A Guide to Biblical Evangelism
Learning to preach Christ, from the Pulpit to the Cubicle
If one were to survey the current evangelistic landscape, there would be much to see. Wells are being dug, orphanages built, hospitals staffed and filled, and orphans fed and housed. The heart of God rejoices in mankind caring for the downtrodden and forgotten, and so should the Church. But she must never forget that it is not ultimately orphanages and wells that are to be made, but disciples who treasure Christ as supreme. And how will they know Him if believers do not explain Him in all of His beauty?
This guide seeks to explain the motivation, history, philosophy, pitfalls, and practicalities of evangelism. Our intent is not to be critical, but helpful. Our desire is to see a redirected and refocused Church preaching not itself and its own ingenuity, but the saving message of its Redeemer.
Table of Contents
The Motivation of Evangelism
Evangelist Vance Havner, preaching at the Moody Bible Institute's Founder's Week in 1974, said, “Evangelism is to Christianity what veins are to our bodies. You can cut Christianity anywhere and it'll bleed evangelism.”
That may not be true for many churches claiming the name “Christianity.” Many professing Christians are genuinely fearful, nervous, and even ashamed when it comes to evangelism. To make matters worse, we live in a time when those who are most known for evangelism tend not to be very theologically sound, while those who are theologically sound tend not to evangelize.
What makes evangelism so difficult for those who claim the name of Christ? What can we do to be motivated to evangelize more faithfully?
The answer is not to heap guilt and shame upon ourselves. Guilt is a lousy motivator. What we need is motivation, not manipulation. We must be motivated not by guilt, but by glory. Believers are motivated to evangelize by love for God, love for others, and love for the display of God’s glory.
Taking Advantage of Evangelistic Opportunities
Life's trials come from the hand of God Himself—as opportunities sent directly from Him to advance the gospel in our lives. When confronted with suffering, we should see the Sovereign Lord purposefully giving us an opportunity to make much of Him and His salvation. We should respond in a way that makes it plain that comfort, freedom from conflict, and an easy life are not what we love most. Rather, we love Christ.
We need to take advantage of the evangelistic opportunities with the "captive audiences" in our lives. We may not be chained to a Roman soldier as Paul was, but we each have obligations and routines that bring us into repeated contact with unbelievers. We need to view these as opportunities to proclaim Christ—with neighbors, co-workers, unsaved family members, and so on.
Paul's example reminds us of the effectiveness of the gospel, which has the power to save even in the midst of seemingly adverse circumstances. The messenger might be in chains, but the Word of God cannot be imprisoned (2 Tim 2:9).
The Gospel in a Sea of Noble Causes
The evangelical world today is in the midst of a missional drift, a digression toward greater emphasis on temporal social issues at the cost of eternal concerns.
Evangelism doesn't need to be entirely ignored to be sidelined. It can be displaced more subtly. If churches champion less controversial causes as equal with gospel proclamation, honest biblical evangelism will always be the loser. If it’s just as important for Christians to feed the hungry as it is for them to spread the good news, we would pick the one that gets us a pat on the back by society, not the one that gets us spat on. No matter how many social issues we solve, none of them will save a man from dying in his trespasses.
The church has undergone a change in its relationship to evangelism, and something has been lost. But in many ways, the changes are for the better.
How to Handle Rejection
Rejection is difficult no matter the circumstances in which it comes. But as believers in Jesus, we stand in a long line of those who have all, in one way or another, faced rejection for their commitment to follow Christ. Some have lost their families, others their reputations, and even others their lives.
Rejection is, in many ways, our heritage. As our Lord Himself said, if the world hated Him, it is not surprising that the world hates us, His slaves (John 15:18–21). If we are faithfully living out the Christian life and proclaiming the gospel with our words, we are sure to encounter rejection. In spite of this and other assurances from Scripture, though, many of us still shy away from evangelism for fear of being rejected.
