Trinitarian Ministry to Body, Mind, and Soul
A series of articles originally written by Jonathan Stepp, edited by Michael Morrison.
What is evangelism in the light of who Jesus is?
The word “evangelism” has its root in the same Greek word we translate “gospel”: the word “evangel,” which means “good news.” So to evangelize is to “gospelize” or “announce good news” someone.
Evangelism is not a sales pitch. The word, in its Greek origin in the New Testament, does not have that sense about it. Evangelism is not an attempt to sell someone a product or, primarily, to try to get someone to do something. In ancient Greek, to give the gospel is to give a declarative statement. It is an announcement of a fact, a news item. It is a fact that can be believed or disbelieved, but remains a fact nonetheless.
Jesus announced, The kingdom of God is here. He talked about the kingdom. Paul announced, Jesus died for our sins. Paul talked about Jesus. Are these different gospels? No, they are different facets of the same gem. If we want to share the gospel in a biblical way, we need to see how they are integrated. Put simply, Jesus was announcing a result, and Paul was announcing the means by which the result came about.
A Christ-centered definition of the gospel, and of evangelism, needs to start with who Christ is: the Son of God, become human. Because of who he is, he was able to do something for us: Representing all humanity, he died for us, was raised from the dead, and ascended to heaven as our mediator. As a result (now we get to the question of who we are), we are forgiven, reconciled, adopted as children of God, with eternal fellowship with him (that is, in his kingdom).
There are many additional points that are important, such as salvation is completely by grace; grace is not a “thing,” but is the gift of fellowship with God; salvation is the gift of God himself; eternal life is not just a never-ending life, but a life of love in fellowship with God. It is self-contradictory to say that we want the gift of fellowship with God while we also ignore God and live like the devil.
A definition of evangelism cannot include everything, but can touch on the most important points:
Evangelism is announcing that the Son of God became a human, died for our sins, was resurrected, and returned to heaven in order to give us the free gift of eternal fellowship with God.
To direct this announcement towards another person (to “evangelize” that person) is to tell them about Jesus and his significance for them personally. In some cases, people have already heard that Jesus died for their sins. What they need is to understand the significance of what that means for them: that it changed who they are and how they should see themselves.
Depending on the audience, sometimes evangelism needs to give more stress to point 1, that the Son of God died for us, and sometimes it needs to give more stress to point 2, that this means that we are loved by God, accepted by God, and we don’t have to jump through hoops in order to have eternal life with God. People who have accepted point 1 generally think of themselves as Christians, even if they have not yet understood point 2, about grace, union with Christ, and fellowship with God as his children.
Therefore, we often preach the gospel to people who are already Christians – not to steal sheep from another church, but to share good news and to build believers in the faith and assurance they should have. Indeed, every time we preach to our own congregation, we should include the gospel, thus evangelizing our own people – and ourselves. We all have room for growth.
As we discussed with preaching, evangelizing leads to a response on the part of the person being evangelized, but the response does not determine the truth of the message. The gospel is true whether or not that person ever comes to believe the truth that Jesus has given humanity a new and perfectly righteous foundation for our relationship with God.
This understanding of evangelism may become clearer if we reflect on evangelism in the light of the Trinity. As with baptism and communion, we see evangelism as something that is characteristic of the Triune life itself. Seamands discusses at length how the Triune God is a missionary God. It may seem strange to us to think of the Father, Son, and Spirit as evangelizing each other. We may think, “the Father has no need to evangelize the Son because the Son already believes in himself and in his Father – and he already lives according to their relationship in the Spirit.” Such thinking reveals the extent to which we have let the response drive our definition of the gospel.
However, in every moment of the Trinity’s existence, the three persons of the Trinity have an “evangel” – stating good news – to share with each other. That is the good news of how much they love, like, and accept each other. It is not a sales pitch or an invitation. The Father does not say to the Son “if you will accept me, then I will love you and you will be my Son.” God would cease to exist if the acceptance of the Three Persons were conditional in this way! Rather, the Father says to the Son, “I accept you, I love you, and you will always be my beloved Son.” In response to this the Son says, “I love you, Father, and I accept you, and I will always be your Son.” They speak this gospel to each other in the power, anointing, and fellowship of the Holy Spirit, who joins them in affirming the good news of his love and acceptance of them.
Evangelism is not merely something God does – it is something that God is. It is characteristic of the Triune life that each person of God is constantly and forever immersing each of the other two persons of God in the good news – the gospel – of his love and acceptance of them. This is part of the reality revealed in Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit descends on him and the Father speaks from heaven, “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9-11). At Jesus’ baptism we are given a revelation of the good news (evangelistic) life of the Trinity as the Father pours good news over the Son in the Spirit.
This Trinitarian evangelism does not cause their relationship to come into existence. Trinitarian evangelism is the joyful announcement and celebration of the relationship that already exists. The Father does not evangelize the Son in order to convince the Son to become the Son. The Father evangelizes the Son because the Son is already the beloved Son of the Father.
In the same way, the evangelism of the church does not cause a relationship to come into existence between people and their Father in heaven. Evangelism is the good news being announced to people that, because of who Jesus is, they are already beloved children of the Father in Jesus. The Greek roots of this word illustrate this. The prefix eu- means good; the root angel refers to an announcement.
