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Calvinistic Evangelism–Chapter Seven–The Biblical Pattern: The Method

Now that we have examined the message the apostles preached we will move on to a consideration of their methodology in evangelism. This examination will necessarily be less extensive than our examination of their message since their methods of evangelism were very simple. There was no elaborate plan, no script to follow, no “how to” manual. There is no evidence that they organized city wide evangelistic campaigns or series of protracted meetings called “revivals.” There were no clever tactics or psychological techniques calculated to elicit decisions from their hearers. They simply proclaimed the message Jesus had given them and prayed that God would use their preaching for his glory. There are several characteristics of the New Testament method of evangelism to which we should give our attention and that we should emulate in all our evangelistic efforts. I would like first to consider this issue negatively, i.e., What did the apostles deny about their methodology? Then, I would like to move on to a consideration of the positive characteristics of their methodology.

The Issue Considered Negatively

The apostle Paul wrote a great deal about the methods he and his companions had rejected. For example, in 1 Corinthians one he made it clear that he did not even consider altering his message. He knew full well that neither the Jews nor the Greeks wanted to embrace the message he was preaching, yet he went on preaching the message of a Christ who had been crucified (see verses 22-24). He reiterated this thought in chapter two where he stated that he had refused resort to human wisdom and plausible words in an effort to make his message more palatable to his hearers (see verses 2-4). He wanted to be sure that their faith was not a spurious one produced by clever words and tactics but a genuine faith produced by the sovereign and saving power of God (see v. 5).

Along this same line he wrote in the second Corinthian Epistle, “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (1 Cor. 4:2). Though it is true he could have been referring to the manner in which he has lived his life in general since his conversion, he draws the issue to a fine point by stating that he has refused to tamper with God’s word but has openly stated the truth. It should be clear his is talking about his evangelistic ministry in contrast to the deceitful practices of the false apostles. He had not used clever and underhanded tricks. He had given no thought to using psychological manipulation to evoke a response to his message. He had not sought to stir his hearers to an emotional zenith so that he might “strike while the iron was hot.” I would like to return to the phrase “open statement of truth” when I discuss the positive characteristics of biblical methodology, but here I want to draw your attention to the contrast. He was, by implication, accusing the false apostles of using subterfuge to accomplish their devious ends. We must, like the apostles, renounce all such chicanery. I will never forget the day I listened to a pastor who was soon to become quite well known speaking to a class of young theological students. He was asked whether he believed in God’s sovereignty in the sinner’s salvation. He answered, “Yes, I believe that stuff, but you can’t teach that and build a big Sunday School.” By that he meant it is impossible to achieve what he called “success” by teaching the whole counsel of God. One must conceal some of the more difficult truths God has revealed because carnal minds will not receive them very well. There was nothing of this kind of spirit among the apostles. Hugh Latimer was much more in keeping with the spirit of the apostles. When he was summoned to give an account before King Henry VIII, he began his message as follows:

Hugh Latimer, dost thou know before whom thou art this day to speak? To the high and mighty monarch, the King’s most excellent majesty, who can take away thy life if thou offendest; therefore take heed that thou speakest not a word that may displease! And then consider well, Hugh, dost thou not know from whence comest thou; upon whose message thou art sent? Even by the great and mighty God! Who is all present! and Who beholdeth all thy ways! and Who is able to cast thy soul into hell! Therefore take care that thou deliverest thy message faithfully.

It is not the preacher’s prerogative to decide what part of God’s message he will proclaim and what part he will conceal. That issue was settled when all authority was given to the Lord Christ. If we conceal any part of God’s message, we are in open rebellion against him. There is no question but that the apostles would have rejected most if not all of the innovations to which the modern evangelical church has become so enslaved. It is little wonder that today’s church is so effete and ineffective in accomplishing her God given tasks. She has forsaken the fountain of living waters and has hewn our broken cisterns that can hold no water. Commenting on 2 Corinthians 10:4, the late Philip Hughes wrote,

The armor of Saul, though splendid in the eyes of men, cannot avail to overcome the Philistine giant. Only the panoply of God will serve for this purpose (Eph. 6:11ff). Only spiritual weapons are divinely powerful for the overthrow of the fortresses of evil. This constitutes an admonition to the Church and particularly to her leaders, for the temptation is ever present to meet the challenge of the world, which is under the sway of the evil one, with the carnal weapons of this world—with human wisdom and philosophy, with the attractions of secular entertainment, with the display of massive organization. Not only do such weapons fail to make an impression on the strongholds of Satan, but a secularized Church is a Church which, having adopted the standards of the world, has ceased to fight and is herself overshadowed by the powers of darkness (Hughes, 1986, 350).

