I’m hardly an expert, but I would like to share a little of my learning, for whatever it’s worth.
- Thompson is, I believe, quite correct to notice how evangelism is at best a very minor theme of scripture. The Great Commission is, of course, an important evangelism passage, but after it, there’s not much. Paul’s many epistles to churches he founded or planned to visit rarely speak of evangelism except indirectly. He doesn’t urge his readers to go tell their neighbors about Jesus. He urges them to live together as Jesus would have them live. Therefore, our most important evangelism is found in first being the church we’ve been called to be. We’ve got to live the Sermon on the Mount.
- On the other hand, I think the far more serious error is in imagining that the world will find Jesus all by itself, without sacrifice or cost by us.
(Rom. 10:9-15 ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
This is not only a key “plan of salvation” passage, it’s a key “send missionaries!” passage. If no one preaches Jesus, no one will be saved. And thereby Paul destroys the “available light” theory that good people who’ve never heard of Jesus will be saved. That theory can’t be reconciled with “And how are they to believe in him of whom they’ve never heard?”
3. Our traditional evangelism is built on a questionable theory of atonement — and our theology pretty much begins and ends with: “You’re a sinner, you’re going to hell, and Jesus agreed to take the punishment that you deserve — if you’ll be baptized. (And then we’ll teach you about the Five Acts and a whole bunch of other rules.)” You’ll notice that our best thinkers are urging us to think and teach and evangelize in light of a more complete story — the fuller narrative of scripture. After all, our usual “pitch” ignores the Kingdom, the Lordship of Jesus, the curse on creation, the brokenness of humanity, and the church. We only speak of individual brokenness and individual fear of hell and individual hope for salvation — and then wonder why our converts don’t want to attend church.
I’ve frequently quoted this from Mark Love (paragraphing modified) — and I will continue to quote it until it becomes second nature to everyone here.
Let me start, though, with a scene from last night at Starbucks. I was sitting uncomfortably close (within my introvert perimeter) to a young couple having a very passionate conversation about God. She was a winsome evangelical. He was a skeptical something-or-other. She was giving this her all, because it seemed to me, they were serious about each other, but she could only marry a Christian. This was an all-or-nothing moment for her and she was pulling out all the stops. And she was getting creamed.
She was not getting creamed because she lacked the intellectual ability or because he was a better debater. She was getting creamed because she had a story that’s tough to defend. It wasn’t just that he disagreed with her. He was offended by her view of God.
Her story was predictable. All of us are sinners, and it takes only one to make us unacceptable to God. And there’s hell to pay, literally. God can’t simply forgive us our mistakes. He has to have a victim before he can forgive, a blood sacrifice. So, he sends his own son to die for us, to appease his otherwise unappeasable wrath.
For the young man, this made God a monster. It failed for him precisely at the level of being moral. God really can’t forgive me for a mistake unless someone dies? With all that’s wrong with the world–disease, war, hunger, slaver–God is obsessed with who I sleep with? He kept telling her that he was a good person who cared for others and took care of the earth and cared about global issues of justice. God was going to send him to hell for pre-marital sex? (He did seem a little pre-occupied with sex).
She was preaching penal substitutionary atonement, which we often confuse with the gospel. But the gospel is much bigger.
What if she had started this way: we live in a world that is totally screwed up. Sex-trafficking, poverty, disease, environmental disasters. We’ve made a hash of it. (He agrees). And being a really good person isn’t the answer. We’re both really good people and know a lot of other really good people and we fix some things and some don’t get any better and some get worse (He agrees). Even science, which makes our lives better in so many ways, also threatens to wipe us from the face of the earth (He agrees). And my question is, where is God in all of this? (And he agrees and hopes you have a satisfying answer).
The Christian story says that God has revealed his power in a story of selfless love, which is the opposite of what the Bible calls sin and identifies as the root of this whole mess. God’s solution to the problem is not power as “control over” the contingencies of this life. Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole.
The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word. And the church is a group of people who live by the power of this selfless love, which the Holy Spirit gives to us, and who live in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways, who live as a sign of God’s future where all things will be made whole.
This takes more than just good people or moral people. Christians hardly have that market cornered, but it takes people who share a commitment to this way of being in the world. And when you live this way with others, you learn to recognize the unmistakable ways that God shows up, like those moments of power when we learn to forgive each other the way God lavishly forgives us. And when I live in this story, I find myself being transformed by the love God. The way this world gets on you and in you and contaminates you and weighs you down with shame and guilt and condemnation is defeated. And this transformed way of life survives everything, even death. …
Maybe he buys it, maybe he doesn’t. But the point is a different starting place makes a huge difference. By moving the primary issue from the individual to creation and history, the story unfolds in a different way. And you might tell it differently than I did. For instance, Paul doesn’t tell it precisely this way. But he’s starting with a different audience.
A better, more complete story of God makes for a different, better evangelism. And when people are converted, they aren’t converted to fear of hell but love for God.