The Need for Evangelism
Desiring God 2009 Conference for Pastors
The following is notes taken during the session, not a manuscript.
It’s a joy and privilege to be able to address people and brother pastors with the gospel. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your ministries to think and pray about these matters.
I have had the odd, odd experience when it comes to evangelism of actually helping to divide groups, supposedly of evangelical Christians, over the gospel. I have done that kind of unintentionally over my life. I’ll tell you about one time.
I was invited to be a part of a council of people from all evangelical denominations. In the second year of this activity, I began to wonder if one of the people really knew the gospel. I figured that there is no point in talking if we don’t understand the gospel. So, I asked if we could take five minutes and write up on the board what we think the gospel is. I thought that would be met with approval. The leader was very reluctant and it became evident why when we got started. We didn’t agree about what the gospel was.
I cannot think about what else I should talk about in this first talk than what the gospel is. You may know what the gospel is, but if you know the Lord, you will enjoy sitting and hearing what the Lord has done in saving you.
In our membership class at my church I explain to people what the gospel is. When I get to the section on justification by faith, I tell people that this is the most important thing we will talk about.
When I travel I watch television and see horrible religious programming. I hear things like, “Do you have high blood pressure? Become a Christian and it will be better for you.” Or I’ll hear people that are into Jewish backgrounds and say we should live like Jesus lived. I just want to clear our heads, because there are a lot of faces doing a lot of things with the name of Jesus. I want to make sure we are on the same page with this.
If you have friends you’ve come with, talk to them about the gospel. Make sure you are understanding it the same way.
The gospel is the very heart of what we’ve been called to do. I pray your hearts will be warm as we talk about this. The more I study the gospel, the more I become excited about talking about it.
I used to be an agnostic, and there are a lot of reasons the Lord should not have saved me, and I’m so thankful he did. The more you meditate on the gospel and help your people meditate on the gospel, the easier evangelism will become to them. The more they’ll see implications of the gospel for various areas of their lives. Christians will have a magnificent armory for conversations that will lead to God.
Take anthropology, for example. Do our people understand that we are made in the image of God? If they do, then they won’t be shocked when people do some amazing things. People are made in the image of God.
Christians also have in our understanding of humanity the idea of sin. The fall of our parents has affected us radically, and so we understand that all of us, even the redeemed, have a capacity for great evil.
One thing I have noticed that has declined over the years is a willingness to offend people over the gospel. I have been to many seminars on contextualization, and I’m not opposed to it, but I don’t agree with us translating the gospel in such a way that an unbeliever is not offended. We want to translate the gospel into understandable language, but it doesn’t mean translating the gospel in a way that our hearers will like.
Look at Peter in Acts 2. Peter wanted to be relevant. He didn’t want to speak in an unknown tongue. But his relevance gave his words more bite, not less.
Acts 2:36: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Was that relevant language? Yes. Was that pleasing language? No. Was it clear? Yes. He wasn’t just charging them with murder. He was charging them with taking their 1500 years of history and missing the whole point by killing their Messiah.
I’m not saying the indication of your faithfulness is how much you offend people. But I am saying that there is no painless way to tell someone that they’re under the wrath of God.
Creation and Fall
In talking about the gospel, we have to begin with creation. God created the world and all that is in it, and he created people.
I have found out that talking with non-Christians about evangelism is one of the best ways to learn how to do evangelism. I’m surprised at what kinds of things I have to explain to people. As pastors we are in the middle of people all the time, and we forget what sounds strange to people. Our parents Adam and Eve chose to sin, and the result of that sin was catastrophe. Our fellowship with God is broken. Instead of his right pleasure, we now face God’s right wrath. We don’t apologize for God’s wrath.
Because God’s love for his creation is directed by his love for himself, his blessings and punishments are always consistent with his holiness.
When I have membership interviews I make people explain the gospel in 60 seconds. When I hear people saying that God had to send Jesus to the cross, I correct them by saying that God chose to send his Son to the cross. God is not bound by some law outside of himself.
We have to make this bad news part clear, or there’s no good news. We have to be clear on God’s creation, our responsibility, and how we have defaulted on it.
God didn’t leave things like this. Instead, God would redeem his creation from sin and the curse. How? Isaiah said by bringing good news to his people. This good news is that God would redeem his people by the precious blood of Christ. All those who truly believe will be redeemed.
What about the rest of creation? Romans 8 says that the creation will be set free from its bondage to decay. We see the glorious culmination in the book of Revelation, where God’s people are living forever in the presence of God. We read this glorious culmination and we see life as it was always meant to be lived.
