'I couldn’t do what you just did.'
'What?' I said, honestly clueless.
'Engage that person in conversation like that.'
My friend was a strong Christian. He was growing spiritually like a weed. But he was a much younger Christian than I. Plus, he has, I would say, a normally balanced personality, whereas I am an off-the-charts extrovert, which brings blessings and challenges. But the extrovert’s ability to talk to a lot of people is one of the pluses.
What isn’t one of the pluses is what happened to my friend—he was left feeling that he couldn’t evangelize. We went on to have a good conversation about evangelism and about his recent opportunities, but this experience did make me consider the fact that 'clergy persons' such as I, whether intentionally or unintentionally, often give off the vibe that evangelism should be left to the professionals. After all, you wouldn’t want just anybody to perform surgery on you, would you? You wouldn’t want your bank account to be looked after at a gas station, would you? You wouldn’t want to assign the keeping of the family checkbook to your second-grade son, would you? 'All right then,' you feel, 'I’m not as eloquent as the man up front. I can’t preach like that. I can’t answer questions like that.'
And then comes the killer conclusion: 'I shouldn’t share the gospel with others—at least, not much. And when I do, it will be only with close friends... and maybe only after a long time... and only if they ask me first... and only if I’ve had my quiet time that day. And only if...'
Whose job is it to evangelize? There are people in the New Testament who are said to have the gift of evangelism (see Eph. 4:11; Acts 21:8). We know that there are people today who are called evangelists. Sometimes they even set up companies with names like the So-and-So Evangelistic Association. Are they the ones called to spread the good news?In Acts 4:29 Peter prays, 'Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.'
Does that prayer apply only to preachers? Is evangelism really the work of pastors? Paul writes to Timothy, a pastor, to 'do the work of an evangelist' (2 Tim. 4:5). Should the called and the equipped become professional evangelists? Are the rest of us to leave it alone for the most part? Are regular church members to be still and remain passive, inviting others to hear only pastors, preachers, speakers, and other trained evangelists? Is our evangelism to be merely inviting people to meetings rather than inviting them directly to Christ?
Is the ordinary Christian doing evangelism like the ordinar employee trying to do the company’s accounting? Are we average Christians all to be evangelists, or should we leave that to Bible colleges and seminary graduates?
However difficult this topic of evangelism may be for many of us, it is hard to avoid it without avoiding the Bible. Verses about spreading the good news are all through it. Paul wrote to the Romans, 'I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome' (Rom. 1:14–15). But are such statements simply statements of Paul’s own calling rather than something that applies to us as well?
Of course, those statements were true of Paul. But when we read the New Testament, we don’t read of the call to evangelism being limited to Paul, or even to the apostles. It was Jesus himself, in his final commission to his disciples, who taught, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age' (Matt. 28:18–20). This is commonly called the Great Commission, which Jesus gave to his disciples, and it would be difficult to overestimate its importance. John Stott concludes from Jesus’ words:
[This] commission . . . is binding upon every member of the whole Church. . . . Every Christian is called to be a witness to Christ in the particular environment in which God has placed him. Further, although the public ministry of the Word is a high office, private witness or personal evangelism
has a value which in some respects surpasses even that of preaching, since the message can then be adapted more personally.
These early disciples, having become apostles, took Jesus’ Great Commission to heart. They evangelized constantly (see Acts 5:42; 8:25; 13:32; 14:7, 15, 21; 15:35; 16:10; 17:18). But, again, the question some are now asking is, who is supposed to do this today? Is it only preachers or professional religious types?
According to the Bible, all believers have received this commission. In the book of Acts we see glimpses of this universal obedience to the call to evangelize. In Acts 2 we see that all the Christians had God’s Spirit poured out upon them. In the Old Testament, such an outpouring was preparation for the work of prophetically giving out God’s Word. And so we are not surprised to find, as we continue through the book of Acts, that many people evangelized. We read in Acts 8:1–4:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
In the same chapter we read the story of Philip, a deacon, doing evangelism (Acts 8:5–12, 26–40); and later we read:
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19–21)
It’s clear, too, from all the talk of persecution in the New Testament that the earliest Christians didn’t try to keep their religion a secret, even though sharing it brought consequences. Paul wrote to the young Thessalonian Christians about their 'severe suffering' (1 Thess. 1:6), and he refers to those who were troubling them (2 Thess. 2:5–7). We see this elsewhere in the New Testament also. Even though Christians were suffering because their lives had changed, they continued to speak in order to share the gospel and to explain their new faith. And then there are Peter’s instructions to Christians in 1 Peter 3:15–16: But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
We know that Christ himself came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 15; 19:10). In atoning for sinners Christ is uniquely our savior. In seeking sinners as he did, however, he is our example. So how can we follow Jesus Christ without inviting people to come to Christ? Can we be his disciples and not seek the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son? There is a lot of witnessing in the book of Acts. The lost were prayed for and sought after even by those who are not named as apostles, evangelists, or elders.
When Jesus is asked by a lawyer what the most important commandment is, he responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6, an exhortation to love God, and Leviticus 19, an exhortation to 'Love your neighbor as yourself' (Mark 12:31). James calls this love the 'royal law' (James 2:8). What does such love require of us? It seems to require that what we want for ourselves, we want for those we love, too. If you desire to love God with perfect affection, you will desire that for your neighbor, too. But you are not loving your neighbor as yourself if you’re not trying to persuade him toward the greatest and best aspect of your own life—your reconciled relationship with God. If you are a Christian, you are pursuing Christ. You are following him, and you desire him. And you must therefore also desire this highest good for everyone whom you love. It is love itself that requires us to pursue the best for those we love, and that must include sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with them.
