Through the years as a Christian, I’ve heard people misuse certain language and phrases when pointing people to trust Jesus Christ by faith. For some reason, these phrases become popular and passed on from person to person and from church to church. One such phrase is comes often in form of a question: “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
The heart of the question is good, because it’s seeking to point people to examine if they are in the faith. However, in an attempt to point people to see their need for Jesus Christ, they use extrabiblical language. Rather than asking someone to examine himself—the question is turned into a focus on a personal relationship. Why is this a bad method of communicating?
Such Communication Dulls the Biblical Language
The language of Scripture is often sharp and confrontational. It doesn’t lack an edge and is sharper than any two-edged sword that pierces inwardly—into the soul (Heb. 4:12). According to Jeremiah, the Bible is a consuming fire (Jer. 23:29). According to James 1:22-25, the Scriptures serve as a mirror.
In the Bible, we hear the biblical authors, prophets, apostles—pointing people to believe the gospel. Their language is emphatic and pressing. John the Baptist never asked Herod if he had a personal relationship with Jesus. Instead, he informed him with no uncertain terms that he was living in sin because he should’t have Herodias as his wife (Luke 3:19). Jesus himself spoke with conviction when he preached—pointing people to repent and believe the gospel (Matt. 4:17).
Everyone Has a Personal Relationship with Jesus
Everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live in human history has a relationship with Jesus. No, this is not the doctrine of universalism—the false idea that everyone who dies goes to heaven. The fact is, even people in hell today have a personal relationship with Jesus. Their relationship is not a good one and God deals with such people in wrath, but make no mistake—it’s very personal.
When we talk with people over coffee or when we preach sermons—we need to go far beyond asking people if they have a personal relationship with Jesus. In fact, we should inform them that they have a personal relationship with Jesus and it’s in the form of personal accountability. It would be better to employ biblical language as we talk to people and point them to see their need for faith in Jesus Christ.
- Do you have faith alone in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins?
- Examine yourself to see if you’re in the faith.
- Have you believed the gospel of God?
- Have you obeyed God by repenting of your sins and by faith—trusting in the single sacrifice of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins?
- Do you have faith in the God who has revealed himself to us in the pages of the Bible and who has made known to us the mystery of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ?
- Is your faith real and does it produce evidence?
Let our language be seasoned with the Scriptures rather than popular extrabiblical phrases that dull the sword and leave people with a confused view of salvation and what it means to be a Christian. Jesus is not our “boyfriend”—he’s the sovereign, ruling, King of the universe.
Far too often we program and compartmentalize things that are intended to be engaged in more naturally. One such area of life is evangelism. I was reminded of this reality last week as I walked around the pond in our local park. I found myself talking with a man and our conversation moved to the gospel. Soon enough, we were in the throes of a deep gospel centered talk about life. At one point, he looked at me and said, “I’m 49 years old, and this is the first time in my entire life that someone has intentionally talked to me about these things.”
As Christians, we’re commissioned by Christ to go and make disciples, but we often turn such practices into a 3-4 step program rather than a natural way of communication and personal interaction. Maybe you are finding yourself lost in how to get involved in sharing the gospel? Why not add some spontaneity to your evangelism?
Programs Can Sometimes Act as Walls
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against all programs in the life of the church. However, there are many times when programs can become so structured that it provides walls that hinder rather than bridges that deliver. Do you feel like you are being forced to fulfill a program rather than genuinely engage people with the gospel out of compassion? When it comes to evangelism, if people become attached to a programed approach, they will often overlook opportunities directly in their paths at their children’s ball practices, at lunch break, or on the college campus simply because evangelism is something they do on Tuesday evenings.
Even if a person decides to support their church’s evangelism program—adding spontaneity in the area of evangelism will provide a more natural and efficient form of lifestyle evangelism as opposed to a strictly programed approach. This will not only allow a person to become more natural, but it will build confidence as the person shares the gospel more frequently.
