Last weekend I was at a Study Day organized by the Colchester Episcopal Area, part of the Diocese of Chelmsford, on the topic of ‘Evangelism Without Tears’.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, observed that properly speaking, evangelism could well be ‘with tears’, but he gave a rousing introductory talk nevertheless.
Both he and subsequent contributors also rightly stressed the importance of ‘process’ in evangelism. Research shows that the average length time from first becoming aware of spiritual questions to full faith is from four to five years. Certainly this was true in my own experience. I have often said that it took me my first year at university to work out what a real Christian was and a further two years before I took the plunge of personal commitment. Many others would tell a similar story.
In the question-time at the end of the Study Day the matter of ‘process’ was again stressed. Some people, it was said, become believers ‘overnight’. For others it may happen much more gradually. And this is true. But there is a danger, I think, of representing ‘process’ and ‘crisis’ as exclusive alternatives, whereas in fact they need to be kept as complementary factors in the path to faith.
To return to my own example, the ‘process’ of conversion took three years. But there was also a ‘crisis’ — a day and an hour in which I quite consciously ‘became a Christian’. And in our thinking about evangelism, I would argue that we need to see the ‘crisis’ not as an alternative to, but as part of, the ‘process’.
Take, for example, the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. He was clearly a man on a journey in every sense. When we meet him, he had been up to Jerusalem and was on his way home with his souvenir scroll. But he clearly had not ‘arrived’ where God wanted him to be, for the Holy Spirit himself directed the evangelist Philip to meet with him and answer his question concerning Isaiah 53: “About whom is the prophet talking, himself or someone else?”
And it is important that we relate Philip’s response to our own practice. What would — or should — we say to someone to cause them to ask, “Here is water, what is to prevent me being baptized?”
Or again, what of Cornelius? Here is a man who is also ‘on a journey’, at least spiritually. Indeed, we might be tempted to say when we meet him at the beginning of Acts 10 that he has already ‘arrived’. His prayers and alms are already a memorial offering before God (10:4).
But once again, God clearly has other ideas, sending an angel to tell him to send for a man called Peter. And when we read in chapter 11 Peter’s re-telling of the story to the Jerusalem church, we learn an important detail about this vision that is actually not in chapter 10, for the angel told Cornelius that the man they would find at Joppa “will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved” (11:14).
Thus whatever we may make of the positive verdict pronounced on Cornelius in 10:4, we must concede that there is more. The process in his case must also include the crisis — a crisis which, in a real sense, can be called ‘salvation’.
And this raises two questions. First, does our understanding of ‘process’ evangelism include an adequate view of ‘crisis’? And secondly, what actually needs to be communicated at the point of ‘crisis’ in order for ‘salvation’ to result? To quote another example from Acts, what should we answer to the question of the Philippian jailer, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) What must we say if we are to ‘speak the word of the Lord’ to others in a similar situation (16:32)?
In Acts 16, we are not actually told what Paul said to the jailer. In Acts 10, however, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the subsequent sign of speaking in other languages, can reasonably be taken as signalling the point at which Cornelius and his household have heard enough. So when does the Spirit descend?
Peter has been rehearsing the events of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. Yet still the Spirit is held back. And then he comes to these crucial words:
42 He [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:42-43)
Here, surely, we have the sine qua non of evangelism — that without which the gospel message is incomplete and without which faith has no suitable object.
Thus we may suggest that no matter what the process by which people become Christians, or how long it may take, it cannot be regarded as ended until they are essentially brought to this point: to believe the apostolic message that there is a coming judgement of the living and the dead and that the crucified, risen Jesus is the saviour from sin of all who believe in him, as testified to by the prophets.
You will notice — and some will doubtless take delight from the fact — that there is no explicit theory of the atonement put forward here. But one should not be too hasty. In Acts 8, for example, we have the reference to the prophetic testimony of Isaiah 53, which also includes important references to the nature of God’s work through the ‘suffering servant’:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (vv 5-6)
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and ... [to make] his life a guilt offering ... (v 10)
... my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (v 11)
... he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (v 12)
Steve Chalke writes concerning these verses,
I ... have no desire to become involved in a technical debate about how the cross works. As Scripture says ‘he was wounded for our transgressions, by his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5), and for me that is enough.
Yet it would seem to me that the penal nature of God’s action and the substitutionary office of the servant makes a doctrine of ‘penal substitution’ hard to avoid. Nevertheless, we are saved by that work not by our right grasp of doctrine. It is sufficient to believe that, as another Apostle puts it, “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3).
At the same time, however, it is vital to recognize not just the sufficiency of this faith but its necessity.
Paul asks the Galatian Christians, “Did you receive the Spirit [ie ‘were you saved’ cf Acts 11:14] by observing the law or by believing what you heard?” (Gal 3:2). The form of the question means he clearly expects the answer, “By believing what we heard.” But what was it they heard? The answer is, “the gospel”. And once again the emphasis in that ‘gospel’ is on the death of Christ on our behalf for our sins:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3:13-14, NIV)
And here is another important point, for if hearing and believing this gospel message is the key to receiving the Spirit, then we must solemnly say that anyone who has not heard this and believed it, or who has heard it and has not believed it, has not received the Spirit.
Returning to my own example, I think this is the state I was in on the afternoon of that particular day in August 1971 when I opened up my copy of Journey Into Life and began to read what I had to do to be saved. In all my years of churchgoing, I had not really ‘heard’ the message that Jesus died for my sins and that I must believe and trust in him. And when I did hear it, through my Christian Union friends in my first year at University, I understood it, but did not want to do it.
What happened that afternoon was that I received the Spirit, although I didn’t understand it in those terms at the time!
This is not to make my experience normative. On the contrary, the normative pattern is found in Scripture. But what my experience shows is that when we follow that pattern we see its certain effects in the lives of those to whom it is applied.
As our own diocese gears itself up for a year of evangelistic effort in 2014, this is surely something that needs to be clearly understood. Evangelism is about more than a positive encounter with the church. And whilst ‘belonging’ may well precede ‘believing’ (indeed we see that all the time) it is no substitute for the latter.
Furthermore, it may be possible to have beliefs about Jesus which, whilst correct and sincere in themselves, are not a sufficient belief in Jesus to count for our salvation. There are some — indeed many — in our churches whose faith goes up to Acts 10:41 but has not encountered, or in some cases baulks at, Acts 10:42-43.
They rightly believe in Jesus who “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (10:41). Yet the apostolic testimony, “he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” and the message of the Scriptures that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” is either unknown or, in some cases, unacceptable.
Evangelism is a challenging task. And yet as Stephen Cottrell observed on Saturday, it is the Great Commission of the Church. We are to go and make disciples, and anything which contributes to that is evangelistic — it is part of the process.
But the word ‘evangelism’ derives from the Greek word for our ‘news’ or ‘proclamation’ from God. And to engage in that task as the apostles did, we must proclaim what they did, which means bringing people to the point of ‘crisis’. Therefore we must proclaim to all that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:23-24). This is what we must make known, and this is what they must believe.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: