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.

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