Not too long ago, I was out doing some bus stop evangelism with a friend of mine. He was unsure about my evangelistic approach. Now, keep in mind, this was the first time he had come out with me and his uneasiness occurred during the very first conversation we had that day. He was doubtful that it was really best for me to keep talking about God’s standards (righteousness, sin and justice) after the man had already indicated that he has sinned and was simply hoping that he will be okay on Judgment Day. Now, this man (who I was evangelizing) was a nominal Catholic who believed in God, Jesus, the Bible and so on.
So, as my friend and I talked (immediately after the first conversation) the question became this: why not transition the conversation to talk about the love of God that is centered in Jesus (that is, as soon as the man confessed he had sinned)? Why stay on the topic of Jesus’ teaching on righteousness, sin and judgment?
We Must Take a Quick Detour
I have a few things to say before I answer that question. This detour may seem long, BUT it is relevant, intentional and possibly even necessary if I am to avoid being massively misunderstood. Here I go.
Thoughts on Approaches
Let me say this at the outset: I do NOT think it would have been wrong to transition to talk about the love of God that is centered in Jesus. In fact, this would take us to the Cross upon which we could discuss not only love, but also sin, holiness, justice, mercy, wrath, righteousness, grace, faith, life, etc. I am convinced that we must be gracious with each other when it comes to HOW we get to the Gospel and HOW we seek to attempt to make it clear. There are not only many doors into the house of evangelism, but even into the dining room of the Gospel – there is so much to feast on! However, we must be suspect of those who tell us the exact order or way we need to eat.
Most people have a general understanding that we should have appetizers, then soup/salad, main course, desert, etc. . . . but, would it be wrong to have desert first, that is, to talk of the glories of the new earth before the main course – explaining how to get there? I don’t think so. Now, if that person decided to eat desert first all the time, and not only that, but thought it was the only way to eat and told others they must do the same, then we have a problem. Indeed, we must be gracious with each other when it comes to HOW we get to the Gospel and HOW we seek to attempt to make it clear.
Though I am convinced that it is necessary to speak clearly and firmly of God’s righteous standards, His holiness, His justice, His wrath, judgment and hell, we must be careful NOT to go beyond Scripture when coming to conclusions about the ORDER and METHOD of HOW to evangelize. Indeed, we find descriptions of how to evangelize in the Bible, but these descriptions offer principles that we are to use. Principles can be applied in various ways. Now the command to evangelize is clear (Acts 1.8), but HOW this fleshes out may be different – consider how Paul evangelized the Jews in contrast to the Gentiles. He preached the Gospel to both BUT from different starting points (compare how he spoke to Jewish Galatians in Antioch at Pisidia in contrast the Gentile Galatians in Lystra – see Acts 13.13-14.18). In fact, Luke’s record of Paul’s evangelistic efforts in Acts teach us the very principle that the we need to become all things to people (cf 1 Cor 9.19-23). In other words, upon learning more about a person (especially his/her worldview), we ought to interact and preach the Gospel accordingly. I will save this worldview stuff for another post, for though it is important and deserves attention, it will take us off the intended track of this post – we are already on a detour!
What we do NOT find in the Bible is a course on how to do evangelism. By the way, I am not against such courses – in fact, I think they can be a great benefit to the church! I mean that. That being said, as much as I love Ray Comfort and the positive influence he is having on many individuals and churches, we must remember that “The Way of the Master” is more broad than working from the question, “Do you think you are a good person?” or “Do you know the ten commandments?” These are great questions to ask, and I highly recommend them in evangelism, BUT, it is not the ONLY WAY to talk about Jesus. Furthermore, might I add another note to all of my friends who like Matthius Media’s brilliant, insightful and sound evangelistic literature: working through redemptive history is NOT the only way (though it is great!). Hopefully, we can have ongoing dialogue with people to the extent that they can make more sense of who Jesus is and what He has done in light of the context of His coming (i.e., redemptive history), but let us think about the nature of the Gospel of Mark.
