Concerns regarding evangelistic preaching today, by Roger Carswell
When Andrew Neil resigned as the editor of the Sunday Times, a decade or more ago, he commented “I have been a journalist now for the last twenty years, and I have chronicled the decline of a nation.”
An American actor recently spoke of his love of London, “It’s great to be in a city going down the tubes in such style.” Whatever we think of recent legislation, media manipulation or populist trends, we have to ask ourselves how much of the spiritual declension and moral collapse in the land is due to reasons, which can be laid at the feet of evangelicals. A root cause of our problems is that: not for three centuries has there been such a famine in our land, not of food or drink, but of the Word of God. People are left as sheep without a shepherd (cf. Num 27 v.17, 1 Kings 22 v. 17 & Zech10 v. 2).
Genuine believers are concerned for faithful gospel proclamation. We want to earnestly contend for the faith, as an engaged girl would protect her engagement ring from theft or loss, because it is so valuable and precious. If evangelism is preaching the gospel, to non-Christians, who are listening, then without being smug or proud, each gospel preacher will want to become an expert in evangelistic preaching. As we preach, as we listen to and read what others are preaching, there will either be great joy, or deep concern about what is being proclaimed. Over the last couple of years, I have become increasingly troubled about what I am sometimes hearing and reading.
This is not merely academic. The Student Volunteer Missionary Union defined evangelism as, “The presentation of the gospel in such a manner to every soul in this world that the responsibility for what is done with it shall no longer rest upon the Christian church or any individual Christian, but shall rest upon each man’s head for himself.” For that to be done there has to be fervent, prayerful evangelism, but there does also have to be faithful proclamation, and that is where my concern lies. Enthusiasm can easily be read as evangelism, but evangelism, which no doubt should be enthusiastic, has to have in it, a particular content. There can be no evangelism without a faithful evangel.
So what are my main concerns?
I am concerned about
- Proclamation which doesn’t focus on Christ and Him crucified
When the apostle Paul wrote his ‘Two ways to live’, which he, or rather we, call the Letter to the Romans, he makes the focal point the cross of Christ. Romans 1, 2 and 3 look at humanity in the raw, religious and then refined humanity, but all are sinful. Then Paul explains how God devised means whereby we who should be banished from Him might be reconciled to Him. And that was through Christ and Him crucified. After the explanation of the cross in chapter 5, Paul examines the implications and application of what Jesus accomplished by His death and resurrection. It is arguable that the whole book of Romans is about Christ and the cross, either explaining why the cross, what was achieved at Calvary, and then its impact and claim on us.
When Paul wrote explaining his method and motivation in preaching, which we read in the beginning of 1 Corinthians, he builds up to the climatic conclusion in 2 v. 2 that he ‘determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.’ A definite Christ and a definite cross led him to that definite conclusion; he was going to pave the way in evangelistic preaching to Christ crucified. (Incidentally, John Stott preaching at the Keswick Convention in the year 2000, spoke on the early chapters of 1 Corinthians, and outlined the passage 1 v. 17 to 2 v. 2 with three points:
- The weakness of the evangel (v.17 – v.25)
- The weakness of the evangelised (v. 26 – v. 29)
- The weakness of the evangelist (v. 30 – 2 v. 2))
Paul later wrote, “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preach to you …For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures …” (1 Corinth 15 v. 1 – 3)
As we examine in detail the sermon notes of the messages preached in the Book of Acts (clearly, all we have in the Acts are sermon outlines, or they would have all been very short messages indeed), every one of them refers to both the resurrection and repentance. There has to be death before there can be resurrection, and there has to be the cross if repentance is to be of any value. Belief in the resurrection made Christian preaching possible, and repentance gave Christian preaching its objective.
The whole gospel is contained in Christ, and through the gospel we see the very heart of God, more clearly than through creation alone. Gospel proclamation has to focus on what God has done in the Jesus, and an explanation of the hidden work of Christ on the cross. God laid on Him the sin of the world. He who knew no sin became sin for us. Jesus died, the righteous One for we who are unrighteous. He was made sin; He carried it all on Himself. The blood of Jesus was shed so that we might be justified, that we might be redeemed, that we might reconciled to God. He was the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but the sins of the whole world. Through His death and resurrection we are adopted into the family of God and can call God our Father. No wonder we often read in Wesley’s Journals words like, ‘I offered Christ to the people for three hours’. It seems clear to me that we cannot overlook or omit the big themes of the gospel and expect to see great conversions.
