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.

Light in the Darkness

“I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he… Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me”(Jn. 13:19, 21).

In Jesus’ final hours, we see Him troubled by the darkness surrounding Him. One of His closest friends betrayed Him unto death, and the devil himself takes on a personal assaulting role. Jesus seems utterly alone and victimized as the night intensifies.

However, Jesus is not merely a passive sufferer. No, right in the midst of this deepest darkness, Christ makes Himself known as the God of light. Moreover, God is revealed in Christ as the truly sovereign ruler of all – even the darkness.

We see the God of the Bible as one who is greater than we ever knew and more awesome than we could have imagined. His power and might extend far past the boundaries we often envision in our finite assumptions. To the watchful eye, God shows His brilliant light in the midst of darkness. For He is the God who forms light and creates darkness, and He is the God who has promised that darkness will one day be no more.

Is God anti-gay? | A Book Review

I recently read “Is God anti-gay?” by Sam Allberry. This book, I believe, is a very helpful contribution to the ongoing discussion among Christians about homosexuality, gender, and the Christian community. Of course, there are numerous related issues in the discussion, and this book does not address them all. However, in my view, this book’s greatest help comes from its candor and brevity. Sam Allberry seems to have intentionally written something that is easy to read and something that gets straight to the point.

Introduction

Sexual activity, marriage, gender, the Gospel, and Gospel-formed community (the local church) are all interwoven subjects. Each one not only impacts the other, they are inseparably part of the same fabric. A discussion on any of these topics will inevitably be a discussion that must include the others.

Sam Allberry, in this short book, made an effort to discuss these related matters with just such an understanding in mind. Furthermore, the author introduces the book and himself in a fashion that allows the reader to see this complex tapestry in living color. Allberry strikes at the heart of nominal and superficial Christianity (which often separates these subjects) when he says,

“If someone thinks the gospel has somehow slotted into their life quite easily, without causing any major adjustments to their lifestyle or aspirations, it is likely that they have not really started following Jesus at all” (12).

Summary

Allberry begins the book by doing the groundwork of looking to the Bible for a view of God’s design for gender and sexuality. Indeed, this is the place one must begin when questions of human activity arise. If we are asking about what we can do, then we must ask at least something of what God says we ought to do.

The author affirms the freedom of expression but not the freedom of definition when he says, “[Gender] is something we humans interpret and lend cultural expression to, but it is not something that we invent or fully define” (19). This challenging statement must be weighed and considered by the honest participant in our culture today.

Allberry also addresses some specific objections that sometimes arise in the discussion of homosexuality and Christianity. One might claim that homosexuality, especially the kind of monogamous same-sex partnerships promoted today, is not a major focus of the Bible. And, therefore, it may also be demanded that Christians at least stop being so dogmatic about this issue, or possibly even acknowledge that the traditional view of homosexuality is harmful and dangerous.

However, Allberry points out that this type of thinking is in error for at least a couple of reasons. The Bible is not about homosexuality specifically, or even sex or sexuality generally. The Bible is focused intently on God’s promise of and activity in the redemption of guilty humans. Because this is true, Christians would do well to understand Allberry’s point when he writes,

“Christians who want to explain the Christian faith to gay friends need to know that what the Bible says about homosexuality is not the only thing they need to explain, and it is probably not the first thing, or even the main thing, they need to focus on” (26).

This is not to say that homosexuality is unimportant, but as the author writes elsewhere, “We need to love [the homosexual] more than they love their homosexuality” (81). In our love for others, regardless of their sexuality, we must make the priority of our focus align with the priorities of the Bible. As our perspective is shaped by the Bible, rather than social norms and confusion, we will discover that Christianity calls all people to deny themselves and follow Christ as a Lord. Allberry says, “We will want gay friends to know that allegiance to Christ for a gay person is as costly and glorious as it is for anyone else” (82-83).

The author concludes his book with a call to the local church to live as a truth-teller from the platform of life-transformation. Allberry says, “For the church to be an effective pillar, it needs to be an effective family” (84). Indeed, credibility does and will hinge on the local church’s ability to practice what it preaches.

While some would look at the moral decay around us with a fearful inclination to withdraw, Allberry challenges Christians to see a great opportunity instead. He writes,

“This is no time for pessimism, and as society moves further and further away from its Christian moorings, the church is getting more and more of an opportunity to model a countercultural alternative… We might not have the best celebrities, the most attractive spokes people, the most impressive resources for the most acclaimed thinkers, but we should have the most wonderful and attractive relationships” (83, 85).

