Evangelism is a scary word for many Christians. Whether it’s because we fear rejection, feel unqualified, or are uncomfortable with making a truth claim in a pluralistic culture, we often shy away from evangelism, either by retreating to the realm of personal testimony or by avoiding spiritual conversations altogether.
Our pastor, Mike Lee, recently preached on evangelism by offering five questions that need to be answered by those who seek to be faithful in following the Great Commission. I’ve adapted these questions here and added a sixth. I commend them to you because they peel back the layers of our defensiveness toward evangelism and help us see what needs to be in place before we will be confident, joyful, and effective tellers of the good news.
Answer “no” to any of these questions and your evangelistic passion will suffer.
1. The Compassion Question: Do we care that people are dying without faith in Jesus?
Before we can hope to be “good news tellers,” we have to be formed by the good news into compassionate and loving people. If we believe that people without Jesus truly are lost – both in this world and in the next – then compassion ought to be a motivator for our evangelism.
Takeaway: We share because we care.
2. The Culture Question: Do we understand why people reject the gospel?
What are the most common objections people give for choosing not to believe in Jesus? What cultural trends make it difficult for people to believe, whether intellectually (existence of God, reality of miracles), morally (God’s purpose for sexuality), or experientially (inability to accept God’s forgiveness)?
It’s said that Francis Schaeffer was once asked how he would share the gospel with someone in an hour. He said he would spend 55 minutes listening and five minutes talking, because only then would he know how to share the gospel in a way that would overcome objections.
Takeaway: Good missionaries know their culture and listen to people.
3. The Content Question: Do we know what the good news is that we are sent to proclaim?
I’ve been particularly burdened about helping people know the answer to this question. It’s why I wrote Counterfeit Gospels and Gospel-Centered Teaching. We won’t be effective tellers of good news unless we’re clear on what the good news is. Therapeutic and moralistic distortions of the gospel abound in a culture awash in “moralistic therapeutic deism.” How do we present the gospel in a way that is faithful to Scripture?
Takeaway: Evangelists must know the evangel they are proclaiming.
4. The Confidence Question: Do we believe that God really saves sinners?
The way to counteract your feelings of inadequacy in evangelism is not by growing in confidence in yourself or your persuasive abilities, but in growing in your confidence in the power of the gospel to save! People who doubt the reality of conversion are not likely to share the gospel. People who share their faith, trust that God can use their stumbling, imperfect gospel presentations. Those who see God change lives are most likely to get excited about evangelism. The power is in the gospel, not us.
Takeaway: Confidence in the power of the gospel is what motivates us to share it.
5. The Commitment Question: Do we believe God has given us the responsibility of evangelism?
Do you believe God has given this responsibility to you? Do you believe that the proclamation of His Word is the way He saves people?
If, deep down, you’re an inclusivist who believes God may have other ways of saving people, then you’ll stay quiet about the gospel. If, deep down, you’re a Hyper-Calvinist who believes God will save people whether you share your faith or not, then you’ll stay quiet about the gospel. The question here concerns commitment: Do you believe you’ve been given this amazing privilege and weighty responsibility and that the Holy Spirit will use you to draw people to God?
Takeaway: We won’t share the gospel unless we understand the privilege and necessity of evangelism.
6. The Calling Question: Are you willing to ask someone to repent and believe, and then disciple them in the faith?
Sometimes we talk about Jesus but never arrive at the point of inviting someone to repent of their sins and put their faith in Christ. We spend time sowing seeds but are reticent to reap the harvest. Maybe it’s because we are afraid they will say no, but maybe it’s because we are afraid they will say yes! If someone receives Christ, we now have the responsibility to bring them into the church through baptism, and “teach them to obey everything Christ has commanded.”
Takeaway: We won’t call for conversion until we are committed to the people we are evangelizing.
What about you? Do you honestly enjoy evangelism? If not, which of these key things isn't in place? What's robbing you of joy of being a confident and effective teller of the good news?
