Why should Christians want to ask for God’s favor, instead of returning evil for evil, or insult for insult? What is the end-goal? Why should we be prepared to give an account of the hope that’s within us? I covered some of this in Sunday School, as we examined this passage (1 Peter 3:13-17; what follows is my translation):
So, who’ll harm you, if you’re zealous for what’s right? But, even if you do suffer because you’re doing what’s right, God will bless you. So, don’t be afraid of their threats or be intimidated. Instead, reverence the Messiah as Lord in your hearts.
Always be ready to give a defense to every man who’s asking you for an account of the hope inside each of you. But, do this with gentleness and reverence in order to have a good conscience, so that when they keep slandering your good way of life because you belong to Christ, they might be ashamed. Because it’s better to suffer because you’re doing what’s good (if that’s God’s will), than because you’re doing what’s evil.
The audio is below, and the translation notes are here.
Every Christian agrees that, when an unbeliever hears the Gospel, and repents and believes the Good News and becomes a Christian, God gets the glory. Salvation is from Him. All praise goes to Him. Got it.
Yet, Christians have argued about the mechanics of how salvation works for a very long time. I like to explain it like this – imagine you’re attending a play in a theater …
Out on stage, in front of the curtain, everybody sees what’s going on. This is salvation viewed from the outside. An unbeliever hears the Gospel, repents and believes, and becomes a Christian. God gets the glory. But, backstage behind the curtain, all sorts of things are happening to produce the scene out front. Props are brought in and moved out. Costumes are changed. Backdrops are arranged. Backdrops are moved. And so it goes. Christians disagree about what’s going on behind the scenes, in the heart and mind of an unbeliever, to produce repentance and faith.
Generally, people tend towards either:
A more “God alone” understanding of what happens behind the curtain, or
A more cooperative scheme, where man and Yahweh work together, in some form or fashion, to produce salvation
There are great, wide, terrible and heretical ditches on both sides of this divide, to be sure. These are complicated waters, and unwary Christians can read a whole lot of irresponsible garbage by folks on both sides of this unending theological war. Few of the folks you’ll read on the internet know what they’re talking about. Even some who do know write very irresponsibly, at times.
This is why it warms my heart to see a responsible theologian bring some balance to this difficult topic. How can a Christian reconcile God’s obvious control and sovereignty over everything in creation, and man’s clear responsibility to repent and believe the Gospel? Well, I have a book you might like to consider …
There is a long-standing controversy in the Church as to whether God is really Lord in relation to human conduct and saving faith or not. What has been said shows us how we should regard this controversy. The situation is not what it seems to be. For it is not true that some Christians believe in divine sovereignty while others hold an opposite view. What is true is that all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it.
What causes this odd state of affairs? The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church – the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic.
People see that the Bible teaches man’s responsibility for his actions; they do not see (man, indeed, cannot see) how this is consistent with the sovereign Lordship of God over these actions. They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblical and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it.
The desire to over-simplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it. Hence this persistent and troublesome dispute. The irony of the situation, however, is that when we ask how the two sides pray, it becomes apparent that those who profess to deny God’s sovereignty really believe in it just as strongly as those who affirm it.
How, then, do you pray? Do you ask God for your daily bread? Do you thank for your conversion? Do you pray for the conversion of others? If the answer is “no,” I can only say that I do not think you are yet born again. But if the answer is “yes” – well, that proves that, whatever side you may have taken on this question in the past, in your heart you believe in the sovereignty of God no less firmly than anyone else. On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.
I think Packer does an excellent job presenting this issue from a pastoral perspective. He sounds like a nice grandfather, discussing theology over hot chocolate on a cold winter’s morning …
In his wonderful book, Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, Os Guinness spends some time discussing the challenges that thinking Christians face today. One of the most dire, he believes, is from the fraudulent, revisionist perversion of true Christianity within churches:
Many revisionists in the Protestant liberal churches, followed by the extremes of Catholic progressivism and emergent evangelicalism, have reached the point where their thinkers preach “a different gospel,” some of their leaders are hardly recognizable as Christian, and some have joked that they recite the Apostles’ Creed with their fingers crossed …
Some of today’s deadliest challenges to the Christian faith come from within the church itself, yet in many parts of the church Christian apologetics is weak, poorly understood and openly dismissed as an unworthy and a wrong-headed enterprise.
Without faithful and courageous apologists, men and women who are prepared to count the cost, the church is vulnerable to the challenges it faces internally as well as externally. Can there be any question that today’s “grand age of secular apologetics,” which is both post-Christian and pluralistic, is no time for Christians to be voiceless and lacking in persuasion?
If ever there was a time when it was vital for all Christians to be bold and winsome advocates on behalf of their faith, it is now. No one can fail to see the blizzard of challenges sweeping down on the Christian faith today and calling for a clear response.
From questions about the origins of the universe (Leibniz’s “Why is there not nothing?”) to the challenges of scientism, to attacks on the existence of God and the person of Jesus, to the exposure of the sins and hypocrisies of the church, to recurring questions about evil and suffering raised by natural disasters, to the validity and importance of truth, to the contested place of religion in public life, to the purported irrationality and menace of religion of any kind, to the relationship of the Christian faith to other religions and the response of Christians to new technologies and alternative lifestyles—the church faces an unprecedented barrage of questions, challenges and attacks on its core message, its view of the world and its way of life.
Not surprisingly, such grave assaults from the outside have led to serious erosions on the inside too, and all this at a speed and on a scale that is without precedent in Christian history (210-211).
In today’s environment, many “Christians” are moving rapidly towards the exits, anxious to leave the hard truths of the “rule of faith” behind. As soon as it begins to cost something to identify as a Christian, we’ll see the pretenders stop pretending and seek to “revise” the faith. Indeed, Guinness makes the point that the term “revisionist” is much more accurate than “liberal,” (222-223).
He then turned to one important task for Christians today:
Christian advocates, then, must be ready to focus their attention on those inside the church as well as those outside—resisting modern revisionism just as St. Paul resisted ancient Gnosticism and St. Athanasius stood fast against Arianism and the world of his day.
Are today’s evangelists and apologists prepared to count the cost and pick up their crosses again and truly be contra mundum—even to the point of scorn, shame, and perhaps imprisonment and death?
Let there be no misunderstanding: the greatest crisis now facing the church in the West today is the crisis of authority caused by the church’s capitulation to the pressures of the sexual revolution, and in particular to the bullying agenda of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer coalition.
It will not do for evangelists and apologists to keep silent for fear of losing opportunities to present the gospel. As Luther made plain in his day, to fight the battle at any point other than where the battle is being fought in one’s day is to lose the battle (226).
Guinness’ book isn’t about fighting the culture wars. It’s an encouraging, thought-provoking and profoundly moving book about recovering the lost art of persuasion as a tool for engaging the our friends, neighbors, co-workers and communities with the Gospel. It’s probably the most helpful apologetics book I’ve ever read, but it’s much more than that. I’ll write a full review on it soon.
I don’t intend to really answer the question here, but I do want to suggest a tentative way a congregation ought to structure its efforts for evangelism. Here it is; the picture says a thousand words . . .
A few points:
I emphasize deliberate corporate evangelism, because these efforts should be about intentionally giving the Good News to people. I don’t believe touchy-feely events, where you try to “friend” people into God’s coming Kingdom, are the best way to go. This is best reserved for interpersonal relationships on a personal level. This isn’t a tactic a church should use for corporate evangelism.
I also focus on deliberate personal evangelism, because your goal should be to get to actually telling the person the Gospel. You shouldn’t be somebody’s friend for 20 years, and hope “one day” to have an open door. Deliberately plan to work the Gospel into conversation, as appropriate. Don’t be like this.
When it comes to how a congregation does corporate evangelism, there are four basic approaches or philosophies a church will take. I’m confident nearly every church will fit one of these four categories. I understand why different church leaders take each approach, but I believe only one of them is gutsy enough to be faithful to Christ. I think the other three are negligent, cowardly, and foolish, in that order.
Here they are – and I’ve even given them names to be extra offensive:
The church that doesn’t evangelize at all
This is the church that does nothing. Yes, you heard me – nothing. This church has no tracts for members. No literature. No training. No programs. No planned events. No mention of the Gospel on its website. No encouragement and exhortation to evangelize.
The pastor might mention evangelism every once and a while, in passing. But, it’s always vague and rather meaningless.
Pastors are pulled in many different directions, and its impossible for one guy to do everything well. I get that. But, still . . . nothing? Really?
The church that’s ashamed of the gospel
This church really, really wants to be your friend. It wants you to know it’s not like that other church; you know the one. These folks are different – they just wanna love on you and show you how nice Christians are. They’ll have public events, but somehow never mention Jesus or His Good News at all. Don’t want to offend, you know!
They’ll likely not distribute evangelistic literature at all. If they do, it’ll be so sanitized and purged of all possible offense so as to be meaningless. The “Gospel” in these presentations is typically more airbrushed than an aging starlet on Instagram.
The unbelievers who do come to these events will leave thinking these Christians are nice people. That’s sweet. The lady at the donut shop is nice, too. So is my cat. These churches have their hearts in the right place, but they’ll likely accomplish nothing positive. Their entire approach is to tiptoe softly, tenderly, and ever so apologetically towards some vague, generic conversation about Jesus.
Though it’s leaders wouldn’t put it quite this way, one must conclude they believe a sinner will come to faith in Jesus through a combination of vague “love,” lots of free food, and by never mentioning the Gospel at all.
The angry church
This church wants you to know you’re goin’ straight to hell. Don’t pass go. Don’t collect $200. Go straight to hell. The flames await, so enjoy your time burning, sucka.
