Evangelism

There seems to be no shortage of evangelistic methods that people devise and hold up as the most preferable technique. Some claim it is friendship evangelism, others say it is engaging others in question-and-answer dialogue, and still others insist it is showing love and doing service for others. It is likely that there are others as well. No matter what the method is, they are sometimes presented and/or embraced as a “silver bullet” solution, that is, the single solution that will work where all others have failed. Consequently, it is not unusual to hear their creators or defenders try to persuade others of their worth with arguments that tend to sound like this: “Here’s why our evangelism is usually ineffective, so do this method, and your evangelism will be effective.”

Unfortunately, what they don’t seem to realize is that no evangelism is ineffective if it includes proclaiming the gospel and is devoid of unnecessary offenses. What is ineffective is the human heart’s ability to respond favorably to that message about Christ.

As good as their intentions may be, these toolmakers of evangelism seem to miss another important fact: The Bible doesn’t give us various methods and procedures for evangelism; it speaks only of proclaiming the gospel message. In fact, if the Bible upholds any particular method of evangelism at all, it is the verbal proclamation of the good news. From the parable of the sower to Paul’s descriptions of his own ministry to recorded events in the book of Acts, Scripture consistently emphasizes one evangelistic method: proclamation. That is the “silver bullet” of evangelism. Consider these passages:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16, ESV, emphasis added)

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:18–25, ESV, emphasis added)

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5, ESV, emphasis added)

For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16b, ESV)

This is not to say that any of the aforementioned methods are wrong simply because they do not appear in Scripture. In fact, some of these approaches may be useful in certain situations. The problem happens when they are lifted up to the same level as gospel proclamation and seen as equal to it in efficacy, as though gospel proclamation were optional—just one method to choose out of many. Thus, it is wrong to see any one of them as the single, long-sought-after silver bullet that will slay sin and resistance to the gospel once and for all. These various techniques are specific tools to stow away in one’s evangelistic toolbox, not as one-size-fits-all techniques but as implements to be retrieved when a particular occasion requires them and as support for the verbal communication of the gospel.

In all our methods, tactics, techniques and procedures, we need always to keep at the forefront of our minds this biblical truth: The gospel message is the method. It is the gospel that has power (Romans 1:16, James 1:18), not the various methods that we devise. We must always remember that.

Reasons for the Popularity of Testimonies

Why, then, are personal testimonies so popular? One reason could be that many people see personal experience as the chief determinant of spiritual beliefs. I cannot count all the times I’ve heard people defend a particular practice, belief or interpretation of Scripture by referring to personal experience and nothing else, as if what they have seen, felt, heard and thought constituted the final word on the matter. Many a time I have heard people actually ignore a pertinent biblical text and fall back on their personal experience to support their view. Instead of establishing what is true based on something impersonal and objective—the biblical text—truth is often determined by what is personal and subjective. Unfortunately, this mind-set has been carried over into the use of personal testimonies in evangelism. Just listen to my testimony, so the thinking goes, and my personal experience will convince you of the gospel.

The root cause of this could lie in our natural, fallen nature, which predisposes us to shape our religion based upon the dictates of our own hearts rather than divine revelation. That is recorded in Romans 1: God has revealed Himself to all of humanity, but humanity has responded by rejecting that revelation and worshiping gods of their own making. This tendency to reject revelation in favor of our own thoughts and desires is as dangerous as it is sinful, and we as fallen human beings must always watch out for it. Could it be that the heavy reliance on personal testimonies today is the result of this tendency? If so, are we not drifting away from the Word of God?

Another reason for their popularity could be that they are easy. It is much easier to tell one’s own story than it is to become well-versed in the truths of the gospel. Although this was mentioned in Part 1, it is worth repeating here: The best training for evangelism is theological study. This does not have to be lengthy, expensive seminary training but a basic—and solid—grounding in the truths that comprise the gospel message, such as what God is like, who Jesus is, the resurrection, the virgin birth, what faith is, what repentance is, how sin is atoned for, and so on. This takes some work, but what child of God would not take delight in learning them and sharing them with others? If we value personal testimonies because they are easier than studying the theological content of the gospel message, are we not drifting away from the Word of God?

