The True Stimulus to Missions

SBC Presidential nominee Bill Wagner recently wrote (emphasis mine),

“I feel that Calvinists have a place in the convention. I am concerned that this theology blunts the cutting edge of evangelism and missions. I have already heard from many who disagree with my last statement. I am waiting for proof that I am wrong. My heart beats for missions and if those who are Calvinists want to prove me wrong and will work to make our convention more evangelistic and missional, let them.”

Horatius Bonar (1808-1889), author of the popular work, Words to Winners of Souls, once wrote:

“What we need as the true stimulus to missionary action, and the true power of missionary endurance and bravery, is not the Arminian dogma of an aimless universal benevolence, but the Calvinistic recognition of an irresistible divine purpose. It is this that must form the basis of our working plans, out missionary directory, our incentive to missionary enterprise, our consolation under failure, and resistance, and reproach.

[ . . .] The Pauline, or, if you like the Calvinistic scheme, which connects all work for God with a definite purpose, and not with an indefinite wish, is that which alone can make us either comfortable or successful. Armed with this divine purpose, we feel ourselves invincible; nay, we are assured of being victorious. Having ascertained God’s purpose, and adopted it as the basis of our operations, we feel that we are in sympathy with God while working for Him. And it is this sympathy, this oneness of mind with God, that cheers us and sustains. He ever wins who sides with God. We shall thus be better fitted for enduring hardness, for ‘spending and being spent’; that is, for expending ourselves, till all that is in us is expended.”

– Horatius Bonar, in Christ Is All: The Piety of Horatius Bonar, edited by Michael A. G. Haykin and Darrin R. Booker (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2007), 75-77 (emphasis mine).

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
2 Timothy 2:10

And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”
Acts 18:9-10

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17 Comments on “The True Stimulus to Missions”

  1. Joshua Lim Says:


    I don’t understand how anyone can hold to the doctrine of total depravity and think that Calvinism is an impediment to missions and evangelism. As one who is regularly involved in evangelizing on my campus I must say that the only thing that keeps me going is the fact that it is God (not these stubborn people) who will save. I am often discouraged by the fact that people are so hardened to the gospel. When my eyes turn from God’s sovereign, regenerating grace to the sinner’s “free-will” all hope is lost, but when I recall that it is not of him who will nor him who runs, but God who has mercy, I am able to share with boldness and hope.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Phil Awtry Says:

    I am so tired of hearing this view of Calvinist theology trotted out, that those who hold to election are unconcerned with evangelism. A right understanding of the true doctrines of grace in my experience has just the opposite effect. Knowing that God has His chosen scattered among the nations, and knowing that the power of the Gospel unto their salvation is not in me or my persuasive presentation or flawless logic or emotional appeal, but rather in God’s irresistible grace, I am therefore free and motivated to freely proclaim the truth with no burden on myelf other than to do so and let Him use it as He wil. As one of my friends put it, “it’s like shooting fish in a barrel!” And God, not I, is glorified.

  3. phil simpson Says:


    Great post! I loved the quote, and the two verses at the end are completely relevant and clear in shedding light on this whole discusssion. People like Bill Wagner need to approach this topic without bringing the pre-conceived idea that “Calvinists don’t evangelize, and I’ll believe that until you prove me wrong”. There is no support for such a statement. It is also historically inaccurate, as we look at the great evangelism performed under men like Calvin, Whitefield, Edwards, Spurgeon, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Lloyd-Jones, Sproul, etc.

    I don’t deny that there are Calvinists who are cold in their evangelism. However, as the historical examples above prove, it is not inherent within the system. There are also Arminians who are cold in their evangelism. If Wagner is looking at numbers, there is actually no way to guage how many converts under Arminians are truly converted, and how many simply responded to high-pressure sales tactics.

    Personally, I was always a reluctant evangelist when I was an Arminian. The idea that I had to press someone for a decision, and that if they didn’t believe it was likely because I didn’t pray enough, or wasn’t ernest enough, or didn’t use the right arguments, often left me paralyzed with fear. By contrast, once I came to understand that “it is God who causes growth”, I was greatly relieved, and began to share more freely and naturally, recognizing when the Spirit seemed to be at work, and entrusting the results of my weak words to His sovereign power.

