How important it is that the main aim of evangelism is to bring glory and honour to the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ. That aim should be uppermost in our thoughts, whether we are the first link in the chain of seeking to reach a person for the Lord, or the final link.
Perhaps it is in the final stage where most mistakes have been made, particularly in the last 200 years.
Sadly, one of the chief culprits was an influential American evangelist called Charles Finney (1792–1875). Finney used all kinds of gimmicks and techniques to get people to come forward in evangelistic meetings and, perhaps unsurprisingly, many of his so-called converts were short lived.
As he himself confessed: ‘I was often instrumental of bringing people under great conviction, and into a temporary state of repentance and faith … but falling short of urging them to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in him’.
Tragically, what were then produced were, by and large, ‘stony ground’ hearers! Now, we know from the Lord’s parable of the sower that there will be such hearers as a result of gospel preaching, but we should be doing all we can to work for better results, if possible; in other words, for real, lasting fruit.
John MacArthur in his tremendous book Ashamed of the gospel includes an appendix called, ‘Charles Finney and American evangelical pragmatism’. In it he exposes Finney’s justification that if something seems to work, we needn’t worry whether or not it was right.
That point ought to trouble us very much. After all, can we expect the Lord to be in the ‘results’ of our evangelistic efforts, if he is not in the ‘means’? And if we want him to be in the means, then we need to endeavour to use those means of which he approves.
If the Lord approved of the altar call, for example, then we would surely find its use in Scripture, particularly in the book of Acts. The fact is, that method is a device of men, not of God.
The same is true of what is known as ‘the sinner’s prayer’. It is absent from the pages of Scripture and yet, for some, it has become almost a magic formula for bringing someone to the Lord.
I know a lady whose father had just died. I expressed how sorry I was and also asked if he had been a believer. This was the reply: ‘No he wasn’t. But, it’s all right. We got him to say the sinner’s prayer just before he died’.
Now, it’s certainly not for me to say where that man is now. However, my impression was that this lady was pinning her hopes on that prayer and the power of that prayer, more than anything or anyone else! Surely her hopes should have been in the work of the Holy Spirit and in the power of Christ’s gospel?
We should realise that there is actually a sense in which the sinner’s prayer can be dangerous. I don’t mean that sinners shouldn’t pray for salvation. That’s just it, they should really pray for salvation. Not just read, or repeat a prayer someone else has written, or say ‘amen’ to a prayer someone else has led them in. That may just be putting words into people’s mouths. Of course, some have been genuinely saved in this way, but many have not.
And if a person should say to us, ‘I don’t know what to pray’, they are surely indicating that they are not yet ready to pray. If the gospel has been fully communicated and if the Holy Spirit is at work in their heart, then they will know what to pray — and how thrilling that will be!
In seeking to honour the Lord in our evangelism, the things we should do are as important as the things we shouldn’t do. One aspect of gospel communication, whether public or private, is to impress upon our hearers the urgency of getting right with God as soon as possible!
More than one nineteenth-century preacher spoke of preaching ‘immediate’ salvation. They believed that, even as the gospel message was being proclaimed, lost souls could be brought to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
It would surely be dishonouring to God to believe anything less than that, especially when there are so many lovely examples of it happening in the book of Acts, such as with Cornelius and all his household. With what expectation then should we urge men, women and young people to call upon the name of the Lord, in repentance and faith!
One vital way in which we will honour the Lord in this great business of evangelism is when we acknowledge that, though we have a responsibility to preach the gospel, it is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about a genuine response to the gospel.
In other words, the Spirit’s mighty work is to compel a person to trust in the Lord Jesus. Neither the most elegant nor the most winsome communicator has the power in themselves to make that happen. It is the Holy Spirit’s job alone, and he begins to do it by convicting people of their sin.
Conviction of sin
As the Lord Jesus said in John 16:8: ‘And when he has come he will convict the world of sin…’ This is such an important reminder to us, becoming a Christian is actually nothing less than a work of God almighty.
John Newton once wrote: ‘No man, ever did, or ever will feel himself to be a lost miserable and hateful sinner, unless he be powerfully and supernaturally convinced by the Spirit of God’.
A great illustration of this divine work of conviction was on the day of Pentecost, when many who were amongst that vast crowd in Jerusalem pleaded with the apostles: ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37).
What prompted this seemingly desperate question? Well, when they heard they were complicit in the death of the Christ, we are told ‘they were cut to the heart’. They felt how wretched they were and how much they needed a remedy. That remedy was clearly stated to them by Peter, and they were enabled to respond to it.
It is only when the Holy Spirit applies the message of the gospel to people that they begin to sense their sin. If that feeling is absent, it is surely a sign that they are probably not near the kingdom.
Remember the tax collector in the Luke 18 parable that Jesus told. He felt very ashamed about his sin. This was evidenced by several things he did, standing at the back of the temple, keeping his eyes to the floor and beating his breast. He knew how unworthy he was both in mind and heart, and it was this which prompted him to call for God’s mercy.
Looking for evidence that the Lord was at work when the gospel is being proclaimed, whether publicly or privately, was high on the agenda of the great evangelist John Wesley. He states, for example, in his journal on Monday 16 December 1771: ‘I rode to Dorking, where there were many people; but none were cut to the heart’.
We surely dare not be looking for anything less today in our evangelistic work. How dependent we are upon the Lord to bless the feeble labours of our hands, and how we need to give him all the praise and glory when he does graciously choose to work through us and bring people to himself.
The author is general secretary of the Open-Air Mission