I once worked in the photo department of a drugstore. I recall a lady who dropped off her film and promised to promptly return for it that day. I started developing the film and noticed that all the pictures were of a sleeping infant, but something was different about the baby. I was engrossed in the pictures as they came out of the printer, trying to put together what I was seeing. It looked like a wonderfully real doll until I suddenly realized that this was no doll or sleeping child. It was a dead baby.
The lady returned as she had said whereupon I tactfully commented about the photos. She apologized to me and stated that she usually explained the content of her film before having them developed but simply had failed to do so this day. These photos were part of her job: She was head of Pregnancy Loss Services in the maternity ward of one of the major hospitals. When children were born dead or had died in birth, her group went into action with different services the parents might desire to ease their grief. These ranged from photos like these to private funerals and regional commemorative walks.
Although my questions about the photos were satisfied, the pictures had a negative effect on me. They got on my nerves and haunted me for an entire week. I’d have flashes of the dead child while driving down the road or lose my appetite—such were the things that happened to me. Thereafter and almost weekly, the lady brought in film and the photos became more disturbing: babies in all stages of fetal development, some mutant-looking and badly discolored.
Even more shocking were the photos of smiling parents and family cuddled with their child—dressed if possible—and complete with balloons and other party stuffs, as though the child celebrated its birthday. The moments captured in those photos were terribly sad to view, but they were also powerfully consoling to the parents who were able to see a child’s tiny fingers or dark hair or resemblance to a sibling. It was literally a lifetime bundled in a single moment.
The Spiritually Dead
I realize that the story I’ve just related might be bizarre or difficult to read, but I use it as a prompt to discuss a spiritual point. Every person on earth spiritually enters this life as that unfortunate child—dead. There is no worthy goodness, no ability to love God, no self-motivated effort to reach him or ponder thoughts about him, even no chance of assessing our own depravity. We lie helplessly dead. In fact, this is one of Christianity’s classic teachings, the total depravity of humans as a result of original sin, another classic teaching. Every capacity of the human creature is impacted by the taint and destructiveness of sin.
The urgency of evangelism lies in what is at stake, the eternal soul: the soul that will either forever enjoy the presence of God or experience the torment of his separation. Thus, to do evangelism we must have a clear estimation about whom we’re targeting, which should look something like this: A spiritually dead person whose knowledge about church, past activities there, beliefs about Jesus, and so forth have heretofore meant nothing to the salvation of his or her soul (with respect to the Spirit’s unseen work.) Moreover, nothing will mean anything in that regard until that one acknowledges their deep sinfulness and rebellion against God. We were made for God and God’s love, but we, as Jeremiah has beautifully stated it, “…have turned [our] backs toward [the Lord] and not [our] faces” (2:27).
So it becomes our responsibility to explain that coming to Christ marks a renaissance, a quickening to life, a spiritual transformation that purposes to dominate everything about a person. It is more than getting one’s life together or “turning over a new leaf,” for one cannot ascertain God except the Holy Spirit gives light whereby to see. When this light does come, the first thing one will see is the disease of sin that destroys; the next thing will be the remedy, Jesus the Savior.
Why Being Good Isn’t Enough
Until we present a full call to repentance we accept the charge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that we offer only a “cheap grace” to the sinner. The grace we invite the sinner to accept is characterized as being cheap because it entails a convert merely holding to rules and regulations—going through the motions of being saved and doing church—rather than one’s radical self-denial and death to sinful ways to take up the cross of Christ. Such a grace only cumbersomely gets one through the door of faith, then, woefully, continues without effective discipleship.
Again, until we present an unswerving call to repentance, we will deceive men and women that their faith is genuine when they actually stand in need of full conversion. Bonhoeffer also makes a powerful point that a believer’s life and righteousness is possessed only in association with their fellowship with Christ. He says, “…righteousness can never become an objective criterion to be applied at will.” This is why merely good people don’t get to Heaven. Our best efforts and supreme moral good is worthless to make any difference for our salvation (Isa. 64:6)—and so is a righteousness given by God should we ever try to divorce it from Jesus. The righteousness which is from God ceases to be when we try to take credit for it. Jesus is everything in the ongoing conversion process, for even our confession is by the Holy Spirit.
Following His Lead
Now I’d like to transition from the condition of the lost and our preaching to some matters that determine our evangelistic effectiveness. First, we must recognize the Holy Spirit’s leadership in the conversion process. As much as I believe in outreach and missions, we must avoid an imperial attitude that makes us regard the unsaved as pawns to be captured or won instead of sinful souls in need God’s salvation. Too often that zeal is short-sighted (saving souls is easily done) or comes with wrong motives (numbers for our crusades and membership).
Real evangelism that brings souls to Jesus is not centered in how we can ‘work it’ but in the power of the Spirit to draw men and deliver them from death to life. We must preach simply and dependent on the Spirit’s help resisting the need for tactic or gimmick to lure people to the message. Now I’m not the biggest fan of witnessing campaigns…a much more conservative evangelical in this area than some. Still, I believe that an integrated faith in one’s life is important. I will never be ashamed of professing my faith in Jesus Christ before the world and sharing how his life makes every difference in mine. I think the Holy Spirit can sometimes use this better than our agendas to “win” the lost.
It’s important to pause here to say that prayer is our first labor. We must pray earnestly for the sinner. We must ask God to develop his heart for the lost within us. He longs to save and commune with those who are carried away in darkness. We must ask God to open their minds to the truth and to make their hearts receptive; to set us in their paths that we might share a word of encouragement with them whether it’s accepted or rejected. It should tear our hearts to learn that one has passed into eternity without Christ.
Just as following the Holy Spirit’s leadership is important, so is being sensitive to his unseen action among us. We can never be sure who the Spirit is dealing with, but we can be sure that he is moving in hearts around us because we labor in prayer. In this way he precedes us.
Note: It is not for us to assume that just because someone we’ve witnessed to is apparently receptive he or she is ready to confess Christ. The nicest people can be the most resistant to God. But could it not also be true that the one that fights and rejects us does so because he or she has been resisting the Spirit of Truth already whispering in the ear? Expect the Spirit before you ever open your mouth!
Aiding the Spirit
Now if giving way to the Spirit’s leadership is to help ourselves labor easier, then our procedures and support systems must be our way of helping the Spirit. Let me explain what I mean.
First, we need to see the entrance into the life of faith as a process. One of the most intimate and powerful baptism experiences that I’ve witnessed occurred when I lived in Japan. It involved a Japanese man with whom I shared budding friendship. His wife was a believer but he was not. He had long been attending Alpha meetings, a Bible-based discipleship support group. I came to the church in time to witness my friend’s baptism and announcement of faith in Jesus. It was a deeply moving experience.
My friend’s coming to faith didn’t produce my belief in faith as a process; rather it was the gift of God to me to witness what I had always felt was true about it. Jesus conveys this in his parable of the seed in Mark 4:26-29. Yes, I believe that salvation can be instant and genuine. People all the time come to church resistant to God until the Spirit suddenly opens their eyes and causes them to see Jesus.
But many of our churches don’t possess enough insight to see that the ‘one stop shop’ approach will not (and does not) reach everyone. I hate it when I hear preachers going through the formula—“Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God; that he died and rose from the dead…” Well sure they do and many people do, but it has done nothing to save them so far. (They’re dead, remember?)
And we can be sure that our formulaic approach and come-to-Jesus-right-now attitude will always fail should we maintain that the process 1) hinges on a mere decision for Christ (usually meaning all one has ever heard about Jesus) that can 2) be so easily made by the person having no discipleship precede conversion and certainly none following it. Lord, help us!
So we lend assistance to the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:9) when we take the time to answer the questions of those who genuinely inquire of the Christian life. People have questions and we should respect their right and need to have answers. Could we go further and say that the Holy Spirit himself places questions in people’s hearts? That he understands that the personalities of some need questions answered before they will unlock their hearts to him? Of course he does because he created us all and knows us perfectly. This is partly the understanding of 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 when Paul speaks of “casting down imaginations”—arguments and theories. This is what the Holy Spirit seeks to do: dismantle the structures Satan has erected in people’s minds that cause them to rebel against God (2 Cor. 4:3-4).
Our churches have to be sure that their methods are not blocking the work the Spirit may be establishing in people’s hearts. This even means we need more intimate prayer settings in our churches where workers in our services can explain the gospel and help seekers understand the life they’re choosing. It means that we need more cell groups and focused support groups, like Alpha, that embrace those with questions about God, the church, and spirituality.
(Let me stop and say this: Evangelism is an off-campus event. We are to go seek and save. No more seeker-sensitive services! The worship service is meant to edify the body of believers.)
A Rationally Viable Faith
It is a sobering thought that some people do not shadow the door of the church because it doesn’t meet them where they are. Some perspective here: Our world is a highly advanced place these days, and we (Americans) live in the most advanced nation on earth and in its history. The task for us Christians is to be able to clearly speak the unchanging and powerful gospel in the agora, the public square that might be better reckoned today as the marketplace of ideas.
Many out in this bazaar will not enter our churches without a higher level approach to the Christian system. So right here we must toss away the what-worked-in-times-past approach because it won’t fit the bill today or with all people (Mark 2:22). But although we preach an unchanging gospel, it doesn’t mean that the system of Christian faith is outmoded as many in our culture have written it off to be.
Two thousand years of church history has made the Christian faith more than ready to answer the complex questions of our advancing society. Most of our churches focus squarely on the devotional and primary aspects of the gospel message and forsake the church’s voice in the global and secular scheme of things. But the church has something to say about the broader society and matters like environmentalism, biomedical ethics, technology, and an array of topics and issues that have often been viewed as being irrelevant to our holy purposes.
In the same vein, sometimes we’re just not prepared. The Christian faith bears a very real rational aspect. It is a theological system as well as an ethical and philosophical system of belief that offers a full-spectrum perspective on the human experience. These kinds of intellectual discussions and forums must also be hosted by our churches because they too belong to the Church and have strongly existed in it since its spread throughout the Roman Empire. The church should always have a voice about current topics. We must appreciate our earliest heritage because there would simply be no church today without the rational prowess of the earliest defenders. We can only overlook intellectualism in our armory of spiritual weapons.
It is here that we discover the leading front of the battle between light and darkness. The way we think affects generations. After all, God loves these men and women, too, and needs the Albert Einsteins and Steve Jobs of the world. They are the Apostle Pauls and C.S. Lewises who could do more for the kingdom than we all combined! We fear these deeper subjects because we feel that they’re irrelevant or unnecessary in the saving of souls but we err. For goodness sake, we oppose anyone who would stand in the pulpit and preach theology! No, every person won’t need deep exposition to open their eyes to God but many do, especially today, and often those who could draw scores to God with their own salvation.
So just because these subjects are deeply rational and perhaps new to us doesn’t mean that we should avoid them. Think on it: Do we just let the intellectual masses of youth streaming out of our universities go headlong into hell? No! God needs their minds, their youth, and their fervor. Each of us can only benefit from a philosophy or apologetics text. Not only would we be made better Christians by it, but God sends us—guess where?—back into the marketplace; this time you’re a sharper tool (no pun intended!) The question is not if we can communicate Christ to the world but how willing might we be to do everything in our power to do so.
“Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. 5:14, KJV). When God awakens that baby from death, we should be the ready life support staff of spiritual physicians equipped with every tool in our power to make the work of the Spirit complete. The Spirit has done the hard work. He has breathed new life; now we work on the vitals.
With that said, evangelism is necessary and discipleship is not optional (Matt. 28:19). In fact, discipleship occurs on both ends of the evangelism process. Our manner should be direct, simple, enabling, and thoughtful. And when that one finally says Yes! to Jesus, with genuine conviction, we can truly call in the party because that child will live to never die again. Isn’t that great? We have awoken, once and for all, to life everlasting. Let us examine ourselves, for we are each God’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20).
Source: Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1968.
Also on this subject: How We Engage the Lost