For those who can remember as far back as the 1960’s and 70’s, there are two books that may well stand out in your memory. One is J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God and the other, R.B. Kuiper’s God-Centred Evangelism. Both provide a theology of evangelism – especially in terms of how it fits with a theology of divine sovereignty in election and predestination.

The timing of these publications was not without significance. On both sides of the Atlantic, Reformed theology was being ‘brought in from the cold’ and was being eagerly explored by a new generation of Bible students. But, as so often happens when people began to wrestle with these major doctrines, it raised major questions. Not least in terms of of what the church is meant to make of the Great Commission: it was in essence, ‘If God is sovereign, why evangelise?’

At one level this question (and others like it) is imponderable and beyond the reach of human logic to answer. But this does not make it a non-question. Rather, it simply means we must allow the book that generates the question in the first place to answer it within the limits of what God, its author, sees fit to reveal. In that sense it will satisfy some, though not all of our curiosity; while at the same time not allow us to stray into the realm of what John Calvin calls ‘impious curiosity’ which is off limits for all.

Arguably the greatest answer the Bible provides to this conundrum is found in John’s record of Jesus at work as the Master Evangelist. Although there are many places to which we could turn in all the Gospels to see Jesus proclaiming the evangel, it is worth looking at the detailed glimpse of what this entails in the aftermath of his Feeding the 5,000 in John 6.

At the most basic level we see Jesus proclaiming the gospel indiscriminately. Even though he, the Lord, clearly ‘knows those who are his’ (Jn 10.272Ti 2.19), he nevertheless calls all to follow him. He speaks to a crowd that is comprised of unbelievers as well as those who already believe (Jn 6.24-25) and he reasons with them. He does so by challenging them to see themselves for what they are (Jn 6.26-27). In particular he tells them to think again about their motives for ‘looking for’ him. Far from being struck by the significance of his miracle, they were more interested in its personal benefit in the form of a free lunch. He urges them to look beyond that to the kind of ‘food’ God really wants them to have: that which ‘endures to eternal life’.

He goes on to offer himself as the very essence of the gospel to these people, saying that he is ‘the bread of life’ (Jn 6.35-40). In a way that resonated with everything they had just witnessed in the miracle and heard in his words, he was making it clear their ‘hunger’ could only be satisfied by him himself and not just by something he could offer.

Even as he interacted with these people, it was obvious to Jesus that most of his audience did not get what he was saying. The fact that they instinctively reacted by linking his words with Moses and the manna in the wilderness said as much (Jn 6.30-33). But Jesus is not deterred either by their ignorance, or even their blatant unbelief. Instead he affirms his confidence in the gospel invitation and the God from whom it comes. He tells the crowd, ‘All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ (Jn 6.37). He sees no contradiction between the ‘all’ given by the Father and the ‘whoever’ he urges to respond to his message.

He understood the mysterious dynamic that powers this message from the lips of God. From the divine perspective it will only work in the lives of those God has chosen from before the beginning of time. But from a human perspective in the lives of these chosen ones it simply comes across as God’s ‘welcome voice’ calling them to him’.[1] Jesus knew that despite the seeming futility of his conversation with these people at a surface level, God was working through the only means by which his saving purpose could be fulfilled: the message of the gospel openly proclaimed (cf Ro 10.14). The same God who issues the invitation is the God who irresistibly draws those who hear it.

The Bible does not resolve the tension embedded in the logic of these statements, but that should not unduly trouble us. If Jesus was content to go about the seemingly futile and often frustrating business of telling the spiritually dead they needed to turn to him for life, then we should be content to likewise. It does not matter whether the respondees be few or many. Nor does it matter if their response be instantaneous or in the distant future. Our encouragement in the task is the same encouragement that kept Jesus on task. God’s word will not return empty (Isa 55.11). The gospel ‘is the power of God to salvation’ (Ro 1.16). And ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Ro 10.13). The unfailing dynamic of the gospel is the One from whom it comes and who himself is the gift it freely offers.

by Mark Johnston


[1]  From I hear your welcome voice by Lewis Hartsough (1828-1919)