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Discipleship Hour Notes

Truth and Love | Session One

Posted by Nick Locke on

WHAT IS EVANGELISM?

One might expect that evangelical Christians would not need to spend a lot of time on this point. Evangelicals have long been known, and rightly so, for their emphasis on evangelism. So, it would be reasonable to conclude that there would not be any disagreement regarding what constitutes evangelism. Yet, as J.I. Packer writes, “much of the confusion in present-day debates about evangelism arises from lack of agreement at this point.”[1]

Christians have a tendency to turn evangelism into all sorts of things that it is not. For example, evangelism is not primarily a personal testimony. Personal testimony is a wonderful thing, and there are many examples of people sharing their stories in the Bible. The psalmist writes in Psalm 66:1, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul.” It is good to give an account of what God has done in our lives, but we need to remember that the gospel (the evangel of evangelism) is the story of God and his work, not us and our response.

Evangelism is also not the same thing as social action and public involvement. Christians are called to demonstrate God’s compassion and kindness through our actions. Jesus continually worked to improve the physical and material well-being of those in need, and he commanded his disciples to do the same. We see this clearly in the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. He concludes that story by saying, “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’” (Matthew 25:45). Acts of mercy are necessary, but they are not evangelism. [2]

It should also be noted that evangelism and conversion are not equivalent We don’t want to conflate evangelism with its results. As one writer puts it: “Evangelism is not persuading people to make a decision; it is not proving that God exists, or making out a good case for the truth of Christianity; it is not inviting someone to a meeting; it is not exposing the contemporary dilemma, or arousing interest in Christianity; it is not wearing a badge saying ‘Jesus Saves’! Some of these things may be right and good in their place, but none of them should be confused with evangelism.”[3]

So, we’ve established some of the things that evangelism is not, but the question still stands. What is evangelism? According to J.I. Packer, “The New Testament answer is very simple. According to the New Testament, evangelism is just preaching the gospel, the evangel. It is a work of communication in which Christians make themselves mouthpieces for God’s message of mercy to sinners.”[4] 

WHY DON’T WE EVANGELIZE?

So then, if evangelism is this simple, the next question becomes: why don’t we evangelize? What prevents us from fulfilling this important task, from sharing the best news possible? The answer, unfortunately, is manifold.

One reason we aren’t diligent in evangelizing is busyness. There is just so much to do in a given day. There are bills to pay, laundry to fold, homework to do, kids to feed, practices to attend, and the list goes on. Mark Dever writes, “It is legitimate for me to make and fulfill many commitments in life other than evangelism.” “But,” he asks, “do our other commitments sometimes become so numerous—or do we interpret them so—as to leave no time for evangelism? If we are too busy for that, what things are we managing to make time for?”[5]

Another reason Christians can struggle in evangelism is that they aren’t close to any non-Christians. Isolation from unbelievers is quite common, but we need to remember: “The Christian’s calling is never to retreat from the world of unbelievers into an enclave where there are only fellow Christians, nor is it a calling to personal separation, where the only people one knows are fellow believers, for as we see in the Gospels, Jesus lived among those who did not know him.”[6] One of the best things that we can do is to pray and talk with a Christian friend about how we can faithfully fulfill our responsibilities in our homes, churches, and jobs while also getting to build relationships with those who don’t yet know Jesus. It takes prayer and intentionality, but it is important work! 

Another common obstacle is fear. We are afraid of being rejected, of being seen as strange, of being stigmatized in an unsavory way. This is understandable, but our concern for God’s glory and love for our neighbors should overcome our apprehension. And, as Rosaria Butterfield reminds us, “this simple task of sharing the gospel where you are, wherever you are, might just be used by God to change the world.”[7] We need to remember too that no one is beyond reach. “God may save anyone. And the more unlikely it appears, the more glory, we might even reason, he gets to himself when it happens!”[8] 

PLAN TO STOP NOT EVANGELIZING

How are we to move forward? The first and most important step that any of us can take is to pray. We need to pray for ourselves and our own faithfulness to God’s word and his call. We need to pray for opportunities, and we need to pray that the Spirit would give us the strength and courage to share the good news when those opportunities come. And we need to pray for God to work. Our responsibility is to share the gospel, but God is the one wakes makes our sharing effective. Jesus is the primary evangelist. “He, even now, is the one who draws men and women to himself, so that, whenever we seek to obey his call and take up the task of evangelism, we discover that he has already done the hard work. We are simply his fellow laborers.”[9] Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that we are alone in this work.

Additionally, we must prepare. It is easy for us to intimidate ourselves out of our responsibility to evangelize. “We fear our own ignorance.” But, “we could prepare ourselves by knowing the gospel, working on our own humility, and studying more. Just as we might plan to have time, so we might prepare to be able to use the opportunity well when it comes.”[10]

We also need to accept that this is in fact our calling. We sometimes think that evangelism is someone else’s responsibility. It is the job of preachers, or someone who is trained and gets paid for it, we tell ourselves. But this is not the case. We need to accept responsibility for evangelism. “We might be the closest Christians to a particular unbeliever. Maybe he has a Christian uncle or aunt, friend, or employee who has been praying for him. Maybe we are the answer to those prayers.”[11]

Most of us prefer to play it safe, but faithfulness often requires risk. We can never be absolutely sure of another person’s response. This uncertainty leads many of us to avoid evangelizing. “But,” Mark Dever asks, “could you invite unbelievers to a meeting where they will hear the gospel? Can you share with them a useful book or a story from your own life? Can you befriend them so that you may be able more naturally in the future to share the gospel with them? We must be willing to risk in order to evangelize.”[12]

 Finally, we must love. Love is the ultimate motivation and the foundational building block for faithful evangelism. We evangelize because we love God and the people made in his image. Jesus “is eager for us to imitate him and to give our lives gladly to love and to serve non-Christians. His desire is that we be like him, and that we commit ourselves to developing intimate relationships with non-Christians.”[13]

[1] J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 41.

[2] Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 75.

[3] John Cheeseman, Saving Grace (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999) 113.

[4] Packer,  45.

[5] Dever, 22.

[6] Jerram Barrs, Learning Evangelism from Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009), 12.

[7] Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), Chapter 9, Kindle.

[8] Dever, 23.

[9] Barrs, 16.

[10] Dever, 26.

[11] Ibid, 24.

[12] Ibid, 25-26.

[13] Barrs, 14.

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