Evangelism (a 9-part study)

Recently I addressed a group of Africans about evangelism. Many Africans have come to Ireland over the past several years and established congregations, but they are at a loss as to how to spread the gospel in an alien culture. Because I am Irish and have been evangelising in Dublin for over thirty-five years, I was considered to be the expert, with insights on how to evangelise in this country. I'm sorry, but I was not able to offer a formula that guarantees results. However, what I was able to do was introduce them to the alien culture in which the gospel of Jesus Christ first took root. We began in Jerusalem, moved quickly outside the comfort zone of Judaism into Samaria and then into a culture inhabited by the majority of the world's population - the Gentiles.

How do we begin? Where do we go? What do we say? Who do we start with? Beginning our evangelism among those who already believe in God is a good place to start; that was the apostolic practice. Many of the Jews to whom the apostles preached the gospel were God-fearing people - good, honourable decent people - but they did not know how God makes people right with him. This point is brought out by Paul, who grieves over their spiritual condition: "Brothers," Paul says, "my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes." (Romans 10:1-4) If there were ever a suitable place to insert a word of hope for people who don't know Jesus, but nevertheless are sincere and religious, this would be the place. Instead, Paul makes it clear that it is only through faith in the atoning death of Jesus that salvation is found.

Sometimes, what is taught as gospel bears no resemblance to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I recall once attending a "gospel meeting". The preaching lasted an hour, with much emphasis placed on what people need to do to be saved. We were never told why the Son of God had to die or how his death obtained the forgiveness of our sins. Nothing was mentioned about how the justice of a holy and righteous God was satisfied through Jesus’ atoning death. We were presented with a message that did not proclaim the gospel.

Not only must the gospel be proclaimed to the lost, the lost must be persuaded to believe what God has done for them in the atoning death of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The label of a fanatic is quickly placed on those who speak passionately and persuasively about the gospel. My response to such criticism is this: How can we who believe that died to save us from our sins and not be passionate about exhorting others to believe such good news?

Commissioning his disciples to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15), their task was far more than imparting correct religious information, though it involved that: The gospel contains God's expressed desire to have a relationship, to have fellowship with people. Fellowship is having things in common. Paul speaks of "God who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord" and John affirms "our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 1:9; 1 John 1:4).

Jesus experienced something on two occasions that I have never experienced in thirty-five years as an evangelist: He was asked, "What must I do to have eternal life?" (Mark 10:17; Luke 10:25) When such encounters occur they are the exception rather than the rule. So we can't wait around for those exceptions to arise. We all move in circles where we exert a level of influence: in our family and our place of work, among our friends and associates. What will prompt them to ask us about Jesus? What will cause the door of opportunity to open so the word of faith can be shared? What will cause their prejudice, their indifference, or their unbelief to be suspended long enough for an open-minded inquiry to be made?

Evidence that a genuine conversion has occurred will always display itself when evangelism has been carried out along apostolic lines. Conversion to Jesus has nothing to do with making a few minor changes in one's beliefs, or tidying up some sloppy departments in an otherwise respectable life. To speak of conversion as a miracle of God’s divine grace would not be to overstate the case. Unfortunately, the number of conversions we hear about is not always matched with the evidence that God has done a mighty work in the heart of an individual.

We are called ambassadors for Christ. These words are found in the context of evangelism: “We are therefore Christ's ambassadors,” Paul says, “as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Jesus has told us to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15), but he also told us, in the context of preaching the gospel, "Do not give what is sacred to dogs; do not throw your pearls to pigs." (Matthew 7:6) What did he mean?