Friday, July 5, 2019

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.

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