God’s Sovereignty & Human Responsibility in Evangelism

From very early in Christian history, Christians have wrestled with the Scriptures and with each other over how to understand God’s sovereignty in relation to man’s responsibility. The subject is all-encompassing. Just consider the question, “If God is sovereign, then does man have meaningful freedom to think, speak, or act?”

But the purpose of this brief essay is to focus more narrowly on a specific area of interest, namely the activity of evangelism. More directly, I shall try to answer the question, “What is a proper understanding of the relationship between divine sovereignty and the task of personal evangelism?” In short, I will argue that God’s sovereignty and personal evangelistic activity are both essential to evangelism.

Theologically I am a compatibilist, which means I affirm the compatibility of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility (including real human volition). I believe God is sovereign over whatsoever comes to pass and man is truly and rightly responsible for all he thinks, says, and does.

I do not understand these doctrines as opposed to each other, or incompatible. Rather, I see numerous passages in Scripture that either assume or argue positively for both of these truths side-by-side (see Isaiah 10:5-19; Acts 2:22-24; Acts 4:24-28). With J.I. Packer, I affirm the antinomyand not the incongruity of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Packer writes, 

“What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding; think of the two principles as not rival alternatives but, in some way that at present you do not grasp, complementary to each other… Use each within the limits of its own sphere of reference… teach yourself to think of reality in a way that provides for their peaceful coexistence, remembering that reality itself has proved actually to contain them both.”[1]

And yet, as I said above, this essay is not focusing on such a panoramic vista as is displayed in the vast subject of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Instead, I am focusing on a narrow view, writing from the compatibilist theological position in order to answer a particular question of application.

In the following content, I will argue that God’s sovereignty and personal evangelistic activity are both essential to evangelism in this world. First, I will define evangelism, recognizing that such a term may not always be readily understood. Second, I will demonstrate the necessity of God’s sovereignty in evangelism. Third, I will argue for the necessity of personal evangelistic activity in the task of evangelism. And finally, I will conclude with a call to confident and humble evangelistic activity in the world.

Defining Evangelism

J.I. Packer defines evangelism by saying, “evangelism is just preaching the gospel, the evangel. It is a work of communication in which Christians make themselves the mouthpieces for God’s message of mercy to sinners.”[2] Packer argues that evangelism must never be defined in terms of the “effect achieved,” and, therefore, his definition is quite precise and limited.

Will Metzger agrees with Packer’s warning about confusing the results with our own human responsibility, but Metzger provides an expanded definition of evangelism. Metzger says, “Our task is to faithfully present the gospel message by our lives (what we do) and our lips (what we say).”[3]

I like both of these definitions, especially within the context each author respectively articulated them. But I like Mack Stiles’ definition of evangelism even better than these. Stiles writes, “Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).”[4]

With Packer, the message is rightfully central; and with Metzger, the life and conduct of the messenger are given appropriate weight. Yet with Stiles, the goal or aim of the messenger is affirmed without placing undue responsibility upon the messenger for any result. Of course, God’s glory is always the greatest aim, but this does not obliterate all other aims in evangelism, such as the lesser-but-fitting desire to see the hearer converted.

In my view, the evangelist should humbly understand that God alone can produce spiritual life, and this should keep him or her from thinking evangelistic efforts which do not result in conversion are insignificant.  But the evangelist’s chief end (God’s glory) should not dispel his or her ambition to persuade the hearer. 

If I might be so bold as to rearticulate a definition of evangelism by amalgamating these three, I think evangelism is teaching the gospel, the evangel, as an extension of living a life of love and obedience to Christ with the aim to persuade our hearer to believe and live as we do. This is not to say that evangelism only occurs when the hearer believes and lives as a Christian, but it is to say that conversion is indeed the aim of evangelism. Because of this target, God’s sovereignty is essential to evangelism.

God’s Sovereignty

God’s sovereignty is essential to evangelism because fallen, unregenerate humans are utterly incapable of believing the gospel and loving the God who saves. The special focus here is upon God’s sovereign act of regenerating spiritually-dead sinners. The need for such a divine action, initiated by God Himself, is indisputable when one considers the natural state of fallen, unregenerate humans.

Simply put, if God did not sovereignly and independently initiate an effectively saving relationship with at least some sinners, then no sinner would ever be saved… even if every person on earth heard and understood the gospel.

