Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the Gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. – 2 Timothy 1:8-10
Brethren, Biblical evangelism began in eternity. We may not think of it that way, but it becomes clear that this is true if we carefully read the infallible text before us. Paul speaks here of a glorious salvation by grace in Christ before the beginning of time. The apostle says that God does not give this great salvation to sinners because of their good works. Rather, Paul declares in verse 9 that the source of a sinners’ salvation is God’s purpose and God’s grace alone—a grace, which God gave to them “in Christ Jesus before the world began.”
This truth raises an important question. We know that God’s purpose and grace in Christ were part of God’s plan before creation; but sinners live in time, space, and history after creation. How then do they learn about God’s eternal, gracious purpose in Christ? Paul makes the answer abundantly clear in verse 10. The salvation given to God’s people in Christ Jesus before time “is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). In other words, God’s eternal purpose of salvation in Christ burst into history through the Person and work of Christ.
God the Father and His Son then are the first and greatest evangelistic team: The Father sent His Son to sinners with a message of salvation; and God’s authoritative message delivered by a faithful messenger is the essence of biblical evangelism.
Yet, something has happened to biblical evangelism. A great deal of today’s evangelism with its man-centered theology has dramatically changed the methods and sometimes even the authoritative message of biblical evangelism. To understand the difference between biblical and modern evangelism and to grasp why the difference is crucial, we must consider these things: 1. God designed and authorized biblical evangelism, 2. God has authorized only one message for evangelism, 3. God has given biblical principles for our methods of evangelism.
1. God designed and authorized biblical evangelism.
First, we must answer the question.
a. What is evangelism? The word evangelism does not appear in the Bible. Nevertheless, defining evangelism by the NT is quite simple. In Matthew and Mark, “preaching the Gospel” comes from two Greek words, which mean “to proclaim or herald” the “good news.” Paul and Luke often use one Greek word, which means “to bring or announce good news.” The idea arises from the phrase “preaching the Gospel.” Put another way, evangelism is presenting Christ. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth…” (Gal. 3:1). This is biblical evangelism—Jesus evidently set forth. Furthermore, biblical evangelism has a goal. As Christ told Paul, “I send thee, 18 To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:17-18). Thus, proclaiming the message of Christ with a view to converting sinners is biblical evangelism.
b. God through Christ authorized evangelism. We often do not realize that each of the four Gospel accounts concludes with an authoritative commission for evangelizing the world: Mark’s Gospel concludes with Christ’s command, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). John’s Gospel records Christ’s declaration in chapter 20: “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21-23). Matthew’s Gospel concludes with what we call the Great Commission: Christ said, “All power is given unto me in Heaven and in earth. 19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations (which literally means, ‘disciple the nations’), baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (28:18). Thus we see that Christ, Who had received all authority, commanded His disciples to go, to make disciples, to teach them everything Christ taught, and to baptize them. In these three commissions, God, through Christ, authorized evangelism. Now we must consider that
2. God has authorized only one message for evangelism.
Only Luke’s Gospel gives us the Christ-commanded, Christ-centered, and Christ-revealing content of His message. “Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, (46) And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: (47) And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47). But for our purposes in this message, we will confine our view of evangelism to the book of Acts. This is a natural and logical approach because Acts follows the four Gospel commissions. It is the story of Christ’s apostles and disciples doing what Christ commissioned them to do. So what then was their message? While they presented numerous truths as they presented Christ and made disciples, these four things consistently appear in their Gospel:
a. A message about the God of the Bible: One of the greatest tragedies of today’s evangelism is its man-centeredness. In our day, gospel presentations often begin with man; but in the book of Acts, Gospel preaching begins with God: Who He is, what He is like, what He requires of us, and what He did through Christ. When Christ poured out the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached the Gospel. Although his hearers were Jewish and knew something about the God of Scripture, he repeatedly declares what God has done: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God” (2:22); “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (2:23); “This Jesus hath God raised up” (2:32). With titles and pronouns, Peter refers to God twenty-nine times in his short sermon on the Day of Pentecost. To the Jews of Antioch (Pisidia), Paul, preached, “(17) The God of this people of Israel chose our fathers” (Acts 13:16-17). He went on to mention God twenty-eight times. And to the Gentiles on Mars Hill, Paul began his message by first telling them who God is: “(24) God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of Heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands” (17:22-24). He alluded to God 20 times in a short discourse, plainly teaching Who God is so that his hearers had a context out of which to hear the message of sin, salvation, and judgment. Clearly, not one of the instances of biblical evangelism in Acts is a mechanical, formulaic man-centered message, followed by calling for decisions with an altar call. In every context, apostles and disciples present Christ within the context in which they found themselves. While they often modified the way they preached the message, they never changed the authorized message.