I remember discussing these issues on a beach mission when I was a teenager. The imaginative team leader made up a parable to get across the truth as he saw it. He told the story of a man rescued from drowning at sea. But, in the course of saving the drowning man the rescuer was battered by the waves and beaten against the rocks. Eventually, he was air lifted by a helicopter to a hospital where it was touch and go as to whether he would live. Some weeks later the person rescued went to see his ‘saviour’ who was still in the Intensive Care Unit. They talked for a while during which time the hospitalised man offered his visitor a Polo mint. When eventually he left his hospital visit, he bumped into a friend who enquired as to where he had been.
“To see someone in hospital” he replied.
“Well, are you going to tell me who it was?” he was asked.
“O, just a friend!”
“Well who?” he was asked again.
“O just someone who once gave me a Polo mint!”
Of course, there is something incongruous about that. What is a Polo mint compared with being rescued from drowning, especially when it cost the rescuer so much? Yet sermons and testimonies can be guilty of preaching the ‘Polo mints’ of the peace, joy, purpose, friends and sense of well-being we have found since becoming Christians, rather than forgiveness and reconciliation with God purchased at such a great price by Jesus.
I have been asked on a number of occasions, by people concerned to be true to the text, how they can proclaim the cross if it isn’t actually in the passage, which is being expounded. It is a valid question, which encourages me in that the people asking it are clearly striving to be true to the Word. I answer the question by going over some of these arguments, and by pointing out that the whole of the Bible has Christ and Him crucified as its backcloth, its emphasis and its purpose. Every passage is in the context of the whole Bible. The Bible has been given to reveal God to us, and to make us wise unto salvation. If I am going to faithfully proclaim a biblical gospel to unconverted people, the finished work of Jesus is going to be central. That does not mean that we simply ‘bolt on’ the cross, leading to the message simply following a formula, but rather as Christopher Ash puts it, ‘to see how the lines of scripture point to Christ and His cross in ways that are persuasive and convincing’. There are so many themes to be developed and proclaimed in the cross of Jesus that gospel preaching need never be dull nor repetitious.
The cross is the demonstration of God’s love and grace. Yet, there is a strange reluctance to make this message known. Of course, in courses such as ‘Christianity Explored’ and ‘Stranger on the Road to Emmaus’ there is a slow build up to the climax of the explanation of the work of Jesus on the cross. This must be acceptable, and has proved itself as a God honoured strategy of gradually explaining the gospel. To balance this though, I am conscious too that we must not be guilty of complacency that shows no sense of urgency to ‘rescue the perishing’. D.L. Moody’s ministry changed when he learned that lesson after sending people home to consider what they had just heard him preach, unaware that that very night the Chicago Fire would take many of their lives.
Some months ago, I went to a large evangelistic meeting in the North of England. The American speaker had been interviewed on Radio 4, and by major serious newspapers. The event was well advertised, a good crowd attended and the speaker was engaging, intelligent, well-thought-through and gentlemanly. He spoke for 50 minutes to a mixed group including people from other religions. However, though this was an ‘evangelistic’ meeting in all that time he never mentioned Jesus, the cross, etc. Aspects of the gospel did come through later, when Christians in the audience pressed the evangelist, to explain our message. No Muslims asked any questions. When I thought about this, I realised that they would actually agree with all that was said. Later, I heard the chairman defend this non-proclamation of Christ, going even further literally saying that we shouldn’t be preaching ‘Christ and Him crucified’ because people are so far back in their understanding that we have to convince them first of God’s existence. This is hardly the approach of Scripture, or the method of the evangelists in Acts. Jay Adams says that a truly Christian sermon is one that would cause you to be thrown out of a synagogue or a mosque, which of course is exactly what happened to the early Christian preachers.
We should be always ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us. Apologetics, which explains the reasons why we believe what we believe, is right and effective. We have good reasons to believe in God, the Bible, Jesus, the validity of Christian conversion, etc, but whilst boldly declaring the facts on which we base our faith, let us explain in whom our faith is placed, and what He has accomplished for us. I am glad when people are believers in God; that He is not a delusion, but that is only the position that even demons accept. Once the emphasis on the ‘God who so loved the world that He gave…’ goes, then the proclamation of the God of the Bible becomes woolly.
