Is our confession a masterpiece to be admired or a manual to be acted on? An exhibit to be treasured or an example to be trodden? For practitioners, we come to the business end of the confession concerning conversion under gospel preaching. Nothing can be as important as knowing that we are saved in Christ. Likewise, for the evangelist, nothing can be as important as knowing that our hearers are truly converted.

 

Chapter 10 relieves unnecessary anxiety, promotes realistic expectations and encourages appropriate methods in trying to convert people.

 

1. Conversion doesn’t begin with gospel preaching but with God’s eternal plan. In the swaying middle of a rope bridge, it pays to remember its firm attachment to both ends. Knowing our salvation is secured in eternity past and eternity future relieves some of the ‘performance anxiety’ in the present. Why do others not respond? Unresponsive hearers are either not predestinated unto life, or it is not God’s appointed time, or they’re not hearing the Word. Thus, the Spirit is not effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ. God’s necessary work in the effectual call does not make us fatalists. Our precept and principle are to preach Christ to the world (1 Cor.10:33; 1 Cor.9:18-23; 2 Cor.2:16). Putting Scripture’s gospel message clearly in the sinner’s hearing is the only human variable in effectual calling. We can either do it or not. Our privilege and duty are to be the mouthpiece through which that effectual call results in eternal life. ‘By his Word’ the Spirit miraculously makes a fugitive criminal willingly turn himself in to the proper Authority for pardon and salvation.

God’s necessary working in the effectual call does not make us pessimists either. Our precept and principle are to freely offer prayers for all (Rom.10:1; 1 Tim.2:1), knowing that we can do nothing without Christ. How glorious to be God’s co-labourers in prayer and preaching, being swept up in His eternal purpose and work! What an honour to be led in triumphant procession by Christ our Victor, whose gospel is irresistible to elect sinners! As Dudley-Smith’s hymn puts it, ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his might! Powers and dominions lay their glory by; Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight.’ Rightly, the invincible saving grace of God draws forth praise.

 

2. How many times has a fellow-believer said, ‘Oh, so-and-so would make a wonderful Christian’? We must not suppose that some people have a predisposition to respond to God. The concept of seeker sensitivity is flawed. It is imagined that some people wish to fill the ‘God-shaped gap’ with God. Scripture explodes that idea on the runway: ‘no one understands; no one seeks for God’ (Rom.3:11).

Describing an unregenerate man as wholly uncooperative rather than wholly passive may be more accurate. Man is not ambivalent but hostile toward God.

Man doesn’t lift a finger to seek God. ‘The problem is not free will, but ill will,’ explains Paul Washer.  A miracle is required to quicken, renew and enable a sinner to embrace the gospel call. When a conversion occurs, the Holy Spirit, whose omnipotence raised Christ from physical death, raises a sinner from spiritual death.

Rightly, the miraculous saving grace of God draws forth praise.

 

3. The confession deals with the tender pastoral concern of those dying before making any visible profession of faith in Christ. Detached speculations at this point do little to comfort the grieving parent or relative of the mentally impaired. Differing from paedobaptist expressions of covenant theology, Baptists do not presume to know the elect, but we have reason to trust in the mercy of God. The 1689 framers did not intend to state that all infants were elect. Rather, ‘elect infants’ is a subset of infants. Salvation belongs to God. It is ‘not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God’ (Jn.1:13). Some would extend, ‘incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word’ to mean the untold millions who remain untold. It would be a dereliction of duty to ‘let go and let God’ in relation to unreached areas of the world. Our gospel marching orders are clear enough. Speculating on what may not be known at the expense of a known commission to disciple the world will not be rewarded favourably. God’s work beyond our understanding, here, is not to disconcert but to encourage. Though we have only a little account of Paul’s ministry in Arabia, Cilicia or Cyprus, we may well be surprised at the numbers in heaven because of his labours there. The point is, we do not know those whom the Lord will save. Elijah spectacularly low-balled the number of God’s elect in his day. He didn’t know about the 7,000 others. When our best efforts seem so weak and insignificant, it is so encouraging that the redemptive work of God extends far beyond our comprehension!

Rightly, the triumphant and pervasive saving grace of God draws forth praise.

 

4. The confession firmly closes the door to universalism and pluralism. While God’s common grace is at work in the pagan and irreligious world, understanding God from nature and ‘the righteousness that comes by law,’ of whatever religion, is insufficient to save. If the non-elect will not be saved when hearing God’s Word preached, how much less the non-elect who hear nothing! The Triune cooperation in redemption is inviolable. Those whom the Father has not elected, the Spirit will not draw because Christ has not died to atone for their sins. Nevertheless, the only way unbelievers around the world will be saved is by hearing the word of God. As Carl F. Henry remarked, ‘The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time.’ When William Carey proposed the evangelisation of India, he was scolded by a Hyper-Calvinist, ‘Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he'll do it without consulting you or me.’ Carey was an enthusiast. He understood that special grace is needed for salvation by faith in Christ alone. Such special grace comes through preaching Christ crucified to unbelievers, religious and irreligious alike. It’s not that God cannot save inexplicably through extraordinary means. He ‘worketh when, and where, and how he pleases’. But that must be left to His eternal counsels. It is not profitable to speculate on the imponderable when there is work to be done. For our part, Christ’s labour, not ours, will save. But God will not save unless Christ’s saving labour is preached. Though commanded, it is not our obedient gospel preaching which saves. It is God’s effectual call through our obedient gospel preaching, which saves.

Rightly, the mercy of the saving grace of God, at work on us and through us, draws forth praise.

 

If our confession’s doctrine leads only to knowledge without action, you’re doing it wrong. E.B. White opined that, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.” Killing evangelism with Calvinism is no joke. In studying these aspects of evangelism and conversion – take care that in better understanding our discipleship mission that it remains alive and well among us.

Ali McLachlan

Thursday 1st July 2021