This 9 part study on Evangelism was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2010. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.
I am launching this series on evangelism because I have been burdened for a long time about how few we see as a church coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ. I often wrestle with the question, “What kind of impact are we having on this godless city?” While we are commendable in our emphasis on world missions, it seems to me that we are weak in outreach to our own “Jerusalem.”
I feel that I am most at fault in this problem. While I try to preach the gospel often from the pulpit, I am not a good example in personal evangelism. For more than 40 years, I have prayed that God would use me to lead others to Christ. I’ve gone to training seminars and read many books on the subject. I pray for my neighbors, that I could see them come to Christ. But I often fail when opportunities to share Christ come up. I usually think of what I could have said about two hours too late!
Also, I’m so busy with the work of the church that I lack contacts with lost people. But even when I have tried in the past, my attempts at evangelism have been colossal failures. But I want to keep trying. So this series is not just for you. It’s especially for me.
I’m going to begin by focusing on our motivation for sharing Christ with others. In subsequent messages, we’ll look at the message, and then at the method. Regarding motivation, if we want to be effective channels for the good news, we need to ask God to give us the heart that Jesus had for lost people. We see His heart in Matthew 9:36, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion on them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus goes on to say that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; thus (v. 38) the disciples should pray for the Lord to send workers into the harvest.
C. H. Spurgeon said that verse 38 weighed on his heart more than any other text in the Bible! He said that it haunted him perpetually (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 19:466). So I pray that this simple message will haunt us:
We need to see as Jesus saw and feel as Jesus felt so that we will do as Jesus did.
Verse 35 gives us a summary of Jesus’ ministry at that time (almost identical with Matt. 4:23). He was going through all of the villages, teaching, proclaiming the gospel, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. Then, verses 36-38 report a specific incident on one of those occasions, when Jesus saw the crowds, perhaps as they approached Him, felt compassion for them, and then gave this charge to His disciples. The first lesson is…
Presumably, Jesus and the disciples saw the same scene: the approaching crowd of people. But Jesus saw them with different eyes than the disciples did.
Probably there was nothing unusual about the crowd that approached Jesus and the disciples that day. There may have been a few more sick and disabled people than in a normal crowd, but no more than there had been on previous days. But the disciples probably thought, as they did on another occasion when the needs were overwhelming (Matt. 14:15), “Send them away!” But Jesus saw them differently and He felt compassion for them.
Years ago, some researchers decided to find out if seminary students are Good Samaritans. They met individually with 40 ministerial students under the pretense of doing a study of careers in the church. Each student was instructed to walk to a nearby building to deliver an impromptu talk into a tape recorder. Some were told to talk on the Good Samaritan parable, while others were told to talk about their career concerns.
Meanwhile, the researchers planted an actor along the path who, as a seminarian approached, groaned and slumped to the ground. They found that more than half of the students walked right on by! The researchers noted, “Some who were planning their dissertation on the Good Samaritan, literally stepped over the slumped body as they hurried along.” (Cited by William McRae, The Dynamics of Spiritual Gifts [Zondervan], p. 54.)
Probably your first reaction to that story, as mine was, is to think, “How could these students be so hard-hearted as to ignore this hurting man? I would never do that!” But my hunch is that those students represent most of us. They were so preoccupied with themselves and the immediate pressure that they faced (to deliver a talk) that they did not see the obvious need of this man in their path. And so they did not stop to help him. They did not see him as Jesus would have seen him. How did Jesus see people?
Jesus saw lost people as distressed. The word means “troubled” or “vexed.” It points to the load of problems that people apart from Christ bear. Do you ever look carefully into people’s faces when you’re in public? If you do, you’ll see a lot of distressed, troubled people.
Jesus saw lost people as dispirited. The word means, “downcast” or “thrown down.” It points to the utterly helpless and forsaken condition of people who are lost in sin without the Savior. Philip Keller, in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 [Zondervan], describes how sheep can get turned over on their backs and not be able to get up by themselves again. Such sheep are called “cast” or “cast down” sheep (p. 60). These sheep flail at the air with their legs, but they can’t get back on their feet without the aid of the shepherd. Left in this condition, helpless and vulnerable to their enemies, they will die after a few hours or days.
What a picture of sinners apart from the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ! Outwardly, they may look calm and comfortable. They may be successful in worldly terms. But Jesus sees their hearts before God. They’re “legs up,” unable to extricate themselves from their sin. They are downcast or dispirited. They may look normal outwardly, but inwardly they are, as Paul describes them (Eph. 2:12), without “hope and without God in the world.”
Jesus saw lost people as sheep without a shepherd. The Jewish religious leaders should have been shepherding these people, pointing them to God. But instead they were self-righteous and self-seeking, looking down on the common people as sinners (John 9:24-34). They were fleecing the flock, not shepherding them with compassion (Ezekiel 34; Matthew 23). They viewed the people as a bother. But Jesus viewed them as sheep needing a shepherd.
Years ago there was a heart-rending story in the news (cited by Charles Hembree, Fruits of the Spirit [Baker], pp. 25-26). A young father, James Lee, shot himself in a tavern phone booth. Minutes before he had called a reporter and told him that he had sent the paper an envelope outlining his story. The frantic reporter tried to trace the call, but it was too late. When the police arrived, the young man was slumped over with a bullet through his head.
In his pockets was a child’s crayon drawing, much folded and worn. On it was written, “Please leave in my coat pocket. I want to have it buried with me.” The drawing was signed in childish print by the man’s daughter, Shirley, who had died in a fire five months before. The father had been so grief-stricken that he had asked total strangers to attend his daughter’s funeral so she would have a nice service. He said there was no family to attend since Shirley’s mother had died when the child was two. And so when he called the reporter just before he took his life, Lee said that all he had in life was gone and he felt so alone.
When we hear a heart-breaking story like that, we all would respond, “I would have shown love to that lonely, hurting man!” And we would—if we could have seen his need in time. But, hurting people do not wear neon signs blinking, “Love me! I’m hurting!” We probably have hurting people here every week. Do we step over them on our way to talk with our friends? Or, do we see them as Jesus saw these people, as distressed, dispirited, and as sheep without a shepherd?
He said, “The harvest is plentiful.” This was an important concept that Jesus wanted His disciples to grasp. On another occasion, after speaking with the Samaritan woman by the well, He told the disciples (John 4:35), “lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest.” He repeated it again as He sent out the seventy for ministry (Luke 10:2). And He told the fearful apostle Paul to go on preaching in Corinth, explaining (Acts 18:10), “for I have many people in this city.” There was a harvest waiting to be reaped. The harvest doesn’t depend on our techniques, but on God’s sovereign purpose. He has planned a harvest and He calls us to get involved as reapers.
We practically deny the truth of Jesus’ words whenever we think (I am often guilty of this!), “He wouldn’t want to hear about Christ!” “She would be offended if I talked to her about spiritual things!” How do you know that? Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful. It’s God’s job to open hearts to the gospel (Acts 16:14). It’s our job to go into the harvest field and seek to reap a crop.
So Jesus saw the great need of lost people. He saw the great harvest of lost people. Also,
“The workers are few.” Jesus has changed metaphors here. First, He used the metaphor of sheep. But, now, it’s a harvest. These two metaphors show two sides of the matter: The sheep and the shepherd show man’s need met by God. The good shepherd seeks out lost sheep and ministers to them. The harvest and the workers show God’s “need” met by man: God uses saved people to save other people. (This insight is from G. Campbell Morgan, The Analyzed Bible [Baker], pp. 124-125.)
Jesus’ viewpoint is that of a farmer who has a great crop ready for harvest, but he doesn’t have enough reapers. It’s an interesting picture, isn’t it? On the one hand, the Lord will accomplish all of His purpose, which includes the salvation of His elect (Eph. 1:3-11). And yet, at the same time, He has chosen to save lost people through those whom He has already saved. He could have used angels, who probably would have been more competent than we are. But He chose to use us! And so the plentiful harvest means that there is a need for more workers.
Here’s the kicker: If you are one of Jesus’ sheep, He wants you to see yourself as a worker in His harvest. It is not by accident that the very next thing in Matthew’s gospel is for Jesus to summon the twelve and appoint them to ministry. Up to this point, Jesus has done all of the ministry while the disciples have watched. But now He gets the disciples involved.
And if you’re thinking, “But I’m not called into full-time ministry,” you don’t understand. The workers in the Lord’s harvest are not just those in so-called “full-time” ministry. Rather, they are those who have tasted of God’s salvation telling others of what He has done for their soul. Or, has often has been said, it is one beggar telling another beggar where he can find bread. Jesus wants you to open your eyes and see the great harvest around you so that you will be a worker reaping souls who need the Good Shepherd.
So to be like our Savior, we need to see as Jesus saw: the great need of lost people; the great harvest of lost people; and, the great need for more workers in the harvest of lost people. Seeing as Jesus saw will lead us to the second step:
Note the link in verse 36, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them….” The Greek verb translated, “felt compassion,” is used frequently of Jesus in the Gospels. It is related to a noun meaning, “inward parts,” or, as we might say in the vernacular, “guts.” Deep down inside, Jesus felt for these people. He didn’t angrily blame them for the mess that they were in, although He could have done so. Rather, He felt compassion for them.
Do we feel compassion for sinners, or do we shrug and think, “It’s their own fault”? I read about a bold pastor who began his sermon, “I’d like to make three points today. First, there are millions of people around the world who are going to go to hell. Second, most of us sitting here today don’t give a damn about that.” After a long pause, he continued, “My third point is that you are more concerned that I, your pastor, said the word ‘damn’ than you are about the millions going to hell.” (Reader’s Digest [May, 1979], p. 127.) That was a tricky way of showing how we get so worked up about the trivial and are indifferent about the significant. We should feel as Jesus felt about lost people.
Years ago, a woman missionary went to Tunis in North Africa, where she tried to reach Muslims for Christ. She met with little success, as often seems to be the case in Muslim countries. But she persisted, above all trying to love those to whom she witnessed.
One Muslim boy came to her home every week for English lessons. As she taught him English, she tried to tell him about Jesus, but he was unmoved. Finally, the summer before he was to go away to the university came, and he dropped his English sessions. One day, just before his departure, he came to say goodbye to the missionary for the final time. They had tea together and she told him again of the love of Jesus. But while he was polite, he was adamant in resisting the gospel.
At last, he bid farewell and headed down to path through the garden, leading to the outside gate. Here he stopped and looked back and he saw his teacher standing in the doorway looking after him with tears streaming down her face. He could resist no longer. Her tears conquered the rebellion in his heart. He returned up the path and into her living room, where he trusted in Christ as His Savior (told by James Boice, The Gospel of John [Zondervan], p. 771).
While I am not one to show tears easily, people can sense whether you care about them or not. If they feel your love, they will be more inclined to listen to your message. We need to see needy people as Jesus saw them. And we need to feel compassion for them as Jesus felt.
What did Jesus do? He ministered to people’s needs and He prayed for more workers.
Ministry is not a “stained-glass” word that applies only to those called into “professional” Christian work. “Ministry” means “service.” Every Christian is called to serve Christ. He has given you unique gifts and opportunities. You are to take what He has given you and use it to serve those with whom He has put you in contact.
Matthew summarizes Jesus’ ministry by three things (9:35): He was teaching, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. Not everyone is gifted to teach publicly, but in private conversation you should be able to teach others what God has taught you from His Word. If your friend makes a comment about God or Jesus or eternal life that is contrary to Scripture, you can use the opportunity to say, “Why do you think that? Would you mind if I shared what God’s Word says about that subject?” So you serve by teaching.
Again, not everyone is called to preach the gospel publicly, but every believer should be ready when the opportunity presents itself to tell others how they can have their sins forgiven and go to heaven (1 Pet. 3:15). I’ll share more about the message of the gospel next week. But in briefest form it is: We all have sinned against the holy God and we deserve His punishment. No amount of good works can pay our debt. But in love, God sent His Son Jesus to bear the penalty that we deserved. We must turn from our sins and trust in Jesus as our sin-bearer. God gives eternal life as a free gift to all who trust in Jesus. Learn some verses and some illustrations to go with each of those points and you can minister to everyone’s greatest need, to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
Jesus also healed the sick, which authenticated His claim to be the promised Messiah (Matt. 11:2-6). While no one today has a gift of healing on a par with Jesus or the apostles, we can pray for the sick and know that sometimes God will heal them. We can minister to people’s physical needs in practical ways (Matt. 25:34-40). If we do as Jesus did, we will minister to people’s spiritual and physical needs.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Wait a minute! The text does not say that Jesus prayed for more workers. It says that He commanded the disciples to pray for workers.” True! But Jesus didn’t command the disciples to do something which He Himself had not done. Luke (6:12-13) tells us that before Jesus called the twelve apostles, He spent the entire night in prayer. Surely, in part He was asking the Father for workers for the harvest.
But whether He prayed for more workers or not, you cannot dispute that He commands us to pray for more workers. Do you do that? Do you pray that the Lord would raise up and send out workers from this church? Maybe they will serve in the ministries of the church here locally. Maybe God will send them to another culture or country with the gospel. But in some mysterious fashion that I do not understand, God works through our prayers. If we all prayed for more workers, maybe we would have more people wanting to serve than we had openings for service! That would be a unique problem, wouldn’t it!
But let me warn you: Praying for workers for the harvest is dangerous business! Many years ago a well-known pastor named Dr. Legters was walking down the street with $50 in his pocket. He met a missionary home on furlough who said, “Dr. Legters, I think it’s providential that we met. We’re having an urgent prayer meeting at the church and we’d love to have you join us.”
Dr. Legters was a somewhat brusque man and before they went to prayer he said, “Let’s not pray out of ignorance. Let’s pray out of intelligence. What exactly do you need?” The missionary replied, “We have an urgent financial need for $50.” Dr. Legters said, “Fine, let’s pray.”
They prayed all the way around the circle and when they got through one missionary said, “I don’t feel that we’ve really laid hold of the Lord in this. Let’s pray some more.” So, they prayed around the circle the second time. The third time around, Dr. Legters said, God spoke to him. He said, “Legters, what about the $50 in your pocket?” So he stopped a woman in the middle of her prayer and said, “Hold it! God answered your prayer.” He pulled out the $50 and laid it on the table.
When he told about this, Dr. Legters pointed his finger at the congregation and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is a dangerous thing to pray!” (Told by Howard Hendricks, Elijah [Moody Press], p. 50.) It still is! If you pray for workers for the harvest, God may tap you on the shoulder and ask, “What about you? Will you be a worker in My harvest?”
What is our motive for getting involved in evangelism? Our motive is the great love of our Savior, who came to this sinful world, who saw the great needs of lost people, who felt compassion for them, and who served them with the good news of salvation. If you have experienced that salvation, then you’re one of His workers in His harvest. He wants you to see as He saw, to feel as He felt, and to do as He did. Love lost people for Jesus’ sake.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Perhaps when you heard the sermon title, “What Does it Mean to be Saved?” you thought, “Oh no, this is going to be like taking a college graduate back to kindergarten! Why do you need to talk about something as basic as salvation?”
There are several reasons that I want to focus today and next week on the message of the gospel as we consider personal evangelism. For one thing, the gospel—the good news about salvation—is foundational to everything else. Because of this, Satan is always attacking the gospel. If he can get us off-track on the gospel, everything else gets messed up. And so he is relentless in attacking the gospel. Also, I want each of you to be crystal clear on the gospel so that you live in light of it daily and you’re equipped to share it accurately with anyone at any time.
Here are a few of the ways that the gospel is currently under attack. Some present the gospel as if Jesus were a better brand of self-help. Do you have problems in your marriage? Try Jesus and you’ll find quick relief. Is your personal life falling apart? Jesus will help you get it together. Whatever miracle you need, just try Jesus! In its most crass form, are you sick or in poverty? Jesus promises to make you well and financially prosperous. So people are encouraged to come to Jesus for whatever help they need. Usually they’re promised instant results.
The truth in that lure is that the Lord does provide us help with our personal problems after we’ve come to Him for salvation. But, those promises are not the gospel. In many instances, people have come to Christ for salvation and their problems got much worse. Some have been killed because they trusted in Christ. So the gospel is definitely not about “how to have your best life now!”
But probably the most frequent place where the devil attacks the gospel is confusion over the relationship between faith and good works. Many professing evangelicals today argue that since we are saved by faith alone, any mention of repentance or submitting to Christ as Lord muddies the gospel. Under this teaching, a person may make a profession of faith in Christ and yet later deny the gospel and become an atheist. But he’s still saved (John MacArthur refutes this in, The Gospel According to Jesus [Zondervan] and Faith Works [Word]). This view is confused about the nature of saving faith. Sadly, it gives assurance of salvation to many people who have never truly been saved.
On the other hand, the “New Perspective on Paul” turns salvation into a matter of joining the covenant community and living a life of faithfulness. That’s an over-simplification of this view, but it seems fair to say that its proponents deny that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. (For a critique of the New Perspective, see, “The Old Perspective on Paul,” by Phil Johnson, pp. 61-77, in Fool’s Gold [Crossway], ed. by John MacArthur.) Their view is very similar to the Roman Catholic teaching that justification is by faith plus works over a lifetime. There is not any good news in that message! Of course, all of the cults also teach some form of salvation by good works.
On the more practical level, if you ask anyone the question, “Why should God let you into heaven?” the answer you most often will hear is, “I’ve tried to be a good person.” Or, “I’ve never hurt anyone intentionally, and I’ve lived a good life.” Even many who attend evangelical churches believe this. Surveys have shown that a majority of American Protestants agree that the way to be accepted by God is to try sincerely to live a good life. To bear witness to people who think like that, you need to be clear on what it means to be saved.
So I hope that this message is like spiritual kindergarten for most of you. But whether this is a review the basics or not, it is crucial to understand the biblical truth about salvation for yourself first, and also so that you can clearly present it to others. (I have two messages on Eph. 2:8-10 from the Ephesians series, on the church web site.) Our text teaches us that…
God saves us apart from any human works by grace through faith, resulting in a life of good works.
On the relationship between faith and works, John Calvin wrote, “It is … faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone” (Tracts III:152, cited in Calvin’s Wisdom [Banner of Truth], by Graham Miller, p. 106). Or, C. H. Spurgeon put it (The Soul Winner [Eerdmans], p. 209):
We are prepared, I hope, to die for the doctrine of justification by faith, and to assert before all adversaries that salvation is not of works; but we also confess that we are justified by a faith which produces works, and if any man has a faith which does not produce good works, it is the faith of devils…. We are saved by faith without works, but not by a faith that is without works, for the real faith that saves the soul works by love and purifies the character.
I want to explain and apply our text with three main points:
Paul underscores the truth that no one can save himself by human effort. Just a few verses before, he stated twice that we all were dead in our sins (2:1, 5). Dead men can do absolutely nothing to remedy their condition. They can’t work toward being raised from the dead. They can’t pray for it. They can’t even muster up the faith to get raised from the dead. It takes an act of God to impart life to a dead man. Even so, it takes an act of God to save those who are dead in their sins.
Jesus taught the same truth to the Jewish religious leader Nicodemus when He told him, “you must be born again” (John 3:7). Nicodemus was a devout, moral, religious man. He believed in God and he sought to obey God’s Word. But none of those qualities will do anything for a man who is spiritually dead. He needs life from God. Just as we didn’t have anything to do with our own physical conception or birth, so we can do nothing to bring ourselves from spiritual death to spiritual life.
This is not to say that we should not urge people to believe in Jesus Christ for eternal life. Jesus went on to tell Nicodemus that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus’ preaching is summarized as (Mark 1:15), “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Paul told the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31), “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved….” So we should urge people to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.
But here’s the point to keep in mind as you bear witness: unless God imparts life to this dead sinner, he will not believe (see the sequence in John 1:12-13). Thus evangelism is much more than persuading someone to make a decision for Christ. As we present the gospel, we must pray for God to work the miracle of regeneration in this dead sinner.
I want to explore three aspects of this truth, that salvation is totally of God, apart from any human works:
People who need to be saved don’t just need a little boost from God. They aren’t basically good people who mean well, but just need a little help. As we’ve seen, they’re spiritual corpses. Or, to use the opposite of the word saved, they’re lost. Because of their sin, they are cut off from the very life of God, living in spiritual darkness (Eph. 4:18). As such, they are under God’s just condemnation and wrath (John 3:36). They need the Holy Spirit to convict (or convince) them regarding sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11).
This means that we must share the bad news before we share the good news. If someone doesn’t know that he’s lost, he won’t be interested in your directions as to how to get saved. To be more specific, if we’re too quick to tell an unbeliever who does not sense that he is lost, “God loves you and Christ died for your sins,” he will probably respond, “Yes, thank you for reminding me.” He won’t appreciate the good news or respond to it because he doesn’t understand the bad news.
This means that sometimes as we talk with someone about Christ, we need to bring up the sin issue, drive it home to his conscience, and leave him to think about it. We might do this by going through the Ten Commandments and showing him how he has broken them all. Or, show him what Jesus said, that if we have been angry we’re guilty of murder; if we have lusted we have committed adultery in God’s sight (Matt. 5:21-30).
Jesus did this with the rich young ruler when He told him to go sell everything he owned and give it away (see Luke 18:18-23). The young man prided himself in his obedience to the commandments. But Jesus was saying, in effect, “You haven’t even kept the main commandment, which is to love God and have no other gods before Him.” And when the young man went away sad, Jesus didn’t go after him to soften the message! He let him go.
When Paul witnessed to Felix, he did not tell him, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Rather, he talked to him about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come (Acts 24:25). It frightened Felix, and rightly so! It showed him that he was a sinner who would face God’s judgment. So before we try to tell people about God’s salvation, they need to have some sense that they are lost and under God’s condemnation.
I realize that the idea of God’s wrath and judgment are not popular in our day. Our culture would rather believe in a God of love who would never judge anyone. They want a God who will give them a happy life. But Jesus warned often about judgment and hell (see Matt. 25:31-46; Mark 9:43-49; Luke 13:1-5; John 5:22, 24; 8:23-24, 42). We cannot legitimately claim to be followers of Jesus and at the same time deny the reality of the coming judgment. To be saved from drowning means that you were about to die when someone rescued you. To be saved spiritually means that you were on your way to hell when Jesus Christ rescued you. Thus the gospel is not about how to have a better life now, but rather about how to have eternal life and not come into judgment (John 5:24).
The best news in the world is that God saves us by His grace alone! Paul hammers it home in Ephesians 2. In verse 5 he says, “by grace you have been saved.” In verse 7 he adds, “so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Then, so we don’t miss it, he repeats (2:8), “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
Again, because this concept is so crucial, the enemy relentlessly attacks it. He tries to get us to tone it down or to make it into something less than it is. For example, one well known Christian seminar leader defines grace as the motivation and power to do God’s will. Certainly God gives us the motivation and power to do His will, but that isn’t grace. Pure and simple, God’s grace is His unmerited favor shown to those who deserve His wrath. If we get what we have coming, we will spend eternity in hell. Instead, God forgives all our sins and bestows the unfathomable riches of Christ on us (Eph. 3:8), apart from anything that we do or deserve.
If you understand God’s grace properly, Paul knew that you would think, “If God gives grace to undeserving sinners, then I can sin all I want so that grace may abound!” He anticipates that reaction and says (Rom. 6:1-2), “May it never be!” But you don’t understand grace unless that thought pops into your mind.
Practically, this means that God can save the worst of sinners just as they are, without any penance or good works to qualify for salvation. Paul said that he was the chief of sinners, but God showed him mercy (1 Tim. 1:15-16). He said that God justifies the ungodly sinner who does not work, but believes in Christ (Rom. 4:4-5). He said (Rom. 5:6), “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Again (Rom. 5:8), “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” There is hope for any sinner, no matter how evil, who abandons the idea of good works as the way to heaven and rather believes in Christ. So we need to understand what saving faith is.
Saving faith is not a vague, general belief in God. Nor is it merely agreeing with certain facts. Saving faith has three elements:
First, there must be knowledge. Faith is not a blind leap into the dark. Some say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” That’s like saying, “It doesn’t matter what medicine you take, as long as you’re sincere.” That’s crazy!
To be saved, you must know something about God. He is righteous, holy, just, and loving. You must also know that you have sinned against this holy God and stand condemned before Him. You must know that God sent His eternal Son Jesus, who took on human flesh through the virgin birth. He lived a perfect life and died on the cross, bearing the penalty that sinners deserve. But God raised Jesus bodily from the dead and He ascended into heaven. He will return bodily to judge the living and the dead, but also to save all that have trusted in Him. These are essential facts to know in order to be saved. If a person lacks basic knowledge of the gospel, I urge them to read the Gospel of John.
But also, you must give assent to these facts. You must agree that they are true. A student could know these facts well enough to pass an exam, but not affirm that they are true. Saving faith includes giving intellectual assent to the truth of these facts.
But if that is all that saving faith entails, then Satan and the demons are saved! They know these things and they know that they are true. So the third element in saving faith is personal trust, or commitment to Jesus as your Savior and Lord. For example, you may be an expert on aircraft. You know that a certain plane is mechanically sound. You agree that it will fly. But knowing these facts and affirming them will not get you anywhere. To go anywhere, you must entrust yourself to the plane by getting on board.
Saving faith means that you personally trust Jesus Christ to deliver you from God’s judgment by what He did for you on the cross. You trust God’s promise to justify the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). Implicit in “getting on board” with Jesus is that you don’t keep one foot on the ground. You commit yourself totally to Jesus as your Savior and your Lord. He is both Savior and Lord. You can’t take Him as one without the other.
But, some may wonder, “If God saves us through faith in Christ, then can’t we take some of the credit for our salvation?”
Scholars debate about what “that” (Eph. 2:8) refers to. In Greek, it is neuter, whereas “grace” and “faith” are feminine, and “saved” is a masculine participle. Charles Hodge argues that “that” refers to faith, which best suits Paul’s argument here. But Calvin and most modern expositors argue that “that” refers to the entire process of salvation by grace through faith. Whichever view you take, other Scriptures indicate that saving faith and repentance (which are inextricably linked) are God’s gift to us (Phil. 1:29; Acts 11:18; Acts 3:16; 5:31; 2 Tim. 2:25; Heb. 12:2).
The Bible is clear that to the natural man, the cross is foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18). He cannot understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14). He is blind to the light of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). He is unable to submit to God or please Him (Rom. 8:7-8). So for an unbeliever to move from his natural condition of spiritual darkness to one of light and faith in Christ, God must graciously open his eyes and impart saving faith to him. Salvation is God’s free gift to us. We cannot take any credit for our faith. Faith is the hand that receives the gift of salvation, but unless God has opened our eyes, none of us would have received that gift. Salvation is totally from God, so all glory goes to God (1 Cor. 1:26-31).
Thus, salvation is totally of God, apart from any human works or merit. God’s gift of salvation is received through faith alone.
We are saved by grace through faith apart from works, but the faith that saves always results in good works. G. H. Lang wrote (cited by F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts [Eerdmans], p. 493), “None more firmly than Paul rejected works, before or after conversion, as a ground of salvation; none more firmly demanded good works as a consequence of salvation.” If God has imparted new life to us, that life will manifest itself by a life of good works. The root of salvation bears the fruit of a godly life.
Paul emphasizes that even our good works subsequent to salvation come from God (Eph. 2:10): “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” Paul is saying that salvation is entirely of God and it results in a life of good works. Just as we cannot claim any glory for ourselves in salvation, neither can we claim any glory for our subsequent life of obedience and good works. It all comes from God and so He gets all the glory.
True, we are responsible to walk in these works which God prepared for us beforehand. But the motivation to walk in those works comes from God’s gracious salvation. Because He rescued me from an awful punishment, I should delight to do His will. If a person claims to be saved but has no desire “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12), then he needs to go back and determine whether he has truly experienced God’s grace in salvation.
