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.