I fear that post-modern thinking isn’t actually asking the questions we like to answer anyway. Maybe thirty years ago the ordinary non-Christian was interested in whether there is evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, but it isn’t the issue which bothers people outside the church today. In a society where the young at least, feel that they have few cares and that they can live for the moment and materialism, proclaiming the message that Jesus spoke is totally counter-cultural, and therefore powerful. Christ and Him crucified is still a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others, but it is startling to our self-centred generation.
It is not sufficient to believe in God only. We need the gospel to know what God is like, otherwise in a fallen world, people could picture a false, a fallen god. Martin Luther wrote: ‘If you ask what is the gospel? No better answer can be given than these words of the New Testament: Christ gave His body and shed His blood for us for the forgiveness of sins.’ Charles Spurgeon expressed a similar truth when he said, ‘I build my study on Mount Calvary.’
If our efforts to bring people to faith meet with no success and we do not reap the desired fruit, we should nonetheless continue to lovingly rebuke, warn, admonish, plead and pray. If people accept the gospel, well and good. If they do not accept it, it grieves me, and I leave it to the loving God to continue to pursue the hearer in His own special way. But we cannot omit the heart of the gospel even with the worthy motive of hoping that more people will be converted. Preachers are urged to scratch where people itch, but it is our responsibility under God, first to try to get people to itch in the right places.
In my book ‘Where is God in a messed up world?’ I recount the story of the time when Sir Alec Guinness was acting the part of a Roman Catholic priest whilst filming in France. At the end of a day, he was returning to his hotel, still dressed in his robes and clerical collar. A little boy innocently ran up to him, put his little hand in Sir Alec’s with the words “Mon papa!” Together they walked for a while, before going their separate ways. The little boy no doubt felt secure, but he was deluded. I fear the same consequences occur when we are preaching a cross-less ‘gospel’. In evangelistic preaching God speaks, God acts and produces faith, and adds to the church. God uses the words of His people. But if we try to find the source of our message in our selves, our intellect, our ability, our proclamation will merely become an expression of the spirit of the age. We are not chameleons reflecting the colour of the environment, but Christians reflecting the fullness of the glory of Christ.
I am concerned about
- Proclamation which does focus on Christ and Him crucified, but
- Lacks love
- I know little or nothing about John Watson, except that he was a 19th century Scottish theologian who is attributed with saying to fellow preachers, ‘Be kind, you do not know what battles people are fighting.’ It is one of two statements, which has most impacted the way I seek to share the gospel. It grieves me deeply when I hear the gospel preached in a way, which displays no love for the listeners. DL Moody is said to have ‘loved them in’. And of Robert Murray McCheyne, it was said that his denunciations of sin were so terrible because they were so tender. Jesus was moved with compassion as He saw the crowds as sheep without a shepherd. “How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not,” He said. Paul, echoing the love of Moses centuries earlier, would have traded his own eternal relationship with God if only his nation could have been saved. Only Jesus could actually do that, but it is a Christ-like love, which shows such willingness.
- Those who listen to us are not our enemies. They are as we once were, that is, lost. And we want them to be as we are: saved, found! The gospel is a friend to everyone, even if they do not want it to be. Father Damien used to say: “Whenever I preach to my people, I do not say, ‘My brethren’, as you do, but, ‘We lepers’.” Rather than being angry, we are to show non-patronising pity for this lost generation. The greatest act of friendship is to introduce someone to Jesus Christ, so let me lovingly tell people about Him, and gently bring them nearer to Him. This takes time. When Samuel Wilberforce became Bishop of Oxford, he made a resolution ‘never to hurry men who come to consult you’. The care of souls is not only the duty of a pastor but also of the evangelist.
- There is so much in society that upsets me, but I am not a protester, but a proclaimer of good news. I praise God for the boldness of the Old Testament prophets, as they spoke the Word of God, denouncing specific national sins, and urging repentance on the princes, the priests, the prophets and the people. I am not a prophet, but a preacher of the Word of God, the Bible. I am one sinner telling another sinner of the wonderful Saviour who can save to the utmost those who come to Him.