So the core message that we need to get across when we share the gospel is that God saves us apart from any human works by grace through faith, resulting in a life of good works. To share that message effectively, you have to get across to people some awareness of the grim truth that they are lost. Because of their sins, they are alienated from God and unable to do anything to earn His favor. The good news is that what we cannot do, God did. He sent His own Son to bear the penalty that we deserve. Through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, God now offers forgiveness of all sins and eternal life as a free gift to any sinner who will receive Christ by faith.
As you’re able to share that good news and you sense that the Holy Spirit is convicting the person about his need for the Savior, invite him to stop trusting in his good works and instead, to trust in Jesus alone for eternal life. As God works the miracle of regeneration, the person will trust in Jesus and move from Satan’s domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13-14). That’s what it means to be saved!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Usually the only time that Marla and I watch TV (other than the news or the Olympics) is when we stay in a motel. It’s always an eye-opening experience for me, to learn where the culture is at.
Several years ago, we saw a feature on an up and coming actress that obviously focused on her sex appeal. Since then, from reading the tabloid headlines while waiting in line at the market, I know that she has gone through a divorce from the man she was engaged to when we saw this program. She is frequently pictured on those tabloids in revealing attire, with stories about her latest sexual escapade. But in the program we watched, the young woman’s father talked about her faith in Jesus Christ, assuring the viewers that she was a good Christian girl!
It’s not at all uncommon to hear about or meet people that make a profession of being born again, but their lives are no different from those in the world. They have never turned from the sin that characterized their lives before they professed to be born again. In their morals, in their marriages, in the way they raise their children, in their materialistic lifestyles, and in the way they spend hours every week watching the filth on TV or in movies, they are no different than the rest of our pagan culture. And yet they claim to be born again Christians!
Are people who have “prayed to receive Christ,” or who claim to be born again, but whose lives are no different than they were before, truly converted? I believe that the Bible answers that question with a loud, “No!” Those who are truly converted to faith in Jesus Christ are marked by what the Bible calls “repentance.” This does not mean that they are sinless, but it does mean that they sin less. They mourn over their sin. They fight against it. When they do sin, they turn from it and turn back to following Christ as Lord. A study of “repentance” in the Bible shows that…
A life of turning to God from sin is the mark of true conversion.
This relates to the message of evangelism. If we do not make it clear to lost people that repentance is necessary for salvation, we will produce false converts, who think that they are saved when the truth is, they are on the broad way to hell.
This is crucial to understand because there is an entire organization, made up in large part of graduates of the seminary that I attended, which promotes the view that repentance (in the sense of turning from sin) has no part in evangelism. They argue that to bring up repentance when you present the gospel is to undermine the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Of course, there are many verses in the Bible that connect repentance with salvation. So these men have to define the word rather narrowly. They say that it only means changing your mind about Jesus Christ, where you acknowledge that He is the Savior or that He is God. But, they argue, it does not mean turning from sin or changing one’s conduct. They argue that submitting to Christ as Lord is desirable for the Christian, but not necessary for salvation (see Thomas Constable, in Walvoord: A Tribute [Moody Press], pp. 207, 209). But, a study of “repentance” in the Bible shows that…
Is repentance, as many purport, just a change of mind? No!
The main Old Testament word translated “repent” means to turn or return. It is the twelfth most frequently used verb in the OT (1,050 times; some usages refer only to someone physically turning around, but many refer to turning to the Lord). Scholar Victor Hamilton writes of this word (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. by R. Laird Harris, Glean Archer, & Bruce Waltke [Moody Press], 2:909), “… it combines in itself the two requisites of repentance: to turn from evil and to turn to the good.” He concludes (ibid.) that “this conscious decision of turning to God” includes “repudiation of all sin and affirmation of God’s total will for one’s life.”
There are three New Testament words used for repentance and they occur (in noun or verb form) over 60 times, beginning with a summary of both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17). R. C. Trench (Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 260) describes repentance as “that mighty change in mind, heart, and life wrought by the Spirit of God.” While the main Greek word is a compound word taken from two words meaning to change one’s mind, this meaning, according to another scholar, “plays very little part in the NT. Rather the decision by the whole man to turn around is stressed. It is clear that we are concerned neither with a purely outward turning nor with a merely intellectual change of ideas.” (J. Goetzmann, in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan, 1:358.) Theologian Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology [Zondervan], p. 713, italics his) offers this definition: “Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.”
Thus repentance involves a change of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Like saving faith, repentance is a gift that God grants by His sovereign grace (Acts 3:16; 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). In that sense, it is not something that sinful man can produce, although sinners are responsible to repent. But when any sinner repents, it is because God graciously granted repentance.
While sorrow for sin is a normal part of repentance, it is possible to feel sorry for your sins and yet not be repentant unto salvation. Judas Iscariot felt remorse for betraying Jesus, yet he was not converted (Matt. 27:3). Esau “found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears” (Heb. 12:17). Paul told the Corinthians that sorrow according to the will of God can lead to repentance, and thus be a valuable thing (2 Cor. 7:8-11). But sorrow for sins alone is not enough. Biblical repentance is a turning of the whole person from sin to God. The repentant person accepts responsibility for his sin, he calls out in faith to God for salvation, and he proves his repentance and faith by his good works.
Let’s look at some biblical examples of repentance. In Jonah 3, the prophet reluctantly went to Ninevah and proclaimed God’s message, that in 40 days, the city would be overthrown for its sin. To Jonah’s displeasure, the people of Ninevah believed in God (Jon. 3:5). Their genuine faith was evident in that they fasted and turned from their sins (Jon. 3:5-8). Then it says (Jon. 3:10), “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.” What was the evidence that their faith was genuine? Their repentance: they turned from their wicked way. Repentance is turning to God from sin.
We see the same connection with faith and repentance in Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians. He writes (1 Thess. 1:8), “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.” The Thessalonians had believed in the gospel that Paul had preached. But clearly their faith was inseparable from repentance, because verse 9 reads, “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” Paul did not preach, “Just believe and maybe later you ought to turn from your sins.” Rather, he had included repentance in his gospel. The Thessalonians’ whole way of life had changed from idolatry to serving the living and true God.
Paul summarized his message to King Agrippa (Acts 26:18) by saying that the Lord had sent him to the Gentiles “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.” Those are Jesus’ direct words to Paul regarding the message he was to proclaim to lost people. It was a message about repentance: turning from sin (darkness, Satan’s dominion) to God. That message is bound up with, not distinct from, “forgiveness of sins and faith in” the Lord Jesus.
Paul goes on to say that in obedience to Christ, he preached (Acts 26:20), “even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.” Paul’s gospel to pagan people was not just, “change your mind about Jesus and believe in Him, but don’t be concerned about your sins.” Rather, Paul’s gospel—which he got straight from Jesus—included turning to God from sin. Lost people must turn from sin to be saved. This means that…
John the Baptist preached repentance to lost people and made it clear that he wasn’t talking about a change of mind only, apart from a change of behavior. Luke (3:3) summarizes his message as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He told his hearers that they needed to bear fruits in keeping with repentance (3:8). Then he gave them specific behavioral changes that they needed to make (3:11-14).
Jesus also preached a message of repentance to lost people (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). He clearly told the Jews (Luke 13:3, 5): “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” When Jesus sent out His disciples to preach, their message was “that men should repent” (Mark 6:12). They didn’t make up that message. They got it straight from Jesus! As we’ve seen, the apostle Paul got the same message directly from Jesus.
John MacArthur sums up a chapter on repentance (The Gospel According to Jesus [Zondervan], p. 167):
Repentance has always been the foundation of the biblical call to salvation…. No evangelism that omits the message of repentance can properly be called the gospel, for sinners cannot come to Jesus Christ apart from a radical change of heart, mind, and will. That demands a spiritual crisis leading to a complete turnaround and ultimately a wholesale transformation. It is the only kind of conversion Scripture recognizes.
You may be wondering: What is the relationship between repentance and saving faith? Repentance and faith are inextricably bound together, like two sides of the same coin. But the two words have different nuances or emphases (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 3:3:5). True saving faith, which is trusting in Christ alone and His shed blood to deliver us from God’s wrath, includes repentance. You can’t truly lay hold of Christ for salvation with one hand, while at the same time knowingly hold onto your sin with the other hand. To genuinely trust Christ, you must turn from your sin. Some may verbally profess to believe in Christ while holding onto their sin. But such empty profession without repentance is not true saving faith.
For example, if you’re driving to Phoenix and you repent, you don’t just say, “I don’t like going to Phoenix. I wish I weren’t going to Phoenix. I really believe that Flagstaff is the place where I should be.” Those are nice, but meaningless thoughts. True repentance means that you won’t just think or talk about it. You will actually turn around and drive back towards Flagstaff. Your behavior reflects your beliefs. If you truly believe in Christ as your Savior, you’ll turn from your sin. That’s repentance. J. Edwin Orr wrote (in Christianity Today, Jan. 1, 1982, p. 27), “The difference between true faith and what the Scripture calls false faith is simple: it is the lack of repentance.”
This is illustrated in the story of Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24). In verse 13, we read that Simon believed, was baptized, and continued on with Philip. But when Peter and John came to town and people received the Holy Spirit through their prayers, Simon offered to pay them so that he could have the same power. Note Peter’s response (Acts 8:20-23):
“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”
Clearly, although Luke says Simon had “believed,” he was not saved, because his faith did not include repentance. We aren’t faithfully presenting the gospel to lost people if we imply that they can get to heaven by faith without turning from their sin.
Becky Pippert, in her book Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World [IVP, pp. 45-47], tells of inviting Lois, a Stanford student who was skeptical about the existence of God, to a Bible study. She agreed to come but said, “The Bible won’t have anything relevant to say to me.”
The next day Becky discovered that Lois was living off campus with her boyfriend, Phil. To Becky’s great surprise, Phil came with Lois to the Bible study. Before she knew Lois’s background, Becky had already decided to study Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4.
She started the study and suddenly realized that the passage dealt with a woman living in sexual sin. Not wanting Lois to feel ambushed, Becky tried to arrange it so that Lois wouldn’t have to read any of the text as they went around the room. But it turned out that Lois had to read the portion where Jesus said to the woman, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ ... for the man you’re living with now is not your husband.” It was her first time ever to read the Bible. Lois said, “I must say, this is a bit more relevant than I had expected!”
Becky met with her later and talked with her about Christ. “Is there any reason why you couldn’t become a Christian?” Becky asked. “No,” Lois said. “Well, I can think of one,” Becky said. “What will you do about Phil?” Then she talked directly about how becoming a Christian is a relationship that affects every aspect of our lives, including our morals. As they talked, it became clear that God had been pursuing Lois for a long time. There were tears and struggles followed by a sincere prayer asking Christ to be her Savior and Lord.
Immediately she said, “Becky, I’ve got problems. I’ll have to tell Phil and move out; I have no place to go; it’s impossible to get a dorm room this late, and now I’ll have to pay this month’s rent in two places.” So they prayed again, and as Lois left, Becky agonized over how such a young believer could handle so much.
Later Becky was chatting in the hall with some other students when she heard a noise and turned to see Lois, slowly walking down the corridor, carrying several suitcases and smiling with tears streaming down her cheeks. Everyone began asking her why she had left home. “Oh, no. I haven’t left home. I’ve finally found my home,” she said. “You see, today I became a Christian.”
That decision had far-reaching effects. That same night three girls decided to get right with Christ. Another girl who had assumed she was a Christian realized she wanted no part of it if it demanded total commitment. The next day Lois was told she could move into a dorm (unheard of at such a late date), and she discovered her new roommate was a mature Christian.
Three months later her boyfriend Phil became a Christian, and he too grew rapidly. He had been angry over her conversion and for moving out. But after he was converted he told her, “Thanks, Lois, for loving God enough to put him first instead of me. Your obedience affected my eternal destiny.”
Luke reports the risen Lord’s great commission to the disciples was “that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations” (Luke 24:47). How can anyone dodge the fact that repentance is at the heart of the gospel?
But repentance isn’t just something a person does at the moment of salvation and then says, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over!”
True Christians grow increasingly sensitive to sin. To grow in Christ means to walk more closely with Him in the light of His Word. The Word exposes things in our lives that are not pleasing to Him. If we truly know Christ, we will be quick to confess these things as sin and to turn from them. As I said, we will never be sinless, but as we walk with Christ, we will sin less and will turn from that sin when God confronts it. A life of turning to God from sin is the mark of true conversion.
The story is told of a girl who trusted Christ and applied for membership in a church. A deacon asked her, “Were you a sinner before you received the Lord Jesus into your life?” “Yes, sir,” she replied. “Well, are you still a sinner?” “To tell you the truth, I feel that I’m a greater sinner than ever.” “Then what real change have you experienced?” “I don’t quite know how to explain it,” she said, “except I used to be a sinner running after sin, but now that I’m saved, I’m a sinner running from sin!” They accepted her into the fellowship of that church, and her life there proved her conversion.
The final thing to consider about repentance is:
Some see repentance as negative. But the fact that God grants repentance gives us great hope. It means that when we turn to God from our sin, He will be gracious to us because of Christ’s death on our behalf. Both the Old and New Testaments picture God entreating sinners to turn back to Him:
Isaiah 55:6-7 implores, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”
When Jesus told the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, in the first two He emphasized the joy in heaven when one sinner repents (Luke 15:7, 10). In the third story, He illustrated repentance on the part of the prodigal son, who said, “I will get up and go to my father and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.’” But he didn’t just think that; he did it!
And did the father say, “You no good excuse for a son! You’re going to pay for your sin”? No! The father saw the son a long way off, ran to him and didn’t even let him get the whole confession out of his mouth before he threw his arms around him, kissed him, and welcomed him with great joy (Luke 15:11-24). That’s God’s response to any sinner who turns to Him from his sin. If you will turn to God from your sin and trust in Christ, He will welcome you with great joy!