How the Gospel Applies to Us
This larger story of creation, fall, redemption, consummation is no good news unless we explain what this has to do with the person we are talking to. We have to be able to remember to not forget the little, individual human sinner. That is how we are included in the good news. If we want this to be good news to us, we have to see how we individually can be a part of the story.
Who is it that saves? Let’s center it around our individual salvation. It is God who saves. He is the greatest of all beings. He has eternally existed in three persons. He works all things according to the counsel of his will. This God that has always existed has always been pleased in himself. He has always been good and loving.
It was according to his good and perfect plan that God created. Some people think that God created out of need. But look at the high priestly prayer in John 17. There was a fullness of love in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There was no need in God. He chose to create as an outflow of his own pleasure and love. Thus he saw everything made in Genesis 1 and said it was good.
God creates and acts to save some. It is not out of external constraint, but according to his great mercy. 1 Peter 1 says that “he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (1 Peter 1:3-4)
Who is it that God has so acted to save? People made in his image (Genesis 1). Being made in God’s image means that we act a little like God. We are to rule over creation. We are spiritual and relational beings. We experience love. We communicate and establish relationships. Like God, our souls will endure throughout eternity.
We were born fallen, however. Our problem is not a lack of fulfillment of purpose. Pastors, how many times in your sermons or personal conversations have you tried to go at it from the direction of people’s lack of purpose? I know plenty of non-Christians who feel pretty full of purpose and are happy in their sins.
We are not waiting on unbelievers to feel a sense of need. We are there as heralds to tell them about a God that made them and a God to whom they must give an account. They have sinned against this judge, and he is good and will punish them, and so they need a savior. We have to be careful to reflect accurately who God is.
Our problem is our sin, our rejection of God. We are naturally turned away from God and toward sin and the various sins in our life. We are not as bad as can be, but we all are sinners. We are under just condemnation without excuse. We are under the curse of Genesis 3. This is the state that we need saving from and we must be clear about this.
We have to have a sense of our sin. The person has to understand that their problem is not their discontent with themselves, but God’s discontent with them. That’s the thing we have to get clear to people.
When we were in that desperate state, that’s when God loved us by sending his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).
Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Jesus was not an unwilling sacrifice. He was clear in saying that he chose to lay down his life. We see this in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was the Trinity acting in concert for our good.
Who Was Jesus?
Jesus was fully God throughout his time on earth. He clearly taught his deity. He was fulfilling prophecies about the coming of God himself. When you talk with Jehovah’s Witnesses, don’t take them to John 1. Take them to Mark 1. John the Baptist prepares the way of the Lord, and that Lord is Jesus. Jesus understood himself and his disciples understood that he was God incarnate. Jesus accepted worship. He taught that he and the Father were one.
Jesus was also fully man. He wasn’t acting as human. He was born, he had a fully human body. He was trained as a carpenter, felt hunger and tiredness, faced temptation, and experienced death itself. You can’t get more human than that.
Why did Jesus become incarnate? To save sinners. Jesus did only what the Father willed. So the writer to the Hebrews teaches that Jesus has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Jesus lived the life Adam and Eve could have lived and we should have lived. There was no sin in him. He talked about his relationship with God the Father, about us, about what he came to do and what we should do in response. But God sent him especially to die for us. We see this in John 3 and Mark 10:45. Jesus Christ’s crucifixion was a horrible act of violence by the people who rejected, tortured, mocked, and crucified him. And yet it was a display of the self-giving love of God as Jesus bore the penalty for our sins. He bore it all. I love the hymn, “My sin not in part, but the whole, was nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more…”
How do we know it’s true? On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead. It showed God’s acceptance of his sacrifice. He ascended into heaven and will return.
What Is Our Response?
If this is what God has done in Christ, what are we to do to be saved? We are saved from God’s right wrath through the death of Christ as we repent of our sins and trust in Christ.
Sometimes we think of repentance and faith as two different acts. I think some people do that because they have a continual experience in their lives of their sin. But I think they badly misunderstand what the Bible teaches about this. I think repentance and faith are meant to be two sides of the same act. As I come to Minneapolis, what is implied is that I left Washington.
If I want to come to God and be reconciled to him, it means that I must turn from my sin. In the New Testament, Christ taught that we must turn to God. Paul preached that people must repent and turn to God.
To repent means to turn, and the turning we are called to do to be saved is fundamentally a turning to God. To turn in this sense is to orient your life to someone else your life had not been formerly oriented to. We are to play the part of the prodigal son who turns from his life of rebellion and runs to the father.
This is what we do in repentance. We repent from our sins, of our sins. We repent by turning to God. Turning to God implies turning from sin.