To “evangelize” or “gospelize” people is not an effort to try to help them become something they are not. It is an announcement to them that God has already reconciled them to himself through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:18). The objective reality does not change – but we do wish to change the subjective receipt or appropriation of that reality. We would like for people to know, believe, and celebrate the truth of who Christ has made them be, and live in light of it.
Again, we can see this in Jesus’ own baptism in Mark 1:11. The words that the Father speaks to the Son in that moment are gospel. They are the good news of who Jesus is and who, as God the Son, he has always been. The Father is not saying to Jesus, “Do my will and then you will be my Son.” He says to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The Father is saying something that is true and is good, sharing that with his Son, just has he has always done and always will do. The Father is “gospelizing” the Son, communicating the truth of who he is as the beloved Son of the Father.
Since the Father has fulfilled, in Jesus Christ, his plan to adopt humanity into the Triune life (Eph. 1:5), it should not surprise us to discover that Jesus’ evangelism of the human race is the same kind of evangelism that the persons of the Trinity practice towards each other. The Gospels tell us that Jesus came preaching “the time has come, the kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:15). Jesus does not say, “If you will believe what I am saying, then you can create an experience of the kingdom in your own life.” Nor does Jesus say, “If you modify your behavior then you can draw the kingdom into your life.” If the kingdom is not already here in objective truth, no amount of faith or good behavior could make it appear.
The kingdom is not a product being sold or a behavioral modification program being promoted. Jesus makes a declarative statement of fact about the reality that the kingdom of God has come. It is news.
The people of that time imagined something much more worldly than the reality Jesus had in mind. They imagined the overthrow of Roman authority and the reassertion of Jewish independence. But when Jesus talks about the kingdom, he is talking about the Triune life itself. He is talking about the joyful, peaceful reign of the Father, Son, and Spirit over all of humanity and over the entire created order. The kingdom Jesus announces is the life that he has with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the Son’s incarnation as the man Jesus Christ, this life has come near to us, and we have been brought near to it.
Jesus is announcing to humanity the good news of our inclusion in the Triune life through him. In the same way that the Father has eternally said to the Son, “you are my beloved, forever included in my life,” so, also, the Son now says to humanity, “you are the beloved of my Father, anointed in my Spirit, and included in our life.”
The evangel that Jesus gives us is not an invitation for us to bring the kingdom down from heaven or to do something good to get ourselves into the kingdom of God. Rather, it is a declaration to us of who we really are: citizens of the heavenly kingdom of our Father. Just as the Father speaks a word of acceptance to the Son because he already is the Son, so also Jesus evangelizes the human race because we are already children of the Father. The gospel does not make us into Jesus’ brothers and sisters – it announces something that has already been done. Creation, and re-creation through Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit have made us his brothers and sisters. Because of who he is, we belonged to him long before we came to realize it. Evangelism is Jesus’ work to bring us this realization so that it makes a difference in our thoughts and behaviors.
In a way, evangelism is a convergence of the other three ministries we have already discussed: preaching, baptism, and communion merge together in evangelism to bring the message, to mark the change in our lives that it implies, and to go forward in life in fellowship with God. The gospel announces what Jesus has done, what difference it makes, and points to our eternity in love and joy.
When we preach the gospel, we are conveying the same message Jesus does: a message of God’s love, his acceptance, and his desire for us to participate in who he has made us to be. When we evangelize, we are participating in Jesus’ ministry to immerse people in the assurance of who they are in fellowship with Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Evangelism should always be seen in conjunction with preaching, baptism, and communion with God. They go together.
All that the church does should help convey, either in words or actions, the truth that Jesus has placed us in fellowship with God. Sermons do it in words; the life of the church should do it in actions; rituals such as baptism and Communion convey it in symbolism. We want everyone (whether in or out of our congregation) to learn of God’s love for them, that they are his beloved children, and that this transforms their life. Once they come to accept this, we want them to grow in their assurance of it, and in understanding what it means for their life.
We all sense, at some level, that the church exists for evangelism, and that we all ought to be engaged in evangelism in some way. Yet our lack of understanding about how evangelism is inherent within God’s Triune nature causes us to separate our doing of evangelism from Jesus being the good news. People often think that the key to evangelism is putting our arguments into a tight package, so that people have no choice but to agree that what we say is right. They have turned the gospel into an academic exercise, and a cognitive agreement.
The gospel is Jesus himself, and when we share the gospel, we are participating in Jesus’ ministry of giving himself to help humanity. We don’t have to convince anyone – that’s not our job. We are delivering the news, not advertising a product. The news concerns Jesus’ being and doing – who he is and what he has done – and then about our being and doing – his significance for who we are and what we do. God loved humanity so much that he sent his only Son, so that we might have a good relationship with him, rather than struggle with a sense of condemnation.
When Jesus is a product to be sold, you have to be good at sales in order to sell him. Since most people are not natural salespersons – they do not have that personality or intuitive skill – they become intimidated by evangelism, and because they don’t do it well, they don’t want to do it at all. So programs are created to try to train believers to be effective sales agents for Jesus. Once evangelism stops being the joyful Triune life and becomes a sales program, then it also becomes a religious obligation. That may be why some believers don’t like evangelism.
If people are not confident about Jesus’ love for them, and that they are accepted by the Father as his children, then it is difficult for them to persuade others. The difficulties often lead people to failure, and they give up. However, as Purves points out, that act of giving up is not always a bad thing. When we are ready to give up our programs, we may be ready for Jesus’ way.
How do we practice the ministry of evangelism?
How do we evangelize in a way that participates in Jesus’ life, instead of being a program of our own creation? Perhaps we can start with an analogy. Evangelism is a form of multiplication, of multiplying the number of people who hear the good news about Jesus and who they are in him. The apostle Paul uses the analogy of his converts being his children in the faith. Let’s take than analogy and develop it.
Suppose a married couple comes for counseling and says, “We want children but we haven’t had any because we’ve never had sex.” There is something wrong – and it is most likely not in their understanding, but in their relationship. When a man and woman are in love, they usually do not have a problem having sex. Millions of premarital pregnancies are evidence that when two people are drawn to each other, it is difficult to stop children from being produced. No special program is needed to bring children into existence. (Medical problems like infertility are another issue.)
So, if a married couple were to say “we want children but we’ve never had sex,” they probably don’t need a “how to” book on sex. They need something that addresses their psychology, including their relationship with each other. If this couple is to be helped, they must first work through issues of love, acceptance, trust, and relationship, and then children will flow naturally from their relationship. If they have never had sex, they might need a few minutes of “sex-ed” on the mechanics, but their relationship needs weeks – perhaps months – of counseling and therapy. We could tell how to have sex in one counseling session, but that does not mean that they will want to do it. The desire to come together will have to flow from their love for each other and the indwelling of their lives in each other.
In the same way that human parents multiply and have children, so also disciples who believe in Jesus multiply and produce disciples who believe in Jesus. Christians produce new Christians, in normal circumstances, and churches produce new churches. If we see a group of Christians who are not multiplying and producing new Christians, then something is wrong. They do not need exhortations and instructions, any more than the couple in the analogy needs instruction in how to do sex. Rather, they need counseling and therapy in their relationship with Jesus. If the Bride of Christ (the church) is not in love with her Husband (Jesus), it will be difficult for her to produce children.
As a practical matter, if the people in your church are not evangelizing others, then you need to evangelize the people in your church. You need to so fill them with the good news, to saturate them with confidence in Christ, that it will fill them and overflow to others. When the people in your church have been thoroughly evangelized, then they will evangelize others – some in words, and some in actions.
In the same way that a man and woman who love each other will have sex and produce children, so also people who have been evangelized will evangelize. If the people we minister to are not telling others the good news, then it is likely that the people we minister to do not have a firm understanding of what the good news is. This is why we started this lecture by defining the gospel, seeing it rooted in the nature of the Trinity and of who Jesus is. Evangelism is part of the nature of the Triune life, and thus it is a ministry in which we are always engaged. The people to whom we minister, even if they are baptized believers, need to be constantly “gospelized.” Our preaching, our counseling, our practice of Communion, our worship, and all that we do in ministry, needs to be about the constant and repeated bathing of others in the assurance of who they are in communion with Jesus.
Evangelism with believers is similar to evangelism with people who are not believers. Both groups need to know and understand that Jesus is supremely good, and supremely effective at what he came to do. He has embraced them in the way that he is embraced by the Father and the Holy Spirit. They need to understand and feel that Jesus’ embracing of their lives means that the Father and the Holy Spirit have also embraced them. The primary difference is that believers, by definition, already believe – to some extent – what is being said to them about their identity in Jesus. That makes them a more receptive audience, but it does not make them an audience that is any less in need of being “gospelized.”
How do we know that our evangelism of believers is working? When we begin to see them opening up to embrace others with the same love in which Jesus has embraced them. The first step of outreach and evangelism is the step out of one’s self and towards helping people around us. This means that believers will embrace their husbands, wives, children, fellow church members, and friends. We need to heal from some relationship dysfunctions – not that we are ever completely healed, but that we are healed enough to embrace the people immediately around us – and then we will find it easier to embrace strangers and welcome them into the fellowship of the church.
We cannot give more love than what we have. We cannot love others with any greater love than what we have experienced. God loves us an infinite amount, but we experience it only to the extent that we believe he loves us. Three elements of belief must be present in order for the evangelization of nonbelievers to be effective. The people doing the evangelizing must:
- Know that they are embraced, loved, and accepted children of the Father in Jesus and through Holy Spirit.
- Know that nonbelievers are also embraced, loved, and accepted children of the Father in Jesus and through Holy Spirit.
- Be willing to live out this reality by embracing the nonbelievers, participating in Jesus’ embrace of each nonbeliever.
On this side of eternity, we will never know perfectly or be perfectly willing, but there is a basic sense in which the love of Christ must overflow from within us and over into the lives of others, for evangelism to be effective.
It might be helpful for us to distinguish evangelism from conversion. The word “conversion” can be used in a positive sense, but sometimes it has a negative connotation. We want to distinguish Christ-centered evangelism from many other actions that are called “evangelism.” It is possible to convert people to a new way of thinking and a new way of behaving without knowing who Jesus is. Muslims and Mormons convert people. That work does not flow out of the good news of the Trinity and humanity having eternal communion in Jesus.
