We applaud sacrifice, commitment, and courage in many spheres, and rightly so. The nurse who gives up comforts in order to bring healing to the otherwise neglected; the surgeon who devotes himself to overcoming some particular affliction; the firefighter who plunges into the flames to rescue someone from a burning building – all win our appreciation, even admiration.
But what of the value of the soul? The Scriptures tell us that “the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise” (Prv 11:30). That language is not tame: life and wisdom have the highest premium put upon them in the Bible, and the Lord Christ himself demands an answer to those weightiest of questions, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mk 8:36–37). The salvation of souls – our own and those of others – is plainly a matter in which every true believer should have an active and abiding interest. However, to understand both the issue and our engagement we must begin with a definition of terms: what is effective personal evangelism?
When speaking of what is effective, we must look along two lines: faithfulness and fruitfulness. This is vital to grasp, as we cannot demand results – it is God who gives the increase (1Cor 3:7). Effectiveness is first a matter of the faithful communication of God’s saving truth concerning Christ Jesus to those who have not known it either entirely or accurately. In the face of so much antagonism to the good news, such faithful communication should not be dismissed. However, our hope and expectation is also that we will be fruitful, that our labours would – with God’s blessing – be effective in bringing God’s chosen ones into his kingdom of grace. As we are faithful, our confident hope will be that as many as have been appointed to eternal life will believe (cf. Acts 13:48).
Our efforts are also personal. While the preaching of God’s word to a gathered congregation in a more formal setting should never be impersonal, neither should we imagine that this work is restricted to the pulpit. There are more immediately intimate and informal communications: the conversation with a friend or neighbour or colleague, the interaction between a parent and a child, engagement with a visitor at church, the handing out of tracts and striking up conversations, the Sunday School teacher with his or her charges, the person speaking to people at the doors and on the streets of a community, the home Bible study with a group of friends. This labour as much includes Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch or the child of God giving a reason for the hope within them as it does Peter preaching at Pentecost or Paul in Antioch or Athens. The labour of evangelism is not the sole preserve of an isolated few, nor reserved for (though certainly demanded of) those called to be ministers of the gospel. It is what Charles Spurgeon called “the life business of the Christian.”
Finally, it must really be evangelism. Much of what passes for evangelising is not really evangelism at all. Faithful living as a Christian is right and necessary in itself and serves to provide a platform for evangelism. However, faithful Christian living is not the same as evangelism. Wearing Christian symbols or having slogans on cars and clothes may provide an opportunity for evangelising, but it is not itself evangelism. Letting it be known that you go to church may be a precursor to evangelism, but it is not evangelising. Even inviting someone to church is not necessarily evangelising, but a means to it. When we evangelise, we are literally ‘gospelling’ people. We must go to those who need to hear the good news and tell it to them. For that, we must establish, by means of scriptural truth declared, the context, substance, and invitations and demands of the gospel. We must tell a person that – apart from Christ – you are a rebellious sinner, under God’s wrath on account of your wickedness, and if you will not repent of your sins and believe in Jesus Christ, there is a fearful hell waiting in which God’s righteous judgments will be eternally poured out on your deserving head, and the only way in which you can be saved is to leave aside every other imagined way of being right with the one true and living God, and to trust in his Son whom he has sent, Jesus Christ the incarnate Lord, who died on the cross, through whom alone we can be reconciled to God and so obtain life everlasting. God has provided fully and freely the one way of salvation for hell-deserving sinners, and he calls you to come to Christ to be saved. This message requires a response: you must repent and be converted to be saved. You may not say this all at once, and you might communicate it using different words and phrases, but the good news of salvation in a crucified Christ obtained by grace alone through faith alone to the glory of God alone must be made known.
All this may be well and good, but will we do it? Will we actually go to make Christ known? Our motives for this work come from an upward look, an inward look and an outward look.
