Saturday, October 19, 2013

Four Approaches To Evangelism *

Part four of part four: How to Help Unbelievers Realize They are
Sinners and Need A Savior

Hopefully, by now, I’ve adequately explained the evangelistic/apologetic approach called “law” (as opposed specifically to “Gospel” and “apologetics”), and why applying it can be an effective stepping-stone to sharing the Gospel. As a brief review, I suggested that there are literally millions of Americans who either (1) consider themselves Christians by virtue of a cultural exposure to Christianity or (2) have no affiliation with any particular religion, but believe in God in a generic sense. Both categories of unbelievers usually assume that access to heaven is essentially dependent upon one’s lifestyle (what Christians commonly refer to as “good works”). In other words, referring to my earlier analogy, if someone is “good enough” to have lived a life worthy of “As,” “Bs,” “Cs,” and possible even “Ds” (in terms of moral behavior), God will welcome them into heaven. These people tend to compare their behavior with that of “really bad” people and in doing so comes out looking pretty good. So it follows, to them, that if murders, rapists, drug dealers, and child abusers are destined to hell, God certainly won’t send them there.

Christians, on the other hand, know that salvation has nothing to do with “good works” (Eph. 2:8-9, et al.).  It’s based solely on Jesus Christ’s sacrificial, substitutionary, redemptive ministry of reconciling sinful, rebellious humanity with God. Jesus paid the price for our sins on the cross, thereby imputing His righteousness to those of us who accept this free gift by faith (Ro 1:17). This is God’s only remedy for sin and “path” to eternal life (Jn 1:12; 3:16; 14:6; Ro 5:8; 8:1; Acts 4:12; et al.).

Okay, how do we apply Law as a stepping-stone to Gospel or apologetics? How do we help unbelievers who assume they are saved by virtue of living a good and decent life recognize they are still sinners in need of a Savor? It’s a two-step process. (If you have not read the previous three blog articles in this series, the following will not make as much sense.)

The first step is to help unbelievers come to realize—on their own—that they are not as innocent as they imagine in terms of their presumed moral lifestyle. This should be your initial step,  and used in a casual opening conversation. Don’t plunge right in with the biblical definition of sin and its consequences for the unsaved. Or worse, don’t begin with threats of eternal damnation in hell. This will probably shut the door to further dialogue. Instead, I suggest you use the thoughtful Socratic questions I mentioned in my last blog article: “What is there about your life that would compel me to believe you are a Christian?” “How good would you have to be in order for God to welcome you into heaven?” “How has your life changed since your first acknowledge belief in Jesus” “Why do you think God’s requirements for entrance into heaven is based on good behavior?,” or similar questions that encourages unbelievers to evaluate and explain why they feel they deserve eternal life with a holy God and His redeemed people.

The idea here is that these kinds of questions can lead unbelievers into a self-evaluation—without threatening them with damnation or hammering on what sinners they really are, in spite of what they think about themselves. When unbelievers begin to conclude for themselves that they may not be as qualified for heaven as they thought, they may be more willing to listen to the Christian perspective on salvation. Remember, according to Romans 2:14-15 (cf. Ro 7:14-25, especially verse 22) every human being, by virtue of our creation in God’s image, has an innate understanding (consciousness) of right and wrong behavior placed within our hearts and minds by God. People intuitively know that many of their thoughts and behaviors are sinful, even if they choose not to acknowledge this or to suppress it. With self-reflection, however, as we challenge them to justify or to explain the reason why they believe a holy God will welcome them into a sinless afterlife, this suppressed, latent moral conscience can easily surface and make itself felt.

For serious spiritual seekers, this can be an enlightening experience, and it can open the door for fruitful conservations leading to the Gospel. If it doesn’t, the unbeliever will likely raise an objection, such as: “But the Bible has been translated so many times over the centuries—how can you know what it says is true?” Or, “why does God allow so much pain and suffering, if He really exists?” Or, “what about people who never heard of Jesus; if they aren’t judge by their behavior they must  all go to hell no matter how they act or what they believe!” and so on. If these kinds of “intellectual” questions arise,  we switch from Law to apologetics and deal with them accordingly. If we’re successful in removing the apologetic issues, hopefully we can return to Gospel. (Apologetics as the third avenue of evangelism will be the topic of a new series in a few weeks).

Do you see how this works? Whether we share the Gospel, apply Law, or use apologetics, all three are part of good evangelism, and we need to be ready to apply whichever is needed at the time according to how our conservation is going.  

While still on the topic of applying Law as a stepping-stone to sharing the Gospel, there is one more factor we must be prepared to clarify. We must be able to explain the Christian perspective on sin in terms of grace versus law—and know how to systematically demonstrate it from Scripture. In other words, we need to be able to show why the two categories of unbelievers we have been discussing are not as innocent as they imagine in terms of their moral lifestyle. This is the second step in the process of helping this variety of non-Christians realize they are “sinners and need a Savior.” It will be the topic of my next blog article.

*    This and the other blog articles in this series are adapted from copyrighted material and may not be reproduced in book or article form, either electronically or in print, without permission. But feel free to link this blog to your own website, personal email list, Facebook friends and groups, or email it to people who may benefit from it. I explore the topic of this present series of articles more fully in my book Engaging the Closed Minded; Presenting Your Faith to the Confirmed Unbeliever (Kregel Publications).

