by Dean H. Hough

THE WORK of an evangelist (2 Tim.4:5) is to proclaim the evangel by life and by word. The evangel that is proclaimed is that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim.1:15). In this we see the love of God, commended to us, in that while we are still sinners, Christ died for our sakes (Rom.5:8). To the apostle Paul was given this good news which he, as a faithful apostle and evangelist, gives over to us: that Christ died for our sins, and that He was entombed, and that He has been roused from among the dead (1 Cor.15:3,4).


This evangel speaks of God's achievement, not ours. "For in grace, through faith, are you saved, and this is not out of you; it is God's approach present, not of works, lest anyone should be boasting. For His achievement are we, being created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God makes ready beforehand, that we should be walking in them" (Eph.2:8-10). It is all of God and to His glory. "Now thanks be to God for His indescribable gratuity!" (2 Cor.9:15).

Not only is the evangel all of God, it is for all mankind. "For there is one God, and one Mediator of God and mankind, a Man Christ Jesus, Who is giving Himself a correspondent Ransom for all" (1 Tim.2:5,6). The evangelist announces that in the death, entombment and resurrection of Christ God achieves good for every sinner.


Did Christ Do
What He Came to Do?

It would be a great blessing to believers today if the full glory of the evangel was seen by all, appreciated and faithfully proclaimed. Yet on every hand, and even within each of our hearts, there are doubts and misunderstandings concerning the contents, the scope and the certainty of this message. It may be that for some it seems so good, so triumphant, so glorious that it cannot be received simply at face value. Its gratuity, its focus on God's achievement and our helplessness, all of this as well often leads to revisions and distortions of its gracious terms.

For instance, we may say that Christ Jesus came into the world to make it possible that sinners be saved. If by this we mean that what Christ has made possible may never become complete reality, we have dimmed the glory of the evangel in our minds.

Again we may say that He came into the world to save a limited number of sinners, whom God predetermined to save. But recognizing God's grace in choosing some beforehand must not become an excuse for denying that Christ died for all. Here the measure of God's love and righteousness as presented in the evangel is sadly discounted.

But also if we claim that all will be saved, but through different channels, some by believing the evangel, some by a sincere searching for God and diligent exercise in good works, some through the schooling of suffering and pain, we have distorted the evangel.

"Faithful is the saying and worthy of all welcome...that we rely on the living God, Who is the Saviour of all mankind, especially of believers. These things be charging and teaching" (1 Tim.4:9,10).


Will God Do
What He Wills to Do?

For centuries it has been the majority view among believers that some sinners will remain unsaved forever. Whether traced to mysterious counsels of God or to the stubborn willfulness of the sinner, this has cast a gloomy shadow on the evangel. Apparently it has not greatly troubled the hearts of a few who have held this position, but it has brought distress to many, and even despair.

At the end of his book, THE BONDAGE OF THE WILL,1 Martin Luther wrote, "You may be worried that it is hard to defend the mercy and equity of God in damning the undeserving, that is, ungodly persons, who, being born in ungodliness, can by no means avoid being ungodly, and staying so, and being damned, but are compelled by natural necessity to sin and perish..." On this point, however, Luther could not find any solution in Scripture: "By the light of grace, it is inexplicable how God can damn him who by his own strength can do nothing but sin and become guilty." All he could do was trust that "the light of glory...will one day reveal a God Whose justice is most righteous and evident."

Few will deny that Luther grasped with keen insight what he called "the light of grace." Yet from the human aspect it seems (to use Luther's term) "inexplicable" that he could not see what the light of grace says about the ultimate destiny of the unbeliever. To be sure, the mistranslations of certain scriptural terms and misleading teachings from his early training were hindrances to him. But somehow this great man of faith could not associate the message of the grace of God in Christ Jesus with the destiny of everyone.

God is Able
to Impart Faith

Nevertheless, Luther did believe that God's grace could be granted to all through faith, strictly viewing the matter in light of God's power. In a letter to Hans von Rechenberg,2 written perhaps in 1522, he took up this very question, "whether God can or will save people who die without faith." His answer was clear: "God cannot and will not save anyone without faith." But he added: "It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God's ability to do that? No one, however, can prove that he does do this...."

