Learning from the Apostles in Gospel Proclamation
September 26, 2021 Speaker: Bret Rogers
Topic: Missions & Evangelism
Today is the second message of two on evangelism. We stepped aside from our normal series to address the need for growth in evangelism. But like I said last week, that doesn’t begin with me telling you to evangelize more. First and foremost, it begins with your union with Christ. When God unites us to Christ in salvation, he unites us to Christ in mission.
That’s how Paul could read a prophecy about the Servant’s mission to the nations and find in that prophecy a command for himself. Jesus is the Servant who brings salvation to the nations. When the Servant lives in you, you embody his mission to seek and save the lost. We then discussed what that looked like, starting with the people God already placed in our lives. We pray, pray, pray, and then enter, build, know, share, and serve. Today’s focus will be on the sharing piece. How do we proclaim the good news? What principles should shape our approach to evangelism?
Answers come by observing the apostles. Look at 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” Paul describes here a pattern of life that glorifies God in the way he seeks to save others. The “eating” and “drinking” to God’s glory—it has for its context interacting with people at the meat market and unbelievers inviting you to dinner at their place.
Seeking the salvation of others is not something additional to living for God’s glory; it’s how we live for God’s glory. That’s the point here. Now, in saying this Paul imitates Jesus. In obedience to his Father’s plan to lavish mercy on sinners, Jesus sacrificed to save others. Paul follows Jesus; and where the apostles imitate Jesus, we should imitate them. That’s what Paul adds next in 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” So, what can we learn to imitate in the apostles’ proclamation?
The message must be the gospel.
Here’s the first lesson: the word we proclaim in evangelism must be the gospel. In Romans 1:16, “the gospel…is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” In Galatians 1:7, Paul rebukes the church for “turning to a different gospel,” and he then adds: “not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” There is only one gospel that saves. There is only one “name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), the name of Jesus. The gospel delivered by the apostles is that God has acted in the person and work of Christ to reconcile sinners to himself.
We must preach that gospel and no other. If we stray from imitating the apostles in this, we will bring to the world a gospel that is really no gospel at all. Many evangelism books and classes get so focused on methods or results that they skew the gospel. Felt needs end up becoming the primary concern versus our true need of reconciliation with God. Self becomes central to the message versus God. Sin gets redefined as “failing to meet your potential” versus what it is, rebellion against God. Humans are merely sick versus dead and incapable of saving themselves. Repentance gets traded for an assent to facts followed by false assurance. The person of Christ gets reduced to a ticket into heaven versus the Treasure and center to fellowship with God.
Beware of any approach to evangelism that skews the gospel. Read what they preached in the book of Acts. Model your message after theirs. When unbelievers have questions about God, the world, the Law, the cross, death, heaven—take them to the primary source. Let them encounter the person of Christ in the Gospels. Not only will you guard the truth this way; it will also help others see that these aren’t your ideas. These aren’t opinions. They are facts that Jesus himself taught and entrusted to his apostles as God’s word to man. Faith does not come through our cleverness. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
In the Power of the Spirit
A second lesson: we must proclaim the gospel in the power of the Spirit.[i] Acts 1:8, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” A primary focus in Acts is how Jesus’ Spirit empowers the church to speak the gospel. Every time he fills people, they start opening their mouths about Jesus.
In Acts 4:31, the people pray for God’s help; and it says, “the place in which they were gathered was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” That’s how we go—in the power of the Spirit.
Some of you fear evangelism. You’re worried that the right words won’t come. Listen, the same Spirit who hovered over the surface of the deep before creating the world; the same Spirit who helped Moses lead God’s people through the wilderness; the same Spirit who inspired prophets; the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead—he dwells in you, if you belong to Jesus. You may be weak and scared, but he is able.
Also, we don’t go in confidence that our methods and our strategies save anybody. Salvation belongs to the Lord. If anybody is saved, it will be the result of God’s Spirit working in us and in them. Therefore, we must pray for the Spirit to fill us. We must pray the Spirit conforms us into the Servant’s likeness. We must pray for the Spirit to embolden us. We must pray for the Spirit to regenerate hearts.
Without the Spirit, our efforts will be vain. I remember a dear friend, an evangelist at heart. He was a church planter from Botswana. He invited me to start witnessing in some south Fort Worth neighborhoods. I show up ready to go, ready to learn, ready to observe him witnessing. But that’s not what we did that evening, or the next week, or the next. For two months we met to pray for God’s work in us and in that area. Far be it from us to attempt the work of God without the Spirit of God.