After Genesis 3, all humans bear the mark of their universal forebear, Adam. That first human’s sin brought a curse upon all creation and especially upon all humans. Not only are all people born guilty, bearing the imputed guilt of that first sin (Rom. 5:12), all humans are also born with a natural inclination towards sin and disobedience. Many passages affirm this reality, but one quintessential text on the matter is found in Ephesians 2. The Apostle Paul wrote,

“you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1–3).

In this passage, we may read of the biblical understanding of human volition, especially in regard to the unregenerate man’s propensity, desire, and affection. Here the metaphor is “death,” but not physical, since “death” is something in the passage that defines people who are physically alive. In verses 2-3, there are at least two ways in which the Apostle Paul explains the form and substance of death, i.e. spiritualdeath(v1). It is portrayed as (1) following a worldly course and a powerful prince; and (2) living in fleshly passions and carrying out fleshly desires. 

Following a worldly course and a powerful prince. A “worldly course” and a “powerful prince” are both examples of language not uncommon to Scripture generally or the Apostle Paul specifically. In fact, Paul uses similar language in Galatians and Colossians. To the Galatian Christians, Paul wrote of their having been “enslaved to the elementary principles of this world” (Gal. 4:3). To the saints in Colossae, he wrote of their “deliverance from the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). The imagery is clear: devilish dominion enslaves all those who are spiritually dead, and these zombies walk according to the dark course or path of their evil prince. This imagery may be unenjoyable to our eyes, but it is not difficult to observe. 

Living in fleshly passions and carrying out desires. These “passions” and “desires” are also frequently found in the biblical text. Paul says that Christians are to renounce “worldly passions” (Titus 2:12), and Peter says Christians are to resist conformity to the “passions” that accompany a “former ignorance” that characterizes unregenerate humanity (1 Peter 1:14). Jesus made a scathing remark against fallen humans, summarizing all of this, when He said, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). In each case, “passions” and “desires” refer to lustful cravings and preferences of the will. When such cravings are qualified by the term “fleshly,” it always conveys the idea of immoral desire.

According to Scripture, fallen man is not in sinful bondage unwillingly, but he gladly wears his chains and even pursues heavier and lengthier ones. If a fallen, unregenerate human is to believe the gospel and love the God who saves, then it must be because of some divine intervention that produces and provokes such faith and love within the person.

This is, in fact, what the Scriptures affirm God does in regenerating sinners (Jn. 3:3-8; Titus 3:4-5). God sovereignly saves sinners, gifting faith to them, and recreating them in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:8-10). God’s sovereignty is essential to evangelism because the aim of evangelism is conversion, and such ambition is absurd without the independent regenerating activity of the sovereign God.

Personal Evangelistic Activity

Personal evangelistic activity is essential to evangelism because God regenerates sinners through the declaration and reception of His word. I believe my argument for the essential element of God’s sovereignty in evangelism requires a greater defense than the essential element of personal evangelistic activity. One reason for this is that our modern western culture is loathed to even consider the possibility that anyone but ourselves could be autonomous.

Indeed, the Scriptures confront us on this foundational point, unambiguously announcing that God alone is truly autonomous. And yet, we are right to also understand a personal responsibility for every human everywhere.

As the Westminster divines put it, all humans are responsible to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Since no human does this (Rom 3:10-18), and an increased awareness of moral propriety only compounds human guilt (Rom. 3:19-20), the reality is that humans are in desperate need of a rescuer. Unless or until God graciously intervenes, humans are under God’s condemnation with no hope in themselves for escape. In other words, humans are naturally guilty, not naturally neutral or innocent.

The beauty of the gospel is that God has actually done something comprehensive and profound to rescue sinners from His own wrath. Namely, God has sent His own Son into the world (Jn. 3:16-18) as a perfectly obedient representative for all who love and trust Him (Rom. 5:15-19) and as a propitiatory sacrifice who suffered under the punishment they deserve (Rom. 3:21-26).

However, all the benefits Jesus Christ earned in this gospel only come to those who are made aware of it and believe it. Therefore, it is necessary for the gospel message to be proclaimed by those who know it to those who do not.

The Scripture succinctly states this very fact. The Apostle Paul wrote, 

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:13-14)

In this brief passage, we see the promise of salvation to all who believe and the essential element of preaching and receiving the gospel. In other words, the evangelist must preach (speak, proclaim, assert) the gospel (the message about the Lord Jesus Christ) in order for anyone to receive the blessings of salvation by believing (trusting, clinging to, and following Jesus).