So, is God anti-gay? It seems that Sam Allberry would say that God is not “anti” anyone who will acknowledge and pursue Christ as the deepest satisfaction of the soul.

Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I believe that Sam Allberry provides both a unique and a truly biblical perspective. I also believe that he and I have the same understanding of the value of the local church and the opportunity it has to be a beacon of shining light in our culture today.

In my estimation, this book would be one of the most helpful on this subject for many Christians. It is short, easy to read, and quite pointed in its approach. There are even several specific questions addressed in easily noted sections throughout the book.

Christians interested in thinking more biblically on matters of sexuality, the Gospel, and the posture of the local church would do well to read this book.

 

Bibliography

Allberry, Sam. Is God Anti-gay?: And Other Questions about Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-sex Attraction. Questions Christians Ask. Good Book Company, 2015.

If Evil is, then God is not?

When the atheist raises a fist against the Creator of the universe, he does so with contempt against God because of the tremendous pain and suffering that humanity experiences while living under the sun.

The Christian Faith has had many antagonists over the centuries, but it seems that the boldest and noisiest adversaries of Christianity in recent decades have been those from an atheistic position. From this vantage point (though atheism is certainly no belvedere), some have postulated the finding of Christianity’s death knell. Feinberg describes the theistic conundrum by citing the philosopher David Hume.

“The problem of evil as traditionally understood in philosophical discussion and debate is stated succinctly in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he [God] able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he [God] both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”[1]

Long before Hume, Epicurus (a third and fourth century BC Greek philosopher) articulated much the same analytical dilemma against theism. While this form of argumentation has been around for a very long time, it seems to have gained some traction in contemporary minds. Whether or not this is truly a problem for theists is the subject of this essay, but it is important to note at the outset that such a problem is really shorthand for multiple problems concerning at least three basic assumptions in the syllogisms represented above. Feinberg lists these suppositions as “(a) God is omnipotent (in some sense of “omnipotent”), (b) God is good in that he wills that there be no evil, in some sense of “evil,” and (c) evil, in the sense alluded to in (b), exists.”[2]

The problems of evil, then, are the difficulties one might face in defending a theistic position that holds to one or more of these suppositions. Each supposition may be dealt with individually, but the theist must construct a consistent view of the character and nature of God while acknowledging that “evil” is experienced in this world.

The problem of evil is important to address for several reasons, but it may be most interesting to humanity because of the universality of suffering and pain. It is quite reasonable to perceive that when a person rails against the being of God because of the experience of evil, they likely mean to use evil as a synonym for human suffering and pain.

It is hardly conceivable that an atheist would intend to argue that God does not exist because of the ills humanity has inflicted upon the mountainous Alps as they utilize climbing equipment to bash and injure the spectacular terrestrial protrusions or because of the painful astrophysical results of human interference with the lunar landscape. Even less we might expect an atheist to speak of the human offense to God’s character or His holiness when they continually rebel against His kind and good directives. No, when the atheist raises a fist against the Creator of the universe, he does so with contempt against God because of the tremendous pain and suffering that humanity experiences while living under the sun.

The atheist perceives these experiences to be unjust, unacceptable, and incongruent with the existence of any good and powerful God.

Atheists notwithstanding, many people struggle to understand their own experiences with incredible pain and suffering. The problem of evil is important to address for the sake of all those searching for some kind of prism through which to view their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering so that they might make sense of it. Many have sought to excuse God from the pain and suffering of humanity, some have tried to justify pain and suffering as a means to some greater end, and still others have decided that the best answer to the problem is that God simply must needs create a world in which evil runs rampant to some degree or another.


The “Free Will” advocate claims that the best way to defend the existence of a good and powerful God in spite of evil is to lay the blame for such evil upon the shoulders of free volitional creatures who have brought about the disparaging pain and suffering we now endure. This sounds enticing to many theists, and at first glance may provide the uncritical mind some sense of refuge from the atheistic assault.

However, it is conceivable that God could have created free volitional creatures without the possibility of sin, disobedience or evil. Indeed, this is the hope of all biblical Christians – namely that sinners saved by God’s grace will live in perfect freedom for all eternity without ever experiencing another moment of pain, suffering, sin or evil. Thus, the Free Will advocate falls short of adequately answering the challenge.

The consequentialist asserts that the temporal evils of pain and suffering are regrettable, but they are also part of the building blocks of a future and greater good. This sort of reasoning may dance dangerously close to the line, which distinguishes good from evil, calling those things that are evil the very things that are necessary to bring about final or ultimate good. This defense too may have an initial appeal, but it falls apart when pressed further and when contrasted with the biblical position.