    I am personally thankful for Arminians who share the gospel with zeal for Christ and love for the lost. Bless God for them! I pray they are likewise thankful for us. We are their brothers.


  4. It’s interesting to me that the same ones who say the doctrines of grace stunt evangelism don’t have a hard time thanking God for their food, yet work to buy it.

  5. Jerry Says:

    When I read comments like those of Wagner I wonder how someone can get through seminary without learning a little bit about the history of missions.

  6. Thomas Clay Says:

    It’s like saying “I know that having cooties is bad; I will believe so until proven otherwise”. When I was a kid (back in the 70’s), that was a popular way to insult a fellow first-grader “Johnny’s got cooties!” We didn’t even know what in the heck cooties where–but we knew we didn’t want to have them! I think “Calvinist” is much the same amongst the rank and file Baptist. They don’t really know what a Calvinist is, but they know they don’t want to be one.

  7. ChrisB Says:

    I do not dispute that Calvinism teaches the importance of missions. The question becomes, how well does it work in practice?

    Were/are there great Calvinist missionaries? Yes. On the whole, though, which of these views is more likely to stimulate evangelism:

    1. God has elected certain people to believe, and if you go on missions, you might get to be the one who tells them the gospel.

    2. There are billions of people out there who will go to hell unless you can convince them to give themselves to Christ.

    Whatever my personal beliefs may be, I still don’t think the first is going to motive many people. I don’t think the second is “aimless universal benevolence;” it’s far more likely to be motivating even if it’s not theologically accurate.

  8. johnMark Says:

    Okay, if Dr. Galyon’s interview does not prove Wagner’s concerns wrong then I don’t know what he is looking for.

    It’s funny, his statement is one of “concern” and not a direct assertion so what is he really saying? And since when does someone (Wagner in this case) get to just make charges where he assumes his position putting his brethren on the offense? Sounds like a poor version of presuppositional, reformed apologetics. 🙂


    Is #1 true and biblical? Is this the ‘only’ reason the Calvinist gives for missions and evangelism? Can you show me that a majority of reformed confessions and/or positions claim a position like the statement you’ve made in #1?

    For #2, does Scripture teach that ‘we’ convince people into salvation? Do even most non-Calvinists believe that it is really themselves that convince folks? Or do we all stand on the belief that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation?

    As long as we continue to build charactures of each others’ positions we won’t really make much headway.


  9. ChrisB Says:


    If #1 is inaccurate, feel free to say how, but I think it’s a reasonable (if a bit smarmy) summation of Calvinists teachings.

    #2 may not be entirely biblical (I said as much above), but it does represent the view of many evangelicals in the pews, and even beyond, on evangelism and missions pretty well.

    The question at hand is, can Calvinism reasonably cause a decrease in concern for missions. I think the answer, whether it should be or not, is that in practice it can — the question is which more commonly happens.

  10. Jordan Rouden Says:

    ChristB, I point you to the mission statement of HeartCry Missionary Society for a much more accurate example of the “calvanist” view of missions. To save you time, I’ll also cut and paste it:

    The chief end of all mission work is the Glory of God.
    Our greatest concern is that His Name be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun (Malachi 1:11), and that the Lamb who was slain might receive the full reward for His sufferings (Revelation 7:9-10). We find our great purpose and motivation not in man or his needs, but in God, His commitment to His own glory, and our God-given desire to see Him worshipped in every nation, tribe, people, and language. We find our great confidence not in the Church’s ability to fulfill the Great Commission, but in God’s unlimited and unhindered power to accomplish all He has decreed.

    The Christian who is truly passionate about the glory of God and confident in His sovereignty will not be unmoved by the billions of people in the world who have yet to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we are truly Christlike, the lost multitude of humanity will move us to compassion (Matthew 9:36), even to great sorrow and unceasing grief (Romans 9:2). The sincerity of our Christian confession should be questioned if we are not willing to do all within our means to make Christ known among the nations and to endure all things for the sake of God’s elect (II Timothy 2:10).

    As Christians, we are called, commissioned, and commanded to lay down our lives so that the Gospel might be preached to every creature under heaven. Second only to loving God, this is to be our magnificent obsession. There is no nobler task for which we may give our lives than promoting the glory of God in the redemption of men through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If the Christian is truly obedient to the Great Commission, he will either give his life to go down into the well or to hold the rope for those who go down. Either way, the same radical commitment is required.