This passage from Romans 10 logically works backward from “calling on” Christ to the essential starting point of “preaching” the message of Christ. Therefore, personal evangelistic activity is essential to evangelism because God regenerates sinners through the declaration and reception of His word.

Call to Action

The core doctrines of Christianity undergird every assertion in this essay. God holds all people everywhere responsible for their disobedience, and yet God has done everything necessary for sinners to be transferred from their status of guilty rebels to adopted and beloved children of God. Though this work is already accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ, God relates to humans through His word, and none can be saved from their sin and guilt apart from receiving and believing God’s word – namely the gospel.

And yet, simply receiving God’s word is insufficient to cause belief. Through teaching the gospel, God miraculously (according to His good pleasure) causes spiritual life in some of the recipients, which effectively results in true conversion of their heart and life.

God’s sovereignty and personal evangelistic activity are both essential to evangelism. In God’s wisdom and grace, He has ordained that His people play a part in the expansion of His kingdom in the world by proclaiming the regal and merciful message of the gospel. And in God’s lovingkindness, He sometimes grants spiritual life to the recipients of this supremely gracious message.

These realities compel me toward evangelism because I know that I must tell others about Jesus in order for them to believe in Him, and I am eager to see God work the powerful work that only He can by regenerating dead sinners through ordinary means. May God help more Christians be humbled and emboldened by these marvelous truths.


[1]J. I. Packer. (Kindle Location 155). 

[2]J.I. Packer. (Kindle Location 335).

[3]Metzger, Will (p. 56). Explanation added.

[4]Stiles, J. Mack. (p. 27). 


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Metzger, Will. Tell the Truth: The Whole Gospel Wholly by Grace Communicated Truthfully and Lovingly: An Evangelism Training Manual for Group and Individual Use. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012. Kindle Edition.

Packer, J. I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012. Kindle Edition.

Stiles, J. Mack. Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. Kindle Edition.

The Local Church is God’s plan for Evangelism!

I admit that this subject has affected me much in recent years. In thinking through evangelism and the local church, I come to a subject that has not only provoked me to grow but also to move away from a previously held position.

My introduction to vocational ministry was evangelism through a parachurch ministry. All throughout my 20s, I believed that I was the tip of the evangelistic spear and that the local church was the cumbersome-but-necessary shaft which played the menial role of tossing me into the target. In my pointed conversations and through my honed preaching, I believed parachurch evangelism to be the best way to engage the world with the gospel of Christ. Today, I am ashamed of my posture and perspective during those days. Oh, how foolish and wrong I was to assume such a low view of the local church.

Today, I understand the local church to be the apple of God’s eye and the lifeblood of God’s evangelistic activity in the world. The local church is the people by whom the gospel is upheld (1 Tim. 3:15), the people among whom the gospel is made visible (Col. 3:11), and the people through whom Christ is present in the world (Matt. 18:20).

When the local church is healthy and vibrant, it is a testimony of God’s grace, a picture of Christ’s transformative work, and a mechanism by which sinners may encounter the real power of God’s Spirit.

The evangelistic role of the church is crucial in the world because any evangelistic efforts detached from the local church will only provide an incomplete gospel at best. Furthermore, it seems to me that many Christians have resorted to just such an incomplete gospel.

American Evangelicalism is abundant with hoards of privatized Christians who think, speak, and act much like the world. These Evangelicals are secure in their eternal destination because they prayed a prayer at some point in their lives, or simply because they have a “personal relationship with Jesus” based on some subjective feeling. But this is not biblical evangelism or historically grounded Christianity.

If Christians are calling sinners into something (namely God’s family, along with all accompanying blessings) and not merely out of something (such as God’s judgment), then only those Christians who point to a healthy local church have any way of making such an appeal. If lone-ranger Christians merely talk of God’s love without demonstrating any affectionate love for fellow Christians, then they have failed to meet the Bible’s simple test of genuine spiritual life (1 Jn. 3:14). Thus, lone-ranger Christians bear false testimony of God, of Christ, and of the Spirit-filled Church.

Christians must embrace the messy-yet-beautiful relationships that can only be experienced in the covenantal, loving, sin-fighting, encouraging, spirit-maturing, humbling, and sanctifying atmosphere of biblical local church membership. And Christians must invite sinners to join them in this nourishing garden by entering through the narrow gate of Christ’s person and work.

