Evangelism: The Spirit and the Word

Winsomeness is not the same thing as manipulation. The one should be a desired evangelistic attribute. Sadly it is manipulation that most commonly presents itself in the popular approaches of today. Popular methods of evangelism these days find all sorts of ways to manipulate people into making “decisions for Christ.” They use guilt and fear and shame and even blessing to provoke people to respond to the gospel message, only I suspect often we misrepresent that gospel message in our attempts to manipulate listeners. But the Biblical evangelist needs no gimmicks, no tricks, no manipulation. He needs only the Word of God. For, the Spirit of God works through the Word of God to make the People of God.

The pattern we find throughout the evangelistic efforts of the book of Acts do not compare to those used in many circles of Evangelicalism these days. The pattern in Acts was often straightforward communication of the Word of God at which hearers were awakened and responded accordingly. Often after Biblical preaching and an evangelistic call we read these words:

41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)

And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47b)

And a great many people were added to the Lord. (Acts 11:24)

After hearing the Word of God preached the people believed and responded and were added to the family. There was no aisle walking with 20 verses of “Just as I am.” There was no special prayer, no card they signed, no lengthy defense of literal Creationism. There was simply communication of the Word of God and people responded.

We even have the remarkable example of the Ethiopian eunuch, who upon reading the book of Isaiah came to understand something unique was being described. When Phillip explains it to him and explains specifically how it points to Jesus the man believes and is “added” to the followers of Christ (see Acts 8:26-40). It is the Word of God that awakens men to their sin, their need of salvation, and the truth of the Savior. Do we have a role in explaining and helping them to see it, yes, but that does not include any sort of manipulation or dubious convincing. We explain the truth and leave the work up to God.

Part of our failure in much of Evangelism is that we don’t believe in the power of God’s Word, the sufficiency of His Spirit, and the beauty of the gospel. We might mentally assent to such things, but when it comes to evangelism we think the real power rests on us, the Spirit needs our help, and the gospel needs updated. We think we need to convince people in ways that the church, historically, has never felt compelled to convince them. Such an approach misses not only the truth of all the aforementioned things, but it also misses the reality of the power of sin. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” We cannot manipulate people into the Kingdom of God, for the truths that they need to embrace to enter can only be understood through the work of the Spirit of God. Apart from the Spirit our best efforts will be utterly ineffective. On top of that 2 Corinthians 4:4 says that Satan has blinded people to the message of the Gospel. We cannot undo the condition in which fallen man finds himself, and to think we can win people to the gospel by our creative presentations is to misunderstand what the gospel says about sin and man’s fallenness. I like how J.I. Packer put it years ago:

What does this mean for evangelism? It means,   quite simply, that evangelism, described as we have described it, cannot   possibly succeed. However clear and cogent we may be in presenting the   gospel, we have no hope of convincing or converting anyone. Can you or I   by our earnest talking break the power of Satan over a man’s life? No.   Can you or I give life to the spiritually dead? No. Can we hope to   convince sinners of the truth of the gospel by patient explanation? No.   Can we hope to move men to obey the gospel by any words of entreaty that   we may utter? No. Our approach to evangelism is not realistic till we   have faced this shattering fact, and let it make its proper impact on   us. When a schoolmaster is trying to teach children arithmetic, or   grammar, and finds them slow to learn, he assures himself that the penny   must drop sooner or later, and so encourages himself to keep on trying.   We can most of us muster great reserves of patience if we think that   there is some prospect of ultimate success in what we are attempting.   But in the case of evangelism there is no such prospect. Regarded as a   human enterprise, evangelism is a hopeless task. It cannot in principle   produce the desired effect. We can preach, and preach clearly and   fluently and attractively; we can talk to individuals in the most   pointed and challenging way; we can organize special services, and   distribute tracts, and put up posters, and flood the country with   publicity—and there is not the slightest prospect that all this outlay   of effort will bring a single soul home to God. Unless there is some   other factor in the situation, over and above our own endeavours, all   evangelistic action is foredoomed to failure. This is the fact, the   brute, rock-bottom fact, that we have to face.

It is God’s Spirit that does the work, and he works largely through the Word of God.

It was Packer too who helped me understand an important distinction in our own definition of evangelism. He describes two different definitions of evangelism. The first definition goes something like this: To evangelize . . . is to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Savior, and serve him as their King in the fellowship of His church. It’s a good definition in a lot of ways, but the problem is that it asserts that if a person does not come to faith then you have not successfully evangelized. And that’s how some people view their role. It is their responsibility to convert people, otherwise they have failed at evangelism. But Biblically, Packer argues, the New Testament defines evangelism as “To evangelize . . . is to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men MIGHT come to put their trust in God through Him…” Here evangelism is deemed successful when it simply communicates clearly the message of the gospel. It is not our responsibility to convert, it is our responsibility to present the message and call men to respond. The rest is up to Christ. This is a freeing reality. It encourages me to evangelize more, and to do the best I can, resting assured that if I am rejected then I have done all I can.

I am not against our working better to communicate clearly the gospel message, we must communicate it clearly. I am not against our thinking through how to turn conversations towards the gospel, or how to approach the law, a listener’s questions, hot button issues, and even the influence of postmodernism. All those things and more should go into our thinking through how to be the best evangelist I can be. And yet, at the end of the day I know I must rely on the Spirit and the Word to win people to Christ.

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