(from The Gospel & Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever)
In a previous post we discussed the balance of honesty, urgency, and joy in our evangelism. In this post we will give five specific suggestions on how we should evangelize.
Remember the importance of prayer in your evangelism. When Jonah was saved from the fish, he said, "Salvation comes from the LORD" (Jonah 2:9). If the Bible teaches us that salvation is the work of God, then surely we should ask him to work among those we evangelize. Jesus did. His prayer in John 17 was for those who would believe in him through the disciples' preaching and witnessing. And God answered that prayer. Jesus said, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44). If this is God's work, we should ask him to do it.
Paul also prayed for the salvation of those he was witnessing to. He wrote to the Roman Christians, "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved" (Rom. 10:1). We can work and witness for the salvation of someone, but only God can finally bring it about. It is his work. So we must pray.
I remember once sitting in the library at seminary in the midst of my studies when suddenly I was struck with the fact that several people I loved had not been converted, even though I had been praying for them regularly for years. For a few moments, I wondered what use all these studies were if God wasn't listening and answering prayers that would obviously glorify him. I struggled with discouragement about this. Nevertheless, I knew it was my duty to keep on praying.
Some of those people I was praying for have never, to my knowledge, been saved. But others have been saved. By God's grace, slowly but surely over the years, I have seen many people for whom I was praying more than twenty years ago come to know Christ. Humanly speaking, some of these conversions were unlikely and surprising, which shows that ultimately it is God who is at work in evangelism, not you or me alone. And that brings about some wonderful fruit.
We pray about much less significant matters every day. Why wouldn't we pray about this? When you evangelize, remember to pray.
2. USE THE BIBLE
The Bible is not only for public preaching and private devotionals. It can also be used in evangelizing. An interesting example of this, one we noted earlier, is found in Acts 8, when Philip came to the Ethiopian official. The official was reading Isaiah 53, a famous prophecy about the Messiah. Philip, as it says in Acts 8:35, "began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus." The Bible is God's Word and is inspired by God's Spirit. God's message can go out not just through your words and mine, but through his own inspired words. And we can know that he will take a special delight in showing the power of his Word as he uses it in conversions.
This is one reason that I so enjoy doing a study of Mark's Gospel as a tool of evangelism. I am confident that God will use his Word in ways that I wouldn't have known to plan. I remember my own conversion and how crucial in that was my reading through the Gospels. Introduce a non-Christian (or a whole group of them in a Bible study) to the person of Jesus Christ as he is revealed on the pages of Scripture. Let them interact with the primary sources. Watch the power and majesty and love and penetrating conviction of Christ come through the stories, the works, the teaching.
Referring to the clear teaching of the Bible also shows our friends that we are not simply giving them our own private ideas; rather, we are presenting Jesus Christ in his own life and teaching. Just as we want the preaching in our churches to be expositional - preaching in which the point of the message is the point of the Bible passage being preached - we want to see people exposed to God's Word because we believe that God desires to use his Word to bring about conversions. It is God's Word coming to us that his Spirit uses to reshape our lives.
In your evangelism, use the Bible.
3. BE CLEAR
When you share the gospel, think carefully about the language you use. One of the best conversations I can remember having about evangelism was with a secular Jewish friend of mine. I was to give talks soon on a college campus about evangelism, and I decided to ask my friend about evangelism. We'll call him Michael. (In fact, that was his name.) "So, Michael," I said, "have you ever been evangelized?"
"What's that?" he asked.
"You know," I said, "when someone who is a Christian starts talking to you about God and Jesus and asking if you're saved."
"Oh, that!" he said. "Yeah, I guess I have been."
Anyway, Michael and I got into a long and good conversation. Now, the truth is that I had evangelized Michael a number of times before, but he hadn't realized that's what I was doing. As we talked about it now, it became clear that he thought evangelism was something that someone did to him rather than a conversation in which he could engage.
I also realized that in my previous conversations with him I had taken the meaning of words for granted. "God," "prayer," "heaven," "good," "moral," "judge," and "sin" are all words that I realized I had not done a good job defining. If I had simply gone through a quick, persuasive sales presentation and gotten him to say "yes!" he would have been saying yes to much that he didn't understand. We need to be both engaging and clear when we present the gospel.
None of us ever has a complete understanding of the gospel, but we must have a clear idea of the basics of our message, and we must be clear in our expression of them. If there is a likely misunderstanding, we should address it. We should speak in such a way as to be understood. Contextualization is the big theological word for this.
So, for example, when we talk about justification (and we should), we should make sure to define it. Justification is being declared right with God. But because we sin, we are not right with God. So how can we be declared right? We can't, if God is truly good - unless, that is, we have someone act as a substitute for us. Justification, then, gets us talking about all kinds of issues right at the heart of the gospel.
So, when we are talking to non-Christian friends about the gospel, we want to make sure they understand what we mean. Christians in the Bible had a great concern about this. So it's often been noted that Paul began with the Old Testament when he was speaking to Jews, but when he spoke to a group of Greeks in Athens (Acts 17) he began by quoting their own sayings. As he wrote to the Corinthians, "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. . . . To those not having the law I became like one not having the law . . . so as to win those not having the law" (1 Cor. 9:20-21).
One part of providing clarity when we share the gospel, sometimes missed by earnest evangelists, is the willingness to offend. Clarity with the claims of Christ certainly will include the translation of the gospel into words that our hearer understands, but it doesn't necessarily mean translating it into words that our hearer will like. Too often, advocates of relevant evangelism verge over into being advocates of irrelevant non-evangelism. A gospel that in no way offends the sinner has not been understood.