Consistent with its Content
Third, we must proclaim the gospel in a manner consistent with its content. Look at 2 Corinthians 4:1-5, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 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.”
Notice how Paul does not proclaim the gospel. He does not use disgraceful, underhanded ways. He does not practice cunning or tamper with God’s word. Sadly, we see too much of this. People hold out false promises: “Come to Jesus,” they say, “and God will heal your cancer, save your marriage, actualize your goals, make you feel better, slay your giants.” Others will use entertainment to draw people in. Others resort to flattery, excluding harder truths about sin, repentance, judgment. But this is not the way of the apostles. They came by “the open statement of the truth.”
Notice also that Paul didn’t proclaim himself. Verse 5, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” They didn’t come puffed up with pride, like they just finally got their act together. No, even the Gospels and letters include testimony of how far gone they were before Jesus saved them. They knew that everything came by God’s mercy. That shaped the way they spoke. If you find yourself being harsh and snarky and demeaning toward those without Christ, you are being inconsistent with the gospel’s content.
Our gospel says that we’re just as deserving of God’s wrath. We’re no better off. We can’t proclaim a message of God’s mercy and patience toward sinners, while being unmerciful and impatient toward sinners. It is necessary to speak hard truths, and those hard truths may be labeled by others as “harsh” or “judgmental.” The point is that we cannot do it with arrogance and self-righteous attitudes. Rather, we become servants of those we speak to. Do you share the gospel with a mindset of a humble, undeserving servant? Do you approach the non-Christian with the same compassion God showed you?
Intelligible and Helpful
Fourth lesson: we must proclaim the gospel in a manner that’s intelligible and helpful to its audience. Intelligible. I love going to Acts 17 for this. You’ve got Jews in the picture. They’re biblically literate. The Scriptures shape their outlook on the world. There’s also Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. These people are biblically illiterate. They don’t know Scripture. Epicureans were materialists. No creation. Nature has no purpose. No future life or punishment. The Stoics—their goal was to make people self-sufficient. They taught pantheism: god is equal to everything.
And it’s just fascinating to observe Paul making the gospel intelligible to these different kinds of people. He shows sensitivity to what people know and don’t know, the categories they accept or deny. He gets into their worldview. A worldview is your all-encompassing perspective on everything that matters.[ii] It’s the lens through which you see everything. Paul knows their worldview. He knows where they’re coming from; and that serves his ability to communicate the truth clearly.
So, for the Jews who read Scripture, they grasped monotheism and sin and the curse and God’s promises. But most were blind to a Messiah who would suffer, die, and rise again. Their worldview didn’t allow it. What does Paul do? He takes the Scriptures and he builds into their worldview categories for a suffering and rising Messiah. Then he says, “That Messiah is Jesus.” He lays the groundwork before he even gets to Jesus.
He does the same with the Areopagus, except they don’t know Scripture; and their worldviews very much compete with Scripture. They weren’t like blank hard-drives onto which he might download Christianity. No, their hard-drives already had corrupt files that wouldn’t just conflict with Christianity, but also prevent them from receiving the gospel files accurately.[iii] To hand them a tract with John 3:16 on it, while their concept of “god” and “love” and “world” are so out of step with the biblical meaning, would be just plain lazy, confusing, and unloving.
Instead, what does Paul do? He lays groundwork upon which he can then preach Christ. He starts further back with God and who he is. Then he pulls from their own poets. He interacts with their worldview. Their poets were right to see something of God’s nature revealed in humanity. But they were wrong to turn him into an idol of their own making. So, while he explains the biblical worldview, he dismantles their worldview. He shows its inconsistencies and exposes their accountability to God.
The main point is that we’re dealing with people, not projects. Loving them well means working hard to know them, to know how they think, to know what framework they’re hearing you from, and then building a foundation on which Christ is rightly understood and offered. Ask questions. Listen. Press people’s worldviews to their logical conclusions. Then back up and show how the biblical worldview is most consistent with reality, and the only one that offers true hope in the gospel.
Maybe an example would help. Suppose you work with an LGBTQ advocate. Let’s assume your relationship is one where neither of you mind sharing your views, but she’s quite adamant that Christians have got sexuality wrong. They’re just imposing external constraints. Her view differs from others in the LGBTQ community. It’s not so much the create-your-own-reality-I-can-do-what-I-want view. It’s a seek-your-own-destiny view: “I was born this way; I must be true to myself.”
