We are a church culture that ranks sins. A few get to tell glowing testimonies of how they were freed from their flaws while others know not to breathe a word about their past misdeeds—at least not the whole story—for fear of being scorned by some or investigated about the extent of their freedom.
This is shameful. It demonstrates that some of us have not understood the nature of sin, that we all stand under the same curse and that the mite of sin is as great as the vilest and most flagrant. We have also not understood the holy nature of God, his seamlessly pure moral character, or the extravagant grace that rescues us all from equal depravity.
Keep the Main Thing…
I like the way Paul addresses the fact—and how do we miss the point?
“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
So profound! Paul highlights issues that were specific to Corinthian society and his hearers; so we gain a telling picture of Corinth. What I love here is that one’s particular “sin background” is non-essential; instead, believers now stand redeemed by the work of Christ—and that’s all that matters, not the once-but-delivered ailment.
If we’re not careful, we will make a big deal about sin and lose love for sinners and fellow believers who wrestle with internal conflicts. We would do well to remember the words of Hebrews 12:15: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God.” Make sure, the writer explains, that no one—sinner or saint—lacks of the Lord’s great kindness.
Assessing Our Approach
Therefore, our churches must be spiritual communities where harbored sin in people’s lives breaks our hearts and where we have mastered a quick prayerful, loving, and restorative response, in the same way a body heals itself.
Compassion is the key. It characterized Jesus’s approach with others. And Paul, in Galatians 6:1, reminds us to compassionately restore those in indiscretion mindful that not only are we too susceptible to sin, but also to their kind of sin.
Sin will (and should) always be an affront to God’s holy nature in us, yet we must stop being surprised and shocked by the personal matters family, friends, and peers share with us. We are all human and err. Amazement only makes one feel bad about divulging their troubles; it also makes them question if God really cares about them.
Sin ain’t pretty. Yours wasn’t. So we dare not offend the Lord by being insensitive to others and impede ministry before it starts.
This isn’t just about sinners bearing all, if you’re still missing the point. Christians trip up and get bound, too. The context for Galatians 6 is the believing community; so Paul continues, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2, NKJV).
So our churches must be havens where certainly the godly can unpack their burdens and receive guidance and healing prayer. We should think this normal, but it isn’t hardly the case. It is sad that some Christians are scornful, judgmental, untrustworthy, and unloving toward their own—how can the lost ever be saved!
A New Culture
I’m concerned we err because we take our cues from the non-Christian culture around us, not the word of God. But the kingdom of God is our culture, a new and shockingly transformative one, and its implications are monumental. No, we don’t think and act the way the world does; our actions and responses will indeed be revolutionary and countercultural and make non-Christians wonder about our dissimilarity.
And our difference should be most evident in our relationships, the one aspect Jesus seems to deem the very purpose of our lives (cf. Mark 12:28-34). Thus, we take none for granted, neither those with the most need for an assurance of grace nor those who already possess it but need strengthening.
We will best love others and be most real with ourselves when we stop cherry-picking sin and esteem the marvelous grace that rescues us all.
The Holy Spirit awakens sinner’s hearts to God, but he employs the righteous in bringing them to Christ. It would be easy to say God needs none of us and can save those who choose him independent of us—then sit back and do nothing. Yes, he could but he has obligated himself to need our help, to use sheep to produce new sheep.
And then I wonder… Is it possible for me to cause an awakened soul to reject God—and before you discard the notion, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, The Cost of Discipleship, warns us about the danger of offering “cheap grace” to sinners that converts them but strands them inside salvation’s gate without suggestion of further discipleship.
If the quality of our teaching and preaching can inhibit spiritual growth, could it not also be possible that we or our presentation of Christ turn some away from Jesus except the Holy Spirit rescues them? Conceivably yes and it’s a sobering thought. We possess a grave responsibility laboring with God for the lost, and it should cause us to examine our lives, beliefs, and spiritual competence.
Jude on Evangelism
The final verses of Jude convey some remarkably rich and practical wisdom about how to approach the lost: “And you must show mercy to those whose faith is wavering. Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives” (vs. 22-23, NLT).
According to Jude, a one-size-fits-all evangelistic approach doesn’t work, and he’s right. Many of us grew up in the “fire and brimstone” days and in either-you’re-in-or-you’re-out folds. And I’m not knocking these people and this heritage because, well, it’s still holiness or hell.
But I also understand that times have drastically evolved. Speaking the “unchanging gospel to an ever-changing world” is different from what it was just twenty years ago, and it’s something we really need to think about more deeply, especially as it relates to our methods, involvement, creativity, and content.
Seekers and Scorners
Jude shows us three types of people we will encounter in evangelism. The first are those with doubts or whose faith wavers. I’ll call them seekers, although they may or may not be in search of God. These people will hear the gospel without resistance and may be searching for spiritual significance. They sometimes have weighty questions about life, personal significance, spirituality, and philosophy, which deserve to be heard and answered well.
Jude explains that we should be gentle and patient with this kind. In fact, some may need coaxing out of timidity and to be loved or shown truth and led away from false teaching. They are not yet entrenched in doctrine or vices that would cause them to fight the gospel or regard the church with disdain. Show these individuals compassion.
The second type of people, whom I’ll call scorners, is the opposite. Their sinful hearts are proud and resistant to the gospel, perhaps antagonistic. The patience and wooing that characterize converting the seeker is impossible with the scorner. Jude explains that this kind must be rescued from their own ignorance.
Although we must never frighten people into a decision for God (and certainly no genuine decision), scorners must be warned and shown how their sin and defiance offends the Lord. They have no clue that they are walking off a precipice into hell and must be mercifully yanked away from destruction…snatched from the fire.
Keep Yourself Untainted
The third type of people I will call the shameless. The implication from Jude is that these folk have lived in an unrestrained, or licentious, way. Jude’s instruction is to again show mercy, but he includes a warning to the laborer about the extent of the mission with these individuals. It should not involve one’s enticement to or participation in a person’s sin or with that person. We should genuinely love one while hating the ravaging effects of their sin, yet we must never cross the line and defile ourselves.
It is easiest to minister to people with whom we once associated because we understand their lifestyle and can access them. But ministry to our old friends and acquaintances is prohibited if it provokes the slightest temptation.
“Becoming all things to all people” has become cliché these days; however, we must also be careful for our own souls. Satan is devious and Christians can be taken advantage of by him. Yet we should not deceive ourselves and think we’re resistant to old habits when we’re not.
We would do well to heed Jude’s advice. Honestly, his counsel is basic and the least we must do to prove any acumen with the gospel. We can only better assist the Holy Spirit given the many tactics working to stop people’s salvation.
Annoyed by the ringing phone, Grant paused his video game and snatched up the receiver before the answering machine came on. He expected someone needing his mom or dad, but it was Josh, the head youth leader at his church. Caught off-guard, Grant grabbed the remote and lowered the sound so he could hear. A baseball game played on another TV.
It was an awkward moment for Grant, who hadn’t attended his teen group, Lighthouse, in more than a month. It wasn’t because he didn’t care for it, but one thing had led to another…the spin he gave Josh: getting over a bad case of flu, tennis tryouts, his band sessions and gigs, and good ole R&R, which usually amounted to hours in video game world.
Grant texted while talking with Josh and even muted the call once to quickly answer his cell and promise a callback. The conversation had grown longer than Grant expected or wanted. Josh invited Grant to play at the church’s upcoming barn party, slated to be a big event. Grant was interested and tentatively accepted, now on his tablet looking over his schedule and then checking email and Facebook messages.
The conversation turned to spirituality. “How’s your devotional life?” Josh asked. Grant rolled his eyes, brushing his hair back and making sure not to sound peeved.
“It’s okay, I guess,” Grant replied, texting again. Josh wasn’t buying it.
“You guess? That doesn’t sound convincing,” Josh replied. Grant booted up his laptop.
“Well, honestly, I really need to get back to Bible reading. I pray fairly regularly though,” Grant said.
“Okay, but you need to be around your peers. That’s where you get accountability and how you stay strong in your faith.” There was silence. Josh continued, “Grant, you’ve been an example to many of the kids, and they’ve been asking about you. I don’t want you to lose your fire and godly example. We all have as much of God as we desire. I just need to be sure Christ remains your priority and that you’re making time for him.”
There wasn’t much Grant could say to that, tossing his cell phone on the bed. He sat down in the Banker’s Chair at his desk and sighed, a little dispirited now. When Josh started wrapping up the call, Grant interjected.
Something I do customarily is reread my essays and think through the lessons in them. That might seem strange to you, but it is incredibly consoling and affirming to my faith. In fact, I think it makes good sense.
If my writing reflects what I’m discovering in my walk with Christ, those chronicles exist to encourage me because they tell the story of Christ’s and my friendship. Moreover, they are tools with which I can appraise my growth, and they will forever testify of God’s faithfulness to me, helping me to trust him in the future.
Until recently all of these writings were simply buried in my computer. Then it occurred to me, What good is that? Could they not edify someone else?
What’s in Your Pantry?
Matthew 13:52 says, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” I love this verse…so eloquent and probing. It is also descriptive of the task of any minister or Christian worker—and us faith bloggers, too.
There are layers of insight in this verse. Jesus focuses us on the householder and his contribution, which is his wisdom about the kingdom. What we have to offer others (our treasure or deposit) is all we have learned and ascertained about God through his word and our experiences with him, insight about his past involvement in our lives—even while we were in sin—and things he currently teaches us. It is an exquisite concept.
How encouraging it is to know that every experience we have is capable of serving a need in someone else’s life. Today with one person we may need to share how we met the Lord years ago; tomorrow with another we may need to relay how God’s grace is helping us right now overcome a personal struggle.
“Things new and old” (NKJV), a revealing expression, indicates a bounty of wisdom that should characterize believers and their capacity to serve other’s needs.
Tongue of the Learned
Those “instructed concerning the kingdom” (NKJV) are disciples and if disciples, then stewards. We not only possess a trove of goods to offer others, we also have the facility, by virtue of our training (and ongoing discipleship), as well as the authority to perform as stewards, such as to provide, govern, protect, and defend.
Don’t let that be strange to you. Your knowledge of Christ right now can nourish and sustain, bring accountability, and protect and defend through prayer and guidance—those who are our Christian brothers and sisters and equally those currently in the clutches of sin and evil.
As stewards we work on the behalf of Christ. We labor for the Lord; the souls to whom we minister belong to him. We endeavor to claim all for the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul, especially in the Pastoral Epistles, presents to us a clear example of how our full ministry serves God’s purpose.
So if you haven’t gotten the message yet, Jesus is speaking directly to each of us saying, “You are without excuse: you have something to contribute.” It’s easy to feel like we’re novices and don’t know enough Bible or don’t compare to other strong Christians. But none of us get passes here.
Of the kingdom we’ve been instructed and for the kingdom we must share. What God teaches us must flow through us. Although there is much similarity in our experience with Christ, none of our experiences are alike. Because of that we have an obligation to one another as brothers and sisters to share what we uniquely possess of Christ to build each other’s faith. We don’t withhold helpful knowledge from our natural siblings; we shouldn’t do it with our spiritual ones.
None of it will do any good, however, if we don’t bring these lessons, experiences, reflections, and illuminations out of the storerooms and share them. “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up…” (1 Thess. 5:11).
An African preacher spoke in my college chapel service exhorting us all to be “fit” Christians, not “fat” ones. The point was not to constantly ingest the word but never exercise it.
How you feel called to exercise the word is not the important thing. What is important is that you be active with what you possess. The lessons in your life, rich as they are, belong to others besides you.
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.