Romans is a Biblical Letter Not an Evangelism Road
I was trained to share the gospel with the “Roman Road” technique that begins with Romans 3:23 (sin) and moves on to Romans 5:12 to reinforce before moving on to Romans 6:23 to point to the judgment of God that everyone earns by their sin. After discussing these details, you move to Romans 10:13 to emphasize the reality that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord by faith will be saved. Finally, if the person is ready to repent, you turn to Romans 10:9-10 and help them call out to the Lord with faith that Christ died for them on the cross.
Sure, these verses are true, but Romans was not really intended to be a gospel tract. It might be good to begin with the law of God (Ten Commandments) and then move to the New Testament to show how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s law and after keeping it in totality—he was sacrificed for sinners and provides his righteousness to everyone who comes to him by faith. Perhaps in a more natural way, a person can talk through creation, fall, condemnation, incarnation, redemption, and the final consummation of the final salvation in Christ.
Programs Can Communicate a Negative Message
If your sole means of evangelism is something you do on Tuesday evening—you will likely find that fruit is few and far between. People tend to look at programed visits as planned or even paid visits as opposed to genuine and compassionate. Not only can this approach communicate that message, it can turn into that approach by the one engaging in the evangelism program too if not guarded. The person that’s being visited is an image bearer of God and deserves to be treated as such—rather than a mere notch on the belt. John Piper, in his sermon titled, “I am Sending You to Open their Eyes, 2 Cor. 4:1-7” said the following:
Be encouraged that simply finding people interesting and caring about them is a beautiful pathway into their heart. Evangelism gets a bad reputation when we are not really interested in people and don’t seem to care about them. People really are interesting. The person you are talking to is an amazing creation of God with a thousand interesting experiences. Very few people are interested in them. If you really find their story interesting, and care about them, they may open up to you and want to hear your story—Christ’s story.
Any true church of Jesus Christ will be actively engaging the neighborhoods and the nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus has given us a clear commission that we often refer to as “The Great Commission” in Matthew 28:18-20. Any group who calls themselves a church but refuses to engage in the spread of God’s good news of salvation is certainly something other than a church. That being said, many methods and missions of local churches that fly beneath the banner of evangelism are not biblical evangelism.
Many pithy definitions have been spread around throughout evangelicalism over the years on the subject of evangelism. One such statement defines evangelism as “One beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” While this is certainly a description, it’s lacking in substance and cannot be a true definition. Evangelism comes from the Greek verb “euangelizesthai [which] means ‘to announce good news’, and is found 52 times in the NT. The noun euangelion means ‘good news’, and occurs 72 times, mostly in Paul. The noun euangelistēs, meaning ‘evangelist’, appears only three times (Acts 21:8; Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:5).” 
Therefore, the word evangelism actually means to communicate the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ to guilty sinners who deserve the judgment of God. Mark Dever defines evangelism as follows:
[Evangelism] is telling the good news about Jesus, and doing it with honesty, urgency, and joy, using the Bible, living a life that backs it up, and praying, and doing it all for the glory of God. 
Don Whitney provides a helpful definition of evangelism by writing:
Evangelism is to present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit to sinful people, in order that they may come to put their trust in God through Him, to receive Him as their Savior, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His Church. If we want to define it simply, we could say that New Testament evangelism is communicating the gospel. Anyone who faithfully relates the essential elements of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ is evangelizing. This is true whether your words are spoken, written, or recorded, and whether they are delivered to one person or to a crowd. 
Therefore, it’s essential to understand what evangelism is and what it entails before passionately supporting a ministry or mission that falls beneath this category. While it’s a good thing for a church to be engaged in various endeavors such as mercy ministries, that alone is not evangelism.
That’s Not Evangelism
If evangelism is a true presentation of the saving message of the gospel that comes exclusively through Jesus Christ the Lord, anything other than this is not biblical evangelism. Consider the fact that much mercy ministry, although well intended, is not evangelism (or missions). Some popular missions and ministries within local churches often find themselves categorized as evangelism or mission endeavors, but in all reality—they’re not.
