Part Four: Evangelism
Three questions commonly arise in the minds of all those who earnestly desire to see their unsaved friends and relatives brought to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us examine these three questions and see if there are satisfactory answers to be found in Scripture itself.
The first question is: Why Preach at All! If Election guarantees the salvation of all that are predestined to be saved, why should we be bothered with evangelism, personal or missionary? What possible difference can it make whether we speak to men or not?
Assuming that we do feel a call to evangelize, the second question is: What to Preach? Since Limited Atonement seems clearly to be the intention of God in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ so that Christ died effectively only for the elect, what kind of message do we have for the unsaved individual? Since we have no way of knowing in advance whether he is among the elect or not, we have no way of knowing whether Christ died for him in particular. Can we then with sincerity say to such a one, "God loves you" for "Christ died for you"? If we cannot be personal in this way, what form is our presentation to take? What actual message do we have for the individual!
The third question is: Should Election Be Preached ? Since many are called but only a few are chosen to be saved, is it wise to emphasize the sovereignty of the grace of God which to the non-elect might seem cause for despair! Should we not rather keep quiet on the matter of God's elective purposes? Is Predestination a proper subject for public discussion?
It is important to bear in mind that we are not called to personal evangelism or to the mission field simply because we want to share with others our sense of gratitude to the Lord for what He has done for us personally in saving us. This would make all personal evangelism and all missionary activity dependent upon our own feelings; and human feelings do not have the staying power to provide a solid foundation for any venture that involves both courage and sustained self-sacrifice, the rewards of which may never be seen on this side of the grave. When, as almost inevitably happens at times, we reach a low in our spiritual life, we also lose much of our sense of thankfulness. Gratitude is not strong enough to inspire us to any kind of sustained missionary activity.
The call to personal evangelism and to all missionary activity rests upon the fact that we are commanded to go.
Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matt. 28:18-20)We are not invited to preach the Gospel only at certain times which seem propitious or in certain places which look more promising, though there is no doubt that we are called to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16). We are encouraged to be always ready to sow the seed. "In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper either this or that, or whether both alike shall be good" (Eccles. 11:6). In writing to Timothy Paul said, "Preach the Word; be instant in season, out of season" (2 Tim. 4:2). The Greek behind this exhortation is interesting. To "be instant" is a translation of a Greek word which has a number of meanings all tending in the same direction. These are "to stand by," "to be at hand," "to be pressing," "to be urgent," "to be earnest." The ideas of eagerness, seriousness, constancy, and preparedness are all wrapped up in the Greek verb ephistemi . The Greek which lies behind the words "in season, out of season" is perhaps more literally rendered "timely" and "untimely" (eukairos and akairos). In spite of our reasonings which would justify delay, the occasion being inappropriate, it is doubtful if the Holy Spirit could have used any two other words which would more dearly set forth the principle that we are not to be guided by our feelings as to the appropriateness or otherwise of the moment. There are undoubtedly times when we should remain silent, even as the Lord Jesus upon certain occasions did not allow men to give their testimony (e.g., Mark 7:36). The secret must surely be that we are to commune with the Lord continuously, seeking his instructions moment by moment so that we shall neither default nor presume.
The message is to be presented when the Lord directs, even if there is every evidence that it will not be accepted. In Ezekiel 2:7 the Lord said to the prophet, "And thou shalt speak my words unto them whether they will hear or whether they will forbear." And later Ezekiel receives further instructions in this regard, explaining to him more clearly why he was to present a message even when there was no possibility of its being accepted. Thus in Ezekiel 3:18, 19 the Lord said: "When I say unto the wicked, thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life: the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity, but thou hast delivered thy soul."
