Reformed Evangelism


Evangelism [1] is a very valuable and inevitable ministry of the church [2]. Any church which does not take evangelism seriously cannot be called a biblical church [3]. A couple of years ago, one famous minister in India wrote in his autobiography that his group of churches do not see missionary work as an important function of their denomination [4]. One is reminded of the famous quote, “The church that does not evangelize will fossilize” [5]. True, if the church does not actively evangelize, then that particular church is sure to die soon. Not merely due to the lack of new generation believers fillings its pews and pulpit, but because the lack of gospel passion proves the lack of gospel itself in the church. Any church which does not have the gospel, as every biblically informed believer knows, is sure to die soon [6].

Our concern today in this study is, however not on the inevitable place of evangelism in the church; it is assumed to be the case. Rather our discussion today is on how the Bible wants us to do it. Is there a specific methodology that we find in the New Testament? If so, what are the theological underpinnings of that methodology? For every methodology has a theology behind it. For our convictions deeply affect our actions. Methodology in that sense is just a practical outworking of one’s theology. This is why when we discuss evangelism, or any practical issue for that matter, we cannot keep theology off the table. To investigate the theology of evangelism, we turn our attention to our key passage in 1 Corinthians 1:21-24.

“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Before expounding this passage, a few thoughts on the context. Paul is writing to a church which is in danger of being swallowed in the culture around it. The Corinthian church was very much tempted to be like their culture, which prized human wisdom and eloquence. Hence, Paul has a long section in the first chapter of the epistle where he is comparing and contrasting divine wisdom and human wisdom. He reasons how human wisdom cannot bring forth any glory to God in eternal matters. He is comparing these two, precisely in the context of his own evangelistic ministry of preaching the gospel. It is this fact which makes this passage of much importance to our present study. In order to show the Corinthian believers, the folly and impotence of human wisdom, Paul discloses God’s wisdom which undergirds his gospel heralding ministry.

Though we are not studying the whole argument of Paul, from these three verses, we can still learn theological truths which were pillars of his ministry. Historically, these truths have been consistently affirmed in the Reformed [7] camp of Protestantism, more than in any other group. Hence we can also call an evangelistic ministry built on these truths as doing Reformed evangelism. The theological truths we can learn here may be summarized as follows :

1. We cannot know God on our own; the necessity of grace.

2. We, in our natural state, find the gospel both as foolishness and a stumbling block; the depravity of man.

3. Because of God’s effectual working, we experience a change in our disposition towards the gospel, resulting in our believing of the gospel; the sufficiency and efficacy of God’s grace.

4. Both the unbelieving and believing camp are made of the same group of people and hence it is nothing inherent in them which makes the difference; Refutation of the Arminian teaching that it is one’s free will which effectively causes one believing or unbelieving [8].

These truths can be categorized under three main theological truths, namely the nature of man, the nature of our preaching and the nature of God’s grace. Insights gained in each of these truths are vital pillars for a faithful evangelistic ministry.

1. The Nature of Man’s Depravity

In verse 21, Paul says mankind is unable to know God through its own wisdom and this being so, is God’s wisdom. In other words, God in His wisdom has so designed it that man is unable to know Him with his own wisdom. The text explicitly states that this basic truth of man’s inability to know God by himself is an attribute of God’s wisdom. It is to be noted that in the wider context of this chapter, Paul’s reasoning against human wisdom is that, it cannot help us get the most important thing in life – knowledge of God. He is asking Corinthian believers to see how utterly useless human wisdom is, when it comes to this ultimate need of man. Paul is not speaking like some modern day believers who dump down any form of intellectualism or sound thinking and go for some form of irrational mysticism. If that be the case, he himself should not reason to the Corinthians. Rather, Paul is setting forth a proper perspective here, through which the Corinthians should weigh everything in life. We should give anything that much priority only, as much as it is beneficial for us in knowing God. That which is most beneficial of gifting us with the knowledge of God should be the most prized. Thus, knowledge of God acts as a function with which we prioritize everything in life.