What a remarkable statement! We thank God for the insight He gave to Luther and the courage to share it. This great reformer and evangelist shows us that faith is not something that man can conjure up by the power of his free and independent will. It is graciously granted by God (cf Phil.1:29). Furthermore, Luther testifies that God is able to grant faith to everyone.

Consequently, the granting of faith is no problem to God, Who places us where He wills, Who arranges circumstances and operates all in accord with the counsel of His will (Eph.1:11). The children of Israel were all saved through the Sea (Ex.14:21-31). With the Egyptian forces behind them and the opened path before them they were saved quite willingly. God had no problem in granting faith to the stubborn calumniator, Saul of Tarsus. To all of us, looking back, has come the realization that our acceptance of the evangel was and is due entirely to the grace of God.

Who can doubt whether God can impart faith even to those who are not granted the grace of believing during their present lives?


He Will be
Merciful to All

But for Luther and many others, the question remains whether God will give everyone what He is able to give them. Let us accept this challenge and turn to the Word of God for evidence that God will do what He wills to do: To save all mankind and bring them into a realization of the truth (1 Tim.2:4).

Our Lord spoke of Israel's unbelief when He cried, "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! who art killing the prophets and pelting with stones those who have been dispatched to her! How many times do I want to assemble your children in the manner a hen is assembling her brood under her wings--and you will not!" (Matt. 23:37). Yet Psalm 110:3 tells us that the people of Zion shall be willing in the day of Yahweh's valor. When the Rescuer arrives out of Zion, all Israel shall be saved (Rom.11:26). Our Lord Himself spoke of this, not in terms of forcing but in terms of bringing His people to Himself with willing hearts and appreciation. "And I, if I should be exalted out of the earth, shall be drawing all to Myself" (John 12:32).

But what of the rest of mankind who have not yet been given faith?

It is not Israel alone that is in view at the close of Romans 11. When Luther spoke of God's inscrutable judgments at the close of THE BONDAGE OF THE WILL, he referred to Romans 11: 33. But he did not cite the words of verse 32, where Paul pointed to the stubbornness of both Israel and the nations. "For God locks up all together in stubbornness, that He should be merciful to all." It is this astounding work of God that immediately leads to the apostle's exclamation of praise, "O, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!" The inscrutable judgments of God do not include damning for all eternity those who could not avoid being damned. They are rather His judgments that lead all through the experience of stubbornness and unbelief into the enjoyment of His mercy. This is the evidence of God's Word.


Salvation from
Wrath and Sin

Furthermore, Paul tells us in Philippians 2:9-11 that God has exalted Christ and given Him a name above every name. This is so in order that "in the name of Jesus every knee should be bowing, celestial and terrestrial and subterranean, and every tongue should be acclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God the Father."

Such bowing and such acclaiming cannot exist apart from faith. Without faith in the hearts of those who acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, His Lordship cannot be real and glory cannot be given to God the Father.

For the present, "not for all is the faith" (2 Thess.3:2). It is a special time of faith apart from sight. But when the unbelieving sinners see the One Who died for them, and perceive His ascended and exalted glory, they will be like Thomas of whom Jesus said, "Seeing that you have seen Me, you have believed" (John 21:29). In the meantime we evangelize the evangel that the chosen may even now know the happiness of "those who are not perceiving and believe."

The work of an evangelist may involve warnings concerning God's indignation. It certainly will involve a recognition of the seriousness of sin. But its ultimate aim is to focus attention on the evangel which speaks of salvation from indignation and sin. This is the good news concerning what God has done and will yet do on our behalf in and through His Son. It is a glorious message of victory and grace, that is fully out of God and through Him and for Him: to Him be the glory for the eons! Amen!

1 - First published in 1525; the quotations are from the English translation of J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (James Clarke & Co., Cambridge, 1957), pages 314-318.
2 - LUTHER'S WORKS, vol.43, Devotional Writings, edited by Gustav K. Wiencke (Fortress Press, Philadelphia), pages 51-55.
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