I was recently dialoging with someone who claimed, very sincerely, that evangelism isn’t about convincing someone to be saved, but rather that it was to make a declaration of what Jesus had done in her life. “When I show the change He has made in me,” she said, “then they can’t say it isn’t true – they can’t argue with that. My goal is to reflect Him so others will want to follow Him also.”
While I may agree that evangelism is not entirely about convincing, I would say a good deal of convincing might need to be done to most people that we converse with. I find that the Gospel is very simple, but it’s by no means easy. In my experience, it’s not quite enough to declare to an unbeliever that the Bible is true, and it says to do such and such, and if that sounds good to you, well then, by golly, you’re born again! This method may work for Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort, but I don’t know anyone who will just accept the idea that liars = sinners = hell-bound without a better explanation of a lot of particulars. Can you explain the Gospel in 3-5 minutes? Sure. Can you do that with the real hope that someone is truly going to be convinced by it? I cannot. I can barely decide which ice cream I want in 3-5 minutes, let alone deciding if God (who created the world, wrote the law, was declared by the prophets, who sent his son to die to atone for the lives of many, who was then raised from the dead (I can’t even begin to explain the Trinity in 3-5 minutes)) is worth following. There’s a bit of a life change involved there, one that probably can’t be made on the spot without more evidence, more discussion, more explanation. People take weeks deciding whether or not to spend $20,000 on a mode of transportation – how can I expect a faster response based on the limited information given in a confrontation?
I would argue then that convincing could very well be the primary aspect of conversion – it has been for many people I know. It has been for me. But I’ve sort of soured toward the idea of methods of Gospel sharing. I very much believe that different aspects and angles will appeal differently to different people. For every one that comes to saving faith through the beauty of God, there is one who is convinced by God’s use of reason in revealing himself. I can’t argue that there is a standard way to go about evangelizing.
That said, I do believe there is way to not evangelize.
I take issue with the idea my life will be the reason people will want to follow Christ. I’m not sure where this idea comes from. I don’t see it anywhere in the Bible. I know that there are many hymns which speak to the philosophy of one Peter Scholtes, who originally penned the song “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” It seems that that has become the basis for Christian evangelism and not the words of Christ, his disciples or the apostles. Scholtes was Catholic, and like most catholics, his tune was a call for unity amongst religious dogmatism and contentious differing viewpoints within the various denominations. Christianity, for him and for those who subscribe to his doctrine, is primarily concerned with something we do, namely, how we act. In this view, we are Christian’s by virtue of something of our own doing – not by something that Christ did and not by obeying Christ and believing in him, the propitiation for our sins, “and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30).
We need to understand who does the saving work in salvation. It isn’t us. We (thankfully) have not been given that duty, nor have we been given the power to save anyone. Of even greater importance is the fact that the truth of the Gospel does not rely on my own personal belief in it, as the woman I spoke of earlier seemed to indicate. People will believe in God, she claims, because she is an example of a changed life. People will believe that the Gospel is real because she has experienced real change.
It’s vitally important that you believe the Gospel for your own salvation, but the Gospel isn’t true because you believe it. It’s true external to and regardless of your experience. It’s true because Jesus really lived, really died, and really rose again. It’s true because he was who he claimed he was. It’s true because he was who the prophets said he would be and who Paul and Peter and the early church fathers said he was. It is not true because of an internal feeling or a changed life. Almost all religions call for a change of lifestyle to varying degrees. Christianity is no more convincing than any other religion if its validity is based on the concept of a changed life.
This is not to say that the Gospel does not change our lives. It most certainly can and does. Perhaps not for many who are raised in Christian homes and are presented with the Gospel at a young age – there probably aren’t drastic changes to be seen in the behavior of 7 year old who claims Christ as Savior and Lord. But for some people, the Gospel does cause them to live differently. The concern I have for this living is the idea that we must feel compelled to do so because we “are the only Bible some people will ever see.” If that’s the case, we ought to be ashamed for never giving people a real Bible and showing them who Christ really was and is. Shouldn’t we be giving people the perfected version of Christianity instead of the flawed one?
I owe a lot of my perspective on this to my late professor and pastor, Colin J. Smith. He always considered the Bible to be the shotgun of evangelism. It doesn’t matter who holds the shotgun, the shotgun is what does the work. It doesn’t so much matter whether it’s a man who’s fired a shotgun dozens of times before or if it’s a woman who never has. The shotgun’s scattered trajectory is what does the damage. Likewise, it’s the Bible that’s going to do the work of salvation. It’s not left up to the passionate preacher or the nervous everyman. It’s the Word itself.
When we say we are concerned about living lives “Worthy of the Gospel” (Phil 1:27), we are doing that “for the sake of Christ” as it says in verse 29. Notice the slight variation in definitions? We’re doing it for Christ – not because we are models for unbelievers of what Christianity is. As hard as I try, I’m going to be a bad model. I’m going to make mistakes at times. I’m not always going to say the right things. I’m not going to act Christlike in every situation. I will strive to do it, but it’s inevitable that I’m going to mess something up. My personal life cannot be the model for Christianity. Christ’s life is the model for Christianity. My life is lived to honor his and to share his message with others. If we want to teach Christianity to others we better give them the Bible, not try to do it with our lives.
“Christian evangelism does not consist merely in a man going about the world saying, ‘Look at me, what a wonderful experience I have, how happy I am, what wonderful Christian virtues I exhibit; you can all be as good and as happy as I am if you will just make a complete surrender of your wills in obedience to what I say.’ . . . Men are not saved by the exhibition of our glorious Christian virtues; they are not saved by the contagion of our experiences. . . . Nay, we must preach to them the Lord Jesus Christ; for it is only through the gospel which sets him forth that they can be saved. If you want health for your souls, and if you want to be the instruments of bringing health to others, do not turn your gaze forever within, as though you could find Christ there. Nay, turn your gaze away from your own miserable experiences, away from your own sin, to the Lord Jesus Christ as he is offered to us in the gospel.”
J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity, and the State.