The upward look moves us to consecration, for it takes in the glory, grace and goodness of the Holy One. When the Lord makes plain his intention to save sinners by his servant, he declares, “I am the Lord, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor My praise to carved images” (Is 42:8). The believer wholeheartedly concurs with that declaration, for – again, like Isaiah himself – he has seen something of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ, and he is ready to go on his behalf. His love to God is the love that desires God’s glory at any cost, and is provoked when the Lord is dishonoured (Acts 17:16), grieved by affronts to his name. If the glory of God is the supreme object at which the evangelist aims, this will do much to direct and sustain him.
But there is also an inward look which stirs us to conviction as we take account of our own blessings received, and our indebtedness to God, consecrated to him by Christ’s sacrifice. Again, Isaiah’s readiness to go in the name of the Holy One was at least in part a reflection of his own sense of sin forgiven and cleansing granted. Like David, we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and we want others to know that true blessing is found in trusting him (Ps 34:8). With the joy of salvation pulsing through us, and the gracious Spirit abiding within us, we want to teach transgressors God’s ways, that they might be converted (Ps 51:12-13). The great pre-requisite for effective personal evangelism is our own conversion, our own experience of saving grace. An unconverted man trying to make known the gospel is like a man without an appetite recommending food – he has no true sense of what he offers and everything about him speaks of his own lack of real experience. While the Lord might at times use such a man if he speaks strict scriptural truth, it would be against normal expectations.
The outward look moves us to compassion, reflecting a godlike love and concern for the lost. Like Christ weeping over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41), or Paul willing to be accursed from Christ for his brothers (Rom 9:3) or warning the people of Ephesus (Acts 20:31), there is a deep concern for those who abide in darkness. Indeed, that loving concern is the very expression of the heart of God, which is why it is seen most eminently in Christ, and with corresponding clarity in those who are most like Christ. This is a Godlike, Christlike love, the love of John 3:16 and Romans 5:6-8. Our love for the lost is confident of and reflective of God’s love to sinners. The true-hearted evangelist knows what is at stake and responds to the desperate condition of the lost. He desires to see sinners new-born of the Spirit and growing in grace (1Cor 4:14-15), and – like his Saviour – dismisses none, but receives and sits down with those whom others would despise (Lk 15) if – by any means – he might win some by the plain declaration of saving truth. This is simply the echo of God’s divine love and a response to it.
In short, here is the person who takes to heart the declaration of Peter:
“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” (1Pt 2:9–10)
That telling forth of all that makes God glorious is the natural and spontaneous overflow of a heart that knows and feels the greatness of God’s salvation, and desires that others should come to know those same saving mercies.
Each of these aspects serves to provide a proper direction to and a necessary constraint upon our evangelism. Each helps to shape accurately and earnestly the context, substance, and invitations and demands of the gospel as we make it known. Without a proper consecration, we may be quick to water down the truth, slow to make plain the absolute claims of God upon his creatures, perhaps willing to speak a message that shares God’s glory with someone or something else, so robbing our news of all its goodness. Without a proper conviction, we shall lack that thankful and committed earnestness and urgency that sustains us in our efforts. Without a proper compassion, we shall have no heart for the lost, and be more inclined to give up too quickly.
However, with these holy pressures to motivate and sustain us, there will be several qualities that we might anticipate and cultivate as appropriate and necessary for effective personal evangelism.
As we have seen, this love must stretch in two directions: up to God and out to men. Out of a love for the God of love that derives from having been loved comes a love for other people. We will not be able to countenance the prospect that God’s person be unknown, his glory despised, his name dishonoured, his truth rejected, and his gospel unheard. Because of this, we will love people enough to take that good news to all men. Our love for God carries us from God to men with a real interest in their well-being. Do we love our children, and speak to them earnestly of Christ? Do we love our neighbours and our colleagues, so that they have become to us real people who need a real Saviour? Love will overcome many obstacles in order to secure a blessing.
