The Church's Evangelistic Mission
L. Anthony Curto
From its very beginning, the church of God has been evangelizing for her Lord and Savior. For millennia, the disciples have been going to the nations with the good news of redemption. It seems to be second natureto evangelize is like breathing. We don't need to think about it or analyze it. We just need to do it. But, sadly, the church struggles in its evangelistic task. Why is that?
In the spring of 2006, I had the privilege of working with the OPC mission to Haiti. I had gone there to help train men for leadership in the new and growing work on Lagonav. I was staying with the Baugh family in Kalico. The area is a barren and rocky portion of Haiti outside of Port-au-Prince. One morning as we were leaving, I noticed a group of about ten men working to clear a field of rocks so they could plant watermelons. That seemed to me to be a terribly difficult task. You see, the field was littered with thousands of rocks in various sizes and shapes.
Later in the day, when we returned, the men were gone. There were a few piles of rock in various places around the field, but there were still thousands of rocks that needed to be removed.
This scenario continued for several days, but each day the number of workers diminished. Finally, on the fifth day, there were no workers at all in the field as we left in the morning. I asked someone why the men were not working. The response I received was startling: "The rocks have won"! The men had given up. The rocks were too numerous, and the labor was too hard.
That night, as I lay on my bed thinking about the difficulties of those poor farmers, I realized that their physical struggle to clear a field is much like our spiritual struggle to do the work of evangelism. We start off to the field to do our work, only to have the "rocks" win. So many rocks stand in the way that we become discouraged and give up. Even more difficult is the fact that the rocks are not only around us, but also in us. Because of this, true biblical evangelism is either neglected or compromised.
Some of those rocks are there because of our unbelief. Many people struggle with the rock of unbelief in the supernatural. They live with their thoughts and lives consumed by this world. In so doing, they forget, become blinded to, or simply ignore the spiritual state of multitudes lost in sin. They harden themselves against thoughts of coming judgment and live as if only the present matters. They live as if there is no world to come.
Others struggle with the rock of unbelief in the power of God. God has been rendered powerless by the technologies and science of this age, they think. God may have been powerful in ages past, but he has been thwarted in his purposes by the advances of human ingenuity. After all, this is the age of postmodernism.
Still others struggle with the rock of unbelief in the gospel. What does the world need? Some answers commonly given include: education, political stability, growing economies, and medical advances. Can the gospel, the simple teaching of and about Christ, really make a difference in the world? Is it truly "the power of God for salvation to anyone who believes"? Some, while believing it for themselves, do not believe that it would have much impact on the world in which we live.
Many fall at the rock of faithlessness. They have no zeal for the glory of God. Forgetting from where they have come and seeing no vision for the glory of God, they retreat into a mundane pattern of life. Life, like the ever-rolling stream, leads them away, doing little or nothing for the advancement of Christ's kingdom.
The Necessity of Evangelism
The church must evangelize. She has received a commission from our Lord and Savior to evangelize all the nations of the world. Several passages of Scripture come to mind: Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:44-49, Acts 1:6-8, and Romans 10:5-15. Each of these passages clearly demonstrates that the church is to do the work of evangelism.
There is more here also. It must be realized, on the basis of Christ's instruction, that the church is to be a proselytizing institution, and, by implication, that the church, without evangelizing, will not long continue to exist. In other words, spiritual procreation is by evangelization. The church that does not do the work of evangelism dies. The church that forsakes propagating the good news becomes a relic of the past. The issue here is not whether a church is strong or weak, but whether it is alive or dead.
There is another point to be gleaned from these passages concerning the necessity of evangelism, and that is that without an evangelizing church there is no hope for the lost. How will the lost know on whom to call, unless they are told? Who is to tell them? The answer is: an evangelizing church. For these reasons, we should realize that evangelism is not optional, but indispensable.
The Necessity of Reformed Evangelism
What I am endeavoring to do here is not to set before you a generic, one-size-fits-all kind of evangelism. There is much confusion today as to what evangelism is, how it is to be conducted, and by whom. I believe that much of this confusion has been caused by the promoting of generic evangelism. We want to have a God-centered, God-glorifying evangelism. To do so, our evangelism must be biblically and theologically informed. That is what a generic, one-size-fits-all evangelism cannot be. In fact, the more one seeks to make his evangelism generic, the less informed it will be, and to that extent it will not be God centered and God glorifying.
So what is Reformed evangelism? Reformed evangelism is the proclamation of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, to sinful men in order that they may come to put their trust in God through him, and receive him as their Lord and serve him as their King in the fellowship of his church. (I owe this definition to Mark Bube.)
Space does not allow me to open up this definition fully at this time. Therefore, I will limit my remarks in this article to the agent of the evangelistic enterprise.
The Agent of Evangelism
Scripture teaches that Christ has ordained the church to be his agent in evangelism (Matt. 28:16-20). The church has been endowed by Christ with his spirit (Acts 2), his word (2 Tim. 3:16), his ministry (Eph. 4:8-16), and his ordinances (Matt. 28:16-20). The universal, visible church is Christ's instrument for the spread of his kingdom to all nations. To fulfill this task, our Savior has constituted his church as an organism (his body, his bride) and as an organization or institution (his kingdom, his household, and his temple). When we speak about the church doing evangelism, we look at the task from one of these two perspectives.