So, what do we do when unbelievers reject the gospel we proclaim to them? Do we walk away? But their eternal souls are at stake. Do we push the conversation harder? But at what point are we casting pearls before swine? We need to have a plan for what to do when the gospel we preach is rejected.
Should I Use the Sinner's Prayer in Evangelism?
Many of us, at some point in our lives, have prayed the "sinner's prayer." Maybe some of us have led others in this prayer. But can we actually have the confidence to base our eternity on repeating these words after our mom, dad, or youth leader? As leaders or parents, should we be assuring others of their eternal salvation merely because they recite these words? Put simply, what are we to think of the sinner’s prayer?
We must understand several things.
First, the act of prayer, in and of itself, does not save. Any experience, no matter how well-worded or emotion-filled, that does not result in the grace-empowered production of fruit is not genuine salvation.
Second, we cannot assure someone of their salvation. Salvation is not the result of external actions (1 Sam 16:7). So, if we assure someone of their salvation merely on the basis of a verbal commitment, we may bring great confusion into the life of that person when fruit does not appear and sustained victory over sin never comes.
But third, we can assure someone that if they repent, Christ will save them. What we can—and must—assure people of is that if they genuinely repent of their sins and trust in Christ, He will in no way cast them out (John 6:37).
How to Not Preach Yourself on the Mission Field
In his excellent article, “Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex,” Michael Horton makes the point:
‘Incarnational’ is becoming a dominant adjective in evangelical circles, often depriving Christ’s person and work of its specificity and uniqueness. Christ’s person and work easily becomes a ‘model’ or ‘vision’ for ecclesial action (imitatio Christi), rather than a completed event to which the church offers its witness.
We increasingly hear about ‘incarnational ministry,’ as if Christ’s unique personal history could be repeated or imitated. The church…rushes in to fill the void, as the substitute for its ascended Lord. … As Christ and his work is assimilated to the church and its work, similar conflations emerge between the gospel and culture; between the word of God and the experience of our particular group; and between the church’s commission and the transformation of the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ.
In sum, we, as believers, are witnesses—not to ourselves, not to our ability to conform to a culture or pattern of living, but to the person and atoning work of Christ. May He increase, and we decrease, in every tribe and tongue and nation.
Can I Adapt the Gospel Message to Make Evangelism Easier?
It can sound appealing to seek a superficial commonality with unbelievers, hoping that if they see that Christians are not all that unlike them, they just might give Jesus a try.
The notion that Christians should, as one pastor said, make church “as culturally accessible as possible” by asserting liberties in order to attract and reach unbelievers is precisely the opposite direction of Paul’s example. What Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 9 is the surrender of liberties so as not to give unnecessary offense.
Those who seek to make Christ and His Church more attractive to unbelievers by appealing to them in the natural state of their lostness, by seeking to engage them by fleshly and superficial means, implicitly regard themselves and their methodologies as more glorious than Christ Himself. If unbelievers hate Jesus as He is presented in Scripture, and if they regard the apostles as fools for their message, but they like us, it may be because we’re more like them than like our Savior.
How Important is Methodology to Evangelism?
Advocates of contextualization often cite the illustration of holding one’s doctrine and theology in a closed hand (symbolizing non-negotiability), and one’s methodology in an open hand (symbolizing fluidity). As an example, one proponent said,
What I am arguing for is a two-handed approach to Christian ministry. In our firmly closed hand we must hold the timeless truths of Christianity, such as the solas of the Reformation. In our graciously open hand we must hold timely ministry methods and styles that adapt as the cultures and subcultures we are ministering to change.
It would be foolish to suggest that every method for our ministry must never change. However, our methodology should not be as unmoored from our theology as the above illustration suggests. Our presentation of the message does indeed matter if it communicates or implies something about the message that is untrue.
When we believe that we should change our presentation of the message based on the characteristics of our audience, we are demonstrating that we believe something about the message itself—and something about the work of the Triune God in salvation—that is out of accord with biblical principles. To be specific, it betrays a lack of faith in the sufficiency of the gospel alone to save sinners (cf. Rom 1:16–17).