- I would have stopped preaching long ago if it were not for the call of God on my life as a Christian, and the love of Christ, which constrains me. The unambiguous ingratitude of the majority of the people I am trying to reach, towards the truths of the gospel is disheartening. I want everyone to be saved, and I will work as any slave towards that end, but I know that most people don’t want what I have to share.
- We are to speak from the inmost passion of our heart, but to do so with winsome care, recognising that people have been wounded by the society in which they live, and blinded by the enemy of their souls. In Mark 11 we are told that ‘Jesus came … preaching’, then in the next chapter we read that ‘the common people heard Him gladly’. And in Luke 4, we are given a possible reason why. They wondered at ‘the gracious words which came from His mouth’. Love, sympathy, care, understanding, compassion, tenderness and just being winsome should be characteristics of the evangelist. Whilst not primarily being a pastor/teacher, there is a pastoral element in all gospel ministry, which demonstrates genuine interest in the many needs of the people we long to reach with the gospel. Understanding something of the suffering of Christ, we also are to be aware of the sufferings of people. Warren Wiersbe is the most voracious reader of books that I have ever met, yet I have heard him say that he has learned more from the bedsides of those whom he is visiting than from all his books. There are lessons to learn from both, but evangelists are in danger of declaring truth in a manner which undermines the very message that is being proclaimed. Peter, the preacher, cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, but many evangelists have cut off the ear of their would be listeners by something foolishly said or done!
- Lacks creativity
- I have lost the source of whoever said, “The common people are captivated more readily by comparisons and examples than by difficult and subtle disputations. They would rather see a well-drawn picture than a well-written book…For teaching purposes it is useful to have comparisons and examples on hand; not only Paul but also the prophets and Christ Himself very often used them”. Most Bible students I know feel indebted to the succinct freshness and biblical clarity of Warren Wiersbe. Pastor of three churches in the USA and then the director of Back to the Bible Broadcast, Wiersbe has written over 160 books. In his book, ‘Teaching and preaching with imagination’, written for seminary students, he develops the theme of the value of creativity in communication for biblical preaching and in so doing gives an insight into what it is that has undergirded the thinking behind his own preparation and preaching. To my mind he is one of the most engaging biblical expositors that I have heard. The whole book, which eventually goes through every book of the Bible showing how God used imagination to convey truth, is an exposition of the statement: ‘People’s minds are not debating chambers but picture galleries, therefore speak so that you turn people’s ears into eyes and they see the truth’.
- Now this is not just modern communication technique developed because we live in a post-modern age, or because we perceive that people are not able to concentrate on words only, for more than a few minutes. The fact that the Lord Himself uses metaphor, parable, illustration, poetry, imagery, or imagination surely gives us the right to follow His example. The Apostle Paul though allows us an insight into his preaching in Galatians 3. Having berated the Galatians believers from being diverted from straightforward trust in the finished work of Christ, and shuddered at the thought that they may break into factious disunity, he reminds them of what it was they first believed. ‘O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?’
- The Galatians were not present when Jesus was actually crucified, so what does Paul mean by His question? He is referring to his preaching. He used words in such a way that it was as if a picture was being painted with words so that the cross on which Jesus was crucified was placarded before the listening Galatians. His message was centred on Christ crucified, but graphically they saw what Paul was saying, and by faith they received the offer of salvation.
- It is too easy to regurgitate pat phrases without speaking so that the message is pointedly aimed at the particular listener. I believe that open air preaching is a vital way of getting out the gospel to those completely outside the church today. Preaching in the open air is also one of the finest ways to develop the skill of a preacher to get and keep the attention of people who will listen to the Word of God. If a preacher cannot keep a crowd in the open air, should he/she be speaker to a captive audience? It is good discipline too, to write gospel tracts, for it disciplines the writer to succinctly express great truths in a way, which should be engaging and understandable.
- I have noticed the temptation for preachers to merely use repetitious phrases to express the gospel. It is a danger all evangelists must avoid. There must be freshness in our proclamation of every single message. If we use the same material over and over again, and there is nothing wrong with that, (we have good precedents for so doing from John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus, and a host of others including John Wesley, who said that he didn’t get into a sermon until he had preached it forty times!), we must walk with God and preach so that the message comes across with fresh passion and earnest longing for the lost to be saved.
