Much to the chagrin of my budget-conscious wife, I have the kind of hair that requires a trim every month. I, however, actually look forward to going to my local barber shop because it provides me with an opportunity to chat with my non-Christian barber on a variety of current issues and events. During one visit several months ago, we struck up a conversation on an intriguing movie he had watched: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. He began to share how mesmerized he was with the movie, especially the remarkably vivid portrayal of Jesus’ torture and execution. As he began to describe what he watched, he plaintively asked me, “Why did Jesus have to suffer like that?”
While this may no longer be a common scenario, it does nevertheless illustrates the fact that as Christians we will undoubtedly encounter people within our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces who need to hear a clear presentation of the gospel. As followers of Christ, we are reminded by the apostle Peter: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15).
In light of this, what are some significant truths to keep in mind as we engage in this important ministry of being a witness to the message of the gospel? Though this article cannot address every component related to sharing the gospel in the 21st century, I would like to share three: the message of our witness, the messengers sent to witness, and the materials for our witness.
The Message of Our Witness
Though some may conceive of evangelism solely in terms of carefully defending God’s existence in an apologetic encounter or perhaps of providing food in a social outreach for the poor and needy, it is crucial that we remember that evangelism at its core is a message. It is a declaration of the biblical God who in his great mercy has saved sinners dead in their trespasses through the life, death, and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ. Simply put, evangelism is proclaiming the evangel—the gospel. It is proclaiming the good news that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The apostle Paul put it this way in his letter to the Corinthians: “By this gospel you are saved . . . that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day” (1 Cor 15:2-4).
In this day and age, however, there continues to be confusion about the essentials of this message. This is where Reformed theology has been so helpful in getting the gospel message right. In response to the departure from the biblical gospel by the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers of the sixteenth century clarified the fundamental truths concerning the message of our witness. And while the role of Scripture (sola Scriptura) was formally debated, what was materially at stake was the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide). That’s why Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin argued that sinners are pardoned and accepted by God’s free grace only through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone. They were right in arguing that this is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls.
Jesus, the sinless Son of God, offered himself to God as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin and endured God’s judgment for it on the cross. But he conquered sin and death by being raised from the dead, and his life of perfect obedience has been vindicated. So, in giving our reason for the hope that lies within us, Christians must remember that evangelism is primarily the proclamation that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The Messengers Sent to Witness
If evangelism is primarily about what we say, who then should witness? Some think that only “professionals” such as pastors, professors, and evangelists should evangelize—after all, isn’t that part of their job description anyway? Others, however, have been taught that every Christian, without exception, must actively find ways to evangelize every person with whom they come into contact. Failure to do so demonstrates disobedience and a lack of love for the lost.
In Ephesians 4:11, Paul mentions evangelists and pastors and teachers after the apostles and prophets. Since the New Testament teaches that all Christians are under the obligation, as they have opportunity, to witness to the hope they have in the gospel, the offices of evangelist and pastor must be something different. Mentioned two other times in the New Testament (Acts 21:8; 2 Tim 4:5), the noun evangelist refers to those ministers called by God and tested by the church who are gifted in making the gospel particularly plain and relevant to unbelievers. In fact, most of the missionaries serving in areas around the world where the church of Jesus Christ has not made significant inroads are called to their work as evangelists. Furthermore, while pastors by virtue of their office of ministering the gospel also engage in the work of evangelism, evangelists are especially called to the work of spreading the seed of the gospel to previously unreached regions.
In addition to these special offices of evangelists and pastors, the New Testament also describes average laypeople sharing the gospel with others. Besides Peter’s exhortation mentioned earlier in this essay, Christ’s command to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:18-20) is given to all disciples of Jesus, not just to the original twelve. Furthermore, as Christians in the first century were scattered about due to persecution, they engaged in proclaiming the Gospel fearlessly (Acts 8:1-4, 11:19-21). Michael Green in his book, Evangelism in the Early Church, has demonstrated that many Christians in the early church were actively involved in giving witness to Christ through their word and deed ministry. Clearly everyone in the early church was bearing witness of Christ, not just the apostles or other leaders.
But a question still remains: How does the ministry of witness carried out by the evangelists and pastors of the church interact with the work of evangelism done by average Christians? First, the primary and ordinary ministry of witness is done by the church. If the ministry of witness is essentially the proclamation of the gospel, it is the church-through the preaching ministry of her ministers—that carries out this task. Every Sunday when the church gathers together in worship and ministers the gospel through the spoken Word (preaching), and the visible Word (sacraments), the ministry of witness is taking place. The Bible teaches that the grace of God is being dispensed in the faithful preaching of the Word and administration of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. This means that the best place your neighbor or barber can hear a clear presentation of the gospel is at the church that faithfully preaches the good news every Lord’s Day.
Second, lay people who desire to exercise their gift of evangelism need training and oversight from the church. Again, the passage in Ephesians 4 is helpful. Paul describes the work of evangelists and pastors as those who “prepare God’s people for works of service” (Eph 4:12). This equipping ministry involves training followers of Christ with the essentials of the Bible so that they can readily express the truth of the gospel with clarity, cogency, and compassion. This training ministry also provides natural accountability structures whereby leaders can guide and support Christians with discernment as they seek to use their gifts. Since the ministry of witness is church-based, those who are evangelized will be led most directly into church membership.
The Materials of our Witness
What are some resources available to the church as she seeks to carry out this ministry of witness? While not exhaustive or perfect, here are some materials that might be helpful to you and your church.
- Will Metzger. Tell the Truth, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
- C. John Miller. Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1997).
- J. I. Packer. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991).
- Michael Bennett. Christianity Explained (Queensland, Australia: Scripture Union, 1985).
- Phillip Jensen. 2 Ways to Live (Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 1989).
- Rico Tice. Christianity Explored (Milton Keynes, U.K.: Authentic Media, 2003).
“So, why did Jesus have to suffer?” asked my barber. Where should I begin? “Well, Jesus suffered because he was willing to pay the penalty for my disobedience to God. Now, you’re probably wondering what my disobedience has to do with Jesus, right? How about we start at the beginning. . . .”
While Jesus is central to the gospel message, my barber (and most 21st century people living in North America) do not have the background or worldview to understand the basic story line of the Bible in which the death and resurrection of Jesus makes sense. If we are to present the gospel to those who are biblically illiterate and have adopted worldviews that are contrary to the Bible, there are certain assumptions about God the creator and man’s original dignity and subsequent guilt that must be shared so that the rest of the gospel story line makes sense. The resources mentioned above will help fill in that biblical story line so that the gospel can be presented with clarity and power.
One thing these resources cannot do, however, is persuade my barber of the truth. That is something only the Holy Spirit can do. And that’s comforting, isn’t it? We need to remind ourselves that God is the only one who can change a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. He is the one who draws his people to himself and grants his mercies in Christ. Nevertheless, what I do, out of love for God and for the lost, is simply offer the gospel freely and fully so I can say along with the apostle Paul, “When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).
First published in Evangelium, Vol.5, Issue 2.
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