Personal testimonies are also easy because they are risk-free to a great extent. They are safe. My own personal story is far less likely to draw antagonism and hostility than the story about Christ. Why? because my personal story will come across as just one more personal account out of countless others, no better than anyone else’s. It is purely subjective. Why should the unbeliever regard my subjective experience as superior to that of a non-Christian? Another reason is that there is nothing about my personal testimony that commands people to believe in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins. It simply conveys that I have believed in Christ and repented, and it implies that the hearer would benefit by doing the same. It is more like a television commercial trying to get someone to “buy” the gospel, with the testimony-bearer saying something like, “I used to be unhappy, lonely and depressed, but since I accepted Jesus, my life is so much better. So give Jesus a try—you won’t be sorry.” That is easy and safe because it presents no terrible consequence if one does not believe and repent. It simply offers something positive that will satisfy our natural desires.

The story of Christ, on the other hand, can be greatly offensive precisely because it has supreme authority: Because God the Son took on flesh, bore the sin of the world and rose from the dead, all of mankind has a duty to respond to that ultimate sacrifice in faith and repentance. The gospel is not a slick commercial that tries to appeal to a person’s desires and lusts; it is the authoritative command to repent of sin and believe in Christ because of what God did at Calvary. It is the story that tells people that there is only one way of salvation that God has given mankind, and woe to us if we neglect so great a salvation. The gospel presents a somber ultimatum to the world: Repent or perish! Now that is a story that can definitely draw hostility. If our reason for relying on personal testimonies is to avoid the hostility that can and will result from sharing the gospel, are we not drifting away from the Word of God?

Problems with Testimonies

In addition to the problems already mentioned, there are others to be concerned about. For one thing, a personal testimony is not divine revelation, but divine revelation is the only way a person can know anything about God. Had God not revealed Himself to us through creation, Jesus Christ and Scripture, we would have no way of knowing a single truth about Him. We are unable to arrive at a single bit of knowledge of God apart from God condescending to us, making Himself known to us on our level. We cannot rise up to God to learn about Him on our own. If God did not stoop down to our level, we would have never learned a single thing about him. The gospel is part of God’s revelation and therefore absolutely indispensable for anyone to come to a saving knowledge of Christ. Do you see, then, the extreme importance of divine revelation for the unbeliever? If we give priority to something that is not divine revelation, however, while putting the revelation of the gospel on the back burner, are we not drifting away from the Word of God?

Another problem is that personal testimony is subject to human error, such as forgetting details over time, or unintentional (or intentional) embellishment. The more time has elapsed since an event, the more unclear its memory becomes, and consequently the easier it is to inadvertently embellish it or leave out details. Even worse, there is also the risk of deliberately embellishing one’s testimony to make it more dramatic. One might feel that one’s conversion experience lacks the excitement of such dramatic conversions as Paul’s, who was rescued from a background of heinous sin, and consequently might spice up his testimony to make it more interesting.

Finally, people of other religions also can come up with positive, uplifting personal testimonies of their own. They can easily describe how their particular religion enhanced their lives, making them happy and content. They can extol their religion by recounting, for example, how they had been on a long and dark search for the truth, but when they discovered their religion, it seemed to them that all their darkness and confusion vanished.

As with friendship evangelism and the sinner’s prayer, the massive popularity of the use of personal testimonies in evangelism is inversely proportional to the amount of biblical support for it. In other words, the use of testimonies for evangelistic purposes is enormous, but biblical support for that purpose is minuscule.

Of course, sharing the circumstances of how you came to Christ is not wrong. In some cases there may be a place for it, such as in a small group gathering of other Christians or at church before the congregation. Even then, however, their use should be limited because the gospel message is what the church needs to hear over and over again. Even those who have been followers of Christ for many years must still hear the gospel preached, not to be saved over and over again but to continue in faithful service to Christ and ongoing repentance. Ultimately we must always remember that God’s testimony is greater than our own, and the story that matters most is the story about Christ, the gospel message. We should be eager to point people away from ourselves and toward Christ, just as John the Baptist always did.

