(from The Gospel & Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever)
How should we evangelize? There is a certain balance that we want to strive for in our evangelism, a balance of honesty and urgency and joy. Too often we have only one, or at best, two, of these aspects rather than all three. The balance is important. These three together most appropriately represent the gospel.
First, we tell people with honesty that if they repent and believe, they will be saved. But they will need to repent, and it will be costly. We must be accurate in what we say, not holding any important parts back that seem to us awkward or off-putting.
When considering how to evangelize, many people don't like to include anything negative in their presentation. There are thought to be negative and positive approaches to sharing the gospel, and talking about sin and guilt and repentance and sacrifice is thought to be a negative one, which is why it is currently out of favor. Here's what one leading television preacher said: "I don't think that anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality, and hence counterproductive to the evangelistic enterprise, than the unchristian, uncouth strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition." Others more theologically orthodox suggest that while judgment and guilt were culturally relevant to a previous generation, they are alien today. They suggest that people today will respond better to a message of freedom.
But according to the Bible, although freedom is a wonderful aspect of our message (e.g., John 8:32-36), sin and guilt are at the very heart and core of the gospel. Making people aware of their lost and sinful condition is part and parcel of sharing the good news of Christ. If you read the summaries of Peter's sermons in the early chapters of the book of Acts, you will see that Peter is breathtakingly honest about the sin of those to whom he's speaking. His remarks were not calibrated to be flattering. By being frank, Peter was faithfully following the method Jesus had used with Peter and the others just a few months before, saying, "Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27).
Think about it. Let's not believe that we are simply all engaged in some search for truth. The fall did not leave people neutral toward God but at enmity with him. Therefore we must not pretend that non-Christians are seekers by the simple virtue of their having been made in the image of God. The Bible teaches that people are by nature estranged from God, and we must be honest about that.
What is repentance? It is turning from the sins you love to the holy God you're called to love. It is admitting that you're not God. It is beginning to value Jesus more than your immediate pleasure. It is giving up those things the Bible calls sin and leaving them to follow Jesus.
When we tell the gospel to people, we need to do it with honesty. To hold back important and unpalatable parts of the truth is to begin to manipulate and to try to sell a false bill of goods to the person with whom we are sharing. So however we evangelize, we aren't to hide problems, to ignore our own shortcomings, or to deny difficulties. And we are not to put forward only positives that we imagine our non-Christian friends presently value and present God as simply the means by which they can meet or achieve their own ends. We must be honest.
Also, though, if we are to follow a biblical model of evangelism, we must emphasize the urgency with which people ought to repent and believe if they will be saved. They must decide now. They certainly shouldn't wait until a "better deal" comes along. People might be careful enough with their money to wait to sign up for a cell phone plan or to renew their current plan until they've looked around on the Internet, maybe phoning and getting two or three offers and then comparing them all. But there's no point here in waiting for a better offer for forgiveness. According to the New Testament (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 10; all of Hebrews), Christ is the only way. How else would we suggest that sinners and the holy God be reconciled? And if Christ is the only way, then what are we waiting for? We don't know that tomorrow is ours, and we shouldn't act as if it is (James 4:13). "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts" (Ps. 95:7-8; Heb. 4:7).
Jesus once told this story:
A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but didn't find any. So, he said to the man who took care of the vineyard for him, "For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?"
"Sir," the man replied, "leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down." (Luke 13:6-9) It's not manipulative or insensitive to bring up the urgent nature of salvation. It's simply the truth. The time of opportunity will end.
As Christians, we've come alive to the truth that history isn't cyclical, always repeating in an endless rotation of events, spinning till any given part of it becomes meaningless. No! We know that God has created this world, and that he will bring it to a close at the judgment. We know that he gives us life, and he takes it away. The time that we have is limited; the amount is uncertain, but the use of it is up to us. So Paul tells us in Ephesians to "make the most of every opportunity (5:16)."
Like a collector buying up a collection, we should desire to capture each fleeting hour and to turn it into a trophy for God and his grace. As Paul said, "The time is short. From now on . . . those who use the things of the world [should use them] as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:29, 31).
What are your circumstances right now? Trust the Lord to use you in them instead of seeking for new ones. Don't let the passing permanence of your world or the lulling tedium of certain long hours and minutes make a fool of you. The days are "evil" (Eph. 5:16) in the sense that they are dangerous and fleeting, and we must redeem the time and make the most of every hour. So we say with Paul that, in view of a certain judgment, Christ's love compels us to tell the good news to others (see 2 Cor. 5:10-15). We must be honest not only about the cost of repentance, but also about the expiration date of the offer. Such honesty compels us to urgency.
Now, if I stopped here, we might wind up with some rather grim evangelists. Driven by a careful conscience to be clear about what is condemned and forbidden, and driven by a sense of the brevity of time, we could end up with an intense, forceful practice of evangelism. But this wouldn't seem so much like good news. It would be imbalanced and inaccurate, because Scripture uses so much love language in relation to the gospel. We are built to love love. God loves us. We love God. Christ has loved us, and we love him even though we have not seen him. This news is good exactly because we want to spend an eternity with him. An eternity in relative prosperity without him would actually be hell to us.
The truth of this news of a restored relationship with God brings us great joy. So we should joyfully tell people that if they repent and believe they will be saved. It is all worth it, despite the cost. Which one of the people recounted in Hebrews 11 would not say that it was worth it? The Lord Jesus himself endured the cross, we read, "for the joy set before him" (Heb. 12:2).
At our church in Washington we have a bronze plaque on the pillar at the entrance to the church parking lot with this saying of Jim Elliot's: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." What do we gain in coming to Christ? We gain a relationship with God himself, which includes forgiveness, meaning, purpose, freedom, community, certainty, and hope. All these and so much more are found in Christ. Just because we are honest about the difficulties, we don't have to mask the blessings or deny God's specific goodnesses to us through the gospel. We don't have to make the demands of the gospel sound worse than they are simply to make it all sound credible. We should tell others the good news with joy.
So that's the balance that we want to see - honesty, urgency, and joy. Honesty and urgency with no joy gives us a grim determination (read Philippians). Honesty and joy with no urgency gives us a carelessness about time (read 2 Peter). And urgency and joy with no honesty leads us into distorted claims about immediate benefits of the gospel (read 1 Peter). Having gotten that balance in mind, though, here are some more specific ideas of how we want to share the gospel.