Hitting closer to home, many people are converted to legalistic, rule-based, behavior-modification forms of Christianity. The “Jesus” they talk about has little in common with the biblical Jesus. Just because a church talks about Jesus and is doing a good job of converting people to their thought-system and behavioral code, does not mean that evangelism is taking place. If we are trying to convince people to change their thinking and behavior in order to make themselves acceptable to God, then we are not practicing evangelism – we are practicing “conversion-ism.” If we are preaching conditional love, and salvation that is based on what we do, we are not preaching the real gospel.
Evangelism means good news, not the threat that you have to work really hard in order to be accepted by God. Evangelism means telling people that God is far better than that – that he loves them already, that he justifies the ungodly, counting them as acceptable, that he does not hold their sins against them, and he does not keep a record of wrongs. The people are already accepted, already children of a loving God who wants to spend eternity with them. A person must know who they are in Christ, and know who the nonbeliever is in Christ, in order to do evangelism. The intent, content, and purpose of our message must be faithful to the Trinity and to Jesus if it is to be called evangelism.
To evangelize is to say to people: “You are liked, loved, and included in the life of God the Father in the humanity of God the Son and through the life of the Holy Spirit.” (We don’t have to use those exact words, but that’s a summary.)
A large part of what has been called evangelism in modern America has not been evangelism – it has been an effort to create converts. Instead of participating in Jesus’ work to tell people who they are in him, people created their own work of telling people what they need to do for Jesus and how they need to behave.
All human beings were created by the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit, in order to live in the full joy of their identity as children of the Father in Jesus. A human being is a beloved child of the Father, adopted in the humanity of Jesus and immersed in the love of the Holy Spirit.
How do people respond to this truth? They were created for this, so in one sense it should resonate with their souls. But since human nature is fallen, many people resist the truth, preferring their own efforts rather than the grace of God. No one accepts the truth out of their own intellectual ability, though – they believe it only if the Holy Spirit leads them, and for reasons that we do not know, he does not lead everyone to accept this right away.
Whether people respond or not, whether our churches grow or not, we want to teach people how good God is and how good the news is. We need to boldly, clearly, and consistently announce to them that they are loved and accepted by God. Evangelism to believers and nonbelievers is essentially the same. There is only one type of human being, only one new humanity in Christ (Eph. 2:15) – and that one type of human being needs to be constantly washed in the truth of the communion we have with the Father through Jesus. This is true of me, you, the people in our churches, and every human being in the world.
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through evangelism?
Evangelism is our participation in Jesus’ announcement to the world of what he has done: made us children of the Father. Evangelism is a ministry to be practiced with believers and nonbelievers, and to be practiced in much the same way with each group: by assuring them of God’s love for them. Now we turn our attention to the ways in which evangelism is practiced as a ministry to the whole person: body, mind, and soul.
Body: Much of modern evangelism has focused on addressing people’s minds for the sake of their souls. This standard view of evangelism perceives people’s souls to be in danger because of their wrong thinking and therefore seeks to change their thinking in order save their souls. Such an approach to evangelism sees little value to the body except as a gateway to gain access to the mind and thus save the soul. This disembodied view of the gospel, and thus of evangelism, goes along with some of the theological errors we talked about in earlier chapters – such as the idea that Jesus no longer has a body. (If the whole point of the Father’s plan for humanity is to save our souls from hell, then we will not need our bodies in the future and therefore God the Son would not need his, either.)
As a result of this thinking, a lot of the ministry to the body that takes place in evangelism has an ulterior motive. Christians might hand out water to people on a hot day, not because they are concerned about people’s thirst but because they hope to start a conversation with them and gain access to their minds. Christians might distribute clothing and build houses for those without these things, not because they see an intrinsic value in doing so, but because they hope to gain a foothold in people’s lives to talk to them about Jesus. The goal quickly devolves from feeding the hungry to using food as a way to talk to people about a belief system that the Christians think the nonbelievers need to convert to in order to make themselves acceptable to God. People often sense the ulterior motive, and they recoil from it.
The Trinity is a relationship without ulterior motive. The Father loves the Son and continually gives to him the good news that he is the beloved Son, for the sole purpose of loving him and liking him. The Father does not have an ulterior motive. He simply loves the Son and cannot help but express that love in every way possible. So in our context, we should see feeding the hungry as a good in itself, not as a step toward something else. If that “something else” happens, then well and good, but even if it does not, our efforts were not in vain. We often want more to happen, for the person’s own good, but it was good to give the food even if we never see the person again. It is given as a good deed in itself, without conditions or expectations attached. It is not a manipulation so that the person will meet our agenda.
It is this Triune life, without ulterior motive or manipulation, in which every human being exists in the second Adam, Jesus. Even when people do not know the Father or believe in Jesus, they are still living, moving, and having their being in the open and honest relationship of the Son and the Father (Acts 17:28). They may not be acting like it, they may not be enjoying it, they may be falling short of what it can give them, but they are there. Sometimes the fallen human nature blinds people to what relationships should be, but inside, it is “pre-wired” in who we are, made in God’s image. The Holy Spirit must unlock the doors, turn on the lights, open the eyes, so a person can see. We cannot control the results of our evangelism.