“If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater” (1 John 5:9, NASB). In writing these words, the apostle John was obviously elevating the testimony of God about His Son, Jesus Christ, above that of man. There is no higher testimony than God’s.

Nevertheless, this does not seem to be the view of many today. It is beginning to look as if man’s testimony is being regarded as greater than God’s.

One of the sweeping trends in Christendom today is the use of the personal testimony. Like other Christian neo-traditions, such as the sinner’s prayer and friendship evangelism, personal testimonies have become so ingrained in Christian practice that they have practically been canonized. They are now assumed to be valid rather than scrutinized carefully with the only perfect measuring rod we have: the Bible.

In fact, the personal testimony has become so integral a part of Christian practice today that sometimes it is actually given a formula of sorts. Some churches give detailed instructions on how to write a testimony, in much the same way a writing teacher might instruct students how to craft an essay. This might follow a particular structure, beginning with a description of one’s life before salvation, followed by an account of how one came to faith in Christ, and concluding with a description of one’s life after salvation.

Writing and sharing a personal testimony are not necessarily wrong. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with telling others the great things that God has done in your life. What is wrong, though, is believing that a story about us is just as important as—or greater than—the story about Christ. The question is not whether personal testimonies are wrong; they are not. The real issue is that in many places the testimony of man seems to be elevated to a place that is equal to the gospel and the Word of God not only in importance but also in power. If that is true, we need to ask ourselves: Are we not drifting away from the Word of God?

Although many would never say that they regard their personal testimonies as equal to the gospel in importance, the great emphasis on it and time spent preparing them say otherwise. Why not spend all that time preparing a systematic explanation of the gospel message, talking about God, man and sin, Jesus Christ, faith, and repentance? Why not invest time in studying the precious truths and doctrines of the gospel message so that they can be articulated clearly and responsibly? Building a strong understanding of the truths of the gospel should be our chief preparation for evangelism since those truths must be conveyed clearly and accurately for genuine saving faith to occur. If we downplay these truths or neglect them in favor of presenting our personal stories, are we not drifting away from the Word of God?

Reasons Given for Testimonies

One reason people sometimes give for placing so much weight on a personal testimony is that it can make the gospel relevant. It is thought that if we present our own personal story of how we came to faith in Christ, people can better relate to the gospel. Notice how this explanation subtly attributes quite a bit of spiritual power to the personal testimony. For those who give this explanation, the testimony is not merely a story about oneself but also a potent catalyst for creating a spiritual connection between the hearer and the gospel message. In other words, it is seen as an effective conduit that brings the truth of the gospel home to the hearer, a support to the gospel message that leads the hearer to believe it.
Is this view biblical? Hardly. It is the Holy Spirit who makes the gospel relevant, not we, and He does so by convicting hearers of sin, not through our personal testimonies but in conjunction with the preached message of the gospel, which is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12, NASB). Are our personal testimonies really “living and active”? If we begin to think that they are, are we not drifting away from the Word of God?

Sadly, it seems to be so. One site I visited actually instructs people to use a maximum of two Bible verses in their testimonies. Why such a strict limit? Could it be that the Bible is held in such low regard that, instead of being the main course, so to speak, it has become a mere seasoning to sprinkle on? Another site actually said the following:

Skeptics may debate the validity of Scripture or argue the existence of God, but no one can deny your personal experiences with him. When you tell your story of how God has worked a miracle in your life, or how he has blessed you, transformed you, lifted and encouraged you, perhaps even broken and healed you, no one can argue or debate it. You go beyond the realm of knowledge into the realm of relationship with God. (http://christianity.about.com/od/testimonies/a/howtotestimony.htm)

