Tag Archives: evangelism

Don’t Share Your Faith?

Sharing the gospel isn’t only a biblical imperative, it’s also something every Christian should instinctively want to do.  If you love your Saviour, why wouldn’t you want others to hear about him?  However, someone could be held back by a Scripture passage which, at first glance, seems to tell us not to share our faith.  I’m thinking of Romans 14:22a, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.”  That could be understood as saying Christians shouldn’t evangelize.

When faced with an interpretive issue like this, it’s a good idea to look at other Bible translations, especially if you don’t know the original languages of Scripture.  Above I quoted from the ESV, a translation which attempts to be both literal and readable.  The New King James Version is similar:  “Do you have faith?  Have it to yourself before God.”  While the first clause becomes a question in the NKJV, it still represents essential a literal rendering of the Greek. 

This is an instance where the New International Version is helpful.  The NIV leans more to a “dynamic equivalent” approach to translation.  In this approach, being literal is less important than being understandable.  This approach has its pros and cons.  But in Romans 14:22a, the meaning is clearer in the NIV:  “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”  This translation makes it clear this has nothing to do with evangelism. 

With the ESV and NKJV, it is possible to discern that from the context of Romans 14:22.  The context has to do with convictions about eating clean and unclean foods.  However, the word “faith” usually refers to faith in God or in Christ and that can throw us off in verse 22.  Sometimes the word “faith” can also refer to the whole body of Christian teaching, as in “the Christian faith.”  But the Greek word pistis can occasionally also mean “conviction” or “belief about something” and so it is here in Romans 14:22a.

We can learn two things here. 

First, we’re reminded again that “a text without context is a pretext.”  You could remove Romans 14:22a from its context and make it sound as if God is telling us not to evangelize.  The context helps us see how such an assertion would be erroneous.  So remember to always study the context.

Second, we see that there are no perfect Bible translations.  I appreciate a lot of things about the ESV, but its literal approach sometimes hinders understanding.  I appreciate some things about the NIV, but its dynamic equivalent approach sometimes forces readers to adopt a questionable understanding.  The takeaway here is, if you have no training in the original languages, don’t study with just one Bible translation.  By using two or three together, you may be able to compensate for the blind spots of each one.  Bible Gateway has a great tool where you can easily add parallel translations to a passage you’re studying.  I’ve highlighted (in red) the button for this function in the screenshot below – it’s in the upper left hand corner of the tool bar. 


Every Believer Evangelism

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”  Acts 8:4

Reformed Christians have sometimes been accused of being the “frozen chosen.”  Chosen by God’s sovereign grace, we’re frozen when it comes to evangelism.  We have cold hearts that don’t care about the lost and therefore do nothing about the plight of the lost in our lives.  Unfortunately, I think we have to admit that there’s been some truth to this.  To be sure, it’s not because of the doctrine of election.  There are other factors at work, some of them cultural, some personal, and some doctrinal.

One doctrinal factor I’ve encountered is a mistaken understanding of how evangelism is described in the Scriptures.  According to this view, evangelism is limited to special office bearers like ministers or missionaries.  Whenever the Bible speaks about evangelism, it’s speaking only about the official proclamation of God’s Word by one of these special office bearers.  Scripture gives no evidence or example of regular believers evangelizing.

At first glance, it may appear that Acts 8:4 supports this contention.  After all, it speaks about “preaching” and isn’t preaching something limited to special office bearers?  There’s a long tradition in English Bible translation of translating the Greek word used there as “preaching.”  It’s a tradition that extends to even before the King James Version, found with Wycliffe, Tyndale and the Geneva Bible.  Despite the tradition however, it’s arguably not the best translation for this word. 

The word in Greek is a form of the verb euangelizo  — the English word “evangelism” is derived from this word.  In general, it means to “bring or announce good news.”  Oftentimes it does have the sense of official preaching or proclamation, but not always.  Sometimes it simply refers to someone (anyone) speaking a message of good news.

What does it mean in Acts 8:4?  Here we need to look at the context.  Who were those scattered?  That’s referring to the believers in Jerusalem.  Acts 8:3 speaks of Saul ravaging the church, entering houses, and “dragging off men and women” and putting them in prison.  This was the great persecution of the church in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 8:1, which results in all the believers being scattered except the apostles.  So the apostles were not among those referred to in Acts 8:4.  In fact, it appears that this is just referring to ordinary believers from the church at Jerusalem.

In Acts 8:5, Luke draws attention to Philip, who has also departed Jerusalem, and preaches Christ in Samaria.  There are two important things to note here.  One is that Philip was a deacon, not an apostle, not a minister, and not an officially ordained missionary.  He was a special office bearer, but not one normally entrusted with the task of official proclamation.  The second important thing to note isn’t evident from the ESV Bible translation.  In the original Greek, there is a grammatical construction (the correlative conjunctions men…de) used in verses 4 and 5 which contrasts the two parties.  In simple terms, the grammar prevents one from arguing that Philip is meant as an example of the individuals mentioned in verse 4.  He is set apart from them by this grammatical construction.  The Holy Spirit still highlights Philip’s special role.