Did your profession of faith in Christ include repentance? Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” (Matt. 7:21-23). Frightening words! Don’t be deceived: The mark of true conversion is a life of turning to God from sin. Anything else is a counterfeit.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
If you saw the sermon title and came to church anyway, I commend you for your bravery! The word “witnessing” strikes fear and guilt into most of us. Fear, because we’ve all experienced the churning stomach that sweeps over us the instant a witnessing opportunity comes up. We panic: “What should I say? What will I say if he asks me a question I can’t answer?” The computer goes dead and there’s no battery backup! And, guilt because we’ve all repeatedly failed in our witness for Christ.
I still remember from about 45 years ago one of my earliest failures at witnessing. I was a sophomore in college, taking a group discussion class. Our grade depended on the evaluations of our classmates, so we tried to pick topics that would generate the most interest: Should drugs be legalized? Is it wrong to have sex outside of marriage? Is homosexuality wrong? Etc. In every discussion, I was on the Christian side of things and a guy named Ralph was on the pagan side. He seemed to have no moral standards.
One day after class, Ralph cornered me and said, “Hey, man, do you really believe all that stuff that you say in class or are you just putting us on?” My brain froze. Here was an opportunity to tell Ralph about Christ, but I just stammered, “No, I’m not putting you on. I really believe what I say in class.” But I never mentioned Jesus Christ. That failure to tell Ralph about Jesus motivated me to get some training in how to share my faith. Over the years I’ve prayed for Ralph, that someone else would give him the clear witness that I failed to give him.
I’ve seen two extremes in witnessing. Many say, “I don’t have the gift of evangelism and I’m not good at talking with people, so I’ll just live the Christian life before them.” If that’s your approach, you’re going to have to live the Christian life better than either Jesus or Paul did, because they both not only lived the life; they also spoke to sinners about salvation. While a godly life should be the foundation for bearing witness, it’s not adequate if you never tell people about Jesus. They’ll just assume that you’re a moral person.
On the other hand, a few Christians come across as “muggers for Jesus.” These folks are the type who sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door or work in telemarketing and love it. They have no problem accosting total strangers and giving them the pitch, even if the poor guy shows no interest in talking. The guy who has been mugged makes sure that he never again gets near another religious fanatic. And those who are “silent” witnesses for Jesus gain a further excuse for why they won’t talk to others about Christ: They don’t want to be like those rude, insensitive “muggers for Jesus”!
But the Lord doesn’t want us to be “silent witnesses” or “muggers for Jesus.” He wants us to be wise witnesses who live godly lives and who take advantage of every opportunity to talk graciously to lost people about the Savior.
To be wise witnesses, walk with wisdom and talk with grace to those who are outside of Christ.
Paul develops this theme in Colossians 4:2-6. In verse 5, “conduct yourselves” is literally, “walk.” So in verse 5 he says, “Walk with wisdom toward outsiders.” In verse 6 he says, “Talk with grace.” Walking without the talk won’t communicate the necessary content of the gospel. Talking without the walk will cause the world to scoff at Christians as a bunch of hypocrites. We need both the walk and the talk.
“Walk” is a metaphor for steady a way of life that is headed in a particular direction. “Wisdom” in the Old Testament comes from a word for “skill.” It is used to describe the craftsmen who built the tabernacle (Exod. 36:1, 2). The Book of Proverbs often contrasts the wise man with the fool. The fool disregards God’s commandments about how to live, but the wise man skillfully orders his life according to God’s Word so that the results are like a finely crafted piece of furniture. To walk in wisdom produces a beautiful life.
When Paul says that we are to walk with wisdom toward outsiders, he means that we are to live in line with God’s Word so that those who are not Christians will see the beauty of our lives and relationships that reflect Jesus Christ. They ought to be able to see the fruit of the Spirit in us, which should draw them to the Savior.
When we were recently in Asia visiting our daughter and her family, we hired a van and driver one day to take us to one of the main attractions about two hours outside of town. As we were leaving late in the day to return to the city, a young couple asked if they could ride back with us. It turned out that they were from Russia. In the course of the conversation, they told Jonathan and Joy how they had noticed their family earlier in the day, especially how Jon took an active role with the children. They said this is rare with Russian families and they noticed the difference.
People are watching us. Witness is always an overflow of our walk. To be wise witnesses, we must learn to walk with wisdom toward outsiders. But a wise walk always begins in private and then spills over into public. So there is a connection between verses 2-4 and verses 5-6: Private prayer lies behind public witness.
“Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” (4:2). Paul goes on (4:3) to ask for prayer for his own witness, but these verses also apply to our witness: A private walk with God in prayer is the foundation for verbal witness.
So, prayer is the first step in wise witnessing. Before you talk to a person about God, talk to God about that person. One of the most helpful books that I’ve read on evangelism is Concentric Circles of Concern [Broadman Press, 1981], by the late Oscar Thompson. He taught his students to make a list of the people in what he called “concentric circles of concern.” You are in the center of the circle—you’ve got to be right with God before you can be His witness. Moving outward, in the next circle is your immediate family, then your relatives, close friends, neighbors and business associates, acquaintances, and finally, “person X,” someone you don’t know.
You list each person’s needs and begin praying for them, that God would engineer the circumstances in their lives to draw them to Christ. Also, pray that He would use you as His channel of love and give you the opportunities and boldness to talk to the person about Christ. Meanwhile, look for needs that you can help meet in each of those circles. In the context of praying and lovingly meeting needs, God will give you opportunities for witness.
Thompson’s thesis was that the most effective evangelism takes place in the context of loving relationships where lost people can see the changes that Jesus Christ is making in your life. For example, teenagers, if you come to Christ and go home and tell your unbelieving parents about your new faith, it is almost certain that they will not be open to the gospel. What will open them to the message? Go home and start cheerfully obeying them. Cheerfully clean your room without being asked. Cheerfully help out with family chores. Cheerfully be home when they tell you to be home. After they recover from severe shock, they’ll want to hear about why you’re different. That’s when you tell them!
We often think of witnessing as going out on the street to person X, whom we do not know and probably will never see again. There’s nothing wrong with telling person X about Jesus. But you don’t have to be living a consistent Christian life to witness to person X. And because person X doesn’t know you, he may not be impressed with the changes that Christ has made in your life.
But to witness effectively to your family, to relatives, or to those who know you well, you’ve got to repair your damaged relationships by asking forgiveness. You’ve got to demonstrate a cheerful attitude of joy of Christ. You’ve got to show the peace of Christ on the job when the boss puts stress on everyone.
That’s why thankfulness in prayer is important (4:2). A life of thankfulness stems from submitting your life to God’s sovereign hand. Paul says (Phil. 2:14-15) that if you don’t grumble and complain, you’ll stand out as lights in this grumbling, complaining world. And so if you begin your day with thankful prayer, and you exude that thankful attitude throughout the day, those around you will notice. It opens the door for verbal witness.
Paul asked for prayer (4:3) that God would open the door for the word, but also that he would speak forth the mystery of Christ. In Ephesians 6:19, he asks for prayer “to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.” God has to open the door, but we need the boldness to speak about Christ when the door opens. If we bash in the door without God’s opening it, the message probably will not be well received. But if God opens the door and we don’t go through, the opportunity will be lost.
“Making the most of the opportunity” (4:5) is literally, “redeeming [or, buying up] the opportunity.” “Buying up” pictures a businessman or investor who knows an opportunity to make money when he sees one. He quickly moves in before the opportunity is gone. Or, picture a careful shopper who knows that all of the sale items will be gone within the first hour. So she gets to the store early to take advantage of the good deals. A wise witness is on the alert to buy up opportunities to share Christ with lost people.
I often miss such opportunities because my mind is on other things or I’m in a hurry. Recently, I went to Wal-Mart for something. I was locking my bike when a homeless woman approached me. I braced for her to beg for money, but instead she wanted to sell me $10 worth of food stamps for $5. I was in a hurry to get back to the office and I didn’t want to hassle with food stamps, so I told her I didn’t want to do it. Then after I went into the store I realized that I could have said, “I know what you’re after. You want cash so you can buy drugs or alcohol. That stuff is ruining your life. But Jesus Christ can deliver you from bondage to those things.” I could have given her a tract or a Gospel of John. But I missed the opportunity.
Paul asked for prayer so that when God opened the door, he would speak forth the gospel. He was confined in prison, but he still was looking to buy up the opportunities. That should be our mindset as well.
Let’s assume that you’re walking with wisdom, showing the reality of Christ in your daily life and asking God for opportunities. Suddenly, you get an opportunity to talk with a lost person about Christ. What do you do?
There are two things here: First, there is the content of the gospel itself; then, there is how we talk about that content.
Have you ever felt that you muddled the gospel message? You’re in good company! Paul (4:4) asks for prayer so that he would make the gospel clear! That is Paul, the theologian who wrote 13 New Testament epistles, asking for prayer that he would be clear in presenting the gospel! He refers to it as “the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned.” He does not mean that the gospel is mysterious or difficult to understand. Rather, the word “mystery” refers to a truth that was previously unknown, but now has been revealed. It especially referred to the truth that salvation, which had previously been revealed only to the Jews, was now available to the Gentiles. Every person, whether Jew or Gentile, now can enjoy right standing and equal access to God through faith in Christ (Col. 1:26-27; Eph. 2:11-3:7).
The main content of the gospel concerns our need as sinners. Our sins have alienated us from the holy God. Because He is holy and just, God cannot just brush away our sins. The penalty must be paid. God has declared that the penalty for our sins is death, which means, eternal separation from God. No amount of good works can pay that penalty. But what we cannot do, God did. In love, He sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully human. He lived in perfect obedience to the Father. His death on the cross was substitutionary. He paid the debt that sinners deserve. God raised Jesus from the dead and now offers a full pardon and eternal life to every sinner who will turn from his sins and trust in the risen Christ alone to save him.
To communicate that content clearly, learn some key verses to go with each point:
Romans 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Romans 4:4-5: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
You almost always have to combat the idea that God will grade on the curve and we are good enough to go to heaven because we aren’t “really bad sinners.” Here is where the offense of the cross comes in: If we are good enough to go to heaven, then Jesus did not need to die on the cross. His death on the cross for my sins confronts my pride in thinking that I’m good enough to deserve salvation. Since the message of the cross is foolishness to the natural man, as you share pray silently that God would graciously open the person’s eyes to the truth.
Also, as I mentioned last week, make it clear that saving faith is not just mentally agreeing with the facts of the gospel. Turning to God in faith for salvation necessarily requires turning from sin. Genuine saving faith is inseparable from heartfelt repentance.
To find out if you’ve communicated the content of the gospel clearly, ask, “How according to your understanding can you have eternal life and forgiveness of all your sins?” Or, you can ask, “If you were to die today and stand before God and He asked, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ what would you say?” Their answer will tell you what they are trusting in for eternal life. So talk about the content of the gospel. But the way you talk about that content is also important:
Paul tells us (4:6), “Be gracious; be interesting; be sensitive.”
“Let your speech always be with grace….” In light of Paul’s repeated emphasis on grace, this probably means that our presentation of the gospel should be permeated with God’s grace, the message that He gives salvation as a free gift to sinners who deserve His judgment. But, also, it includes speaking graciously to others. As a sinner who has received grace, you won’t speak in a condescending or condemning manner to another sinner. You will be kind and humble, letting the other person know that we’re all sinners who would be on the way to hell, were it not for God’s grace.
Let your speech always be … “seasoned with salt.” He doesn’t mean to use “salty” language, as sailors use, of course! Salt had two main uses in Paul’s day. It was used as a preservative from spoiling, which implies that our speech should be pure and free from corruption. It should show those whose lives are spoiled due to sin how they can be restored through the gospel. But, also, salt was used as a spice, to make food more tasty. Our presentation of the gospel should stimulate people’s taste to want more.
In this regard, have some helpful illustrations to explain the gospel. To illustrate that truth is narrow and there is only one way to God, use the analogy of taking the right medicine. To illustrate that it is impossible to save ourselves by good works, picture swimming to Hawaii with no boat or flotation devices. No one can do that. To illustrate God’s justice and His love, tell about a judge who must sentence his son for a crime, but who steps off the bench and offers to pay his son’s fine. To show what it means to trust in Christ, talk about getting on an airplane or use the story of the tightrope walker carrying a man across Niagara Falls on his shoulders. Explain that faith is only as good as its object. Jesus and His death on the cross must be the object of our faith. Ask pointed questions: Have you sinned against God? If you died right now, where would you spend eternity? Would you like to trust in Christ as your Savior and Lord right now?
Paul says that you must “know how you should respond to each person.” This is where you must be careful in using a memorized presentation of the gospel. One person may need to understand sin and judgment, whereas the next person may need to understand God’s abundant grace for sinners who repent. Study Jesus’ witnessing encounters in the gospels. He confronted the proud Pharisees, but was gentle (although He still dealt with sin) with those who knew they were guilty. Pray for wisdom as you speak, so that you will know how to respond to this person’s unique needs.
Always keep in mind that every person’s primary need is to meet Jesus Christ personally. Each person must see that he is a sinner under God’s righteous judgment. He cannot save himself. But God in mercy sent the Savior, who bore the penalty for all that will trust in Him. If the person raises issues that take the conversation off of Christ, try to bring it back to Christ. If he says, “I believe in evolution,” or, “How can a good God allow all the suffering in the world?” you can reply, “That’s a good question. I believe that there are reasonable answers to it. If I can give you a reasonable answer, would you then commit your life to Christ?”
Usually, the person will waffle: “Well, I have a lot of questions.” “What are they?” “There are a lot of them.” I’ll then explain that the real issue is, “Who is Jesus Christ?” If He is who He claimed to be, then we all will stand before Him in judgment. Our questions will not get us acquitted on judgment day! God won’t say, “You got Me there! You get a free pass!” Often I encourage the person to read the Gospel of John and ask God to reveal to him who Jesus is and to help him believe. John (20:31) says that he wrote his gospel “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
Don’t forget that the person you’re speaking with is an “outsider.” He is outside of Christ, outside of God’s forgiveness, and headed for eternal judgment. He needs to repent of his sin and trust in Jesus Christ before it’s too late. Like seeing someone in a burning building who needs to be rescued, seeing his desperate situation will help you overcome your fears. Buy up the opportunities to tell sinners the best news in the world!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
If you want to learn something well, study under a master. Whether it’s one of the arts, a trade, law, business, or a sport, if you have the opportunity to study under someone who knows the subject well, don’t pass it up.
