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).