In evangelism, the church shows forth, demonstrates, or announces the lordship of Christ to the watching world. He has given to the church, as an organization, the word to preach and the sacraments to administer. The ascended Lord Jesus has so gifted the church, that it can utilize its gifts to accomplish its task of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. When the church sends forth preachers with the word and the sacraments, Christ's kingdom will be established as a city set on a hill, shining forth a light to all those who sit in darkness (Rom. 10:14-17).
Too often, Christians forget this aspect of evangelism. The church, as the covenanted community of believers under the lordship of Christ, its head, is the appointed agency to send preachers around the world, beginning at home and going to every nation, kindred, tribe, and tongue.
Having said this, we must not think that sending preachers and missionaries to evangelize exhausts the church's obligation to spread the good news. Far from it! The church is not only a well-ordered society, but also the living body of Christ. The church, as his body, in union with its head, is a living organism, designed to show forth the praises of him who has called her out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9).
This is the perspective that the apostle Paul has in mind when he reminds the believers at Philippi that, as children of God, they are to shine as lights in the midst of a perverse and crooked nation (Phil. 2:15). This will be accomplished as they hold fast to the word of life (Phil. 2:16). The apostle Peter exhorts the believers of Asia Minor to do this also, in 1 Peter 3:15:
But in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.
Here Peter exhorts the church to carry out a twofold task. Christians are to sanctify Christ in their hearts, and they are to give a defense (a positive presentation, a testimony) for the hope that is within them.
The church fulfills this task as his body, both corporately and individually. Corporately, this is accomplished as the body displays the lordship of Christ (sanctifying the Lord) in their life as believers (Eph. 5:1; 4:25; 4:1; John 13:35), in their unquestioned obedience to the word of God as their only rule of faith and practice, in their uncompromising opposition to evil and the kingdom of Satan (Mic. 6:8), and in their full-orbed worship of God in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).
As the church corporately sanctifies Christ in her midst, so must each individual Christian. To be a witness (one who gives a positive presentation, a testimony) for Christ, one's life must display the lordship of Christ. To do so, one must hold fast to the word of life (Phil. 2:12; Gal. 5:22-24). The lordship of Christ will be evident in the Christian's life. It will be evident because his or her life will be one of faith, humility, love, boldness, joy, and patience. In this way, the witness (positive presentation, testimony) will not come in word only, but in truth and life.
Evangelism can never be cut off from that which the Lord has provided for its accomplishment. As we saw, he has given his spirit, his word, his ministry, and his church as resources for the task of evangelism. To do evangelism without these resources is like trying to propel a canoe without paddles.
Mobilization for Evangelism
One of the most frequently asked question I hear is, "How do you mobilize and motivate a congregation to do biblical evangelism?" This is an important question. In answering it, the first point to be made is that God himself is the great mobilizer and motivator of his church. Now this might seem to be a trite or pietistic response, but it is true. The psalmist states, "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain" (Ps. 127:1). The application of this truth to mobilizing and motivating a congregation to evangelize is obvious. Unless God is behind our effort in evangelism or in our efforts to marshal his church in this spiritual battle, we are laboring in vain.
How does God call his church to the work of evangelism? To answer this question, let us look at the account of Isaiah's call and commission to the work of evangelism in Isaiah 6:1-9. In this account, we see Isaiah go from a man who cries "Woe is me, I am lost," to a man who shouts, "Here am I! Send me." What caused this metamorphosis, this transformation in Isaiah? God gave to Isaiah a vision of the glory of his person, a taste of the glory of his work, and a passion for the glory of his message.
We could spend much time looking at these, but for our purposes let us note three things. First, the vision of the glory of God's person as the sovereign Lord humbled the prophet. Isaiah saw himself for what he was. Without God, he was a man without hope, helpless and undone. The Lord and the Lord alone is the sovereign King. God is holy, high and lifted up, and men are completely dependent upon him for all things. Only God can save and bring deliverance.
Second, the taste of the glory of God's work raised the prophet up. He was renewed and made alive. The guilt of his sin was removed, and he was made a new man. He saw the excellence of God as his Savior. He realized that God's favor and acceptance were not found in himself, but in God's grace and love for sinners. Only the Lord can raise those who are spiritually dead. And when God gives life, he gives it to the full. For Isaiah, all things had become new.
Third, the message of God influenced him and made him zealous and passionate for the cause of God. Wrath and judgment were coming. The wrath of God is a consuming fire. Nothing would be left. All would be destroyed in God's vengeance and anger. Yet the Lord would bring forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse (Isa. 11:1), a branch in which all may seek refuge. There is no other place of safety. In this place, all who seek refuge shall be secure. The Branch is all-gloriousthe pride and honor of all the earth (Isa. 4:2).
In that way, God motivated Isaiah to shout, "Here am I! Send me" (Isa. 6:8). And it is in this way that those who are called by God today to lead his church must mobilize and motivate the people of God for the work of evangelism. If the church is going to respond to its call to spread the gospel to all nations, it must have a vision of the glory of God's Christ, the Son of God, who in the plan of God came and died for sinners, elected by the Father. The church must see Christ in his glorious session at the right hand of God, who through his spirit is subduing the nations. God's work in Christ is full and complete. The message of the gospel must therefore be proclaimed to every creature.
The author is a missionary to Ethiopia and teaches at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2009.