These people are so passionate about the Gospel, they’ll tell you:
You’re a sinner, and goin’ right to the flames of hell
God loves you, and Jesus came to save you
He died for you
Pray this prayer, and you’ll be saved
Praise God! You’re saved!
As Daniel Strange has observed:
Here there is a tendency when questioned simply to trot out verses like Acts 4: 12 and John 14: 6 with little explanation or apologetic defence (because we don’t have one), or to give the impression of ‘self-righteousness’, implying we have achieved total enlightenment on these issues and that there are simple and easy answers when it comes to this topic. We use a machete to bludgeon when what is needed is a scalpel to subvert. While these approaches may be doctrinally orthodox, none are winsome or persuasive.
Like deranged Neanderthals, they bludgeon with gusto and frighten everyone away. These are the guys the first group doesn’t ever want to be confused with.
The nice church that isn’t afraid
This church does something really, really crazy. It cares enough to understand the world it operates in, understand the mindset and culture of the people it seeks to reach, tries to show Christian love, and yet still boldly proclaims the Gospel. This approach combines the best intentions of the last two flawed approaches (above), but doesn’t drive off the cliff into madness in the process.
Perhaps a better approach, and one in keeping with the tenor of much apologetic teaching in the New Testament, is one that both defends and proclaims Christian exclusivity with what might be called a ‘bold humility’, a stance that seeks first to understand the world of religion and religions through a biblical worldview before then applying unique and satisfying gospel truth to a world of pseudo-gospels that promise much but can never ultimately deliver. We are to give a reason for the hope that we have, but to do so with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3: 15). In other words, fortiter in re, suaviter in modo (boldly in action, gently in manner).
This kind of church plans and executes corporate evangelistic events, and boldly but lovingly proclaims the whole Gospel without caring who is offended. But, it also trains its members to understand theology, understand God, understand the Bible in a deep, meaningful and comprehensive way.
It teaches its people to show real Christian love to unbelievers, so they, too, might come to faith in Christ. But, this love never comes at the expense of a clear and unapologetic proclamation of Gospel truth.
It teaches its people how to share the Gospel. It explains what sin is, what repentance is, who Jesus is, what the building blocks of the Gospel are, and aggressively engages with its community in corporate evangelism. It’s out there, in the marketplace of ideas, pushing Jesus in a winsome way.
Which are you?
I could flesh out more, but I’m not trying to write a biblical theology for corporate evangelism. I’m simply making this point – your church will have to choose which approach it will take:
It can never do evangelism at all. Eventually, the church will die – and it will be all your fault;
It can be have benign events, never mention the Gospel at all, and pray that (magically) the person will hear it by accident one day;
It can be an angry Neanderthal, and bludgeon people with the Gospel without any intellectual reflection or interaction with the people it’s speaking to;
Or, it can simply tell people the whole Gospel in an unapologetic fashion, while showing Christian love and understanding to people at the same time
In my experience, churches will usually take options #1 – #3. Let’s stop being afraid. Let’s stop being brute Neanderthals. Let’s take option #4 for our churches.
Most Christians don’t ever share the Gospel. If you’re a Christian, you should start planning to stop this failure. You should decide to do something about that, to change it. But, I really mean that you should plan to stop. Don’t plan for this the same way you “plan” to start a new workout program. We all know how that last time went, don’t we?
Pray. I think many times we don’t evangelize because we undertake everything in our own power. We attempt to leave God out of it. We forget that it is His will and pleasure for His gospel to be known. He wants sinners to be saved. Simply put, we don’t pray for opportunities to share the gospel, so how surprised should we be when they don’t come? If you’re not evangelizing because you think you lack opportunities, pray and be amazed as God answers your prayers.
In 1969, the band Led Zeppelin released its first album. On that album, there was a little song entitled “Communication Breakdown.” It’s about a man who likes a girl, but can’t bring himself to actually speak to her. Now, as every married man knows, if you’re too terrified to ever speak to a pretty girl, then you have a potentially fatal problem . . .
For Christians, there is another kind of communication breakdown happening. Most Christians have never done anything concrete to give somebody the Gospel, at all. Now, I don’t intend to shame you into anything – there’s been enough of that over the years. Instead, I want to encourage you.
82 percent of the unchurched are at least “somewhat likely” to attend church if they are invited. Perhaps we need to pause on this response. Perhaps we need to restate it: More than eight out of ten of the unchurched said they would come to church if they were invited. If you take anything from this book, please remember this point.
What constitutes an invitation? For many of the unchurched, it was a simple statement of invitation to come to one’s church. For others, it was an invitation that included the offer to meet someone at church to show them around. In either case, the process was pretty basic. If we invite them, they will come.
The next obvious question is: Are Christians inviting non-Christians to church? The heartbreaking answer is no. Only 21 percent of active churchgoers invite anyone to church in the course of a year. But only 2 percent of church members invite an unchurched person to church.