- Sharing your testimony is not evangelism
- Digging wells in poor villages in Kenya is not evangelism
- Choir trips to foreign nations is not evangelism
- Apologetics is not evangelism
- Providing shoes for underprivileged students is not evangelism
- Inviting people to church is not evangelism
- Serving people in sports ministries is not evangelism
- Wearing a Christian t-shirt or jewelry is not evangelism
- Tweeting or sharing Christian quotes is not evangelism
- Evangelism is not church planting
It’s not that these things are bad, in fact, I engage in most of the things in this list (except for the choir trips). All of these things can be really powerful tools used by the Lord to open doors to evangelism, but they’re not evangelism at the foundational level. It’s quite possible to wear Christian apparel without sharing the good news of what Christianity is all about. It’s very probable that many wells have been dug in social gospel efforts without sharing the true gospel. It’s possible to win a well framed argument in an apologetic setting, but miss the boat in real evangelism.
Perhaps many Christians don’t share the gospel because they lack good examples or haven’t been discipled by a good biblical evangelist. In many cases, this isn’t true. A lack of evangelism is prevalent among many evangelical churches, and it’s not based on a lack of knowledge or opportunity. A lack of genuine evangelism among evangelical churches is most often the result of laziness and selfishness.
It would do us all well to read Matthew 9:35-38 – “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”
Until the King returns, let us be faithful to the commission. In order to become a Christian, it’s necessary to affirm the true gospel of Christ. In order to validate a genuine faith in Christ, one must move beyond affirmation to declaration of the gospel.
- Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 241.
- Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, (Grand Rapids: Crossway, 2007), 107.
- Don Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, (Colorado Springs, Co: NavPress, 1991), 100.
This summer, we are reading Don Whitney’s book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life together. With certain goals for us as individuals, we all desire to grow in grace and personal holiness. The purpose of this study is to help us make necessary adjustments in our spiritual lives that will enable us to achieve such goals by incorporating the use of spiritual disciplines.
In the previous chapters, Don Whitney has outlined the specifics of Bible reading, meditation, prayer, and worship. What exactly is taking place when we read the Bible, meditate on Scripture, and pray? These are merely component parts of worship. In this chapter, Whitney shifts gears and puts his focus upon evangelism. In the opening words of this chapter, Don Whitney writes, “Only the sheer rapture of being lost in the worship of God is as exhilarating and intoxicating as telling someone about Jesus Christ” (119).
Evangelism is Expected
As we consider the fact that evangelism is expected of us since Jesus has commissioned us to share the good news, why do so many of us fail to openly share the gospel with our contacts, friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers? The reason is typically centered on the false idea that we have to be Bible experts to share the good news. In addition to this false assumption, the fearful concept of door-to-door (stranger evangelism) evokes a negative response from most people in the church as well. Poor methods of ministry typically lead people to fear and a lack of genuine ministry – in this case – evangelism. Don Whitney labels this evangelophobia.
Don Whitney points out that while God may indeed gift the church with certain people who are exceptionally gifted in the area of evangelism, He does expect all believers to do the work of evangelism. He writes, “Just as each Christian, regardless of spiritual gift or ministry, is to love others, so each believer is to evangelize whether or not his or her gift is that of evangelist” (121).
Evangelism is Empowered
Don Whitney touches on something that’s perhaps at the raw core of the fear to evangelize unbelievers. He writes, “I’ve never heard it expressed, but I think the seriousness of evangelism is the main reason it frightens us” (123). That very well may be a point worthy of consideration. Although Christ expects us to share the gospel, the very seriousness of heaven, hell, judgment, grace, and the eternality of a person’s soul is at the center of evangelism. That alone may prevent more true evangelism.