This explanation is quite alarming. Notice how it makes Scripture inferior to human words by pointing out that Scripture itself can be resisted and debated but your own testimony—mere uninspired words—cannot. The author of this quoted explanation clearly thinks that a personal testimony carries more power than the inspired Word of God. But why? The answer lies in the last sentence cited above: “You go beyond the realm of knowledge into the realm of relationship with God.” The author sees relationship and personal experience as having more authority than biblical truth. This is appalling because it makes Scripture inferior to our words, thus putting the cart before the horse. A relationship with God cannot happen without knowledge of the gospel message. That is indisputable, for Scripture plainly says, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14, NASB). Nevertheless, this elevation of personal experience and relationship over the authority of biblical truth is not uncommon in our culture. Are we not drifting away from the Word of God when we begin to think this way?

Aside from that, the argument itself is simply invalid. People can certainly debate your personal account of salvation. One person once doubted my conversion story, asserting that I was probably going through a difficult period in my life at the time and so my mind was looking for an escape of some kind. Essentially, this person considered my conversion experience to be a natural coping mechanism of my mind rather than a supernatural act of God. He thought my “getting religion” was just a crutch that I used to make it through a difficult time. That very same objection could be reasonably leveled against any personal testimony.

Moreover, the very fact that it cannot be debated against might be grounds for some to dismiss it immediately. A person could argue, “Your experience is personal and subjective, so it is not a valid argument.” Finally, a relativist could have a field day with your testimony, saying, “Well, I’m glad you had such a wonderful experience. My experiences, however, are just as fine, and I’m happy with them.” Even Scripture records an instance in which a Christian’s personal testimony was rejected and argued against. After Paul gave his testimony before King Agrippa, Festus said to him, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad” (Acts 26:24b). Make no mistake about it: A personal testimony can be argued against even more than the Bible.

I can relate to what the author said in the above quote at least in this way: It is truly wonderful when someone does not debate the gospel but receives it without an argument. The way to that point, though, is not through a device of our own making but through preaching of the gospel that is accompanied by the Holy Spirit’s convicting work. When a person is being drawn by God to Christ, he or she will not argue and debate against Scripture. Quite to the contrary, he or she will gladly hear it and absorb it. Paul described the Thessalonians’ acceptance of his preaching in a similar way, saying, “[W]hen you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, NASB). When conversion happens, it is because God and His Word are working in that person’s heart. A personal story of one’s conversion can do nothing to help that. This is not surprising given the fact that “the testimony of God is greater” than the testimony of men (1 John 5:9, NASB).

Another reason sometimes given for the use of personal testimonies is that they can open the door to a gospel presentation by creating interest in the hearer. One has to wonder: If a person has no concern about his or her own spiritual condition, why would the story of yours be interesting? More important, if the story about Christ—the gospel—is not appealing to him or her, how can yours be? Is the story about the disciple somehow more appealing than the story about the Master? Are we not drifting from the Word of God when we begin to think this way?

Some do attempt to use the Bible as a defense for personal testimonies, but these attempts involve incorrect interpretations. One is Revelation 12:11a: “And they overcame him [Satan] because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony” (NASB). There is no indication in the text that the word testimony means what many today suppose: a personal account of how one came to Christ. If it did, then think of what the meaning of the text would be: that those people overcame Satan simply by telling their personal stories! That is absurd. The text refers to their testimony about Christ, not about themselves. The word in Greek is marturia, which means witness, martyr or testimony. The idea is that these people witnessed to the reality of Christ and were slain for it. They were not slain because they told their personal conversion stories; they were slain because they testified to who Christ is. The point is that they focused on Christ, not on themselves. This is made even clearer by the use of the word in other places in Revelation. For example, Rev. 1:2 states that John “testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (NASB). The language here is unmistakable: The idea behind the word is John’s declaration of his witness of Christ. It is a pointing away from oneself and toward Christ. This same idea is repeated in v. 9: “I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” In both cases, it is not the testimony of John but the testimony of Jesus. John talked about Christ, not about himself.

