KEEPING THE EVANGEL IN EVANGELISM: WHY EVANGELICALISM CAN’T ABANDON THE OLD, OLD STORY
The Great Commission stands at the center of Christianity as the command of the risen Lord Jesus Christ for his church to proclaim the name of God in the world for the sake of all nations and God’s glory among them. The church fulfills the commission by making disciples of Christ, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded his church to believe and obey (Matt 28:18-20). Evangelism that calls sinners to repentance and spreads the fame of God’s name, then, is at the very heart of the mission of God’s people.
EVANGELISM IN A POST-CHRISTIAN WORLD
Every culture and civilization embraces a certain set of assumptions about life, truth, significance, and what it means to be human. Without these shared assumptions, societal life would be impossible. Individuals within these societies may not give much active thought to these common assumptions, but their decisions, expectations, and general dispositions reflect the presence of these assumptions as what some philosophers call background ideas.
Out of these assumptions an entire way of life emerges. Background ideas move into the foreground as morals, manners, and the culture at large begins to reflect the decisive influence of these ideas. In America, an identifiable “American way” of life rules as an operational worldview for many persons — perhaps even replacing more fundamental convictions.
The “American way” involves, among other things, patriotism, a sense of fair play, equality, personal autonomy, and limitless opportunity. We expect each other to respect these assumptions and ideals. Americans are not sure what to do with ideals of equality and fairness, but we are generally certain that equality and fairness are the right categories to employ, regardless of the idea or context.
Looking at these same issues, Peter Berger — now in his tenth decade of life and one of the most influential sociologists of our day — wrote years ago in his bookThe Heretical Imperative that the “heretical imperative” of the modern era is the imperative to choose. In Berger’s analysis, in the premodern era one did not need to choose one’s beliefs. Instead, in the West, virtually everyone was born and baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, identity was externally fixed for individuals. In the modern secular world, however, this is no longer the case. Choice is endemic in every area of life — we simply cannot avoid it. As a result, Berger concludes that in the modern age we must take responsibility for our identity. It is no longer given; it is self-determined.
In our culture, people who think themselves autonomous will claim the right to define all meaning for themselves. Any truth claim they reject or resist is simply ruled out of bounds by society at large. We will make our own world of meaning and dare anyone to violate our autonomy.
This is why evangelism is often perceived as insensitive or even threatening in our culture. Evangelism demands that we press the authority of Scripture and the claims of Christ on sinners as we invite them to the free gift of salvation provided through Christ’s atoning work.
In a post-Christian age, evangelism will be met with one of three responses. First, evangelism will be met with hostility. This will not necessarily take the form of overt action. But, at least in the immediate future, much of this hostility will look like cultural marginalization. Anyone caught inviting sinners to repent of their sin and turn to Christ will be seen as backwards or even culturally subversive.
Second, evangelism will also often be met with befuddlement. In a world that has lost fundamental Christian presuppositions about the holiness of God and human accountability, the call of the gospel will more often perplex than infuriate. The plausibility structures of society are so different from our own that many people simply cannot understand us.
Finally, we will find that we will not only be met with hostility and befuddlement, but also indifference. Many in our society will not even care enough about our message to spend their energies either in hostility or befuddlement.
EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY AND THE FOUNDATIONS OF FAITHFUL EVANGELISM
Historical evangelicalism has always valued both theological principle and vigorous evangelism. Indeed, we cannot be authentically and faithfully evangelical without holding both of these features in tandem. The unity between evangelical theology and evangelism is not forced or fabricated. Our theological convictions should irrevocably give birth to our evangelistic fervor.
Historically, evangelicals have always held to the ultimate authority and divine inspiration of Scripture. We believe Scripture, God’s inerrant Word, is the only source of real spiritual authority and power. As a result, our evangelism must be rooted in a rigorous commitment to the Bible.
Too often, Christians fail to appeal to Scripture or employ Scripture in evangelism. But Scripture should be our primary tool for introducing people to Jesus. What better way to let people encounter Jesus than simply to show them Jesus in the pages of the New Testament. As my friend Mark Dever explains in his highly accessible book, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism:
The Bible is God’s Word and is inspired by God’s Spirit. God’s message can go out not just through your words and mine, but through his own inspired words. And we can know that he will take a special delight in showing the power of his Word as he uses it in conversions … Referring to the clear teaching of the Bible also shows our friends that we are not simply giving them our own private ideas; rather, we are presenting Jesus Christ in his own life and teaching. Just as we want the preaching in our churches to be expositional—preaching in which the point of the message is the point of the Bible passage being preached—we want to see people exposed to God’s Word because we believe that God desires to use his Word to bring about conversions. It is God’s Word coming to us that his Spirit uses to reshape our lives. In your evangelism, use the Bible.
At the same time, evangelicals have also historically affirmed penal substitutionary atonement as the heart of the gospel and thus the heart of our evangelistic message. As J.I. Packer once wrote, penal substitution is “a distinguishing mark of the worldwide evangelical fraternity.” Our ultimate need is not that of a moral guide or a philosophy instructor. We need a Savior.
The message of Scripture is that Christ died as a substitute for us, bearing our guilt and absorbing God’s wrath so that we might receive his righteousness. Without that message, we lose the evangel of evangelism.
Fundamentally, the survival of the church in a post-Christian age comes down to a promise and a command given us in Scripture, an indicative and an imperative. First, we must remember that Jesus promised, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).
Next, we must remember that we have been commissioned to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:18-20). We need to remember both of these words from Scripture in order to evangelize faithfully and maintain our evangelical identity.
As we evangelize we must keep the gospel and the person of Christ central and we must unashamedly and winsomely teach our evangelical commitments. We must talk about God’s holiness and righteousness, we must talk about sin, and we must talk about our need of a Savior. The core of the good news is the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the one we must talk about most of all — and without fail.