The Holy Spirit empowers us to evangelize the lost. Just as we are empowered by the Spirit, the very message of good news is called the “power of God” unto salvation (Romans 1:16). Therefore, we must share the gospel with confidence that God will indeed bring His elect to faith through the good news of Christ. Whitney writes:
What is success in evangelism? When the person you witness to comes to Christ? Certainly that’s what we want to happen. But if we measure evangelistic success only by conversions, are we failures whenever we share the gospel and people refuse to believe? Was Jesus an “evangelistic failure” when people like the rich young ruler turned away from Him and His message (see Mark 10:21-22)? Obviously not. Then neither are we when we present Christ and His message and people turn away in unbelief (124).
Evangelism is a Discipline
Have you ever been around someone who wanted to speak the praises of their doctor who helped them through a difficult health condition or scare? They willingly recommend them and assign great words of praise to them and their ability to do their job. Why is it that so many people claim to have been saved by Christ, but they never tell anyone about Christ. According to Don Whitney, “Evangelism is a natural overflow of the Christian life” (127).
Like any other discipline, evangelism is something that must be practiced and developed through an ongoing routine of sharing our faith. Whitney writes, “Unless we discipline ourselves for evangelism, we can easily excuse ourselves from ever sharing the gospel with anyone” (130). No matter how much or how little Bible knowledge we possess, we must discipline ourselves for evangelism.
Catch up in this series:
Questions to Consider:
- Because evangelism is expected, will you obey the Lord and witness?
- Because evangelism is empowered, will you believe God can use your words in the salvation of others?
- Because evangelism is a discipline, will you plan for it?
- Do you use the law to prepare people to receive the good news of Christ? Consider using the law (use the Ten Commandments) as a means of revealing a person’s sin and then point them to Jesus Christ as their only hope (Acts 4:12).
Next Week: Next week, we will turn to chapter 7 and look at the subject of serving. Read ahead and think through the content of that chapter, and we will gather here next week to discuss what we’re learning.
Discussion: Post your comments, thoughts, and questions in the comments section. I will engage with you at times, but the purpose is to allow everyone to have a conversation regarding what we are learning and considering through this book. I do hope you will be encouraged.
Today we will begin a three-part series (posted each Tuesday) that will focus on the positive side of being negative. Today’s subject is centered on the need to be negative in the work of evangelism. Each Tuesday for the next two weeks, I will address the need to be negative in the work of apologetics and pastoral ministry.
We’ve all heard the line, “Don’t be negative, you will push people away.” Recently, I published an article that openly criticized a popular figure in evangelical circles. What I wasn’t prepared for was all of the negative responses from people who were accusing me of being negative. I do understand the point that many people expressed as they accused me of hindering the gospel. While I’m generally a happy, optimistic, and positive person who enjoys spending time in laughter, when it comes to the gospel, there is more to it than, “Smile, God has a wonderful plan for your life.”
We live in a hashtag happy culture that demands positivity and tolerance. The hashtags #DontHate and #DontJudge are popular statements in our society. Is it true that a perpetual positive tone will automatically lead people to faith in Jesus? The idea that being positive leads people to Christ while being negative leads people to hell is flawed on several different levels. While it’s certainly not Christlike to be rude, hateful, and arrogant in sharing the truth, we must realize that in order to share the gospel, a certain amount of negativity is required.
The Problem of Sin is Negative
The fact that everyone has sinned against God is not a positive message (Rom. 3:23). John Calvin once remarked that the heart is an idol factory. In fact, the truth that a person has sinned against God and that their heart is wicked (Jer. 17:9) is the most negative thing a person could ever hear. Although the message is negative, the purpose is positive.
Sin must be treated like a poisonous viper rather than a family lap dog. It must be approached with an urgency that requires immediate action. To allow sin to grow like cancer is detrimental to a person’s soul. We take our cues from Jesus, and as we examine His preaching, we see that He was straightforward and honest with people. Consider the woman at the well in John’s gospel, Jesus pointed out her sexual sin directly without attempting friendship evangelism. When we look at the preaching of Peter in Acts, we see him pointing out the sin of the multitude. In Paul’s preaching, he was consistently thrown in jail for his preaching, because he pointed out the negative reality of sin.
