We used to hate firemen on our estate when I was a kid. As soon as we heard the sounds of their alarms blaring in the distance, we knew at once that our fun was almost at an end.
You see, we used to light these massive ‘bonnies’ (bonfires) every year from wood and old bits of furniture gathered from around our area. We would spend days collecting discarded sofas, chairs, and old wooden sideboards. If we didn’t feel our collection was big enough, we would tear up garden fences and pile it all up in a field close to my house. We would chuck cars and bikes and all sorts of junk on there. Sometimes our ‘bonnie’ would be several metres high.
We all prayed that it wouldn’t rain and that the police wouldn’t discover it until we’d got it lit. We’d worked out, after it rained hard one year, that the best way to get it going was to conceal small barrels of gas in the middle of the structure, add a little petrol, stand back and watch it go ‘boom’. So, the sirens were the sound that our fun was at an end and hundreds of gallons of water were just about to, quite literally, extinguish our efforts and put an end to all our hard work. That’s why firemen were always the enemy of fun when I was growing up.
Sadly, that's similar to how many Christians view the relationship between the doctrine of election and evangelism. If we think of evangelism as fuel for the Christian church—the thing that drives its growth and keeps love for God burning—then many tend to think doctrine is the fireman rushing to the scene to pour cold water all over those flames until the last, smouldering ember is extinguished.
For many Christians, inviting doctrine into a conversation about evangelism is like asking a fireman to your bonnie. He will definitely put a dampener on the occasion! If you really want to depress a room full of evangelists, just try bringing up the doctrine of election.
John Piper defines the doctrine like this:
“Unconditional election is God’s free choice before creation, not based on foreseen faith, to which traitors he will grant faith and repentance, pardoning them, and adopting them into his everlasting family of joy.”
Simply put: God has elected and is calling a people of his own from every place on earth—rich and poor—to be saved through Jesus Christ, and He will keep them safe forever in His family. My contention is that, far from killing evangelism, this doctrine is not only the fuel that lights the fire of evangelism but keeps it burning indefinitely.
Take 15-year-old Paulo as an example. When I first met him, he was barely conscious—lying in a shop doorway covered in sores and lice. He’d been shot a couple of times and was completely wasted on glue. I cleaned him up, fed him, and shared the gospel with him. I would do the same thing countless times over the next 12 months. Sometimes, in his more sober moments, we would have a half decent spiritual conversation. When we met up a couple of times a week, I would take him for a sandwich and a drink and we would share a joke and laugh together. For a few hours, he’d forget his miserable life and I would talk to him about the possibility of a better future under King Jesus (praying that the Holy Spirit would break through the pain and fog in his mind and lead him to salvation as I taught him from the Bible).
I had to take my opportunities when they came because, often, he was so stoned he was barely coherent. One day I turned up at our usual spot and he wasn’t there. I would never see him again. He had been stabbed to death in the night and his body discarded in a rubbish dump across town. I went home and wept for my young friend.
A Friend in Dark Times
This scene has been played out many times in my life. Children died all the time in Brazil. I would hear of friends back home who had OD’d or killed themselves. Life was far too short. The doctrine of election was my friend in those dark days for a number of reasons. It motivated me to evangelise and persevere, particularly in the hard places. Far from killing my evangelistic desire, the doctrine of election invigorated it.
I knew that the only way the street gangs of Brazil were going to be evangelised was through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus. It was a great comfort to know that the Holy Spirit would do His job by revealing the truth and drawing lost sinners into a relationship with God the Father, and he would keep them safe forever. That beautiful, Trinitarian-soaked truth was all the fuel I needed to stoke the fires of evangelistic preaching. My sole job was to keep on proclaiming the truth in the knowledge that God would do the rest according to His wonderful will.
The Apostle Paul, quoting Isaiah, reminded the church at Rome:
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”(Rom. 10:14–15)
The doctrine of election was the solid ground upon which my feet could bring good news to the street children of Brazil (and subsequently, the schemes of Scotland). There was nobody else queuing up to do the job. They were vermin in the eyes of the public. Often, passers-by would shout abuse at me for feeding the ‘ratos’ (rats).
But I had a gospel to preach. I had good news to proclaim, and I worshipped a God who was calling and electing a chosen people, including street children, to salvation. I could mourn the dead, and I did, but I could preach to the living with my final breath. The doctrine not only motivated me to preach but it gave me the confidence to persevere in the face of all opposition.