Two out of every three active Christians are not sharing the gospel. One in every five Americans doesn’t believe in a deity, and less than half the population is attending religious services. Our evangelism has become unbelievable. So the question in this short amount of time is, how do we move from an unbelievable gospel to a believable gospel?
A Model of Evangelism
Many of you have probably been trained in some form of evangelism, and were asked, how do you respond to this question: How do I get eternal life? It’s that question you’re never going to be asked, right? But you’re trained to answer it anyway. How would you respond to that question? I know a man who had this very opportunity. Someone literally walked up to him and said, “How do I get eternal life?” The ball was all teed up, and he responded by asking a question. It wasn’t giving the answer to, “How do I inherit eternal life?” He asked a question in return. In other words, he flunked his evangelism explosion class.
But it gets worse. Instead of inviting him to repent and believe in the gospel, to have faith, this so-called evangelist told the seeker to go and do good works and to care for the poor. So he flunked by evangelical standards, and now he’s flunked by Reformed standards in his evangelism. And I’ll go ahead and tell you his name. The so-called evangelist was Jesus Christ. In Luke 18:18–30, the young rich man comes to Jesus inquiring, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a softball question, just sitting up there ready for Jesus to knock it out of the park, if you will. And he doesn’t even answer the question.
What was Jesus thinking? There’s a lot that could be said about this passage on evangelism. Let me just point out three things. First, ask questions. All too often we’re looking to give answers in evangelism to name-drop Jesus, and squeeze his name into a conversation at work. Perhaps we try to say what he did in the first century on a cross and kind of congratulate ourselves for doing evangelism. We may be wanting to win the argument, to check the box, but Jesus responds with a question. And if you look at the Gospels, he’s doing this all the time. It’s not an isolated instance. Now, why is that? Perhaps it’s because Jesus is seeking, not converts, but seeking the heart.
We fall into this checklist evangelism. We think, “Well, if I fail to take advantage of the opportunity, I get a check minus. If I say Jesus’ name, I get a check. If I say what he did in the first century, I get a check plus. Evangelism done.” It’s a performance mentality, but not Jesus. He’s listening. He says, “Why do you call me good?” Notice that he dignifies the man’s vocabulary choice. Why do you call me good? Most of us would’ve missed that entirely and would have been angling for the opportunity to tell him how to inherit eternal life. But not Jesus.
Commentators suggest several options regarding why Jesus responds this way — “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” One commentator suggests that he’s denying his own goodness, which doesn’t really comport with the rest of Scripture, so we can blow that one off. Second, one says Jesus is pointing away to Yahweh’s goodness, which we see over and over in the Psalms. It says, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good” (Psalm 107:1).
Listen to the Heart
But perhaps there’s another reason. Let’s keep reading. Luke 18:22 says:
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “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.”
Instead of telling him the gospel, Jesus is telling him to literally, as much as he has, sell it and give it to the poor — everything. Now, why would Jesus do this? I mean Jesus is gospel-centered, right? Why, in response to the question “how do I inherit eternal life?” tell him to go do good works? Why would he do such a thing? Because he is listening to the heart. Jesus is asking questions, and he sees in this man’s heart his deepest desire is to do something. Perhaps this is why he called Jesus good, because he is a wealthy do-gooder. He wants to earn his way into heaven by keeping the law, not clinging to Christ. He says, “What must I do?”
Notice his response to Jesus when he tells him that he needs to sell everything. The text says that he was sad. The word is intensely sad. Tim Keller has said, “Wherever your emotions are out of control, there’s your idol.” The thing the rich man clung to that he loved, that he longed for, the principal god in his life, had to be exchanged for the one true God. Jesus knew this. He knew that the rich man was blinded by his love for the wealth that he’d worked for, that he’d earned it, that he deserved, and that his idolatry obscured glory and that it had to be given up. Two gods can’t share the same shelf in a heart. One wins, one loses. Exchange the earthly treasure for the heavenly treasure. We have to exchange our worship. We have to reorder our loves. We have to recenter our affections on God to enter the kingdom.
Now, to those that you might be evangelizing, wealth might not be their thing. It might be acceptance. It might be hope. They’re just broken up, busted up, and longing for hope. It might be approval. It might be the sense of wanting some guilt erased from their life. It could be comfort. The question is, what are the people in your life seeking?
Use Gospel Metaphors
So ask questions, listen to the heart, and finally, use gospel metaphors. Francis Schaffer, the 20th century cultural apologist, was asked, “If you had an hour with a non-Christian, how would you spend it?” He said, “I would listen for 55 minutes, and then in the last five minutes, I would have something to say.” What does Jesus say in the last five minutes? He says:
And you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (Luke 18:22).
Notice the change in vocabulary. The man asks for eternal life, and Jesus changes the language. He doesn’t say, “You’ll have eternal life,” he says, “You’ll have treasure in heaven.” Why would he do that? Because he knows the man’s heart. He has asked questions, and he knows this man’s principal god. The thing that he longed for most was treasure. He appeals to a fundamental human longing. The treasure is misplaced, and Jesus leans in and offers him a gospel metaphor.
So Jesus is a good evangelist because he dignifies the man’s vocabulary, he devastates his expectations, and then he delivers the gospel in a way that makes sense to his listener. He’s not a one-trick pony. He’s not looking just to explain justification. Jesus is much more nuanced, much more patient, much more loving and inefficient. He slows down, climbs into his life, and figures out, what is this man longing for? How can he exchange his gods?
I would submit that there are gospel metaphors throughout the Bible. They’re all over the place. Jesus, Paul, and everybody are using them and they collect in the epistles in really five big metaphors: justification, new creation, redemption, adoption, and union with Christ. And each of these metaphors appeals to a deep, profound, fundamental human longing. To the person that’s been rejected, acceptance through justification. To the person who has a guilt-ridden life, redemption in Jesus absorbing their guilt. To a person who’s broken up, an addict, someone who’s depressed, someone longing for hope, the hope of a new creation. To the person who lacks intimacy, union with Christ. And the person who’s never known approval in their whole life, the adopting love of the Father.
You see, we need to be more gospel-fluent, to ask questions, to listen to the hearts, and then select a gospel metaphor that’ll intersect with the deep longings of people’s hearts. So yes, the gospel is utterly believable. It is the answer, but the question is, how is the gospel the answer? Which metaphor do people need to hear? What are people looking for? If we ask questions, listen to the heart, and select the appropriate gospel metaphor, we will share a gospel worth believing.