    While we recognize that the needs of mankind are many and his sufferings are diverse, we believe that they all spring from a common origin – the radical depravity of his heart, his enmity toward God, and his rejection of truth. Therefore, we believe that the greatest benefit to mankind can be accomplished through the preaching of the Gospel and the establishment of local churches that proclaim the full counsel of God’s Word and minister according to its commands, precepts, and wisdom. Such a work cannot be accomplished through the arm of the flesh, but only through the supernatural providence of God and the means which He has ordained: biblical preaching, intercessory prayer, sacrificial service, unconditional love, and true Christlikeness.

    Please take that into consideration before you make straw-man statements like that about calvanism and evangelism.

  11. phil simpson Says:

    Chris B.,

    Thanks for being willing to come under fire to interact in this debate! We appreciate you, brother.

    Regarding your #2 view of missions motivation (i.e., that “there are billions of people out there who will go to hell unless you can convince them to give themselves to Christ”), please allow me to clarify some things.

    First, I believe that, if you change your statement slightly to say, “”there are billions of people out there who will go to hell unless they believe, and they will never believe unless they hear the gospel, and they will never hear the gospel unless someone is sent to preach to them”, then we both agree. This is Romans 10:14-15; I believe it, and I am a Calvinist.

    I think that your original statement can be taken to mean that a) we are capable of persuading all of the billions to believe, and b) if the billions do not believe, then it is our fault for not convincing them. Remember, however, that even the Lord Jesus had no success in Nazareth. And Paul and Barnabas could not convince the Jews in Antioch (Acts 13). Nearly everywhere the disciples went, some believed, some did not believe, and some wanted to learn more about the gospel (Acts 17:32). Was the reason they were unsuccessful because they weren’t persuasive enough, or motivated enough?

    I also believe that we are to do the hard work of persuading the unbeliever. “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor 5:11). The fact that God has appointed some to eternal life (Acts 13:48) does not negate the need for ernestness, pleading, and persuasion in evangelism. God only saves people by working through means, and His appointed means is found in the Great Commission in Mt 28:18-20.

    Chris, thanks for your passion for missions and evangelism. I think the views you express reflect common misconceptions about evangelism and missions.


  12. Joshua Lim Says:

    Christ B,

    As our doctrine of Calvinism comes from a thorough exegesis of Scripture, so does our Evangelism. We evangelize because God commands it and as Phil said above, how will they believe unless hear the gospel? God is sovereign, yes, and He appoints means by which He saves sinners. No Calvinist missionary will say that they are going on missions to pick out the elect before even preaching the gospel to them. Rather the general call of the gospel goes forth, and those who respond by faith are the elect. The idea of an evangelist’s “winning” the elect or even knowing who they are prior to them hearing and believing the gospel is foreign to historic and Biblical Calvinism.

    As far as the Calvinist view of stimulating missions:
    God by His grace and for His own glory has sovereignly chosen to save, by means of the gospel of Christ, sinners, who otherwise would neither love nor seek Him. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!

  13. Joshua,

    Yesterday, I wrote these articles and have scheduled them for posting. The third in this little series today speaks directly to what you have stated in the first comment. It’s an experpt from Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. I think you will resonate with what he has said. 🙂

  14. Phil,

    You made some excellent points brother. The fact is that both Calvinists and Arminians are not as evangelistic as we ought to be. However, for some reason, Calvinists seem to be the ones who get all the blame for being anti-Great Commission. For instance, are we to say that the 10,000+ churches in the SBC that did not baptize one person is the fault of less than 10% of the denomination who call themselves Calvinists? But alas, having someone else to blame other than ourselves has been the way to go.

    You said,

    Personally, I was always a reluctant evangelist when I was an Arminian. The idea that I had to press someone for a decision, and that if they didn’t believe it was likely because I didn’t pray enough, or wasn’t ernest enough, or didn’t use the right arguments, often left me paralyzed with fear. By contrast, once I came to understand that “it is God who causes growth”, I was greatly relieved, and began to share more freely and naturally, recognizing when the Spirit seemed to be at work, and entrusting the results of my weak words to His sovereign power.