May God revitalize churches around the world to give testimony to the gracious and glorious character of God, the joyfully obedient sonship of Christ, and the supernaturally transformative work of God’s Holy Spirit.

“Evangelism” by Mack Stiles

This book was refreshing and simple, and the average reader can read it in less than 2 hours. It was as though Mack had observed all the ways evangelical churches often misunderstand the church’s role in evangelism and then measured these against the biblical emphasis on what the local church actually is and does. Mack’s simple layout and explanations of evangelistic methodology from the Scriptures was very easy to follow.

Anyone reading the book would have difficulty disagreeing with Mack’s direct and sensible statements about the local church. Additionally, I found Mack’s examples and stories compelling. I am not normally a story-guy, usually skipping past these in order to get straight to an author’s arguments, but I found myself celebrating God’s grace in each of these accounts of regular church members living in step with the gospel.

Mack’s basic premise might be highlighted by his statement,

“In a culture of evangelism, people understand that the main task of the church is to be the church. We’ve already seen that church practices are a witness in and of themselves. Certainly the church supports and prays for outreach and evangelistic opportunities, but the church’s role is not to run programs. The church should cultivate a culture of evangelism. The members are sent out from the church to do evangelism (pg. 65-66).”

Mack articulates elsewhere what the church is and does (p. 70), and I think this might be the very backbone of the book and the culture of evangelism Mack urges throughout. The humble approach Mack took with this book and the sincere application of biblical concepts (church, evangelism, discipleship, etc.) makes this resource fantastic for church leaders and members alike.

I have absolutely no negative critique for this book. It was to the point, heartfelt, thoroughly biblical, compelling, and inspiring. I appreciated Mack’s no-assumption policy with Christianity and his exemplary-ambassador model of evangelistic efforts.

As I mentioned above, Mack’s definition of a local church was extremely helpful. No matter what someone believes about this definition, often the practices of local churches convey something much different. One question Mack forces the reader to consider is, “What is the biblical definition of a local church, and how does this argue for the inclusion of certain practices and the exclusion of others?”

Many churches seem to think that the local church is responsible to create a whole slew of programs and structures by which the members of a given church can feel a sense of engaging their community for the sake of Christ. In effect, however, these programs are much more likely to insulate Christians from the community around them rather than facilitate evangelistic efforts.

Vacation Bible School, outreach events, church excursions, concerts, campus expansions, gymnasiums, coffee shops, community groups, home groups, upward sports programs, and a host of other things seem much more likely to segregate Christians from the outside world rather than create inroads to meet the world with the gospel. Obviously, there can be some examples of things like these encouraging Christian engagement with the world, but a broader observation is what I am making here.

In my own local church context, I have tried to simply let dying programs die and avoid putting anything else in their place. I have also urged my congregation to see themselves as ambassadors for Christ, and I have tried to model gospel conversations for those with whom I spend time during the week. I haven’t done as good of a job at some of the things Mack mentioned, but I plan to remedy this as best as I can.

May God create a culture of evangelism among FBC Diana, and may God help me to be a better example among my church family and in my community.

See this book on Amazon by CLICKING HERE

Sowing Seed & Bearing Fruit

The sower sows the word… those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 1:14, 20).

What is the basic function of the Christian life? Surely, this question should be uniformly answerable by most Christians… but you are likely to get quite a range of answers. Of course, we are to do all things to the glory of God (Col. 3:17), but what things are Christians especially commissioned to do with their lives?

It seems clear from the New Testament that Christ intends His disciples (i.e. Christians) to be about the tasks of bearing fruit and sowing seed. These farming metaphors are pointing towards the mission of personal spiritual growth and publically broadcasting God’s word. These two are interrelated responsibilities and privileges, and every Christian is commissioned to take part.

We know that God’s word alone is powerful to bring life (Rom. 1:16), and we know that God’s Spirit must work in us to produce the fruit of godliness (Gal. 5:22-23), but Christians are called to participate in both of these activities.

Christ, the ultimate Sower (Jn. 1:14), has commissioned Christians to sow as well (Matt. 28:18-20). And the God who makes all things work for the good of His children (Rom. 8:28) commands those He adopts to strive towards Christ-likeness (Lk. 13:24; Heb. 4:11). In both, God will produce growth as He sees fit – for His own glory and for our great joy (1 Cor. 3:5-13).