No one was a better master at winning souls for God than Jesus Christ. He came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). If we want to learn how to talk with people about the gospel, we can find no better teacher than Jesus. As you read in the gospels of His encounters with lost people, take note of how He did it. He never used the same approach twice. He always tailored it to the individual.
If I wanted to extend this series for several more weeks, we could study the differences in Jesus’ witness to the Pharisee Nicodemus in John 3 with the Samaritan woman in John 4. The contrasts could not be much greater. He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan. He was a man; she was a woman. He was educated; she probably was not. He was a leader among his people; she was probably disrespected by her people. He was morally upright and proud of it; she was immoral and ashamed of it. He recognized Jesus’ merits and sought Him; she at first had no idea who He was. Jesus sought her. Nicodemus shows that no matter how religious you may be, you still need to come to Jesus for salvation. The woman at the well shows that no matter how immoral you may be, the salvation that Jesus offers extends to you.
But I’ll leave you to explore Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. This week and next, we’ll study Jesus’ witness to the woman at the well. I’m going to draw out 20 principles for witnessing. I know that you won’t be able to remember them all, but my hope is that some of them will stick, so that you’ll be better equipped as a witness for Christ. Because I’m going to give you so many principles, I’ll only be able to skim over them. I hope that you will chew on them in more depth. Also, next time I will draw some lessons from this story about the person of Jesus Christ. He is the One to whom we bear witness, and so to do it well, we must grow to know Him better. To sum it up generally:
Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well teaches us much about witnessing and much about Jesus Christ.
Before we look at the principles, we need to understand some background. The text falls into three sections: First, there is the setting for the story (4:1-6); then, there is the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well (4:7-26); finally, we read the results of this encounter: with the woman (4:27-30); with the disciples (4:31-38); and with the Samaritans (4:39-42).
Jesus left Judea and headed north towards Galilee to avoid conflict at that time with the Pharisees, who were both jealous and nervous about Jesus’ increasing popularity. John says that Jesus “had” to pass through Samaria. Samaria was the region between Judea and Galilee, and so in one sense there was a geographic necessity to pass through that area as He headed north. But many strict Jews hated the Samaritans so intensely that they would take the longer route of crossing the Jordan River and avoiding Samaria altogether. So John may want us to see God’s providential necessity for Jesus to travel through this region. His encounter with this woman, although seemingly coincidental, had been ordained from the foundation of the world. So in that sense, Jesus had a divine appointment in Samaria.
The village of Sychar was located about 30 miles north of Jerusalem, at the base of Mount Gerazim, the “holy mountain” for the Samaritans. Jacob’s well was about one-half mile outside of town. Scholars debate whether the sixth hour was noon (Jewish time) or 6 p.m. (Roman time), although most lean toward the first view. Jesus was weary from the journey and so He sat down by Jacob’s well while the disciples went into the village to buy food.
Samaritan history goes back to the time of the Assyrian victory over the northern kingdom of Israel (722 B.C.). The Assyrian king deported most of the Jews, but left a few in the land. He repopulated the area with foreigners, who intermarried with the Jews. Later, these settlers mixed their own pagan beliefs with the Jewish understanding of God. So they were a mixed race that held to a mixed religion. They only accepted the first five books of Moses as Scripture, and modified those books in many places.
The hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews flared when the Samaritans opposed Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s attempts to reestablish the true worship of God in the land after the return of the southern tribes from Babylon. The break was cemented when the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerazim, rejecting Jerusalem as the place of worship. In 128 B.C., the Jews burned down the Samaritan temple, furthering the hatred between the two groups. The hostilities had not abated by Jesus’ time. As John explains (4:9), “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” With that background, let’s work through the story, learning from Jesus how to do a better job of sharing the good news.
Given the cultural hostilities, Jesus easily could have sat quietly while the Samaritan woman came, drew her water from the well, and left. But instead, He initiated the conversation by asking her to give Him a drink. This was not a ploy on Jesus’ part, in that He really was thirsty. But, as Frederick Godet observed (Commentary on the Gospel of John [Zondervan], 1:422), “He is not unaware that the way to gain a soul is often to ask a service of it.”
Contacting others socially sounds obvious, but I confess it is one of the most difficult factors for me to overcome. As a pastor who works around other Christians, I don’t have enough contact with lost people and, frankly, I don’t know what to cut out of my busy schedule to make time for such contact. Maybe that’s not your problem, but the longer you’re a Christian, the more likely it is that you will have less contact with the lost. But we won’t reach the lost if we hang out in the “holy huddle” all of the time!
Jesus simply asked a favor as a way of making contact. By the way, this is an example of Jesus witnessing to “person X” that we talked about last week. He had never met this woman before and after this episode, He probably never saw her again. But He used this simple request to open the door for the gospel, not only to this woman, but also to her entire town. Any common interest can be an entry point that eventually leads to the gospel.
Jesus was alert to “buy up the opportunity” (as we also saw last week), turning the situation to spiritual things. This woman went to the well that day to perform the same task that she had done hundreds of times. She had no idea when she left home that her life was about to change dramatically. But Jesus saw this open door and grabbed the opportunity to offer this thirsty woman the water of life.
We need to watch for common situations that present us with an opportunity for the gospel. Years ago, I had some car repairs done. I went to the cashier, paid my bill, and went out to my car. As I got in the car, I thought, “That didn’t cost as much as I expected.” So I looked at the bill and realized that the girl had tallied up the parts, but not the labor. The bill should have been twice what she had charged me. I confess that the thought went through my mind, “The Lord just saved me all this money!”
But I knew that I had to go make it right. So I grabbed a gospel tract out of my glove box and went back inside. I actually had to argue with the girl to prove the error. When she finally saw it, she said, “I’m new at this job. I would have been fired when they discovered my mistake. Thank you for being honest!” That’s when I told her, “I’m not by nature an honest person. But Jesus is my Lord and Savior. Would you do me the favor of reading this booklet tonight when you go home?” I had written my phone number on the tract. I never heard from her again, but she did hear the truth about Jesus Christ.
Jesus was not afraid of being “contaminated” by drinking out of a Samaritan woman’s cup. Nor was He afraid of talking privately with a woman about spiritual matters, although the Jewish rabbis viewed Samaritan women as ceremonially unclean (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 217-218). Some of the rabbis even believed that to teach your daughters the Torah was as inappropriate as to sell them into prostitution (ibid., p. 227)! But Jesus ignored these cultural prejudices and deliberately engaged this immoral Samaritan woman in spiritual conversation.
I hope that none of us harbor any racial prejudice that would keep us from talking to those of other races about Christ. But we may have to overcome some cultural prejudices. For example, would you talk kindly in public with a transvestite about his need for Christ? Or, maybe you avoid an obnoxious person at work or school, rather than trying to build a bridge that could lead to sharing the gospel. The person may be a social outcast, as this Samaritan woman probably was. But he still needs Christ and to hear about Christ he needs a Christian who is willing to risk public scorn to talk to him.
I’ve already touched on this, but it’s worth pondering how Jesus used a natural situation (His thirst and water) to begin a conversation that He quickly turned to spiritual things. Maybe it’s a discussion about the world’s problems—war, natural disasters, the economy, or whatever. Jesus used such things—a report of how Pilate had slaughtered some Galileans and another report of a tower collapsing and killing some people—to talk about eternal issues (Luke 13:1-5). I would urge you, however, to be careful not to turn the discussion towards politics or moral issues, rather than the person’s need for Christ. His main need is not to change political parties or clean up his life, but to be reconciled with God.
Jesus used both His actions and His words to stimulate the woman’s interest. The mere fact that He, a Jewish man, would talk to her, a Samaritan woman, asking her for a drink, grabbed her attention. When she commented on that (v. 9), Jesus further aroused her curiosity by His reply (v. 10), “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” He was using “salt” to whet her thirst (see Col. 4:6). J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:210) points out that if Jesus had come on with a systematic statement of doctrinal truth at this point, it would have been lost on her. Instead, He aroused her curiosity, leading to further discussion. He didn’t dump the whole thing on her at the outset, but skillfully led her along.
Bill Fay, who owned a brothel in New Orleans before he came to Christ, offers some helpful questions (on audio cassette) that we can use to arouse interest in the gospel: “Do you have any kind of spiritual belief? To you, who is Jesus? Do you think there is heaven or hell? If you died, where are you going? Why would God let you into heaven?” He advises just listening to their responses without arguing. But then, as a final question to arouse their interest, ask, “If what you believe is not true, would you want me to tell you?” It will be rare for you to get a firm, “no.”
Jesus used this principle repeatedly. Here, He spoke first of water and then of living water. With Nicodemus, Jesus used the new birth and the wind (perhaps a breeze blew through the room as they talked). In John 6, Jesus fed the 5,000 and then spoke of Himself as the bread of life. In John 7, on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, when the priests poured out water from the Pool of Siloam as a memorial of the thirsty nation in the wilderness, Jesus proclaimed that if anyone was thirsty, they should come to Him and drink. In John 8, Jesus claimed to be the light of the world. In John 10, He portrayed Himself as both the good shepherd and the door of the sheepfold. In John 15, He used the vine and the branches to explain our need to abide in Him.
The woman at the well was probably more concerned about her physical needs than her spiritual need. Some think that she was being somewhat sarcastic when she challenged Jesus with where He could get this “living water” (4:11). She still may have been skeptical when she asked Jesus to give her this living water (4:15). She wasn’t yet focused on her spiritual need, but on the fact that she didn’t want to come all that way to get water from the well.
But Jesus used her interest in natural water to lead her to see her need for the living water. By “living water,” Ryle thinks that Jesus was speaking of everything that He freely gives to our needy souls: “pardon, peace, mercy, grace justification, and sanctification.” He says (3:211), “As water is cleansing, purifying, cooling, refreshing, thirst-satisfying to man’s body, so are Christ’s gifts to the soul. I think everything that a sinful soul needs is purposely included under the general words, ‘living water.’”
The woman’s response (4:15) was somewhat mixed: “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.” She is still thinking of physical water, but maybe she was beginning to see that He was talking of something much more lasting and substantial. Some think that she was being sarcastic. Others say that she was asking Jesus for eternal life. But I’m inclined to agree with Ryle, who says that she probably was still quite mixed up in her motives. He explains (3:217), “Our great aim must be to persuade sinners to apply to Jesus, and to say to Him, ‘Give me to drink.’ If we forbid them to ask anything until they can prove that they ask in a perfect spirit, we should do no good at all.” He goes on to compare it to trying to analyze an infant’s first cries.
When the woman asked Jesus for this living water, He rather abruptly said (4:16), “Go, call your husband and come here.” Suddenly, the conversation moved from friendly banter to very personal. She bristled (4:17), “I have no husband.” She was technically correct, but trying to divert Jesus from the truth. Jesus went for the jugular (4:17-18): “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” Suddenly, her sinful past and present were exposed. She realized that she was not talking with an ordinary man!
In order really to desire the living water that Jesus offers, a sinner must be convicted of his or her sin. As Ryle puts it (3:218), “No one values the physician until he feels his disease.” But at the same time that He exposed the woman’s sin, Jesus dealt with her kindly and graciously. He didn’t point His finger at her and say, “You’re a wicked woman! Unless you repent, you will perish!” (Ryle, 3:219). Rather, He gently agreed with her, “You have said truly.” He pointed out her need, but didn’t condemn her. He did the same thing with the woman caught in adultery when He told her (John 8:11), “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”
We need the same fine balance that Jesus had here. Use God’s Word to show how we’re all guilty of violating His holy law. But do it graciously, pointing them to the cross.
In verse 12, the woman insinuates that Jesus could not be greater than Jacob, who gave them the well. In effect, she was saying, “Who do you think you are?” If Jesus had been proud, He easily could have set her straight. He probably would have won the point, but lost the woman. Then, she tries to draw Jesus into a centuries-old debate between the Samaritans and the Jews over the proper place to worship. While Jesus tactfully corrects her misperceptions, He still refuses to argue with her.
Arguments do not lead sinners to the Savior, even if you win. The reason is that in an argument, your pride gets involved. You want to prove that you’re right and the other person is wrong. But you’re missing the real issue. Sure, he’s wrong, but conversion is much more than persuading him that he’s wrong. Conversion requires God granting repentance and new life. Paul gives us the right approach (2 Tim. 2:24-26), “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” That’s what Jesus did here:
The woman brings up the debate between the Samaritans and the Jews about the correct place to worship. While Jesus did not argue, neither did He let her errors go by without correction. He pointed out that the Samaritans worshiped in ignorance and that salvation is not from them, but from the Jews. The Messiah was promised through the descendants of Abraham and David.
Unbelievers mistakenly think that their religious ideas are just as good as anyone else’s. In other words, they do not understand that one way to God is objectively true, while others are necessarily false. Rather, they view religion as a matter of subjective preference: “You like chocolate, I like strawberry. But neither one is right or wrong.” But Scripture is clear that unless we worship the one true God as He has revealed Himself through His only Son Jesus, we’re worshiping idols. So we can’t let people get away with the idea that it really doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere. Don’t make concessions, but offer gentle correction.
The discussion could have veered off into a debate over the merits of Judaism versus Samaritan worship. It may have been an interesting interchange, but it would have left the woman in her sins. So Jesus shows her that it is not outward religion that matters, but rather whether we worship God in spirit and truth. Then, when the woman brings up the promise that Messiah will come, who will resolve this debate, Jesus straightforwardly declares (4:26), “I who speak to you am He.” At that point, she has a choice: Is He or isn’t He? Do I believe Him or not? So Jesus brought the discussion back to the main issue, “Who do you say that I am?” As we’ll see next week, the aim in all spiritual discussions should be to bring it back to the person of Christ.