Mark was written primarily to Gentiles (cf. Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 182-83). Mark’s focus is on the identity of the person of Jesus Christ. Of course, his references to the OT point the reader (hearer) back to OT context, but the focus is Jesus as the Son of God (Christ/King/Messiah). Though the hard-heartedness of his disciples and antagonists is highlighted throughout his Gospel presentation, Mark does not start out talking about sin, law and judgment. And even though his Gospel starts off within the framework of God’s promise to Israel as the one who would prepare the way of the Lord (Mark 1.2-3), by Mark 1.9 the focus is on Jesus for the rest of the book. That being said, I think it is great to talk about sin, law and judgment AND to explain much of redemptive history before focusing on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, HOWEVER, these are not the only ways to evangelize – just read Mark (which is a Gospel presentation seeking to convince the reader [hearer] that Jesus is the Son of God). You may respond to me and say – “Yes, but Mark is the 41st book of 66; Mark comes to us in a historical context and AFTER the law.” That is a reasonable objection. However, do you really think that everyone who heard Mark had a working knowledge of the first 39 books? There is good reason to believe that Mark has both kind of readers (hearers) in mind.
Back on Track
Now, we are finally back on track. I hope the detour did not weary you. We were talking about the conversation I had with my friend. He was uneasy about my evangelistic approach. The question where we left off at was this: Why stay on the topic of Jesus’ teaching on righteousness, sin and judgment?
Well, this often depends on who is setting the course of the conversation. Sometimes, I am interacting with their good questions and objections (which alters the course of conversation). But, sometimes I tend to set the course. In this case, I set the course and we had already talked about God the Judge and whether or not he thought God would accept him. He thought God would, but he was not overly confident, just hopeful. I thought it would be good to talk about the standards of righteousness found in Matthew 5 (perfection). He admitted that he was not perfect, and said he was hoping that God would accept him. I stayed on the topic of God’s righteous standards. I thought it wise to explain more about these perfect standards so that he could see that he has no chance (of being accepted). You see, here is one major problem: he was not convinced that he was guilty to the extent that God would actually reject him. The bus soon came and I handed him a NT with a Gospel tract. I encouraged him to read it.
So, why did I stay on the topic of God’s righteous standards? I wanted this man to see that he is not only a sinner, meaning imperfect, but a SINNER, meaning a person who deserves God’s rejection (hell). This is a BIG difference. I have already stated that going to God’s love at this point would not be wrong. However, I think in this instance (if I was reading the man correctly), it would not be best. I think talk of God’s love would be made more sensible after fleshing out God’s righteous standards, sin, justice and judgment a little more. But, my friend thought different. I am thankful he told me.
So, he was concerned with my approach. I became concerned with his concern. For, the truth is – it is good and fitting to share the Gospel in a manner in which we talk about law, sin, Jesus’ teaching on righteousness and judgment before John 3.16 (especially when we plan to give Gospel tracts at the end of the conversation anyhow). Again, not that this is the only way, but it is a good way. Granted, these talks are not easy and can be uncomfortable, but what kind of surgery is comfortable?
Some Thoughts on Comfortable Evangelism
In evangelism we sometimes have to open up the heart. May the Lord help us. May he make us bold. If you are striving for comfortable methods of evangelism, I am concerned that you actually may be more concerned about your own comfort than you really are the condemned people you seek to reach (maybe not, but maybe . . . it would be good for us to examine our hearts on our selectiveness in our evangelistic endeavors). This is a whole other topic, but for now, let me make one qualification – this does not mean we should seek uncomfortable situations thinking that makes us more spiritual. It is good to evangelize wherever we are, whenever we can (and this will mean in comfortable and uncomfortable situations). Who is your Lord? I think when it comes to evangelism we sometimes try to be God. We will determine when we speak. We will determine who we speak to. May the Lord help us to really see the sinfulness in this type of lordship; and may such abhorrence quicken us to the Cross and repentance. I simply do not see the Biblical principle in the NT to seek for comfortable ways to evangelize – in fact, the NT evangelists seemed to go through much discomfort in their Gospel work. Whatever the case, the post is already taking too many twists and turns – straightforward I go!
Back on Track – Do You Deserve to Go to Hell?
