“Be on mission! Build God’s kingdom! Serve your community! Live missionally!” Chances are you’ve been hearing these Christian buzz phrases doled out like candy lately. The intention behind these expressions to encourage believers to share the gospel may be in the right place. Yet they are more likely being used to promote good deeds, while missing the intent behind the true biblical “how-to” of evangelism.
Apostle Paul’s example. So let’s go to God’s Word and consider one of the most famous evangelists in scripture: the Apostle Paul. In reviewing his missionary journeys and approach to evangelism certain patterns pop out. One in particular is that he always used verbal or written methods to share the gospel. Whether he found himself in a synagogue (Acts 13–14; 17–19), the marketplace (Acts 17) or prison (Acts 16), he used words to reason with his audience of their need to repent and trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection alone for salvation.
Akin to the aforementioned catchphrases, Paul shows this glorious news can be shared anytime and anywhere. However, unlike the thrust behind these sayings for Christians to “live out” (and thereby share) the gospel by doing social work, Paul didn’t go from place to place to dig a well, repair a church building, feed the homeless and have a vacation. Time after time he set himself amongst a group of people and released air from his lungs, which vibrated his vocal chords, to emit sounds and produce WORDS. “It’s simply impossible to preach the gospel without words. The gospel is inherently verbal, and preaching the gospel is inherently verbal behavior.” (Duane Litfin, “Works and Words: Why You Can’t Preach the Gospel with Deeds,” ChristianityToday.com, May 30, 2012, accessed June 30, 2016, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/may/litfin-gospel-deeds.html?paging=off.)
The gospel defined. Everywhere Paul went he is seen proclaiming (kataggellō) about who God is and what he has done through Christ. So what exactly is the gospel then? First, the Greek word for gospel, euaggelion, translates to “good news.” Narrowing it down even further, Paul says the gospel is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Cor. 15: 3–4). (All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.) Also, according to Paul’s definition even repentance and faith are not the gospel—though they are the only proper way for one to respond rightly to the gospel and be saved. Interestingly euaggelion shares its definition with the root word euaggelizō which is to “bring good news.” The only way to bring news to someone is to tell them about it. All this is not to say that Paul never did good works, but he didn’t label them as the gospel or as a form of sharing it. Though good works may set a stage for the gospel to be shared. Often times in Scripture, the gospel or some aspect about God and his Word was verbally shared in conjunction with a good work—especially in the life of Christ (John 6).
Purpose of works. Although good works are not the gospel, they definitely play an important role in believers’ lives. Faith without works is dead as James 2:17 says. God has plenty of good deeds in store for those that are his (Eph. 2:10). Paul has a stockpile of them that most could never come near to matching. Yet if good works are not enough to justify a sinner before God (Isa. 64:6), why would they be enough to alert a sinner of his need for God? Metaphorically, there is a sad result of being nice to your neighbor without verbally telling him of his need to repent and trust Christ for forgiveness of sin: a more comfortable life on earth before facing his just death sentence to hell. Thankfully one’s salvation is ultimately dependent on God’s will and not man’s (John 1:13), but philosophically this is a good application. “While it is right for Christians to engage in ministries of mercy…our ultimate goal should be to introduce them to the Lord, who can save them for eternity. So we need to pray that the Holy Spirit will convict them of their sin so that they will see their true need for Christ to rescue them from judgment before they die.” (Steven J. Cole, “Lesson 31: How Christ Meets Needs (John 6:1-15),” Bible.org, October 20, 2013, accessed June 30, 2016, https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-31-how-christ-meets-needs-john-61-15.)
Metaphorically, there is a sad result of being nice to your neighbor without verbally telling him of his need to repent and trust Christ for forgiveness of sin: a more comfortable life on earth before facing his just death sentence to hell.
This concept hurts, but really the gospel message injures before it heals. When the rich, young ruler asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life in Mark 10:21, he lovingly pointed out the ruler’s idol of wealth and told him to take up his cross and follow him. Jesus’ response to the crowd who sought him the day after he fed them was, “You are seeking me…because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes…” (John 6:26–27). Ouch! After the much-beloved verse John 3:16, Jesus goes on to say man loves his darkness and hates the light (vv 19–21). Ever been in a pitch-black room and have someone shine a flashlight in your eyes? Instantly, before you realize you are blinded, you feel the pain of that light.
But the gospel doesn’t leave sinners injured. God’s grace heals and is what gives believers hope. This is not a hope of a humpty-dumpty kingdom, where believers fix every injustice on earth before Jesus comes back to reign—but the hope of eternally dwelling with and glorifying the Lord in heaven with fellow believers.
Roadblocks to sharing. Besides fear of man, fear of confrontation is next in line to why believers tend to not want to verbally share the whole gospel. The thought pattern often goes, “If I offend an unbeliever by talking about sin and hell they will never come to Christ.” Being in the buckle of the Bible Belt here in Greenville, SC, the end result of mission work is the number one topic with young Christians I run into—specifically when I’m with my group of friends that are preaching equally about law and grace, handing out tracts and talking to people.
Once these young folks realize we are not legalistic zealots, the E questions come about. “What is the effectiveness of what you’re doing? And what is the evidence of sharing the gospel this way?” I usually point to numerous examples in the Bible, but often it’s not enough. The thought that offending an unbeliever by telling them the bad news about the just consequence of sin makes the believer feel the situation is out of their control. Whereas if the believer just talks about or displays God’s love and mercy through their actions, they will feel more in control/effective in a witnessing encounter.
Therefore the motivation behind the “effectiveness” question is usually numbers. “How many people can you claim to have saved with this method?” Honestly, none. I’m not in the business of saving souls when I evangelize. My job is to glorify God by being a faithful messenger and accurately communicate his gospel using words. It’s God’s business whether he saves a soul or not, as he’s the only one that can do it. While I love the lost, no matter what God’s will is for that soul, he deserves all glory (Rom. 9:19–24). So remember, good works are great, and are found in every believer’s life, but they have nothing to do with the words “gospel” or “mission” until mankind’s need for repentance and faith in Christ is verbally explained.
Gospel behavior. In regards to “friendship evangelism,” believers are told to befriend and be nice to non-believers with the hope that they will ask why believers behave in this manner. Then maybe a year later believers may have earned the right to even mention they are a Christian to non-believers. First, these friendships can be based on a false pretense where the foundation is to convert the non-believer to Christianity. Two things usually happen with this type of relationship. Believers finally reveal their cards as a Christian and the gospel may be shared. In which case the whole base of the “friendship” was one of persuasion. Second, which is more likely what actually happens, the two become genuine friends. The non-believer just accepts his Christian friend as a good person and never asks why he is so nice. In response, the Christian doesn’t talk about his faith. However this doesn’t mean the gospel can’t be shared in relationships, because they are a great context to talk about it in. The point? A Christian’s behavior has nothing to do with sharing the gospel. After all, non-believers can act just as moral on the outside.
Yet Paul was content to say, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice,” (Phil. 1:15–18). Now if a believer sins against a non-believer, he needs to repent of that. But another soul’s salvation is not dependent on where a Christian is at in the process of sanctification. Sound scary? Once this clicks, believers are free from the weight of worry that someone may not be saved if they don’t act a certain way. In the case of evangelism works don’t speak louder than words, because the power of salvation lies in God’s Word and the Holy Spirit, not man’s actions. So live like a Christian, use words to share the gospel and glorify God—use amp if necessary. 🐘