b. A message about the sinfulness of man and his need of God’s forgiveness: We must understand that the God Who made the Heavens and the earth is holy, unspeakably holy. Human beings, made in His image, have broken God’s Law; and they desperately need forgiveness of their sins. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter did not avoid confronting the Jews of Jerusalem with their sin: “Him…ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (2:23). Again, in verse 36, “God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Cut to heart with conviction, the Jews cried out to know what to do. In response, Peter commanded them to repent and be baptized “for the remission of sins” (2:38)—the very words of Christ’s commission. Likewise, Peter preached to Cornelius and the Gentiles that whoever believed on Christ’s name “shall receive remission of sins” (10:43), while Paul declared that Christ sent him to turn Gentiles from the power of Satan unto God that they may receive “forgiveness of sins” (26:18).
c. A message about Jesus Christ and His work: Biblical evangelism declares the God of the Bible and the sinner’s need of forgiveness as the context in which to proclaim the Person and work of Jesus Christ the Lord. In other words, biblical evangelism must present Who Christ is and what He has done to save sinners; these two must always go together. As Christ said in Luke, “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day” (24:46). But who is this suffering Christ? Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter declared, “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” Quoting Joel 2:32, he says, “Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The Lord in Joel’s prophecy is YHWH, the God of Israel. When Peter reached the end of his sermon, he declared, “God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). In fact, the apostles and disciples apply the title Lord to YHWH and to Jesus throughout Acts. This points us to the deity of Christ and establishes His Lordship throughout the rest of Acts and the NT: Jesus is the Lord to whom His disciples pray, the Lord Who knows the hearts of all people, the Lord to whom they cry as they are dying, and the Lord whose word they believe, teach, and preach for the salvation of sinners. In total, He is the God-man! We must preach this crucified and resurrected Lord as “the Son of God,” “Messiah,” and “Savior,” just as Peter, Phillip, Paul, and the others did. Furthermore, it is especially crucial that we preach Jesus as the living Savior and the ruling, sovereign Lord. Christ’s Lordship is crucial to Christ’s rule over the nations. As Paul exhorted the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (20:21). Furthermore, Christ’s authorized message teaches that the God-man suffered and died on Calvary’s cross and rose again the third day! We hear this affirmed throughout the preaching of Acts: “…ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up” (2:23). “This Jesus hath God raised up” (2:31-32). Peter informed the Jews that they had “killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead” (3:18), and Paul preached in Antioch, “Though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain. 29 And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre. 30 But God raised him from the dead” (13:28-30). And on Mars Hill, when Paul spoke of Christ as the Judge on the Day of Judgment, Paul told his hearers that God had “given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (17:31). Therefore, it is clear that we must preach Christ the God-man and his work.
d. Biblical evangelism calls sinful people to repentance and believe on Christ. Christ said, “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (24:47). We must remember that repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin, which is why we find repentance sometimes mentioned apart from faith, faith sometimes mentioned apart from repentance, and sometimes both appear together. Peter faithfully preached Christ’s message on the Day of Pentecost: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (2:38). Faith was not mentioned—yet 3000 were saved. On the other hand, Peter preached to Cornelius’ household, “that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (10:43)—no mention of repentance. Likewise, Paul declared, “Through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: 39 And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (13:38-39). He did not mention repentance, yet Paul later described his preaching as “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (20:21).
Other important doctrines attend the preaching of these elements, but we can only mention a few: in biblical evangelism, the apostles and disciples preached the kingdom of God, justification by faith, the fact that all of this was rooted in the OT Scriptures, and the God-appointed witnesses. These were all regular features of biblical evangelism and disciple making. Furthermore, the ultimate aim of biblical evangelism was the establishment of churches or seeing disciples added to one.
3. God has given biblical principles for our methods of evangelism.
As we have seen, God’s eternal purpose of grace in Christ is the source of evangelism. We have defined biblical evangelism, we have seen that God authorized it, and we have seen that God authorized only one message for it. So far, we have confined our survey of biblical evangelism to the Book of Acts because it is the Spirit-inspired revelation of first-century biblical evangelism. But at this point, if we really understand what we have considered, we can now make some comparisons.