Trevin Wax is the Managing Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum developed by LifeWay Christian Resources. He blogs daily at Kingdom People. He is also the author of Holy Subversion (Crossway, 2010) and Counterfeit Gospels (Moody, 2011).
“I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt – not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.”
Those are the words of President Obama at the 2015 national prayer breakfast, following controversial comments about how human beings, no matter their religion, possess a sinful tendency to distort religion’s goodness for violent ends. Many conservatives have focused on the president’s implied moral equivalence between Islam and Christianity, but it’s the latter section (quoted above) that best illuminates the president’s view of religion.
For President Obama, faith is not the enemy, but confidence.
In Slate, William Saletan puts forth a similar view. In his list of conservative responses he finds problematic, he includes this belief as dangerous: Jesus is the only way to God. Saletan then compares Christians who believe in the uniqueness of Jesus to Islamic extremists:
There’s only one true faith—ours—and anyone who says otherwise isn’t a real Muslim. In this respect, the debate within Christianity mirrors the debate within Islam.
Obama is right. At its best, religion is about humility. It starts with a faith in something greater than yourself. Part of that faith is understanding that you’re not great enough to understand who God is. All you know is that he isn’t you.
When you start to think that you know God’s mind, that he speaks only to you, that you alone are in possession of the truth, that’s when you become dangerous. And being a Christian won’t save you.
According to President Obama and Will Saletan, religious belief isn’t dangerous, as long as it knows its place. It doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, as long as you hold to it loosely, with a measure of doubt, humbly recognizing that you are not great enough to understand who God is. The problems of our world flow, not from religious belief, but religious conviction. Certitude, conviction, and confidence are the drivers of religious conflict.
This understanding of religion may be widespread in our pluralistic society, but it runs aground on its own premises. Underneath the surface of humility lies an imperialistic methodology intent on shaving off the distinctive edges of the world’s major faiths and leaving a bland morality in their place. In fact, even speaking of “religion” so generally – as if the teachings of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims can be lumped into one pile – is condescending; it fails to properly consider the variety of religious belief.
Furthermore, if you take a look under the hood of humility, you find an engine of certitude that is just as powerful as that of the religious adherents targeted for critique. The one thing the president and Will Saletan are certain about, convinced of, and confident in is that none of the religions have an exclusive claim to truth. All the religions are made up of opinions that we are free to believe in or dismiss, as long as we don’t harm anyone else.
“Faith must begin with doubt,” says the president, but how can we accept such a statement without being confident and certain we are right, the very thing he believes is the fuel for religious conflict?
“No religion can possess the full truth of God,” says Will Saletan, but how is it humble and not breathtakingly arrogant to tell all the religious adherents of the world: None of you can be right?And how is it “humble” to consign convinced Christians or Muslims to the category of “dangerous” simply for believing they are right and others are wrong?
For many today, an exclusive claim to objective truth is ruled out from the start, under the guise of open-mindedness and inclusiveness. This is precisely what G. K. Chesterton foresaw a century ago: the movement of “humility” from doubting oneself to doubting the truth.
“Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.”
When you think the problem is due to someone having too much confidence in the truth of their religion, you are implying that the content of their religious beliefs is irrelevant. But the Christian Church is built upon the conviction that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. Therefore, the content of Christian belief matters.
So, yes, there is a sense in which Saletan is right: we shouldn’t think we are ”great enough to understand who God is.” Thinking we are “great enough” is the mark of self-righteousness and an overly exalted view of human nature. And that’s precisely where the content of Christianity comes in, agrees, and then turns the whole scenario upside down, You are not great, but God is, and He is so great and so good that He has revealed Himself to humanity. It’s not the belief that you are right and all religions are wrong that humbles you, but the content of Christian teaching that says, Don’t be confident in your attempts to understand God. Be confident in God’s revelation through His Son.
My point is this: you don’t deal with violent expressions of faith by pretending that confidence is the problem and content doesn’t matter.