It is a grip that is not easily broken. Fear, laziness and false expectations tend to undermine our tenacity. Perhaps rudeness and anger make us afraid to return to a certain place. Perhaps it is too much like hard work, and other things are far easier or bring more prominence or applause. Even the fruitful evangelists of church history knew that continual, laborious witness won souls. We must not be easily dissuaded. We will go again and again, in wider and wider circles. When the master sent his servants to gather guests for the feast (Lk 14:15-24), they first encountered all manner of excuses. The ineffective evangelist stops at that point, and begins mourning over the day of small things. The faithful witness returns to his master and goes out again, and then – after a reasonably successful expedition, having caught something of the master’s mood – reports that there is still more space, and so goes out again to compel others to come in. The effective personal evangelist keeps going back, to the same people and to new people. It might mean visiting the same house to see if they might heed you this time, or going back to preach in the street when months pass with little or no response. It might mean sustaining a pattern of family worship when your children make it clear that they have no appetite to learn of Christ. If you know that making known the truth is too important to let go, you will hold fast, unwilling to be put off by opposition and difficulties.
We often struggle with a righteous straightforwardness, a loving clearness, a holy bluntness. The effective personal evangelist speaks all the truth clearly, holding back nothing needful. How do you tell people the good news? How do you respond when someone says that they like to think of God in a certain way, do not really believe in hell, or that they have been a good person? We are too inclined to soft-pedal the context, substance and demands of the gospel when dealing with ignorant and rebellious sinners who need to hear the truth. We are too inclined to cut or shave off the rough edges off our gospel, to hold back what is offensive in society, or even to avoid those elements which we think we can get away with not mentioning. Love will carry us beyond mere sentiment (on our own behalf or someone else’s) and make us bold to speak the whole truth. I am not saying that we invariably have the time and opportunity to explain everything on each occasion, but we will seek to speak all needful truth with all clarity to the people with whom we have to do. This is not just the courage that the street-preacher or door-knocker needs. Some parents are afraid to tell the gospel to their own children because they fear their reaction, are concerned that they might not like it and might turn from it. But what of the risk of not speaking? They cannot be saved unless they hear the gospel, and – if we speak with love – this will in itself break down some of the barriers.
If tenacity is an unwillingness to let go in the face of pressure and opposition, consistency is the simple virtue of endurance over time, just keeping going, maintaining the appointed means, method, manner and matter of God’s gospel ministry, going back day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. If our tenacity can be undermined by our fear or doubt or laziness, so our consistency can be undermined by seemingly slow progress and apparent fruitlessness. We must keep on going on, seeking but not demanding immediate results or definite responses the first time around. We keep chipping away. As in Mark 4:26-29, we must keep sowing and going about our business, insistent but not desperate. We go on to the streets, keep speaking to friends and inviting them to hear the truth, keep knocking on doors to tell people about the Lord Jesus, keep asking new neighbours into our home, keep engaging in the means that a living local church uses to make Christ known, keep maintaining family worship so that our children go on hearing about the Saviour. It is not always great single strikes that break the heart, but repeated taps with the gospel hammer. The disciples did not fill Jerusalem with their doctrine by working in fits and starts, but by loving, tenacious, bold consistency. You may at times be discouraged by slow progress, but you will not abandon the appointed means, method, manner and matter just because there are no immediate results and definite declarations. Sometimes conversion is the result of countless hours of patient and prayerful instruction. We would love to see rapid results, and they are well within God’s power and grace. But that is not the only way God works. Sometimes our consistency is itself persuasive. Sometimes people will be more suddenly converted because they see and hear us going back repeatedly, or because we did not give up.