Another biblical passage often used to defend personal testimonies is Acts 26, in which Paul tells King Agrippa an account of his conversion. This, however, was a special circumstance: The apostle was on trial and was defending himself against his accusers. There is no evidence in the New Testament that Paul or any of the other apostles used personal testimonies on a regular basis.

Continued in Part 2.

A friend recently shared this gem spoken by Charles Spurgeon, and I thought it should be posted here. Even though it was spoken more than a century ago, it seems that it applies to many of today’s churches.

Feeding Sheep Or Amusing Goats?
By C. H. Spurgeon (1834–1892)

An evil is in the professed camp of the Lord, so gross in its impudence, that the most short-sighted can hardly fail to notice it. During the past few years it has developed at an abnormal rate, even for evil It has worked like leaven until the whole lump ferments. The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the Church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them. From speaking out as the Puritans did, the Church has gradually toned down her testimony, then winked at and excused the frivolities of the day. Then she tolerated them in her borders. Now she has adopted them under the plea of reaching the masses.

My first contention is that providing amusement for the people is nowhere spoken of in the Scriptures as a function of the Church. If it is a Christian work why did not Christ speak of it? “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” That is clear enough. So it would have been if he had added, ‘and provide amusement for those who do not relish the gospel.’ No such words, however, are to be found. It did not seem to occur to him. Then again, “He gave some apostles, some prophets, some pastors and teachers, for the work of the ministry.” Where do entertainers come in? The Holy Spirit is silent concerning them. Were the prophets persecuted because they amused the people or because they refused? The concert has no martyr roll.

Again, providing amusement is in direct antagonism to the teaching and life of Christ and all His apostles. What was the attitude of the Church to the world? “Ye are the salt,” not the sugar candy something the world will spit out, not swallow. Short and sharp was the utterance, “Let the dead bury their dead.” He was in awful earnestness!

Had Christ introduced more of the bright and pleasant elements into his mission, he would have been more popular when they went back, because of the searching nature of his teaching. I do not hear him say, ‘Run after these people, Peter, and tell them we will have a different style of service tomorrow, something short and attractive with little preaching. We will have a pleasant evening for the people. Tell them they will be sure to enjoy it. Be quick, Peter, we must get the people somehow?’ Jesus pitied sinners, sighed and wept over them, but never sought to amuse them. In vain will the Epistles be searched to find any trace of the gospel of amusement. Their message is, ‘Come out, keep out, keep clean out!’ Anything approaching fooling is conspicuous by its absence. They had boundless confidence in the gospel and employed no other weapon. After Peter and John were locked up for preaching, the Church had a prayer meeting, but they did not pray, ‘Lord grant unto thy servants that by a wise and discriminating use of innocent recreation we may show these people how happy we are.’ If they ceased not for preaching Christ, they had not time for arranging entertainments. Scattered by persecution, they went everywhere preaching the gospel. They ‘turned the world upside down’. That is the only difference! Lord, clear the Church of all the rot and rubbish the devil has imposed on her and bring us back to apostolic methods.

Lastly, the mission of amusement fails to effect the end desired. It works havoc among young converts. Let the careless and scoffers, who thank God because the Church met them half-way, speak and testify. Let the heavy laden who found peace through the concert not keep silent! Let the drunkard to whom the dramatic entertainment had been God’s link in the chain of the conversion, stand up! There are none to answer. The mission of amusement produces no converts. The need of the hour for today’s ministry is believing scholarship joined with earnest spirituality, the one springing from the other as fruit from the root. The need is biblical doctrine, so understood and felt, that it sets men on fire.

Jonah realized it was not his place to choose the audience of his God-given message. We should realize it, too.

In my last post, I pointed out that friendship evangelism actually makes the Great Commission harder, yet that is not all there is to it. Another unfortunate aspect of this approach is that it limits the audience of the gospel to those in one’s immediate sphere of influence, i.e., friends, relatives and coworkers, ignoring an enormous segment of society: strangers. This distorts the Great Commission, whereby Jesus commanded His disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15, NASB). He did not say, “Go into your immediate sphere of influence and preach the gospel to your friends, relatives and coworkers.” Those people, though certainly important, make up only a minuscule subset of our society. There are hundreds—thousands, even tens of thousands—of people out there who need to be reached with the gospel, so how can we limit our target audience to a mere few? Jonah, who thought he could choose the audience of his preaching, eventually realized that “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Jonah 2:9, ESV). Do we believe that?

