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).