Category Archives: Evangelism
Some say evangelism is like tossing lit matches into upright kegs. Most kegs are filled with water, some are filled with gunpowder. C.S. Lewis was thinking gunpowder when he wrote this (Letters, 3:324–325):
My feeling about people in whose conversion I have been allowed to play a part is always mixed with awe and even fear; such as a boy might feel on first being allowed to fire a rifle. The disproportion between his puny finger on the trigger and the thunder and lightning which follow is alarming. And the seriousness with which the other party takes my words always raises the doubt whether I have taken them seriously enough myself.
What does it look like when a preacher implores sinners to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20)? Perhaps it resembles something like this excerpt taken from the conclusion to a sermon by Charles Spurgeon (The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, vol. 4, sermon 171):
Preaching, you see, takes away my voice. Ah! it is not that. It is not the preaching, but the sighing over your souls that is the hard work. I could preach for ever: I could stand here day and night to tell my Master’s love and warn poor souls; but ’tis the after-thought that will follow me when I descend these pulpit steps, that many of you, my hearers’ will neglect this warning.
You will go; you will walk into the street; you will joke; you will laugh. …
To be laughed at is no great hardship to me. I can delight in scoffs and jeers; caricatures, lampoons, and slanders, are my glory; of these things I boast, yea, in these I will rejoice. But that you should turn from your own mercy, this is my sorrow.
Spit on me, but oh! repent!
Laugh at me: but oh! believe in my Master!
Make my body as the dirt of the streets, if ye will but damn not your own souls!
Oh! do not despise your own mercies.
Put not away from you the gospel of Christ. There are many other ways of playing fool beside that. Carry coals in your bosom; knock your head against a wall: but do not damn your souls for the mere sake of being a fool, for fools to laugh at.
Oh! be in earnest upon an earnest subject. If there be no hereafter, live as you like; if there be no heaven, if there be no hell, laugh at me!
But if these things be true, and you believe them, I charge you, as I shall face you at the judgment bar of the Lord Jesus in the day of judgment—I charge you, by your own immortal welfare, lay these things to heart.
These words from Charles Spurgeon were originally preached to Christian parents of unbelieving children and to wives of unbelieving spouses. The quote is from his sermon on Jeremiah 4:20 (sermon #349) delivered on 9 Dec 1860:
Oh my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.
John Newton, Memoirs of the Life of the Late Rev. William Grimshaw (London: 1799), page 110:
It was his [Rev. Grimshaw's] frequent and almost constant custom to leave the church while the psalm before sermon was singing, to see if any were absent from worship and idling their time in the church-yard, the street, or the ale-houses, and many of those whom he so found, he would drive into the church before him. A friend of mine passing a public house ["pub"] in Haworth on a Lord’s Day morning saw several persons making their escape out of it, some jumping out of the lower windows, and some over a low wall; he was at first alarmed, fearing the house was on fire, but upon inquiring what was the cause of the commotion he was told that they saw the parson coming.
Peppered throughout the Old Testament we read of God’s plan to redeem sinners from every nation. Every knee shall bow and all the nations shall stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house (Isa. 2:2–3, 45:23). Yet in light of these promises, Israel was not commissioned to fulfill a missionary program or given an OT version of the great commission. Instead, Charles H. H. Scobie writes, the ingathering of the nations was defined by these three distinctives (Scobie 2003: 519–520):
(1) The ingathering fulfillment promises are eschatological, that is, forward looking [see Isa. 2:2; Jer. 3:17; Mic. 4:1, 7:12; Zech. 2:11, 3:9].
(2) The promised ingathering will be the work of God, not the work of Israel [see Isa. 56:7, 66:18, 25:6; Zeph. 3:9].
(3) The ingathering will happen as the nations pursue Israel, not the other way around [see Isa. 45:14, 60:3, 5, 14, 66:23; Mic. 7:12].
In light of God’s ingathering promises, the book of Jonah is quite startling. This book features a “pouting prophet” called to carry the news of the Living God to a corrupt pagan people. To say that Jonah marks a new missionary program for Israel would be unfair and overstated. However, Jonah’s commission—especially in light of the ingathering promises of God—stands in contrast to the alert OT reader, and in at least one important way. Jonah reveals that God’s sovereign sway over the nations and his eschatological promise to gather a people from every tribe and nation does not impinge upon the mission of God’s people. God’s sovereignty and the call to evangelism coexist within the structure of the OT.
It’s good for my worldly soul to wait for books. And wait is what I did for 6 weeks as my latest read was rowed here in a pirogue from England. But it was worth the wait. The new book is God’s Power to Save: One Gospel for a Complex World? (Apollos/IVP; Leicester, England; 2006) edited by Chris Green. Today I provide you with one morsel from the book. It’s on the topic of the gospel, the kingdom, and evangelism—
…We have seen that in the Synoptics and Acts, ‘the gospel’ and ‘the kingdom’ are fundamentally related. They are not different messages, as some old-school liberals might once have tried to have us believe. But nor is it adequate to see them as two different ways of describing the same reality but with different vocabularies, which different people might find easier or harder to accept. That thought might seem on the surface to be evangelistically useful, because we could talk using different kinds of language to different groups of people, according to their needs and pastoral appropriateness, but it is actually flawed. If I could explain the gospel to people, fully and without distortion, and do so without leading them to expect forgiveness for sin on the basis of the cross (for instance), then what I have produced is not alternative language but an alternative gospel, because the substance has changed.
Put simply, the gospel of the kingdom as we find it in Acts is the announcement of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit that flow necessarily from the throne of the crucified and risen Saviour-King. We saw above that the appropriate response to hearing the gospel is repentance and faith. To ask people to repent and believe when they have heard a message that does not focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus actually asks for a different reason for repentance and a different message to believe. Do they, then, receive forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit? Since we have seen that talking about the kingdom requires us to talk about the cross, any such detachment must be theologically, and spiritually, disastrous.
There are many audiences, but only one gospel. To present that one gospel under the language of the kingdom is not necessarily to alter it. But if we use it because we think someone is more likely to respond to the language of the kingdom than that of, say, justification or forgiveness, and that is precisely because we wrongly think the kingdom does not operate in that theological field, then we have altered it by distorting the cross-work of the king.
—Chris Green, God’s Power to Save: One Gospel for a Complex World? (Apollos/IVP; Leicester, England; 2006), pp. 136–137. To date, the book has not been published in the U.S. and is a bit tough to find—hence the wait and the pirogue.
Charles Spurgeon, in his sermon “Christ Crucified” (No. 2673), said the following:
…let me tell you a little story about Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I am a great lover of John Bunyan, but I do not believe him infallible; and the other day I met with a story about him which I think a very good one.
There was a young, man, in Edinburgh, who wished to be a missionary. He was a wise young man; so he thought, “If I am to be a missionary, there is no need for me to transport myself far away from home; I may as well be a missionary in Edinburgh.”
Well, this young man started, and determined to speak to the first person he met. He met one of those old fishwives; those of us who have seen them can never forget them, they are extraordinary women indeed. So, stepping up to her, he said, “Here you are, coming along with your burden on your back; let me ask you if you have got another burden, a spiritual burden.”
“What!” she asked; “do you mean that burden in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? Because, if you do, young man, I got rid of that many years ago, probably before you were born. But I went a better way to work than the pilgrim did. The evangelist that John Bunyan talks about was one of your parsons that do not preach the gospel; for he said, ‘Keep that light in thine eye, and run to the wicket-gate.’ Why—man alive!—that was not the place for him to run to. He should have said, ‘Do you see that cross? Run there at once!’ But, instead of that, he sent the poor pilgrim to the wicket-gate first; and much good he got by going there! He got tumbling into the slough, and was like to have been killed by it.”
“But did not you,” the young man asked, “go through any Slough of Despond?”
“Yes, I did; but I found it a great deal easier going through with my burden off than with it on my back.”
The old woman was quite right. John Bunyan put the getting rid of the burden too far off from the commencement of the pilgrimage. If he meant to show what usually happens, he was right; but if he meant to show what ought to have happened, he was wrong.
We must not say to the sinner, “Now, sinner, if thou wilt be saved, go to the baptismal pool; go to the wicket-gate; go to the church; do this or that.”
No, the cross should be right in front of the wicket-gate; and we should say to the sinner, “Throw thyself down there, and thou art safe; but thou are not safe till thou canst cast off thy burden, and lie at the foot of the cross, and find peace in Jesus.”
I find it healthy to laugh at caricatures of Calvinism sometimes. This video was posted today on Kevin DeYoung’s (excellent) blog:
From time to time we like to feature parody on TSS.
But this is no joke.
Recently NavPress published a book titled I’m OK – You’re Not: The message we’re sending nonbelievers and why we should stop by John Shore. It was written by a humorist, but it’s not going in the “funny” folder.
The book’s purpose:
“Pretty much every last, single person in America has heard the word of God! The Great Commission has gone a very long way toward being completely fulfilled right here in our own backyard! …
So. Now what?
Well, the contention of this book is that now that it’s safe to assume that all of our neighbors already know the story of Christ and the Bible and so on, it might be a good time to take some of that enormous energy we currently spend on converting those same people, and to focus it instead on ‘just’ loving them as much as we love ourselves.