a. The biblical Gospel is a message about God and his holiness, man’s sinfulness, and the Person and work of Christ; and it is an authoritative call to repent and believe. It is the only authorized message by which sinners receive the gracious salvation that God gave them in Christ before He created the world. This is why Paul warned, “But though we, or an angel from Heaven, preach any other Gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8). With this in mind, let us consider the
b. The modern Gospel: (1) Much that we see in modern evangelicalism begins its message with God’s love. Now, the Scriptures do clearly teach that: “God is love” (1John 4:8). However, while love is usually the very focal point of the modern Gospel, the astonishing fact is that not one Gospel message in the book of Acts mentions God’s love for sinners. Not one. In fact, the word love does not even appear in the book of Acts! Furthermore, while love appears over 90 times in the four Gospels, it actually only appears a couple of times in what we might call evangelistic contexts. And it never appears as it used today: “God loves you and Jesus died for you”; “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”; “Smile, God loves you.” Nothing like this ever appears in evangelistic settings in Scripture. Now, I am not saying we should never mention God’s love in evangelizing. John says that he recorded the signs Jesus did “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:31). John’s Gospel is at one-level an extended Gospel tract, and John is the apostle of love. But the point is a matter of emphasis. (2) The modern Gospel often speaks about Jesus as Son of God or Savior; blessedly true—yet it often ignores Christ’s lordship. However, the word Savior appears twice in Acts, while Lord applies to Christ over 70 times! Thus, to preach Him as Savior without preaching Him as Lord is to damage the Gospel, to destroy the principle truth of discipleship, and to undermine the idea of Christ as ruler of the nations. (3) The modern Gospel often speaks of Christ’s cross, but frequently ignores the resurrection. Yet Paul wrote to the Romans, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10:9). (4) The modern Gospel often talks about “just believing.” But repentance is a missing note and a tragic omission. (5) There is no salvation without repentant believing and believing repentance. Consequently, the modern Gospel at best is a truncated, deficient message; at worst, it is another Gospel. This will be shocking language to some, but “Let Jesus come into your heart” is not the Gospel message! “Let Jesus save you” is not the Gospel message. “Give Jesus your heart” is not the Gospel message! “Make a decision and you will get born again” is not the Gospel message! “God has done all He can do and the rest is up to you” is not the Gospel message either, and furthermore it is both untrue and demeaning to the Sovereign of Heaven and earth. Jesus did not command, “Go and get decisions,” but, “Go and make disciples.”
c. Biblical methods: Therefore, whoever faithfully delivers the authorized message with a view to the conversion of sinners is the one involved in biblical evangelism. We may change the way we bring the truth, but we must not add to, subtract from, or modify God’s Gospel of grace in Christ. The Lord has given us much latitude in this, and if we are in harmony with biblical principles, we can still be creative in the way we bring the message. We can preach it in public or private places, in the church or outside the church. We can speak to large groups or to individuals. We can write the message in a letter. We can put the message in a film, we can record it on a DVD, or we can record it as a video and post it to the Internet. We can write it in tracts, booklets, or books. We can sing it in songs. We can take the message by ourselves, two-by-two, or in a team. As long as we are communicating the Gospel faithfully, we can use any method of communication that is in harmony with Scripture.
d. Modern methods: If we have understood biblical evangelism, it may come as a surprise to some of us to discover that until the mid-1800s evangelical churches did not practice many methods which are erroneously called “evangelism” today. Unfortunately, we do not have time to survey the history of modern evangelicalism nor men such as Charles Finney, who in essence gave us the “altar call.” The invitation system—the modern practice of calling people to walk down a church aisle after a sermon or to come forward at the end of a public gathering to “accept” Jesus - this is what is sometimes called “the altar call.” Once people actually leave their seats or locations and make their way to the front, counselors usually meet them to lead them in “the sinner’s prayer.” However, we find nothing like this in Scripture. After repeating the prayer, a counselor usually assures the sinner that he or she is now “born-again.” But if you read John 3, it becomes quite clear that we don’t “get” ourselves born again. On the contrary, Jesus declares that this is a sovereign act of the Spirit. Yet, those sinners who have come forward and prayed the prayer are then usually encouraged to write down the date of their public commitment in the front of their Bibles and to go back and look to this when they lack assurance.
In conclusion, we have seen that Biblical evangelism began in eternity, but that it came to its fullest redemptive manifestation in the Person and work of Christ. Now, it is spreading to the ends of the earth through faithful messengers who present Christ with a view to conversion and ultimately the establishment of churches. As a result, sinners who hear, understand, and believe that message receive the grace of God, given to them in Christ before the world began, for God’s authoritative Gospel alone “is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). Incredibly, the sovereign God of Heaven and earth, the holy God Himself has given us this message. Therefore, if you have never repented and believed on Jesus Christ, I call you at this moment to do so: Repent and believe on the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the pardon of all your sins. And for those of us who by grace know Him, may we faithfully deliver this message to the glory of God, the salvation of sinners, and the increase of His kingdom. Amen.