Effective Evangelism

Larry Wilson

New Horizons: May 2003

A City Set on a Hill

Also in this issue

God, the Evangelist

The God-Appointed Agent of Evangelism

The Best Way to Love Your Neighbor

The Certain Success of Evangelism

Every faithful church longs to be effective in evangelism. But too many of us express doubt when we hear: "The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means" of evangelizing the world, extending the church, and building up believers (Larger Catechism, 155). "Especially the preaching of the Word"? Today the majority report seems to be that there have to be better ways than preaching to make disciples—much better ways! But the Lord insists that "the foolishness of preaching" is the means he has chosen principally to use (1 Cor. 1:21 KJV).

The importance of preaching grows out of the fact that Jesus Christ really is alive, really is exalted, and really is himself supernaturally working to save sinners and to gather, build, and rule his church. It pleases him to do so through the agency of his Spirit working by and with his Word—especially the preaching of his Word. Note the chain of reasoning in Romans 10:13-17:

For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.

The Lord's Straightforward Plan for Evangelism

In order to be saved, sinners need to ask the Lord to save them: "For, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'" (vs. 13). You need to ask, but just saying the words is not enough. They must flow from sincere faith: "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?" (vs. 14a).

But sinners have to hear about the Lord before they can believe in him. Romans 10:14b asks, "And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?" In order to believe in the Lord, you must believe the truth about the Lord. But you must also believe the Lord's own gospel promises. "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (Rom. 4:3).

In order to believe the Lord, you must hear the Lord. It's striking that Romans 10:14b more literally says, "And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?" (NASB).[1] Sinners must hear the exalted Christ himself so they can believe him and call upon him and be saved. This is so important that Jesus stressed it repeatedly. He taught that in order to be saved, sinners must "hear the voice of the Son of God" (John 5:25). He said, "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27).

Merely human words just don't have the power it takes to effectually call sinners out of spiritual death into spiritual life. This fact made the apostle Paul determine to rely on the Lord sovereignly to use "the foolishness of preaching" (see 1 Cor. 1:17-2:5). What sinners need to hear is Jesus Christ himself addressing them personally and powerfully through his Spirit working by his Word. And that's the point of Romans 10:14, "And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?" (NASB).

In order that sinners might hear his voice, the Lord has chosen to use preachers as his conduit. "And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Rom. 10:14c). The word translated "preaching" (kerusso) refers literally to the action of a herald or public crier. In the ancient world—without press conferences and modern media—a king would send out heralds, official representatives who would publicly proclaim his deeds or decrees. Preachers of God's Word are the heralds or official representatives of King Jesus.

The apostle Paul was intensely aware that this is the preacher's role. And so he frequently made claims like these:

  • "And of this gospel I was appointed a herald" (2 Tim. 1:11).
  • "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us" (2 Cor. 5:20).
  • "Christ is speaking through me" (2 Cor. 13:3).
  • "And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe" (1 Thess. 2:13).
  • "For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.... But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (2 Cor. 4:5-7).

Preachers are heralds or servants whom the living, exalted Christ is pleased to use as his conduit—like transporting "treasure" in "jars of clay"—in order to speak personally and powerfully to sinners. This is why Jesus tells his messengers, "He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me" (Luke 10:16).

To this end, the Lord uses his church to send those preachers. Romans 10:15 asks, "And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'" The word translated "sent" is apostello, from which we get the word apostle. An apostle is "one who is sent." Jesus Christ directly set apart and commissioned ("sent") twelve apostles ("sent ones") to represent him and to establish the New Testament church (Eph. 2:20). The Twelve represented Jesus as no one else can. But in addition to these apostles of Jesus there were also apostles of the churches, men whom the churches sent out as their official messengers (2 Cor. 8:23).

God's Word insists that before someone can be a preacher (an official, authorized herald), he must be "sent." The Lord Jesus directly sent his twelve apostles. The same Lord Jesus indirectly—through his church, the body over which he is Head—sends his preachers. The Son sends his preachers by his Word and Spirit, working through the saints. The Lord enables his faithful people, heeding the instructions of his Word, to recognize and publicly commission or ordain ("send") those whom he himself has chosen and gifted to serve as his authoritative heralds (see, for example, Acts 13:1-3).