Let’s stop editing God’s command to bring the gospel to all creation. There are multitudes of lost souls who know so little—so very little—about salvation, and they desperately need us to proclaim the good news to them. I asked a young man once on the street if he knew how sin is eliminated. He did not know that it is by the blood of an innocent sacrifice that God forgives sin. Who knows what other essential truths of salvation he didn’t know? Let’s obey God’s command—His simple command—to bring the gospel to everyone.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, friendship evangelism is a popular method of outreach in much of today’s evangelical church. In fact, it is more than just popular: It is the default approach, so much so that it usually seems to be assumed rather than biblically justified. Contrast that with the approach that one finds throughout the Bible—proclaiming God’s message to strangers in public places—which is scarcely mentioned nowadays.

There are probably many who will disagree with me, but I am convinced that the primary reason for friendship evangelism’s popularity is because it seems easy. After all, evangelism is far less daunting when you share the gospel message with someone who has already accepted you, isn’t it? A friend is less likely to reject you than a stranger, right? That makes friendship evangelism easier than sharing the gospel with strangers, doesn’t it?

Not really. Ironically enough, it is actually friendship evangelism that is harder. The longer you are in a friendship with someone, the more reluctant you are to do anything that might jeopardize that relationship you so enjoy. It’s just human nature: We will do our utmost to hold on to something that is near and dear to our hearts, so proclaiming the gospel to our friends will be moved further down our list of priorities as time goes on.

The polar opposite to friendship evangelism—outreach to strangers—while feared by many, is actually the easier approach because fearing the loss of the relationship is not a stumbling block. If a friendship does not exist, it cannot be lost.

God’s commands truly are not burdensome, and this is just as true with the Great Commission as it is with any other of God’s commands. Yet friendship evangelism actually makes the Great Commission harder than it has to be. What God has made simple, we make difficult and complicated because we think we know better than the Giver of the command and set ourselves up to be God’s editors. Our disobedience, our rebellion, and our sinful tendency to rewrite God’s commands are the greatest evangelistic difficulties we Westerners face.

For a long time now, I’ve been an adherent of the Way of the Master (WotM) approach to evangelism. For those who don’t know what that is, it is a technique that focuses heavily on using the Ten Commandments to bring the knowledge of sin to an unbeliever so as to pave the way for faith in Christ. After all, as the Scriptures say, “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV). This approach usually involves giving someone what is known as “the good test,” a series of questions that usually follows this pattern:

Evangelist (E): Do you think you’re a good person?
Man on the street (MotS): Sure, I’m pretty good.
E: Would you like to take a quick test to see if that’s true?
MotS: Okay, sure.
E: Have you ever told a lie?
MotS: Sure, who hasn’t?
E: And what does that make you?
MotS: Ummm…a liar?
E: That’s right. What about blasphemy? Have you ever taken God’s name in vain (used it as a curse word)?
MotS: Yeah.
E: So what does that make you?
MotS: A blasphemer?
E: Correct. What about adultery?
MotS: No, I’ve always been faithful to my wife.
E: What about looking at women to lust after them? Have you ever done that?
MotS: Oh yeah, definitely.
E: Jesus said that anyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her in his heart. Now by your own admission, you’re a liar, a blasphemer, and an adulterer at heart, and we’ve looked at only three of the commandments.

The above fictitious conversation does not always follow this pattern, and there are usually conversation and interaction both before and after the “good test” is given. What the above example shows, though, is the manner in which the WotM evangelist tries to drive home to the other person the reality of sin. Admittedly it is a very strategic starting point when presenting the gospel because, as the Scripture states, the work of the law is written on everyone’s heart (Romans 2:15). Since it is general revelation, it is something that all people know regardless of where they live or what time period they live in, so it is relevant to everyone without exception.