Jesus’ ministry to human bodies is in stark contrast to what many of us have experienced. Jesus healed people because they needed to be healed. He fed people because they were hungry. He comforted them because they were in mourning. When we do the same, we are ministering to him (Matt. 25:40). On the Last Day, Jesus will resurrect the body of every last human being, whether they ever listened to him or not, and whether they ever believed him or not (1 Cor. 15:22), just as he has healed, fed, and comforted everyone who needed it without ulterior motive.
When we evangelize by caring for people’s physical needs, but do so with an ulterior motive, we are trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. We long to see people know the truth about how Jesus has transformed who they are – and that is a good thing. The problem is that we become so anxious for this to happen that we seek manipulative short-cuts, and that is a bad thing. There is no short-cut to embracing the gospel. It often takes time. What Jesus’ own ministry shows us is that he, as God the Son, is committed to embracing humanity and caring for our bodies and all our physical needs forever, regardless of whether we ever embrace him back.
Why? Because he loves us that much. This brings us back to our previous discussion about embracing others as we have been embraced. Many Christian conversion efforts come across as manipulative because people think the Father said “believe the truth about Jesus or else I will torture you with fire!” If we have this manipulative view of God, it will probably affect our motives, actions and ministries, and we will probably pass it on to others, like some viral disease.
Here is a suggestion: lead your people in practicing evangelism to the body (doing good works) just because that is the nature of the kingdom. If you have an outreach picnic and give away free hamburgers, do not measure “success” by how many times the gospel was presented, how many people accepted Christ, or how many new people showed up at church the next day. The purpose of the event is to give people hamburgers – there is no ulterior or hidden purpose – therefore the measure of success is how many people were served.
By conducting an outreach event in this way, we are enabling people to experience the kingdom of God as it really is. This is how Jesus’ ministry works. Throughout the Gospels Jesus ministers to people’s bodies: he hugs them, he touches their wounds, he eats and drinks with them. Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is like a party” (e.g., Luke 14:16). Jesus describes and lives out a kingdom in which people are embraced – hugged and spiritually embraced into the Trinity – and a kingdom in which everyone eats, everyone shares the clothing they have, and the Father’s house is a home for everyone. This is why Luke describes the early church in this way in Acts 2. He describes a community that is functioning as the kingdom of God, a place where all things are held in common (in communion) as the Trinity holds all things in common in its life and its relationship with humanity.
Ministering to the body in evangelism means creating the bodily experience of the kingdom here and now, on earth. When we give people food and clothing and shelter, when we hug them and shake their hands and look them in the eye – without ulterior motive and without judging them – we are giving them a bodily experience of the good news of who Jesus is for them, and who they are in him. Such bodily experiences are vitally necessary to helping people to be assured of who they are in Jesus. Can you imagine if your spouse said “I love you” but never touched you, never looked you in the eye, never helped you have food, clothing, and shelter? The words would ring hollow because they would not be true.
It is the same with the gospel. The good news of humanity’s existence in Christ is the good news that we have a Father who is providing for our bodies – both now and for all eternity. He provides for us not by magically dropping stuff down from heaven, but by embracing farmers, manufacturers, retailers, banks, and churches in the collecting and distributing of what our bodies need. The church’s role in the Father’s provision is to be a place where the kingdom is shared without cost and without ulterior motive. The church asks nothing in return and therefore presents the clearest picture of what the kingdom of the Trinity is like. We do not ask for money, no words of thanks, and no conversions. We simply allow the Father’s love to flow from Jesus, through us, in the form of food, shelter, clothing, and human contact, and thus we communicate to others’ bodies the good news of Jesus’ relationship with them. We are sharing the gospel by living it.
Mind: When we talk about ministering to people’s minds, we talk about the words we speak and how they are received. As we discussed earlier, the content of evangelism should be the good news that God is our Father, and we are his children. Believers are already on the road to growing in the grace and knowledge of this truth, so our evangelism of the minds of believers is an effort to reinforce what they already know and help them clarify their thinking to bring it more into line with the truth about themselves. Generally they know the words that God loves them, but sometimes they do not feel that he loves them unconditionally. They need to grow in assurance and their feelings of being secure in his love. Another way to say it is that they know who Jesus is, but they do not yet have a clear understanding of who they are in him.
Ministering to the minds of nonbelievers through evangelism is different. Even though nonbelievers and believers are equally included in the Trinity’s life through Jesus, there is a big difference in thinking between the two. To not believe in one’s inclusion in Jesus is to live in what the Bible calls “darkness,” “lostness,” and “alienation.” Nonbelievers are not lost from the Father’s perspective – the Father knows right where they are: in Jesus. Nonbelievers are lost because they do not know where they are. They are in Jesus and do not know it. They have been brought into the party but are unaware of it. They are beloved, adopted children of the Father, but their minds tell them the opposite. They believe lies about themselves, so in that sense they are a “believer” — a believer in lies.
That is what we all were at one time, and still are sometimes in different situations in our lives. Our human nature is a liar, and has been deceived by Satan, but this hurtful truth is difficult for us to accept. We want to believe that we have enough light in ourselves, when the truth is that our minds, when unconformed to the mind of Christ, are in complete blindness. We need a thorough reconstruction of our thought patterns.