Should a believer wait to have a “burden” before witnessing?

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?

Jesus, Prayer & Evangelism

Prayer is essential in the life of every Christian.  Most churchgoers would fully acknowledge this as a reality, but some may be embarrassed to answer any questions regarding the frequency, intentionality, or purpose of their own prayers.  Likewise, most churchgoers would accept some responsibility for evangelism generally.  However, personal evangelism and the clear requirement of every Christian to participate would cause a bit of discomfort to say the least.  Prayer and evangelism should mark the lives of every Christian, and no less than Jesus Himself has commanded His followers thus.

Regarding prayer, Luke tells us that Jesus said people ought to “always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).  Jesus Himself provides examples of prayer.  “[H]e would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16), He “went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28b), and there was a time when “all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12).  People brought children “to him [Jesus] that he might lay his hands on them and pray” (Matt. 19:13), and Jesus prayed when He healed people from sickness and death (Jn. 11:41-42).

The most beneficial passage in the Scriptures concerning prayer is found in the sixth chapter of Matthew in the form of what we call the Lord’s Prayer.  Matthew records Jesus’ helpful statement just before this exemplary prayer, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father” (Matt. 6:6).  We can observe at least a few things from this single phrase.  First, Jesus assumes that Christians will pray.  He says ‘when you pray’ as though there is no question that one will indeed participate in prayerful expressions towards God.  As has already been mentioned, prayer is essential to the life of every Christian.

Second, Jesus expresses the intentionality of prayer as being relationally vertical rather than horizontal.  He says, ‘go into your room and shut the door.’  This does not seem to be a statement about methodology, as though Jesus were saying that one should not pray outside or even inside with any doors open.  Instead, it seems to be a statement about the intentions of the human praying.  We are to pray not in order to be heard by others around us, but in order that we may be fixed on the God of heaven.  Our prayerful relationship is meant to engage us primarily with God.  Third, prayer is an intimate connection with an imminent counselor and omnipotent provider.  Jesus refers to God not only as His Father, but ‘your Father.’  This immediacy of relationship and accessibility of such a powerful refuge is no small thing to consider.

Regarding evangelism, Jesus commissions all who would follow Him to “make disciples” of all people groups everywhere (Matt. 28:19).  While some may attempt to distinguish the group described by terms like believer and disciple, I find no reason at all in Scripture to do so.  In fact, the two appear to be synonymous when referring to one’s relationship to Christ (Acts 9:26; Jn. 8:31).  Therefore, the commission given by Christ to all His followers at least includes evangelism.  Discipleship may refer to much more than conversion, but no one would rationally argue that it refers to less.

Evangelism, then, is the privilege and obligation of all Christians everywhere.  Yet, there is a very real sense in which the conversion of sinners from death to life is something that no Christian can produce.  Indeed, only God can create life where there is none and bring faith into the hearts of those who are bent on disbelief and rebellion (Eph. 2:1-10).  At this, an astute person may ask, “What role does a Christian play in evangelism?”  Well, the Apostle Paul makes a helpful assessment in his first letter to the Corinthians.  Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7).  He states clearly that evangelism is about ‘planting’ and ‘watering’ ‘seed,’ but God is the one who causes life, growth and salvation.  The analogy of seeds and sowing is not new, and Jesus explained an analogy very much like Paul’s in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8.  The ‘seed,’ Jesus says, is the ‘word of God.’

This subject deserves more time and reference than it is given here, but the word of God may refer to every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, a specific prophecy concerning an immediate event or person, or some compilation of words attributed to God.  The word of God is certainly inclusive of all God’s words, but most particularly it refers in Biblical terms to the Gospel (Acts 11:1) and to Christ as the embodiment of that message (Jn. 1:1-4).  So, then, Christians participate in evangelism by proclaiming and defending (planting and watering) the message of the Gospel (seed).  Christ followers may tell others of the good news, and rely upon God to give the growth; that is they rely upon the Spirit of God to transform the soul of sinners (Jn. 3:3).  This then is where evangelism and prayer intersect, and again Christ affords both instruction and example.