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Four Approaches to Evangelism *

Part three of Part Four: How to Help Unbelievers Realize They are Sinners and Need A Savior

In my previous blog article, I explained what is “law” in terms of how it is applies in New Testament times, that is, after Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the Old Testament law (Mt 5:17). If you did not read that article, I suggest you do so before going any further. Otherwise, the following may not make as much sense. I ended the previous article by stating that I would give an example of Jesus applying "law” as an approach to evangelism. So let’s begin here.

Luke 18:18-25 (cf. Mt 19:16-22) recounts a conservation between Jesus and a rich young ruler. The ruler asked Jesus what he must do “to inherent eternal life?” Jesus said he already knew—obey the law. Jesus then gave examples from the Ten Commandments (the “moral law”—see part two). The ruler responded by claiming that he had obeyed them since his youth. But Jesus pointed out that the ruler lacked one thing. He was unwilling to forsake his earthly wealth to “gain treasure in heaven” (v. 22). In other words, the young ruler fell short of earning salvation through strict adherence to the Mosaic Law. Jesus revealed to the ruler (and by application everyone else) that no one can achieve eternal life on his or her own merits. In the young ruler’s case, he had his heart set on material possessions; he went away “sad” (v. 23) because he didn’t want to let go of his money and property. Jesus’ lesson was not that the young ruler had to give up his wealth in order to be saved, but that even one sin can block our relationship with God. It was a heart issue. Had the young man expressed a willingness to forfeit whatever stood between him and salvation (as did Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10), Jesus would have shared “gospel” instead of “law,” as He did with the Samaritan woman (part 2). Also, like the Samaritan woman, apologetics was not needed because the rich young ruler did not challenge Jesus’ authority. Thus, Jesus’ evangelistic approach was to apply law

Here’s the point. No matter what one thinks or how hard one tries, he or she can never live a life so perfectly righteous that they “deserve,” can “earn,” or have a “right” to go to heaven. Until unbelievers face the biblical fact that salvation is not by works but by grace (Eph. 8:8-9), they will never truly recognize their need for Jesus Christ as the only means of receiving forgiveness and salvation. This is the reason for law in evangelism.

I believe two categories of unbelievers will benefit from the evangelistic approach of applying law. First, are people who believe in God in a generic sense, but who have no particular affiliation with any religion. Yet they believe God will welcome them into heaven because they are “basically good people” and live “descent lives”—especially when they compare themselves with really “bad” people?

The second category of people, who also assume they will be welcomed into heaven, encompasses the huge number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians—but only on a cultural level. Perhaps they went to Sunday school as children or even to church as adults. However, they have little understanding of essential Christian beliefs, are seldom interested in Bible study, spend little time in church activities, and live more in harmony with secular values than a biblical worldview. Still others may have virtually no church background but consider themselves Christians because, historically, Christianity has been—and still is—the dominant religious belief in America. Because of America’s Christian heritage, these people simply assume they are “right with God” and therefore upon death God will welcome them into heaven.

I know this will sound controversial to some readers, and it’s a hard thing to acknowledge. But let me make an observation. Many believers today simply assume that because someone professes to be a Christian they are automatically saved. Now, I’m not so presumptuous as to declare that everyone who claims to be a Christian but doesn’t act like it is unsaved. There are carnal Christians—backslidden Christians (hopefully temporarily) living sinful lives (see 1 Cor 3:15; 5:1-5). Moreover, as I’ve said before, everyone sins—including Christians.  Nevertheless, although only God knows for sure a person’s actual relationship with Him, from our side of the fence, as far as we can tell from their speech and behavior, people who show no indication they are Christians may in fact not be saved. Didn’t Jesus say we can tell true believers by the fruit they bear (John 15:1-5)? And didn’t He warn in Matthew 7:21 that “not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven? “

If we take evangelism seriously, these two categories of alleged Christians need to hear God’s requirements for salvation and then compare it with their own assumptions. They need to see that being a Christian is a personal commitment to Jesus, not something into which one is born. In my opinion, these people need to hear the Gospel message every bit as much as the outspoken Christian skeptic. To help these individuals understand this--to determine for themselves if they are true Christians--ask questions, such as: “What is there about your life that would compel a non-Christian to recognize that you are a Christian?” “What does a personal commit to Jesus Christ mean to you?” “Has your life change since you first declared belief in Jesus as Savior?” In all probability, they will have difficulty answering any of these question in a meaningful way. This may open the door for you to share the gospel message; God’s plan for salvation through a committed life to Jesus Christ. And if it doesn’t, it will certainly provide an ideal point of contact to initiate the application of law.

So, how do we apply law in evangelistic or apologetic encounters? How do we help unbelievers recognize they are sinners in need of a Savor, especially if they fall into the two categories discussed in this article? Those who (1) assume they are saved because they identify culturally with Christianity and (2) those who are not affiliated with any particular religion, but believe God will welcome them into heaven because they live descent lives. In my next blog article, I’ll lay out a Scriptural path to follow for applying law—and give some suggestions on how to best to explain it.

*    This and the other blog articles in this series are adapted from copyrighted material and may not be reproduced in book or article form, either electronically or in print, without permission. But feel free to link this blog to your own website, personal email list, Facebook friends and groups, or email it to people who may benefit from it. I explore the topic of this present series of articles more fully in my book Engaging the Closed Minded; Presenting Your Faith to the Confirmed Unbeliever (Kregel Publications).