We must be men and women of God’s book, praying constantly for the wisdom that only God, through his Spirit, can provide (Jas 1:5). We need to know the truth about ourselves, about God, and about our hearers. We need to understand God himself: how and what he speaks, and how and in what ways he acts. We need to understand our hearers, which will prevent us from becoming discouraged on the one hand while also, on the other, providing us with our proper ‘targets’ in making Christ known. We must be properly adaptable. When Paul said, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1Cor 9:22), he was not giving us a model for the church’s corporate activity, suggesting that the church needs to become more like the world in order to be effective. He means that as individual believers we need to be ready to give up our own liberties in order to make Christ known, showing a righteous accommodation without a shadow of compromise, unfolding the truth appropriately and graciously though never changing the essential substance – perhaps a different point of entry, set of illustrations, or emphasis. We need a working grasp of the whole Bible, a grand overview of special revelation. We need hearts and minds well stocked with the Word of God in its particulars. A grasp of the truth and the ability to handle it reactively and proactively provided by storing up the Scriptures in our minds and hearts cannot be underestimated.
Could it be that one of the reasons why we are less effective than we wish to be is because we have not proved to be men and women of earnest, pleading prayer, borne of a love for God that seeks his glory above all else and a love for people that longs to see them saved from sin? Consider the words of the psalmist: “He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Ps 126:6). Does this not suggest earnest and heartfelt pleading? We must be pleaders with God. Relative prayerlessness too often lies behind both our faint appetite for the work and our feeble strength in it.
Think of how the apostle speaks at the beginning of the letter to the Romans: he is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Rom 1:16). Is that your attitude? Do you believe that? I do not mean, “Do you nod because it is in the Bible?” but, “Are you fully persuaded concerning this gospel, this evangel, which we are called to declare, that when sinners hear God’s truth, and the Lord is working in their hearts to invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, convincing them of their sin and misery, enlightening their minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing their wills, thereby persuading and enabling them to embrace Jesus Christ as he is offered to them, that they will be saved?” Is that not what we long for and can legitimately hope for when we make the gospel known? Do we believe that that is why God has given us a gospel? Are we persuaded that the preaching of that gospel is God’s appointed means for the accomplishment of these ends? Do we confidently anticipate that God will bless his appointed means to his ordained ends? We should honour the God of saving grace with expectant faith, rather than harbour a deep-rooted suspicion that this is the biggest waste of time in which we could be engaged. We do not need to embrace novelties either of style or substance. We must be galvanised by faith. If we go forth weeping, we shall doubtless come again with rejoicing. We cannot say when or how much blessing will come, but do we believe that if we go forth in the strength of God, in dependence upon God, with the truth of God, in expectation that God will honour his word, and that it will not return to him void, that there will be people – sooner or later – that God will be pleased to draw to himself? If we are faithful in discharging our duty, God will glorify his name, and one of the ways he will do so is through the blessing of our labours to salvation. If it were not so, what would be the point? Why else do we go to men and women dead in their trespasses and sins? Why else do we keep reiterating God’s saving mercies to our children? Why else do we go on preaching the same truths to people who so often seem unresponsive or even antagonistic? It is because we serve a saving God.
If we engage in this kind of gospel work, over time we should become more adept at it, humanly speaking. When we speak of evangelistic experience and growing competence, we do not mean developing some pat routine, as if you can thoughtlessly roll certain phrases off your tongue. Rather, we begin to gauge how certain people are likely to respond, to recall certain ways to answer certain questions (that you have learned from others or developed yourself) which will enable you to make certain points or bring certain Scriptures to bear. Perhaps we have opportunities to study some topic or read up on some issue, and are better equipped to expose error and promote truth. We learn to spot the red herrings that swim through so many conversations with unbelieving people, to anticipate the evasions that some will introduce when the gospel paints them into a corner, to prevent that conversation wandering away from what the sinner really needs to hear and the questions the sinner really needs to face. When people throw up smokescreens, we learn to press the question: “Will you please tell me how you intend to deal with your sin in anticipation of coming before God the righteous Judge?” When Saul of Tarsus was converted and began to speak of the Christ, we read that he “increased all the more in strength” (Acts 9:22). He got better! A recently converted Jew, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, his brain stocked to the brim with all the wealth of the Old Testament, as the Holy Spirit gave him increasing light and understanding he quickly began to understand how these things fitted together. He began to explain what he was learning, and opened his scrolls again, and read through them, and learned more and better of how Christ was revealed in the Old Testament, and how Jesus was the fulfilment of all those promises. Jesus is the Christ, and all these Scriptures speak of him, and there are answers to the denials and diversions of the unbelieving heart, answers that will – by the Spirit’s gracious working – bring a repenting faith to birth. Perhaps this eager preacher would leave the synagogue one day with his head buzzing, and return the next to pick things up where he left off. But the point is this: even the man we know as the apostle Paul got better at proving that Jesus is the Christ. You may think that you are not a very competent personal evangelist. You may be right. But, honestly, if you start, you will get better, God helping you. Engaging in the work will enhance your capacity for the work, if you go about it with a diligent and dependent spirit.