And yes, sinful humans have committed atrocities in the name of Christ, but in each of these cases, the problem was a failure to be true to the content of the Christian faith. It wasn’t certitude and confidence in Christianity that led to the Crusades, but the idea that Jesus could be coopted by a political and military endeavor. The crusaders weren’t “holding too tightly” to the content of Christianity; they weren’t holding tightly enough. How else can we explain the transformation of a Savior suffering for His enemies into a warring king charging into foreign lands?
So here we are in the 21st century. And ironically, despite the popular pluralism espoused by the president and writers like Saletan, one of the drivers of religious conflict today and one of the explanations of the West’s inability to deal adequately with radical Islam is exactly this failure to consider the content of the beliefs being presented.
It’s simply not true, no matter how often our leaders tell us, that confidence in our beliefs is bad while the content of our beliefs is neutral.
Trevin Wax is the Managing Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum developed by LifeWay Christian Resources. He blogs daily at Kingdom People. He is also the author of Holy Subversion (Crossway, 2010) and Counterfeit Gospels (Moody, 2011).
In Western society, if you talk to an unbeliever about a judgmental God who consigns people to a place called hell, you’ll likely encounter a raised eyebrow and a dismissive wave of the hand.Give us a god who approves of our way of life, who reserves punishment for only the worst of offenders, or who tolerates and forgives everyone!
The problem for Christians is that the Bible doesn’t comply with this image of God. The Old Testament describes God commanding His people to destroy nations and occupy their land. The New Testament ends with God’s fiery wrath being poured out on the world. Even “Red Letter Christians” must deal with Jesus’ parables and statements that warn against judgment. If you were forced to pick the New Testament character who most resembles a “hellfire and brimstone” preacher, you’d probably have to go with Jesus.
It’s no wonder Christians are tempted to set aside these difficult texts and only address them when necessary. But Joshua Ryan Butler believes we are missing an opportunity and a blessing. Hell, holy war, and judgment may seem like “skeletons in God’s closet,” according to the title of Butler’s book, but it’s God who wants us to see His goodness on display in these realities. Butler writes:
“When properly understood, these are not just pieces of the Christian faith we can learn to live with; they are profound plotlines in the story of the whole we (literally) cannot live without” (xxviii).
The Skeletons in God’s Closet is an ambitious work of apologetics. Butler isn’t satisfied with simply defending traditional Christian teaching; he wants to show how these unpopular, controversial doctrines are actually good news for the world.
Butler’s method is, first, to address the caricature of the Christian position. Next, he articulates the traditional doctrine within the overall framework of the Christian story (in order to give us the proper lens of interpretation). Finally, he makes an emotionally compelling case for hell, judgment, and holy war. Each chapter builds on the next, as Butler carefully dismantles popular-level distortions of biblical teaching and then constructs a robust, biblical viewpoint in their place.
Today, I want to summarize how Butler handles each of these three points: Hell, Judgment, and Holy War and tomorrow I’ll add some thoughts and a few caveats to Butler’s proposal.
The caricature of hell is that God has created an underground torture chamber for all non-Christians. The Christian story is about heaven and hell; the gospel is news about how to get into the former and avoid the latter.
Butler counters the caricature by placing hell within the Bible’s bigger story of heaven and earth.Christians believe heaven and earth were created by God, torn apart by human sin, but are now destined for reconciliation through the work of Christ (8).
Seen within the bigger “heaven and earth” story, hell is not just a place, but also a power. Hell was unleashed in our world through human sin, but God, through the atoning sacrifice and victorious resurrection of Jesus, has promised to rid the world of sin and death and hell. He will kick hell out of the garden city He is coming to restore.
“The King is returning to liberate the capital, establish his good kingdom, and cast all its stubborn opponents… outside the city” (46).
Within this framework, the punishment of hell is that it is a place of containment, a way of protecting God’s new world from all the forces of evil and the humans who remain in rebellion against God. Humans who reject God’s offer of salvation receive their wish – a world without God, a world of torment (not torture) in which the destructive power of sin leads to everlasting ruin.