- I will never forget a sermon, which I never heard. My eldest son however, did, and phoned me immediately to excitedly repeat to me what he had heard from Alistair Begg. He had preached on David and Goliath, but outlined his three points with John MacEnroe’s famous refrain, “You cannot be serious!” Using that phrase, Alistair Begg pointed out that basically that is what was said when David first showed surprise to his brothers at their lack of military action against Goliath. Later it was if King Saul used the same words to David when he offered to go and fight the giant. David refused Saul’s offer of armour – he didn’t put his trust in heavy metal! But didn’t Goliath more or less say the same when he saw young David approach him with merely a sling and stones? A creative and unforgettable outline was used to drive home the truth of God’s word.
- Lacks biblical clarity
- Some of the people we want to reach are pleasant; others are simply unlovely, unlikeable, arrogant, rude, godless, selfish individuals. Some of our listeners are well educated, and have taken on board the world’s philosophies, whilst others are ignorant of most things except the celebrity culture of today’s society. Some read the Telegraph, some the Guardian, some the Sun, or the Star; others don’t read at all, or if they do it is in a foreign language. A few went to Sunday School, the vast majority have a picture of Jesus picked up from a school RE teacher or the BBC!
- Our calling is to reach all of these, and also to equip other Christians for the same work of ministry, and so edify the body of Christ. We are to turn the eyes of people away from themselves and the world, so that they may look to heaven. To begin with, we have to build a bridge from where we are to where they are, and then to take them to where they should be in relation to Christ. To do so, we have somehow not to make ourselves appear better than them, but to become all things to all people that by all means we may reach some with the gospel.
- Then, without using jargon, which they do not understand, and yet being thoroughly biblical, we are to explain the gospel. What does the average non-Christian understand by the word “God”, “sin”, “born again” or “repent”? Whilst using the words, we have to define them; whilst simplifying the gospel message, we have to keep its awesome nature and God-qualities. Archbishop Temple said of Bishop Ryle, and you will know this to be true, if you have read Ryle at all, ‘The language of those sermons is perfectly simple, and simply perfect.’ Our authority comes from preaching the Bible. It and it only is God’s word, so we need to learn again the lesson of the Billy Graham and say in effect if not in actuality, “The Bible says…” Our jokes, illustrations, homilies might make an immediate impression, but only preaching the Bible will make an eternal impression. God loves to honour His Son and His Word, and nothing will lead to blessing from God like preaching about Jesus from the Bible. This is exactly what Jesus did with the two on the Road to Emmaus, and what Paul did with his visitors to the cell in the city of Rome in Acts 28.
- In striving to be relevant and engaging, I have heard so many who whilst preaching what is true, do not do so with a desire to preach the Bible itself, evangelistically. If the gospel is ‘foolish’ to some, it is wise to make the Word of God itself our authority. Our aim, as evangelistic preachers should be to expound the Scripture to unconverted people and proclaim the good news. It is the Word of God that is to be the foundation of all we preach. What can me more thrilling than to read and then preach the Bible. It has always been relevant, interesting, but never more so than in a age when people do not know even the most basic Bible stories (watch any television quiz show if you need convincing!). God takes His Word and by His Holy Spirit applies it to the minds and hearts of the hearers. The Scriptures make people wise to what is meant by salvation.
- Lacks listeners
- Evangelism is proclaiming the gospel to non-Christians who are listening. It cannot be evangelism if the gospel is proclaimed but no unbelievers are present to hear what is being preached. So, though I love the idea of a Sunday evening gospel service, if the unsaved are not listening, we are merely going through the motions without doing what we are supposed to be doing. I remember a cynic telling me that his church was celebrating its centenary, and then he added “Yes, we are celebrating keeping the gospel in these four walls for the last 100 years!” We must devise means whereby those who would not normally have opportunity to hear do actually hear the word. We read of the early disciples that ‘They went forth, and preached everywhere’. (Mark 16 v. 20).
