Mark Five: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
October 9, 2022

Mark Five: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism

Mark Five: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
by William Klock

 

In early 2007 Bishop Dorrington reached out to me to ask if I’d be interested in coming to pastor Living Word Church.  The first thing that told me this might be a healthy church was that you had started as a group of about a dozen after leaving St. Peter’s, and that you’d grown to around sixty to seventy people.  Not just that, but most of those people added to your number were previously unchurched and nominally churched.  That told me you were a people committed to evangelism and a commitment to evangelism is one of the marks of a healthy church.  Let me be clear, it’s not about the numbers.  A people can be committed to evangelism and still not see much numerical growth.  And there are sadly plenty of churches with impressive numbers, that have utterly failed to truly evangelise people.  Our work is to proclaim the good news.  Changing hearts and turning them to God is the unique work of the Holy Spirit.  Get that reversed—and it happens all too often—and you’ve got a recipe for an unhealthy church.

 

So, first, what is evangelism?  In short, it’s the proclamation of the evangel, the good news.  But, of course, it’s not quite that simple, is it?  In a very real sense it should be.  But we’ve got so many conflicting ideas about evangelism circulating around us that it complicates the whole thing.  But at its very simplest, at its very core, evangelism is telling others the good news that we have experienced ourselves.  Stefan Paas is a professor of missiology in Amsterdam.  I read his recent book on evangelism in a secular age earlier this year and found he had a lot of excellent insights (and not a few problems, too), but I like the perspective he gives.  Think of it this way:

 

“Human life is inescapably missionary.  Everybody evangelizes.  Whenever people become impressed by certain experiences, views, products or services, they feel the need to commend them to others.  Whenever people are struck by their own success or by the failure of others, they feel the responsibility to share something of their own blessings with others.  Clearly, there is nothing high and lofty about ‘mission’ as such.  It is fully wedded with our social nature; we are witnessing, sharing, helping beings.  ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart…’ (Rom. 10.8)”[1]

 

Have you ever thought about it that way?  When we have a good experience somewhere, we tell our friends so that they can share our good experience.  We spread the word about restaurants, mechanics, dentists, fishing holes, and hiking trails—and we make converts.  Back when I first started working as an Apple technician, Apple’s marketing department was actually called “Apple Evangelism” and it wasn’t surprising to me that so many people converted from Windows to Mac with an almost religious zeal.  This kind of telling is just what we do.  It’s in our nature.  And yet, there’s something different about actual evangelism, about the gospel—isn’t there?  Nobody’s going get angry with you for telling them they should give your favourite restaurant a try.  You’re not going to lose a friend by giving them the name of your dentist or your mechanic.  And, of course, that’s because none of these other things calls us to a completely new kind of life.  But this very basic human phenomenon really does get to what evangelism is at its core.  It’s not complicated.  It’s simply telling others the good news about Jesus that has been utterly good for us.  Yes, the thing that makes it different is that if it’s true it doesn’t leave you any choice.  You’ve got to repent, believe, and be baptised…and no restaurant or mechanic demands that kind of commitment…but it really is that simple when you boil it down.  In Jesus, God has done something wonderful for us and it should be instinctive for us to want to tell the people we know.  Paas goes on and writes this:

 

“Like all people in all times and places the first Christians were social beings; they were steeped deeply in all kinds of communicative behaviour.  It would certainly amount to over-theorizing in most cases to ask about the missionary ‘methods’ that they used.  They did what all people do: they bonded with friends, talked with relatives, raised their children, they ate together, played together, worked together.  And of course they shared the ‘tidings of great joy’ they had heard; they ‘gossiped the gospel’.”[2]

 

The gospel also went out in more formal ways.  Paul deliberately set out on journeys with a missionary purpose.  He went to the synagogues to confront his fellow Jews and he went to the town centres to preach and to confront the Greeks and Romans.  And some people are called to that kind of evangelism.  But, Brothers and Sisters, have you ever considered how simple everyday evangelism really is?  God, in Jesus, has done something amazing and you have experienced it.  Do you gossip the gospel…as Paas puts it?