What knowledge of God is being discussed here? Since Paul goes on to argue in v.21, how through preaching, God saves people, the knowledge being discussed here should be saving knowledge of God. Hence, the inability of man spoken of here in this verse should also be referring to a sinful man’s inability. In other words, it is not merely speaking of ontological limitations, but of how man, being sinful, is impotent to know God himself. Thus, the inability spoken of here in this verse is a function of man’s depravity. This is the first theological truth, all evangelists have to believe – man’s depravity. A proper biblical anthropology is a must if we desire to be engaged in biblical evangelism. Paul says very clearly that man left to himself is hopelessly impotent to come to any saving knowledge of God. A brief sampling of what the New Testament says about the sinful condition of man is sufficient enough to prove his destitute state.

Romans 3:9-12 “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one. no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one’.”

John 3:20 “Every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.”

Ephesians 2:1 “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.“

Ephesians 4:18 “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

2 Corinthians 4:4 “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Romans 8:7-8 “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Just this brief sampling itself proves that we, as sinful human beings are all under the power of sin, are not righteous, do not seek God, do no good, love evil, hate light, dead in sins, following the world, the devil and the flesh, are by nature children of God’s wrath, darkened in understanding, hard hearted, blinded by the devil and cannot submit to or please God. In light of these descriptions, we have to say that it is a myth to say that man is basically good, and it is circumstances that make him evil. The biblical description of fallen man is that of one whose sinfulness is constitutional.

Pink laments the loss of this truth in our evangelism as follows :

“In twentieth-century evangelism there has been a woeful ignoring of the solemn truth of the total depravity of man. There has been a complete underrating of’ the desperate case and condition of the sinner. Very few indeed have faced the unpalatable fact that every man is thoroughly corrupt by nature, that he is completely unaware of his own wretchedness, blind and helpless, dead in trespasses and sins. Because such in his case, because his heart is filled with enmity against God, it follows that no man can be saved without the special and immediate intervention of God. According to our view here, so will it be else-where: to qualify and modify the truth of man’s total depravity will inevitably lead to the diluting of collateral truths. The teaching of Holy Writ on this point is unmistakable: man’s plight is such that his salvation is impossible unless God puts forth His mighty power. No stirring of the emotions by anecdotes, no regaling of the senses by music, no oratory of the preacher, no persuasive appeals, are of the slightest avail.” [9]

The implication of this truth about man’s depravity is thus the inevitable necessity of God’s grace in man’s salvation.

2. The Nature of Our Preaching

Despite the despondency of our predicament, Paul goes on to say that God has a means of saving sinners – preaching the gospel (v.21b). God is pleased to save sinners through the preaching of the gospel. Keeping the wider context in mind, Paul seems to be suggesting that, it is truly wise, if in our ministry to fallen human beings, we preach the gospel, discarding the eloquence of human wisdom. Preaching the gospel may seem, humanly speaking a foolish thing, precisely because of its seemingly foolish message. However from the perspective of divine wisdom, preaching the gospel is the wisest thing to do. Paul goes on to say in verse 22, how his preaching is contrary to what his audience wants from him. Paul was determined not to preach human wisdom or perform signs, but to preach the gospel alone.

All ministers of the gospel should learn this very valuable lesson. Our preaching is not to be mandated by the culture around us or by the people who hear us. Every culture has prized idols. For Jews it was miraculous deeds and for the Greeks it was human wisdom and eloquence. A preacher of the gospel should not bow his knees to any of these idols pushed in by the culture around him. He must be determined to know Christ and Him crucified alone. Perhaps it will be worth meditating on this fact that in the Bible, we only have heralds, not public performers [10]. A herald is a messenger who has been entrusted with a particular message to be delivered in public. The message of the herald is determined not by his recipients, but by his sender. Whereas a performer, a public pep-talk speaker has no message as such for his audience, just a willingness to employ his articulation skills to get maximum adulation from them. His speaking agenda is set by the crowd. He will only take risks of speaking unpopular matters, if he sees a greater promise of adulation from it than in speaking popular issues. The Bible knows no such men as gospel ministers. It does mention such characteristics for false teachers who tickle the ears of their listeners.

