There is a well-known nursery rhyme that generations of British children grew up with which begins with the words,
Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them;
Leave them alone and they will come home, wagging their tails behind them.
Cute and all as they may sound, these words paint a sad picture of many a Calvinist and his or her view of evangelism. Their theological theory goes something like this: ‘God is sovereign and has chosen a people for himself from before the creation of the world, his will must surely come to pass; ergo, the elect, if we leave them alone, will surely come home, wagging their spiritual tails behind them.’
It may sound like a logical conclusion to draw from the doctrines of divine sovereignty, election and predestination; but it is anything but biblical. The very same Bible that sets out the aforementioned truths about God also sets out God’s declared means of bringing these people from being elect to the point at of actually receiving this salvation for themselves. And the means God sets out in his word is the spiritual equivalent of a search and rescue mission entrusted to the church.
Interestingly, it begins in the Old Testament. Israel was God’s people. Chosen, not because Abraham, their spiritual forefather, set out to seek God and God allowed himself to be found; but because God sought him out in Ur of the Chaldees (Ge 12.1). God invaded Abram’s space, disrupted what up until then had been his comfortable way of life. He commanded him to leave and embark on a new life that would never be the same again. Whether this marked the moment of Abram’s conversion is a moot point; but it certainly was a turning point for him and his household.
This was to be reinforced when Israel, the people descended from Abraham, came of age when they became a nation in the wilderness under Moses. God told them, not only that they were to be distinct from the nations of the world around them, but that they would bear witness to him among those nations. Their distinctiveness as a nation was intended to reflect the uniqueness of Yahweh – setting him apart from the multitude of manmade deities of the time. Their mission, as repeatedly stated by the prophet Isaiah, was to be ‘a light to the nations’ (Isa 42.6; 49.6; 52.10;60.3) – a mission that was to crystallise ultimately in Jesus as ‘the Light of the world’ (Jn 8.12). And, again, as the very nature of light is to penetrate the darkness and dispel it, so the soteric light of Christ would penetrate and disrupt the darkness of spiritual death that engulfs humanity.
It is significant, therefore, that Jesus sums up his earthly mission by saying, ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’ (Lk 19.10). More than this, that, when he called his first disciples, Jesus told them that it was in order to make them, ‘fishers of men’ (Mt 4.19). Just as, in their previous life as fishermen on Galilee, they had learned the art of locating and catching fish for the market, so in their new life they would learn what Thomas Boston would later call, ‘The art of Man Fishing’.
The disciples learned this art – as much by observation, as by direct instruction – from Jesus himself. They were struck not only by the fact that he took the initiative in seeking opportunities to engage people with the gospel; but by the kind of people he engaged. More often than not, he went out of his way to befriend the most unlikely candidates for spiritual conversation, but frequently with the most surprising outcomes.
In his recently published book, Compel Them to Come In, Prof Donald Macleod includes a chapter entitled ‘Knowing where the fish are hiding’. Drawing on Boston’s material in his book from a different generation, he presents the challenge we as Christians face of not only taking the initiative to reach out with the greatest news the world has ever heard, or could ever need; but, also, to cultivate the requisite skills and sensitivities that it needs.
There has been intensified discussion in recent days about the need for the church to engage and challenge the culture of our day. But this is not our primary calling. The New Testament church was not charged with engaging and challenging the culture of theocratic Israel, or that of the pagan Roman Empire. It was called to preach Christ and to preach him to all manner of people.
Just as Jesus himself displayed extraordinary love, insight and understanding of the people he engaged both one-to-one and in large crowds, so too the apostles of the New Testament era clearly had learned from him. Perhaps this is the greatest issue we need to grapple with afresh as we learn to look for the lost in our 21st Century world. The sovereign Saviour of the world uses the agency of his redeemed children scattered throughout that world to seek the perishing and, in his own words, ‘compel them to come in’ (Lk 14.23).
 Macleod, D. Compel them to come In, (Christian Focus Publications; Fearn, Tain) 2020
Mark Johnston, a Trustee of the Banner of Truth, is a Presbyterian pastor in Wales.