- It is not many decades ago that Christians preached to cinema queues. If that is not appropriate for today, we have to think how we reach those totally outside the gospel circles in which we normally operate. The nightclub culture means that many people get up when I go to bed, and go to bed when I get up. But who reaches these tens of thousands of relatively young people with the gospel? And how can we effectively reach them? Who is getting alongside the people who live on tough sink estates? I praise God for ‘Christianity Explored’ and urge all the universities and churches where I take missions to follow up the evangelism with that wonderful, Word-based course. But, let us not ignore the vast majority of people who do not have Christian friends who would invite them to attend a series like that. I wish more churches would use ‘Christianity Explored’ but it must not be the substitute for the church’s evangelistic programme. Keeping evangelism high on the agenda of the church includes ensuring that all classes, cultures and communities around us are being reached in a thorough way. “If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled from those who are perishing’. (2 Corinth 4 v. 3).
- John Calvin said, “The gospel cannot be proclaimed without driving the world to rage.” All who are involved in preaching the gospel will find opposition from the devil, the world and the wicked. And the clearer the presentation of the gospel, the more there will be ferocity of the opposition. But as we struggle and feel the heat of this, we also find ourselves strengthened by the Lord Himself. Our message is going to be a savour of life unto life to some, and a savour of death unto death to others. We love and pray for those who oppose us, but we cannot temper and adjust our message to pacify their rage.
- Lacks an appeal
- I am trying to learn to be careful to avoid the danger of rising to the defence of my children. You will see though that this is not the intention of this illustration, even if one of my children is involved. Jonathan’s evangelistic book, ‘Uncovering the World’ was reviewed in ‘Evangelicals Now’ by somebody who described herself as ‘pastor’s wife of a small Baptist church in Oxford’. She warmly commended the book with words like, ‘an easy read’, ‘a good book’ ‘the gospel set out in a very clear and simple way’, etc. Then she adds, ‘It is a shame the author saw the need to invite people to Christ, “praying this prayer” in the epilogue rather than letting the testimonies speak for themselves. While not being able to recommend the book wholeheartedly…’
- My initial reaction was that I must have read it wrongly, but upon checking, my considered view was “Aaagh, I don’t believe that! What has evangelicalism come to that a book written for non-Christians is reviewed by a fellow Christian and criticised because it invites people to come to Christ, and suggests a prayer they could pray to express their repentance and faith towards God?”
- And the answer to my question is that we have become guilty of imposing theological systems and political correctness on the God given commands and precedents to present the gospel of Jesus to every creature.
- Generally speaking, our nation no longer knows the gospel. It bothers me that we are failing to get across the message of ‘Christ and Him crucified’ but even when we do, it is without the pleading with the hearers to respond, to repent, to believe, to come to Jesus. Was it only He who is permitted to invite people to “Come … all you who labour and are heavy laden…” Was Peter making a mistake when after his great sermon at Pentecost he concluded by urging his listeners to believe? “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are afar off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.” Then Luke adds, ‘And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation”’.
- It is clearly wrong to have an appeal without proclamation, but is it not equally wrong to have proclamation without appeal? Have we lost confidence in the ability of the Lord to use us to win souls to Christ? Is this a lack of faith? Have we been intimidated by the scorn of the world into a silence that dares not ‘plead with men’ (as it says of Bunyan on the plinth of his statue in Bedford?) Could this be a reason why we see so little fruit, that we display so little urgency and give a take it or leave it attitude?
- It is harder to find such an appeal in the sermons of Paul, but that is because he is usually interrupted by his irate listeners howling for his blood or objecting to his words. But we repeatedly read of him that he explained (the gospel), testified (to the grace of God in his own life), and persuaded (people to repent and believe). It is this persuasive element in evangelism whose absence bothers me. It is not manipulation, as we have seen in some who distort the gospel by giving the impression that if only people will put up their hand, or say a prayer, they will be saved. The gospel is not to be manipulative, but neither is it to be presented so casually that we give the impression that it hardly seems to matter what people do with it. Billy Graham so often said that everyone whom Jesus called, He did so publicly. At very least we surely must give people the opportunity to respond to what we preach.
- In Mark 1 Jesus appeared in Galilee. He was a familiar friend to those He met, but He spokes in such an authoritative way that:
- They left their vocation (v. 18), the livelihood which men usually cling to;
- They left their parents (v. 20), when family bonds in Jewish life were very strong; and
- They were prepared to leave the devil’s chains (v. 24) and how strong that is.
So what is the remedy?