Not only was Paul determined to preach the gospel alone, he also knew that the reception of this gospel by the natural man will be a failure. He says how the gospel is a stumbling block for the Jews and foolishness for the Greeks. The minister of the gospel ought to know this very well that his message is, for the natural man, an irrelevant message, an impediment to his present way of sinful life. The noteworthy fact is Paul knowing this, still preached the gospel. In other words, the message being an unbelievable and impossible message, did not cause Paul to surrender to the pressures of surrounding culture. For Paul knew, preaching the gospel is the wisest thing to do. Ministers of the gospel, the wisest thing to do is not listen to the latest fad churned out by the church growth gurus and culture experts. The wisest thing to do is preach the gospel and a true minister of the gospel is one who is determined to preach no other message but the one gospel.

Thus it follows that as man is totally depraved and in need of divine grace, the evangelist’s business ought to be preaching the gospel alone. The excessive dependence of modern day evangelism on other means of communication like music, skits etc, explains the poor quality conversions it results. It is ironic that a lot of these other means are pushed on the basis of relevance and care for the modern listener of the gospel. However if we take this truth of man’s depravity seriously, then the most loving thing to do is preach the gospel, not make them feel good at a supposedly evangelistic event. Thus the truth of man’s depravity and the apostolic display of divine wisdom mandates both the matter of evangelism – gospel and not human wisdom, and the manner of evangelism – through preaching and not in human brilliance.

3. The Nature of God’s Saving Grace

The rationale behind Paul’s determination and dedication to preach nothing but the gospel, despite its unpopularity and unfavorableness, goes even more into the nature of God’s grace. Had Paul ended with verse 23 on this matter, evangelism as done by the apostles would be so daunting that only a few daring souls would endeavour. However Paul gives a theological rationale which can sustain anyone in pure, undiluted gospel preaching. Paul goes onto mention another group of Jews and Gentiles, for whom the message he preaches, is not a stumbling block and not foolishness, but rather is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Now notice here there are two groups mentioned. On one side, we have Jews and Gentiles who find the message of the cross as a stumbling block and foolishness. On the other side, we have another group of Jews and Gentiles who find the same message of the cross as the power of God and the wisdom of God. However, it is noteworthy that both the groups are made up of the same kind of people – Jews and Gentiles. Paul does not say one group is holy and the other unholy. Neither does he say one is willing, the other unwilling. So in and of themselves the two groups are basically comprised of the same sinful human beings. Moreover we saw in our first point, that everyone – Jews and Gentiles are under the power of sin and no one is good. Hence, we will have to conclude that the difference between these two groups should not be found in and of themselves. In other words, the difference is not inherent in them, in the sense that the cause of why the believing group is different is not inherent in them. It is true that the unbelieving camp is so, precisely because of their inherent sin nature as seen in point 1.

What is Paul’s explanation for this difference? The text says, these Jews and Gentiles for whom Christ is powerful and wise, is so precisely because they are the called of God. In other words, it is a divine act which separates the two. Here we find the most crucial truth that every evangelist should know, namely the efficacious nature of God’s grace. Out of the sinful pool of humanity, God has chosen His people, to whom He, through the preaching of the gospel, grants grace sufficiently powerful enough to see to it that they will come to a saving knowledge of God. The language of grace here is not merely provisional, but rather efficacious. The verse does not say that those whom God has called may or may not see Christ as powerful and wise. Rather it says, they will infallibly be saved.

This explains why Paul could determine himself to preach nothing but the gospel, irrespective of the crowd. He knew that it is precisely the preaching of the gospel, through which God saves His called ones. He knew that a faithful preaching of the gospel will result in all those whom God has called, seeing the cross as powerful. Preaching the gospel is thus the divinely ordained means through which God saves His called ones.

To illuminate this truth, turn to 2 Corinthians 4:6, where Paul says how God, as He did in Genesis, when He spoke and there was light, has so spoken to shine the light of the gospel in our dark hearts. Considering its immediate context, Paul says this truth to explain why we are saved, even though we belong to this sinful race, who are blinded by the devil to not see the glorious gospel. In other words, Paul is explaining here the process by which God causes His called ones to see the gospel as irresistibly attractive. Through the heralding of the gospel, God opens our blind eyes and causes us to see the light of the gospel. What is this light? It is the light of the glory of God. However the definition is even more sharper that this is not some abstract glory of God, but it is the gospel glory of God in Jesus Christ. Thus, what the called ones see is the glory of Christ like they have never seen before. Every sinner in whom God sheds His light finds Christ in the gospel, irresistibly attractive, powerful and wise. With their new eyes and will, they run to Him and get saved. Thus, we see here, how God uses the preaching of the gospel as the divinely ordained means by which He sovereignly opens the eyes of His elect, changes the disposition of their heart, in order to enable them, to see and come to Christ. A biblically faithful evangelist should then be confident of God’s promise to save His elect through a Christ-exalting heralding of the gospel.