The challenge in evangelizing the nonbeliever is in how to confront the blinded thinking of the person in a way that is helpful and not more hurtful than necessary. Just like pulling a splinter from the finger of a child, there is no way we can present the gospel truth to others without producing some hurt in them – but the hurt is worth it when the work is done. Presenting the gospel to a nonbeliever is a form of preaching, but unlike preaching in the church, it rarely takes the form of a sermon. It is usually better in the form of conversation.
Think of the splinter-in-the-finger analogy for a moment. When children get a splinter, it is painful and they would like to have it removed. However, they fear the tweezers, the squeezing, the needle, or whatever other methods must be employed to remove the splinter. It is best to explain the situation, show the tools, and allow them to participate in the process.
Preaching sermons to nonbelievers is like holding a kid down and yanking out a splinter. It might work. Then again, it might cause nonbelievers to run away and never let anyone get near their pain again. That is why we spent time talking about how to structure our sermons in church to speak to nonbelievers who may be present in our worship services.
In a moment we will talk a little more about when and how we might give sermons as part of an evangelistic event, but for now we want to talk about “preaching” the gospel to nonbelievers through evangelistic conversation.
Evangelism by conversation involves a lot of listening. In the blindness of our disbelief, people are in mental, emotional, and psychological agony. We come to believe that no one else knows the pain and alienation we experience. Our human nature rushes to medicate this pain through alcohol, sex, dysfunctional relationships, anger, addiction to work, and a host of other idols – even chocolate. Since pain absorbs all our attention, we rarely meet another person who actually cares about what we are experiencing. People ask, “how are you today?” but they do not really want to know the answer.
This is where Jesus’ ministry begins. Jesus genuinely loves us and cares about us and wants to listen to us. He is so interested in listening to us that he lets us do all the talking in prayer. When we participate in Jesus’ ministry of evangelism, we become better listeners. We want to know what other people believe about God, the meaning of life, and the meaning of their own experiences. We want to hear their hurt and know what has happened in their lives that has led them to where they are now.
We want to know and listen because in doing so, we are slowly drawing out the splinter of pain that has been embedded in the other person by their share in Adam’s fallenness. This is why evangelism must begin a genuine concern for other people. Evangelism begins with our relationships with our family, our closest friends and co-workers. As the Spirit moves in these close relationships, we are ready to love and patiently listen to these people in our lives because we already have sincere love for them.
I can go to the mall and ask people if they know Jesus, but they know that I am not really concerned about them and their lives. Evangelism to strangers is usually like asking people “how are you today?” Strangers assume that what you are doing is not an authentic attempt to know, to listen, and to love them – it is instead a social convention. This is not to discount the miraculous work of the Spirit, who sometimes brings strangers together in unexpected ways, or gives certain individuals a heart for a particular culture or people group that is not their own. Rather, we are acknowledging the normal pattern of human relationships as they have been created by the Father.
The normal pattern of relationship is that we care the most for those closest to us. Our ministry of evangelism begins with ourselves – that we might know and embrace the mind of Christ and think truthfully about his love for us. Then the ministry of evangelism takes us into the lives of those we live with in family – that they might also begin to embrace the mind of Christ. From there it expands in larger circles to our fellow church members, friends, and neighbors. If we allow the Spirit to make us alert to those around us, we will find no shortage of people who need to be listened to without fear of condemnation. Our mates, our children, and our friends are crying out for someone who will embody for them the listening life of Jesus.
Our first step is to let others talk, and to really listen to what they are saying, to hear it and respect it. It is their story and their perspective. Even if our knowledge of Jesus leads us to conclude that their perspective is flawed, it still belongs to them and is worthy of our respect. Since the Trinity is relationship, it is the Father’s first concern for our lives that we be in authentic relationship. Real relationship, in which people listen to and respect each other, is the precursor and context to believing the gospel, because the gospel is about the One True Relationship in which we are all already participants.
Second, evangelism by conversation means listening to the Holy Spirit. As we will discuss in a moment, when we talk about the evangelism of the soul, there is already a conversation going on in the life of every human being between each person’s soul and the Holy Spirit. While we can only listen and hear imperfectly, the Holy Spirit listens and hears perfectly. He knows the size, shape, and location of the splinter that needs to be removed from those we are evangelizing. This means that he also knows when we should speak of Jesus and what we should say.
The conversation of evangelism is a five-person group discussion. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are including you and the nonbeliever in their conversation. As one person in this group, you are listening to all four of the others. The Spirit is communicating the life of the Father and the Son to you, and he is empowering and enabling your listening and speaking to the nonbeliever. If it were not for the life and ministry of the Holy Spirit, then no two human beings would ever be able to communicate with each other – no matter what language they spoke.
This means that listening to the Holy Spirit to help you know when and how to speak about Jesus is not a tricky or difficult task. It usually requires little more than being quiet – both in mouth and spirit. After you have listened to a nonbeliever for 20-30 minutes, you will begin to find that one or two key thoughts about that person’s relationship with Jesus will rise to the surface of your mind. Those are probably thoughts the Spirit is suggesting that you share. Try expressing them – if the nonbeliever is responsive, good. If they resist what you are saying, that’s OK, too.
Just because someone does not like what we say about Jesus does not mean that the Spirit did not suggest the words to us. Sometimes the gospel is not well received initially, but a seed is sown that will sprout some other day, perhaps through the work of some other Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6).