The principle here is a very important one. We have one responsibility when occasion is offered, we must warn men of their position before God. If we fail to do this we are disobedient. We pay the price of that disobedience in a loss of the sense of fellowship with our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and with one another. Obedience to the command to speak to our friends of the Lord is the best guarantee of spiritual growth and of enjoyment of fellowship with the Lord. Yet such obedience is not essential for the fulfillment of God's purposes in Election, for He is sovereign. This is not why we are called to share our faith, as though without this active ministry the hands of the Lord would be tied. It is a privilege which the Lord allows (1 Thess. 2:4).
But there is another equally important point which emerges from these passages of Scripture--the message we present serves a double purpose. To those who are elect it means the breath of life; to those who are not elect, whom God has merely allowed to go their own way by their own choice, it is a sentence of death. As Paul said to the Corinthians: "To the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life" (2 Cor. 2:16). And Paul asks, appropriately, "And who is sufficient for these things?" For we stand in the presence of the inscrutable will of God whose ways are not our ways but who will in the end demonstrate without doubt that He has done all things well. Isaiah 55:8-11 instructs us:
My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater so shall my Word be that goeth forth out of my mouth it shall not return unto Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.We do not know in any given case why we are sent to someone or someone is brought to us, whether it is to be, in a nutshell, "for blessing or for cursing," but we do know from this passage that when we use the Word of God we are obeying his command faithfully, we are absolving ourselves from the responsibility of that man's decision, and we can rest assured that it is not a purposeless undertaking. God's Word will accomplish that for which He sends it through us.
We thus demonstrate the justice of God when men are condemned because, of their own free will, they have refused his offer of salvation; and we demonstrate his grace when men, who would otherwise refuse, accept his salvation because He gives them the power to do so. What God uses in both cases, to leave without excuse on the one hand and to save on the other hand, is his own Word. The message that will in the end bring life is not man's rationalization as exhibited in his theology, nor his intuitive understanding as set forth in his poetry, nor even the persuasive power of the eloquence by which he succeeds in captivating his hearers. The message is the Word of God, the "seed" (Luke 8:11). It is this that is germinated: "being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever" (1 Peter 1:23). And again, "So then, faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom. 10.17). And once again, "Of his own will begat He us with the Word of truth" (James 1:18).
It is of fundamental importance to recognize that God's ultimate weapon is his own Word and not man's. The eloquence of the speaker, his powers of persuasion, and the sophistication of his techniques are really beside the point. It is not that God ignores these things: it is rather that He does not need them. He may be pleased to use them, but men are wonderfully saved without any of these means. The unreached derelict victimized by alcohol may stumble upon a tract through which God speaks to his soul, and he is born again without direct human intervention. There is a case, I believe, of a body of believers formed on an unevangelized Pacific island as a result of a single loose page blown from a Bible held in the hand of a missionary traveling by sea to another place.
The Word of God has extraordinary power. Some years ago I knew of an Anglican minister who did not know the Lord but served in a small Welsh mining community where a number of his less educated parishioners were the Lord's children and knew it. This minister at the time was something of a dilettante in spiritual matters and did not even consider it worthwhile preaching a sermon at every service. On one occasion he planned to forego the sermon but at the last moment, when the time arrived in the service for him to preach, he casually decided to say a few words on the text, "What think ye of Christ?"
He went up to the pulpit and started a random discourse for which he had undertaken no preparation whatever. But while he was speaking, somehow it dawned upon him that he had to answer this question himself personally. And in some extraordinary way the light went on in his own mind and heart as he searched for words. He hesitated--then stood silently for a moment as the truth suddenly flooded his soul. Someone in the back of the church, a miner who for all his lack of education knew more of the Lord than the minister did, stood up and said in a loud voice, "Alleluia! The Parson's saved!" And he was! So here we have a case of a man saved by his own preaching of the Word of God.
In evangelism it is not that God is dependent upon us who already know the Lord; rather it is that our growth is dependent upon our obedience to evangelize, and God does not give commands to us which are without purpose. When our ministry occasionally succeeds in bearing fruit unto everlasting life, we can only say with Paul that "we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the Gospel" (1 Thess. 2:4).