Look at Peter at Pentecost in Acts 2. Peter wanted to be relevant, but that relevance gave his words more bite, not less. How did Peter witness to those he wished to see saved? He said to them, among other things, "Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).
Relevant? Yes. Pleasing? No. Clear? Undoubtedly.
We must be clear about the fact of sin (Isa. 59:1-2; Hab. 1:13; Rom. 3:22-23; 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5; 1 John 1:5-6). We must be clear about the meaning of the cross (Matt. 26:28; Gal. 3:10-13; 1 Tim. 1:15; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18). We must be clear about our need to repent of our sins and to trust in Christ (Matt. 11:28-30; Mark 1:15; 8:34; John 1:12; 3:16; 6:37; Acts 20:21). How can we really evangelize without being clear about what the Bible says about these issues?
4. PROVOKE SELF-REFLECTION
Something typical of our age is a heightened defensiveness that leads people to discover things for themselves rather than hearing things from other people. The desire for original discovery is what's behind the "journey" language that some use today. "Let people find the truth themselves. The days of simple tracts and surefire, sales-presentation evangelism is over. Don't tell people something; talk with them. Have a conversation." That's what we are hearing we have to do today, and to that I have a couple of replies.
First, it's true. Second (and surprising to some) it's always been true. It's nothing new. Our parents and grandparents were not the naïve, unquestioning followers that so much of current literature makes them out to be. Skepticism about particular facts can be borne out of a general cynicism about truth or out of a deep certainty about human character. Sherlock Holmes asked questions not because he wanted to know someone else's perspective, their truth; he wanted to know the truth. Detective stories always presuppose a right and wrong with certain actions and motives that explain them. Otherwise, there's no puzzle to be solved.
We Christians know that there is a right and wrong, but we also know our own hearts. We know that we don't like to be shown up easily and clearly when we are in the wrong. I'm a pastor. I write books telling you what to do, and yet the other day my wife most lovingly and respectfully corrected me on something that I had said in the presence of our son. She was right. I was wrong. I believe in absolute truth. I know she loves me. I know the theological truth that I am sinful. And yet she had to labor with me with patience, determination, perseverance, and love to get me to even be in the position to consider that I was perhaps wrong in that situation. And I've been a Christian for over twenty years.
Defensiveness is natural to the fallen human heart, so we want to do our best to help people hear the good news. We want to live and talk in such a way that we provoke people to reflect on themselves, on their own desires and actions. We can do this by asking good questions - questions about the origin of life or about how they understand bad things in this world. We can ask about what they're struggling with in their lives, and what they think the answer might be. We can even ask them what they think about death, and Jesus, and God, and judgment, and the Bible, and Christianity. But afterward we'll have to do what some witnessing Christians find very hard to do, something that surprises some of our non-Christian friends - listen to their answers!
Ask good questions and listen to their answers. Explore them. You may be helping them to enunciate and articulate their own thinking for the first time ever. And you don't even need to try to pretend that this is easy for you.
This is what you do for someone you love, and you surely love the person you're witnessing to. Insofar as you have opportunity, befriend people. Lower their defensiveness toward you (but not toward your message). Make suggestions of what you think is the case. Be clear in your presentation of the gospel. Pray that you will be able to put things in such a way as to undermine their disbelief and cause them to doubt their denials of the truth of the gospel. Be provocative in your conversation.
In fact, try to live in a distinctly Christian "salty" way around them - in your words and actions. Make them thirsty. Make your whole life before them provocative. I sometimes introduce myself to people as being a fundamentalist, because I'm hoping there will be an intriguing disconnect between their assumptions of what a fundamentalist is and what kind of person I seem to be. Live a Christian life before them. And that brings me to my final suggestion for you.
5. USE THE CHURCH
By "use the church," I mean invite the person to whom you're witnessing to the church at which you're a member or to some other gospel-preaching church. But by saying "use the church," I also mean so much more than that. Realize that how the Christian life is lived out in the Christian community is a central part of our evangelism. Like those washer-women that Bunyan overheard, our lives are to give our words credibility. Not that any of us can live perfectly, but we can live lives that commend the gospel. Remember Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount: "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16; cf. 1 Pet. 2:12).
Remember Jesus' statement in John 13:34-35: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Our words alone are not a sufficient witness - we must speak; we have news. Our lives are the confirming echo of our witness. Evangelism should include our way of living and our way of living together in the new society that is the local church.
The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, and there is nothing about a great Christian temple in the New Testament - a place of grandeur and majesty to which we can point our non-Christian friends and say, "Look! Aren't you impressed? Doesn't this show how wonderful and mysterious and beautiful and true and good our God is?" What happened to the temple in the New Testament era? There is nothing like it, because the temple has become us. We Christians have together become the temple of the Holy Spirit. When you read the New Testament, you find that it's not our church buildings but us, Christians. We Christians have together become the temple of the Holy Spirit.
So the community we live in will be given hope by those of us who live distinctive Christian lives, not by your church or mine, not by how similar we are to those around us (a common mistake Christians can make), but by how attractively different we are. That's why we are to live the distinctive lives that we do - because we are God's picture, God's billboard, in our city. Thus Paul wrote to the Philippians, "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God, without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life" (Phil. 2:14-16).
The people around us are lost in darkness; we have the wonderful and attractive call to live out a new life in our congregations - a good life that reflects the good news. Think about the role of your church in your evangelism. Yes, you can invite people to services and special evangelistic events, but also consider bringing them into your own life, into the network of relationships that is your congregation. That may be to them as a shining star in the dark night of their lives. That may provoke them to do some honest soul searching. They may ask, as a friend once asked me, "So, you're a Christian? Then tell me the gospel! Witness to me, or somethin'!"
Those are just some suggestions, but suggestions that I hope encourage you in evangelizing.