS” for exhortation would be biblical.

  2. Pink was the major influence on these folks. Interesting.

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