    I could not agree with you more. The fact is that, regardless if you are a Calvinist or not, we all pray like Calvinists. If we ask God to open their hearts, to change their lives, to save them from their sin, we are praying the doctrines of grace. Otherwise, we would only plead with the will of man, making God their beggar, and submitting the ultimate outcome of their salvation up to their choice. We cannot pray to God because God cannot overcome the power of their free will. Yes, God loves, but his love is not an electing love but a general love to all persons. God is sovereign over all things outside salvation, but when it comes to people being saved, God has chosen to resign his sovereignty to respect the self-determination of man. Is that how we pray? Is that what the Bible teaches? Surely not.

  15. ChrisB,

    Regarding your two points:

    1. God has elected certain people to believe, and if you go on missions, you might get to be the one who tells them the gospel.

    We go on missions with the confidence that our good shepherd has sheep “not of this fold” of whom will “hear his voice” and follow him. Do we know who those sheep (elect) are? Of course not. But we do have the confidence that the God who has unconditionally chosen for himself people for salvation will use the means of prayer, preaching, and even suffering as instruments (of secondary causality) to bring them home. Why else would Paul say that “I do all things for the sake of the elect . . .” in 2 Tim. 2:10? What is included in “all things”? Beatings, stonings, shipwreck, wild beasts at Ephesus, imprisonment, nakedness, abandonment, facing death daily, etc.? Why does he go in town after town, knowing that, by the Holy Spirit, that persecution and imprisonment await him? He does this because he knows that Jesus “has many in each city who are His people.” The Great Commission is the greatest enterprise with a guarantee and certainty to it. The promise is sure because God is the author and perfector of our salvation, he is the one who “sends out his laborers into his harvest field,” and it is he who opens up the hearts of people like Lydia to receive the things said by preachers like Paul.

    When first responding to Wagner on this matter, I stated:

    “Wagner posits the idea that to hold to the biblical doctrine of predestination would somehow prevent someone from being missional. If that is the case, then why did that not work for the Apostle Paul or even Jesus for that matter? If, in the mind of God, predestination was contrary to His mission, then he certainly would do away with his eternal decrees and leave His redemptive purposes in the hands of men. But Scripture clearly does not follow this line of thinking or rationale. Rather, the mission of God is grounded in the doctrine of predestination. God’s plan throughout redemptive history–his mission to bring glory to his name–is evidenced in the sovereign election of Israel and the Church. Furthermore, predestination serves as a promissory means of encouragement and cause for perseverance, knowing that the ends that God has decreed will surely come about, and that by the full use of means through the preaching of the gospel and calling men to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.”

    There is much more to be said here, but I want to at least provide some commentary for starters.

    2. There are billions of people out there who will go to hell unless you can convince them to give themselves to Christ.

    In your second statement, you emphasize “you” and “them” [and “themselves”] without mentioning the work of God in salvation and conversion. I think that is the problem. If it was up to us, every single person on the face of the planet would go to hell, and God would be perfectly just in doing so. But the fact is that God has a redemptive mission which he has determined before time that includes you and me but is not up to you and me (entirely). God the Father has perfectly planned redemption; God the Son has perfectly accomplished redemption; and God the Holy Spirit has perfectly applied redemption. In fact, it is the Holy Spirit who is the great evangelist, and understanding his work in conversion is absolutely necessary in having a biblical understanding and stimulus for missions.

    As far as convincing them to give themselves to Christ, what is it, do you think, that causes them to do so? Just wanting to miss hell? Is that what the gospel is about? The free ticket to heaven? People who give themselves to Christ do so because they understand who Christ is and what he has done for them, and their hearts are riveted by that, their minds are transformed by that gospel, and their wills are made alive because of the regenerating work of the Spirit. But ultimately, it is because Jesus is altogether lovely, altogether glorious, and altogether worthy. Salvation is union with Christ, and giving oneself to Christ means obtaining all that Christ is for them as revealed in Scripture. I believe the Spirit and the Word are the efficient cause of bring this about, but of course this does not happen apart from our passionate, earnest efforts of communicating the gospel to the lost. Phil is right. We persuade men, knowing the fear of the Lord and knowing the fact that we are His ambassadors entrusted with the message of reconciation. Such a glorious message and weighty task should burden us, break our hearts, and give us a boldness to go to the neighbor and to the nations for the sake of His name.

  16. ChrisB,

    What if we believe both (with some modification)?

  17. Is it too late to beg Dr. Mohler to re-enter the race?

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