The worst way to approach this is to impose on her a worldview she doesn’t hold. We end up slandering, putting words in her mouth. Not too much better are superficial remarks like, “You fight so often for various political freedoms, but I just want to say that true freedom comes in Christ.” That might be true. But it’s conflating categories and not really meeting her at the most fundamental level.
Far better is to follow Paul’s approach, and address her own worldview, even being willing to grant where that worldview gets some things right. Maybe like this: “You know, you’re always telling me that you must be true to yourself. It would be morally wrong for you to live out of sync with your human identity. You couldn’t be more right. Christianity affirms the same truth. The real question is, how do you know your human identity? Is it just subjective, a matter of your own inclination? Or, could it be that you’ve gotten your identity all wrong? Is there something objective that tells us what we are and whose we are and why we are? See the culture around us says, ‘You are your sexuality,’ the whole of your self-worth is found in fulfilling your sexual desires. But when that goes south, when relationships fail, then what? You’ve got nothing left to live for; and you don’t know who you are. On the other hand, Scripture sets our identity in someone outside us who never changes and who is always faithful and knows us in the most intimate way. This God stamped his identity in us, in you. Whether male or female, you’re his image bearer and he determines our destiny.”[iv]
From there, it’s not too far from further conversations about the image of God, how sin warps that image, and what Christ has done to give us a new identity in him. Can we do it like that, Redeemer? Can we recognize that people are complex, and “love slows down long enough to understand them”—to use Jonathan Dodson’s words? Can we work hard to make the gospel intelligible to those we engage?
Our manner also needs to be helpful. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
In other words, Paul may have had the rights, the freedoms, to act a particular way with Jews, but he willingly set them aside to build onramps to the gospel. The only stumbling block he wanted before them was the cross, not his food preference, not his education choices, not his political affiliation. At the same time, he made adjustments with Gentiles so as not to confuse his participation in a meal with idol worship. Wherever he needed to, Paul flexed to ensure the gospel’s advance remained central.
In other words, it wouldn’t help your Muslim neighbor hear the gospel if you insisted on serving him pork for dinner. It wouldn’t help your Left-leaning neighbor hear the gospel if you insist on angry Facebook rants that misrepresent him. Or, here’s an example from Rachel’s grandmother: She said a preacher from the US once visited their mission in Zimbabwe, and he preached the same sermons that he was preaching back home. There was a big disconnect. He had a translator, but they didn’t get his illustrations because they didn’t come from their culture. Also, his closing point was how easy it was to become a Christian, “It’s as easy as the ABCs,” he says, “admit, believe, commit.” She’s thinking, “Those words don’t begin with the same letter in Shona. Not helpful!”
Put yourself in the shoes of your listeners before talking/typing. Don’t get so hung up on your rights and your freedoms, that you can’t lay them down for the gospel’s advance. Make the necessary adjustments to build inroads to the gospel.
According to Scripture’ Rich Storyline
A fifth lesson: we must proclaim the gospel according to its rich storyline versus a simplistic formula. Various evangelism methods are out there—Romans Road, Four Spiritual Laws, The Wordless Book, Way of the Master. These methods often capture key elements in the gospel message: God, Sin, Christ, Faith.[v] In that way, these methods can be quite helpful. But if we’re not careful, we can forget how the gospel comes through a rich storyline that intersects with people’s lives in very specific ways.[vi]
Perhaps you’ve heard that storyline summarized as Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. These movements in God’s storyline answer some of life’s biggest questions: How’d this all begin? Why are things so wrong? Who will make everything right? Where’s the world going? The Bible answers those questions, and it does so in relation to various themes that describe our experience.
Nakedness and shame, for example. We feel that in this broken world. Where did it come from? Who can take it away? It came from sin; and Jesus came to remove our shame and clothe us with glory in God’s presence. Marriage and fidelity. We long for true love, but relationships are so hard. Why? Sin. Is there a love that endures, that won’t let me go? Yes, look at Christ’s resolve to love his Bride. Justice and peace. The moral fabric of our society is unraveling. Why’s it like this? Will anybody make it right? Sin has broken the world, but there is one appointed to rule—and justice is the foundation of his throne. Image and identity. Who are we? Where does our dignity come from? We are image bearers, marred by sin. But Jesus came to remake humanity into his glorious image. We could go on and on with themes running from Genesis to Revelation.
Every person you know shares experiences that intersect with Scripture’s storyline. Better yet, Scripture’s storyline retells their story in the truest light, and then offers them salvation and wholeness in the person of Jesus Christ.
