Saturday, July 27, 2019

A Trip Around the Worldviews

I love studying apologetics, which is the defense of the Christian faith.  I can easily spend hours listening to detailed historical arguments supporting the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead or reading about evidence that supports the reliability of scripture.  However, as I listen to online debates or read comments from YouTube viewers, I sometimes feel that people are missing the forest by focusing on the trees.  While debating more isolated issues, people will sometimes make comments that completely contradict their overall worldview.

Allow me provide an example from renowned evolutionary biologist and vocal opponent of faith, Richard Dawkins.  Reasoning from a foundation of atheism, materialism, and naturalism, Dawkins describes the universe in this way: “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and gene replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, not any justice.  The universe we observe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference” (River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life).  While I disagree with Dawkins assessment of the universe, it is completely consistent with his secular worldview. 

However, his following comment, meant to carry rhetorical power and refute the existence of God, does not.  “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, blood thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (The God Delusion).  While I would again disagree with Dawkin’s Biblical interpretation, the bigger question is, “In a world with no evil, no good, no justice, nothing but blind pitiless indifference…Who cares?”  If there is no evil, where does Dawkins find the moral foundation from which he attempts to condemn God?  Where does he find the notion that people have intrinsic value and dignity that should be protected and respected?  These ideals don’t find their foundation in his worldview, so he borrows them from a theistic worldview.  To paraphrase theologian Cornelius Van Til, he sits in God’s lap so that he can slap him in the face.

That is why an analysis of worldviews is so important.  Everyone has a worldview, which is simply how one views the world, an overall philosophical perspective on everything that exists and matters to us.  A person’s worldview will determine their answers to the following questions:

Origin – How did we get here?

Identity – What does it mean to be human?

Morality – How should we live?

Purpose – Why are we here?

Destiny – What happens to us when we die?

Some people may not have given much thought to their worldview, but their answers to these questions will reveal where they stand.  Others have clearly defined their worldview, but will sometimes live or debate important issues and questions in a way that contradicts the very foundation of their worldview, such as Dawkins did in the previous example.  So, in this series, we are going to zoom out from the trees so that we can get a large angle view of the world’s major worldviews: secularism, new spirituality, Islam, Marxism, postmodernism, and Christianity.  We will examine what answers each worldview provides for the big questions of origin, identity, morality, purpose and destiny.  By the end of our trip around the worldviews, we will be equipped to assess what worldview provides the most coherent description of the universe in which we live.  So let’s get started.  The first stop on our itinerary will be secularism.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Using Isaiah 53 to Share the Gospel

Thus far in this series on evangelism, I have outlined a Biblical definition for evangelism, discussed whether all believers are called to share the gospel, and provided reasons why we can rejoice in the task of evangelism.  Even if you have been nodding in agreement the entire time, you might be wondering how one practically goes about sharing the gospel.  Even if someone has a desire to share their faith, how do you even get the conversation started?  In my experience, starting the conversation is the most difficult step, whether you are talking to a longtime friend or a complete stranger.  However, I have found that once the ball is rolling, the conversation flows relatively easily, and have gone on to have deep, extended conversations with complete strangers.

The reality is that there is not one cookie-cutter method for sharing the gospel, but I would like to share a method that I have found to be effective.  It is an approach that has Biblical precedent in the early church and I have dubbed it the Isaiah 53 Method.  In Acts 8, the Apostle Phillip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch on the side of the road.  Led by the Holy Spirit, Philip approaches the high ranking official, who is reading Isaiah 53:7-8 from a scroll.

"He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth."

The Ethiopian did not understand the meaning of this passage, which prophetically speaks of the suffering that the Messiah would endure to "[bear] the sin of many" and "[make] intercession of the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12).  Using this prophecy as a launching point, Philip "began with that very passage of Scripture and told [the Ethiopian] the good news about Jesus" (Acts 8:35).  The Ethiopian believed the gospel, was baptized, and returned joyously to his homeland, where he likely spread the gospel and sparked the formation of the Coptic Church, which exists to this day.

I like to start with the passage that just precedes the one that Philip used to explain the gospel to the Ethiopian.  Isaiah 53:3 – 5 says:

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

During the past year, I have been using this passage to share the gospel with students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  Once or twice per month, I have spent a couple hours walking around campus and seeking to initiate gospel-centered conversations.  I approach a student and ask them if they have a few minutes to answer a couple questions.  I then ask them to read the passage, which is printed on regular paper, and identify who the passage was written about and when it was written.  So far I have spoken with forty students and, being a mathematical-logical thinker, I have tracked how students have responded to the questions.   As you can see from the data below, the majority of students identified that the passage was written about Jesus, but they thought it was written in the New Testament or after the events of the crucifixion.  Some students didn’t know who the passage was about, but when I told them that it was about Jesus, almost everyone predicted that it was written after his death.  This means approximately 90% of students believed that the passage was written looking back on the events of the crucifixion.  If Christianity was a myth or merely developed over time, this is what one would expect, especially since the passage so closely matches traditional Christian teaching about Jesus.  When I reveal that the passage was actually written over 600 years before Jesus was born and well before crucifixion was even invented, there is a moment of surprise.  One student even exclaimed, "Oh s#*%!".  In reality, the heart of the Christian message was prophesied well in advance.  What could this mean?

This is where there is an opportunity for a paradigm shift.  Instead of me “forcing my beliefs on them,” this is a moment of self-realization that there might be something more going on here.  From that point, I ask them what they think the passage means and this provides an opportunity for a clear presentation of the gospel.  The heart of the gospel is embedded in this passage: Jesus was pierced for our sins and this sacrifice is what brings us peace with God.  A conversation may go many directions from here, but I always try to give a clear presentation of the gospel.  This often involves drawing out the meaning of "transgressions" and "iniquities" and showing that on the basis of the law, we are all in desperate need of a savior.   In order for the gospel to be good news, we need to realize the depth of our sin and our standing before a holy God, apart from the saving work of Christ.  For an example of how to use the law to highlight our need for Jesus' sacrificial death, I recommend viewing videos from Living Waters, such as the one below.

To end the conversation, I often ask students if they have ever taken time to investigate or seriously consider the claims of Christianity, that Jesus died for our sins and rose again from the grave to prove the efficacy of this sacrifice.  If they are willing, I give them a copy of More than a Carpenter by Josh and Sean McDowell, which gives an overview of several reasons why we can have confidence that Jesus did rise from the grave and is the Son of God.  In the book, I write my contact information so they can reach out to me after they have finished the book if they are interested in continuing the conversation.  I also like to share a favorite quote from C.S. Lewis: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important” and encourage them to seek out the truth about Christ.  If Jesus did truly die for our sins and rise from the grave, their response to this truth is infinitely important.  If he did not, then the conversation we just had means nothing.

By no means is this the only method of starting a gospel-centered conversation, but one thing I like about it is that it doesn’t put the person on the defensive like other approaches might.  The “aha moment” is coming from them, not from me.  I have never had a conversation turn confrontational and have had numerous deep and enjoyable conversations.  The worst outcome is that a couple people have handed the paper back after reading the first couple lines and walked away.   

If you have a desire to share the gospel and are unsure how to get started, I encourage you to give this approach a try.  If you do, I'd love to hear about it in the comments section below.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Evangelism - For the Joy Set Before Us

In my last post, I made a scriptural case that evangelism is not a spiritual gift that is reserved for the few, but one that all believers should be engaged in at some level.  Of course, some may have natural characteristics that makes them seem more gifted in evangelism and others may be called to full-time ministry that allows them to devote more time and energy to intentional outreach, but all Christians are called to be ambassadors of Christ.  

However, that last thing that I want to do is create a burden and leave Christians with a feeling that this is something that they "ought" to do.  I have found that the law leaves us with powerless “oughts,” but the Spirit can give us powerful “wants.”  I have found this true in many areas of my Christian life.  For example, I know that I “ought” to not have lustful thoughts, but that “ought” has very little restraining power.  I have learned, however, if I focus on a greater desire, then the Spirit driven “want” is very powerful.  That is why, when I feel tempted to lust, I don’t say “don’t, don’t, don’t,” but instead, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8).  When my desire to see God is greater than my desire for the fleeting promises of lust, I have defeated the temptation.  

I believe that Jesus uses similar reasoning when he compares the Kingdom of God to a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46).  He doesn’t condemn desire in general, as some religions do, but directs our desires to that which is infinitely valuable and worthy of our affection.  In other words, he uses a rightly placed joy as a source of motivation.  We even see this in Jesus’ own life.  For the joy set before him, he endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2).  While Jesus completely followed the Father’s will, he didn’t endure the cross just because he “ought” to, but because of the unparalleled riches and joy that would follow.

In the same way, scripture is filled with promises that, when harnessed properly, can transform our attitude about evangelism from "ought" to "want."  These promises show that by boldly sharing the gospel we are pursuing better rewards - our joy, the joy of others, and, most importantly, the glory of God.  These rewards far outweigh the rewards of staying silent.

To begin, our attitude should be the same of that as John the Baptist.  Early in Jesus' public ministry, John's disciples expressed consternation that people were leaving John's baptism ministry to follow Jesus.  John replies, "The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:29-30).  This ought to be the heart of every evangelist.  The point of sharing the gospel is not to bring glory and admiration to ourselves or to earn spiritual merit badges, but to magnify Christ and rejoice when others make much of him.  With our hearts set in that direction, I believe that there are five reasons that we can seek joy in the call of evangelism.

1) God is glorified

The ultimate reason that we can rejoice in the task of evangelism is that God is glorified when we proclaim the gospel, both when it is accepted and when it is rejected.  Jesus promised his followers that they could  expect rejection and should consider themselves blessed when "people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12).  When we are able to rejoice in the face of rejection because we have a better treasure in heaven, it glorifies God, not the approval of people, as our ultimate source of satisfaction.

Furthermore, God's mercy is magnified in light of his righteous judgment.  The Apostle Paul asks, "What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory?" (Romans 9:22-23).  Without going too far into the deep theology of God's sovereignty in salvation, the passage clearly shows that God's wrath justly poured out on the sins of the unrepentant highlights his glory to those who have experienced his mercy.  When the gospel is rejected, God is just in punishing sin, and his people more clearly understand the depth of mercy which they have been shown.

Better yet, however, is when the gospel is accepted.  There "is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10).  There is great joy in heaven when a person turns from their sin and accepts the free gift of eternal life in Christ and we have the privilege of joining in this celebration.

2) Our joy abounds through relationships with fellow believers – particularly those we have led to Christ – in the presence of God

There is an experience of joy that comes from worshiping the Lord with brothers and sisters that cannot be matched through personal spiritual experiences.  While readily available online sermons and worship music can be a great encouragement to our personal walks, this is why we are called to regular worship in a local church.  

If you have had the privilege of leading someone to faith in Christ or mentoring a younger believer, you may have experienced another level of joy that comes from worshiping with your "spiritual children."  Biological parents experience a similar feeling when their children embrace one of the parent's passions.  For example, I love hiking and nature, and it is incredible to share these experiences with my daughter who is beginning to love those same things.  How much more so do we experience deep joy when we worship our redeemer alongside those whom we have been blessed to help grow in their own faith?  Paul shares this sentiment repeatedly in his letters to churches that he planted, calling these believers his "joy and crown" (Philippians 4:1, 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).

3) Others joy is made full in Christ

At first glance, it may seem self-centered to pursue our joy in evangelism, but ultimately this pursuit is radically others and God focused.  We share the gospel out of a love for neighbor and a desire for others experience joy and freedom in Christ.  In the book of Acts, the Apostle Philip was prompted by the Holy Spirit to engage in a conversation with an Ethiopian eunuch and was able to use Old Testament scripture to share the gospel with this high ranking official.  After the Ethiopian received Christ and was baptized, "when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing" (Acts 8:39).  When we are open to the Lord's leading in evangelism, we have the opportunity to send others out rejoicing, as well.

Isaiah 9 starts with a beautiful prophesy about the one who will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).  This passage begins by explaining part of the mission of this Messiah:

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.

Isaiah 9:2-3
The Prince of Peace has come to increase the joy of the people.  By sharing the gospel, we have the opportunity to be used by him in that work.

4)  There are people who will respond to the gospel

Perhaps someday I will do a series of posts on soteriology or the doctrine of salvation.  The good news is, whether you are a Calvinist, an Arminian, or don't even know what those terms mean, the following promise of Jesus is still true: "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd" (John 10:16).  It is easy to put pressure on ourselves when sharing our faith, fearing that one misspoken or unspoken word is going to prevent someone from responding to Christ.  This verse should relieve those fears and enable us to breathe.  Jesus' sheep, those currently outside the fold and not following him, will respond to his voice.  Whatever our position on pre-destination, we don't know who those people are, so it is our job to faithfully preach the gospel knowing that it is ultimately the voice of God that leads to repentance.  We can trust that what happened in Pisidian Antioch will continue in our day - "When the Gentiles heard this (the gospel), they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).
5)  So that we may experience the full depth of Christ

When we share something that we love, it deepens and completes our enjoyment of that pleasure.  Think about the best meal you have ever tasted, your favorite movie that you could see over and over, or the most amazing sporting event you have ever witnessed.  Do you keep it to yourself?  No!  You tell people about it.  You post it all over social media.  Sharing the experience with others completes the enjoyment.  For example, I almost four years later, I can still talk about the following sporting moment and a huge smile will come over my face.  Sorry, Michigan fans, I couldn't resist!

Similarly, we were not made to keep the gospel to ourselves.  We are meant to be rivers of God's grace, pouring it out to others who are thirsty for living water, not keeping it to ourselves like a reservoir.  Paul exhorts his friend Philemon, "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ" (Philemon 6).  When we share the gospel, not only do we have the hope that others will experience joy in Christ, but we end up understanding the gospel more deeply ourselves.  We better understand the depth of grace that we have received.  We more fully grasp that we are not some superior, self-righteous Pharisees, but wretched sinners who have been granted a gift of mercy that we don't deserve.  We taste the goodness of God and fathom how high, long, wide and deep his love is that "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).  That alone, is reason to rejoice.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Are All Believers Called to Evangelism?

If you’ve been exposed to Christian culture for an extended period of time, you’ve probably taken a spiritual gift inventory at some point.  You may have learned that you have the gift of leadership, administration, service, or prophecy.  Some inventories will also identify evangelism as a possible spiritual gift.  The question remains whether evangelism is a spiritual gift or is it an activity that all believers should be involved in to some degree? 

The best place to start seems to be the spiritual gifts listed by Paul in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12.

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (Romans 12:6-8)

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Absent from this list is the gift of evangelism.  At this point, some may claim that Ephesians 4:11-13 lists evangelism as a spiritual gift.  The passage reads, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”  The first part of the passage may appear to highlight the evangelist as receiving a special gifting from Christ apart from the rest of the church.  However, the end of the verse is key.  For what purpose did Christ give the evangelist?  To prepare God’s people for works of service.  Since Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus, “his people” is referring to believers, so the evangelist wouldn’t be preparing “his people” for works of service by sharing the gospel with non-believers, but by equipping believers to share their faith with others.  Instead of identifying evangelism as a job for the few, Paul instead calling the evangelist to train others to participate in this important work.

While looking at spiritual gift lists may seem to give an exact answer to our question, it is better to take a systematic look at the New Testament church to examine what all believers did and what all believers were taught in regards to evangelism and the proclamation of the gospel.