The caricature of heaven is an elite country club in the sky for people who believe the right doctrines about Jesus. Butler counters this portrait by showing how God’s judgment brings surprising results, and how His ultimate goal is to rescue the nations from sin’s ruin and restore people to Himself and to one another.
Relying on Jesus’ parables and John’s vision in Revelation, Butler speaks of heaven as a wedding feast to which all are invited. But God passes judgment on the “wedding crashers” who want to intrude upon His celebration.
Seen in this light, God’s judgment is never divorced from His love. In fact, our understanding of real love is deepened once we recognize God’s opposition to human sinfulness. Butler writes:
“God stands against our injustice because he identifies in love with those we violate. God’s love is more than a comfort; it is a confrontation. God’s love has teeth” (159).
God’s posture is for people of other faiths, but His kingdom stands against all that is wrong in other religions, including Christianity and the ways even Christians compromise with the world by adhering to false ideologies. “The hope of the world is the death of ideology in the life of Christ,” he says (182).
The caricature of holy war is that Israel, in need of land, raids and destroys the people who inhabit the idyllic countryside of Canaan.
Butler counters the caricature by showing how Israel was a ragtag band of slaves in the shadow of Canaan. “Israel marches in like ants under elephants’ feet,” he writes (213). The Old Testament holy war is a story of God rising up on behalf of the weak against the tyranny of the strong. And the coming holy war at the end of time is when God will reduce human empires to rubble and establish His reconciled world.
I'll be back soon to make a few observations about Butler’s methods and conclusions, in hopes of continuing the conversation his book begins. For a summary that goes into more detail, check out Derek Rishmawy’s review.
I love reading Andrew Wilson. He’s a winsome, articulate apologist for Christianity whose book, If God, Then What? presents Christian truth in memorable and disarming ways. His newest book tackles the question of biblical authority. Why should we believe the Bible? “Because Jesus did,” Andrew replies.
Unbreakable: What the Son of God Said about the Word of God is a brief, accessible introduction to the nature of Scripture. You can read the book in one sitting, but don’t let its brevity fool you. This is a book that makes a compelling case for biblical authority by bringing us back to Jesus over and over again.
Today, Andrew joins me on the blog to discuss biblical authority and interpretation.
Trevin Wax: Newsweek recently devoted a cover story to the Bible and how conservative evangelicals are mistaken to rely on Scriptural inspiration and are mistaken in their interpretations. How would Jesus’ view of the Old Testament be different than the Newsweek article’s?
Andrew Wilson: Ah, Newsweek. What a strange article that was! There have been a number of good pieces debunking much of it, so I won’t get into too many details here, but I think it would be fair to say that Jesus had a rather different view of the Old Testament to that of Eichenwald, if the historical record is to be believed.
According to Newsweek, the mere process of scribal copying makes it impossible to know what the original said; Jesus was quite happy to affirm that the text He was reading was what (say) Isaiah wrote, and represented the word of God. (A comparison of the Masoretic Text and the Qumran Scrolls shows that Jesus, not Eichenwald, was right about the levels of scribal accuracy.)
For Newsweek, Moses had very little to do with the writing of the Pentateuch; for Jesus, Moses’ influence on the Pentateuch was so large that He could simply quote it with “Moses says …”.
For Newsweek, finding salvation in Christ means abandoning everything in Leviticus; for Jesus, it means not abandoning it, but fulfilling it.
Newsweek emphasises the humanness of Scripture and affirms that it is riddled with contradictions and errors; Jesus emphasizes that it was written by humans inspired by God – “David, by the Spirit, said …” – and affirms that it cannot be broken. And so on.
Having said all that, Jesus might well agree with the heart of Eichenwald’s piece: that His followers should spend more time studying the Scriptures, and less time showing off their spirituality in public!
Trevin Wax: A common line of thinking today is that the Bible is inspired and authoritative but we can’t be sure what it really says because there are so many divergent and competing interpretations. But you believe the Bible is inspired, authoritative, and clear. What case do you make for its coherence and clarity?