Because God alone makes sinners alive with eternal life, and because Christians have immediate and intimate means of communication with the God of salvation, it is then vitally important that Christians express their reliance upon God through prayer.  Jesus prayed just this way when He prayed, “I do not ask for these only [that is His accumulated followers during His earthly ministry], but also for those who will believe in me through their word [that is all subsequent believers], that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn. 17:20-21).  Jesus clearly associates this belief in His being sent from the Father with trusting Him as Savior or Messiah (Jn. 5:38-40).  Jesus asks the Father to bring unity of belief in the truth of Christ’s person and work to all those that the Father gives the Son (Jn. 17:24).

In summary, Christ teaches us to pray that God save sinners and He emboldens Christians to participate in the work of planting, watering and harvesting the growth only God can bring (Luke 10:2).  Prayer and evangelism go hand in hand.  As Christians tell the story of salvation, it behooves them also to pray that God performs the regenerating work that only He can.

Should a person ‘receive Christ’?

Is “receive Christ” terminology proper to use in presenting the gospel?

It is of paramount importance that anyone who seeks to articulate the Gospel of Jesus Christ does so in terms that are understandable to the one or ones with whom the evangelist is attempting to communicate.  This means that the evangelist will need to take several things into his or her consideration, and defining or explaining terms that may be unclear is a great way to ensure that the desired message is being heard.  Therefore, concerning the two-word phrase in focus here, “receive Christ,” an explanation of both may make the phrase not only proper but desirable in evangelistic encounters.

The phrases “I received” or “You received” as they are attached to “mercy,” “grace,” “gift,” “salvation,” or even “Christ” are found in more New Testament passages than I could count in a short time.  For the sake of our discussion, let us examine a few.  The Apostle Paul says, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain [or receive (NIV)] salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9)[1].  So, those of whom Paul speaks – those who are not destined for wrath, but instead for salvation – are recipients of their destiny through the Lord Jesus Christ.  There is certainly much more that could be said here, but it is no tangential matter that salvation comes through the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the mediator of such salvation; He is the provider of the saving work; He is the bringer of the gift. It is clear that salvation is through the Lord Jesus Christ, and anyone who receives this great salvation has no less received the embodiment of it.

Elsewhere Paul says, “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).  Again Paul speaks of recipients of salvation, but this time in terms of grace and the gift of righteousness.  Though the details of this saving work are described distinctly here, Paul remains sure that these gifts come through Jesus Christ.  Here, however, we are given a bit more information as to the specifics of what exactly Christ brings to those who are beneficiaries of His salvation, namely abundant grace and foreign righteousness.  We may find a better explanation of just how abundant this grace is in the context of the passage, but the righteousness of which Paul speaks we know is foreign precisely because it is a gift.  If the righteousness were inherent in the recipient, it may have been said to be enabled, reinforced, or motivated by Christ.  Yet this righteousness is a gift brought to the hopelessly unrighteous inheritor to be received from another who does inherently possess such virtue.

On a separate occasion Paul chastised the Galatian Christians for their ridiculous posture of false human holiness before the judgment of God.  Paul points out the definition of grace as unmerited favor in his question posed to them, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:2).  The thing being received in this passage is ‘the Spirit.’  Paul is reminding the Galatian believers that God is the giver of His Spirit and all Christians are receivers of the Holy Spirit, not because of their meritorious effort, but ‘by faith.’  There is not the space necessary here to expound on a theological statement concerning the biblical doctrine of the Godhead as Trinity, but it is pertinent to note that the Spirit of God is one in the same as the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9).  Therefore, it is not wrong to say that Paul’s explicit statement here is that all those who hear the Gospel with faith in the person and work of that good message are also recipients of the Spirit of Christ – they have received Christ by His Spirit, the Spirit of God.

It is not new to turn to Romans chapter 3 for the purpose of evangelizing.  The oft-memorized “Romans Road”[2] begins right on this terrain.  While verses 23 through 25 of Romans chapter 3 may or may not be familiar, they lend a great deal of help to our discussion here.  Again we read the words of the Apostle Paul, “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23-25).  If one unpacks the meaning of this text, the substance of it carries tremendous power.

First, it is clearly stated that ‘all’ are sinners who have failed to live up to the holy demands of God.  This is especially disheartening when one considers the absolute power, perfect justice, and unique eternality of God.  He has enough power to do whatever He desires to do, always justly punishes sin, and He will never ever cease to be exactly what He is now.  This is not good news to the sinner, who finds him or herself under the righteous judgment of that same God.