Together with those themes, the Bible also has characters that people identify with. A married couple hiding in their shame without hope—Genesis 3. A bride who cheated on her covenant husband—Ezekiel 16. A lonely woman without a comforter—Lamentations 1. An outcast with no inheritance, no name, and no community—the eunuch of Isaiah 56. A slave girl oppressed by a demon and used for money—Acts 16. A religious man who’s trying to be faithful with what he knows but he’s still lost—Acts 10. A religious leader who fears man but finds himself intrigued by Jesus—John 3.
It’s here too that we find Scripture’s rich way of encountering people from all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of desperate situations—and God meeting them right there to extend his grace. That really helps you in evangelism. It equips you to see everybody’s story in the light of Scripture and meet them where they are. Whether it’s depression, broken relationships, infidelity, abuse, family issues, race relations, politics, self-image, poverty, abusive authority, creation care—the Bible has gobs of inroads to the gospel. We lose this dynamic, though, if we reduce the gospel to a simplistic formula and then force that formula onto people in superficial ways.
Accompanied by Deeds
One last lesson: we must proclaim the gospel alognside deeds that demonstrate the truthfulness and integrity of the message. Romans 15:18, “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and [by] deed…” Or how about 1 Peter 2:12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation…” 1 John 3:18, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth…”
What’s the pattern? When the apostles preached Christ, they did not live in ways that contradicted Christ. They lived in ways that embodied Christ. Let’s be clear, because the church can err in this way too: the deeds themselves are not the gospel. The old saying, “Preach the gospel, and when necessary, use words,” isn’t true. But it is true that the gospel necessarily produces good deeds in God’s people; and those deeds demonstrate the gospel’s power to make people more like Christ.
So, when we preach how generous God has been in the gospel, others must see generosity from us. When we preach how Christ liberates from sin, others must see us pursuing holiness. When we preach how Christ’s work unites us to one another, others must see a people united under Christ. When we preach how Christ came not to be served but to serve, others must see us serving like Christ. We can’t just hand people tracts with no willingness to serve. We must also embody what Christ is like.
That should happen in your lives as individuals. It should also happen in our lives together as a church. Our lives together should make the gospel visible. Jesus said that when his disciples loved one another as he loved them, the world would know that the Father had in fact loved us by sending the Son (John 13:34-35; 17:23). When good deeds excel within the church, it has an impact outside the church. Others look into the life of God’s people and see the love of Christ made visible.
Question: if we packed up shop and moved to another meeting location, what impact would that have on our neighbors? Would our neighbors know any difference? Would your neighbors count it a loss if you moved out of their neighborhood? Would your neighbors say, “Man, we miss their hospitality, their generosity, their servant-hearted attitudes.” Yes, it’s the Lord who saves. But he uses the church. He uses you. How can our good deeds make our witness more compelling? Do our lives show integrity to the message we’re preaching? Let’s pray for them to.
Those are a few lessons from the apostles to imitate in evangelism. I certainly haven’t exhausted everything that could be said. But I hope I’ve given us a good starting place. There’s a lot to consider here, isn’t there? Maybe you’ve seen there’s a lot for you to change, a lot to grow in. Maybe it’s so much to consider that you’re afraid to lean into evangelism. The Lord’s grace is sufficient for this too. You need not fear. The Servant himself is living in you. He gives his Spirit to help us. We’re not going to get everything perfectly all the time. But your perfection isn’t what saves anybody in the first place. Christ saves by his gospel message; and he has chosen to place that glorious treasure in weak and broken vessels like ourselves. That way God gets the glory. Our job is to be faithful with the grace given today and trust the Lord with the results.
[i] Lessons two, three, four, and six come from an outline created by Wes Duggins for the Outreach section of our Membership Matters class. The content beneath these headings is my own.
[ii] One of the best summaries that I’ve heard on “worldview” is by James Anderson. The wording here comes from the lecture found at the following link: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/what-are-worldviews-why-do-worldviews-matter-how-does-one-change-worldviews/.
[iii] For this illustration, I’m indebted to D. A. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” in Telling the Truth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 386.
[iv] I’m indebted to Joel Duggins for helping me think through this example.
[v] Sometimes the New Testament itself uses the word “gospel” in a more narrow sense to capture these very truths, as the writers announce how God has reconciled man through Jesus’ substitutionary death. E.g., Acts 10:36-43; Rom 1:16-17; 1 Cor 1:17-25; 15:1-5.
[vi] E.g., Matt 4:23; Luke 4:18-19; Acts 13:32-33; Rom 1:1-6; Gal 3:8; Eph 3:4-10.