Sin is horrible and the end result is even worse. We must not walk in the footsteps of Joel Osteen who refuses to deal with the root of sin. We must not be like the doctor who treats the symptoms of cancer rather than the cancer. We must follow in the footsteps of Jesus and His apostles. If we want to lead people to Christ, we must address their sin and this will require us to be negative.
Francis Schaeffer was once asked, “What would you do if you met a really modern man on a train and you just had an hour to talk to him about the gospel?” He replied:
I’ve said over and over, I would spend 45-50 minutes on the negative, to really show him his dilemma – that he is morally dead – then I’d take 10-15 minutes to preach the gospel. I believe that much of our evangelistic and personal work today is not clear simply because we are too anxious to get to the answer without having a man realize the real cause of his sickness, which is true moral guilt (and not just psychological guilt feelings) in the presence of God. 
The Reality of Hell is Negative
Our culture uses hell as a word to emphasize the extremeness of an adjective rather than a place of torment where guilty sinners suffer endlessly. Could it be that the reason the church talks so much about heaven and so little about hell is because many people in the church don’t actually believe in a literal hell? It may shock some people to know that Jesus actually preached more about hell than He did about heaven during His earthly ministry. What may come as an added surprise to many in the church today is that Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible. In fact, if you take all everyone who spoke about hell in the Bible and combine all of their teaching on the subject, Jesus said more than everyone else combined.
The point is clear, Jesus preached about hell and it wasn’t a positive message (Luke 16:19-31; Matt. 13:41-42, 49-50). The reality of endless torment, suffering, agony, flames, pain, and the eternal wrath of God being poured out upon sinners is not a positive picture. However, it’s a necessary picture. The justice of God demands that sinners be judged. There will be no escape for guilty sinners, and this is not a positive thought or message. If you attempt to divorce God’s mercy from God’s justice, the end result is something other than the gospel.
The Exclusive Gospel is Negative
People do not like to be told they’re wrong. I recall my wife years ago telling me the story about her upper management at a high end personal training facility schooling her on the art of being positive. They trained her on how to address people who were overweight without telling them they were….wrong. She was told to move them to the solution without being negative. Why was so much effort put into such training? It was all about money and success. If you tell people they’re wrong, they might not return and when they don’t return, it will result in decreased sales.
That same mindset has crept into the church today. The church has lost its prophetic voice. The pulpit sounds like Veggie Tales rather than the apostle Paul. The message of the cross is a stumbling block to the world. The bloody cross is offensive. However, unless the emphatic exclusivity of Christ is preached and explained without compromise, people will perish eternally. The church today must be courageous enough in our God hating society to lift up Christ as the exclusive door of salvation. The church must dare to be negative in the sense of telling sinners that God demands that they repent.
The only hope for sinners is for someone to be bold enough to tell them they’re wrong, they’re guilty, and that there is hope in God through Jesus Christ. A statement from the children’s movie years ago titled Finding Nemo stated, “All drains lead to the ocean” (Gill in Finding Nemo). That may be true in the pixelated cartoon world of Hollywood, but it’s not true when it comes to real life. Our ecumenical culture is confused regarding religion and that has never been more clearly visible than at the recent Muhammad Ali funeral. All religions don’t lead to the same place. The moment we point out the errors of such an ecumenical interfaith funeral, we have just become negative.
The church is not called to be rude, prideful, arrogant, and harsh. The call to preach the gospel is not a license to be ugly. We don’t need to make the gospel more offensive and negative than it already is. While the gospel is good news to guilty sinners, it’s also negative at the same time. To speak the truth in love requires that we speak the truth. Remember, Jesus loved sinners, but He told them the truth. The most unloving thing we could possible do is to remain silent about the truth in our attempt to be positive. A happy church will share a negative message with a positive goal. Do you want to lead more people to Jesus? You need to be negative!