It has been observed that "some were sent, but others went"—and we still see this phenomenon today. But unless the preacher is sent through the church, he simply does not have King Jesus' authorization to act as his official herald. You see, God insists that "the church of the living God" is "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). This is why Romans 10:15 so decidedly insists, "And how can they preach ["herald"] unless they are sent ["apostled"]?"[2]

In short, in Romans 10:13-17 God insists that his church must commission (ordain) certain people for the task, or else there won't be any gospel preachers. And the gospel must be preached, or else sinners won't hear Christ's voice and message. And sinners must hear Christ's voice and message, or else they won't believe in his saving work for sinners. And they must believe in his saving work, or else they won't call out to him. And they must call out to him, or else they won't be saved.

In other words, God insists that "the Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means" of grace to save sinners and to build up believers and churches.[3] This is evangelism done in the Lord's way by the Lord's might. God has chosen to use a "weak and foolish" message, communicated through a "weak and foolish" means, in order to make it crystal clear that he alone is the one who supernaturally saves (1 Cor. 1:17-2:5).

The Great Problem

Does this mean that God doesn't permit believers who are not "sent"—believers who are not ordained to be preachers—to tell others about Jesus? Of course not! On the contrary, God calls every believer openly to confess Jesus Christ (Matt. 10:32-33; Rom. 10:9-10). What it does mean is that when they obey this call, believers who are not ordained to be preachers do not function as Christ's authoritative heralds.

Well, does that mean that the Lord will never use the witness of a believer who is not ordained to be a preacher as an instrument to effectually call sinners to salvation? Of course not! The Lord is sovereign, free, and infinitely compassionate and gracious. He often uses the witness of his faithful people. We see this both in Scripture and in Christian experience. What it does mean is that he promises especially—although not exclusively—to use the faithful preaching of his Word as an effectual means of grace.

Believe me, the great problem we have in the modern church is not that too many unordained believers are too eager to bear witness to Jesus Christ in their daily vocations. Don't we wish that were our "problem"? Our great problem is that we seem no longer to be confident that King Jesus himself really does supernaturally work to save sinners, disciple believers, and build his church, especially through the "weak and foolish" means of preaching.

As a result, we increasingly reckon preaching to be outmoded and ineffective. So instead, we frenetically look for other ways to reach the lost. We put our trust in business techniques, marketing techniques, and bustling activities.

The Gravity of This Problem

It's not that these things are necessarily wrong in themselves. But doesn't our insistence that such things are necessary for effective evangelizing in our day reflect unbelief? Unbelief! Unbelief that King Jesus will use his message (the gospel) through his means (preaching) as the power of God unto salvation for all those who believe! Ask yourself honestly: does it really affect your evangelistic practice that our Lord Jesus Christ is alive and exalted? Does it really make a difference to your evangelistic practice that he has poured out his Holy Spirit?

When we don't trust the exalted Christ to work by his Spirit through his Word, then we replace the authoritative proclamation of the gospel with "relevant" self-help speeches, political lectures, dramatic, artistic, or musical performances, multimedia presentations, films, puppets, clowns, Super Bowl parties, etc., etc., etc. Not only that, but when we lose sight of Jesus Christ's supernatural use of the ministry of the Word, we expect churches and pastors to do almost anything except minister the Word. Ministers are supposed to be CEOs, managers, pacesetters, agents of change, counselors, fund-raisers, you name it! Everything except heralds of King Jesus and stewards of the mysteries of God!

Eventually, not only does God's gospel means get forgotten, but even his gospel message gets forgotten! All because preachers and elders and deacons and believers and churches fail to expect the exalted Christ to use the preaching of the Word to evangelize the world, to grow his church, and to build up believers. What this means is that—in practice—preachers and elders and deacons and believers and churches are falling short of trusting the living, exalted Christ. To the extent that this is true of us, we're guilty—in practice—of unbelief!