Similarly, in commenting on this verse, Charles Hodge wrote, “In the war in which Paul was engaged, his confidence was not in himself, not in human reason, not in the power of argument or eloquence, not in the resources of cunning or management, but simply and only in the supernatural power of God. ‘We war not after the flesh, for our weapons are not carnal’” (Hodge, 1997, 250).

We do not need to seek far and wide for the remedy to this problem. It is near at hand. We must examine the biblical pattern and reject any method that does not conform to it. A belief in libertarian “free will” will drive people do gimmicks, and it has. A belief in God’s sovereign grace in the salvation of sinners will drive us to our knees and to him.

The Issue Considered Positively

Now that we have considered the methods the New Testament evangelists rejected, let’s consider the methodology they employed and its characteristics. I think you will find a stark contrast between first century methodology and the methodology of the modern evangelical church. Consider the following characteristics.

It was Characterized by Simplicity

In reading the New Testament, one is struck by the simplicity of first century evangelism. It consisted in only two elements. It involved a clear presentation of God’s message either in the market place or in a home (See Acts 20:20 for example), and it involved earnest prayer that God would bless by converting those who had heard the message. There were no elaborate plans, no major campaigns, no entertainment, no “soul-winning” programs, and no planning committees. There was simply a clear presentation of the message that Jesus has risen and has been exalted to the heavenly throne. It was a call to turn from wickedness and ungodliness accompanied by God’s promise that he would forgive all who repented. The apostle Paul described it as “an open statement of truth” or a “manifestation [unveiling] of the truth.” In terms of its basic content, the message was not, nor did it need to be, embellished or altered to suit its auditors. It simply stood as the naked and unvarnished truth of God.

It was the Work of the Entire Body

The early church understood that the work of ministry, whether it be evangelism or some other aspect of that work, is not a work for the few. In one way or another, every member of the body was to be involved in the work. That is not to say that every member stood in the market place proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Most were likely involved in the work without ever opening their mouths. Not every member of the body is a mouth. Not everyone in the early church had the gift of teaching or proclaiming the good news, but they were no less valuable to the cause than those who proclaimed God’s truth. Perhaps they were watching and entertaining toddlers while their parents were listening to the message. It could be they were showing mercy to some poor outcast soul or extending a helping hand in Jesus’ name to someone who was in need. Perhaps they were teaching shepherds whose task it was to equip believers for the work of service. Whatever their gift may have been and whatever their task, they understood that everything was moving toward one great end. It was that God might be glorified in the proclamation of his truth. Peter wrote,

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God [Would this not indicate that not everyone was to be involved in the speaking aspect of ministry?]; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:10-11).

I believe it was a grave error for anyone to have taught that if a person really loved Christ he would be out beating the bushes and cramming the “Romans Road” or some such system of canned “evangelism” down people’s throats. Everyone should be involved in some way in the war effort, but not everyone is a sharp-shooter.

It was Characterized by Extemporaneousness

It seems that much of the evangelism that occurred in the early church just happened as people were going about their business. Jesus struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman because he was thirsty and wanted a drink. As the conversation progressed, he turned it to eternal issues. In reality, from the divine side it was not extemporaneous at all. Jesus was keeping a divine appointment, but it occurred in the most ordinary of circumstances and flowed naturally in the context of the situation. Peter and John were going into the temple when a poor, lame man asked them for a gift. They did not go there for the specific purpose of evangelizing this man, but when the opportunity arose, they were armed and ready. Evangelism is to be the natural overflow the fullness of God in our hearts. When the opportunity arises we will speak out of the overflow of his goodness and grace. Being a witness is not so much what we are called to do, as it is what we are called to be. If we are a witness, speaking a fitting word in due season will be no problem for us.