The most important way we can listen to the Spirit is to know the gospel. The gospel is the good news that God loves every person you have ever known, or ever will know. They are children of the Father, loved by Jesus and adopted in Jesus. As long as you are bearing witness to this reality in the words and actions of your conversations with nonbelievers, then you are practicing evangelism, and it will bear fruit sooner or later.
Third, evangelism by conversation requires patience and commitment. It is not done with a flash-bang stun grenade. This is another reason we need to start evangelism with nonbelievers that we already like, know, and love. It is hard to live in a patiently committed relationship with people that you think you should like but really find it difficult to be with.
The Father has decided that all human beings will live forever in the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:22). This means that the Father has given himself eternity to keep talking to his children about how much he loves them and to keep inviting them to join the eternal celebration of his kingdom feast (Luke 15:28). If we are going to participate in Jesus’ ministry of evangelism, we need to take a deep breath, relax, and settle in for the long haul.
This may be one of the deepest flaws in the evangelism models being used in contemporary Christianity. When you believe that your ministry of evangelism is on a timetable to get people saved before a certain point (e.g., before they die), then you become desperate. You become willing to manipulate and play tricks. You become willing to put programs and activities above relationship. You decide that the end justifies the means, that lies are okay if you have good motives. This desperation becomes the stench of death to the nonbeliever and ends up betraying the goal it seeks to achieve.
There is only one reason, in Christ, to be in relationship with a nonbeliever: because that person is a human being, made in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ. To develop deeper relationships, we need to like and love the people and want to be friends with them. In fact, you like and love them so much that you want to listen to them and be in relationship with them even if they never come to believe what Jesus says about them.
This is what Jesus has done. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have decided to always be with the human race, even if people keep wanting to be human without God. The Trinity likes and loves us that much that he would rather have us in our disbelief – and really have us – than to be without us. That is why the Father is called the Father, because he loves us the way only a Father can. What we call the love of human fatherhood is (even at its best) but a pale reflection of the source of all parental love: the Father who has always loved the Son and now includes us all in that same love.
No one, most of all the Father, wants to see anyone suffer in their blindness even one moment longer than is necessary. Patience is not indifference. (Indifference is the opposite of patience, because it is the opposite of love.) Patience, which is part of the fruit of the Spirit, flows from love. Because we love our children, we are going to patiently and carefully remove the splinters from their fingers. We are not going to go too fast or too slow, and we are not going to be indifferent to their pain. The patient conversation of evangelism recognizes that because we love, like, and respect the nonbelievers that we are evangelizing, we cannot violate their personhood by rushing the conversation. Neither can we abandon our love for them by simply walking away. The conversation of evangelism is the patience and commitment of Jesus shared with us through his communion with our humanity and the anointing of his Spirit.
We have talked at length about how we “preach” the gospel through conversation. For just a moment we want to think about preaching the gospel to nonbelievers through sermons. The most common environment in which a nonbeliever would hear a sermon is a worship service.
However, sometimes we may give a sermon in conjunction with an outreach or evangelism event. A church might have a carnival or picnic and invite the community. Or you might have a musical program that reaches out to your neighborhood. If the event is structured in the right way you can create a space and time in the event for someone to present the gospel. Here are some basic principles to keep in mind about this kind of evangelism in American culture:
Keep it short and simple. Five minutes is sufficient. Don’t try to answer every question or objection – let the people think, “I’d like to hear more about that.” Whatever your congregation is doing – feeding people, offering music, etc. – that activity is the reason your neighbors have come – they have not come to hear you go on and on about theology. Use a single, memorable illustration of the gospel. Do not read long passages of Scripture – rather, quote a single sentence or verse (such as Romans 5:18, “Adam made us all sinners, [but] Jesus has made all of us right with God”).
This evangelism is sowing a seed. You can offer a long presentation of the gospel designed to provoke a response – and end with an altar call – if you want to. You might have some people come forward for the altar call, although when you talk with those people you will find out that most are already Christians who came forward just to “rededicate” themselves, or because they felt a need for someone to pray for them.
When we are talking about the kind of evangelism that Jesus is doing, evangelism that is relational, conversational, committed, and brings the kingdom of the Trinity to life here and now, we realize that this kind of evangelism does not reach its pinnacle in public, impersonal events. It reaches its pinnacle in long-term relationships. Preaching evangelism at an outreach event is – at best – sowing a seed and a starting point for those who hear the message. It may facilitate conversational evangelism, by letting the people know that you are safe to talk to; you are not there to condemn them.
Soul: Since evangelism is about letting people know who they are in Christ, evangelism of people’s souls is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has poured out his Spirit on the human race (Acts 2:17) so that we might share in the anointing of the assurance and love that the Father and Jesus have shared in from all eternity.
Practicing the ministry of evangelism to people’s souls has a lot in common with preaching to people’s souls. Our primary goal is to be in step with what the Spirit is already doing in people’s lives. The Spirit is assuring them, in the depths of their souls, that the Father loves them, and their identity is in Christ. He is assuring them of their unconditional acceptance into the life of the Trinity.