 

As we’ve been working through what it looks like to be a healthy church, I’ve been trying to frame these marks with the big narrative of scripture and I think that big story helps bring into focus what it means to evangelise and to be an evangelistic people.  The first thing the story helps us to get right is our purpose as the people of God.  Right from the beginning, when God created human beings, his purpose for us—the vocation he gave us—was to be his image in creation.  Other peoples built temples for their gods and put images of wood or stone in those temples—the images of their gods—to represent their rule on earth.  The point—or one of the points—of the Genesis story is to tell us that God created his own temple—and that makes him truly sovereign and better than all the other gods—and instead of putting a stone idol in it to bear his image and to represent his rule, he put human beings in that temple to be his stewards, his regents—first and foremost, his priests.  We were created to serve him.  Of course, part of that is serving each other.  He loves us and so we love each other, as St. John writes.  But it all first comes back to the fact that we exist to serve God.  Even today, our calling to proclaim the good news to the world is to make him know so that others will give him glory and commit themselves to his service.

 

Sometimes we forget this.  We are called to serve others.  We are called to be a light to the nations.  But sometimes we forget that these things grow out of our duty to God.  In the Anglican Church in North America we have a diocese called “Churches for the Sake of Others” or locally, there was a church that used the motto, “In the Valley for the Valley”.  I’m sure these folks are well-meaning, but it’s not surprising when their mission drifts and starts to be consumed by social and political agendas and, as C4SO’s bishop put it this week, “hankering after cultural acceptance”.  If we aren’t anchored first in our duty to God, our duty to others can easily be swept off-course.  If our churches exist “for the sake of God”, the “for the sake of others” part will come naturally.  If we’re in the Valley for God, the part about being “for the Valley” will come naturally and—more importantly—will square with God’s mission for the world, not the various human agendas that are out there.

 

Second, the big biblical story gives us our model for evangelism.  Before his ascension, Jesus commissioned his disciples:

 

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:18-20)

 

“Go.”  I think that word “go” sums up how most of us have been conditioned to think about evangelism—often so much so that we feel guilty or we feel like we’re falling short if we don’t leave everything behind to go to a far off country to proclaim the good news.  Brothers and Sisters, let me suggest that scripture’s narrative tells us that when it comes to the mission of the people of God, we ought to think first not of “go” but of “presence”.

 

Think of Israel in the Old Testament.  God chose them as a people and lived in their midst.  His presence was with them, first in the tabernacle, and then in the temple in Jerusalem.  As his people, he set them apart by giving them his law, and their calling was to be a light to the nations.  Their witness was meant to reveal the Lord, his love for his people, and his mighty deeds to the nations, so that the nations would come to Jerusalem to give glory to the Lord and to learn his ways.  We see this model throughout the prophets, but here's what we read in Micah 4:1-2.

 

It shall come to pass in the latter days

         that the mountain of the house of the Lord

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

         and it shall be lifted up above the hills;

and peoples shall flow to it,

and many nations shall come, and say:

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

         to the house of the God of Jacob,

that he may teach us his ways

         and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth the law,

         and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

 

The Lord did send some of his people out on rare occasions to the nations.  He did that with Jonah.  But his mission for Israel was primarily through his presence in the temple, in the midst of a priestly people who then mediated that presence—they made it known—to the nations and drew them to the Lord.  This is what we see fulfilled in Revelation with the New Jerusalem and the nations streaming to it to worship God.  This model of mission is what Jesus gets at in the Sermon on the Mount when he reminds the people of their calling to be salt and light and the city on a hill.  He said,

 

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.  (Matthew 5:16)

 

Let your light so shine before others, so that they will be ultimately moved to give glory to God.  That’s Israel’s mission in a nutshell right there.  And, of course, it didn’t work.  Israel—or most of Israel—hid her light under a basket.  The Lord came in judgement.  He threw the unsalty salt into the street where it was trod underfoot.  But he also came himself in Jesus, died and rose from the grave, and did so to create a new people, forgiven and full of his own Holy Spirit.  And here’s where Jesus’ great commission enters the story.

 

The old temple in Jerusalem was gone—or about to be gone at the time Jesus spoke—and a new temple was created.  Instead of an earthy temple of bricks and mortar in which the Lord was present in the midst of his people, through Jesus and the Spirit he made the members of this new people, themselves, to be his temple and the place of his presence.  “Living stones,” St. Peter calls us, built on Jesus, the living cornerstone.  And so Jesus sent his people out—not all of them, but some of them—to establish outposts of this new, living temple, first throughout Judea, then Samaria, and throughout the Roman Empire.  The Lord’s temple gradually established in every city and town, establishing his presence amongst the nations, and building the kingdom of God and declaring the Lordship of Jesus in anticipation of the Empire’s conversion.

