With the explosion of interest in mercy ministry in evangelical churches has come a lot of well-intentioned people with a lot of poorly-thought-out theology. So, it’s not uncommon to hear people refer to evangelism in the following terms:
- Preach the gospel and use words if necessary.
- Evangelism is as much about what we do as what we say.
- Our church is about loving people not recruiting them.
- People need to experience God’s love not hear about his wrath.
- Feeding people is as much evangelism as is preaching at them.
- We need to bring a Bible in one hand and bread in the other.
If we want people to be saved under the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we do well to give careful thought to understanding and defining evangelism. Mack Stiles defines evangelism as ‘teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.’ In his simple definition biblical evangelism, with the gospel at its heart, occurs when two things happen.
#1 Evangelism is teaching People
When I first heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, it was warts and all. I was a rebellious sinner cut off from a Holy God and destined for an eternal hell. Only Jesus Christ, the perfect, sinless Son of God could hope to repay my sin debt. He did that by dying on a cross, was buried, and then three days later was raised from the dead as the confirmation that his sacrificial death on behalf of sinners (like me) had been accepted. If I would only turn from my sins and put my faith and trust in Jesus alone, then not only could I be forgiven, but the Holy Spirit of God would indwell me and mark me with his seal guaranteeing my eternal security as a child of God. No smoke machines, no background music, and no altar call. Just a command to repent in a cold hall in the South of England. What I know about the gospel of Jesus, I was taught by faithful witnesses. Men and women who opened up their Bibles and evangelised me. As I’ve grown in my faith and in my understanding, I have come to realise two things:
- People with no gospel need somebody to teach them truth.
- People with a false gospel need teachers to correct.
Whatever else we do in difficult areas, our primary purpose must be to teach men, women and children the Bible. That is the source of all good teaching (2 Tim. 3:16–17). What we teach matters. For eternity. The poor need to hear the gospel ring out in pulpits once again. They need to hear it while they wait for a bus or when they are in the supermarket. They need to hear it from their next-door neighbours. They need to sit down with an open Bible and have somebody tell them what it means. There are no shortcuts to teaching the gospel. Evangelism at its very root is teaching people the truth about their perilous spiritual condition outside of Jesus, and then introducing them to the good news that there is a way out of it after all. But to teach them we must first be there!
People need to be taught that biblical evangelism doesn’t just happen when we hand out a leaflet and go on our way. Nor has the gospel been taught just because we’ve extended an invite to a Sunday Service. Others need to understand that evangelism is more than being nice and sitting on committees. The Scriptures have to be opened and explained in a meaningful way. This is how the Ethiopian Eunuch came to understand and accept the truth in Acts 8. The socially aware need to know that the poor need Bible teachers more than they need debt counselling. The most popular and effective ministry we have in Niddrie is our Wednesday Night ‘No Frills’ study. We just sit down together for a couple of hours and work verse by verse through the Bible. The greatest need in Scotland’s schemes is for faithful Bible teachers.
#2 Evangelism is Persuading People
In Acts 17:2–4 we read:
“And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.”
Of course, conversion is a work of God’s Spirit from start to finish, but Christians still need to know that evangelism is not just an event we invite our friend along to. Nor is it a spiritual drive by when we just spray Bible verses at people and hope that some hit home. People need to be persuaded. In our teaching we must be “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks” (1 Pet. 3:15). My first effort at persuasion was in a church graveyard a couple of weeks after I had been saved. I was trying to persuade a friend of mine that life was fleeting and we needed to be serious about our souls. I didn’t know much past Jesus dying on the cross. I didn’t have any clever apologetics or insightful theological arguments. I just knew Christ was real and that something inside me had changed forever. I took her to the graveyard out of sheer frustration of my own inadequacy, shoved her in front of the nearest headstone, and told her that if she didn’t repent of her sins she would die, be buried and forgotten, then would burn in hell forever. She got on her knees in tears and we prayed together.
I am glad to tell you that I have repented of that awful, but well-meaning, form of persuasion. We want to persuade, not manipulate people with fear or promises of good things. Fear in evangelism doesn’t work in the schemes. People’s lives are a misery anyway. Hope of a better life is what they want. That’s why the health and wealth guys do so well here. Persuasion assumes that dialogue is occurring. We must live and relate in such a way that people are forced to ask us about our faith. But we must be there if we hope to persuade. We cannot transform sinners. We can only teach and persuade them of the truths of the gospel as revealed in the Bible. The rest is down to prayer and the sovereign, electing grace of God’s Holy Spirit.
All of this teaching and persuasion must rest on the firm, doctrinal foundation of sovereign election. I know, right? Sovereign election and evangelism? With the poor? Tune in tomorrow to find out more.