For Reformed people who care about sharing the gospel (which should be all of us!), it is probably a given that election/predestination is not something we incorporate into our gospel message. We do not go around telling unbelievers about the doctrine of unconditional election. Instead, we generally recognize that this doctrine is revealed in Scripture for the comfort and edification of believers. The common way of thinking is that this doctrine is for those already in the church, not for those we are trying to draw into the church.
That way of thinking can be partially credited to 1.14 of the Canons of Dort. The Canons of Dort say that the doctrine of divine election “should be taught in the church of God, for which it was particularly intended, in its proper time and place…” For a long time, I have understood this to mean that election/predestination would never have a real place in our missionary message. By “missionary message,” I mean everything connected to the good news as we communicate it to the unregenerated.
My thinking on this has been upended by Tim Keller. In his book Center Church, he stirs up a lot of thought in the area of contextualization (see here for some of my work in this area). This has to do with the communication of the gospel in cross-cultural ministry. In chapter 10, he discusses “active contextualization”: entering the culture, challenging the culture, and then appealing to the listeners.
When it comes to challenging and confronting the culture, Keller relates a discussion he once had with a Presbyterian missionary to Korea. This missionary was working amongst Korean prostitutes and was not connecting with them. He spoke of God’s grace to them, about the forgiveness available through Christ, and about God’s love for sinners. Nothing he said engaged them. He decided to try something radically different. He would begin with the doctrine of predestination. Keller rightly notes that this doctrine is a challenging one for Western hearts and minds. Westerners value democratic and egalitarian notions. Many in the West do not want to hear about a sovereign God who chooses some and passes by others. But what is true for Westerners is not necessarily true for Asian prostitutes in the mid-twentieth century. Keller writes:
So he told the prostitutes about a God who is a King. Kings, he said, have a sovereign right to act as they saw fit. They rule — that’s just what kings do. And this great divine King chooses to select people out of the human race to serve him, simply because it is his sovereign will to do so. Therefore, his people are saved because of his royal will, not because of the quality of their lives or anything they have done.
This made sense to the women. They had no problem with the idea of authority figures acting in this way — it seemed natural and right to them. But this also meant that when people were saved, it was not because of pedigree or effort, but because of the will of God (cf. John 1:13). Their acceptance of this belief opened up the possibility of understanding and accepting the belief in salvation by grace. They asked my missionary friend a question that a non-Christian in the West would never ask: “How can I know if I am chosen?” He answered that if as they heard the gospel they wanted to accept and believe it, this was a sign that the Holy Spirit was working on their hearts and that God was seeking them. And some of them responded. (Center Church, 126)
So there are times, places, and cultures where it might be effective to use the doctrine of predestination as a missionary starting point. It’s not that this doctrine is the complete message. Rather, it’s a starting point to bring unbelievers onward to the full gospel of salvation in Christ.
But then what about the Canons of Dort? Does this approach contradict 1.14? No, it doesn’t, because 1.14 doesn’t say that this doctrine should only be taught in the church and that it may never be used elsewhere. There’s indeed room in the Canons for a wise and creative adaptation of this doctrine to the missionary calling of the church. Because of the pervasive influence of Western culture, perhaps the contexts where this could be done are increasingly few and far between, but missionaries should definitely be open-minded to the possibility that this Presbyterian missionary’s approach could work elsewhere.