What did all believers do?

The book of Acts gives us a window into the life of the early church.  One difference from much of modern Christianity was the substance of their prayers.  If we had a database of all the prayer requests that American Christians made in the past year, I suspect that many would be petitions to make our lives or the lives of our loved ones more pleasant - prayers for traveling mercies, good health, improved relationships, and the resolution of financial issues.  While we should bring all of our concerns to the Lord, I doubt that many prayers resembled the believers’ prayer after Peter and John were released by the Sanhedrin and warned not to preach the gospel: “Now, Lord, consider their (the Sanhedrin) threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (Acts 4:29).

In this past year, I have been humbled and challenged to ask God to grant me boldness to speak his word fearlessly.  Sometimes, I have found myself crying out day after day for God to grant me this spirit of boldness.  This is what all the believers were asking for, not just boldness for Peter and John.  They all desired fearlessness to share the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Well, God answered their prayer.  A few chapters later, after Stephen is stoned to death as the church’s first martyr, “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria...Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:1,4).  Note that it was not the apostles who were scattered, but the “normal” believers and they preached the gospel wherever they went.  So we have all believers petitioning God for boldness to share the gospel and then sharing the gospel wherever they are scattered by the sovereign will of God.

Similar patterns are seen in Paul’s letters to the various churches that he mentored and exhorted.

You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.  And you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere. (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8)

Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. (2 Thessalonians 3:1)

All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. (Colossians 1:6)

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:4-5)

Among the Thessalonians, the gospel message spread rapidly and rang out in Macedonia and the neighboring province of Achaia.  It is hard to imagine that the message spread rapidly solely through the preaching of Paul and his missionary partners, Silas and Timothy.  Instead, as imitators of Paul, the believers in Thessalonica most likely joined him in the proclamation of the gospel message.  Likewise, the gospel bore fruit and grew in Colossae, most likely through the evangelism of ordinary believers. Finally, Paul is filled with joy not just because of the Philippians’ acceptance of the gospel, but of their partnership in the work of sharing its message.

What were all believer’s taught?

Once again, letters to the early church, whether from Paul or another apostle, provide excellent insight into what the first generations of Christians were taught about evangelism.  The clearest teaching comes in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.  We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

While there are certainly reports of Christ revealing himself through visions, dreams or other miraculous means, God’s primary plan of reconciliation with sinners is through the appeal of his people.  We are his ambassadors and representatives.  Peter builds on this idea, encouraging, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). As God’s chosen people, we are called to declare the goodness of the one who freed us from the darkness of sin that we might walk in the light of his grace.

How were ambassadors of Christ supposed to make their appeal?  How were a people belonging to God supposed to proclaim his praises?  While the Bible clearly teaches that our love for one another and the fruit of the Spirit in our lives should reflect the goodness of God, the gospel message spreads through verbal proclamation. 

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?  As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” But not all the Israelites accepted the good news.  For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message? Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. (Romans 10:14-17)

Finally, Paul exhorts believers to imitate his faith (1 Corinthians 4:16) and to follow his example, as he follows Christ’s example (1 Corinthians 11:1).  Part of this imitation would be following Paul’s passionate desire to fearlessly and boldly proclaim the gospel.  Consider some of Paul’s writings below:

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24)

I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish.  That is why I am eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.  For I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God that brings salvation onto everyone who believes. (Romans 1:14-16)

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach.  Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:16)

And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. (Colossians 4:3)

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:19-20)

A survey of the book of Acts will show this desire in action and the rest of Paul’s letters will demonstrate his earnest desire to preach the gospel.  It is a desire that he longed for his spiritual children to imitate as they “shine like stars in the universe” and “hold out the word of life.” (Philippians 2:15-16)

Further passages that support the call of all believers to evangelism include 1 Peter 3:15, Colossians 4:2-6, Philippians 1:12-18, Philippians 1:27-28, Ephesians 6:15, 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16, and 2 Corinthians 9:13. 

