Richard N. Ellis
Who is to practice evangelism? The people who enjoy God's grace are those who witness to others; they are the ones who practice evangelism.
A witness is someone who faithfully tells others what he has seen, heard, or personally experienced. In Acts, new believers in Jesus seemed to have irrepressible joy, which produced spontaneous witness. They were sinners, saved by the crucified and resurrected Christ, and were refreshed by grace (Acts 3:19). They once had been dead, but now were fully enjoying new life. They once had been blind, but now were amazed at what they saw. They enjoyed Jesus and wanted others to enjoy him, too.
The apostles were not the only witnesses, for they were not the only ones who had been given eternal life through faith in Jesus. In fact, it was the ordinary people (if anyone who has the gift of supernatural life can be called simply an "ordinary" church member) whom the Spirit propelled from Jerusalem as witnesses (Acts 8:1, 4). They were honest and enthusiastic witnesses of what they had experienced with Jesus and what they had been taught by the apostles. They "preached the word wherever they went."
At a recent presbytery meeting, a pastor gave us the same gospel challenge that he gives his children each day: "Your first job in the morning is to get happy in Jesus." He apologized sheepishly for being trite; however, he was right on target. Are you happy in Jesus? If you are, you have some great news to tell others; you will naturally be a witness.
On some days, I am not happy in Jesus. I am worried about whether our church will be able to afford a new building. I am discouraged about Christians I love who aren't living their faith. Sometimes the coldness and self-righteousness of my own soul disheartens me. On those days, I run back to the gospel. I remember that my Savior has secured my "adoption through propitiation" (as J. I. Packer insightfully summarizes our Christian experience in Knowing God, page 214). I remember that God is completely satisfied. I become amazed again at grace. Then I have a real and compelling story to tell.
This leads to the second question: How are Christians to witness? The answer is simple: Christians witness as the Holy Spirit leads.
The Holy Spirit loves to give boldness to his timid church. After Peter and John's release from prison, the believers prayed for boldness, "and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (Acts 4:31). The Spirit gives us bold passion, so that we love to share the story of what Jesus has done for us and in us.
The apostle teaches in John 7 that as we believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit flows from within us as a spring of living water. In unpredictable ways, the Spirit sloshes over the rim of the container, providing refreshment to others. The unsaved may hate the story. They may even persecute us, but because God has not revealed to us who his elect are, we may enthusiastically tell everyone what we have seen, heard, and personally experienced of Jesus. The Spirit frees us of the fear of men.
I thank God for the faithfulness and Spirit-filled boldness of three young women in our church who testifiedin action and in wordto three young men who have recently come to faith in Christ. I had the privilege of marrying one of the couples last December!
Where do we get the compassion that constrains us to take the message of Jesus to others? Compassion for the lost is not something you can "work up," but it is an essential ingredient in evangelism. Unbelievers do not seek God. They are not God-fearers. Their lives do not work properly. They live for an idol that cannot deliver what they hope for (Hosea 7:11; 8:4). They are in a sad and hopeless position. As they relentlessly pursue their idols (that is, anything and everything that takes God's rightful place in one's life), they are susceptible to all kinds of addictive and compulsive behaviors. Their idols own them, to their detriment. The Spirit can and will give us compassion for them.
Imagine people walking blindfolded around an unfamiliar room. They will constantly be bumping their shins on furniture that the rest of us can see. Unbelievers walk around in God's world, but they delight to stay in the dark! Often, they will tell the stories of their bruised shins to anyone who will listen. I have heard stories of the pain brought on by an unfaithful spouse, and have had an opportunity to point to the One who is faithful. What do you say to the man who admits his job is tedious? Of course it is! You were made to work in a weed-free garden, and Jesus is the way to Paradise!
My wife, Gayle, was in the grocery line, cooing over our first newborn. A woman vulnerably revealed the pain of her bruised shins when she said, "Enjoy them when they're young. When they get older, they'll turn on you." What an open opportunity! Those moments occur daily. Listen for them; seize them; pray for compassion and wisdom to take the conversation below the surface to the real need.