Let me say here and now that I value this approach and use it regularly in my own personal evangelism. I value the work that Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron have done in not only making this approach popular but also in inspiring many Christians to take the gospel to the public. Nevertheless, I’ve seen a pitfall that those who use it should watch out for: The WotM’s heavy emphasis on using the Commandments could result in an overemphasis on the law and an underemphasis on the person and work of Jesus Christ, possibly because the evangelist feels that the unbeliever has not been convinced of sin enough to receive the Savior. As a result, the evangelist might be inclined to mention Christ only briefly at the end of the gospel presentation, squeezing Him in for good measure, as it were. The fact is, though, that no human being is capable of creating—or even discerning—such spiritual readiness. That is something that only the Holy Spirit can do. It is our job to communicate the entire gospel, not to withhold parts of it because we think our audience might not be ready.

The fact of the matter is that Jesus Christ’s person and work should dominate the message. One place where this is especially emphasized is in the Gospel of John. In that book’s own statement about its purpose, we read: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31, ESV). If there is anywhere in the Bible that God tells us explicitly what a person must know to have faith in Christ, it is here. The Holy Spirit inspired John to write that what a person needs to know about Christ in order to come to saving faith is the miracles that he performed, the signs that show he was truly the Messiah. The text says: “…but these [the signs, the miracles] are written so that you may believe…” It doesn’t say here anything about using the Commandments to bring a person to saving faith; John simply points to the miracles as accomplishing that. Was John missing something? Is his gospel incomplete? Not at all.

If we truly desire to think God’s thoughts after him on a given topic, we will look across the whole landscape of Scripture to discover all of His thoughts on the subject. When we do, we will see that the Commandments are rarely used in evangelism in the Bible. In all the gospel accounts, there is but one event that I know of in which Christ preached the Commandments to someone: when he dealt with the rich young ruler. Apart from that, the use of the Commandments as an evangelistic tool is scarcely mentioned in the Bible. Paul did not use them on Mars Hill, nor did Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Certainly the audiences in both those cases were hardened: Paul confronted widespread idolatry on Mars Hill, and Peter addressed the very people who had crucified Christ. If ever there was an audience that needed to be humbled by the divine law, it was those people. Yet in spite of the hardness they encountered, they did not use the divine law in their gospel preaching.

Does any of this make the WotM wrong? Of course not. What it does suggest, though, is that there is no biblical reason to regard the use of the Ten Commandments as a litmus test for true evangelism. It is certainly an evangelistic tool that is advisable and powerful in certain, but not necessarily all, circumstances. The rich young ruler was self-righteous, confidently declaring that he had kept all the Commandments from childhood. Therefore, he had to be set straight, and his sin had to be brought home to him because he was in a dangerous state of denial. Others, perhaps, who know and admit their sinfulness, might not need to be brought under the unbending scrutiny of the divine law.

I wonder: Are those of us who use the law in our outreach (including myself) focusing on the law too much and not enough on Christ? If John—inspired by the Holy Spirit—said that it was knowledge of Christ’s miracles that bring a person to saving faith, shouldn’t we lift up Christ and his miracles as much as possible in our preaching instead of just mentioning him briefly like a mere afterthought? Do we labor to expound on the law in the hopes of bringing home to a person the reality of their sin and guilt, but then, after that lengthy discussion, insert Christ hastily like a footnote at the end of a long paper? I am not suggesting that we not mention sin at all; quite to the contrary, sin and its dangers must be driven home at all costs. My concern is that perhaps we focus so much on trying to convince people of sin that we are practically omitting the One who is the only means of forgiveness of sin. What good is it to talk long about the malady but barely mention the cure? To stress sin and condemnation while barely mentioning the remedy borders on cruelty.

The “sinner’s prayer” is a very popular tradition in evangelical churches. It is so widespread, in fact, that for many it has become an integral, necessary part of the gospel message itself, so much so that any evangelism that lacks it will most likely be regarded with suspicion.