Furthermore, every Christian is to live a life that commends the gospel. The love that the New Testament community of believers shared is presented as an integral part of their witness to the world, as we see in John 13:34–35. This love was not shared only among the leaders; it was shared between all Christians. In fact, the outworking of faith through the community of a local church seems to be Jesus’ most basic evangelism plan. And it involves all of us. Paul wrote to the Philippian church commanding them to continue holding out the word of life (Phil. 2:16). They would do that by both their lives and their words.
We know that God’s intent in establishing the church was to bear witness to himself and to his character. As Paul wrote, 'His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known' (Eph. 3:10). And though Paul says that it was to be made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly realms, we know from elsewhere in the New Testament that it was also God’s plan to make known his character to other people.
Every Christian has a role in making visible the gospel of the invisible God. God’s love, supremely, is to be revealed in the church. John Stott commented on this challenge and opportunity:
The invisibility of God is a great problem. It was already a problem to God’s people in Old Testament days. Their pagan neighbors would taunt them, saying, 'Where is now your God?' Their gods were visible and tangible, but Israel’s God was neither. Today in our scientific culture young peopleare taught not to believe in anything which is not open to empirical investigation. How then has God solved the problem of his own invisibility? The first answer is of course 'in Christ.' Jesus Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. John 1:18: 'No one has ever seen God, but God the only Son has made him known.' 'That’s wonderful,' people say, 'but it was 2,000 years ago. Is there no way by which the invisible God makes himself visible today?' There is. We return to 1 John 4:12: 'No one has ever seen God.' It is precisely the same introductory statement. But instead of continuing with reference to the Son of God, it continues: 'If we love one another, God dwells in us.' In other words, the invisible God, who once made himself visible in Christ, now makes himself visible in Christians, if we love one another. It is a breathtaking claim. The local church cannot evangelize, proclaiming the gospel of love, if it is not itself a community of love.
One of the main reasons that the local church is to be a community of love is so that others will know the God of love. God made people in his image to know him. The life of the local congregation makes the audible gospel visible. And we must all have a part in that evangelism.
We can all contribute to evangelism simply by building up the local church—helping to organize it or lead it. We may teach and equip. We may provide hospitality and encouragement.
We may pray and serve and show mercy and give. But we also all have a responsibility to speak of God and the good news both inside and outside of the church.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones taught, 'Evangelism is pre-eminently dependent upon the quality of the Christian life which is known and enjoyed in the church.'5 A striking example of this truth is found in John Bunyan’s experience. He recounted it himself in his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (by which title he meant himself). Bunyan tells this story:
One day, the good providence of God did cast me to Bedford, to work on my own calling; and in one of the streets of that town, I came where there were three or four poor women sitting at a door in the sun, and talking about the things of God; and being now willing to hear them discourse, I drew near to hear what they said, for I was now a brisk talker also myself in the matters of religion, but now I may say, I heard, but I understood not; for they were far above, out of my reach, for their talk was about a new birth, the work of God on their hearts, also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature; they talked how God had visited their souls with His love in the Lord Jesus, and with what words and promises they had been refreshed, comforted, and supported against the temptations of the devil. Moreover, they reasoned of the suggestions and temptations of Satan in particular; and told to each other by which they had been afflicted, and how they were borne up under his assaults. They also discoursed of their own wretchedness of heart, of their unbelief; and did contemn, slight and abhor their own righteousness, as filthy and insufficient to do them any good.
And methought they spake as if joy did make them speak; they spake with such pleasantness of Scripture language, and with such appearance of grace in all they said, that they were to me as if they had found a new world, as if they were people that dwelt alone, and were not to be reckoned among their neighbours (Num. 23:9).
At this I felt my own heart began to shake, as mistrusting my condition to be naught; for I saw that in all my thoughts about religion and salvation, the new birth did never enter into my mind, neither knew I the comfort of the Word and promise, nor the deceitfulness and treachery of my own wicked heart. As for secret thoughts, I took no notice of them; neither did I understand what Satan’s temptations were, nor how they were to be withstood and resisted, etc.
Thus, therefore, when I had heard and considered what they said, I left them, and went about my employment again, but their talk and discourse went with me, also my heart would tarry with them, for I was greatly affected with their words, both because by them I was convinced that I wanted the true tokens of a truly godly man, and also because by them I was convinced of the happy and blessed condition of him that was such a one.
'Sharing our stories' is no recent discovery by Christians. Bunyan—and these women before him—had been doing that as a part of their evangelism for centuries. These women, living their normal Christian lives, talking with each other, were part of God’s evangelistic plan. It wasn’t only sermons that God used to convert John Bunyan; he used normal Christians.
Let me share one more story of God using ordinary Christians to spread the good news: the story of James Smith. Smith was a slave near Richmond, Virginia. He was also a Christian. The inhuman cruelty of his 'masters' separated him from his family—his wife, Fanny, and their children—for decades. But Smith’s Christian faith sustained him. Each night after his day’s work, Smith preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to fellow slaves, even after his master whipped him for it. But it wasn’t in Smith’s capacity as a preacher that God gave him one of his most amazing opportunities to evangelize. Smith was sold to a plantation in Georgia. His new 'owner,' concerned about a lack of obedience in Smith, ordered his overseer to give Smith a beating to get Smith to obey instructions, particularly those designed to limit his praying and meeting with others to worship. The overseer lashed Smith’s back one hundred times. One hundred times! Later, that same overseer overheard Smith praying for his—the overseer’s—soul, and when he heard that, he was cut to the quick and begged Smith’s forgiveness. He also encouraged him to escape.
God calls all Christians to share the good news. Our churches need to make sure that we know the good news and to make sure that we can all express it clearly. And we should work to train each other in having the kind of Christian lives and clear understanding that will help us to share the gospel.
Taken from The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever, © 2007. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
Mark Dever is senior pastor of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, USA, and the president of 9Marks.