Do you see unbelievers as both purposeful idolaters and Satan's dupes? Do you hate the deceiving influence of the god of this age? Do you share in God's general compassion for all that he has made (Psalm 145:9)? I find that I must pray often that the Holy Spirit would lead me from apathy to compassion.
We need to be genuine and authentic witnesses. We need to give the gospel in the context of our own sinful hearts. Being honest about our weakness and sin can give us leverage into an unbeliever's self-deceived heart. This is not an evangelistic strategy; it is simply being an honest witness.
Many people today are moralists. They believe that religion, especially Christianity, is about doing the right thing. Their default mode of thinking is that obeying a religious tenet like the Golden Rule, or at least some of the Ten Commandments, is how you get to heaven. They sense no need for Jesus. The gospel, given through an honest sinner, can penetrate the moralist's defenses. I find that when I tell the story of my own rebellion against God, few people try to sell me the myth of how successfully they impress God. Stark honesty can be disarming, and it can open the way to explore how deeply we need Jesus.
When I share with the man in prison accused of sexual deviancy that I, too, have abused the gift of sex, but have found cleansing in Jesus, he listens and may dare to hope that there is an opportunity for new life for him. When I share with a man who has been violent with his wife and children that I, too, have been angry enough to want to wring a child's neck, but that God can change even my sinful heart, a seed of hope is planted in his soul. When I share with the crack cocaine addict that I, too, have tried to escape from reality in drugs, he begins to believe that there may be hope for him in Jesus.
It is not necessary to identify with the particular sins of each person you meet. But their sins and yours share the common roots of pride, rebellion, and unbelief. And it's not all past tense! How is Jesus helping you today in areas of pride and self-sufficiency? What hope for change is growing in your heart? What is your compelling story of God's outrageous mercy?
If you are interested in being a more faithful witness, I challenge you to sincerely offer the following prayer each day for the next thirty days, and see what God will do: Here I am, Lord; please heal me, strengthen me, and introduce me to the people you want me to love, and please give me opportunities to share with them about you.
Here I am, Lord. I trust that Jesus is still striding the earth through his scattered church, seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10). Although I am unworthy, I am available to you.
Please heal me of the fear of men. I am often more concerned about personal comfort and my reputation than I am for your glory, and that people around me are going to hell. Please wake me up to reality, so that hell becomes part of my working theology.
Strengthen me with the good news that Jesus came for sinners, so I will be qualified to share this message with other sinners. Remind me that when I am weakand I am weak when sharing the gospelit is then that Jesus can make me strong.
Introduce me to the people you want me to love. Forgive me when I separate those who seem to be good candidates to respond to the gospel from those who don't. Help me to follow Jesus, obeying the second great commandment (Matt. 22:39).
Give me opportunities to share the good news of what Jesus has done for me. Give me compassion, so that I will want to know my barber and my shoe repairman better. Give me the honesty and humility to see that we are all sinners in desperate need of grace.
When I have prayed this prayer consistently, I find that God is far more active in evangelism than I usually imagine him to be. It is exciting to be a junior partner in God's saving work!
As you get to know your unbelieving friends better, invite them to church. For some, the best introduction to church might be a small group where people are purposefully living out the "one anothering" commands of Jesus. They are in intentional relationships, loving one another deeply, from the heart (1 Peter 1:22), being vulnerable with one another and praying for one another. The unbeliever will see people with real problems finding real help in the real Savior.
Alternatively, you may invite him to a worship service where he will hear an invitation to turn from his idols and trust in Christ. As a preacher, I must be more expectant that Jesus will seek and save his lost sheep through the preaching of the gospel. I do not believe that I am alone in this.
The goal of evangelism is that the newly converted person will become a disciple, a member of the body of Christ as represented by the local church. New believers join us, as fellow members of the body of Christ, with their own story of grace to tell others, as the Spirit leads.
The author is the pastor of New Hope OPC in Frederick, Md. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2000.