So, as my friend and I discussed this issue (of approaches), he used it as a chance to do more evangelism (which was great!). He asked a young lady who was standing nearby what she thought. Suddenly, we were have a three way conversation! He briefly explained to her the conversation we were having and asked her how she plans to get to heaven. With great confidence she said, “By faith in Jesus Christ.” In fact she may have said “Only by faith in Jesus Christ.” We were all silent (really, it was kind of an odd moment). We stayed silent for a bit. She must have wondered what was going on. I asked her if she goes to a church in the area and she does. It was silent again for a second. Then I asked her, “Do you believe you deserve to go to hell?” She said “No.” Again, we were all silent. Then I said, “Then what have you been saved from?” She thought for a bit and then replied, “I don’t know.” Again, we were silent (really silent). We all stood there contemplating. I did not know what to say. I don’t think the other two did either. Soon the bus came and she left.
My friend said to me, “I see your point.” Though he is still uncomfortable with the approach I used in the first conversation, he saw this point: people can “believe” in Jesus, but not really think they are all that bad. This is what we call “false faith.” For when we speak of faith, we are speaking of where one’s confidence is placed. What are they ultimately banking on to gain God’s acceptance? Is it their works? Is it Jesus plus works? Or, is it Jesus alone? And if they say Jesus alone, are they really relying on His righteousness alone? Do they know Him as “The Lord Our Righteousness”? If people do not have at least a vague idea of what they are saved from – are they really saved?
Well, what do we make of the young lady we spoke to? Can she really be a Christian? I think it is doubtful, but I must be careful here. Let me explain. It is possible for Christians to doubt the goodness of God. It is possible for Christians to doubt the justice of God. Now, I am about to say something wherein some may disagree so brace yourself: I think it is also possible for Christians, in seasons of darkness, to struggle to believe that God is just to punish them eternally. Such a struggle of faith signals serious spiritual sickness (weakness of faith) and hopefully it is only for a time, but it does not necessarily follow that “so and so” is not a Christian. Hopefully, this fight of faith is eventually won and the believer comes out of such darkness – believing God is good, and that His Word is true concerning His infinite Holiness, the exceedingly sinfulness of our sin and the justice of God in eternal condemnation.
With all that being said, why do I say that it is doubtful that the young lady was a Christan. Well, she did not believe that she deserved hell. She was certain of that. She did not appear to be wrestling with the goodness and justice of God on this issue. Furthermore, she honestly did not know what Jesus saved her from. So why does she believe? Herein is the question that would help discern whether or not she knows the real Jesus. Though this can be an insightful question, I am not sure if she could give the answer, for the purposes of man’s heart are deep waters (Prov. 20.5). I am not saying she can’t, I’m just saying that she may not really know (in light of our heart’s deceitfulness).
If she doesn’t really think she is all that bad, then it is highly unlikely that she is truly banking all of her trust in the righteousness of Christ on her behalf. Even if she thinks she is, she likely isn’t. Some people simply think they are sinners, in the sense that they are imperfect. This is distinctly different than being convinced they are SINNERS, meaning they deserve to be rejected by God (hell). This distinction is more important than the church has often realized. I argue that it is the difference of heaven and hell. Until people see that they are sinful to the extent that God will utterly reject them, what is it they want saved from? Now I know that the awareness of our sin is something we grow in as Christians, but even at the point of conversion (though this process looks quite different for different people) is there not an initial understanding of being saved from hell? This question is not rhetorical . . . if you have read this blog this far (thank you for your endurance), please let me know what you think. I would like to think that I am teachable here.
I think the heart is so deceitful (Jer 17.9) that even under the best preaching there exists professing believers who really do not believe that they deserve to go to hell. In fact, they may have never really believed they deserve to go to hell because they really don’t think (and never have thought) they are really that bad. Sure, they have been awakened to the fact that they are sinful (as in – not perfect). God has opened their eyes to see that Jesus is the Savior . . . even that there is only one way to get forgiveness of sins. They have been told that Jesus is the One who forgives and that they are to go to him freely – thus, they do (sort of). However, they see themselves as sinners, not SINNERS. They know they have failed on the moral test and that Jesus can give them the points they missed (in other words, He can make up for their bad – He died for those sins). They failed bad and got 30 (or 40, 50, 60, etc.) out of 100. They know they need Jesus. They need Jesus to make up for the other 70 (or 60, 50, 40 etc.). BUT, deep down in their heart of hearts, they do not believe they are so sinful that God would be just to punish them eternally.