There is yet another reason for personal evangelism even though we know that very few will respond favorably. The fact is that there is no other way for those very few who by grace are to respond except somebody in some direct or indirect way provide them with the occasion. The same message which is rejected by the unsaved is the means whereby the elect are brought into salvation. Elect and non-elect are indistinguishable as targets until the parting of the ways. Romans 9:21 tells us that vessels of honor and of dishonor are fashioned out of the same material. And as Paul said to the Ephesians (2:3), we all shared in times past the same kind of life, "fulfilling the desire" of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. The same message must therefore be presented to the elect and the non-elect alike, though the response will be exactly opposite. Under normal circumstances, in spite of our special concern for particular individuals, we can never know whether we are addressing ourselves to one who is yet to be born again or to one whom God will permit to go his own way. Only once in Scripture did a man actually know that the unsaved man to whom he was called to minister the Gospel was numbered among God's elect. In Acts 9:1-15 Ananias was sent to open the eyes of a man who was "a chosen vessel" to bear the Lord's name before the Gentiles.
It is not improper, even by standards of human judgment, that a man should be warned that if he goes on in his own way he must come into judgment. But having given men free will in the first place, the Judge is not obligated to direct that warning personally to the individual. Although such warning makes his condemnation doubly sure because the man personally warned is wholly without excuse, nevertheless, something is revealed of the Judge's character when we learn that at least He desired that the wicked should be forewarned. Even in this giving of warning there is thus an element of the grace of God displayed. At the same time it is quite fitting that we who are commanded to warn men should assume some responsibility for our negligence when we fail to do so. But when we do personally evangelize our fellow men, we are in a sense rewarded, whether our message is rejected or accepted, though we are apt to think of reward as resulting only from acceptance.
Some years ago I had occasion to see a beautiful illustration of how an apparently futile argument can bring wholly unexpected difficulty. One of our young people with whom I had been dealing for four years, and who was yet unsaved, climbed on the streetcar at the limits of the north end of our city to make the long trip (about eight miles) downtown to a place of summer employment. On the streetcar it happened that there was another young person who loved to argue but seemed totally impervious to the Lord's claims and quite unaware of his own need of a Savior. He fancied himself something of a sophisticated philosopher. My friend sat down beside him, and at once got into an argument with him about the way of salvation, though my friend himself had yet no assurance of his own salvation. Apparently the argument continued unabated until they both got off the streetcar half an hour later and went their own different ways to work.
At the end of the day, in the providence of God, both men caught the same streetcar back to the north end of the city and found seats side by side! In view of the enormous numbers of people coming out of work at that time in the evening, this was an unusual circumstance indeed. Needless to say, they picked up their former argument immediately.
That evening, after supper, my friend phoned me and said, "I'd like to come over and see you. I think I know what you've been trying to tell me." And within half an hour we went for a walk together and there was no doubt about it. He knew the Lord. He was rejoicing in a new life. What had happened on the streetcar was that the argument, while serving no such purpose in the mind and heart of the other young man, had nevertheless in his own heart and mind clarified his position so that he was in effect evangelized by his own words. It is tremendously rewarding to know that this young man went forward in the Lord and is now a revered minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As to his opponent, as far as I know he was never convinced.
Those who have engaged in such personal work will bear ample testimony to the fact that even violent opposition can be rewarding, because it draws us so much closer to the Lord. We "fill up his sufferings," (Col. 1:24). We grow by exercise and learn how to deal with certain kinds of response, and there is a strange joy in being repudiated for Christ's sake. Our sense of oneness with the Lord is greatly enhanced and a new element of spiritual adventure is introduced into life.
Obedience to the commission of Matthew 28
bears its own unexpected reward. And exercise increases ability. But we
are undoubtedly fainthearted and of little faith. Let us admit before the
Lord what we know in our hearts to be true, that it is not always doctrine
that dulls our sense of mission but fear of the faces of men.