If we present a conditional gospel, a gospel rooted in human action instead of Jesus’ action, then we are going to be out of step with the Spirit. We will be afflicting people’s souls with the anxiety of human effort instead of the assurance of Jesus’ work. Here are two important aspects of this reality to keep in mind:
First, our evangelism should never throw people back on their own effort. A lot of preachers say something like this: “The Father loves you, but you must love him back.” There is a truth to this. It does us little good to be loved by the Father if we do not believe that we are loved, and if we believe it, we will return that love. The problem with preaching in this way is that it feeds into the lie that Satan has been telling our human nature since the garden of Eden: the lie that the Father’s love is conditional. People assume the word “if”: The Father will love you if you love him.
Consider this analogy: every night a father goes to his children as they are settling into bed and he kisses them and tells them that he loves them. If they do not believe him, that disbelief will create havoc in their lives. They have believed something else instead – a lie – and lies create bondage. It is very important that they believe that they are loved. What is the best plan for a father to help them believe that he loves them? Should he explain each night, “I love you, and if you believe me you’ll be happy and if you don’t believe me you’ll be miserable”? That is true, but it injects a threat where there should only be love.
Should he go to them each night and say “I love you, and you need to love me back or our relationship will never work”? God forbid! Can you imagine the warped guilt trips of a five-year-old by having his parents talk to him in this way? Such expressions of love throw people back on themselves and make the love being expressed sound conditional – whether it is meant to be or not.
It is best simply to say, “I love you.” We announce the truth, not the results of unbelief. (Hopefully our actions support our statement.) Love means an unconditional commitment, and it almost always goes without saying that it includes an invitation for reciprocal love and mutual life.
It is the same with evangelism. The human soul was created for union with the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit. In the humanity and divinity of Jesus, every human soul has what it was created for. Evangelism is joining with Jesus in his work, through the Spirit, to soak souls in this knowledge of how loved they are. This is best carried out by simple, direct, truthful statements of the gospel – not by statements of the gospel couched in conditionality and with words like “but” “if” or “and” tacked on to the end. Here are a few examples of positive statements of the gospel:
- Your Dad in heaven believes in you even if you don’t believe in him.
- Your Dad in heaven loves you so much that he has planned to never be without you. Because of Jesus’ eternal life you have eternal life.
- Your Dad in heaven really likes you, and through Jesus he has made sure he will always have you with him.
When you are evangelizing others (believers and nonbelievers), seek to follow Jesus’ Spirit in immersing them in the simple truth of who they were created to be. In their innermost being, below their conscious thought, they know that they were created to be loved. Unfortunately, their conscious thought, warped by the fall, runs interference and makes them reluctant to believe it. There has got to be some catch. Everything else in life has a catch…
The second important point about evangelizing people in their souls: As with preaching, evangelism is a ministry that we can engage in with tremendous confidence and boldness because of who Jesus is and what his Spirit is doing in human lives. Every person we meet is liked, loved, and adopted by the Father in Jesus. Jesus died for every person; God wants everyone to be saved.
Therefore, we can confidently and boldly tell people the truth about how much they are accepted and included in the Father’s life. We have the confidence that comes from knowing that the Spirit bears witness in their souls to the truth of what we were saying. Being a child of God is the purpose for which every human being was created, and it is the goal of the whole human race. Even when people doubt or disbelieve what we are saying – even when they are hostile to our evangelism – this truth is still hiding in the depths of their souls. Even if they do not believe the gospel right way, at a soul level they want to believe it, and their whole being is crying out to embrace the truth of how they have been embraced by the Father in Jesus. The seed that we sow will sprout at a later time.
 Gerhard Friedrich, “Euangelizomai,” pages 267-273 in Kittel and Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume.
 Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God, pp. 161-165.
 Some people accepted this and entered the kingdom before others did (Matt. 21:31). The refusal of some did not change God’s willingness to accept them, but it did affect whether they experienced the blessings.
 Evangelism programs often “work.” People motivated by obligation and fear often work hard, tell many others about Jesus, and a certain percentage of them respond. They have accepted Jesus in one sense, but unfortunately they have a distorted understanding of Jesus’ love for them. They are Christians who need to grow, just as we all do.
 Purves, Crucifixion, 22-23.
 The “wrong” is not necessarily with them. This statement is not intended to heap guilt upon the innocent. Just as medical problems can interfere with biological multiplication, so also other factors can interfere with spiritual multiplication.
 Love-less evangelism occasionally occurs, in which a person simply repeats a message he or she does not personally believe, but love is the normal and natural mode.
 Ironically, some of the fastest-growing parts of the Christian world are the most legalistic. Fallen human nature looks for works to do in order to be accepted by God. An increase in numbers is not evidence of authenticity, nor is a decrease in numbers. The success or failure of evangelistic programs is likewise no evidence of validity.
 That might include the person accepting the gospel; it might include behavioral changes that help the person get a job; it might include psychological changes in which the person feels better about himself or herself; etc.
 This does not imply universalism. Jesus died for everyone, and the Father has reconciled everyone to himself in and through Jesus, but this does not necessarily mean that everyone responds favorably. Although they live and move and have their being in Jesus, some resist him now, and apparently some will continue to resist Jesus’ definition of who they are.
 This is a quote from 1 Timothy 2:3-6, but it makes some people worry about universalism. “You don’t believe that, do you?” They are so worried about universalism that they are not comfortable with what the Bible says. See footnote 9.