If the gospel message is truly and faithfully proclaimed, we need not be concerned about adapting the packaging in which we present it to our various listeners. That is because the message faithfully proclaimed is sufficient in and of itself to accomplish what God desires. As God says in Isaiah 55:10–11, the word which goes forth from His mouth “will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” Men and women are born again not through clever gimmickry or cultural savvy, but solely “through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Pet 1:23). Faith comes not from so-called missional living; it comes "from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Rom 10:17).
George Whitefield: Calvinist Evangelist
George Whitefield, the famed 18th century evangelist known for crossing the Atlantic Ocean thirteen times, was an instrumental figure in the Great Awakening. Also known as the “Grand Itinerant”, Whitefield often preached outdoors to crowds upwards of 20,000 people.
He was a passionate proclaimer of the gospel of Jesus Christ, urging lost souls to be born again. Yet, throughout the entirety of his ministry, he remained fully committed to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation.
For Whitefield, there was no contradiction between affirming the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation and diligently proclaiming the gospel to the lost
These doctrines of grace were a great comfort to Whitefield. He did not attempt to change his conviction on these doctrines, as if they might be a hindrance to his evangelistic efforts. Whitefield was a man of the Bible and allowed the Bible to speak for itself on matters of the sinfulness of man and the sovereignty of God.
He knew that God had graciously saved him and that he had the personal responsibility to proclaim this message of Christ crucified to others wherever he went. Whitefield is an excellent example that a belief in the doctrines of man’s total depravity and God’s sovereign election need not hinder personal evangelism.
William Carey and the Spark of Modern Missions
William Carey was the man whom God used almost single-handedly to bring the Great Commission back to the forefront of the thinking of the church. Commonly recognized today as “the father of modern missions,” Carey came on the scene during a period of evangelical lethargy. Paralyzed by hyper-Calvinism and general apathy towards the lost, most churches in England believed that if God wanted to save sinners, he did not need the participation of men.
Carey ascended to such an important historical status from the lowliest of ranks. He was a commoner, born into a poor family in an obscure town in England. He received only a mediocre grade school education and, for the most part, was self-taught. He never attended a seminary, nor did he take one class of post-secondary education. In fact, for the first half of his missionary life he was ridiculed by the leaders of his denomination. So when God used Carey to ignite the fire of the modern missions movement, He equally used him to humble the wise.
Living on the Brink of Eternity: The Life of David Brainerd
We are called to imitate the example of the lives of faithful saints who have gone before us. David Brainerd is a man who ministered in unimaginably difficult circumstances, who exhibited extraordinary humility and self-denial, and whose great love for the glory of God and the souls of sinners is nothing less than admirable.
We know David Brainerd today, primarily because he kept a diary. As was the case with many of the Puritans, the diary served as a thermometer for his soul. It was a way of keeping a watchful eye on the trajectory of his life for the sake of self-examination.
He died an early death, at the age of 29, having lived only eight years as a believer. Some have considered David Brainerd to be a youthful, radical zealot, and critics have judged Brainerd for the recklessness with which he treated his own body. Certainly, there is some element of truth in these claims. Although he died having lived only a third of the years that many do, he accomplished far more.
Salvation is god's work. faithfulness is ours.
In his New Testament Commentary on Matthew 8-15, John MacArthur reminds us of our role in the work of biblical evangelism:
We weep over those who refuse to be saved, just as our Lord wept over Jerusalem when it would not receive Him. But also like Christ, we should praise our heavenly Father that all things are under His divine control and that His sovereign plan for the world and for His own people cannot be frustrated. ...We should remember with confidence that His plan is always on course and that even the most unrepentant. …rejection of our testimony does not alter God’s timetable or thwart His purpose. Our responsibility is simply to make our witness faithful (1 Cor. 4:2); it is God’s responsibility alone to make it effective. (269)
As we seek to obey Christ and love the lost by becoming excellent evangelists, rejoice in the knowledge that God is sovereign. We are but His servants and He will accomplish His perfect plan.