J. Gresham Machen once said:
No man is interested in a piece of good news unless he has the consciousness of needing it; no man is interested in an offer of salvation unless he knows that there is something from which he needs to be saved. It is quite useless to ask a man to adopt the Christian view of the gospel unless he first has the Christian view of sin. 
- Will Metzger, Tell The Truth, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 118.
- J. Gresham Machen, God Transcendent and Other Sermons, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949), 34.
What Role Does Evangelism Have in the New Birth?
A re you discouraged in your efforts of evangelism? Jesus spoke of the necessity of being born again in His conversation with Nicodemus (John 3). Many books have been written on the subject of the new birth and evangelism throughout church history. Born again is a phrase coined by Jesus to reference salvation. When you hear people talk about being saved – what they’re referring to is their past conversion and present commitment to be a follower of Jesus.
Evangelism is the process of explaining the gospel to people and helping them see their need for Jesus. Today, we have popular seminars and conferences devoted to the subject of evangelism. Throughout the recent history of the church, we have witnessed the rise and fall of programatic evangelism through Evangelism Explosion and other similar approaches. What must happen for a person to be born again? What are the basic essentials in the salvation of a lost soul? What role does evangelism have in the new birth?
1. Evangelism Essential: The Gospel Must be Presented
Many people form their philosophy of evangelism by the popular phrase, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” The statement is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but the source is highly questionable. No matter who spoke the phrase and popularized it, the fact remains, that type of evangelistic philosophy is antithetical to the Great Commission given by Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20). We must use words to present the gospel. The gospel is made up of words and sentences.
God’s exclusive plan of salvation is the gospel of Jesus. Without the gospel, no person can be saved. People can come to the reality of God’s existence through the reflection of God in creation. The entire universe points to the existence of God, but that is as far as the created world goes. No tree, bird, deer, or rock has preached the gospel. Without the gospel, all people would perish.
Paul pointed out this truth in his letter to the Christians in Rome. In Romans 10:14-17, Paul writes:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”  But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Often people in the church will argue that people who have never heard the gospel and been given an opportunity to repent will die and go to heaven. That is merely an argument from sentimentalism rather than theology. Suppose a person grew up in a remote jungle and only knew to worship a carved image in a piece of wood that was handed down to his tribe from his ancestors over 100 years ago. When that person dies, if he goes to heaven, three very important things must be understood:
- The man’s sin was overlooked by God. What does this say about God’s justice system at this point?
- The death of Jesus is overrated and unnecessary to save fallen sinners. So, why did God crush His Son (Isaiah 53)?
- Christian missions is a tragic waste of time and money. Why does the church send missionaries to the nations?
The fact is, the tribesman who never hears the gospel dies and goes to hell because he has transgressed the law of God. Only through the gospel can this man be rescued. As Paul makes clear, he cannot have faith in Jesus if he has never heard of Him. Therefore, the gospel must be presented before anyone can be born again.
2. Evangelism Essential: Call for Repentance
Repentance is necessary for a person to receive the forgiveness of sins and to be reconciled to a holy God. If our evangelism does not make this clear, we are not properly evangelizing. This is abundantly clear in the pages of Scripture. Jesus said, in Luke 13:3, “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” What exactly is repentance?
First, we must make it crystal clear that repentance is more than external rituals. Repentance begins with an internal acknowledgement of guilt and a commitment to turn away from sin. This internal work is not an anonymous act, but is fixated upon the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Repentance is the point where the sinner calls out to God for mercy and trusts that Jesus’ work on the cross is enough to satisfy God’s holy justice.
The acknowledgement of guilt brings a person to hate the things he once loved and love the things he once hated. The well known English preacher from church history, Charles Spurgeon, defined repentance by saying:
Repentance is a discovery of the evil of sin, a mourning that we have committed it, a resolution to forsake it. It is, in fact, a change of mind of a very deep and practical character, which makes the man love what once he hated, and hate what once he loved. [HT: Desiring God]
There is much controversy in some evangelical circles surrounding the use of the “sinner’s prayer” in evangelism. The fact is, a sinner must call upon the Lord for salvation and this is clear from what Paul said in Romans 10:13 as he quoted from Joel 2:32. In evangelism, we must urge people to respond to God and this involves turning from their sin and clinging to their singular hope in God through Jesus Christ.
