The nineteenth century’s revival of Reformation theology is known for stimulating renewed interest in the Lutheran Confessions (set forth in the 1580 Book of Concord), the Gospel witness of Martin Luther, and the historic liturgy of the Church. This confessional revival began in the German-speaking lands, but it also spread to Scandinavia as well, especially to my own ancestors, the Norwegians. From Europe, immigrants to North America brought this revival with them, founding churches like the Missouri Synod and the Norwegian Synod.
A lesser-known dimension of the revival is the missionary zeal for evangelism that came with it. Ease of global travel and the onset of new European colonization efforts, especially in Africa, enabled these believers to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ along with them to far-flung locations around the world. With a passion for the peoples of the world and the command of Jesus to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19), these Christians participated in a notable expansion of global evangelical mission––all in the interest of proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.
Evangelism in a Changing Landscape
Over a century later, the global landscape looks quite different than it did. Secularization in the western world reveals that the old architecture of Christendom is in serious disrepair. On the other hand, the Christian faith thrives outside Europe and North America, particularly in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Christians in the west, who face the challenge of declining church attendance and a broader culture increasingly indifferent to the word of God, are often filled with anxiety about missions. What happened to the enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel that once animated our churches? Where is all the energy that led our forebears to found colleges and seminaries, encourage young men to pursue ordained ministry, and send missionaries all over the world to preach salvation in Christ? How should we relate to our neighbors who seem either uninterested or threatened by the claims of Jesus Christ?
Such questions disclose a deeper concern about the real nature of evangelism and mission. It’s often tempting to view the revivals of the past and the spiritual vibrancy of bygone eras as a sort of Golden Age to which we must return. We might be inclined to blame ourselves and our flagging enthusiasm as the factor preventing us from doing so. Perhaps we’ve stopped believing the word hard enough, deeply enough, radically enough. But if we could just rekindle our excitement about the faith we hold, then people will come back, our churches will fill up, and we’ll be sending people out just like we used to. Institutional memory lingers longer than we might think, and it can be discouraging to recall how things used to be.
The problem with this tendency is that it puts the onus on us to make evangelism happen. It makes evangelism contingent on our own radical commitment, our own obedience, and our own exertion of effort. The Gospel really depends on us if this is true. But the Gospel itself––the word which we are commanded to share with one another and also with outsiders––authorizes no such tendency. The Gospel teaches us not to rely on our good works as the way of salvation, for by works no one will be justified and set right with God (Gal. 2:16). Only by faith in Jesus Christ, given and bestowed with God’s gracious word of promise will human beings be justified, wherever they may live in God’s creation, near or far.
The problem with this tendency is that it puts the onus on us to make evangelism happen.
The Comfort of Predestination?
At this juncture, it might seem strange to turn to the doctrine of divine election and predestination for comfort. Predestination is a frightening topic to bring up. It evokes speculations about God’s eternal decision to condemn some and choose others in a capricious and inscrutable fashion we can’t understand. Predestination is often used as some sort of encouragement to good works as the evidence of one’s election. But the proper evangelical view of election, drawn from the Scriptures by Luther’s Reformation, sets forth the doctrine of predestination as the highest comfort for the believer in Christ.
Election must always be tied relentlessly to God’s external and effective word. Setting forth predestination apart from the word of promise renders God a terrifying specter, not the forgiving and self-donating God who gives Himself to sinners at the cross of Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who uses the word about Christ to create faith in Him. Luther makes this abundantly clear in his treatment of predestination in The Bondage of the Will (1525). Some of Luther’s best students in the second generation of the Reformation also tie the word of promise to the doctrine of predestination with the Formula of Concord (1577). Predestination is all about the Holy Spirit using the word to create faith whenever and wherever He pleases (see also Augsburg Confession V 1–3).
Divine election is nothing other than God’s freedom and power to choose, and He has made His word the instrument by which He makes His choice about you. It is the word of the Gospel that is preached, which makes faith, for “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The apostle Paul teaches us to believe that the call of God’s word, which justifies sinners also means they have God’s predestination and election as well (Rom. 8:30).
God’s predestination is comforting for Christians anxious about evangelism because it means that our enthusiasm isn’t what saves people. Zeal is not what brings about conversion; it is the Holy Spirit using the instrument of God’s word to make faith in Christ. Predestination means that the focus in evangelism isn’t on us and our emotional energy for sharing the Gospel. Predestination trains our focus on God, who uses even the broken and the tired to preach the good news. Knowing that God will create faith in all those whom He has chosen with His word is a great consolation. Election entails that all the ones the Father has given to Christ cannot be snatched away (John 10:29), not even by our tired lack of enthusiasm for the task of evangelism.
Divine election is nothing other than God’s freedom and power to choose, and He has made His word the instrument by which He makes His choice about you.
At the heart of the question of evangelism is also a very personal question: how do I know that I am saved? Is my passion for the faith enough to please God? The truth is that the Gospel forgives all of our sins, even the ones we desperately wish to take responsibility for, including our apathy and fatigue for sharing our faith in Christ.
A final concluding example: Paul himself wrestled with precisely this matter regarding his own people, the Jews. The mystery of Jewish unbelief is one that has plagued the Church ever since (and has resulted in unfortunate instances of anti-Semitism as well). But at the heart of Paul’s question in Romans 9–11 is one of evangelism, and the power of God’s word to create faith even in the hearts of those who are obstinate and disinclined toward Jesus. But Paul refuses to manufacture an elaborate or speculative answer to the problem of Israel’s unbelief in her own messiah. Nor does Paul try to come up with an escape hatch by which the Jews might finally be saved by alternative means like their obedience to the Torah. That would only undermine his whole contention that justification is by faith alone without works of the Law.
Instead, Paul chooses to lament and place his trust in the mercy of the almighty and electing God. Paul laments because of his unfortunate separation from his own flesh and blood, the Israelites. Lament is an entirely appropriate posture for those who seek after God’s faithfulness to the promise. Paul laments but preaches the mercy of God for the disobedient and faithless even more forcefully. Not even they can nullify God’s relentless mercy (Rom. 11:32). Such reliance on God’s mercy doesn’t necessarily give us all the answers to the question of unbelief. With Paul, we cannot plumb the depths of God’s majesty, but only “fear and adore” (Luther): “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).
With Paul, we too rely on the promise and comfort of God’s election and mercy. We also may lament the problem of unbelief, and even our own evangelistic apathy. But the Gospel is stronger than unbelief and even our flagging energy for mission. Christ will draw to Himself all those given to Him by the Father––wherever and whoever they may be. We may rest in this promise, and leave the burden for our Lord to carry. He will do exactly as He has said about you and all those He has chosen.