If our evangelism is increasingly unbelievable, what can we do to be more believable to an inoculated, indifferent, and at times, antagonistic society?
In evangelistic seminars, people are often asked to answer a question that goes something like, “How can I get eternal life?” We might scoff at the question, assuming it too unrealistic to come from our unbelieving neighbors, but I actually know someone who was asked this very question. But instead of telling the person how to get eternal life, he avoided it by asking a question in return. He had the evangelistic ball all teed up, and didn’t even answer the question!
You’ll probably think of him as an evangelistic failure, especially after I tell you what he did next. Instead of inviting the seeker to repent and believe in the gospel — to have faith — this so-called evangelist told him he needed to do good works (serve the poor) before getting eternal life! Now he’s a failure not only by evangelistic standards but also by Reformed standards.
I’ll tell you his name. This so-called evangelist was Jesus Christ.
In Luke 18:18–30, a young wealthy man comes to Jesus inquiring, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a softball question, just sitting up there, and Jesus whiffs it completely. He doesn’t even answer the question! He would have flunked the evangelism class. What was he thinking? A lot could be said about this exchange, but let me just point out three things.
Question the Mind
When evangelizing, all too often we are looking to give answers — to deliver the doctrine, win the argument, check the box. But Jesus responds with a question, something he does quite often. Why? Because he’s not seeking converts; he’s engaging hearts. All too often our evangelism reduces people to projects.
- Not saying anything about Jesus earns a ✓-
- Saying Jesus’s name in conversation earns a ✓
- Mentioning what Jesus did (on the cross, for your sins) earns a ✓+
- Giving a “whole gospel presentation” earns a ★
We are caught in a performance act and the listener is our spectator. Evangelism is easily reduced to a gospel infomercial. We do the talking; you do the listening, and then we’ll give you an opportunity to respond. I shudder to think how often I’ve just looked to get Jesus off my chest, clearing my evangelistic conscience.
Not Jesus, though.
He listens and responds to the rich, young professional: “Why do you call me good?” (Luke 18:19). He doesn’t just inform the head; he questions the mind. Notice Jesus dignifies the man’s vocabulary choice. The fact that the man said “good teacher” would have slipped by most of us. But Jesus is paying attention and he asks, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” Commentators suggest several options for Jesus’s remark: 1) Jesus is denying his own goodness, which doesn’t comport with the rest of Luke’s Gospel. 2) Jesus is pointing away to Yahweh’s goodness and making no commentary on himself. It is the regular confession of the Psalms, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.” 3) Perhaps Christ is identifying with Yahweh’s goodness.
But let’s keep reading to find out what Jesus is doing.
Aim for the Heart
Jesus tells the young man, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Instead of telling him the gospel, Jesus tells him to sell literally “as much as he has” and give it to the poor. That’s everything. Why? Why would Jesus, when asked how to inherit eternal life, tell someone to go do good works?
Because he’s aiming for the heart. We frequently aim for the head. Jesus asks questions, because he wants to draw him out, understand him, and he sees the man’s deepest desire is to do something. Doing is valuable to keepers-of-commandments. Perhaps this is why he called Jesus “good.” The rich do-gooder holds keeping the law as a high virtue. “What must I do?”
After hearing Jesus’s instruction to sell all he has, we are told he was sad, “very sad.” Tim Keller has said that wherever our emotions are out of control, there’s our idol. So while Jesus does dignify the man, he devastates him by telling him to sell everything and follow him. The thing the rich man clung to, and couldn’t let go of, was his wealth. He’s blinded by it, worked hard for it, and deep down believes he deserves it. Idolatry obscures Glory.
Now, why did Jesus tell him to do good works? Because two gods can’t share the same shelf. One has to win. Give up one to get the other. We have to let go of the earthly treasure to receive the heavenly treasure. The gospel requires an exchange of worship, a reordering of our loves, if we are to enter the kingdom.
So how should this affect our evangelism? Do you know what your neighbor loves, fears, hopes, dreams about? What is the thing your unbelieving friends pine for most?
Use Gospel Metaphors
When Francis Schaeffer was asked what he would do if he had an hour with a non-Christian, he replied by saying he would listen for fifty-five minutes. Then, in those last five minutes, he would have something to say.
What does Jesus say “in the last five minutes”?
“And you will have treasure in heaven and come follow me.” Notice Jesus’s change in vocabulary. He appeals to a longing, not for eternal life, but for “treasure in heaven.” Why change the words? Because he knew what the young wealthy man loved most — his treasure. So Jesus, being a good evangelist, not only dignifies and devastates; he delivers the gospel in a way that makes sense to his listener! He appeals to his deep longings. How? By appealing to his desire for treasure, but with the greater, superior treasure of Heaven — life with God.
Jesus knew what the young man loved most.
Jesus used a gospel metaphor in his evangelism. He didn’t drop the four spiritual laws, or rehearse a canned outline or simply preach justification. Why? He was loving enough to slow down and question the mind, aim for the heart, and then, with insight, share a gospel metaphor that would make the gospel worth believing.
The Bible is actually filled with gospel metaphors, and if you’ll read the Scriptures with that lens, you’ll learn evangelism from the Master. Jesus uses gospel metaphors all the time: pearls, treasure, water, harvest, and more. The metaphors collect in the Epistles in five key ways: redemption, justification, adoption, new creation, and union with Christ. If we slow down long enough, we will see which metaphor intersects with a person’s loves. To the guilt-ridden, Jesus brings guilt-absorbing redemption; to the rejected, perfect justifying acceptance in Christ; to the abandoned, the adopting love of a perfect Father; to the hopeless and worn out, new creation; and to those longing for intimacy, union with Christ.
So yes the gospel is believable. It is the answer, but the question is how? Which metaphor do people need to hear? What are they looking for? If we question the mind, aim for the heart, and select the appropriate gospel metaphor, we’ll share a gospel more worth believing.