The Great Need

Is it true of us? Examine yourself. Are you earnestly praying that the sovereign, exalted Christ will transmit his treasures through the jar of clay he has placed over you? Are you urgent and persistent in asking the Holy Spirit to give you ears to hear? When you come to a worship service, do you expect to hear the voice of the Great Shepherd through the servant he's placed over you? Do you expect the Holy Spirit to work powerfully? Do you regularly ask the Lord of the harvest to send out preachers into his harvest field? If your congregation has no pastor, do you see it as a driving necessity to pray for and seek one? If you are seeking one, what exactly are you seeking? Are you especially praying that God will provide you with an earnest, faithful preacher of his Word?

If these things are not true of us, then we're failing to trust Christ. If we don't expect him to bless the message and the means he himself has appointed and promised to bless, then we need to admit that we're guilty of practical unbelief. We're relying on "broken cisterns that cannot hold water" when all the while "the spring of living water" is right in front of our noses (Jer. 2:13). Pastor Steve Miller has put it this way: "People do not feel urgently the need to pray for their pastors each Sunday morning before they come to church. They expect nothing, so they automatically get up and go to church unprepared, prayerless, harried and hurried, and basically (though they might not recognize this as accurate) with irreverence. They don't really expect to meet with God or to be awed and subdued by his presence. Nor do they expect amazing things, such as conversions, changed hearts and minds, new attitudes, repentance, a new gaining of assurance of salvation." Dear brothers and sisters, can we not see? This is unbelief. Since this is so, is not the time long overdue for us to get down on our faces in repentance before our living, sovereign, Lord Jesus Christ? Is not the time long overdue for us to cry out in contrition for his forgiveness and mercy and refreshing? Ought not we who are preachers to be the first in line to repent?

Unless we do repent, should we not expect our churches to languish with ineffective evangelism? And whose fault will it be? Our own—no one else's. Could our Lord be speaking to us when he says, "You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent" (Rev. 3:17-19)?


[1] "In accordance with normal grammatical usage, the phrase 'the one of whom (hou)' should be translated 'the one whom' and so means the speaker rather than the message" (John Stott, Romans: God's Good News for the World [InterVarsity Press, 1994], p. 286). Compare John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2 (Eerdmans, 1965), p. 58.

[2] "We need to realize that the New Testament teaches that the main business of spreading the gospel is the work of men specially commissioned to do so. (This in no way lessens the responsibility of all believers to bear witness to Christ.) God calls these men to his work by causing their gifts and graces to be recognized in the churches, which are then expected to commission them to the work to which he has so obviously called them. Nobody has authority to go unless he is sent in this way. Freelance preachers, commissioned by nobody, and answerable to nobody, are a prostitution of the New Testament's understanding of the work of gospel preaching" (Stuart Olyott, The Gospel As It Really Is [Evangelical Press, 1979], pp. 93-94).

Matthew Henry comments: "How shall a man act as an ambassador, unless he have both his credentials and his instructions from the prince that sends him? This proves that to the regular ministry there must be a regular mission and ordination. It is God's prerogative to send ministers; he is the Lord of the harvest, and therefore to him we must pray that he would send forth laborers, Mt. 9:38. He only can qualify men for, and incline them to, the work of the ministry. But the competency of that qualification, and the sincerity of that inclination, must not be left to the judgment of every man for himself: the nature of the thing will by no means admit this; but, for the preservation of due order in the church, this must needs be referred and submitted to the judgment of a competent number of those who are themselves in that office and of approved wisdom and experience in it, who, as in all other callings, are presumed the most able judges, and who are empowered to set apart such as they find so qualified and inclined to this work of the ministry, that by this preservation of the succession the name of Christ may endure for ever and his throne as the days of heaven. And those that are thus set apart, not only may, but must preach, as those that are sent."

[3] 1 Pet. 1:23-25: "For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.... And this is the word that was preached to you." Heb. 4:2, 12: "We also have had the gospel preached to us.... For the word of God is living and active."

The author is the general secretary for the Committee on Christian Education and the editor of New Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2003.

New Horizons: May 2003

A City Set on a Hill

Also in this issue

God, the Evangelist

The God-Appointed Agent of Evangelism

The Best Way to Love Your Neighbor

The Certain Success of Evangelism

Download PDFDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church