What kind of good God must use evil to bring about good? Can evil ever be called good without serious injury to the term good? It seems quite unappealing to think of a good God who is confined to merely manipulating evil ingredients to bring about His good purposes.

The rationalist position is that of reason and God’s acting out of rationalistic compulsion. This seems the most arrogant position of all, positing that God must act according to sufficient reason (that is according to some humanly accessible rationale). According to this view, “human reason, apart from divine revelation, should be able to discover that reason and ascertain what God would choose.”[3] Under this rubric of thinking, God has created a world with the presence of pain and suffering because such a world is the best possible world that God might have created.

However, this position fails to measure up to the biblical standard as well. First, God’s volition and intelligence are both infinitely greater than the human capacity; and this is so even before the gnoetic effects of the fall of sinful humanity. Second, and yet again, the biblical Christian awaits exactly such a world as this position claims impossible. The hope of eternal glory is that God will reconcile fallen humanity to Himself in such a way that sinners will ultimately be glorified and free from evil, sin, pain and suffering.


There seems to be many insufficient answers to the problem of evil, and so too there may also be several productive ways to address it.

First, before any theist feels the burden of defending theism against an atheistic accusation concerning evil and the existence of God, he may ask the atheist, “What is evil?” The atheist must assume evil, which assumes good, which assumes God who calls things good, in order to accuse this same God he has just charged with non-existence.

Under the atheistic worldview, there is no such thing as moral good or moral evil. In fact, there is no reason to suppose the universe to be reasonable or coherent at all – especially in terms of morality. Therefore, the theist is not obligated to answer the atheist’s accusation.

Second, the question or problem of evil may be raised by someone who is not antagonistic to the theistic worldview, and in such an instance it seems good that a Christian would be prepared to answer with truth, and in a tone of compassion.

In my view, God has created a good world (Gen. 1:31), and human existence is better than non-existence. Additionally, God has intended to create un-glorified humans (at least initially) rather than glorified ones, and this is the reason (though not necessarily the purpose) for the possibility of pain and suffering (Gen. 2:17).

Un-glorified humans possess volitional freedom to the extent that they are capable of choosing rebellion or submission towards God. Having chosen the former in no way releases humanity from God’s sovereignty, though it does place humanity under the curse of God’s wrath (Gen. 3:24); and God’s sovereign rule over all that comes to pass in no way releases humanity from culpability for such rebellion. Blameworthy for all manner of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, humanity has fallen under the curse of God’s wrath and lives in a world full of pain and suffering (Eph. 2:1-3).

This pain and suffering that is now endured is not good, and it is never to be called good (Isaiah 5:20).

However, God has not left un-glorified humans without hope in the face of such evil; rather, God Himself has invaded human history in the person and work of Jesus Christ in order to suffer the greatest pain – the unbridled wrath of God – on behalf of fallen, un-glorified humanity.

This same God-man (Jesus Christ) has also conquered death and brought about final and ultimate victory over evil, pain, and suffering. The God of Christianity is a God of justice, righteousness, mercy, and grace. He has scandalously suffered as a human, and this provides not only hope for suffering sinners, but also a gracious and empathetic Savior.

Ultimately, my position is one of trust in the God who has revealed Himself through special revelation, recorded on the pages of Holy Scripture. I do not intend this as a cop out, rather a humble submission to what God has revealed about Himself and about humanity. God is both absolutely sovereign and perfectly good, and un-glorified humanity is radically sinful.

Within this tension lies another stark truth: good is always good and evil is always evil.

God does not build out good ends through the use of evil means. Instead, He providentially orchestrates all of creation for His glory and for the greatest joy of all those whom He loves. God’s good and sovereign providence and man’s sinful activity, which results in prolific pain and suffering, is a tension in the Scriptures that must not be lost. Carson addresses the matter by saying,

“[W]e will avoid implicitly denying one truth when we affirm another; we will grow in stability; above all, we will better know the God who has in his grace disclosed himself to rebels like us, taken up our guilt, participated in human suffering, and sovereignly ensured that we will not be tempted above what we are able to bear. In knowing him better we will learn to trust him; and in trusting him we will find rest.”[4]

In summary, the atheistic accusation, “If evil, then no God!” simply cannot fly; it does not even leave the ground. If there is no God, then the possibility of any moral good or moral evil is nil. Yet, there are those who find themselves suffering tremendously who seek some comfort in their time of pain. For them, the Bible offers a God who rules sovereignly, graciously, and lovingly.

