EVANGELISM AND THE EVANGELICAL
Notes of an Address given in 1981
Two major abuses cause confusion about these words today. Firstly, there are those who associate evangelism only with large campaigns like the Billy Graham Crusades. Secondly, there are those who associate the words only with departures from the
Biblical message like the popular Arminian decisionism of so many preachers. Both these are serious departures from the real meaning of the words which are wholly Biblical and should be used only in ways consistent with their original meaning.
The True meaning of the Words
J. C. Ryle in his book, Knots Untied, lists the leading features of Evangelical religion as:
1) The absolute supremacy it assigns to the Holy Scriptures.
2) The depth and prominence it assigns to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption.
3) The paramount importance it attaches to the work and office of our Lord Jesus Christ.
4) The high place it assigns to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man.
5) The importance it attaches to the outward, visible work of the Holy Spirit in the life of man.
The Word Proclaimed
The vital importance of the gospel and the divine purpose for its world-wide proclamation is very evident on the pages of Scripture. The Old Testament prophecies often look forward to the day when the good news of the Messiah and His kingdom will so be preached to all men that multitudes will be brought into submission to Him.
In the New Testament we find that the public ministries of John the Baptist and then of Jesus Christ are strikingly similar. “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” Matt. 3.2, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” Matt. 4.17. Similarly, this concern for the kingdom and its establishment appears very early in the prayer Jesus taught His disciples, “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come”. This concern became even more insistent towards the end of our Saviour’s life on earth. The evangelical commission of Matt 28.18-20, is repeated by Mark (16.15,16) and Luke (24.46-48) and the last words uttered by Jesus immediately before His ascension echo the same deep concern, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.” (Acts 1.8,9).
The True Evangelical
The true evangelical is simply that person or preacher who lives in the spirit of this prevailing concern for the kingdom of God and the spread of the gospel into all the world. He takes to heart his Saviour’s words, “and the Gospel must first be preached among all nations” (Mark 13.10).
David in Psalm 51.12,13, echoes the same desire that after he had been restored God would use him in the conversion of sinners.
“Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee”. Very early in the ministry of Jesus we see the effect of His teaching on Philip (John 1.43-51) who, as soon as he had been called to follow Jesus was anxious that Nathaniel should have the same blessing.
Even in persecution, or perhaps one should say, especially in persecution, believers have been very bold in their evangelical testimony. Acts 8.1-5 records such events, as scattered believers went everywhere preaching the word and Philip went down to Samaria and preached Christ to them.
This was wholly consistent with the Saviour’s solemn warning in Matt. 10.32,33, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” The church at Philippi is exhorted to a very plain testimony by life and word “in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation” as they were to be “Holding forth the word of life.” (Phil. 2.15,16).
The Thessalonians were notable evangelicals as they “sounded out the word of the Lord” (1.5-8) and Peter was concerned that scattered believers, wherever they were, should “show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2.9).
With great forcefulness Paul shows that the preaching of the word is a precious divine appointment and is essential in the calling of sinners. “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent? As it is written. How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith. Lord, who hath believed our report? So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10.13-17).
The Word and its effects
The content of the evangel is “the whole counsel of God” but with special reference to Jesus Christ and His great salvation. J. I. Packer comments in his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of GodÂ—
“The gospel starts by teaching us that we, as creatures, are absolutely dependent on God, and that He, as Creator, has an absolute claim on us. Only when we have learned this can we see what sin is, and only when we see what sin is can we understand the good news of salvation from sin. We must know what it means to call God Creator before we can grasp what it means to speak of Him as Redeemer. Nothing can be achieved by talking about sin and salvation where this preliminary lesson has not in some measure
been learned. The gospel is a message about sin. It tells us how we have fallen short of God’s standard; how we have become guilty, filthy, and helpless in sin, and now stand under the wrath of God. It tells us that the reason why we sin continually is that we are sinners by nature, and that nothing we do, or try to do, for ourselves can put us right, or bring us back into God’s favour. It shows us ourselves as God sees us, and teaches us to think of ourselves as God thinks of us. Thus it leads to self despair. And this also is a necessary step. Not till we have learned our need to get right with God, and our inability to do so by any effort of our own, can we come to know the Christ who saves from sin”.
