If we were to ask the question ‘What is the most important aim in evangelism?’ we would no doubt say it is seeing souls coming to know the Lord Jesus as their Saviour.
That is indeed a great aim to keep in mind and heart. It is such a wonderful thing when lost souls are found, when those spiritually dead are brought to new life in Christ, and when those under divine condemnation are justified by God’s free grace.
However, there should be an even higher aim in our evangelistic endeavours. It is closely related to the blessing of lives being transformed by the power of the gospel. The most important aim is surely the glory of God and bringing honour to the Lord Jesus Christ?
When God’s honour is our chief concern, we will make sure that the means we use in evangelism match the end, in terms of the standards we set ourselves for carrying out the Lord’s work.
It is sadly the case that, for some engaged in gospel labours, it seems ‘the end justifies the means’. In other words, it seems acceptable for them to use methods of a dubious nature, even when these are weighed against the evangelism recorded in God’s Word and found wanting.
Surely we ought to be concerned if a model for gospel outreach is taken from the world instead of from the Word? If the principles and practice of the apostles was good enough for them, surely they are good enough for us too? Sadly, we to have to acknowledge that for many they are not, and neither is this something new.
The past 200 years of church history, in particular, are littered with ‘man-centred’ evangelism, and its results have often been quite tragic. Today, a business mentality has developed in so many evangelical circles that a phrase like ‘clinching the deal’ would not seem inappropriate for describing the final step of many in becoming a Christian.
But isn’t there something deeply troubling if the superficial has replaced the serious — and, dare I say, the supernatural as well?
Someone making a profession of faith in Christ is a matter of the utmost seriousness, and so it must be important for us in our churches, and as individual witnesses for the Lord, to get these things right.
We cannot afford not to do so, even though we live in a day when we seem more sowers than reapers. We still need to be equipped for any reaping that the Lord, in his kind providence, may yet cause us to be involved with. We never know when we may be the ‘last link in the chain’.
As in every aspect of gospel communication, what we need more than anything else is God-given wisdom, not man-made technique. James speaks of the wisdom ‘that is from above’ (3:17). We can trust the Lord to give that wisdom just at the moment we need it.
If we are in conversation with a person about their soul and they give evidence of being near the kingdom, then, if we are prayerful sowers, God will surely direct us to give just the right counsel which that individual needs.
So we need to ask ourselves, what will that ‘right counsel’ be based on? Surely it must be the clear teaching of Scripture, and nothing else. This means that preparation is required on our part.
In other words, we need to know both how to share the gospel biblically and also how to handle enquirers biblically. We need to be versed in what the Bible says about how a person actually becomes a Christian and what our own role might be in it.
We know, from a human perspective, that what comes immediately before someone is saved, is the person involved asks for that salvation. ‘For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Romans 10:13). What a responsibility it is to direct a person who may be seeking the Lord to make that call!
As we do that, how important it is that we identify the true spiritual condition the person is in, and whether or not the Lord may be dealing with them, so that we then offer the correct remedy and urge the correct response.
Sadly, at times, well-meaning Christians are guilty of presenting Jesus in attractive packaging, but not explaining why people need him — and need him more than anything else in the whole world.
A fairly typical presentation today is telling people about their ‘God-shaped hole’. ‘Our lives will be empty until Jesus comes in and fills that hole up’, we hear. Actually, the main problem is that people try and fill the hole up with a whole load of different things, most of which are sinful. What they need first is to have their sins removed, and only then will the Lord Jesus come in and make them complete.
The most important thing of all, and for all, is forgiveness, not satisfaction! The truth is, unless a person experiences God’s forgiveness they cannot ever know real satisfaction.
So what do people need to hear from us? They need to know first of all who God is: that he is the great creator and sustainer of the entire universe. As such, their lives are in his hands and all they have comes from his hands.
People need to hear what God is like: that he is holy, righteous and just, as well as merciful, gracious and loving. Then they need to know that they began their lives cut off from this God and there is nothing they can do to rectify it, even if they sincerely want to.
When speaking to people in the open air, we often meet those who try to deny original sin. I usually ask them if they are parents. If they say no, I tell them I’m not surprised at their views and, if ever they have the blessing of becoming parents, they won’t need persuading that their children are born with sin in them. The evidence will soon be in view!
We must share with people why sin is as bad as it is. It is through declaring the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sin that God will cause the conscience to begin to be stirred. A sense of sin and a desire to be made clean, along with a sense of shame and a desire to be forgiven, are surely evidences that a person is close to being saved.
But, of course, people also need to hear of God’s redeeming grace in Jesus Christ. Samuel Davies once said that people need to hear both the needle of the law and the thread of the gospel, and in that order. Yes, people need to hear the amazing truth that the One who was so offended by their sin was willing to become a human being, with the express purpose of taking the awful punishment of that sin, upon himself.
Then finally, people need to know what God requires of them. The apostle Peter sums that up succinctly: ‘Repent therefore and be converted that your sins may be blotted out’ (Acts 3:19). Note that there’s no mention of what is commonly called ‘the sinner’s prayer’ in the whole of the book of Acts.
In fact, there is no reference to any such formulaic prayer anywhere in the Bible. What people must do if they are going to be saved is to turn away from their sin in repentance, and then turn to and embrace Jesus Christ by faith. And that involves them calling to the Lord, whether in their hearts or out loud, and asking him to show them mercy.
We must never forget in our gospel communication that ‘conversion’, as the Bible calls becoming a Christian, is a momentous event. We must not downgrade it by asking the seeker to ‘make a decision’.
After all, the Lord doesn’t want someone’s vote like the politicians do, he wants the whole life. Again and again, in God’s Word, people are commanded to repent and be converted, or repent and believe.
We must not be guilty of presenting a faulty gospel. If we are, we will be more likely to see faulty conversions and that will not bring any glory to the Lord at all. What a huge responsibility we have in the work of evangelism. May the Lord help us to be equal to it!
To be concluded
The author is general secretary
of the Open-Air Mission