Next time we’ll look at the other eight principles and also at seven lessons about the person of Christ from this encounter. I conclude by asking (based on 4:13-14), “Are you drinking from the water of this world, which never fully satisfies? Or, have you drunk of the living water that Jesus gives, which has become in you a well of water springing up to eternal life?”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Years ago, a missionary doctor removed cataracts from the eyes of a Chinese farmer. A few days later, the doctor looked out of his window and noticed the farmer holding the end of a long rope. In single file, holding onto the rope, was a long line of blind Chinese who had been rounded up and led for miles to the doctor who had worked “miracles” on the farmer’s eyes.
That Chinese farmer is an illustration of what we should be doing. If Jesus has opened our eyes spiritually, then we ought to be bringing others to meet Him. That’s what this Samaritan woman did: after she realized who Jesus is, she got so excited that she left her waterpot by the well, went back into the village, and told everyone (John 4:29), “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” As a result of her testimony, the whole village went out to meet Jesus and then invited Him to stay. In the two days that He was there, many more believed in Him (4:40-41). Last week we saw that…
Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well teaches us much about witnessing and much about Jesus Christ.
We are working our way through 20 lessons about witnessing gleaned from this chapter. We have seen:
Today we will finish looking at the other eight principles, plus look at seven truths about Jesus Christ, who is the focal point of our witness. That’s the next witnessing lesson:
The main issue that every person must consider is the question that Jesus asked His disciples (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” If Jesus is who He claimed to be (we’ll look at some of these claims in a moment), then we had better believe Him and submit our lives to Him. In this story, Jesus first claims (4:13-14) to be able to give the woman living water that will satisfy her thirst and spring up in her to eternal life. That is an astounding claim! If any mere man said this, we would conclude that he is crazy.
Then, at the climax of His encounter with this woman, Jesus claims to be the promised Messiah (4:26): “I who speak to you am He.” This is the only time before His trial that Jesus plainly affirms that He is the Messiah (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 273). The Greek phrase reads literally, “I am” (“He” has been added by the translators). It probably is not in this context a statement of deity (referring back to Exod. 3:14; cf. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 275). But it is a clear affirmation to this woman that Jesus is the Messiah.
The point for us is, when you’re telling someone about Jesus, let them know who He claimed to be. The Gospel of John is a great testimony to His claims (especially, see 5:17-47). Also, show them 1 Corinthians 15:1-19, where Paul asserts that if Jesus is not risen from the dead, our faith is worthless. If the person tries to go off on rabbit trails, bring him back to the person of Christ. He is everything in our witness!
Jesus tells the woman that the Father is seeking those who worship Him in spirit and truth. You can’t truly worship God in spirit and truth if you are not obedient to Him, with your heart in submission to Him. So the best witnesses are always those who tell others about Jesus out of a heart that overflows in worship to Him.
To worship God in spirit means to worship Him on the heart level, or with the inner person. This strikes at hypocrisy. One of the most common objections that you will hear when you talk to others about Christ is that there are too many hypocrites in the church. The answer is, “Yes, you are correct! There are also a lot of hypocrites outside of the church. But what do you do with Jesus?” But if our witness is an overflow of our worship, then at least we will not be hypocritical witnesses.
To worship God in truth means to worship the one true God as He has revealed Himself in His Word and through Jesus Christ, the living Word. This strikes at idolatry. As we saw last time, if someone worships “God, however he conceives him to be,” he is worshiping an idol, a manmade god. Those who worship God in truth realize that He is both a God of love and also a God of holiness and judgment. So they will bear witness truthfully, not softening the justice of God to make Him more “user-friendly.”
The woman has just brought up (4:20) the centuries-old debate in which the Samaritans claim that Mount Gerazim is the proper place to worship, but the Jews claim Jerusalem as the proper place. But Jesus asserts that the real issue is not outward religion, but rather that a person worship God in spirit and truth.
When you witness, invariably you will encounter people who think, “I’m right with God because I go to Mass or I go to church once in a while.” They confuse the rituals of Christianity for the reality of a heart relationship with God through knowing Jesus Christ personally.
The apostle Paul had been there. He was a Pharisee, zealous for his religion. But when he encountered the risen Lord Jesus Christ, he counted his religion as garbage for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord (see Phil. 3:2-11). Ask person you’re witnessing to, “How much religious observance will it take to get into heaven?” Does God punch your “go to church card,” so that when you get enough points, you’re in? No, the Bible is clear that our hearts must be right before God through faith in Jesus Christ. God looks on our hearts, not on our religious rituals.
Here is an immoral woman who hasn’t even had time yet to clean up her living arrangement with a man who is not her husband. She doesn’t know very much, if any, correct theology. In fact, she’s probably still got a lot of incorrect theology from her Samaritan religion. In her excitement, her words were somewhat exaggerated (Jesus had not told her everything that she had done). She hadn’t memorized a clear outline of the plan of salvation. But she got so excited about meeting Jesus that she left her waterpot, ran back to the village, and excitedly told everyone about this extraordinary man whom she had just met.
Your testimony about what Christ has done in saving your soul is one powerful way that the Lord reaches others. This woman’s testimony is an example of how God can use you. You may not know much, but if Jesus has forgiven your sins, you can invite people to “come and see” (4:29). Like the blind man whose eyes Jesus opened, when the Pharisees tried to trap him in a theological debate, he simply said (John 9:25), “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” It’s pretty tough to argue with that!
By the way, the woman also shows us that an effective way to witness is to ask questions, rather than try to win arguments. She asks, somewhat tentatively (4:29), “This is not the Christ, is it?” If she had boldly asserted that Jesus was the Christ, the men of the village probably would have laughed at her. But her question aroused their curiosity to go and find out for themselves.
The disciples had gone into town to buy lunch and came back with the food, but Jesus wasn’t interested in eating. He said to them (4:32), “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” As usual, the disciples were focused on the physical, not the spiritual. So they wondered if someone had brought Jesus something to eat (4:33). Jesus replied (4:34), “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.”
This point relates to the one that we saw in Colossians 4:5 and also last week, about buying up the opportunities for witness. If our minds are consumed with how hungry or tired we are, we will not be focused on buying up opportunities to tell others about Jesus. So we’ll miss them when they come. It’s worth it to postpone or even miss a meal, if need be, to buy up an opportunity to talk with someone about the Lord. In fact, Jesus said, it was His real food to do the Father’s will and accomplish His work. It will feed your soul far more than food feeds your stomach if God uses you to lead one lost soul to the Savior!
Jesus cites a common saying, “There are yet four months and then comes the harvest.” In other words, you don’t plant seed and expect to reap a harvest the next day or week. It takes time. But He tells them to lift up their eyes and see that the fields are already white for harvest. He probably swept His hand towards the Samaritans who were streaming out of the village to come to Him.
G. Campbell Morgan observed (The Gospel According to John [Fleming H. Revell], p. 78), “If those disciples had been appointed a commission of enquiry as to the possibilities of a Christian enterprise in Samaria I know exactly the resolution they would have passed…. Samaria unquestionably needs our Master’s message, but it is not ready for it. There must first be plowing, then sowing, and then waiting. It is needy, but it is not ready.” But Jesus said, “You’re wrong. This unlikely city is ready now.”
Have you ever looked at someone and concluded, “This person is an unlikely candidate for the gospel”? “He doesn’t look like the church-going type! He isn’t going to want to hear what I have to share.” But, how do you know? You can’t see what God has been doing to prepare his heart. It’s God who draws sinners and gives the harvest. We need to be faithful to share the good news, even when people seem to us to be unlikely to respond.
This is another one of those “duh” principles that seem too obvious to state. But we often forget. We expect to reap without sowing. We wonder why we don’t see people coming to Christ. But often the answer is simple: Because I haven’t been sowing any seed! At the very least, begin praying for opportunities to share the gospel with others. Jot down a list of those you regularly have contact with that don’t know Christ and begin praying for their salvation and for God to give you an opportunity to talk with them about the Savior. To reap a harvest, we have to sow the seed.
Jesus says (4:38), “I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor.” The disciples were entering into the harvest from the seed that Jesus had sown with the woman while they were off buying lunch. If God gives you the joy of leading another person to faith in Christ, it’s almost certain that you are not the first to share with him. Studies have shown that it takes an average of 7.6 times for an unbeliever to hear the gospel before he responds favorably to it (William Fay, Share Jesus Without Fear [B & H Publishing], p. 11).
J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:250) points out that this story shows the sovereign grace of God in salvation. The Jews had repeated exposure to Jesus’ teaching and miracles, but for the most part, they did not respond. The Samaritans had only two days of Jesus’ teaching and no miracles, and yet they responded. Our job is to sow the seed in faith and prayer; God’s job is to use the gospel to bring souls from death to life.
You can probably glean even more principles for witnessing from this story. But before we close, I want to draw from it seven lessons on the person of Christ:
Jesus Christ is the focal point of both the Old and New Testaments. He is the only Savior of the world (4:42), and so our witness must center on Him. If your conversation about the gospel gets off on a tangent, bring it back to Jesus Christ. Here are seven truths about Him from this story:
Jesus was tired, hungry, and thirsty, which points to His full humanity. In our day, the cults are more likely to deny Jesus’ deity than His humanity. But in the early church, a heresy called “Docetism” (from the Greek, “dokeo,” meaning, “to seem”) taught that Jesus was not truly human; He only seemed to be human. The Gnostics also taught that the body is evil. Therefore, Jesus could not have had a real human body.
But to deny Jesus’ humanity is to deny that He is the Savior. To bear our sin on the cross, Jesus had to be fully human, yet without any personal sin. Also, Jesus’ full humanity assures us that He is a sympathetic high priest, who can understand our needs. Therefore we can draw near to Him and know that He will welcome us and help us in our needs (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-16).
Jesus knew all about this woman without anyone telling Him. There are times when God reveals secret information about people to one of His prophets (1 Kings 14:1-16; 2 Kings 5:25-26; 6:8-12), and the woman recognizes Jesus as a prophet (4:19). But John probably wants us here to see a glimpse of Jesus’ supernatural power: He is omniscient. John 1:1-3 shows that Jesus is far more than a prophet. He is God, the Creator of all things. If Jesus is not fully God, then He cannot save us from our sins. As Bishop Moule once stated (source unknown), “A Savior not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.”
The cultists will tell you that Jesus never claimed to be God. Take them to John 5:17-47, where the Jews accuse Him of making Himself equal with God, and Jesus shows them why His claim is valid. In John 8:58, Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” In John 10:30, Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” In John 14:9, Jesus tells Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” In John 20:28, Thomas sees the risen Jesus and declares, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus accepts and affirms Thomas’ worship, which would be blasphemy if He were not God.
Two other quick thoughts here: First, you may think that Jesus’ divine knowledge of this woman’s past gave Him an advantage in witnessing that we lack. We usually don’t know what the person to whom we are witnessing may have done in the past. True, but we know that every person, no matter how respected or educated, is a sinner who needs the Savior. Every person has violated his own conscience and will someday stand before God to answer for every sin of thought, word, and deed. He needs God’s forgiveness.
Second, Jesus not only knew this woman’s past. Also, He knows your past and the past of the one to whom you are witnessing. Hebrews 4:13 declares, “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” You can either try to hide your sins from Jesus now, only to have them exposed and be found guilty on judgment day; or, you can willingly confess your sins to Him now, and receive forgiveness and mercy now and on judgment day. But you can’t escape His all-knowing gaze!
The Jews despised the Samaritans and they thought it was a waste of time to teach spiritual truths to women. But Jesus set aside these cultural prejudices and showed compassion and concern for this immoral Samaritan woman. If we are growing to be like the Savior, we will be growing in compassion and love for lost people.
Only God could make the claim that Jesus makes in 4:14, to give this woman living water that would spring up in her to eternal life. Encourage those to whom you witness to read the Gospel of John and take note of Jesus’ amazing claims. What mere man could claim that he could give living water that will forever slake the thirst of someone, water that will spring up to eternal life? As C. S. Lewis pointed out (Mere Christianity [Macmillan], pp. 55-56), Jesus must be either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord of all, as He claimed to be. Invite spiritually thirsty souls to drink of Him.
Jesus’ statement to this Samaritan woman that He was the promised Messiah was the most direct revelation of Himself to anyone, outside of the twelve. It is a heartwarming, inviting example of Jesus’ willingness to reveal Himself to those who do not deserve it. As the promised Messiah (“Anointed One”), Jesus fulfilled over 300 prophecies made about Him in the Old Testament. John wrote his gospel (20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ [“Messiah”], the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
This is a frequent theme in John, that Jesus did not come to this earth on His own, but He was sent by the Father to die on the cross for our sins (see John 3:13, 17; 7:16, 28-29; 12:27, 44-50; 17:4). No mere man could claim that He came down out of heaven to do the will of His Father! People need to come to grips with the unique, divine claims of Jesus.
John may intend some irony, that while Jesus’ own people rejected Him (1:11), the despised Samaritans proclaimed Him to be “the Savior of the world”! John wants all of his readers to know that Jesus is not just the Savior of the Jews; He is also the Savior of anyone from any race who will believe in Him for eternal life. Maybe you are from a mixed up religious background, as the Samaritans were. Maybe you have a sinful past and present, as the Samaritan woman did. Maybe you have messed up multiple marriages, as she did. Jesus came to be your Savior. Will you trust Him?
The salvation from sin and judgment that Jesus offers is not automatic. The Samaritans believed in Him because they heard and came to know that Jesus “is indeed the Savior of the world” (4:42). If you have not yet done so, Jesus wants you to believe in Him as your Savior. If you have already believed in Jesus, He wants you to be like this woman: to tell those you know about this unique man, who is God in human flesh, who lays bare the very thoughts and intentions of your heart. But He does it not to shame you, but to save you from your sins.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
When Gib Martin, who later became a pastor, was 27-years-old, he was a school teacher. After spending his day with 27 kids, he would unwind by stopping at a bar to have a beer and bemoan life. He had come from a religious background, but for three years he had been an atheist. He was going through a period of desperation and he didn’t feel like being around anyone.