This truth of how divine election guarantees faith and salvation in the gospel, is also found in John 10, where our Lord Jesus taught this wonderful truth. He looked at the Pharisees and explained their unbelief in terms of election [11]. In v26-28, He first explains how the Pharisees do not believe His teaching, because they are not of His sheep. Jesus did not tell that they are not His sheep, because they do not believe. Rather He is saying they do not believe, because they are not His sheep. He then goes onto speak about His sheep and how they listen to His voice and follow Him. Some have turned this passage into an imperative. However Jesus is not giving a prescription for becoming His sheep, but a description of His sheep. If this verse was an imperative, then the preceding verse to the Pharisees makes no sense.Thus it is clear that our Lord is teaching here that election is the cause of faith and not vice verza.

Thus, we see how divine election in Jesus Christ, guarantees an efficacious working of God’s grace through the preaching of the gospel. Moreover the Bible is clear that God has chosen and that His Son shall redeem a bride comprised of men and women from every tribe, tongue and nation. Hence, an evangelist who believes in these theological truths can go to any part of the world and persevere in faithful, gospel heralding, trusting only in the power of the cross to reap its own harvest.

Conclusion

In this short passage, we saw three theological truths that will act as pillars for a biblically faithful, Christ-exalting and God-honoring evangelistic ministry. We saw that the depravity of man is wholesome and guarantees him nothing but impotence regarding salvation. This truth should make every evangelist see the fallacy in preaching messages rooted in human wisdom. Secondly we saw the nature of our preaching as one not mandated by human wisdom or idols of surrounding culture, but rather one in accordance with divine wisdom. This truth should make us determined to preach only the gospel of Christ, the only means through which God is pleased to save sinners. Finally we saw the nature of God’s grace revealed through the preaching of the gospel as infallibly efficacious. This truth should make us confident in God’s faithfulness and power, to save His elect through the gospel. In short, sinners are hopelessly depraved that no message of human wisdom can save them, but the gospel and that we can persevere in the preaching of the gospel, precisely because of the efficacious nature of God’s grace to His elect.

The challenge and the encouragement for evangelists is, “Let’s never be intimidated or depressed by our ordinariness and inadequacy and unimpressiveness. Most of us are quite ordinary. All of us can improve our preaching, and we will. But the sacred given is the message of the cross, which the Holy Spirit empowers in men of the cross. Let’s not disempower it. Let’s trust God’s strategy. God himself entered into his own strategy through an egoless nobody named Jesus Christ, whom this brilliant world crucified. That Christ is sending us out to preach his message by his power. We are fully equipped in every essential with the testimony of God, the message of Christ crucified, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Will you decide to stake your whole ministry there?” [12]

This kind of evangelism which strips itself off from every other resource and depends on God and His gospel alone, by believing in these theological truths, is how, we believe, true, biblical evangelism is to be done by the church.

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Footnotes:

[1] A good definition as to what evangelism may be as follows : “To evangelize is so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Saviour, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His Church.”, Towards the Conversion of England, Press and Publications Board of the Church Assembly, 1945.