Only the Bible provides the opportunity for sinful, suffering humans to learn of a merciful, suffering King; and it is this King who promises the hope of glory – the final and eternal freedom from evil, pain, and suffering – through His finished work of redemption.

 

Bibliography

Carson, D. A. How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990.

Feinberg, John S. The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004.

[1] Feinberg, Kindle Locations 179-182

[2] Feinberg, Kindle Locations 222-224

[3] Feinberg, Kindle Locations 736-737

[4] Carson, 214

Coalescing Churches and Missionaries

The Church – the universal body of Christ – is a unique institution made up of people rather than materials or mechanisms. Established and sustained by God Himself, the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The oft-quoted passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel contains the commission of the Church – her purposeful assignment and the promise of her providential Lord. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says to His disciples,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Mark Dever (commenting on this very passage) says, “Jesus’ command to go ‘to the ends of the earth’ [or ‘all nations’] reminds believers that Christ is Lord over all, that he loves all, and that he will call all to account on the great day. Therefore, Christians today have a responsibility to take the gospel around the world.” Dever also understands that congregations (local expressions of the universal Church) are bearers of this same responsibility, because congregations are made up of individual Christians. “Christians together can pool wisdom, experience, financial support, prayers, and callings and direct them all to the common purpose of making God’s name great among the nations…” Dever leaves no room for individual Christians or assembled groups of the same to remain unengaged from this Great Commission when he says, “Witnessing the glory of God proclaimed around the globe in the hearts of all his people should be an end and purpose for every local church.”[1]

Involvement in this intentional activity is no peripheral matter for any local church, and many congregations have been purposefully working at it for a long time. However, recent research and contemporary conversations are revealing that a disconnect may have developed over time between the two prongs that have formed the spearhead of this Christian commission. Local churches in America seem to have been allowed to understand missions as something that is done over there – anywhere but here – by someone called a missionary. Many local churches support “missions efforts” with their financial backing, giving a portion of their budget to some kind of cooperative program that distributes funds to local and international missionaries. Sometimes local churches may even call a special prayer meetings with a “missions” emphasis, but taking ownership of particular missional efforts appears to be lacking at best. In addition, the perceived distance between missions and local church ministry has permitted most American Christians to remain personally unengaged from the Great Commission. This is a tragedy.

What is worse is that missionaries, having such a strong commitment to go and tell, are continuing to do so without an essential and healthy attachment to a local church or churches. “The problem is that there are now missionaries all over the world with virtually no connection to local churches to love and care for them, shepherd them, and join them on mission.” To compound the loss, “there are also local churches full of laypeople talking about being ‘missional’ without the benefit of learning from those who are actively crossing cultures with the Gospel. They are talking about mission without the input of missionaries (emphasis added).”[2] If one is to understand what it is to be missional, it is imperative that one understands what it is to be a missionary.

Ed Stetzer helpfully defines the term “missional” in his standard-setting work on the subject of “missional churches.” He says, “Missional means actually doing mission… adopting the posture of a missionary, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound.”[3] With this definition in mind, it is helpful to consider that missional living may only realized in the local church context as missionaries and their efforts are appropriately known and celebrated in the local church.

The bringing together of missionaries and the local church is a combination that regains the benefits of the multi-membered body of Christ. If the missionary is the extended arm of the local church, then the local church is the core, which lends stability, resources, and strength to the missionary. Just as the arm needs the core to function properly, so the core needs the exercise, reach, and functionality of the arm in order to remain healthy. There are many more aspects of local church ministry that may not include a direct relationship to missionary efforts, but all of what the local church is and does should center around the idea of living missionally in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – both in the context of its own community and in the world at large. These two distinct branches of missional engagement (missionaries and the local church) are so intertwined that each compliments the other in multiple ways, particularly when they are both functioning healthily.

The pervading goal of the missionary is the same as the local church, namely the Great Commission – make disciples, baptize them, and teach submission to Christ to the glory of His great name. If this directive is embraced and acted upon, the result will inevitably be a plurality of baptized disciples who will be life-long learners who grow in their submission to Christ. This plurality of Christians, if the missionary is properly focused on the task, will be formed into a local church themselves. “The result of [the missionary’s] work should be biblical, local, independent churches that reflect the soil in which they are planted.”[4]  Therefore, the missionary is most effective when he is planting local churches with those baptized disciples who have benefitted from his proclamation of the Gospel.