It’s only natural to conclude that verse 4 speaks of ordinary Christians spreading the message of the gospel.  In fact, I haven’t been able to find a commentary which asserts otherwise.  This is a clear example of believers evangelizing apart from the special offices.

But is the description of Acts 8:4 prescriptive for Christians today?  There are two angles we should explore.  One has to do with what the book of Acts is really about.  Our English Bibles label the book the Acts of the Apostles.  But Luke didn’t give it that title, or any title for that matter.  In Acts 1:1 he says that his first book was about what “Jesus began to do and teach.”  When Luke writes that, he intimates that his second book (Acts) is about what Jesus continued to do and teach.  We need to read Acts 8:4 in that light.  We may just see ordinary Christians spreading the good news, but the Holy Spirit wants us to see Jesus.  This is what Jesus continued to do – he worked through these believers who were united to him.  As Christians, we’re also united to Christ.  What we see him doing through these Christians, we ought to be doing in union with him too.

The second angle is closely related.  One can hardly imagine that these ordinary believers in Acts needed to be told to evangelize.  Because they were united to Christ, they wanted to.  They couldn’t help themselves.  They were compelled by love to spread the good news of salvation – compelled by love for their Lord Jesus, but also by love for the people around them.  When you experience the reality of life in Jesus Christ, you’ll want to speak about him every opportunity you get.  And you’ll be praying earnestly for those opportunities.  If we don’t have that attitude towards evangelism, we might very well question whether we’re even Christians at all.

Now Acts 8:4 definitely doesn’t exhaust everything the Bible teaches about every believer’s evangelistic calling.  There’s far more, not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old.  But this one passage does prove that speaking the good news of Jesus Christ (evangelism) was something done by ordinary believers in the apostolic church.  Certainly no one can credibly claim on the basis of Scripture that God intends for this task today to be limited to men with seminary educations and titles before their name.


Can Prophets Be Mimes?

What if I told you Christians don’t have a personal responsibility to spread the gospel?  Amongst most Christians such a statement would be met with a raised eyebrow.  But in my little corner of the Reformed world, there are some who hold to this view.  They argue that God has only called ordained ministers and missionaries to evangelize.  Only a minuscule minority of Reformed Christians have ever held such a view.  Of course, the number of people holding to a position doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true.  It’s of far more significance to examine the faithful summary of Scripture we have in our Reformed confessions.  As we do that, such a view of evangelism becomes demonstrably not Reformed.  This view actually runs contrary to what we confess from the Bible.

I’m not going to exposit everything the Three Forms of Unity contain on this point – readers interested in a more fulsome explanation can see my 2015 book, To Win Our Neighbors for Christ.  I’m just going to focus on the Heidelberg Catechism and specifically Lord’s Day 12, QA 32.  As part of what it means to be a Christian, we hold that it involves as a prophet confessing the name of Christ.  This statement has three important features. 

First, Christian prophets confess the name of Christ, the one whose anointing they share.  Christian prophets are not here confessing the name of God as the Triune God, but specifically the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  This is important because we are specifically united to Christ – “I am a member of Christ by faith.”  Thus, when considering what our prophetic calling involves, we should first think of what it involved for Christ.  If we refer back to Answer 31, we find that he was anointed “to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”  Christ’s prophetic calling therefore involves revelation about redemption.  That revelation involved his actions, especially on the cross, but also in his healings and miracles.  Yet it was his words which provided the necessary context to interpret all of these actions.  His words revealed how he was working out our redemption.  His actions meant nothing without words.  If we are members of Christ by faith (united to him), doesn’t our prophetic calling reflect his?  Aren’t we called to use words to reveal redemption through what Christ has done?

Second, Christians confessing the name of Christ are prophets.  If we survey prophecy in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, we soon discover that prophecy is unimaginable apart from words.  It would be unthinkable to have a mime as a prophet.  All the prophets in Scripture used words.  Yes, sometimes prophets also used symbolic actions.  However, just like with Christ’s prophetic calling, those actions only had their full meaning in connection with the verbal ministry of that prophet.  No prophet in Scripture was called to communicate merely by his actions.  Prophecy always involves words.      

Third, we need to think closely about that key word “confessing.”  In normal English usage, to confess something is to communicate something with words.  If I confess a crime to the police, I’m telling them with my words that I did it.  In the original German of the Catechism, the same holds for the word used there: bekenne.  Of even more significance here is the footnoted reference in our edition to Matthew 10:32, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.”  The Greek word for “acknowledge” there is also sometimes translated as “confess” (e.g. in the NKJV).  Homologeo is a word that involves verbal communication.  Sometimes this word can include actions, but it never excludes words.  Thus, to confess the name of Christ necessarily involves the use of our mouths.

When it comes to the original intent and meaning of the Heidelberg Catechism, we’re helped out by the fact that the main author, Zacharias Ursinus, produced a commentary.  On this particular phrase from Answer 32, Ursinus wrote the following:

The prophetical dignity which is in Christians, is an understanding, acknowledgement and confession of the true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.  Or, our prophetical office is:  1. Rightly to know God and his will.  2.  That everyone in his place and degree profess the same, correctly understood, faithfully, boldly, and constantly, that God may thereby be celebrated, and his truth revealed in its living force and power.  ‘Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:32).       

Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p.179.

Notice how Ursinus speaks of the “true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.”  You cannot communicate that with a wordless lifestyle.  Clearly the main author of the Catechism believed that being a Christian prophet involves speaking about salvation in Christ to others.

This has also been widely recognized in the Liberated Reformed tradition of which I’m a part.  I would simply refer to Professor Benne Holwerda’s 1942 sermon on Lord’s Day 12, published in volume 1 of De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn.  He first says that he’s not talking about mission or evangelism, by which he means mission or evangelism in an organized ecclesiastical way.  Then he says:    

But now I’m thinking about our regular conversations.  The best evangelism is not a tract or brochure, but daily conversations.  We believe in Christ.  But that means, says the second answer, that through faith we share in his anointing of the Holy One and now know all things [pertaining to salvation].  Therefore whoever speaks, let him speak like the words of God.  Not just if it is convenient, not just if you are doing it deliberately, but let every word you say be a word from God.          

De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn (vol. 1), p.175 (translation mine)

Holwerda was clear that the prophetic calling mentioned in Lord’s Day 12 couldn’t be isolated from words.  It involved “the best evangelism” – using our everyday conversations to speak about the Lord. 

There’s a sense in which we shouldn’t even have to be told of our calling to evangelize.  When you’re a Christian and you know lost people, you care for them, and it should be a natural thing that you think about their eternal destiny and want to tell them about Christ.  It should be the natural outgrowth of our love for people and our love for the Lord.  Yet Scripture still lays out this calling for us – and our confessions reflect it.  Why?  Because even as Christians we’re weak and sinful.  We can be inclined not to love our neighbour and not to think about the eternal destiny of the lost apart from Christ.  When we’re told that we don’t have a personal responsibility for evangelism, all that does is reinforce these sinful and weak remnants of our old nature.  Such an attitude proves right those who say Reformed believers are the “frozen chosen.”  Worst of all, this approach dishonours our Saviour because it gives the impression that the good news about him isn’t worth sharing.  Therefore, it’s not only un-Reformed, it’s un-Christian and ungodly.          


Motorcycle Evangelism

I was in Grade 2 and it was my first effort at evangelism, or at least to try and invite someone to church.  Our family was living in the Arctic town of Inuvik and we were attending the local Baptist church.  My Sunday School teacher was outward looking and tried to teach us church kids to be the same.  She encouraged us to invite our friends to come to church so they could hear the gospel.

Nicky lived on the same street as us, a few doors down.  Like me, his father was an RCMP officer — he was a street cop, my Dad a pilot.  Nicky was also in my class at the Sir Alexander Mackenzie School.  Unlike me, he was a Newfie; he had this quirky Newfoundland accent.  He and his family were also not church-going folk.

One day I was hanging out over at Nicky’s place.  What my Sunday School teacher said was weighing on my mind.  So I said to Nicky, “Hey, do you want go to church with me on Sunday?”  Nicky replied, “Nah, I don’t go to church and I don’t wanna.”  I stopped for a moment and thought.  Nicky needed an incentive.  So I said, “If you come, you’ll get one of these really neat pencils.”  I showed him the pencil I got at Sunday school.  It had all these colours associated with Jesus and the gospel and then Bible verses in tiny print to explain what each meant.  Nicky wasn’t impressed:  “I don’t need a stupid pencil.  Nah, I told you, I don’t wanna go to church.”

He was stubborn.  I had to up the ante.  Clearly he needed a bigger incentive than a pencil.  I thought of something Nicky would regard as irresistibly cool.  With the most persuasion I could muster, I told him, “If you come, they’ll give you a motorbike!”  I don’t how I came up with that whopper, but it certainly didn’t work.  Nicky just said, “No way, I don’t believe you.  No church would give away a motorbike.  Nope, not comin’.”  Nicky never did come to church with me.

I was in Grade 2.  So perhaps you can forgive me for being an evangelist whose honesty didn’t match his zeal.  In my desire to achieve the goal, I tried to appeal to the greed naturally resident in human hearts.  But, in aiming so high, my pitch was transparently unbelievable, even to a kid in Grade 2.

Sadly, some of what passes for evangelism doesn’t get much beyond my Grade 2 efforts.  The human heart isn’t naturally drawn to the gospel message of rescue for sinners through the cross of Christ.  In their natural condition, human hearts don’t find that message attractive or persuasive.  Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  Yet some try to share the good news in a way that promises things the Bible doesn’t.  Maybe not motorbikes, but certainly health, wealth, and prosperity:  “If you come to Christ, you’ll be blessed materially.  Your health will be better.  Your relationships will improve.”  Such incentives are really no different to a Grade 2 kid telling his friend to come to church so he can get a motorbike.

I often think of the memorable words of C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock:

As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

Lewis was right.  Becoming a Christian is going to mean struggle and difficulty.  It means bearing a cross, dying to yourself, killing sin.  From a this-world perspective, there isn’t much (if anything) to commend it.

So, how do we make the gospel persuasive?  Or:  how do we even just make a case for someone to join us for Sunday worship at a church service?  Here’s the thing:  the power of persuasion ultimately isn’t in us.  Our calling is simply to speak the truth in love.  We’re called to share the gospel with whomever we can.  Now 1 Peter 3:15 says you should be prepared to give an answer if someone asks you, “Why?”  Why should someone believe the gospel?  Because it’s the way to be rescued from the judgment we deserve and it’s the way back to the way things should be in terms of how we relate to our Creator.  Why should someone come to church?  Because, we tell them, there they’re going to hear the best news available to humanity.  In a world of bad news and worse news, a faithful Christian church is going to herald the good news of who Jesus is and what he’s done.

When we say true things like that, God may be at work in that person’s heart with his Holy Spirit.  The words we speak may be God’s instrument to persuade and draw that person in to Christ.  Or perhaps not.  Ultimately the persuasion isn’t in our power.  God persuades when he chooses to do so.  We just have to speak the truth.


Pastoral Q & A: Should We Call Unbelievers “Pre-Christians”?

While it’s not overwhelming or huge, there seems to be a bit of a trend to refer to unbelievers as “pre-Christians.”  A parishioner attended another church in our state recently and came across this way of speaking and asked me about it.  Is it acceptable to substitute “pre-Christian” for “non-Christian” or “unbeliever”?

If we turn to Scripture, the word “unbeliever” is used 14 times in the New Testament.  It’s used to translate the Greek word apistos.  Sometimes the word “Gentile” (Gr. ethnos) is used to refer to those who aren’t Christians, extending the Old Testament idea of the pagan nations surrounding Israel.  In Ephesians 2:3, non-Christians are referred to as “children of wrath.”  Later in the same chapter, they are “strangers to the covenants of promise” (2:12) and “aliens” (2:19).  However, the standard word in Scripture is simply “unbeliever.”  The word “pre-Christian” is not used at all.

Nevertheless, there is no issue with using a non-scriptural word if it captures a biblical concept.  The classic example is the word “Trinity” – it’s not used in the Bible, but the concept is definitely there.  So, can a biblical case be made for referring to unbelievers as “pre-Christians”?

I can appreciate the positive attitude this term is meant to convey.  When we give a Christian witness to someone, we certainly hope that the Holy Spirit will use our witness to bring someone to faith in Christ.  We pray in that way and perhaps we should pray more expectantly than we often do.

Yet the fact of the matter is that we don’t know God’s plans for the salvation of any given person.  Scripture reveals a doctrine of election:  God has chosen some to eternal life before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).  But we don’t know who they are and neither should we presume to know.   Instead, we address each person with the thought that only God knows whether or not that person is going to be a Christian.  Our calling is not to guess or assume an outcome, but simply to present the gospel.

There is another aspect to this.  From the point of view of a non-Christian, adopting the language “pre-Christian” could also be offensive.  When I was in seminary, I attended a book club once or twice.  Some of the other attendees were Reformed Baptists.  One of them jokingly referred to me as a “Reformed-Baptist-in-training.”  I knew he was just kidding around and so it didn’t bother me.  Friends can banter like that.  But couldn’t this language of “pre-Christian” be unnecessarily offensive to an unbeliever just off the street?  If I put myself in those shoes, I would think:  “What arrogance!  They think they’re definitely going to make me a Christian.”  The gospel is offensive enough on its own; we don’t need to add offense with unnecessary and presumptuous terminology.

So in the interests of humble modesty about God’s plans, and in the interests of avoiding unnecessary offense in our witness, it’s best just to use the standard biblical terminology.  If someone isn’t a Christian, then we ought to just say they’re an unbeliever or a non-Christian.  Keep it simple.