How Calvinism Shapes Christian Ministry: Unconditional Election, Evangelism, and Expository Preaching

Jacob Tanner

white and brown wooden church under cloudy sky during daytime

“With great power comes great responsibility,” and the role of pastor-shepherd comes with a great deal of both power and responsibility. Therefore, a shepherd’s training and preparation ought to center around studying the Scriptures and learning doctrine. To both evangelize and preach expositionally, he must be grounded and rooted in the Word.

Think of it this way: We don’t let children play with matches, because they often use things inappropriately. A match can be a good tool to start a campfire, or a destructive weapon to burn down a city. Eldership in our churches is a lot like this. We don’t call upon novices in the faith to lead churches, because we know leadership used inappropriately can destroy a church. But eldership properly understood, used appropriately and wisely, glorifies God, builds up the saints, and aims to see sinners saved, especially through expository preaching.

And, for the shepherd, there may be no biblical and doctrinal truth more soul-stirring and courage-boosting than that of unconditional election. It grants him the courage to shepherd, evangelize, and preach.

The Sovereign Grace of Unconditional Election

Unconditional election is the second letter of Calvinism’s TULIP acronym and, typically, the one tenet of Calvinism upon which people get the most hung up. This is because the doctrine is usually misunderstood. People think it makes God out to be a monster. But, properly understood, the doctrine is a beautiful example of the inconceivable grace of God.

Unconditional election simply teaches that God has elected a particular number of sinners unto salvation. Theologians often explain this by stating that before the foundation of the world, within the Covenant of Redemption, God the Father chose a certain number of people to gift to the Son.

Far from being an imaginary doctrine invented by the crazed machinations of lunatics, Jesus himself taught election in John 6:37 when he said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” The Apostle Paul elaborated further upon this glorious doctrine of the faith in Ephesians 1:3-6:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

Chose us in him before the foundation of the worldPredestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus ChristAccording to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grac The Christian who understands this text knows they possess no cause for boasting in themselves. They were chosen and predestined by the will of God unto salvation, and all they can do now is praise him for his glorious grace.

When the Christian finally understands that election is not based off works done or foreseen, they learn, like the Calvinist hymn writer John Newton, to thank God for His “Amazing Grace.” The one in ministry must never lose sight of this sovereign and electing grace. It not only saved us but will continue to save other sinners. It will cover our own sins, failures, and shortcomings.

Election and Evangelism

You have probably heard this one before: “Calvinism stifles missions and kills evangelism.” Many have made this statement, but au contraire: Calvinism, and the doctrine of election, has done more to bolster the faith of the saints in evangelism and strengthen missions than just about any other doctrine. Some of the greatest soul-winners have been Calvinists. Past saints like Charles Spurgeon and William Carey, and modern saints like Steven Lawson and John MacArthur all fit the bill of being Calvinists.  

Calvinists have more of a reason than any other group of Christians to evangelize. After all, election insists that God is sovereign over all, has chosen a people to be saved, and is in the process of saving those people through the gospel proclamation of Christ’s atoning death, burial, and resurrection. Calvinism insists that, in his sovereignty, God will save his elect at exactly the time and place He has ordained. Not one soul will be missed; all whom he has chosen will be saved.

For the gospel preacher, this means that the evangelistic worth of a sermon, the value of an encounter, and the worth of a day are not found in the number of souls saved or successful conversions witnessed, but in faithfulness to the gospel itself. Were you faithful to proclaim Christ, crucified and risen? Were you faithful to the text of Scripture? Then, praise the Lord! You did your duty. Rest in the finished work of Christ and leave the results to God. He knows his own, and he knows when he has determined to save them.

This is both freeing and encouraging: Freeing because, through the doctrine of election, we know that it is not our duty to save sinners. We are called to faithfully proclaim the gospel and call sinners to faith and repentance, but the soul-saving is God’s job. It’s a burden not meant for our shoulders, but one that God easily carries and fulfills.