Every day at the bar he would see an older man named Charlie, a carpenter who for many years had been an alcoholic, but then, many years before, had been led to Christ by Martin’s great-grandmother. Charlie was so burdened for souls that after work each day, he would stop at this bar, drink coffee, and share his life with those who would listen.
Charlie could tell that Gib was miserable, so he tried to befriend him, but was met with resistance. He wasn’t able to share Christ because of Gib’s attitude, but he invited him to go hear a man with a doctor’s degree who was speaking in the community. Gib told Charlie he would go if they could later discuss what the man had to say. Gib went and heard the gospel for the first time. He was so convicted of his sin that he vomited all night long and thought he was dying. The next day at noon, he dropped to his knees and gave his life to Christ. He later found out that Charlie and others that Charlie had led to Christ had spent all night praying for him.
But the sad part of the story is that none of the local churches would allow Charlie to associate with them because he went to the bar every day. Even though he wasn’t getting drunk—he wasn’t even having a beer—they didn’t like what he was doing. Even the church where Charlie directed Gib to go after his conversion wouldn’t allow Charlie to join (from A Theology of Personal Ministry, by Lawrence Richards and Gib Martin [Zondervan], pp 44-45).
What do you think? Was Charlie wrong to go into a bar to get acquainted with those who frequented that place and look for opportunities to share the gospel? Or, was Charlie following the example of the apostle Paul, who became all things to all men so that by all means he might save some (1 Cor. 9:22)? I’ll tip my hand: Give me ten men like Charlie to reach out to Flagstaff’s bar crowd!
There is no doubt that some have greatly misapplied our text. For example, during the hippie days, women from the Children of God cult were encouraged to “be all things to all men” by offering themselves sexually to entice men to join the group! A more current and subtle example is the so-called “Insider Movement” among missions to the Muslims. In attempting to contextualize the gospel for Islamic cultures, some have gone so far as to say that Muslim converts to Christianity can still go to the mosque, repeat the Islamic creed, observe the fasts, view the Koran as a revelation from God, and esteem Mohammed as God’s prophet! Many rightly fear that these missionaries are creating a new syncretistic religion that we might call, “Christlam.”
If we want truly to win others to Christ, we need to think carefully about Paul’s words in these verses. As Gordon Fee points out (The First Epistle to the Corinthians [Eerdmans], p. 432), this text has nothing to do with adapting the message of the gospel to the language and perspective of the recipients. Neither, he says, does it have anything to do with observing social taboos among Christians. Rather, it has to do with how one lives or behaves among those he wishes to evangelize. The message of the cross is often offensive to proud sinners, but we should not be personally offensive in neutral matters of custom or culture. Paul is saying,
Winning others to Christ requires presenting the gospel to lost people without needlessly offending them.
In the context, Paul is writing against the Corinthians who were demanding their rights. He is showing how he laid aside his rights for the sake of others. He had a right to support in the ministry (9:1-14), but he laid aside that right so as not to be a hindrance to the gospel (9:15-18). Here he is arguing that he had a right to be free from the social customs of others in non-moral areas, but he laid aside that right and enslaved himself to all, becoming all things to all men that by all means he might save some.
We need to understand that to win others to Christ, we must share the content of the gospel (9:18). People will not be converted by watching our lives alone, without hearing the good news about Christ. But what Paul tells us here is that we should remove all cultural barriers that would needlessly distract or offend those we are trying to reach. We don’t want our outward appearance or political views to be the issue. We want the gospel to be the issue.
God could have chosen other methods to spread the gospel, and probably they would have been more effective. Angels could have done a better job, but God chose saved people to tell lost people the message. Our text shows that there is both a goal that we must own and a message that we must proclaim.
Paul sums up his goal in 9:22b-23a: “so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel ….” When we read these words, we all must ask, “Is that my goal?” Maybe you’re wondering, “Should it be my goal? Isn’t that just a goal for an apostle or missionary or for someone gifted in evangelism?” But Jesus said that He came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10), and we are to become like Him. And Paul said (1 Cor. 10:33), “Just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.” Then he immediately adds (11:1), “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” So while we all have different gifts, we should purpose to use them for the ultimate goal of seeing lost people get saved. Consider four things about this goal:
Even Paul, as gifted as he was, does not think that he will save everyone. But he did aim to save some, and those some would save some others, who would save some others. Paul realistically knew that the gospel would be for some an aroma of life, but for others an aroma of death (2 Cor. 2:15-16). The goal is to save some.
This helps me not get under a pile thinking about the enormity of the task. I can’t reach all of Flagstaff with the gospel, much less the whole world! But maybe I can be God’s instrument in saving some. Begin praying for those you have contact with who don’t know Christ. Pray for opportunities to present the gospel to them. It is a realistic goal to ask God to use you to save some.
Nothing is more worthy of your time and effort than helping people get rightly related to God. Nothing will help the world more than leading people to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing will help families more than leading family members to Christ.
A worthy goal deserves worthy means of achieving it. When Paul says that he uses “all means” to save some (9:22), in the context he means that he is willing to lay aside all of his rights to bring someone to Christ. He does not mean that the end justifies any means. I read about a church in Texas that attracted 23,000 to its Easter services by advertising that they would give away 16 cars and millions in prizes, including bicycles, furniture sets, flat-screen TV’s, and 15,000 gift envelopes stuffed with coupons for goods and services valued at $300 each (World, May 8, 2010, p. 30). The pastor justified it by saying that it gave them a chance to offer the free gift of heaven to those who came. He claims that thousands received Christ because of the giveaway. But I think he cheapened the gospel by making it seem like an extra door prize that you can take home with your new TV set! It was not a worthy means for the worthy message of the gospel.
What could be more crucial than saving people? If a person is not saved, he is lost. Those are the only choices. And we’re not talking about a temporary situation, but an eternal one!
If we say that we believe the Bible and follow Jesus as Lord, we cannot escape the fact of an eternal hell that is an awful place. Jesus described it as a place of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). He never pictures it as a giant party for all the wicked. He tells of the rich man in the flames pleading with Abraham to send someone from the dead to warn his brothers, so that they will not come to “this place of torment” (Luke 16:27-28).
So when we talk about people getting saved, they aren’t getting saved from low self-esteem or from a life of failure. They are getting saved from God’s eternal wrath and judgment on their sin to eternal life with God in heaven. It’s a crucial goal.
Because it is so crucial, the goal of saving some must grip our lives. These verses throb with Paul’s passion to reach the lost: “that I may win more” (9:19); “that I may win Jews” (9:20); “that I may win those who are under the Law” (9:20); “that I might win those who are without law” (9:21); “that I might win the weak” (9:22); “that I may by all means save some” (9:22); “I do all things for the sake of the gospel” (9:23). Back in verse 16, Paul says that he was under compulsion to preach the gospel. He didn’t control it; it controlled him. The man was obsessed!
If it were not the apostle Paul and if this were not inspired Scripture, some theologically correct brothers might say, “Paul, don’t you know that you can’t save anyone? Only God can save people. So relax, will you? If God has chosen to save them, then He will do that without your help!” That’s what a pious minister told William Carey 220 years ago when he proposed taking the gospel to India. But both Carey and the apostle Paul realized that the sovereign God uses means to save His elect. He uses men and women who are compelled by the goal of saving some.
Does the goal of saving lost people grip you? Is it your passion, as it was Paul’s? I confess that I’m too complacent about seeing lost people get saved. Paul shows us that there is a goal we must own: by all means to save some.
True, we cannot save anyone, but the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). This means that winning people to Christ does not require that you learn how to become a clever salesman. Rather, it means that you understand the gospel clearly so that you can present it well. You should be able to present it in one minute or less. There are 3 parts:
First, our problem is sin, rebellion against the holy God who created us to know Him. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). And, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), which means eternal separation from God in hell.
Second, God’s provision for our sin is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is God in human flesh. He came to teach us God’s ways and to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin that God’s righteousness demands. Since He is God, His death has infinite value. Since He is man, His death atones for human sin. God raised Jesus from the dead as proof that His death is the acceptable sacrifice for our sins. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). “He [God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Third, our required response is to trust in God’s provision in Christ as the payment in full for our sins. To trust in Christ, we must turn from our sins and give up our attempts to get into heaven by our good works. Rather, whoever believes in Jesus Christ has eternal life (John 3:16). We must trust in Jesus as we would trust a doctor who gave us a prescription and said, “Take this; it will cure you.” We must trust in Christ as we would trust a pilot who said, “Get on board and I will fly you to your destination.” To trust in Jesus Christ as Savior means that His death and resurrection are your only hope to be acquitted and get into heaven on judgment day.
To win others to Christ, we must present this simple good news: You have sinned against God, but Jesus Christ bore your penalty on the cross if you will turn from your sin and trust in Him.
Paul shows us three things about how he preached the gospel boldly and yet avoided needless personal offense: There is an attitude to adopt; a perception to gain; and, a balance to maintain.
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more” (9:19). A slave does not view himself as being over others, but rather as being under them to serve. He doesn’t think of himself first, but of those he serves. Paul made himself a slave to those who were without Christ.
Do you view the lost as the enemy to be fought or as those whom you need to serve? If the latter, how are you serving them? Do you look for opportunities to serve your neighbors or your lost family members? If an unbeliever is rude toward you, do you react with anger or with kindness?
I read of a mean army sergeant who threw his muddy boots at a Christian private as he knelt by his bunk in prayer. They hit him in the head, but he went on praying. In the morning the sergeant found his boots beside his bunk beautifully polished. That act of kind service on the part of that private resulted in the sergeant’s salvation. I’ll be the first to admit that I probably would not have responded as that private did. But that kind of behavior starts with an attitude that we all must adopt: “I am a slave to the lost.”
Paul had one message, the gospel, which he never changed. But culturally, he considered the perspective of his hearers and tried to think and act as they did, as long as it wasn’t sinful, so that they would hear the message.
To the Jews, Paul became a Jew (9:20). Wasn’t Paul already a Jew? Yes, but he had left the strict cultural aspects of Judaism behind when God called him to preach to the Gentiles. So when he went back to Jerusalem or to Jewish people anywhere, he had to relate to them as a Jew. In modern terms, with the Jews, Paul was kosher. He skipped the bacon for breakfast.
“Those under the Law” (9:20) is another way of looking at the Jews. It focuses on their religious practices, especially keeping the ceremonial aspects of the Law. Paul was no longer under the Law of Moses (Rom. 6:14; 7:4), but he could observe a Jewish celebration if it gave him an opportunity to reach the Jews.
“Those without law” (9:21) refers to the Gentiles. When Paul was with them, he could lay aside the non-moral aspects of the Law of Moses and live culturally like a Gentile. He is quick to clarify that he was not without God’s law, but under the law of Christ, which refers to the moral aspects of God’s law. Paul would never use profanity or tell dirty jokes to relate to lost people. But he would eat meat offered to idols to reach Gentiles (1 Cor. 10:27-31).
“To the weak” (9:22) is difficult to interpret. Either you have to give a different meaning to “the weak” than it had in chapter 8, where it referred to weak believers; or, you have to give a different sense to “win,” which refers to saving the lost. Since the immediate context has to do with winning people to Christ, I think Paul means that with those who are overly scrupulous, he would be sensitive and not bowl them over with his liberty in Christ. In other words, he was sensitive to the sensitive.
Paul’s overall point is that we need to understand where a person is at and not do things in our behavior or manners that needlessly offend them. The message of the cross may well offend them, but we should not be personally offensive to them. Don’t make non-gospel issues the issue. Make the gospel the issue.
Thus, there is an attitude to adopt: I am a slave to all. There is a perception to gain: Where is this person at? Finally,
This is always a struggle and it’s easy to err on both sides. Some professing Christians, such as the Amish, withdraw from the world and are so culturally distinct that they have virtually no impact in terms of saving any. The world just looks at them as being weird. They aren’t of the world, but neither are they in the world.
On the other hand, in their attempt to reach the world, other professing Christians become so much like the world that they lose their holiness and compromise the gospel. For example, I’ve read of pastors that freely use profanity and churches that use secular hard rock music (with lewd lyrics) to lure young people into the building. They’re in the world, but they’re also of the world.
Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not to be of the world (John 17:15-16). He was known as the friend of sinners, but He never compromised His holiness. One way to keep our balance is to keep our goal in view at all times: “to save some.” Your reason for going into the world is not to cavort with them, but to snatch them out of the flames (Jude 23). And, a second goal that Paul mentions is (9:23), “so that I may become a fellow partaker of it [the gospel].” Along with those he sees come to faith in Christ, Paul wants to share in the eternal blessings of the gospel.
If Charlie, the converted alcoholic, had said, “Now that I’m a Christian, I won’t go into bars,” he never would have reached Gib Martin. On the other hand, if Charlie had gone into bars and started drinking and carousing again, he never would have reached Gib Martin. To win others to Christ, we have to go where they’re at so that we will get opportunities to present the gospel to them. But we need to be distinct in our lifestyle and behavior so that we don’t compromise the message that we have to give them.
This passage convicts me in several areas. I lack Paul’s all-consuming passion, to by all means save some. I can’t honestly say, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel.” I’m too isolated from lost people to reach them with the gospel. Perhaps you’re convicted in the same way, or perhaps some of you are too much like worldly people to win any of them to Christ. However the Lord speaks to you, I urge you to wrestle with it and ask God to change you. May He use us as a church to win more to Jesus Christ!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
One of the main fears that we all have about sharing our faith in Christ is that the person with whom we are sharing will ask a question or raise an objection that we cannot answer. What will I say if he says, “I don’t believe in God”? Or, what if he says, “If God is all-powerful and loving, why does He allow innocent children to suffer”? And so, rather than causing embarrassment to the cause of Christ by not knowing what to say or by giving a dumb answer, we play it safe by keeping quiet about Jesus Christ.