3. Evangelism Essential: Trust God
Through the years, I have witnessed some really bad examples of evangelism programs and gospel presentations. Some were due to a lack of preparation and proper training, but others were unmistakably the work of prepared manipulation. I once witnessed a preacher give an alter call at the end of a sermon where he asked all of his trained counselors to wait to come to the front until he called for unbelievers to come to the front to receive counseling. This would “prime the pump” and allow people to freely respond.
Techniques like this have been used in the church for many years, and unfortunately, that’s why we have such a large percentage of lost church members scattered out through many evangelical churches. Evangelism techniques that manipulate man as opposed to trusting in God to bring about a response should be condemned by the church of Jesus Christ. It is not the job of the evangelist to manipulate a sinner to respond to God. Paul was a passionate evangelist who understood his responsibility was “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18). However, we don’t see Paul “priming the pump” as he preached the gospel in various cities. He called people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul spoke of this truth in his letter to the church at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” When we share the gospel with unbelievers, we must rely upon the sovereignty of God to bring about the new birth. It’s not the cleverly constructed clichés of man nor is it the power of the presentation. The power is in God’s message and the new birth comes as the wind blows, and we can’t control the wind. We see the evidence of it, but we can’t control it. This is a direct illustration Jesus used to educate Nicodemus about the new birth in John 3.
Only God can bring about a spiritual resurrection (Ephesians 2:1-5). Sinners are dead in their sins, and we must rely upon God to raise the dead. Evangelism is like standing in the middle of a cemetery and as you present the gospel you trust God to raise people from their spiritual grave. It is possible to get people to respond through tricks, schemes, and manipulation techniques. However, those converts are not genuine and will eventually fall away as they experience pressures for following Christ or as the cares of this world tempt them to walk away (Mark 4:1-20).
As we think about the new birth, we must be reminded that Jesus Himself said that only those who have “ears to hear” would comprehend the gospel. Only God can provide ears to hear the good news of the gospel. Until He works in the heart of an unbeliever, the gospel will be a foolish message (1 Corinthians 1). J. I. Packer, in his excellent book titled, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, writes:
Can you or I by our earnest talking break the power of Satan over a man’s life? No. Can you or I give life to the spiritually dead? No. Can we hope to convince sinners of the truth of the gospel by patient explanation? No. Can we hope to move men to obey the gospel by any words of entreaty that we may utter? No. Our approach to evangelism is not realistic till we have faced this shattering fact, and let it make its proper impact on us…We can preach, and preach clearly and fluently and attractively; we can talk to individuals in the most pointed and challenging way; we can organize special services, and distribute tracts, and put up posters, and flood the country with publicity-and there is not the slightest prospect that all of this outlay of effort will bring a single soul home to God. Unless there is some other factor in the situation, over and above our own endeavours, all evangelistic action is foredoomed to failure. This is the fact, the brute, rock-bottom fact, that we have to face.1
What role does evangelism have in the new birth? Evangelism is the process of delivering the mail to someone’s address. We are not responsible for how they respond to the mail. The one presenting the message of the gospel is not responsible for saving the sinner.
As we come to this earth shaking reality that we can’t save sinners and that it’s the responsibility of God to bring about the new birth, it provides us great freedom in the Christian life. This freedom helps us become bold in our proclamation and sleep well at night. This doesn’t mean that our evangelism should be cold or that we should not weep for sinners. We must pray earnestly and weep for sinners to be saved, but where is our weeping and praying directed? It is directed toward God. It is God who saves sinners.
As we disciple young Christians and reeducate older saints, let us be committed to teaching them the proper method of biblical evangelism.
1. J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 108-109.