It was Characterized by Dissimilarity

One cannot read the New Testament record carefully without noticing that the early gospel preachers were not merely reciting a previously memorized system of evangelism. Jesus did not say the same things to the Samaritan woman that he said to Nicodemus. His message to the rich young ruler was from his message to the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15. Paul did not preach the same message to the philosophers in Athens as he did to those gathered in Jewish synagogues. Different people have differing concerns, differing manifestations of their hostility toward God, differing excuses for remaining in their sins, differing fears. A cookie cutter approach to evangelism will not serve them well. Our evangelism needs to involve listening to the individual’s concerns and then applying the healing balm of the gospel to their specific needs and concerns. There is no question that the basic facts of the evangel are the same for every sinner, but we need to understand that simply eliciting a positive response to a series of general and usually meaningless questions does not constitute meaningful evangelism. A person may well agree to the proposition that Romans 3:23 is true without any comprehension whatsoever of the gravity of his situation before God or the depth of his antipathy toward God. If we are going to be involved in evangelism, we must learn to listen to the specific issues that concern the individuals we are seeking to win. Only after we have listened to their questions and come to understand their personal issues can we speak meaningfully to their concerns.

It was Educational

Modern evangelists seem to assume their hearers understand what they mean when they use words like “God,” “sin,” “faith” etc. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament record makes it clear that the early Christian evangelists spent a great deal of their time instructing their hearers. Consider just two examples. One describes Paul’s ministry to Jewish people; the other to his ministry to Gentiles in Ephesus. Notice that Paul was doing the synagogue in Thessalonica what “was his custom.” Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures,–explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”–(Acts 17:3). Addressing the elders of the Ephesian Church, Paul reminded them of his ministry while he was with them and of the way in which he had executed that ministry. This is a part of what he said to them. “. . .I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, -testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21). These verses help us to understand the characteristics of apostolic methodology in several ways. First, they make it plain that early evangelism was instructional in nature. He was “explaining and proving.” He was “teaching” publicly and in houses. Secondly, they teach us there was no tyranny of the immediate. They were not focused on rushing their hearers to a commitment. Instead, they focused on a clear communication of truth. They knew the work in which they were engaged was God’s work. They understood it was their duty to bring the truth to people’s ears, but only God could bring it home to their hearts. Their focus was on making the message plain and not on pressing their hearers to make a decision. When Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians one, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the gospel. . .” He was not in any way denigrating the importance of baptism as an open profession of faith in Christ. Instead, he was emphasizing that bringing people to faith or to make an open profession of that faith was not in his position description. Thirdly, their evangelistic instruction was extensive. It was not a superficial skimming of the surface but an in-depth explanation of God’s truth. Paul said, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable.” By modern evangelical standards, we would have to consider Jesus and the apostles very poor evangelists since they often let people walk away without drawing the net. Many seem to believe if you fail to close the deal with every sinner you meet, you must not be a very good “soul-winner.” But, the Bible informs us that after Jesus had clarified the issues regarding eternal life for the rich, young ruler, he allowed him to go away sorrowful (See Mark 10:22). After Paul had preached the gospel to the philosophers in Athens, Luke tells us that “some mocked and some said we will hear you again about this” (see Acts 17: 32). Yet, Paul did not insist that they come immediately to faith. He knew that was not his business but God’s. That we live in an age of biblical and theological ignorance demands that we follow the apostolic practice of educational evangelism. It will serve no good purpose to talk to sinners about God if they are ignorant of his attributes and character. They will not understand what we mean when we talk about sin unless we spend time teaching them how the Bible describes it. If we would evangelize, we must be willing and able to explain God’s truth.