Election is encouraging because it reminds us that the gospel will be successful in every place and time God has ordained it to be successful. An abysmal sermon preached faithfully will see more success—if God has ordained it so—than the wonderfully preached sermon which was unfaithful to God and His Word. Knowing that the Father has promised elect sinners to the Son encourages us to faithfully and boldly go forth with the gospel, never knowing when sinners will be saved, but confidently trusting that, in God’s providence, the elect will come to salvation at the proper time.

Election and Expository Preaching

Sheep are often quite needy. They need a strong shepherd to tell them where to go. They need the reassuring presence of the shepherd to guide them. They need nothing less than the Word of God preached, verse-by-verse, by one who has shown themselves approved by their right handling of God’s Word (2 Tim 2:15).

A pastor’s responsibility to his sheep is to continually point them to Christ, who is their true Shepherd and the “author and finisher” of their faith (Heb 12:2). But, when sheep go through heartaches, battles with temptation and sin, grief, and hardship, what hope have we to offer? The Word of God.

Through the Word, we point the sheep to Christ. But verse-by-verse preaching is often unsatisfying to those who have been raised on a steady diet of social media soundbites and short, pithy statements. Expository preaching requires diligent study on behalf of the pastor and the careful attentiveness of the congregation.

Many expository pastors have encountered, in equal measure, the heartfelt thanks of some and the angry rejection of others. Once more, the doctrine of election is an encouragement in this matter. Those who have been elected unto salvation need the whole counsel of God’s Word in order to grow and mature in the faith (Acts 20:27). Those who are carnal will be unable to endure such preaching without complaining (1 Cor 3:2; Heb 5:12). But, through the declaration of God’s Word, even the unsaved may be regenerated according to the perfect providence of God (Rom 10:17).

Likewise, in expository preaching, the doctrine of election will eventually reveal itself within the text of Scripture. Election, like all else in God’s Word, must be preached. Though it may seem frightening to preach at first, the truth is that it has the power to offer a great deal of comfort to the afflicted saint. No other doctrine offers such great assurance that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8) precisely because the Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Election proves the immense power of our sovereign God who both chose us and the time and place of our salvation, bringing it all to pass according to his perfect will. If God took that much care to save us, then he will most assuredly bring us all the way home (Phil 1:6).

Though we walk through this vale of tears and enter the valley of the shadow of death itself, there is comfort in the Shepherd who elected us unto salvation (Ps 23). Though we battle trial and sorrow, our election is the evidence of the Father’s love for us, the Son’s gift to us, and the Spirit’s care of us. Ministers must be reminded of these glorious and grace-filled truths so that they can tend the sheep with these same truths.

Election’s Comfort to the Shepherd

When considering election and all the fruit borne through it, perhaps no other chapter in Scripture has afforded more comfort to the saints than Romans 8. Indeed, when one considers the sovereignty of the Creator—his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence—we cannot help but stand amazed in his presence. Who does not feel an overwhelming weight of glory when we “Behold our God” (Is 40:9-10)? Then, to consider that this all-powerful Creator of the cosmos elected me, knows me, cares for me, and provides for me. Glory of glories, the thought is almost too much to bear! Paul expresses what we should feel in Romans 8:31: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” Indeed, what more can be said? What more should be said? The God of the cosmos has elected us, calls us his own, and even the gates of hell will crumble at his breath.

The same God who elected and predestined us unto salvation and adoption is the same God who elected and predestined us unto sanctification and glorification. These things are certain. He has ordained everything, including the successes and failures of our ministries. Our leadership is dependent on His grace, and He is sufficient and adequate for every need. Election leads us to conclude that every morning must begin with prayer, and every night end with prayer to the God who holds the cosmos in his hands. Our dependence on him must be felt every moment of every day. And, in both his election of sinners unto salvation and in his perfect supply of our every need, we shall find the ability to shepherd and minister in a God-glorifying way.

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Jacob Tanner

Pastor Christ Keystone Church

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons and is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.