Andrew Wilson: If the Bible says something, and we disagree about what it means, that could be for one of two reasons. It could be because the Bible is at fault, or it could be because we are at fault.
I think there are two reasons for preferring the latter: firstly, because we should probably leave the benefit of the doubt with the Word of God rather than the interpretations of men, and secondly, because there are numerous misunderstandings in the Gospels, and Jesus appears to hold the disciples accountable for every one of them:
- Are you still so dull?
- Do you still not understand?
- How can you not see that …?
- How slow you are to believe!
- Seeing their hypocrisy, He said …
- You don’t know what you’re saying.
- Get behind me, Satan!
And so it goes on. For Jesus, misunderstandings of Scripture come about because humans are muddled, rather than because the Bible is. Fallen humans blaming the word of God for our confusion is like a bunch of drunks getting lost in broad daylight, and then complaining that the sun isn’t shining brightly enough.
Trevin Wax: You say your starting point is Jesus Christ. “I don’t trust in Jesus because I trust the Bible; I trust the Bible because I trust in Jesus.” But where else but the Bible do we learn about Jesus’ treatment of the Bible’s trustworthiness? In other words, don’t we have to accept the basic tenets of the Bible’s portrait of Jesus before we can say we see the Bible the way Jesus did?
Andrew Wilson: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the best historical records we have about Jesus are all part of what we now call the New Testament. But no, in the sense that we don’t have to assume the truthfulness of the whole Bible in order to believe that Jesus regarded the Scriptures that way.
There’s a historical point here: we have quite a lot of second-temple Jewish sources, and although they differ in their interpretations of (say) the Torah, none of them say anything remotely like, “Well yes, the Torah said that then, but that’s a load of rubbish, so we’re now going to dothis.” To my knowledge, nobody has made a scholarly case that Jesus, as a first century Jew, thought the Scriptures were full of mistakes (even if they think His readings of the texts were hugely controversial). A first century Jew who didn’t think the Old Testament was true would be like a twenty first century American who didn’t believe gravity was true: possible, but very, very unlikely.
Trevin Wax: You say that the Bible is mainly about Jesus and God’s purpose for the nations. What goes wrong when we don’t have Jesus and God’s purpose at the center of our Bible interpretation?
Andrew Wilson: Lots of things.
Individualism: I can believe it’s about me, rather than about Him and then us (so the David and Goliath story becomes about how I can slay my giants, rather than about how Israel slew theirs, and how Jesus, the true David, slays His).
Confusion: lots of the muddle in Kurt Eichenwald’s Newsweek piece came from failing to see how the story develops, and how (say) Leviticus is fulfilled in Christ.
Pride: I become the main focus of the Psalms, or Luke, or Romans, rather than God.
Greed: I assume that the blessings being spoken of throughout the Bible have their end in me, and my enjoyment, rather than in the purposes of God for the nations (which is where a lot of prosperity theology goes wrong, I think).
Emptiness: I never hear a story that shows me where my life fits in God’s massive plan for the world.
I’m sure there are others, too.
Trevin Wax: How would you encourage Christians who have doubts about the Bible’s trustworthiness and relevance, particularly on hot button issues of marriage, divorce, sexuality, etc.?
Andrew Wilson: I think it would depend why they had doubts. In my experience, lots of Christians from evangelicals are worried about what the Bible says about sexual ethics, not because they’ve come across a problem with the text (like “Jesus never said this” or “Paul never meant that”), but because they know people for whom what the Bible says can be painful. If that’s the problem, then no amount of exegetical or historical argument is likely to help; the issue is much more about the cost of discipleship (which is what I usually talk about on this one – following Jesus is a death to self, a life of tribulation and difficulty and persecution, which will sometimes mean loved ones abandoning or attacking you).
But if they’ve got doubts about whether Scripture can be trusted at all, whether for scholarly or more popular reasons, then I want to do roughly what I do in Unbreakable: talk about how Jesus regarded the Scriptures, and encourage people to imitate his example. A recent example of that sort of discussion is this exchange of articles I had with Brian McLaren here and here.