In similar vein R. B. Kuyper in God Centred Evangelism comments “It has been said that the central message of evangelism must be the command, addressed to the unsaved, that they be born again. As a matter of fact, the Bible contains no such command. The Lord’s statement to Nicodemus, “Ye must be bom again” (John 3.7) was an indicative, not an imperative. Jesus spoke of the new birth as an indispensable experience, yet not as a duty to be performed…. The reason why Scripture nowhere commands the unregenerate to bring themselves to life is obvious. They are spiritually dead, ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Eph. 2.1)”.
Against this background the good news is proclaimed. That Jesus Christ is able and willing to save the lost sinner who comes to Him. His person and His work will be the dominant theme in gospel preaching, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1.1), the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20.24), the gospel of the blessed God (1 Tim.
This gospel insistently calls sinners to repentance and proclaims pardon and peace to every believer. It calls the sinner to the Saviour because:
a) They are in such a desperate condition
b) He is the only Saviour for sinners
c) He is worthy of their trust
d) He has promised to receive all who come to Him
e) He has promised all gospel blessings to those who believe, remission and forgiveness of sins, eternal life and peace with God.
Dealing with the difficult question of the extent of the atonement and the gospel proclamation to all men. Packer comments, “We must not present the saving work of Christ apart from His Person” and then goes on to say, “The object of saving faith is thus not, strictly speaking, the atonement, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who made the atonement”, and it is interesting to note that he goes on to comment, “It is obvious that if a preacher thought that the statement, ‘Christ died for everyone of you’, made to any congregation would be unverifiable, and probably not true, he would take care not to make it in his gospel preaching. You do not find such statements in the sermons of, for instance, George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon”.
The true preaching of the gospel is quite distinct from the vague universalism of the Arminian preacher but this does not limit the
free grace evanglist in his proclamation to every creature of a gospel which is urgent and pressing in its commands and invitations. The true free grace evangelist is no fatalist and has a great zeal for the glory of God and His kingdom.
The true preaching of the gospel is not superficial and banal but serious and worthy of its Author. Packer remarks, “Again: we have to ask, is this way of presenting Christ calculated to convey gospel truth in a manner that is appropriately serious? Is it calculated to make people feel that they are indeed facing a matter of life and death? Is it calculated to make them see and feel the greatness of God, and the greatness of the grace of Christ? Is it calculated to make them aware of the awful majesty and holiness of God? Will it help them to realize that it is a fearful thing to fall into His hands? Or is this way of presenting Christ so light and casual and cosy and jolly as to make it hard for the hearers to feel that the gospel is a matter of any consequence, save as a pick-me-up for life’s misfits? It is a gross insult to God, and a real dis-service to men, to cheapen and trivialize the gospel by one’s presentation of it. Not that we should put on an affected solemnity when speaking of spiritual things;
there is nothing more essentially frivolous than a mock seriousness, and nothing more likely to make hypocrites out of our hearers. What is needed is this: that we who should speak for Christ, should pray constantly that God will put and keep in our hearts a sense of His greatness and glory, and of the joy of fellowship with Him, and of the dreadfulness of spending time and eternity without Him; and then God will enable us to speak honestly, straightforwardly, and just as we feel about these matters. Then we shall be really natural in presenting the gospel – and really serious too”.
The ultimate divine purpose in evangelism is beautifully expressed in Rev. 11.15, “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever”. God’s great mercy in evangelism is seen in Rev. 14.6,7, “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice. Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters”. And the beauty of the gospel is never more clearly seen than at the very end of the Bible, Rev. 22.17, “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say. Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely”.
Such evangelism with its deep concern for men’s souls is not, however, man-centred. Neither the preacher nor the convert is to be pre-eminent. The gospel is a preaching of Christ and Him crucified, a declaration of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It has as its chief end the glory of its great Author.*
*Useful reading on this subject:
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. J. I. Packer. I.V.P.; God Centred Evangelism. R. B. Kuyper. B.O.T.; God’s Way. Paul Bassett. E.P.; Evangelism and Your Church. C. John Miller. Pres. & Ref. Pub. Co.; Tell the World. Eric Wright. E.P.