For those who don’t know, the sinner’s prayer is a prewritten prayer for salvation that often appears at the end of gospel tracts or is provided by a preacher at the close of a presentation of the gospel message. The idea is that if an unbeliever prays the prayer word for word sincerely, he or she will be saved.

I imagine a whole book could be written about this method, but I just want to touch on a few issues. First, the Bible says nothing about it either explicitly or implicitly. This biblical silence on the sinner’s prayer should prompt us to wonder where it comes from. To be fair, though, this silence alone is not enough to make it wrong. After all, the Bible is silent on many other popular aspects of Christian culture, such as Sunday School and Christmas trees, yet we continue with those.

Second, this method is a relatively recent development in evangelical circles. Compared to other Christian teachings that have been around for the roughly 2,000 years of church history, the sinner’s prayer is really a new kid on the block—a theological novelty. As such, it was never passed on by the apostles. Not only that, but if this technique were really as vital as many make it out to be, one has to wonder how the church got along without it for so many centuries.

Third, it invites the wrong kind of assurance. True assurance of salvation is not based on a one-time prayer made in the heat of a past moment but rather on the presence and increase of spiritual fruit in a person’s life. In other words, biblical assurance stems from a sustained pattern, not a single prayer. If a single prayer gave us assurance of salvation, then we would not be commanded in Scripture to make our calling and election sure by producing an increasing abundance of spiritual fruit in our lives (2 Peter 1:3–11).

Finally, leading someone in such a prayer could really be an attempt to do what only the Holy Spirit can do: draw someone to Christ. Like it or not, we have no power whatsoever to draw others to Christ. Our job is to sow the seed of the Gospel; the condition of the soil is up to God. When that soil is good, we will see fruit, and it will grow. Regenerated people will pray to Christ in contrition and brokenness over their sins. You can be assured of that. They will repent. They will come to Christ sincerely. Their new nature will lead them to do those things, and even more. If they do not have a new nature—if they are not born again—then all the sinner’s prayers in the world will amount to nothing. Consider this parable that Jesus told:

“The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26–29, NASB)

Just like the seed sower in this parable, we do not know how the kingdom of God grows; our job is simply to sow the seed, not to try to make it grow. That growth comes from God alone.

I have no doubt that God is fully able to convert someone through a sinner’s prayer, but I think it must be used very wisely and only in conjunction with certain teaching. Such accompanying teaching should include the following.

  • The gospel should be carefully and clearly explained.
  • The cost involved in following Christ should be conveyed (count the cost!).
  • It should be emphasized that a single prayer cannot be relied upon for salvation. Only Christ can be relied on for salvation, and He must be relied on every day for the rest of one’s life.

For a long time I wanted to create an online, interactive version of the gospel quiz that we use in evangelism. I started creating one using Java (that’s right—Java the programming language, not Javascript the web scripting language) but made limited progress. After thinking about it, I decided it made more sense to create the quiz as a web site, using the three elements of web-site creation: HTML, CSS and Javascript. Then, for one reason or another, the project got shoved aside. Recently, however, I decided to take it up again.

I wanted to code the site from scratch so as to learn as much as possible about what goes on “under the hood” of a web site. So, with nothing more than a couple of text editors (Notepad++ and Aptana Studio), some books and my own google-fu, I created the gospel quiz.

Here is a copy of the quiz we use in our church outreach:

ARE YOU GOOD ENOUGH TO GO TO HEAVEN?
TAKE THE QUIZ. . .
Evaluate yourself using the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17). Please check off the commandments you have never broken.

□ YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME.
□ YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FOR YOURSELF A CARVED IMAGE, …
□ YOU SHALL NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD YOUR GOD IN VAIN.
□ REMEMBER THE SABBATH DAY, TO KEEP IT HOLY.
□ HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER, …
□ YOU SHALL NOT MURDER.
□ YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY.
□ YOU SHALL NOT STEAL.
□ YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS AGAINST YOUR NEIGHBOR.
□ YOU SHALL NOT COVET … Continue reading