However, my intention in writing this post is not to create a burden that is too heavy to bear.  It is not to motivate the church to action through guilt or duty.  If we only know that we “ought” to be more active in sharing our faith, it can become a law that enslaves and leads to guilt and despair.  There is a better way, for the Spirit can change “ought to” to “want to.”  This will require us to focus on the joy that comes from evangelism.  In the next post, we will see that we are not called to burdensome duty, but to freeing joy.

What is Evangelism?

“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord has given me - the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”

The Apostle Paul  (Acts 20:24)

Evangelism.  There are few words in the English language that have such power to make Christian and non-Christian alike squirm in their seat. 

For non-Christians, the word raises suspicions and puts them on the defense.  Are you going to try to convert me?  Well, yes, I do hope that you decide to put your faith in Christ, but evangelism shouldn’t be viewed as being synonymous with brainwashing.  Recent polls that show mixed feelings towards Evangelical Christians and the presently divided political climate probably also contribute to uneasiness with the word.  However, non-Christians perception of evangelism is not the focus of this post.  

Instead, aligning Christian’s perspective of evangelism to the Biblical description of evangelism is the goal of this post.  Most Christians would agree that we are called to be ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20), but most receive little direct teaching or training in evangelism, which leaves us vulnerable to misconceptions and half-truths that pervade Christian culture.  There is also a fear that being seen as a “prostyletizer” will make others view us crazy Christians who are likely to be seen on the side of the road holding signs telling people they are going to Hell.  As a result, few Christians are active in sharing their faith and may be as uncomfortable with the topic as non-Christians.   

This would be a good point to stop and say that it is incredibly humbling to write about evangelism because I think back to all the opportunities to share the gospel that I allowed to pass by and continue to pass up.  I think of friends, colleagues, neighbors, and housemates with whom I did not share the gospel.  I write this as someone who recognizes my own weakness and timidity and regularly pleads with God to grow in boldness.  Yet, in the past year, I have become much bolder in sharing the gospel and have learned lessons that I believe are important to share with the church so that we can grow together, fearlessly sharing the gospel for the glory of God and the joy of his people.  This starts with first building a Biblically-based, foundational understanding of evangelism.

Ironically, the word “evangelism” doesn’t occur in most English translations of the Bible.  Instead, the Greek word “euaggelion”, which occurs seventy-six times in the New Testament, is most frequently translated as “gospel”, denoting the content of good news and “euaggelizo,” which occurs fifty-four times in the New Testament, is most often translated as “preach” or “to preach the gospel”.  One picture of contemporary use of the word “euaggelion” is that of a herald returning to announce victory in battle.  A related form, “euaggelistes”, is translated as “evangelist” or someone who shares “euaggelion.”  Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology provides a helpful definition of evangelism: to proclaim the good news of the victory of God’s salvation.

Therefore, to build a Biblical understanding of evangelism, it is first necessary to develop a Biblical understanding of the gospel.  While whole books could and have been written on the depth and richness of the gospel, the following “Romans Road” approach provides a clear and basic presentation of the gospel.

1.     All have sinned
Romans 3:23 – “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The Bible clearly teaches that none stand righteous before God.  Both Jews, who received the written law, and Gentiles, who have the requirements of the law written on their conscious, fall short of God’s standard of moral perfection.
2)  All deserve death
Romans 6:23a – “For the wages of sin is death…”
A wage is something that is dutifully deserved for one’s actions.  All have sinned against a holy, perfect and just God and the rightful punishment for our rebellion is eternal spiritual death.  While many view this as excessively harsh, few would think highly of a human judge who let criminals go with no consequence for their transgressions.  That would be a crooked, unjust judge that few would respect.  Yet, somehow, that is what many people expect from the perfectly just judge of the universe.
3) Christ died for our sins

Romans 5:8 – “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Romans 3:25-26 – “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

Many claim that a loving God would never punish sinners to eternal condemnation, but that neglects God’s justice.  The beauty of the gospel is that God pours out his love by sending his own son to die in our place, yet still maintains his justice by punishing our transgressions through Christ’s death on the cross.  God’s love and God’s justice meet at the cross of Calvary.