[2] Tim Keller reasons the priority of evangelism among other ministries of the church as follows : “Evangelism has to be seen as the “leading edge” of a church’s ministry in the world. It must be given a priority in the church’s ministry. It stands to reason that, while saving a lost soul and feeding a hungry stomach are both acts of love, one has an infinitely greater effect than the other. In 2 Cor 4:16–18, Paul speaks of the importance of strengthening the “inner man” even as the outer, physical nature is aging and decaying. Evangelism is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being. This is true, not because the “spiritual” is more important than the physical (we must be careful not to fall into a Greek-style dualism!), but because the eternal is more important than the temporal (Matt 11:1–6; John 17:18; 1 John 3:17–18).”, The Gospel and the Poor, Themelios, Volume 33, Issue 3, December 2008

[3] “That the Church is the agent of evangelism can be seen, firstly, by observing the nature of the Church and, secondly, by examining the example of the Church in the New Testament. Our Lord commissioned his disciples to go and, “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). Those so baptized are joined to the body of Christ which is the Church.. evangelism emanates from the life of the Church for the enlargement of none other than the Church. Furthermore, the body of truth upon which evangelism is based is entrusted to the Church which is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The truth, together with the authority to propagate, defend and maintain it, is vested in the Church alone and the Church alone is commissioned to evangelize by taking the teaching to all nations, and by preaching the Gospel to every creature. The converts or disciples that are made are added to the parent body by baptism and each one is subject to the discipline of the elders of that body… In the New Testament we see all the preaching coming from the Church as expressed in the local churches whether at Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus or elsewhere. All converts were added to the churches. All preachers were subject to the discipline of the churches and, if travelling abroad, were sent out by one church or another”, Erroll Hulse,The Local Church and Evangelism, Carey Publications Ltd.

[4] Zac Poonen, The Day of Small Beginnings , Ch 47 : Making Disciples In All Nations, CFC India.

[5] This is often attributed to the Canadian Evangelist Oswald J. Smith, however some have pointed it in the writings of A.W Pink also.

[6] A.W Pink quotes the death of some of the Strict Baptist churches in Australia, who “are already dead but they are not yet buried and I believe one of the main reasons for that is this—they failed at the vital point of evangelism. If a church does not evangelize it will fossilize. That is God’s method of perpetuating His work and of maintaining His churches. God uses means, and the means that the Holy Spirit uses in His work is the preaching of the gospel to the unconverted, to every creature. True, the preaching will avail nothing without the Spirit’s blessing and application. True, no sinner will or can believe until God has quickened him. Yet he ought to, and is commanded to.”, Christian Fools, Sydney, Australia 1927.

[7] James Montgomery Boice in Foundations of the Christian Faith, highlights this fact: “In more recent times the modern missionary movement received nearly all its initial impetus and direction from those in the Calvinistic tradition. The list includes William Carey, John Ryland, Henry Martyn, Robert Moffat, David Livingstone, John G. Paton, John R. Mott and others. For all these the doctrines of grace were not an appendage to Christian thought but were, rather, central, firing and forming their preaching and missionary efforts.”

[8] Jay Dharan, Theology Does Matter, Ch 2 : Is not the Word more important than systems of theology?, Beacon of Truth, 2010

[9] A.W Pink, Present Day Evangelism.

[10] Kerux the Greek term describing the Imperial Herald is used in the New Testament 3 times (1 Timothy 2:7, 2 Timothy 1:11, 2 Peter 2:5); Kerusso the verb form of kerux is used 61 times in the New Testament (Mt 3:1; 4:17, 23; 9:35; 10:7, 27; 11:1; 24:14; 26:13; Mk. 1:4, 7, 14, 38 39, 45; 3:14; 5:20; 6:12; 7:36; 13:10; 14:9; 16:15, 20; ; Lk 3:3; 4:18 19, 44; 8:1, 39; 9:2; 12:3; 24:47; Acts 8:5; 9:20; 10:37, 42; 15:21; 19:13; 20:25; 28:31; Ro 2:21; Ro 10:8, Ro 10:14 15; 1Co 1:23; 9:27; 15:11 12; ; 2Co 1:19; 4:5; 2Co 11:4; Gal 2:2; 5:11; Php 1:15; Col 1:23; 1Th 2:9; 1Ti 3:16; 2Ti 4:2; 1Pe 3:19; Rev 5:2)

[11] This does not preclude the fact that unbelievers are responsible for their disobedience. The Bible does speak about the responsibility and the inability of sinners, in this matter of believing the gospel. The language here suggests that our Lord is speaking here about their inability.

[12] Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Power in Preaching: Decide (1 Corinthians 2:1–5), Themelios, Volume 34, Issue 1 April 2009.

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