It Involved an Indiscriminate Proclamation

There is not the slightest indication that the first century evangelists sought to determine whether their hearers were good candidates for salvation or not. Jesus described the gospel preacher as “a sower” who scatters the gospel seed indiscriminately (Matt. 13:3). A biblical evangelist does not target one group above another. We do not seek out “key kids” or “awakened sinners” and preach the good news only to them. We are to say to the most hardened sinner we meet, “God will pardon you if you repent and trust Christ.” The gospel call is not to elect sinners but to sinners as sinners. It is a call that must be made even to sinners who feel no need for salvation. It is not to be our concern how God intends to use our gospel proclamation. That is his business, not ours. The Canons of Dort, the definitive statement of Calvinism, Second Head, Article 5 states the issue as follows:

Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.

It was Characterized by Dependence on God

There is no biblical evidence that any of the first century preachers were characterized by the cocky self-confidence of the modern evangelist. The apostle Paul confessed that when he came to Corinth he was not effervescing with self-confidence, nor was he depending on his eloquence of speech, his ironclad logic, or the depth of his philosophical understanding. Instead, he came to them in weakness and fear and in much trembling. His speech and his message were not with persuasive words of human wisdom (See 1 Cor. 2:3-4). He did not rely on his own skill either as an orator or as an apologist. All his confidence was in God’s sovereign, saving activity. His assurance that the gospel would be successful was founded on the demonstration of the Spirit and of divine power. His desire was that their faith would not rest in human wisdom but in divine power (See vv. 4-5). He understood that the work God had sent him to do was far above his ability to accomplish. Bringing sinners to saving faith in Christ requires a mighty demonstration of divine power.

In his second epistle to the Corinthians he asserts that Christ always leads him and his associates in triumph while they are faithful in proclaiming God’s message. It may be that their message would result in life for their hearers or it could result in aggravated condemnation and death for their hearers. Either way, they would be successful as long as they were faithful to the truth and not like some cheap hucksters and peddlers of the word (see 2 Cor. 2:14-17). He is careful to guard against leaving his readers with the impression that he felt any sense of self-sufficiency in the face of his mammoth task. He asks, “Who is sufficient for these things?” How different is this attitude from that of the slick charlatan evangelists whose methodology virtually guarantees “results.” Instead, Paul understood that any sufficiency he had for the task Christ had assigned to him was from God. He did not feel that he was sufficient even to think anything as of himself. All his sufficiency was from God (see 2 Cor. 3:5). Paul described the gospel he preached as a treasure he carried in a clay pot. He intended to emphasize the utter disparity between the inadequacy of the observable means employed and the supernatural effects that are produced through the use of those means. God’s purpose in employing such means is that it might be patent that the marvelous efficacy of the gospel is from him and not from us (see 2 Cor. 4:7).

Summary of Part Two—the Method

The early preachers of the gospel gave little attention to their methodology in evangelism. They were content to proclaim God’s message in the confidence that he would use it to accomplish his purpose in making his glory known.

Their methods were very simple—they proclaimed God’s truth, and then prayed that he would bless it to their hearers. They simply went about their business with hearts filled with a knowledge of God’s goodness and glory. There evangelistic activity simply resulted from the overflow of hearts filled with God.

Their methods included utilizing the gifts God has given to every member of the body of Christ. We should not expect every believer to function in the same way in the work of evangelism. Each member of the body should see to it that he/she is faithful in exercising the gift or gifts God has given them. First century evangelists were concerned to give their hearers a clear explanation of the message. It was not their concern to rush their hearers into a commitment. Even if those to whom they preached continued in their unbelief, these preachers wanted to be certain they had given them an accurate account of the issues involved.

They were sensitive to their hearers’ level of understanding. There is no evidence that they every used a “one size fits all” approach to evangelism. Instead, they assessed where their hearers were in terms of their knowledge and understanding and tailored their messages to answer those needs.

These early evangelists made no effort to determine if their hearers were among the elect or if they were awakened sinners. They proclaimed the same promise to everyone they encountered.

Finally, their methodology was characterized by a complete dependence on God. They did not resort to cheap tricks or psychological manipulation to “get decisions” from their hearers. Instead, they depended on God to accomplish his sovereign purpose through their faithful proclamation of the message.