These people are in our churches. They are nice. They may be theologically sound. They help you when you need help. As there are good Muslims, kind Hindu’s, moral atheists, there are good and friendly “Christian” people. They read their Bibles daily, pray often and are faithful at church. They really are nice. They may even be generous financially. You would be as shocked as they would be to find that their faith is actually not fully rooted in Christ alone. In their heart of hearts they never were fully convinced that they were wicked (that is, really bad). They are convinced that they are sinners and that they need God’s forgiveness and mercy, but to think they have NOTHING good to bring to God . . . they may not voice this, but they do not believe that.
I have met some of these people (I think . . . and by the way, I sincerely hope I am wrong in my judgment). I will keep the church anonymous and the individuals too. Not too long ago, I ministered to a few professing Christians who go to a sound church with good teaching. By God’s grace he gave me the boldness to ask them some heart penetrating questions. Nothing in their moral lives told me I should be suspect. I had been asking many professing Christians questions about their conversion, faith and confidence of assurance. The heart is deceitful above all things – who are we kidding to assume all the professing Christians in our churches are really Christians? After much dialogue the one stated firmly that she would not consider herself to be a wretch. She thought that that term should be used for the bad people, “like murderers.” I will not tell the whole story, but it was a very telling comment. If you heard the whole story, you would learn that she was saying, “I am not perfect, but I am not a bad person.” I am not sure what she thinks of when she sings amazing grace, but my heart melts to think that she does not consider herself a SINNER. The other also did not believe she was a bad person – just imperfect. Not a SINNER, just a sinner.
Imperfect Christians put their faith in Christ – but is this the real Jesus? They know that they must turn to Him. However, they do not put their faith fully in Christ. Whether they know it or not, they do not really believe that they need to. They really do believe that something they did helps make them fit for heaven (at least in a ver y small measure . . . though they know that salvation is not by works). Thus, I am convinced they have put their faith in another Jesus. They sit on pews in Baptist, Pentecostal, United, Presbyterian, Anglican, Mennonite, and Brethren churches (to name a few . . . some of these “Christians” actually don’t attend church). May the Lord help us to spread the Gospel even to these. And may we evangelize them as fellows sinners, pleading with them to realize their sinfulness and to put fullness of faith in Jesus Christ.
A great example of this problem is demonstrated in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee knew he was imperfect. He knew he needed God’s grace (at least in a small measure) – that is likely one reason why he prays. He acknowledges God; in fact, he thanks God. He is a very religious man who fasts, gives and evidently prays. To think that he does not realize some sort of minimal need for God would be a butchering of the text. However, deep in his heart, he is quite happy about the good he has done. He is self-righteous. I would doubt that he consider himself to be self-righteous. No, he considers himself to be righteous (there is a difference). He is happy that he is better than the tax collector. This is like the Protestant (or Catholic) Christian today who looks to Jesus and prays thanking God for how good he is doing in his Bible readings and in abstaining from various sorts of evil (etc. etc.), however, deep down he is quite glad that he is not like others (the filthy sinners). However, the tax collector has absolutely nothing to offer God. He has come to grips with his sin. He has nothing to appeal to in order to gain God’s ear (just faith in His abundant mercy). He knows that he deserves rejection. He cannot look to heaven – He cries, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (see Luke 18.9-14). According to the way I have used the terms sinner and SINNER in this post, the tax collector considered himself to be a SINNER.
Wow, this was a long post. If you got this far, thank you for your endurance (very impressive!). It is my prayer that the Lord will use this reading (at least in some measure) for your good. And if you comment – may that be for my good. Also, a little note on how things went with my friend. We discussed our differences , sought to better understand each other, prayed and hugged. Brotherly love – I love it!
A Personal Note
I deserve the fierce wrath of God forever. I certainly deserve to go to hell. My ongoing love affairs with the world, my spiritual pride, my lack of love for God and others, my impure heart and mind, my love of self, and a host of idols not to mention a long list of other intensely offensive sins all sentence me to everlasting punishment. However, Jesus became sin for me that, in Him, I might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5. 21). May I devote my life to the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal 2.20). I will never see the wrath I deserve! I am also thankful that I came to Jesus because the Father chose me (John 6.44). He gave me eyes that see Him (and consequently my sin as well). Only by His grace do I see that I deserve to go to hell. We must remember this as we prayerfully spread the Gospel to others.
I write this post as a SINNER saved by GRACE – GRACE that is GREATER than all my SIN. Amen.