Some More Thoughts On What Evangelism Isn’t

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Recently, we posted a link to an article by Trevin Wax titled “The Great Commission Means Sharing Christ’s Story, Not Yours.”  In it, he cautions us against the popular tendency to emphasize what Christ has done in our lives at the expense of sharing what Christ has done in history, namely, his death and resurrection. This notion that evangelism cannot be equated with sharing your personal testimony received some pushback. However, it seems to us that Wax’s article is appropriate and timely. Here’s why:

  1. The gospel we are to preach is not essentially the good news of how you have been changed. Rather, it is the good news of how God saves. If we are to proclaim the gospel throughout the world (which we are), then we ought to be clear on what the gospel is … and it is not ultimately about you. Jesus is the object of our faith, and thus, the focal point of the gospel. As the article pointed out, the apostles’ witness primarily dealt with who they saw Christ was and what they saw Christ do. That’s why when Paul wrote about delivering what was “of first importance,” he centered on Jesus’ death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15: 3-5), not his Damascus Road experience.
  2. Only the gospel call confronts someone with their need to repent and trust in Jesus for salvation. Good stories may make people feel good. Accounts of personal change can inspire others to be more moral. Sharing how Jesus has saved you may even show someone a good example of repentance and faith. But we must also call people to it. J.I. Packer says that “evangelism is the issuing of a call to turn, as well as to trust; it is the delivering, not merely of a divine invitation to receive a Savior, but of a divine command to repent of sin. And there is no evangelism where this specific application is not made” (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 43-44).

If we are clear on what evangelism is (and isn’t), it is easy to see that Wax was dead on when he said sharing your story must not be confused with sharing Christ’s. Don’t mistake this for an academic exercise in semantics, though. This article needed to be written. It shows many of us that we may not have had as good an understanding of evangelism as we may have thought, or else hits at the heart of our own sinful tendencies to shy away from proclaiming the whole gospel.

Isn’t it easy, when it comes down to it, to share your story as a mere alternative to someone else’s? “Thanks for sharing your experience and resulting worldview; now let me share mine” … the Great Commission is not a call swap ideas. It isn’t fun to confront people with a message that says: “You’re wrong and headed to eternal punishment because of it. You need so stop what you’re doing and start trusting in Jesus.” But at the end of the day, ignorant non-swimmers headed to the deep end of the pool won’t care care if you embarrass or offend them when you stop them from diving to their death … and for that matter neither will you. Yet in evangelism, it’s all too easy, whether through a story or some other approach, to fall short of warning people of the danger they’re in because it would be uncomfortable to do so.

You may use your story to give some handles to what repentance and faith looks like. You may use your story to segue into Christ’s. But your story in and of itself is definitively not evangelism. So to close, here are some good summary statements of what evangelism is:

“Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.” J. Mack Stiles, Evangelism, 26

“According to the New Testament, evangelism is just preaching the gospel, the evangel. It is a work of communication in which Christians make themselves mouthpieces for God’s message of mercy to sinners.” J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 45

“Evangelism is telling people the wonderful truth about God, the great news about Jesus Christ.” Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, 82

To sum it all up…

“The content of our message is Christ and God, not our journey to faith. Our personal testimony may be included, but witnessing is more than reciting our spiritual autobiography. Specific truths about a specific person are the subject of our proclamation. A message has been committed to us–a word of reconciliation to the world (2 Cor 5:19).” Will Metzger, Tell the Truth, 55

 

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3 comments
  1. {Recently, we posted a link to an article by Trevin Wax titled “The Great Commission Means Sharing Christ’s Story, Not Yours.” In it, he cautions us against the popular tendency to emphasize what Christ has done in our lives at the expense of sharing what Christ has done in history, namely, his death and resurrection. This notion that evangelism cannot be equated with sharing your personal testimony received some pushback. However, it seems to us that Wax’s article, is appropriate and timely.}

    I had a little complexity following the real point of this post. When John the Baptist sent disciples to enquire of Jesus if He was the Christ or not, Jesus responded by inviting John’s messengers to stay with Him and observe the things that He does – to/for people. Paul gave his Damascus Road Testimony often enough…If the message of personal testimonies is not full-proof of Christ, then they have no place in evangelism; but God is certain to signify Himself in our daily lives for to develop the ability and impetus in the believer to witness of Christ…It is this personal proof of Christ in us that makes evangelism [in Christ] undeniable. I should hope that the only reason to tell one’s personal experience with/in Christ is to say, “I am real proof that Christ is THE CHRIST.” Jesus’ story is not told without people – both disciples and non-disciples alike – [and sometimes angels…Gabriel to Mary; bird…The Dove from heaven; animals…Behold your King come riding on an ass the colt of an ass.] If the message in Trevin Wax’ original article is: ‘DO NOT USE YOUR PERSONAL TESTIMONY TO EXALT YOURSELF ABOVE CHRIST!’ And I KNOW that this is possible, because I’ve witnessed it before, and it is very distasteful and annoying…then I fully agree with him.

    • June, thanks for your comments. Good thoughts, and we (along with Trevin, I’d imagine) largely agree with you. It doesn’t sound like you are the person that this post was meant to be a corrective for. What we wanted to clearly warn against is “evangelism” that stops at “Look what God did in my life … he turned my life around.” Certainly, such a testimony could never be a bad thing, and we want to encourage people to share what God has done in their life. But we also want them to say “Jesus was sent to earth, died as a sacrifice in our place, and rose from the dead to give us life abundant and eternal. In love (like I did), I urge you to repent of your sin against God, which merits eternal punishment, and trust in Jesus to save you.” When we say the first part but leave out the second part, we are not fully evangelizing … and that’s what we wanted to bring to people’s attention. It’s easy to do … for all of us.

  2. Yes! Yes, yes yes! I loved the article posted by Wax, and I love this one. Thank you for a very concise summary of what evangelism is and isn’t. We need this thinking to filter through the ranks so that as a global church we can get back to preaching Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23) instead of glorified sob stories that make us and our change the focal point. I think about international missions, for example. Your own personal story might not mean a single thing to somebody in another culture who can’t relate with your previous – or even current – lifestyle. The cross transcends culture though, and the message of salvation has the same meaning for all.

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