4) God’s Gift is Eternal Life

Romans 6:23b – “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The gift of eternal life has been made available through Christ’s death on the cross.  It is a free gift.  God has sent the sacrifice and bore the penalty on our behalf.  There is nothing we can do to earn this precious gift.

5) Receive Salvation through Faith

Romans 10:9-10 – “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”
Salvation is available to all who confess and believe that Jesus died for their sins, rose and victory over death, and reigns forevermore.  There is much more that could be said about the gospel, but this overview provides the heart of what is meant by “euaggelion” or the gospel declared in the New Testament.

It is vital to understand that it is this gospel, accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit, that is the power of salvation.  The Apostle Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).  If it is our goal to be ambassadors for Christ in a way that leads people to be reconciled to God, we must be proclaiming this message.  Later in Romans, Paul urges Christians to proclaim the gospel messages by exhorting them with the following questions: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14).

Yet, if Christians honestly and humbly assess our lives, very few of us are active in proclaiming the gospel message.  I have to humbly confess that after being active in evangelism in college, I only shared the gospel once in over a decade.  Please read about My Journey with Evangelism.  I believe that most Christians find themselves on the sidelines in this area due to three half-truths or misconceptions that are ingrained in Evangelical Christian culture.

Half-truth - Preach the gospel at all times.  Use words if necessary.

This quote is falsely attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, who himself was actually quite bold in sharing the gospel.  The truth is that we should lives in which our good works result in praise to God.  This is what it means to be lights of the world, salt of the earth, and cities on a hill (Matthew 5:13 - 15), yet these good works are not sufficient to lead someone to saving faith in Christ.  Paul makes it abundantly clear that the gospel message can not be believed unless it is heard, and it can not be heard unless it is proclaimed.  Words will always be necessary.

I fear that this maxim is used by Christians to provide a practical justification for not sharing the gospel, when the fear of man is really the driving force.  The thinking goes, “I will preach the gospel by my actions and this will lead people to Christ.”  While we should generously serve others out of genuine love for them, it is foolish to think that they will then understand the gospel by osmosis.  Yes, our lives can adorn the gospel and make others more willing to listen to our message, but the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection must be proclaimed to lead others to saving faith. 

Misconception - Relationship evangelism is the best way to share your faith

There is a narrative in Evangelical Christianity that says the most effective way to be an ambassador for Christ is to form friendships with non-believers, spend several years earning their trust and respect, and then share your faith with them.  Please, don’t get me wrong, we should absolutely be sharing the gospel with our friends, neighbors, and colleagues, not from manipulative motives, but out of genuine love and concern.  I am also humbled, because this is an area where I struggle to be bold and desire to grow more fearless.  However, the problem is that this philosophy is again used as an excuse to not be bold in sharing the gospel.  It seems that we are always stuck in the relationship building phase and always finding convenient reasons why this is not the right time to share our faith.

Consider this analogy.  You meet a new co-worker at work and learn that they have a terminal illness.  You know of a doctor that has recently discovered a new treatment for this illness, but you don’t think your colleague will trust your recommendation, so you decide to spend the year building a trusting relationship before sharing this good news.  That’s madness, yet that is what we do with the gospel.  Again, this is where writing this post is incredibly humbling, because I have fallen short in this area repeatedly and continue to do so.  Just this year, a colleague passed away at the end of the school year.  I had never shared the gospel with him.  It seems that we are always waiting for the right time, until it is too late.