I was at a leading church whose eldership was divided on this point. I don’t understand that. If you are divided on this point, it is very important to settle this with your elders.
Is repentance part of what we have to do in order to respond properly to the gospel and be saved? We can’t continue to pursue God and sin at the same time. 1 John makes it clear that our life will either be oriented toward the light or to the darkness. The Bible makes it clear that we will sin in this life, but our lives will not be guided by sin.
We still struggle, but we have been freed from sin’s dominating power, and there will be evidence in our lives that we have been freed.
Acts 11:18 shows that the apostles understood repentance to be a gift of God.
Repentance is a part of our faith-response to the gospel. Our response is to believe God’s promises in Christ. Repentance is to result from our trust in God. Look at what Adam and Eve didn’t do in the Garden. They didn’t believe in God’s words. If we are to reestablish our relationship with God, we have to believe. Exactly what Adam and Eve didn’t do in the Garden.
Sins are called, sometimes in the OT, breaking faith with God. Having faith in Christ is the means by which God counts Christ’s righteousness as our own. Being saved is referred to as receiving the words of truth. Such saving faith is something we exercise, but even so, it is a gift of God (Ephesians 2).
At the same time, Paul explained that he has known internal battle (Romans 7). Paul would not have any good desires apart from faith in God and his promises.
The Bible says “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). What does that mean? It doesn’t mean to look back at a certain date to see if you are a Christian. It means to look at your own life today to see if there is evidence of the Spirit’s work.
Peter encourages Christians to grow in godliness and to increase in assurance.
God’s purpose is to bring his people to himself. Christians experience salvation in this life in a past tense, a present tense, and we anticipate the completion of our salvation in the future.
That’s the gospel. I’ve tried to go over it very slowly and step on as many toes as possible. If there’s something you don’t understand right, I want to bring that to your attention. Friends, you should love the gospel.
Three Reasons We Should Share This Gospel:
Reason 1: A Desire to Be Obedient to God’s Commands
The risen Lord Christ commanded his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. That is exactly what the early disciples did. Paul spoke of a compulsion to share the gospel. To evangelize is to obey. Don’t wait for your affections. Work at them, but don’t wait for them.
In Acts 8:4, we see that those who had been scattered preached the gospel wherever they went. One of the clearest examples of evangelism being commanded is in 1 Peter 3, where Peter commands believers to “always be…prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
Paul’s own self-giving challenges us. Think about what would be inconvenient for you, and try to love in those kinds of ways.
We need to realize that we should be challenged by the opening verses of Romans 9. Paul sees the obligation that he has. That is a clear call to us. Our silence is not a matter of neutrality. You need to tell yourself that. Our silence is a matter of guilt and sin. Obedience is definitely a biblical reason to evangelize.
Reason 2: A Love for the Lost
It almost sounds quaint to use the word “lost.” One half of one percent of Americans said that there is the slightest chance that they’ll end up in hell. Although it’s not felt very deeply in our time, is there any more serious business? Preachers, we have got to stop skipping or avoiding this topic. Jesus spoke of God’s wrath remaining on those who don’t believe on him. Richard Sibbes said that, outside of Christ, God is terrible. He wasn’t morally evaluating God. He was saying that God will cause terror in us if we appear before him apart from Christ.
Apart from God’s grace, the sinner will never stop sinning. God’s judgment will never end. Their rejection of God never ends. We all know God’s law and break it. When I was giving an evangelistic address, I was talking with a student leader who was thinking a lot about annihilationism. He liked the idea because it made God seem more humane. I said, “Can you think of any reason why we would want God’s judgment to seem less terrible to sinners? Do you want to make sinners feel better about their rebellion?”
The experience of hell will be worse than any abuse any of us has ever felt in our lives. Heaven is lost. The conscience is awakened. Remorse and regret are given rule, as desires run free in our lives that remain unsatisfied. God will inflict extreme and unnatural pain on them forever. I am at a loss to describe how horrible hell will be. As preachers of the gospel, we have no business making God seem more humane to sinners who are in rebellion against him. Tell unbelievers how horrible it is. Think about if hell were unleashed on you forever. Paul in Philippians 3 describes the non Christian in the present as those whose “end is destruction,…[whose] god is their belly,…[who] glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” God is truly and forever good. All of those wrongs no one else has ever noticed, God notices. God is good, and we by ourselves are not. We are fallen in Adam.
Jesus himself at least implies that the pains of the damned will endure as long as the joys of the redeemed.
Ours is an age that is sensitive to human suffering. Connie and I were talking about how Calvin suffered horribly physically. The suffering we are sensitive to is physical suffering and it will end. But the lost will be tormented as long as God is good.
Paul says to the Thessalonians that unbelievers will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
Jesus said things like in Mark 9 (about their worm not dying) to do what, at least in some seminaries, we’ve been taught not to do: alarm our hearers. Jesus did not preach a “don’t worry” Christianity. When you are in God’s universe, the most important thing is to know how God feels about you.
My non-Christian friends know none of the sanctifying work of the Spirit. Spurgeon encouraged his people to meditate on the condition of unbelievers.
Meditate with deep solemnity upon the fate of the lost sinner, and, like Abraham, when you get up early to go to the place where you commune with God, cast an eye toward Sodom and see the smoke thereof going up like the smoke of a furnace. Shun all views of future punishment which would make it appear less terrible, and so take off the edge of your anxiety to save immortals from the quenchless flame. (from Lectures to my Students)
The Puritan minister Daniel Burgess said, “My father in all his letters to me used to write, ‘O, child, better never born than not new-born.’”
Edward Payson finished his powerful sermon on hell with these words of application:
I cannot, must not, however, conclude, without addressing a word, my professing friends, to you. And I hope you will bear with me, if, in view of such a subject as this, I address you with apparent severity.But I cannot proceed further in this strain. I would rather beseech, and melt, and win you by tenderness.
An apostle teaches ministers, that they must sometimes rebuke professing Christians sharply; but I trust my sharpness will be the sharpness of love; and I know that I shall say nothing to you, half so severe as the reproaches which I have directed against myself, while preparing this discourse.
We all deserve perdition, a thousand times, for our stupid insensibility to the situation of those, who are perishing around us. We profess to believe the word of God; but can you all prove that you believe it? Do you all act, as if you believed it? What, believe that many of your acquaintances, your children, are in danger of the fate, which has now been described!
Dare you go to God, and say, Lord, I believe thy word, I believe that all thy threatenings will be fulfilled, and then turn away, and coolly pursue your worldly business, without uttering one agonizing cry for those, who are exposed to these threatenings? Dare you go and claim relationship to Christ, and profess to have his Spirit, without which you are none of his, and then make no effort, or only a few faint efforts, to save those, for whom he shed not tears only, but blood? O, if you can do this, where are the bowels, I will not say of a Christian, but of a man?
Go, I may say to such, go, inconsistent, cruel, hard-hearted professors; go, slumber over the ruin of immortal souls; wrap yourself up in your selfish temporal interests, and say, I have no time to spare for rescuing others from everlasting burnings. Go, wear out your life in acquiring property for your children, and leave their souls to perish in the fire that never shall be quenched. Go, adorn their bodies, and banish from them, if possible, the seeds of disease; but leave in their bosoms that immortal worm, which will gnaw them forever. And when God asks, where is thy child? thy brother? thy friend? Reply, with impious Cain, I know not, I care not: am I his keeper?
Say, then, Christian, dost thou believe that Christ died to save thee from the misery, which has been imperfectly described? Dost thou believe, that if he had not loved thee and given himself for thee, the gnawing worm and the unquenchable fire would have been thy portion forever? O then, where is thy gratitude, thy love? (from The Complete Works of Edward Payson)
Christians are motivated by a love to others. Hudson Taylor said he would have never thought of going to China if he didn’t believe that they were lost. It’s people who are this lost, who have this fate awaiting them, that we are aiming to convert.
We have to understand what conversion is. Biblically, while we are to persuade, our first duty is to be faithful to present the same good news that God has given to us. God’s Spirit will convert. We can’t make conversions. I think knowing this will make us better evangelists. Some people think that Calvinism makes bad evangelists. I think that is true, but I think Arminians are bad evangelists. We are all bad evangelists because we don’t want to offend people.
I think we can confidently tell people the basic message of the gospel and trust that God’s Spirit will faithfully pick up our message and use it to convert people.
Reason 3: A Love for God.
We want to see God glorified. We want to see the truth about him told in creation. The desire to see God glorified was the motivation for all Jesus’ actions.
Everything exists for God’s glory (Romans 11:36). Our salvation is “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6). God does everything he does for his own glory, and we should do all we do for the glory of God. God is glorified in the gospel. Is there a more amazing message? To tell the truth about some people is not to honor them, but to tell the truth about God is to honor him.
The call to evangelism is a call to turn our lives outward from focusing on ourselves and our own needs to focusing on God, to focusing on those others made in his image. We bring glory to God in this way. This is our one special privilege on this earth. We can bring glory to God in this way in a way we won’t be able to do in heaven.