I’m particularly sensitive to this topic. I’ve seen dynamic leaders converting large numbers of people to a mission (evangelism). And I’ve seen what happened subsequently. It was an unmitigated disaster in many people’s lives.
I think we likely agree in this: there are two extremes to be avoided. The first is the extreme of being so mission-oriented that grace is supplanted by mission.
The way I see mission working through and in grace — rather than replacing grace — is for mission to come from an outpouring of love in the Christian’s heart. In fact, Christians should do mission for the sheer joy of mission! Mission should be sensual: a source of delight in God’s work through and around us.
One critical test of whether a church is doing mission right is whether those involved in the effort feel superior to the other Christians. If they do, then they’ve completely missed the point — to be servants, not the brother of the prodigal son who resents his father’s approval of his sinning brother. Rather, the truly missional members will be effective ambassadors for serving in God’s mission because they enjoy it — not because they think they’re better Christians.
The other extreme to avoid is turning evangelism into being about nothing but personal salvation. We don’t always do this, but we do it a lot. It’s a common sin among young people. We’re so anxious to get our children in the water we talk of nothing but heaven and hell, not once mentioning what they’ll have to give up or what Jesus expects of them. And yet Jesus never hesitated to talk about the high price of discipleship.
It’s not that the people we convert this way aren’t saved. They are. But they often aren’t disciples, meaning we sin against Matt 28:19.
And when we do this, we’re being dishonest. If the only lesson we teach a convert is if they’ll believe in Jesus and get baptized they’ll go to heaven, well, we’ve not taught them what it means to repent.
You see, we routinely take “repent” to mean “stop sinning,” which is certainly part of what it means. But it means more. The converts in Acts 2 were good Jews (“God-fearing Jews” 2:5) who, until Pentecost, were in God’s grace (except for those who’d been at Jesus’ trial, crying for his death). Those Jews were no more in need of moral repentance than you or I — perhaps less so.
But they had to make a change. They had to accept God’s grace through Jesus Messiah. They had to kneel before Jesus as King (2:30). And so Peter taught them the Lordship of Jesus (2:35) before they were baptized.
The Jews already had a general sense of what this would mean, as they’d studied the prophets. Nonetheless, they understood that the kingship of Jesus would about much more than being forgiven and giving up moral sin. It would be about submitting to Jesus as “Lord,” the very same word used to refer to God and to Caesar.
I remain astonished how often, even today, we have adults asking to be re-baptized because they’d never before understood the Lordship of Jesus. I have to figure we are doing a lousy job of teaching our converts.
(Mat 19:29-30) And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.