The final problem with the modern version of relationship evangelism is that you won’t find it described in the New Testament.  Browse through the book of Acts and you will see early Christians doing the following:

  • Preaching to large crowds in public settings (Acts 2:14-40, Acts 3:11-26, Acts 5:21-25, Acts 13:44, Acts 14:15-18, Acts 22:1-21)
  • Addressing religious or government leaders (Acts 4:1-21, Acts 7, Act 24:24-25, Acts 26:1-29, Acts 28:23-28)
  • Proclaiming the gospel in the temple courts and from house to house (Acts 5:42)
  • Preaching the word wherever they went (Acts 8:4, Acts 11:19-21)
  • Preaching the gospel and reasoning from the scriptures in the synagogues (Acts 9:20, Acts 9:28-29, Acts 13:5, Acts 13:15-41, Acts 14:1, Acts 17:1-4, Acts 17:10-11, Acts 17:16-17, Acts 18:4, Acts 18:19, Acts 18:25, Acts 19:8) 
  • Engaging in public debate and discussion (Acts 17:19-34, Acts 18:28, Acts 19:9-10)
  • Speaking the word of God boldly (Acs 4:29-31, Acts 28:31)
  • Preaching the gospel in cities and towns (Acts 8:5, Acts 8:40, Acts 11:19-21, Acts 14:6, Acts 14:21, Acts 14:25, Acts 15:35, Acts 16:13)
  • Sharing the gospel with people they had just met (Acts 8:26-39, Acts 10:34-43, Acts 16:29-34)

Now, I have no doubt that early Christians shared the gospel with their family, neighbors, friends, and co-workers, but one can easily see that the modern version of relationship evangelism is absent from the New Testament.  You will not find an example of an early Christian cultivating a relationship for several years in the hopes of one day explaining the gospel.  They urgently, boldly, and fearlessly shared the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Misconception - The following are forms of evangelism

I share the following list not to minimize the importance of these actions or the genuine love they require, but to provide clarity on the biblical definition of evangelism.  While these actions may be beautiful expressions of our faith, require true spiritual courage, and be ways to reach out to non-believers, they do not proclaim the victory of God’s salvation and, in isolation, are not forms of evangelism.

  • Telling people that you are a Christian or go to church
  • Inviting people to church
  • Praying for someone or letting them know that you are praying for them
  • Doing acts of service or good deeds
  • Demonstrating good Christian character
  • Being a nice person   
  • Telling someone that God loves them

I am not saying that Christians should not be doing these things or that these actions have no value as part of someone’s journey towards faith in Christ.  I am not saying that these are not genuine ways to show God’s love to our neighbors.  I am not saying that these actions do not adorn the gospel, provide authenticity of the gospel’s effect in the life of a believer, or result in praise to God.  What I am saying is that these actions, without the proclamation of the gospel, do not have the power to lead someone to salvation.  As I pointed out earlier, the gospel is “the power of God that brings salvation” (Romans 1:16) and belief comes from hearing the preaching of the gospel (Romans 10:14).  While these are things that I hope all Christian’s are doing, we should not stop there.  I understand the courage that it can take to make a comment around non-believers that reveals that you are a Christian or to invite a neighbor to church, but I think we fool ourselves if we think that they are forms of evangelism.  These are things that we should do out of genuine love and concern for our neighbor, while at the same time recognizing that salvation requires a proclamation of the good news of grace through faith in Christ.

Now that I have shared a Biblical definition of evangelism, I encourage you to be like the noble Bereans.  Don’t take my word for it.  Search the scriptures.  I would encourage you to read Acts and pay special attention to how early Christians share the gospel.  Read Paul’s letters to early Christians and take note of his urgency and his desire that God would grant him boldness to fearlessly proclaim the Word of God.  I hope that you will see that evangelism in the early church looks much different than it does in much of Evangelical Christian culture.

Yet, you might be thinking, “I just don’t have the gift of evangelism.  I have other gifts that I use to serve God and people, but evangelism is just not my strength.”  Which leads to the question: Is evangelism for all believers or is it a spiritual gift that only some Christians posses?  That is the topic of my next post.