How to Evangelize Professing Believers
Evangelism is rarely easy. We need to strike a balance between sharing our faith without undue offense and being one who stands up to be counted (2 Timothy 4:1–4). Yet as uncomfortable as encounters with unbelievers may be, they don’t hold a candle to having to evangelize someone who already claims to be a Christian.
For some, this will, no doubt, come across as the worst of Christian offenses. “How can you judge someone else’s faith?” they may ask. And our answer is simple: Because the Bible says we should (Matthew 7:15–20).
What, then, are we to do when our lives regularly intersect with those who claim to be for Christ and yet whose lives plainly don’t bear the fruit?
1. Examine yourself first.
We cannot divorce verses 15–20 of Matthew 7 from verses 1–5, which teach that we should be quick to get the log out of our own eye before turning to note the speck in our neighbor’s (Matthew 7:1–5). If we see a lack of Christlikeness in someone else, let it first be a reminder of what may be missing in our own lives.
The charges in Scripture to put to death our sin (Colossians 3:5–9; Galatians 5:19–21) are meant to be applied to our lives first, and then to our neighbor. Let us be even more busy killing the sin in our lives than we are pointing it out in others.
2. Check your motivation.
We should keep a careful eye on our motivation for making such a judgment. All too often, my desire to point out some else’s lack of Christlikeness is really a thinly veiled attempt at control. I want them to love Jesus when their loving Jesus helps my life to be more convenient, more valuable, or more comfortable.
We often demand that those whose faith we question be more like Christ than we ourselves are willing to be. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: Is this for God’s sake or my own?
3. Display the love of Christ, instead of only demanding it.
We must be willing to display both Christ’s grace and holiness in our lives, being honest and vulnerable about our own sin — its odiousness, its stubbornness, its power, and its seduction. This can be incredibly difficult when we are talking with someone who casually confesses the crown of Christ. If they are not genuinely wrestling with sin or being regularly refreshed by his grace, then we should not be surprised when our struggle seems either insignificant or incredible to them.
Nonetheless, it is by being honest and letting them see our love of Christ, our joy in him, our frustration with sin, and our struggle to apply God’s word that they can begin to sense that something may be out of kilter in their own walk. We are not looking for Christian exhibitionism here (making a big deal of sin and grace in public when it has no meaning in private) but rather Christian realism (that being a Christian does entail work — wonderful, but hard).
4. Remain patient.
We should be willing to be in it for the long haul. It’s rare to see immediate change; it usually happens over months and years, not a single evening. In the normal course of relationships, we have multiple opportunities to close doors and walk away. We are sinners in community with sinners. We hurt each other, and unfortunately we do it regularly. But just as Christ has loved us and does not give up on us (Philippians 1:6), neither should we give up on our brother or sister.
Paul tells us that a little leaven leavens the whole lump (Galatians 5:9) and that bad company ruins good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33), so if we have a hunch that someone who professes to be Christian is deceiving themselves, should we not walk away?
Gross sin, however, is not the same as a lack of fruit. If someone claims to be a Christian, but continues in blatant, unrepentant sin, then you may need to walk away, in some sense, in order that you would not be caught up in it (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 3:5–6), or give the impression that you condone it. Similarly, if the person is obstinately divisive, you may have to distance yourself as well (Titus 3:10–11). But in general, we are called to be examples of light to darkness (Matthew 5:14–16; 1 Peter 2:9), and perhaps few need it more than those who can’t tell the difference.
5. Commit your time with them to Scripture, prayer, and worship.
We must be willing to help point them to their need of Christ’s grace and holiness in their life. There may be little-to-no appetite for things of a spiritual nature, or what appetite there is may not have its anchor in Christ. Therefore, it can become easy to let the spiritual things slide in the name of comfort, convenience, or kindness. But what they need most can only be found in one place: God’s word. No tightly argued apologetic or perfectly choreographed “gotcha!” moment can trump the effect of time in Scripture.
We must be willing to study God’s word with them, pray God’s word with them, and worship in God’s word with them. It is by finding engaging opportunities to set them in Scripture that the gospel can do its dual work of comfort and conviction.
6. Winsomely point out their weaknesses.
We must be willing to winsomely point out where fruit seems lacking. There are those that will be all too willing to call a loved one out for their lack of genuine trust in Christ. Conversely, there are those that would rather be tortured than cause a loved one to feel uncomfortable. But we are called to be those who walk the middle ground — lovingly and honestly highlighting areas in our loved ones lives where we see a consistent lack of Christian behavior. We must choose our words carefully; it is one thing for the gospel to offend, and another entirely for us to do so.
If the person seems uninterested in listening, do not give up (remain patient), but be willing to get outside counsel. It may be that there is something about your relationship that makes it hard for them to show the fruit of the Spirit, even though it is evident elsewhere. If someone else does corroborate your suspicion, then take that person with you to talk. Sometimes it takes the witness of two or more to convince someone that there is a genuine problem. But be careful to toe the line between asking for help and engaging in gossip.
From Death to Life
It can be difficult to “evangelize” those that think they need it least. Convincing someone raised in the church that they are lost is often even harder than getting someone saved. Fear of the awkwardness, hurt feelings, and possible long-term relational ramifications can keep us from sharing our faith with those who seem comfortably stagnant in theirs.
But if we are those that are captivated by the beauty of God’s work and character, willing to be honest about its effect in our lives, and willing to make a commitment to get in God’s word as often and as deeply as possible, we may get to see something of the gospel vividly displayed before us, as what once seemed lifeless beautifully blossoms to life.