When is the right time to witness to someone? What does a Christian need to know before witnessing or evangelizing? Must a Christian wait to witness to someone until he or she is burdened or compelled by some inward sensation? This question may be phrased in numerous ways and yet ask basically the same thing. I think asking and answering three larger questions will help us answer these and others more definitively, as well as guide our understanding of evangelism or witnessing in general.
What is evangelism or witnessing?
Essentially evangelism and witnessing are two ways of labeling the same activity. Evangelism comes from the word evangel, which is a transliteration of the Greek word euangelion, meaning good message. The message called good is that singularly wonderful message of how God promised and performed all that was necessary to save sinners in the person and work of Christ. Therefore, evangelism is the activity of proclaiming or telling of that great message.
Witnessing carries the same idea. To witness to someone is essentially to attest to those propositional statements, which make up the good message or Gospel. So, evangelism is the telling of the Gospel (the good message of salvation through Christ), and witnessing is testifying to the trustworthiness of that message.
There is a common ambiguity in our day concerning both the Gospel message itself and what it means to convey that message. There are those who would attempt to expand or condense the Gospel in order to enhance or improve it, but any adjustment to the Gospel is a violent attack upon it (Galatians 1:6-9). Many are not satisfied to only adjust the message; they even seek to thwart the communication of any real substance. Some would claim that the Gospel message may (and in many cases should) be delivered in action rather than speech.
Well-intentioned preachers and Christians attribute a saying to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” This phrase is not a direct quote because there is no actual record of St. Francis ever saying or writing these words. Yet, even if there were such record, the statement would remain utterly nonsensical. While bringing a meal to an individual in need of nourishment may be an illustration of what implications the Gospel message has, it is an extremely poor substitute for the Gospel message itself. A sinner with an empty belly, after eating a marvelous meal, remains still an enemy of God and destined for eternal destruction.
Only the verbal (audible or otherwise) communication of propositional statements concerning God, sin, Christ and His eternally saving work will suffice as a means by which God brings dead sinners to life in Christ and saves their souls (Romans 10:13-14).
What role do Christians play in evangelism or witnessing?
Wrapped up in the desire to tell people about the Gospel is usually the Christian’s aspiration to see at least someone believe that message. So, one would do well to understand how much a witness or evangelist can contribute to the conversion of another before they set their contributive goals. If the evangelist’s goal is to save sinners, then he or she has set a goal unattainable by anyone but Christ.
The Apostle Paul says to those to whom he had been a witness, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). He says that he had been the recipient of a message and he had also passed that message along to them. The message he speaks of is that message concerning Christ and His work that was ‘according to the Scriptures.’ The Apostle Peter refers to the “good news” that was preached and received or believed (1 Peter 1:12, 25), thus resulting in “the salvation of souls” (1 Peter 1:9).
There are a number of passages that would lend themselves to this discussion, but in these two passages we may understand at least a couple of things. One, the Gospel or good news is a message of a particular content that is to be transmitted by someone (or more than one) through the use of words. Two, the believing or receiving of the message is distinct from the message itself and this is the delineating line between those who experience the salvation of which the Gospel speaks.
It is not an overstatement then to say that the best and most an evangelist can do is transmit the good message or Gospel. There are far reaching and profound implications in this simple phrase, not the least of which is the idea that the highest goal of the evangelist is to transmit the message accurately – without addition or subtraction. This short address of another issue will not give enough space to map out all or even most of the implications in the statement above. Yet, the fact remains that the role of the witness is to transmit or communicate the message.
Successful communication of the Gospel, then, is nothing more and certainly not less than accurate communication of the content of that preeminent message. In other words, whether one believes the message upon hearing it has nothing whatever to do with the role of the evangelist.
What is the ultimate purpose of evangelism or witnessing?
If the purpose of witnessing to someone is not to try to convert them (as we established above, this is not the role of the evangelist), then what is the purpose? The short answer is to glorify God. One cannot read through the first 14 verses of Ephesians chapter one without surmising that what God has done in the salvation of sinners is for His glory and according to His will or good pleasure.
There is no doubt that some will perceive this goal as too rigid, lifeless, or uncompassionate, but this is the highest goal that anyone might have. In fact, this is the chief goal of everything in life. The Christian is privileged to participate in God’s work of glorifying Himself in the salvation of sinners.
Thanks be to God that He has given Christians any part to play at all!
So, evangelism is telling people of the message of Jesus Christ’s redeeming work, and the witness’s role is simply to transmit that message accurately and regularly. The ultimate purpose of witnessing is to bring glory to God in an accurate proclamation of what He has done in revealing Himself through the Gospel.
Because these are true, it seems easy to answer the questions listed at the beginning.
Should a believer wait to have a “burden” before witnessing? NO!
Why would one need to wait for anything like that at all?