These locally planted churches will be better churches if they resemble the same kind of local church(es) that have cultivated a quality relationship with the missionary who facilitated their own rooting and grounding. If missionaries and local churches work in tandem (as it seems they were designed to do), then the cycle will simply continue. Aubrey Malphurs says of church planting and its ultimate goal,

“We are not to start just any kind of church; they should be Great Commission churches. These are churches that take most seriously Jesus’s command to make disciples! Making disciples begins with evangelism and continues with edification or the building up of the saints in the faith with the ultimate goal of their attaining spiritual maturity (Col. 1:28–29; Heb. 5:11–6:1).”[5]

Malphurs’ statement brings us back to the beginning; the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The goal of newly planted church is the same as the missionary, and it is the same as the established local church congregation. When the established local church is healthy, she will serve her role well as a support structure for the missionary and a model for the church plants that (by God’s grace) result from his efforts. When the missionary is healthy, he will serve his role well as an evangelist and facilitator for the eventual indigenous church plant(s) as well as a motivation and inspiration for the congregants who support him. When the indigenous church plant is healthy, she will repeat the cycle with new missionaries and fresh groups of newly converted Christians.

There are so many benefits to this relationship that a brief work such as this cannot explore them all. Suffice it to say that the coalescing of churches and missionaries is a recipe for enjoying vibrant, Great Commission assemblies of vigorous, missional disciples of Christ – both locally and globally.

 

[1]Dever, Mark. The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012.

[2]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[3]Stetzer, Ed. Planting Missional Churches. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

[4]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[5]Malphurs, Aubrey. The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting: A Guide for Starting Any Kind of Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

Strength to Strength in times of Suffering

In his devotional “Mornings and Evenings,” Charles Spurgeon wrote his own commentary on the passing of Christians from security and strength to further stability and power. This progression is contrary to much of our natural experience, and Spurgeon acknowledges the same. A runner, for instance, begins with full energy and ends with none; and the wrestler finishes his long match with much less vigor than he had at the start. But Christians are anchored and empowered by someone who is unnatural, and their advancement from strength to strength is observable as well as biblical.

The Bible speaks of a God who is not merely a passive all-observing eye. No, the biblical God is the creator and sustainer of every aspect of His creation; He is the ever-active, sovereign king of the universe (Acts 17:24-25).

This brings great comfort to the humble Christian. Spurgeon says, “Thou shalt never find a bundle of affliction which has not bound up in the midst of it sufficient grace.”[1] This means that there is no amount of suffering, no tumultuous season of life, no seemingly unrewarded effort expended that is completely in vain. The Bible never calls evil by the name of good, but all things are by God’s design and for the ultimate good of His children (Rom. 8:28; Lam. 3:37-38).

Much more could be said on this biblical assertion of God’s sovereign work to bring about the sanctification of His children, but Christians may be observed as having lived out this surprising experience as well. While not all churchgoers exhibit this same development, the mark of mature Christianity is finding secure refuge in Christ.

Consider the believer who receives a terrible diagnosis from the doctor. She may recoil and feel distress just as much as anyone, but her soul is eventually steadied and the Commander of the storm calms the gales of her mind.

Think also of the young Christian couple that rushes their newborn to the emergency room only to learn that their child’s mortal life has ended much too soon. Their pain and anguish is beyond words, but the light of life somehow invades their dark night of the soul.

Christ is their portion, and He is enough.

Once, Christians were commonly noticed as experiencing joy in the face of their own sorrow. In our day of commonplace denial and distraction, it is not so normal to see anyone bear the load of suffering well. Yet, when the Christian does it is a bittersweet site indeed.

What a peculiar beauty it is to see the Christian rejoice in the Lord while they are enduring significant pain. Others may even become irrationally envious of the agony of these exemplary saints when that agony is born steadily by the grace of God.

Spurgeon is also quoted as having said, I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.

The counter-intuitive destination of a Christian’s suffering is safe in the arms of Christ. Isn’t it a wonder that Christians will often find themselves crawling out of Christ’s bosom and onto the floor of life until they encounter some strange pain or confusing fear? Upon such an encounter, they cry out for the embrace of the Father’s care and find Him worthy of their full trust and reliance.

Only in this light may we perceive suffering as a gift.

Oh, that you and I would know the strength of God’s abiding Spirit – with or without the common suffering of life under the curse of sin. May the Lord bless us with His caring allotment of energy and affliction, for His glory and for our greatest joy.

“[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[2]

“God will give the strength of ripe manhood with the burden allotted to full-grown shoulders.”[3]

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?