Our church just held its third monthly men's theology discussion meeting. We gather on a Saturday morning to consider a topic and its application to us. In July, we discussed the Christian Sabbath. In August, we began a discussion of evangelism and concluded it this past weekend. Involved in this profitable discussion were visitors, other pastors, and a staff member of Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship. They contributed a good deal to the conversation in addition to what men from our church brought to the table. What follows is an unofficial distillation and summary of that conversation mixed with some expanded thoughts of my own mixed in.
What Is the Gospel?
We discussed the need to know what the Gospel actually is. It is good news. It is about someone who actually did something. The first promise of the Gospel, Genesis 3:15, reveals that it is fundamentally about One who would actually accomplish the crushing of the serpent's head. Jesus Christ, the God-man, died and rose again so that our sins could be forgiven and we could receive eternal life. But there are other things we need to share for this to be understood as good news. People need to know who they are as sinners, and who God is. God created all things for His pleasure, and made man in His image, to reflect His glory. We must set before people the holiness, perfection, and majesty of God and show them the stark contrast of it with their sin.
By sin, man misrepresents God. Instead of communicating that God is good, wise, trustworthy, and has authority over us, sin sends the message that God is not good since He denies us something that we want, that God is not wise, that we can't trust God, and that we don't have to obey God but can do our own thing. It is slander and treason against the King of the universe and worthy of eternal death. Sin cannot be seen as "no big deal" or something to simply be overlooked when we consider it in this light. And this pertains to those who outwardly appear as moral persons as well. They are not "being good" for God's glory, but are living for themselves. They desire to avoid negative consequences, to live longer, to be more successful, to gain a good reputation for themselves, instead of living to make God known and show Him as supremely valuable and worthy of worship.
The law shows us how these things personally apply to us. When we look at the commandments and at Jesus' explanation of them in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, we should realize that we do not measure up to God's perfect standard and that we are guilty in His sight. There is no way that we can make amends and fulfill His demands upon our lives. That's bad news. But that's why the Gospel is good news.
The Gospel is also a call to commitment. It is not a mere intellectual decision that amounts to what the demons have (James 2:19). It is a call to repent of our sin and trust in Jesus. This call is both an invitation and a command. In regard to the invitation aspect, we should not see it as an invitation to a pancake breakfast by a social club, but as an invitation to appear before the President, only much more commanding of our attention!
In sharing this message, it is appropriate and even necessary to clarify that this is not an additive or something to make our lives more comfortable. It is not "ask Jesus into your heart" and then go your merry way. It is about having God's wrath against our sin dealt with. It is a call to die. It is a call to forsake our sin and embrace Christ. It is a summons to cease our rebellion and become followers of Jesus. We must not spread the false idea that discipleship is a later option for a believer. If we come to Christ, believing, we are to follow Christ. This is the inevitable fruit of a changed heart. It doesn't mean that we do a meritorious work to get God's favor or that we are perfect in thought and deed in all ways immediately after trusting Christ, but it does mean that we actually are relying on Jesus Christ as our righteousness and the One who came to deliver us from sin.
The Centrality of the Local Church in Equipping the Saints
Christ died for the church. We should see it as important, and such a view takes concrete expression when we are committed to our local church. In this context we should get equipped to share the Gospel. Parachurch ministries can be helpful, but they should not be allowed to usurp the place of the local church. There is an accountability and opportunity for further growth and involvement in one anothers' lives that an evangelistic crusade or parachurch ministry cannot fulfill. In connection with local churches, some good can come of parachurch ministries in evangelism. God can certainly use any means He likes! But the mess left by some evangelistic events or the concept that evangelism is something we go and do somewhere else (on a special trip, for instance) is not helpful in building up the bride for which Christ died.
Thinking about Our Hearts and Our Responsibility
This responsibility is for pastors and the people of the church (Acts 8:1-4). We should be motivated to share because, as Piper argued in Let the Nations Be Glad, the reason missions and evangelism exist is because there are people who are not worshiping God - He deserves worship, and they need Him.
We must not only be motivated, but we must also be prepared (1 Peter 3:15) to share the Gospel. This involves making sure we are cultivating our relationship with the Lord and have right relationships with others. It is easy to clam up when we are not spending time with God in the Word and prayer as we ought or when there is discord between us and others. For me, I know of nothing that has cooled my love and boldness more than neglect of spiritual disciplines. We ought to share when we have opportunity. But we ought to cultivate hearts that are prepared and eager to tell this good news. In addition, we ought to regularly pray for particular persons and be looking for appropriate avenues to meet them, build relationships with them, and share the Gospel with them.
Thinking about Methodology
How are we to share the Gospel? As we discussed this, we concluded that some methods are inappropriate, but that we do need to be sharing. We also concluded that some methods may not be best for everyone. Some may be better geared for "in-your-face" kind of evangelism, whereas others may better serve by having a serious talk with someone over a cup of coffee.
Going to something along the lines of Mardi Gras, for instance, would probably be quite unhelpful. We have no example of the apostles going to places of orgiastic, pagan worship. This would also relate to setting up displays at conventions where the purpose is to promote the industry of pornography. One could easily be placed into a compromising situation in these contexts. We tended to agree that crashing someone else's party is not the best approach to evangelism.