Bewailing the lack of really faithful and lively evangelistic preaching, which is both biblical and expository; concern for the need of speaking with confidence and conviction; and expressing the need to bring the message of Christ and Him crucified to unconverted people does not lead to a solution to the problems.
It is hard to remedy a malaise, which has got such a grip on the evangelical culture, which dictates not only the vocabulary but the style in which one preaches. It is too easy to be member of a ‘club’ an evangelical peer group, and always seek to enjoy the smile of other club members. Phillips Brooks’ famous definition of preaching, namely that it is ‘Truth through personality’ or even Martyn Lloyd Jones’ ‘Logic on fire’ do not rest comfortably with all ‘clubs’ and therefore are not the guidelines that they could be. Nevertheless, to be aware that God Himself is speaking through the preaching, and that it is HIS Word which we are proclaiming, surely must at least demolish attitudes which believe it is pious to be neutral, unimaginative, ill-prepared, or even spineless.
A true evangelistic sermon is an organised and concentrated presentation of the good news of Jesus so that people understand and respond to the gospel. We preach not in dependence upon the cleverness of our sermon material, but our sufficiency is of God, and we look to Him to use our words, so that they come across not as the words of men, but as they are in truth, the Word of God. If we believe that God uses His word, then we will preach it faithfully rather than relying on our clever strategies of convincing people. It is the gospel, message of Christ and the cross that is so dear to the heart of God.
Whilst conscience is the evangelists’ ally, so that people hearing the word, also hear the whisper of conscience saying, “That’s right … I am a sinner.” But we need the Holy Spirit to convict, as He cross-examines the sinner, who stands in the dock not only feeling his or her need, but also desperately looking for a way of escape, for freedom, for forgiveness.
God uses His word and His Spirit to bring new life. For this, there must be both prayer and proclamation. We see this truth in the ministry of Jesus. In Mark 1 v. 35 we read that Jesus rose in the morning, a great while before day, departing to a solitary place and there prayed. Three verses later Jesus turned to His disciples saying that they must move to the next town to preach there also. Prayer and preaching are joined together, and no one must put them asunder. These twin spiritual disciplines are illustrated in the incident when the delightfully maverick prophet Ezekiel was told to preach to a valley of dry bones. Most of us will be able to sympathise with the challenge. When asked by the Lord if those dry bones could live, he diplomatically relied, “Lord, you know!” Then he was commanded to preach the Word to the bones. As he did, there was a rattling and bone came together to bone. The foot bone joined the anklebone, the ankle bone the leg bone, the leg bone, the knee bone, etc. Soon Ezekiel was surrounded by skeletons, before, beside and behind him. As he continued preaching, muscles and then flesh covered the bones, so that now all around him were corpses, and army of dead bodies!
Finally, God commanded Ezekiel to speak to the wind, the breath, the Spirit, and, as he did, suddenly the corpses became filled with the wind, the breath, the Spirit, and they stood up, a mighty living army. Of course, the immediate point to the passage is referring to the nation of Israel, but isn’t there an obvious principle here, which looks like a mathematical equation?
The Word + the Spirit = New life or New birth.
So we preach, we proclaim, and as we do, we pray, and in doing so, we are looking to God to do His silent, convincing work of convicting people of their sin, pointing them to Jesus, and bringing them to faith in Him. It seems so simple. But God uses the weakest Christian as well as the most powerful evangelist. He uses a tract, a sentence, a poster, as a tiny mustard seed, and then waters and nourishes the Word until there is new birth. I love Mark 4 v. 26 – 29 which expresses this so encouragingly: ‘And (Jesus) said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”’
Whenever the gospel is preached in a way that exalts Jesus, it is as if He comes in the midst of the listeners. There is a sense that He is moving around resting His hand on the shoulders of those listening.
John Henry Jowett said: “Preaching that costs nothing accomplishes nothing”. And here we find an insight into the need for men and women totally committed to passionate evangelism. Some preachers have something to say, and others just have to say something. A real evangelist is someone who has something to say, and has to say it. There must be a vehement longing to proclaim the good news of Jesus. As missionary Henry Martyn said, ‘Here let me burn out for God’. We read of the Apostle Paul (Acts 18 v. 5) that he was ‘occupied with the word’. He told Timothy to ‘preach the word in season and out of season’. Is there are greater privilege, joy and responsibility?