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Posts Tagged ‘Evangelism’

There has been quite a debate in recent years over the definition of the word ‘gospel.’

Now, right there many of my readers (if I may be so bold as to presume multiple) are ready to write this off as another instance where scholars waste time and ink arguing about things we already know.  After all, the gospel is about how a person gets saved and has a relationship with God.  Why complicate something so simple a child could understand it?

Problems with the Popular Conception

The critique of this concept of the gospel has already been leveled by many people.  Here are some of my issues with it, in no particular order:

1. Why are the Gospels called “Gospels?’  The standard definition doesn’t fit this usage.  “How You Get Saved, According to Mark.”  Sorry, doesn’t work.  Because if that were the case, I’m not sure why we have 4 different Gospels.

2. It doesn’t quite fit with the OT usage of the word (or at least the Greek word, euanggelion).  Take, for example, Isaiah’s usage of it in Is 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1 (paying attention to the surrounding context, of course).  Those passage, indeed, most of Isaiah 40-66, are about God rescuing, restoring and re-establishing the nation from their exile.  That, of course, includes individuals, but that’s not at all the focus.

3. It doesn’t always fit the NT usage, either.  Some frequently point to Romans 1:1-4.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God- the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Again, the standard answer can’t simply be substituted and work well.

4. Nor does it fit too well with Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The gospel here is not simply having the debt of sin paid for and the promise of relationship with God.

5. Or consider Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17:22-31).  There is no mention of Jesus dying for our sins so we can have eternal life.  I want to be clear, though: I think what we have here is a condensed version of Paul’s interaction with the Athenians.  I have serious doubts he went too long without mentioning the cross of Christ.  But, it is interesting that Luke doesn’t include that aspect of Paul’s proclamation in this passage.

Okay, we could probably multiply passages and the like, but I think I’ve proven my point.

Where the Popular Conception Is Right

On the other hand, though, those who want to diminish the individual aspect of the gospel- that we are sinners in need of good news that God has made a way for us to know and have a relationship with him- also fail to deal adequately with the biblical data.  One would only have to read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, where Paul clearly delineates the gospel he preached (here are vv3-8):

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”

So there it is, in plain language: Christ died for our sins, was raised from the dead and appeared to many of his followers.  That the biblical writers didn’t believe in or emphasize individual salvation is a wrong-headed idea, considering one of them once wrote “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

So I don’t want to appear as if I’m saying the traditional definition of the gospel is wrong.  It’s just that it doesn’t exhaust all that the Bible says the gospel is.  It’s not simple, it’s simplistic.

Keller & Gathercole on the Gospel

I want to highlight two resources, one of which I only recently learned about.  First, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s (free!) talk, appropriately called “What Is the Gospel?”  My coblogger, Brian, recommended it to me with this sales pitch: ‘it was like hearing the gospel for the first time!’  The second, recommended by Keller, is an essay by NT scholar Simon Gathercole called “The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom” (this is a pdf, HT: JT).

Both of these resources take a careful look at the biblical material, but are by no means technical.  Anyone can use them, most probably should.  Keller’s talk if about 49 minutes, whereas Gathercole’s essay is 17 pages (with huge margins).  In the meantime, I’ll highlight the keys points.

Keller gives 3 aspects to the gospel, all of which are important and irreplaceable.

1. The Historical Aspect (the gospel events).  “The gospel is news about what Jesus has done, not primarily advice about how to live.”

2. The Sonship Aspect (the gospel identity).  The gospel is about a status you receive now, not just a reward you receive later.

3. The Kingdom Aspect (the gospel administration).  “The gospel is a completely transformed reversal of the world’s values, not just strength to live according to the old values.”   Also, this aspect is about God making this world a great world again.

Gathercole’s essay deals with the question of what is the gospel in Paul’s writings and in the Gospels, and are they ‘different gospels.’  Here is his summary of Paul’s gospel: “the gospel is God’s account of his saving activity in Jesus the Messiah, in which, by Jesus’ death and resurrection, he atones for sin and brings new creation.”  In other words, the gospel is about both who Jesus is (his identity) and what he has done (his work, which includes both salvation for people and bringing about a new creation).

Regarding the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), Gathercole doesn’t try to ‘over-harmonize’ them with Paul.  They are different, as seen in the usage of the phrase “the gospel of the kingdom,’ which isn’t not prevalent in Paul.  But while the linguistic ties aren’t always there, the basic thematic outline of the gospel is the same in both sets of writings:

The unity of their presentations of the gospel can be seen in the broad outlines of these three key themes: (1) the identity of Jesus as Messiah, (2) his work of atoning sacrifice and justification, and (3) his inauguration of a new dominion.  These lie at the heart of the apostolic gospel.

What both Keller and Gathercole do well is note the ‘broad gospel’ without losing focus on the individual aspect of it.  While their three categories don’t exactly match up, it’s actually pretty close.  What I like about them both is this: they keep the big picture (new creation/dominion) and the narrow picture (forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ death and resurrection), but also tie it in to the historical events recorded in the Gospels about Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah would would restore not only them, but the nations of the world (Is 49:6).

One Last Bit of Wisdom from Keller

Some would, understandably, ask how this should affect our proclamation/sharing of the gospel.  After all, the 4 Spiritual Laws are nothing if not easy to share and understand, why make it harder by having to include everything in one shot?

I recommend Keller’s blog post here.  Among other things, he notes that the biblical writers themselves rarely include everything about the gospel in a one-stop shopping manner.  Even before twitter, we were accustomed to trying to make everything ‘short, sweet and to the point.’  But maybe we’d be better off casting a full blown gospel vision before people rather than aim for pithy.  For a people who have lost even the basic biblical categories (sin, justice, forgiveness, etc), this might be exactly what we need to do.

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Scattered Thoughts on Acts: Part 2

See Part 1.

The Holy Spirit & Tongues

Many Pentecostals I have known over the years have used the book of Acts to argue that the initial sign one has received the Holy Spirit (which often in their reckoning occurs separately from salvation itself) is speaking in tongues.  In evidence of this they trot out Acts 2, Acts 10 (Cornelius & friends, which may be the name of my next fake band) and the folks in Ephesus in Acts 19.  In each case the Holy Spirit descends and people start speaking in tongues.

But what about the people in 4:31?  Or the Samaritans in 8:14-17?  Or Paul in 9:17-19?  Or even the 3000 who were saved in Acts 2?  There may even be more.  My point is that less than half the time the Holy Spirit shows up results in speaking on tongues.  For my money, I need a better percentage than that to convince me that Luke was trying to make that connection.

Now I know that some will argue, for instance, that Paul did speak in tongues; he says as much in 1 Corinthians 14.  But that’s not the issue.  All of these people could have ended up speaking in tongues.  The question is regarding Luke’s intent- was he trying to demonstrate that the initial sign of the reception of the Holy Spirit was speaking in tongues?  If that were his goal, I think we’d see a better “success rate.”

The Role of the Spirit in Acts

Now, the Holy Spirit plays an important role in the book of Acts, so much so that some have argued we should title the book “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” rather than “The Acts of the Apostles.”  Besides tongues, the Spirit gives direction for ministry (8:29, 13:2), inspires prophecy (11:28, 21:11) and even transports Phillip (8:39).  But the single biggest role of the Spirit is to empower people to witness (1:8).

Connected to this is the theme of boldness which comes through the Holy Spirit (why isn’t this the initial sign of the Spirit?), both explicitly stated (end of chapter 4) and implicitly (Stephen is quite bold in his speech).  The point is that the Spirit is the One who empowers God’s people to witness.  The Spirit drives the mission of the church in Acts. 

The Spread of the Gospel

Whatever else one says about the book of Acts, the main point of the book comes down to the spread of the gospel.  Pretty much everything else that happens feeds into this theme.  The Holy Spirit empowers witnesses to spread the gospel (1:8).  The miracles seen accompany the preaching of the gospel.  Persecution (as noted in Part 1) is a vehicle for spreading the gospel.  The conversion of Saul isn’t simply a cool story, but catipults the Gentile mission (Acts 9).  The Jerusalem Council validates what God is doing among the Gentiles (Acts 15), and endorses the spread of the gospel to all people.  Paul’s trials get him to Rome, where he shares the gospel.  Even the episode of Cornelius and friends speaking in tongues in Acts 10 serves to demonstrate that the gospel is spreading to the Gentiles.

So I think that you must read the book of Acts through the lens of the gospel reaching beyond the boundaries of the Jewish people.  I also think it’s instructive for us.  Whatever else might happen in our churches (the manifest power of the Spirit, life-giving community, contextualizing for the sake of other cultures, etc), the goal is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and His kingdom.

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Special thanks to Adam of Baker Publishing Group for a review copy of this book.

By now readers of this site should not need an introduction to D. A. Carson.  He’s about as prolific an author as there is in the world of biblical studies, as well as a high-demand speaker.  In fact, this book, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story, stems from a series of talks he gave at Bethlehem Baptist Church in February 2009 (The Gospel Coalition has generously posted the audio for free, as well as short video clips from each talk). 

I’m at a loss for how to categorize this book.  It is a work of theology, in that it’s subject is the God of the Bible.  It is a bit of a Bible introduction, for it is written with someone who has little-to-no knowledge of the Bible in mind.  It is evangelistic in nature, in that one of the target audiences of the book is the non-Christian (who ought to know, in Carson’s words, about the God in whom they disbelieve) and they are encouraged to find their place in God’s story (as the subtitle indicates).

The book itself is divided into 14 chapters weighing in at about 225 pages.  The chapter titles (e.g., The God Who Made Everything, The God Who Dies- And Lives Again) give the reader a clue about the content of each chapter.  Coming as no surprise to anyone who has read him, Carson handles each chapter with great care and clarity.  He anticipates questions and objections well and answers them, even if briefly.

This book is, as I said, a theology book, specifically theology proper (about God Himself).  But it is unlike many other theology books out there, or at least systematic theology.  First of all, Carson follows the basic story line of the Bible itself as his approach to teaching about the God of Scripture.  Thus, it is no surprise that his first chapter is on God as Creator and so on.  Carson does deal in terms of categories (Creator, Judge, etc) and characteristics (wrath, love, etc) like systematic theologies, but they rarely seek to follow the Bible metanarrative.  I, for one, much prefer Carson’s method.

Second, unlike most systematic theology, Carson’s work is text- and context-driven.  Each chapter focuses on a specific text, sometime multiple biblical chapters, and its context rather than prooftexting his way through a given topic.  That is not to say he never refers to other places in the Bible in a given chapter, but he only does so to make clear how it fits into the story of the Bible.

Overall, I think Carson does an admirable job explaining how God is portrayed in the Bible.  I appreciate that he did not shy away from the more difficult images of God used in the Bible, as many are prone to do, in order to make Him more palatable to our culture.  God is who He is, and Carson is content to let the Bible speak for itself.  He does attempt to answer some objections and common questions along the way, and occasionally suggests further reading (and more, I’m told, shows up in the Leader’s Guide- if I would have known there was one I would have asked for a review copy of that, too).

The God Who Is There is also, in some sense, an introduction to the Bible.  He explains very basic points (how many books are there, the original languages, etc) and when he refers, for instance, to Romans he explains it is the 6th book of the New Testament, coming after the Gospels and Acts.  I wouldn’t say this book should be used as an introduction to the Bible, as it is uneven.  For instance, it gives some quick guidance to reading certain books (such as the Wisdom books), but not most others.  This isn’t a knock on the book, since Carson’s goal was more to introduce the God of the Bible rather than the Bible.

Carson is a master expositor, and his skills shine throughout the book.  He seeks to explain the text, not just the original meaning but the implications for the reader.  He explains difficult concepts, draws out important points and shows how they fit in the Bible and what they reveal about God.  For a book written with a biblically illiterate audience in mind, Carson doesn’t mind digging to make his point.  I was humbled on more than one occasion by not noticing something in Scripture that I had read over many times before (like the echoes of Exodus 32-34 in John’s Prologue).

My only real complaint is that Carson is a bit weak on the prophets.  Given that Isaiah through Malachi makes up a dominant portion of Scripture, I would have liked to have seen more said about them.  I made this same critique of an otherwise wonderful OT introduction, so I’m starting to wonder if scholars just aren’t sure what to say about the prophetical books in their lay-level writings.

Like I said above, Carson’s book is partially evangelistic.  It is not, as you can probably guess by now, evangelistic in the same way the 4 Spiritual Laws are evangelistic, or even the “Romans Road.”  It is evangelistic in that it seeks to tell the reader, who may not be a Christian at all, about God.  Carson tries, as much as is humanly possible, to capture the essence of the God who created and sustained all things and who has revealed Himself throughout history, especially in the pages of the Bible.

But more importantly, Carson seeks to show how the revelation of God is most supremely seen in the person of Jesus.  It is Jesus, God incarnate, who died on a Roman cross and rose again 3 days later, who is the centerpiece of the faith.  The gospel is not a cool story for children’s book, or a doctrinal point to check off.  It is the message of Jesus- His life, His work and His return- that the reader is encouraged on these pages to meet. 

I should note that this is probably one of the more intellectually engaging attempts at evangelism out there (aside from the debate circuit).  Whoever gives this book to an interested friend, or leads a small group based on this book, ought to expect many questions along the way.  But if you have friends who are genuinely interested in knowing more about the Bible, and even more so about the God of the Bible, then Carson is probably the best pick around.  And the truth is, plenty of Christians desperately need to read this book as well, and learn more about the God we worship.

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If salvation were something that we could find for ourselves or achieve through some self-chosen religious pathway, then evangelism would be a matter of going to other people and trying to persuade them to be like us, to follow our religious practices, or adhere to our sacred methods and rituals.  We would be salesmen for our particular religious brand.  We would be advertisers, making claims for our own particular product and promising happiness and satisfaction to those who buy this product instead of some other one.  Sadly, that is how a lot of Christian evangelism actually does operate, and certainly it is what it often sounds like to the outside world.  And understandably people reject such tactics.

But God did not call his people to persuade others to follow the practices of their religion in the hope of finding salvation for themselves.  He did not call us to advertise our own brand or extend our own franchised salvation outlet stores.  God called his people to be witnesses to what God himself has already done.

Christopher J H Wright, Salvation Belongs to Our God, p110.

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I have a confession- I like to pick on philosophers.  To give an example, I’ll share a funny story from an OT prof in undergrad.  He was at a conference for Christian professors, intending to go to a session for OT professors.  He accidentally ended up in the session for philosophy professors and couldn’t get out.  What transpired (with perhaps some hyperbole) illustrates why I couldn’t go into philosophy.  According to my professor, they never actually arrived at the topic of discussion because they spent the entire time arguing over how certain words were best defined.  From the perspective of my professor, these were the worst kind of philosophers- talking about everything except the important things.  (Before Cousin Jeremy flays me, I should note that I’m needling.  I actually really enjoy philosophy… in 30 minute doses.)

As cumbersome as constantly worrying about proper definitions can be, philosophers of this ilk are on to something important.  What we mean by certain terms that we drop in casual conversation is of utmost importance, especially when we are discussing matters of eternal importance.  So while I do believe one can go too far down this road, constantly worrying that their words have no meaning until they explicitly define them for their listeners (which, of course, could descend into a never-ending cascade of defining the definitions), I think it is good to make sure that everyone is more or less on the same page.

I bring this up because I’ve recently been recalling my interactions with adherents to other faiths overseas.  I’ve had conversations over meals or cups of tea/coffee with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists regarding their faith, Jesus, Christianity and a whole host of other topics.  These are instances where I’ve had to be sure that the other person is at least in the same ballpark as I am.

Let me give an example.  When a Muslim from another country asks me, “Are you a Christian?” it would be easy for me simply to say “yes.”  After all, I am.  But what I mean by “Christian” and what they mean may be, and probably are, two different things.  Instead of answering the question, though, I usually ask them what they mean by “Christian.”  The reason is this: “Christian” carries certain cultural connotations for them that it does not carry for me.  Most non-Christians in the non-Western world assume all Americans are Christians.  Many of them watch American TV via satellite (I’m caused some confusion overseas for not knowing the latest American pop phenoms) and assume that what they’re watching is representative of American culture and, thus, Christianity.

Christians sleep with multiple partners (example: a female friend was teaching English to a group of Muslim girls in Asia when they asked her about prom night.  They had seen on TV that American girls lose their virginity on prom night and were intrigued.  Keep in mind, their assumption is that these girls on TV are Christians).  Christians get drunk frequently.  Christians never go to church, never pray, never worship, and never mention God unless they’re swearing.  Christians use crude language.  Perhaps most importantly of all, Christians always support the American government, especially when they are attacking Muslims.

So if I answer “yes” to the question, I may be confirming some or all of these points, and potentially many others (I should note that not all non-Westerners think these things about Christians, but many do).  Is that what I want?  But if I ask them to explain what they mean, I get an inside track into their perception of Christians.  I can affirm what is true, deny what is wrong and clarify what is confusing.  But most importantly, I get to talk about Jesus, who is the centerpiece of all I believe. 

This goes for any number of terms we’re accustomed to leaving undefined: sin, salvation, God, heaven, hell, and so on.  These potential problems are multiplied when talking with a Buddhist, for example.  At least when I’m talking with a Muslim, I know that we can stand on common ground on a couple points: they have concepts of sin, heaven, hell, creation, etc., that are similar to ours.  Even though we understand God differently in many ways, at least we are both monotheists (though Muslims often don’t think we are) and don’t need to be convinced of God’s existence.

Buddhists, on the other hand, don’t even believe in a god.  Because of this, bad karma is different from sin, because they don’t believe in a God who can take offense to an immoral act.  Salvation and enlightenment are very different, as are nirvana and heaven.  Resurrection?  Forget abotu it.  If I’m going to talk with a Buddhist, I must take time to explain what I mean and let them into my worldview, just as I try to enter theirs.  It takes time, but it’s worth it.

Applying it to our context here in the West, I wonder if we should take time to define our terms more clearly for people.  A coworker might ask you on Monday morning, “what did you do this weekend?” and you may reply, “went to church.”  Do they know what that means?  What would change if you answered, for example, “worshipped God in a community of redeemed sinners”?  Would that open more doors to talk about what it really means to be the church and to follow Jesus?  I’ve used this approach before when a coworker asked if I were an evangelical.  I asked them what they mean by that term.  I’m happy to affirm my status as an evangelical, properly defined.  But if my coworker is thinking mostly in terms of how I vote in the elections and what TV programming I watch, then I don’t want to affirm those things.  Even if I line up with most evangelicals on many issues, that’s not what makes me an evangelical.  My belief in Jesus, as He is portrayed in the Bible, and the saving power of the Gospel is what makes me an evangelical.

So maybe the philosophers are right.  Maybe we do need to take a few minutes to define our terms and explain clearly what we mean.  Keep in mind, I’m not advocating abandoning our terminology in our culture, doing so will only spring forth new terms that will eventually become ill-defined.  I’m pushing us to assume less.  I’m pushing us to ask more questions, to get into the minds of those we talk to and understand where they’re coming from.  Doing so will open more doors that will otherwise be shut.  Spending more time explaining what we mean will give us a chance to talk about Jesus, which is what we should be trying to do anyway.

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Despite what Danny may have lead you to believe, I am not reading “Goodnight Moon.”  Perhaps that’s misleading.  I am not reading “Goodnight Moon” exclusively.  I recently picked up the third edition of William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith.  Craig is a celebrated Christian apologist, and (insofar as I can tell), the most intelligent person presently on this earth.  I look forward to writing a review for this book, which he describes as a foundational text for his many writings.

While the full book review is pending, I wanted to spend some time interacting with Craig’s introduction in Reasonable Faith.  Of particular interest to me was his claim that apologetics is a vital part of evangelism.  More specifically, he solidly rebukes the dismissive attitude many Christians have towards apologetics because “you can’t argue someone over to Christ.”  I’ll save Craig’s specific responses to this sentiment for my review, but I did want to offer up a few thoughts of my own on the topic.

I taught a class on evangelism some years ago, and I remeber making the very statement: “You can’t argue someone over to Christ.”  Even a year ago, I was exchanging several e-mails with an atheist, and made a similar statement to him up front:  I’d love to debate with you, but I have no expectation that you’ll become a Christian as a result.  Why did I think this?  Because “you can’t argue someone over to Christ.”

Recently, I’ve begun to question the wisdom of this statement, and consider its roots.  I fear that too many Christians have uncritically bought into this statement wholesale; my own examples above to wit.  I believe this is a grave mistake, and dismissing apologetics as ineffective is unwise.

Whence the statement “you can’t argue someone over to Christ”?  I believe that it is largely a reaction to those who have engaged in arguments with unbelievers poorly.  Certain Christians have not “spoken the truth in love,” but rather, used apologetic arguments as a means to attack, belittle, or otherwise defeat an unbeliever.  The motivation here (admitted or not) has not been love for the person, or obediance to the Great Commission, but rather one of pride:  ‘winning’ the argument for the sake of winning; ‘winning’ in order to elevate oneself over another.  Moreover, I believe that too many Christians have relied on intellectual argument alone, to the exclusion of relationship, sharing one’s story, prayer, etc.  Let’s not forget the danger of not listening, either.  Francis Shaeffer, my own apologetic hero, remarked that when engaged with an unbeliever he would listen 95% of the time, and in the remaining 5%, try to offer one or two statements of the Truth in response.

How about the Biblical evidence?  Did not Paul reason from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2)?  Were not many added to the Body in resonse to Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:14-41)?  Ought not we be prepared to give the reason for our hope in Christ (1 Pet. 3:14-16)?  Craig looks at this in greater detail in his introduction, and examples abound.

Finally, for those with a penchant for empiricism, I have actual evidence that one can be argued over to Christ:  I was.  At 24, a single sentence in Paul Little’s Know Why You Believe grabbed a hold of me.  A day later, I gave my life to Christ.  God used this book, this series of intellectual arguments, as the hinge point in my conversion.  I praise God that Mr. Little didn’t abandon his book because “you can’t argue someone over to Christ.”

I would therefore propose an amendment to the statement in question:  “You can’t argue someone over to Christ IF

…you do so with a posture of arrogance or self-righteousness.”

…you do so to the peril of relating to that person as a fellow sinner infinitely loved by God.”

…you do so merely to ‘win’ the argument.”

…you talk more than you listen.”

At the end of the day Christians are just blind beggars telling other blind beggars where to get bread.  We should exhaust every facility of our being, including our capacity for reasoned argument, to direct others to the Bread of Life.

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