Easy Believism or True Evangelism?
by Andrew Stenhouse
Whatever else might be said of the assemblies which are professedly gathered unto the name of the Lord Jesus Christ alone, it is generally acknowledged that these two things characterise them all: (1) that they are, by the grace of God, free from every taint of modernism, and, (2) that they maintain a pure gospel testimony. We may heartily thank God that it is so, without any spirit of self-congratulation, but we may well be on our guard also, lest the enemy find a way of corrupting either the doctrine or the method of working. I suspect it may be easier to do the latter than the former, although there is a definite connection between the two.
We are living in a day when evangelistic campaigns have become popular, when conversion has been made “easy” for great masses of people, and we read of thousands being “swept into the kingdom of God”. But the question must arise in the minds of all sober-thinking Christians: how much of all this is the real working of the Spirit of God? And another question is: to what extent may modern methods be employed in the work of the gospel, without violating those scriptural principles by which every true servant of Christ desires to be governed?
I propose, therefore, to bring those principles to your notice, and to consider their bearing on the work of evangelism.
Let me first state that the object of all evangelism is to bring men truly to Christ for salvation – and not only for salvation, but for discipleship. The object should never be to merely obtain professions of faith, or to make church members. Our aim must be the true spiritual conversion and regeneration of our hearers.
It is of the utmost importance, therefore, to ask ourselves what is involved in a work of genuine conversion. Scripture bears abundant testimony to the fact that the converting of the soul to God is a divine work. It is by the agency of the Spirit of God, and the means employed is the Word of God, which is “quick and powerful”. Let us dwell a little on this.
It is said in Acts 15 that God is taking out from among the nations a people for His name. God himself is the doer of that work, and He provided salvation by the giving of His Son. Man’s part – to his shame be it said – was to provide the occasion for it, by his sinfulness; but salvation has been provided by God alone. Christ’s death is the only answer to man’s sin, and in that death a full atonement has been made. We may well rejoice in the knowledge of this, but God’s work did not finish there. The gospel feast has been provided, but men must be brought in to partake of it,
In this connection let us remember the three parables of Luke 15. The first tells us of the work of the Saviour: the Good Shepherd undertakes to recover the sheep that was lost. In the second, the work of the Holy Spirit is portrayed: the woman with her candle and broom representing that activity in the soul when the light of God is applied to the conscience, and error and misconception are swept away. In the parable of the prodigal, it is the Father’s reception and forgiveness of the repentant one that is emphasized; but there could have been none of this, if the previous activity had not been engaged in.
If we think of conversion as a new birth (John 3), we are immediately brought to realise that it is an operation of God’s Spirit. The picture of it is the first picture provided in Scripture. After the original work of creation, the earth was found to be “without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” So also is the movement of the Spirit of God in the soul. It is a mysterious work, and none may analyse it, yet we know this much: it is brought about by the application of God’s truth to the conscience. We are “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” (1 Pet 1:23). Again, in John 1:13 we are told that those who become children of God through receiving Christ (v12) are those who have been born, not because of any activity of man, but of God. Still, there is the believing on His name, which presupposes the preaching of the gospel.
The Thessalonians “turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God”, but it was because the gospel came unto them “not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost”. And they received it “not as the word. of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God”, and this word wrought effectually in them. That word had nothing to borrow from men. It was God’s word, living and powerful, and it wrought effectually in all who believed.
The consideration of this should bring us to the conclusion that in all true evangelism the great need is to present the word of God, the word of the truth of the gospel, having confidence in its efficacy to convict the conscience, convince the mind, and captivate the heart.
That word is “the word of the cross”. It can never be a popular gospel, for it is the message that emphasises the sinfulness of man in all its hideousness, and demands that there be a true repentance of it. It announces, too, the fact of Christ’s being made sin for us, and His dying, the Just for the unjust, to bring us to God. It calls us out from the world, and from all worldliness and pride and vanity, to become humble followers of the One who went forth bearing His cross. It is a word utterly inacceptable to any man, unless the Spirit of God operates to convince and convert him. To bring souls to the point of giving mere mental assent to a doctrinal proposition, or of responding emotionally to an appeal for decisions, instead of bringing them into vital contact with Christ, is not the true work of God.
Paul was very conscious of this at Corinth. He trusted not “in excellency of speech or of wisdom”, but preached “Christ crucified”, as the power of God. He was in fear and trembling lest the true word of God should be replaced by any persuasive words of his own, and souls be made to rest on human wisdom instead of divine revelation. It seems that the apostle was very aware of the possibility of producing spurious conversions. He knew that nothing but a work of God in the soul would produce permanent results.
This is where much present-day evangelism fails. Instead of entertaining such a fear of producing spurious results, there is an inordinate desire to obtain professions of faith, and people are invited to hold up their hands, stand to their feet, or make some other visible manifestation, as a sign of their acceptance of the gospel. The adoption of such methods reveals, it would seem, a desire to make conversion more easy; but, after all, conversion is either a divine work or it is nothing. If the Holy Spirit has wrought in the soul, if repentance has been produced, and faith in Christ exercised, this will doubtless lead to a spontaneous confession with the lips. But why call for an outward sign which may not, and frequently does not, correspond to the reality of true conversion? Surely the apostle would have repudiated such a procedure, and so should we, for conversion to God is the same experience in the present century as in the first.
We may well stop and ask ourselves the question: just what is that supernatural experience of conversion? And from the testimony of Scripture concerning it, we may answer as follows:
(1) It means repenting and turning to God. This means that the sinner is brought to realize that he is guilty and lost, that he accepts God’s verdict against him, and that he abandons all thought of justifying himself. (2) It means believing the message of the gospel. This includes believing the testimony of Scripture as to the person of Christ: who He is – His deity, His pre-existence, His coming into the world as Man, His sinlessness – and then His giving Himself as a sacrifice for sin. It also includes belief in His resurrection and exaltation at God’s right hand, and His ability to save to the uttermost all who come to God by Him. (3) Conversion also means accepting or receiving Christ as Saviour. That means that I not only recognise His ability to save, but I definitely commit myself to Him. (4) It also means depending on His finished work for salvation. We recognise the value of His sacrifice, we believe the testimony of God’s Word about it, and we present that as our only plea before the bar of divine justice. (5) And finally, it means that such is our confidence in Christ, that we no longer entertain any doubts as to our personal salvation but gladly confess Him before men as the One whom we know to be our Saviour and Lord.
The evangelist who has any conception of the greatness of the divine miracle of conversion can never be satisfied with any kind of imitation. But it is to be feared that many preachers today have not only a defective theology with regard to the nature of the new birth, but also a careless attitude toward the possibility of doing incalculable harm to souls, by leading them into an artificial experience, which, instead of carrying them nearer to the kingdom of God, might conceivably cause them to become utterly careless as to their true standing before God. There are all too many hypocrites in Christendom already, without our contributing to the making of them.
Let us turn now to the commissions in the three synoptic gospels: passages which contain our Lord’s instructions to His apostles and to those who would succeed them in the apostolic or evangelistic ministry. Whatever may be faulty in the thinking of man, we may be sure that our Lord’s instructions were given in the language most suited to the purpose for which He spoke.
In Luke the word is that it was necessary for Christ to suffer and to rise the third day, “and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations”. Consider the words carefully. The death and resurrection of Christ having been accomplished, and salvation being provided, it remained that this salvation be taken to the nations in the message of the gospel. But observe how the Lord expresses it. It was necessary, He says, “that repentance and remission of sins be preached in His name”.
Is this what we preach today? Is our preaching characterised by. a solemn call to repentance, with a view to the obtaining of the forgiveness of sins? We must remember that the sin question remains for every unconverted man and woman, and will remain, until true repentance is produced. Repentance, which is the forming of a right judgment of oneself, in view of one’s sins, and also in view of God’s goodness, is an essential condition for obtaining forgiveness. The sinner’s former thoughts and judgment of himself must be abandoned and God’s verdict accepted. But to this end the light of God’s truth must be brought to bear on the conscience. In no other way can repentance be produced, and this shows us the necessity of a heart-searching ministry that will make the sinner conscious of his guilt and of his need of salvation.
The first of our Lord’s parables in Matt. 13 teaches us that the good seed of the gospel will not bear fruit in any kind of soil. There must be the preparation of the soil to receive the seed. The stony-ground and thorny-ground hearers are comparable to the many who make a profession of faith without having experienced any true conviction of sin or true repentance. Paul knew that his business was to testify “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ”. This is a very different kind of message from the modern one which asks people to give their hearts or lives to Jesus, or to signify by some gesture that they want to follow Him.
The word in Mark 16 is in the form of a command to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. And it is said that the attitude of the hearers toward that message would determine their destiny. Those who believed and were baptised would be saved; those who disbelieved would be condemned. The consideration of all that is involved in this solemn declaration will prevent our having any light thought as to the work of evangelism. Well may we exclaim with the apostle: “Who is sufficient for these things?”
The preaching of the gospel is a solemn business, and great is the responsibility of everyone who stands up in Christ’s name as a witness to His truth. He is a savour of life unto life in those that are saved, and of death unto death in those that perish. His business is to bring the sinner face to face with his responsibility, and then point him to Christ. If he does this faithfully, earnestly, and lovingly, he has completed his task. For if the gospel does not produce repentance and faith, nothing else will. Appeals for “decisions, when the gospel message has not smitten the conscience or melted the heart, must be productive of artificial results. Let us preach the word then, confident that faith will come by the hearing of it, and not otherwise.
There is nothing more wonderful than the word of the cross faithfully and earnestly presented. Yet much of present-day preaching is anything but that. With many, evangelism is no more than a constant preaching about hell. Now let me not be misunderstood. I believe in hell and all God’s Word says about it, and in the preaching of the gospel there is room for the element of warning, in view of the wrath to come. Let us do it earnestly and tenderly. If we speak of hell, let us do it with a sob in our throat, not in a harsh and uncouth manner, for this would only reveal how little we understood or believed it ourselves. But when we have given our faithful warning, let us remember that what we have still to give is the gospel. That warning was not the word of the cross, or God’s good news to the sinner.
We have known other evangelists who did little else than entertain their hearers with conversion stories. Now a good illustration may be very useful in its place. Our Lord used parables in this way, as illustrations of spiritual ideas. But these should never take the place of the message. It is the gospel alone that has converting power, and that gospel is the word that tells us the meaning of Calvary.
If you would break the sinner’s heart and bring him to the Saviour, you must lead him to the cross. And there is a way to the cross from every text of the Bible. Whatever your starting point may be, whatever your special text or subject, remember that your terminus is the cross. You must lead your hearers to rest by faith on the finished work of the Saviour.
And when you so preach Christ, be sure that your own soul is captivated by the truth you set forth. Paul says in Romans that he served or worshipped God in his spirit in the gospel. That I take to mean that as he proclaimed “the gospel of God concerning His Son”, his own heart was so enraptured by the glory of it that his spirit went up to God in worship. Avoid professional preaching. Do not say things just because they come to mind or because you have said them many times before. It is easy to preach like a machine-gun if you allow your tongue to go ahead of your heart. Say only what you feel, and say it in a dignified and warm-hearted way. Speak to the consciences and hearts of your hearers, and be sure that you speak to them of the Saviour.
Among the Galatians Paul set forth Christ graphically, as though crucified among them. And as he did so he travailed in birth for them. Is it any wonder that souls were saved through his preaching? Elsewhere he speaks of his gospel ministry as an opening of blinded eyes to behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, or as an ambassador’s ministry of reconciliation, or a making known of the unsearchable riches of Christ. For him it was ever a glorious ministry, to be undertaken with fear and trembling, lest he should fail to glorify God and deliver souls. Go then and preach this gospel of the cross, and as you uplift Christ, souls will be attracted to Him and become His true disciples.
Now, finally, let us consider the words of our Lord’s commission, as found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. They are words of absolute authority, and they constitute Christ’s marching orders for all His true servants. First He announces that all authority is given unto Him in heaven and on earth. It is as though He said: “All heaven is ready to obey Me; angels and archangels await my command; but the command that they would gladly obey, I give to you: go ye therefore.” Can any professed servant of Christ dare to ignore or modify the terms of this solemn charge? The terms are these: (1) Make disciples of al nations; (2) baptise them in the triune name of God; and (3) teach them to obey all things. And the promise that follows, “Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the age”, should help us to realise that these instructions are valid and binding throughout the present Christian era. Yet how feebly have they been obeyed.
It is quite common in our time to hear of great evangelistic campaign in which there has been an attempt to follow the Lord’s commission. The evangelist has been satisfied to obtain a large number of decisions or professions; yet in doing so he as scarcely begun to obey the Lord’s command. In the first place the command was to “make disciples”. Undoubtedly the making of disciples was to be accomplished by the preaching of the gospel, but it was to be the effectual preaching of the gospel, producing true conversions. Secondly, the command was to baptise the converts in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And thirdly there was the subsequent responsibility to give to the converted and baptised ones the necessary instruction as to their future obedience in the things of the Lord.
These instructions were faithfully carried out by the apostles, as the books of the Acts testifies. These faithful men so preached that many believed and were added unto the Lord. As many as believed were baptised, but the apostles did not only leave baptised believers behind them. They saw to it that the converts were gathered together in assembly capacity for their obedience to the Lord’s commands, and for the maintenance of their fellowship and testimony. And so in every place Christian assemblies were raised up and ordered according to the apostolic instructions, and according to the Lord’s plan.
True evangelism, then, contemplates not only the winning of true converts, but the setting of these converts in the path of discipleship. Baptism is itself the badge and pledge of discipleship, and in Scripture it is set in the closest association with conversion. The linking of converts with local assemblies of believers is also of the greatest importance, and it is the evangelist’s duty to establish the principle of authority – the Lord’s authority in the life of the believer – and the believer’s obligation to be subject to the word of the Lord in all things. We dare not divorce the things which the Lord has joined together; for if we do not carry out all the terms of the great commission, that commission does not have authority for us, and even the part which we appear to do is not done in obedience to His word.
All of which will have repercussions at the judgment seat of Christ.
Andrew and Nina Stenhouse served as missionaries in Chile for over 50 years, seeing souls saved and local assemblies established. Mr Stenhouse wrote The Sin of Sectarianism, a volume of church history and doctrine, and also Counting on God (1976), an autobiography.