In other words, I think that here in the great, gospel-saturated U.S. of A., it’s time to shift our concentration from fulfilling the Great Commission to fulfilling the Great Commandment.
I do want to be clear about the caveat, though, of ‘only’ meaning that we should ease off trying to tell people about Christ who haven’t first asked us to tell them about Christ. If someone has indicated to us that they’re open to hearing the Good News, then by all means let us share until we’re hoarse (or until it’s clear they’d like us to go home so that they can go to bed). By extension, then, I’m also not in any way meaning to suggest that preachers should stop preaching, or that stadium-filling Billy Graham-style revival meetings should stop happening. Of course they shouldn’t. Because again: Those kinds of public or corporate affairs are presented to people who have asked to participate in them, who have willingly volunteered to hear the Word of God. Such people are fair game — and have at ‘em then, I say! Praise the Lord, and save me a front row seat” (pp. 14-15).
I’m aware this quote probably reflects the sentiments of a broad stroke of American Christianity. So in no way am I singling this author out (he is merely a representation). But so many things come to mind after reading this, I hardly know where to begin. In part, this reveals an overly-optimistic view of our country’s understanding of the Cross, a market-driven evangelism outlook, a misunderstanding of human nature, and a deficient understanding of the Great Commission (as being limited to media saturation and evangelism). Quite obvious is the purposeful disconnect between service and persuasion. Where to begin?
Serving up persuasion
The truth is, our acts of obedience and kindness are used to ‘win’ unbelievers to Christ. “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Pet. 3:1-2). It’s okay to have evangelistic motives behind your obedience. We can (and should) love and serve our neighbors, motivated that God would use that service in some way to radically change them (as He has changed us!).
And our evangelism must be done with humility. Certainly! But our humility comes from realizing that we are absolute failures before God. The Cross tells me I’m not okay with God and my neighbor is not okay with God either. The Gospel tells me (in myself) I am an absolute failure before God because of my sinfulness. Only in Christ do sinful failures have the hope of eternal life. So any pridefulness in Christian evangelism – which is what this book aims at stopping – is a derivative of misunderstanding of the Gospel itself.
If Christians act with belligerence in evangelism, and this reveals a lack of understanding in the Gospel, how misunderstood is the Gospel in the rest of “gospel-saturated U.S. of A”?
Ironically, the assumption of a widespread understanding of the Gospel affirms a superficial understanding of the Gospel, and this fuels pride in evangelism! This book unwittingly incubates what it sets out to cure.
We interrupt this program …
But enough about us, Christ is coming back in flames with a host of angels to “inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thes. 1:7-8). That’s news worthy of interruption.
Remember Paul’s conversion? God apparently did not feel restrained to await Paul’s permission before knocking the Gospel-despiser down blind into the dust (Acts 9:1-9). Even before his conversion, Paul heard the Gospel and knew why the message was dangerous to his self-righteous religion. He was out to stop the spread of the Gospel. God interrupted his program.
But what incredible grace was shown to Paul! How does Paul recall this event in his life? Does he say it was unfair for God to have dropped him in the dust like that? No. Does he reprimand God for not asking permission first? No! He says, “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:13-14). The blinding interruption in Paul’s life was mercy and grace!
Paul soberly reminds us from his own testimony that knowing about the Gospel does not disqualify us from being “ignorant” of the Gospel. Which is why evangelism must continue — no matter how pervasive the Christian message seems on the outside, nor how oppressive the influence to “stop” comes from the inside.
Pursue, persuade, serve, and share. But do it all in the strength of the Spirit and the humility so fitting the message.
Another excellent book on evangelism appearing this year is Richard D. Phillips’ Jesus the Evangelist: Learning to Share the Gospel from the Book of John (Reformation Trust: 2007). His book concludes with a helpful appendix on the relationship of divine election and personal evangelism built from J.I Packer’s classic (pp. 168-185).
Here is Phillips’ outline:
A. Does God’s sovereignty argue against evangelism?
- Sovereignty does not rule out human will and responsibility.
- Sovereignty ordains not merely the ends but the means.
- Evangelism is one of the best ways to glorify God.
- Evangelism is one of the best ways to fulfill God’s command that we love our neighbors.
- Sovereignty does not invalidate anything the Bible shows us about our calling to evangelize.
B. Does God’s sovereignty actually encourage evangelism?
- It makes us dependent upon Him.
- It makes us bold in evangelism.
- It makes us patient in evangelism.
C. How should our belief in God’s sovereignty reform our approach to evangelism?
- Our evangelism should be biblical, both in its message and method.
- Our evangelism should be prayerful.
- Our evangelism should be personal, courteous, and loving.
- Our evangelism should be zealous and creative.
- We should never lose heart in our evangelism efforts.