We discussed some things that might not be for everyone. I don't think any of us would be comfortable with "beach evangelism" but perhaps that's something that some people could do and still maintain their purity (but I doubt it would be a group of teenage boys!). We discussed David Platt's practice of setting up a "We will tell your fortune for free" booth next to a fortune teller. Is this a deceptive peddling of the Gospel, or a legitimate approach? It sounded like they were simply using this as an inroad to get to the Gospel, like Jesus talking about water with the Samaritan woman. His goal was not merely to talk about water and trick her into spiritual things. Instead, He was using a time-tested method of communication of starting where people are and explaining the unknown by the known or the unfamiliar by the familiar. Is there a direct parallel here? I don't know. Does setting up such a booth cheapen the Gospel, like pathetic piggy-back slogans taken from the advertising of the world, such as "This blood's for you" (replacing the brand name of a beer with the word blood)? I'm not sure. But it may be something that those who have a good conscience can engage in and others of us may take another route.
Let us be sure we are taking a route to share the Gospel. Let us not deserve the answer to critiques of others' methods that they like the way they do evangelism better than the way we don't do it. The important thing is that we actually do communicate the Gospel faithfully and clearly.
Paul went to places with a variety of ideas. Mars Hill - the contemporary counterpart of which may be National Public Radio, according to some - was a place for the hearing of ideas. They were looking for new and novel things. They might be false ideas, but it was a sort of open forum for all kinds of thought. Paul presented the Gospel in this context with clarity, and not as one option among many. Thankfully, others have done similar things - such as the faithfulness of John MacArthur in presenting the truth clearly on Larry King Live, for example.
Another idea was that of going into liberal churches. A place where the gospel is not preached faithfully might provide a ripe field for evangelism for a prepared evangelist who attended the Sunday School gatherings there with the purpose of challenging false teaching and disseminating the Gospel, and possibly stirring up some major changes. Jim Renihan calls this "synagogue splitting," and this certainly appears to have precedent in the book of Acts!
Although we see connections with the past (confronting ideas in public forums and telling the truth to the religious), there are also modern, contemporary challenges to the philosophy and practice of evangelism. I posed a hypothetical situation that others have actually discussed in reality. What if a converted teenage boy asked his pastor about the legitimacy of sharing the Gospel via a virtual reality program like Second Life? The sage counsel our elders would give amounts to the following:
The incarnation is the answer to this question. Christ came in the flesh, not as an avatar [the term for the virtual persona]. We have been given a real life, and many of us don't have enough time in the day to live it, much less a second, third, or fourth life. This is disembodied evangelism.
We also talked about the matter of a "virtual" conversion. If your avatar shares the Gospel with someone else's avatar and that avatar becomes a believer, then the person controlling it could say that his avatar was saved but he was still on his way to hell! Personally, I think this is a way to justify an addiction to electronic media, one of the idols of our day. It simply legitimizes and "sanctifies" a pastime that no one really has time for if he or she is accomplishing anything significant in life and maintaining meaningful relationships with real people.
Our pastor emphasized the need for us to be deliberate in evangelism. We should be ready to share the Gospel, but we won't do it without intentionally making an effort. And when we do share it faithfully, we can leave the people with God. It is not a failure if we have been clear in telling the truth. We cannot force people into conversion. We don't have to feel guilty for not leading them in a prayer, but at the same time, we should make clear that the good news of Christ calls for a response. It is not mere knowledge to be added to the things we already know. It is an an announcement of fact, but it is also a summons to act and commit ourselves to Him.
A personal testimony can be a useful way of sharing the Gospel. Paul did this on multiple occasions (such as Acts 22). This is not something that requires a lot of training! It is not wrong to involve our own experience here, although we should explain that these things are true in themselves, and counter the response of "well, that worked for you."
We need to remember that there are basic truths and terms people do not understand. Avoid theological jargon unless you can carefully explain it. Make sure that you are actually communicating and not talking past people.
Let us not live as though we believe in the power of total depravity more than in the power of the Gospel to save. Let us seek to take the good news to the lost. As for results, we must trust God to use His Word. We must be patient, not expecting microwave results, but remembering how many of us heard the Gospel repeatedly before trusting Christ. We must believe that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16-17).
Some resources that some of us have found useful in understanding evangelism include:
- R. B. Kuiper, God-Centred Evangelism (Banner of Truth)
- Will Metzger, Tell the Truth (IVP)
- Charles Spurgeon, The Soul Winner
- Thomas Boston, The Art of Manfishing
- J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (IVP)
- D. James Kennedy, Evangelism Explosion
- John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad (Baker)
- Ray Comfort & Kirk Cameron, The School of Biblical Evangelism
- Don Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (chapter on evangelism) (NavPress)
- John Frame, "A Theology of Opportunity" (article available online)
In the conclusion of our time, we asked for prayer that we would be delivered from the fear of what others think and from a lack of love for God and others that stifles the faithful sharing of the good news of Christ.
I am grateful for this ministry of our church, and look forward to next month as we look at the Biblical basis and practical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity.