A Good Offense

August 29, 2006

I’m in the midst of finishing writing a little book on evangelism.  In one chapter, I’m making some specific suggestions about how to evangelize, and one piece of counsel I give is to "Be Clear."  Here’s some of what I’m hoping to say about being clear:

When you share the Gospel, think carefully about the language you use. One of the best conversations I can remember having about evangelism was with a secular Jewish friend of mine. I was to give talks soon on a college campus about evangelism. And I decided to ask my friend about it. We’ll call him “Michael.” (In fact, that was his name!) “So Michael,” I said, “have you ever been evangelized?”

          “What’s that?” he asked. “You know,” I said, “when someone who is a Christian starts talking to you about God and Jesus and asking if you’re saved.” “Oh, that!” he said. “Yeah, I guess I have been.”

Anyway, Michael and I got into a long and good conversation. Now, the truth is that I had evangelized Michael a number of times before then, but he thought those were conversations. As we talked about it, he thought evangelism was something that someone did to him. And he didn’t understand it very well.

I realized in talking with him that I couldn’t take the meaning of words for granted. “God”, “prayer”, “heaven”, “good”, “moral”, “judge”, “sin” were all words which I realized I had not done a good job defining. I could have misunderstood what Michael thought if I had simply gone through a quick, persuasive sales presentation and gotten him to say “Yes!” He would have been saying “yes” to much that he didn’t understand.

None of us ever have a complete understanding of the Gospel, but we must have a clear idea of what the basics of our message are, and we must be clear in our expression of them. If there is a likely misunderstanding, we should address it. We should speak in such a way as to be understood. (“Contextualization” is the big theological word for this.) So when we talk about justification (and we should) we should make sure to define it. Justification is being declared right with God. But we sin, we’re not right with God. So how can we be declared right? We can’t, if God is truly good. Unless, that is, we have someone act as a substitute for us. “Justification” then gets us talking about all kinds of issues right at the heart of the Gospel.
          So, when we’re talking to non-Christian friends about the Gospel, we want to make sure they understand what we mean. Christians in the Bible had a great concern about this. So it’s often been noted that Paul would begin with the Old Testament when he was speaking to Jews, but when he began to speak to a group of Greeks in Athens in Acts 17 he begins by quoting their own sayings. As he wrote to the Corinthians “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. . . . To those not having the law I became like one not having the law . . . so as to win those not having the law,” (I Cor. 9:20-21).

One part of clarity sometimes missed by earnest evangelists, however, is the willingness to offend. Clarity with the claims of Christ certainly will include the translation of the Gospel into words that our hearer understands, but it doesn’t necessarily mean translating it into words that our hearer will like. Too often advocates of relevant evangelism verge over into being advocates of irrelevant non-evangelism. A gospel which in no way offends the sinner has not been understood.

          Look at Peter at Pentecost in Acts 2. He wanted to be relevant. But that relevance gave his words more bite, not less. How did Peter witness to those he wished to see saved? He said to them, among other things, “let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ,” (Acts 2:36).
          Relevant? Yes. Pleasing? No. Clear? Undoubtedly.

          Be clear about the fact of sin (Isa. 59:1-2; Hab. 1:13; Rom. 3:22-23; 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5; I John 1:5-6). Be clear about the meaning of the cross (Matt. 26:28; Gal. 3:10-13; I Tim. 1:15; I Peter 2:24; 3:18). Be clear about our need to repent of our sins and to trust in Christ (Matt. 11:28-30; Mark 1:15; 8:34; John 1:12; 3:16; 6:37; Acts 20:21). What would it mean to evangelize without being clear about what the Bible says about these issues?