Second, those sinners to whom Paul referred are also said to be ‘justified’ by a gift of grace.  To be justified means to be made or proven right, righteous, or commendable.  This is almost too incredible to be true!  The same person who is clearly guilty and sinful may be proven to be righteous and commendable?!  Wait… If we pause for a moment and consider the logic of such a statement, it doesn’t make sense.  Either a person is sinful and guilty or one is righteous and commendable, but he or she cannot be both at the same time and in the same way.  How can Paul say that God proves sinners commendable?  Has God forgotten about their sin?  Is He no longer concerned with His righteous demands?  Is God no longer just?  Has He lost His power to condemn?  No!  God remains just, sin remains abhorrent to Him, and He is always utterly resolute in His judgment against it.

Third, the reason that sinners may be proven righteous is explained in the statement that this justification comes ‘through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.’  Two demonstrative terms are used in the Romans passage that point to the work performed by Christ on behalf of sinners.  (1) Redemption is a monetary term, carrying the idea of buying back, or exchanging something for an award or something else of monetary value.  (2) Propitiation is a term of satisfaction, carrying the idea of a gift given to a conquering king in order to appease his anger towards the offending or rebellious king who has been overcome.  When we see these terms in the light of what Christ has done for sinners, then the justification spoken of earlier becomes clearer.

Jesus Christ offers His own life as a substitute for the sinner before God’s bar of justice.  This accomplishes two things.  One, Christ propitiates or appeases God wrath against sin by absorbing the wrath due sin on the sinner’s behalf.  Jesus redirects God judgment from the sinner and towards Himself.  This is why it is rightly said that God made Christ to be sin even though Jesus had not sinned Himself (2 Cor. 5:21).  Two, Jesus redeems sinners by offering His own righteousness, obedience and goodness to all those who trust Him for it.  God requires a life of holiness from all humans.  Jesus Christ lived the life of obedient righteousness before God that is required of all humanity, and He offers His earned righteousness to sinners as a gift to be received (Rom. 5:19).

Fourth and finally, this gift of justification (proven right and commendable) is to be received by faith.  That is, one must put down all his or her own effort to achieve a goodness of their own, and he or she must simply trust in the effort of another – namely in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  When we visualize this transaction as a dirty-clothed sinner exchanging his guilt-stained garb for the beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness, it would not be hard at all to see why one might describe it as “putting on” a “new self” (Eph. 4:24).

Therefore, we are to understand that sinful humans are ‘proven righteous’ because of the righteousness of Christ.  Furthermore, we may also consider that Christ is not merely the ticket to an eternal reward greater than Himself.  Certainly this is not the case at all!  In spite of contemporary jargon that might suggest, or explicitly claim, otherwise (which is often just a recapitulation of past error), Christ is Himself the prize.  He is the destination!  His presence, His glory, His eminent majesty is what we long to behold!  If we are looking for Christ to take us to a reward that is something other than Himself, then we have set our aim far too low.  He is both our transport and our station, and there is no greater reward than the triune God of our salvation.

Praise be to God!  If we have received Christ’s righteousness, then we have most certainly received Him.  If we are heirs to Christ’s sonship, then we share in His loving relationship with God our Father.  If we are beneficiaries of Christ’s redeeming and propitiating work, then we have exchanged ourselves for Him, our sorrow for His joy, our sin for His obedience, our idolatry for His genuine worship, and our deserved penalty for His earned reward!  With the Apostle Paul, we may indeed say to one another “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20) by receiving Christ – all that He is and all that He has done for you – and “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6).

All terms may be used erroneously or mischievously.  The terms used in articulating the Gospel are most important because of the message they communicate; therefore to twist and mangle them is supremely egregious regardless of intent.  This should drive us to a reverent and diligent commitment to communicate this message and its implications as accurately as we are capable.  So, is it proper to use the phrase “receive Christ” in an evangelistic exchange?  Yes.  If it is explained well then it is not merely proper, it can be wholly advantageous.


[1] All Biblical citations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless noted otherwise.

[2] The Romans Road refers to several passages in the book of Romans that may be sited for evangelistic purposes.  Seeking to present the Gospel in biblical terms, the evangelist would begin with chapter 3 and verse 23, then move to chapter 6 and verse 23, then cite chapter 5 and verse 8, and finally land in chapter 10 and verse 13.