Isolation in this work can be debilitating because of the pressures and challenges involved, the spiritual dynamics of the battle for souls. I marvel at the grit shown by those who work largely alone in the cause of Christ: truly they must be walking with God, for it is hard to keep moving when no-one else is seen to be walking and working with you. It is far easier to stop witnessing than it is to start, but companionship can be righteously compelling: we might feel a holy pressure to go and stand and labour with others. Praying with and for one another is a great encouragement. This is one reason why such labours ought always to be embedded in (and never separated from) the healthy life of a faithful local church. That is why church members are the most effective workers. If you need to prove this, go out to help those who are already engaged, and look in their eyes as you go to help them. “Ah,” says the look, “Wonderful! Someone has my back!” You can pray while the other speaks, you can make a hundred varied contributions to the work, small and great. Why did Christ send out his disciples in pairs? Could it be that they needed mutual encouragement, support and friendship? Why does Paul surround himself with companions and friends? To be sure, there is a mentoring dimension, as the younger or less-experienced men see how a seasoned veteran goes about the work. But consider how even Paul feels his relative isolation, and wants his bosom friend and son in the faith, Timothy, to come to him quickly (2Tim 4:10-12). Listen to the wisdom of the preacher:
Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; But how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecc 4:9-12)
We do not need to super-spiritualize that text to say that, if you are to make Christ known, there will be times when your spirit droops, when your heart cools, when your mind blanks, when your courage fails. But knowing that two or three are together, even three streets – perhaps even three towns! – away from one another, can make all the difference. It stirs up love, provokes tenacity, encourages boldness, assists consistency, aids understanding, directs prayer, stirs up faith, extends experience, and helps us to endure. As an aside, it is one of the reasons why it is so important for husbands and wives to be united in their aims and intentions in promoting true religion in the home. It is one of the reasons that vibrant evangelists draw in and draw on others into a similar pattern of going and speaking.
If we as individual Christians and members of gospel churches are to be effective personal evangelists, these are qualities that I think we must prayerfully pursue. If we are to declare the gospel profitably and fruitfully we must cultivate these things. They arise out of a sense of consecration, conviction and compassion. Not all Christians will be on the streets of our towns and at the doors of our communities. Some of us will do it sitting down over a cup of tea (other beverages are available) with a friend; some of us will do it around the dinner table or at the bedside, night after night, with our children; some of us will do it over a lunch time snack with a colleague; some of us will do it in a Bible study with our peers. However we do it, all of us have opportunities to make Christ known.
The aim of effective personal evangelism is to bring glory to God, seeing sinners won to Christ and entering into a healthy local church to be instructed and protected through the ministry of his under-shepherds, becoming faithful and useful themselves in the service of the Lord: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:19–20).
I trust that these things, rightly cultivated, will help you to be immediately effective in communicating the gospel faithfully to those who do not know our Saviour, and ultimately effective when we see God give the increase, and granting fruit from our gospel labours.
Jeremy Walker is pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, England.