 

Brothers and Sisters, Jesus shares his ministry with us.  That means we are a priestly people.  We mediate the presence of God to the world.  We are a prophetic people, meaning that we are called to proclaim the good news about Jesus, crucified and risen, we are called to confront the world with the good news that he is Lord, and we have a duty to call the world to repentance and faith—to allegiance to him and to his kingdom.  And Jesus shares his dominion with us.  We are a royal people who anticipate the day when we will rule with our Lord.  The church mediates God’s presence and proclaims his good news and his kingdom where we are.  There will always be those called, like Paul, to “go”—to establish beachheads of the kingdom in other places, but for most of us our calling is to be gospel people right where we are, to be the church—the tabernacle of God’s Spirit—and to mediate this God who is present with us to the people and to the community around us.

 

But what is it that we need to communicate?  When I talk about presence, it’s easy to think that all we need to do is be good Christians and people around us will become Christians by osmosis.  There’s a popular saying, falsely attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times.  Use words if necessary.”  It gives people an out and reinforced this idea that we fulfil our calling and avoid offence by witnessing with our lives.  Brother and Sisters, our lives should be a witness of Jesus and gospel.  We are to be salt and light.  We are to be the light on the hilltop.  But you can’t preach the gospel without words.  It’s the way God works.  As I’ve stressed so many times, his word gives life.  We ought to live our lives and we ought to live together as the Church in such a way that we make the people around us constructively curious.  But at some point we will have to use words and explain what it’s all about.  That’s the challenge.  Sometimes we’re afraid of offending people or of being rejected.  Sometimes we just don’t know what to say.  And that last part is getting increasingly difficult.  Just a few decades ago, most people in our culture had respect for Christians and had a general idea of what Christianity is about—even if some of their ideas were wrong.  We largely all shared a common understanding of the nature of sin.  That’s not really the case anymore and that means we need to be prepared more than in the past.  We need to know our Bibles.  We need to know the story.  We need to understand what the gospel is.  And it means that effective evangelism is going to take place in the context of long-term relationships with people—not in a short encounter while you sit next to someone on an airplane or in the doctor’s waiting room.  In many ways that’s a good thing, because it’s in those relationships that we have the opportunity show the gospel and to make them curious.

 

But at some point we will need to tell people the story and we will need to explain to them what God has done in Jesus and what each of us needs to do in response.  We need to tell them the truth and to be honest with them.  They’re not joining a social club.  Jesus has died to forgive sins and he has risen to give life.  He has ascended and reigns as Lord.  He gives his Spirit to those who repent and believe to transform them from the inside out.  He is making all things new and the point of all of this is to make a new and holy people ready to be part of God’s new creation and live, once again, as his priests and stewards.  When a person passes through the waters of baptism, it’s to take hold of this good news and its promise, and to cross into a new life and a new world on the other side.  Repentance is costly.  It means living God’s new creation now—being heaven-on-earth people—even when it’s counter to everything around us.  It means letting go of our idols and our sources of security in order to trust in God and to commit to his vision for humanity and the world.  But in doing so we are set free from our bondage to death to share the presence of the living God.

 

And not everyone will be receptive.  Brothers and Sisters, remember that changing a person’s heart is not our duty.  Again, evangelism goes wrong when we confuse our part with God’s part.  Speaking at the Lusanne conference on evangelism back in 1974, the great evangelical Anglican preacher, John Stott, said:

 

“Evangelism must not be defined in terms of its results, for this is not how the word is used in the New Testament. …There is no mention whether the word which was “evangelized” was believed, or whether the inhabitants of the towns and villages “evangelized” were converted. To “evangelize” in biblical usage does not mean to win converts (as it usually does when we use the word) but simply to announce the good news, irrespective of the results.”[3]

 

That conference went on to give this definition of evangelism in what’s known as the Lausanne Covenant:

 

“To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that, as the reigning Lord, he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.”[4]

 

Brothers and Sisters, we do the telling.  The Spirit does the converting.  Getting that wrong inevitably leads to all sorts of pragmatic and manipulative practises.  We water down the message to make it more palatable.  We use manipulation to win people over.  We start acting like salesmen and all too often we end up treating the gospel as if it were a car with a bunch of flaws to be hidden from the customer.  And we start treating our listeners like customers and laying high pressure sales techniques on them to produce a decision.  Friends the gospel itself is powerful—more powerful than you or I can ever be.  Proclaim God’s word and let the Spirit do the work.

 

Keeping this perspective also keeps us from feeling as though we’ve failed.  Many Christians don’t evangelise because they don’t think they’re able to convince someone to choose Jesus and some have been crippled by what they see as past failures.  Hear me: If someone doesn’t believe, it’s not your fault.  That part’s not up to you; it’s up to God.  Again, trust God’s word and God’s Spirit.  And sometimes you may end up surprised at the ways the word and the Spirit work.  Charles Spurgeon tells how George Whitfield,

 

“he great eighteenth-century evangelist, was hounded by a group of detractors who called themselves the “Hell-fire Club.”  When Whitfield would stand outside preaching this little group of guys would stand off on the side and mimic him.  They didn’t believe a word of it.  The ring leader was called Thorpe.  One day Thorpe was mimicking Whitefield to his cronies, delivering his sermon with brilliant accuracy, perfectly imitating his tone and facial expressions, when he himself was so pierced that he sat down and was converted on the spot.”[5]

 

Brothers and Sisters, sometimes our duty is merely to plant the seed.  Sometimes it’s to water what someone else has planted.  Sometimes we reap the harvest that results from decades of others planting and watering.  But never forget that it is the Spirit who brought the growth.

 

Now, let me close with one last very important thing.  Knowing that the fruit of our evangelism is not produced by us, but by the Spirit, Brothers and Sisters, pray.  J. I. Packer, in his wonderful little book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, wrote this:

 

“In evangelism…we are impotent; we depend wholly upon God to make our witness effective; only because He is able to give men new hearts can we hope that through our preaching of the gospel sinners will be born again.  These facts ought to drive us to prayer.  It is God’s intention that they should drive us to prayer.  God means us, in this as in other things, to recognise and confess our impotence, and to tell Him that we rely on Him alone, and to plead with Him to glorify His name.  It is His way regularly to withhold His blessing until His people start to pray. ‘Ye have not, because ye ask not.’ ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.’  But if you are too proud or lazy to ask, we need not expect to receive.  This is the universal rule, in evangelism as elsewhere.  God will make us pray before He blesses our labours in order that we may constantly learn afresh that we depend on God for everything.  And then, when God permits us to see conversions, we shall not be tempted to ascribe them to our own gifts, or skills, or wisdom, or persuasiveness, but to His work alone, and so we shall know whom we ought to thank for them.”[6]

 

Friends, pray.  Pray you will be captivated by the glory of the gospel yourself, by love and faithfulness of God made manifest in Jesus and that your daily life will make the people around you constructively curious.  Pray that God will give you a heart for the lost.  Pray for opportunities to proclaim the good news.  Pray for the eyes to see those opportunities.  Pray for the boldness and courage to take advantage of them when they come.  Pray for the words to say—but don’t let that be an excuse for not being prepared in advance!  And most of all, pray for the Spirit to be at work in the hearts of those to whom you preach.  Pray.  Pray.  Pray.  And with that, Brothers and Sisters, let’s pray:

 

Almighty God and Father, be at work in our hearts by your Holy Spirit and fill us with passion, with enthusiasm, with gratitude, with joy for what you have done through Jesus.  He died and rose again to deliver us from sin and death and he has ascended to your right hand and reigns with power and authority.  You have shown us your glory and I pray that your Spirit will give us a passion to make your glory known—to be salt, to be light, to be a city on a hill—to cause the nations of the earth to come streaming to your temple to give you glory and to know your ways.  Be at work in our hearts we pray.  Fill us with a desire to proclaim your good news.  And be at work in the hearts of the people who hear our proclamation.  Make them fertile soil for the word that we plant.  Cause your word to take root and grow that all the world might give you glory we pray.  Amen.

[1] Pilgrims and Priests (London: SCM Press, 2019), 6.

[2] Ibid. 7

[3] https://lausanne.org/content/john-stott-biblical-basis-of-evangelism

[4] https://lausannecanada.com/lausanne-covenant

[5] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Pasadena, Texas: Pilgrim, 1974), 34:115, cited in Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 141-142.

[6] J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1991), 122

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