So I want to take a couple of weeks to go over some of the most common questions and objections that you will encounter if you talk to others about Christ and give some simple ways to reply. These messages will not be our normal exposition of a biblical text or theme, but I trust that they will help you think biblically about these issues so you can share your faith more effectively.
First I will give some general guidelines. Then I will go over some of the most common questions or objections, along with a way to deal with them.
First, always be courteous, polite, gentle, and kind. Paul instructed Timothy (2 Tim. 2:24-26), “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” Peter says (1 Pet. 3:15), “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”
The common word in both of those texts is “gentleness.” Be gracious and kind, even if the other person is rude or obnoxious. To do that, you must enthrone Christ as Lord of your heart.
Also, as Paul says, “Don’t be quarrelsome.” Don’t argue. You might win the argument and lose the person. If you come across as contentious or argumentative, you erect a needless barrier between the person and the truth of the gospel. Don’t be demeaning, either in words or body language. If you roll your eyes as if to say, “What a stupid question,” you’ll hinder the gospel. You can affirm the person by responding, “Thanks for that question. It shows that you’re thinking about these issues.”
If you have no clue as to how to answer, you can always say, “Wow, you got me there! Let me do some research and let’s get together again and talk.” Then make sure that you follow through. If you struggle with an issue, be honest about it. You can say, “The problem of little kids suffering is difficult, isn’t it! I’ve often wrestled with it, too. Here’s how I have worked through it.”
Don’t give pat, flip answers. If you dismiss the question too quickly or too easily, the person will get the impression either that you are not a thinking person or that you’re trying to brush him off. So don’t be like a machine gun, quickly firing off your rounds to finish off your opponent, or the person will not feel understood or heard. Listen to his concerns. Ask a lot of clarifying questions.
Sometimes it is good to put the question aside until later, because it takes you off course from the gospel. You can say, “I’d like to finish sharing how you can have forgiveness of sins and eternal life. If that question still is an issue when I’m done, let’s come back to it.” If you sense that he is just raising objections as a smokescreen to divert the conversation from the real issue, you can say, “If I can give a reasonable answer to these questions, are you saying that you’d become a Christian?”
I’ve shared with you before how a man in the church I pastored in California responded when I asked him that question. His wife was in the operating room for exploratory surgery and I was sitting in the waiting room with him. He had been attending church with her, but had not yet made a commitment to Christ. When I asked him where he was at spiritually, he said that he still had a lot of questions. I said, “Well, we’re going to be here for a while. What are your questions?” He repeated, “I’ve got a lot of them.”
Then I said, “If I can give you reasonable answers to your questions, are you saying that you’d become a Christian?” He got a wry smile on his face, as if I had found him out, and said, “If I’ve heard you correctly, to become a Christian I’ve got to submit my entire life to Jesus Christ and follow Him as Lord. Is that right?” I nodded. He said, “Well, I’m not ready to do that yet.” I said, “That’s an honest answer. When you’re ready, let me know.” Some months later I had the joy of baptizing him.
The main thing to keep in mind when any question or issue comes up is: Always try to steer the conversation to the person of Christ. He is the issue! If Jesus is who He claimed to be and who the Scriptures proclaim Him to be—God in human flesh, who died for our sins and was raised bodily from the dead—then all objections shrink to almost nothing.
Coupled with directing things to Christ, keep in mind that you’re talking with a sinner who needs the Savior. Whether a person is an intellectual atheist or an uneducated criminal in prison, he has the same need: to have his sins forgiven before he stands before God in judgment. And you have the greatest news in the world for this sinner: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). It’s not always necessary to answer all of a person’s questions before he trusts in Christ as his Savior. Often, when he trusts in Christ, his questions evaporate rather quickly. So stick to the main issue: he is a sinner and Jesus Christ is the only Savior for sinners. Point him to Christ.
With those general guidelines in mind, I want to deal with a number of questions under some general headings: Questions and objections concerning God; concerning Christ and the way of salvation; concerning the Bible; and some personal objections.
Usually, atheists are not atheists because they thought it through and concluded that atheism is the best logical and rational explanation for the universe and life on this planet. Rather, they are atheists because either they had a bad experience with someone who claimed to be a Christian, or they want to engage in sins that they know the God of the Bible does not approve of. So they need to eliminate this God. Most often, they are not rejecting the God of the Bible, but rather a caricature of God.
Rather than confront the atheist directly, you can ask, “Have you held this view for a long time? How did you arrive at that conclusion?” Rarely, the person may say, “I was raised as an atheist by atheist parents.” Or, “I took a college philosophy course and the professor proved how ludicrous it is to believe in God.” But more often, the person will say (often with a lot of anger), “I became an atheist because my evangelical Christian father molested me and my mother let him do it!” Or, “I got fed up with all the phony hypocrites who claim to be Christians!” Even if he gives it an intellectual veneer (the college philosophy course), often the real reason is, he had a bad experience with a professing Christian.
I’ll deal with the questions of why God allows children to be molested and churches to be full of hypocrites later. You should respond with sympathy to the person’s pain: “I’m terribly sorry that that happened to you.”
But then you can ask, “Is it possible that God exists, but you have not yet come to know Him personally?” In other words, to deny God’s existence really means that you possess all knowledge in the universe. For me to say that there is not a 1920 Model T Ford in Flagstaff, I would have to have comprehensive, simultaneous knowledge of every car in town. I could honestly say, “I don’t think that there are any such Model T’s in town, but I can’t be absolutely certain.” But then I’m a Model T agnostic, not a Model T “atheist.” So atheists are really agnostics. As far as they know, there is not a God. But, they don’t possess all possible knowledge.
From there, I’d try to lead the discussion back to Jesus Christ by asking, “Have you ever read through the four Gospels and tried to find the answer to the questions, ‘Who is Jesus Christ? Who did He claim to be? Could He have been merely a legend created by His followers? Why did He say that He came to this earth? What evidence is there that He was raised bodily from the dead?’ I encourage you to read the Gospels honestly and ask, ‘God, if You exist, please show me who Jesus is.’”
Some find it helpful to try to prove the existence of God to an atheist. I haven’t found that to be a fruitful approach, because almost always the atheist’s real problem is not intellectual; it is moral. He is a sinner who is running from God because he loves his sin. As Paul puts it, he is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). But of the various arguments for God, I find the argument from design to be the most convincing. How could this world, with the finely tuned balance and the complexity of life, starting on the cell level, not to mention the marvel of the human body, have just happened by sheer chance?
The other thing I will sometimes say to a professing atheist is, “You’d better be 100 percent certain of what you’re saying, because if you’re wrong and Jesus is right, the instant you die you will face God in judgment. In your current condition, the outcome won’t be pretty. Have a great day!”
If the person professes to be an atheist, then this shouldn’t be a problem, because he doesn’t believe in such a God anyway! But the crucial issue is, if God exists, how can we know what He is like? You have your opinions and I have mine, but we’re just speculating with no basis in fact. We need revelation. Jesus Christ claimed to have come to this earth from heaven to reveal God to us. Either He was crazy or His claims deserve to be considered. Millions of intelligent people down through history have found Jesus’ claims to be credible. And Jesus spoke frequently about a horrible place of eternal punishment for the wicked called hell.
The other issue is, for God to be God, He must be not only loving, but also just and righteous. An unjust human judge is not righteous. If an evil man molested your little daughter and the judge told him, “Try not to do that any more,” and let him go, you’d rightly be incensed. If a drug addict killed your sweet, elderly mother to steal $10 out of her purse and the judge said, “We need to understand this poor man’s disease,” again you’d rightly be angry. Crimes deserve just punishment. Not to punish such criminals is to cheapen the lives of your daughter and your mother.
The difference between God and even the best human judge is that God is absolutely holy. He will not allow any sin into His heaven. If He did, heaven would not be heaven, because sin is what makes this earth so cruddy. God has declared that the wages of sin is death, which means eternal separation from Him in hell. He will be perfectly just when He judges every person. No one will get anything that he does not deserve. We all deserve His wrath because we have repeatedly broken God’s holy laws. (If necessary here, you can go through the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount or just the two Great Commandments, to show how we’ve all broken these repeatedly.) Then turn it back to the skeptic: How will it go with you when you stand before God someday? Then you can turn the conversation to Christ, who bore the punishment for all who will repent of their sin and trust in Him.
Also, you can point out that the truth of God’s final judgment, when He will punish every sinner who has not trusted in Jesus Christ, allows us to give up personal hatred and vengeance. We can trust that God will right every wrong, so we don’t have to get even. We can love even our enemies and leave the judgment to God.
First, admit that the problem of suffering, especially of seeing little children suffer because of the brutality or decadence of evil people, is very difficult. But it is only a problem if you believe in an all-powerful, loving God. If there is no God, why do you have a problem with suffering? It’s just an evolutionary mechanism to rid the planet of the weakest of the species. What’s the problem?
And, if there is no God, then how can you make a moral judgment by saying that it is evil to rape or maim or kill innocent women and children? If there is no God, how can you sit in judgment on Hitler for trying to exterminate the Jews? He thought that he was doing a good thing, trying to rid the world of what he believed to be an inferior race. How can you say that he was evil?
In other words, eliminating God from the picture does not solve the problem of evil. People still suffer horrible atrocities that they do not deserve. Everyone is subject to disease and death. If there is no God, then this is just a cruel, senseless, arbitrary world. Good luck!
But if there is a God who created us and has an ultimate purpose for us, then there is hope in this dark world. The Bible’s explanation for why there is pain and suffering is the best one that I’ve found. It says that God created the world as good, but sickness, catastrophes, war, and death came into this world through sin. The effects of Adam’s original sin spread to the entire human race, so that we all are born in sin. You don’t have to teach your baby how to be selfish and defiant. It is inbred. While some people are relatively better than others, no one is truly innocent before God, who knows our every thought, word, and deed.
The only solution for human sin and suffering is Jesus Christ, the Savior whom God sent into this world. He suffered the awful judgment of God on our behalf. In other words, God entered into this wicked, suffering world in the person of Jesus Christ, who willingly took our suffering and death on Himself. If we will turn from our sin and trust in Him, God promises eternal life with Him in a new heavens and new earth, where there will be no suffering, sorrow, pain, or death.
Also, just because you cannot see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something terrible to happen does not mean that there can’t be one. You don’t have the comprehensive big picture that He has. If He is powerful enough to stop evil and suffering, which the Bible says He will do someday, then He is also wise and powerful enough to have good reasons to permit it to continue for the present time. Your problem with evil and suffering is that you are assuming that you know more than God does! You are not in submission to Him as the rightful Sovereign of the universe that He created. You need to repent of this arrogance and trust in Jesus Christ as your sin-bearer.
Again, this question assumes that we know more than God does about His justice in judging the people of this earth. At the heart of the question is, “Does God have the right to judge evil people, whether temporally or eternally?” In the case of the Canaanites, God gave them over 400 years of continuing in idolatry, child sacrifice, and sexual immorality before He commanded Israel to judge them by wiping them out and taking their land (Gen. 15:13-16). During that time, He did not leave these people without a witness. Melchizedek lived in the land of Canaan during Abraham’s time and knew the one true God. Also, they were not that far removed from the judgment of the worldwide flood during Noah’s time. Surely the Canaanites knew that God had the right and power to judge whomever He chooses to judge. They were not innocent victims! God allowed their iniquity to fill up before He judged them.
God presently warns us that a day is coming when “He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Jesus warned that God will be more lenient towards the ancient people of Canaan, such as those of Sodom and Gomorrah, than He will be towards those who have heard of Jesus and His miracles, but rejected that testimony (Matt. 11:20-24). He will judge all people fairly based on the light which they had, but refused to believe.
So the question for you is, you have heard about Jesus Christ. You have heard that He performed miracles to authenticate His ministry. You know that He died on the cross for your sins, was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and has promised to return to judge the whole earth. The temporal judgments that God brings, such as earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, famines, and epidemics are His merciful way of warning that a more terrible eternal judgment is coming, when none will escape. Either you can turn to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith now and escape that judgment, or you will perish in that day (Luke 13:1-5).
I hope you have noticed how with each objection or question, I’ve tried to point the person back to Jesus Christ and the need to repent and trust in Him for salvation.
We will only be able to deal with one question under this heading today:
First, if God is truly God, then He is perfectly fair and just. He will not condemn anyone unjustly. He will judge every person fairly, according to the light the person has rejected.
Second, everyone has been given some revelation about the existence and nature of God, but they have suppressed that knowledge because of sin (Rom. 1:18). Romans 1:19-20 declares, “… that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” He goes on to show how the peoples of the world have exchanged the glory of God for manmade idols. All people, even those who know nothing about the one true God, have violated their own conscience. Thus all are guilty before Him.
In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus says that there will be worse judgment for those who reject the light that God has given them about Him than for those who had less light. So there will be degrees of punishment in hell. Sodom and Gomorrah will be punished less than those who saw Jesus’ miracles and rejected Him.
The serious matter for you is, you have heard about Jesus and His miracles. You have heard how He suffered and died for your sins and was raised from the dead. There is solid eyewitness testimony to confirm these truths. Will you now reject Him or turn from your sin and trust in Him?
(We will continue to look at other questions and objections next time.)
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Last week we began to consider some answers to common questions and objections that you will encounter when you share Christ with others. This assumes that either you are sharing Christ with others or you want to be prepared to do so. As 1 Peter 3:15 says, “But sanctify [set apart] Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” To obey that verse, you need to know how to respond to common questions and objections.
First I gave some general guidelines: Always be courteous, polite, gentle, and kind. Try to steer the conversation to the person of Christ. He is the issue! Keep in mind that you’re talking with a sinner who needs the Savior. Point him to Christ.
Then we began to work through some of the most common questions or objections, along with a simple way to deal with them.
That much is review. We continue with this objection:
This is often expressed with a self-righteous, condemning attitude: “I am a tolerant, open-minded person who believes that all religions have some good in them. Many roads lead to the top. Are you so narrow-minded and intolerant as to tell me that if people don’t believe in Jesus as you do that they are going to hell?” Underlying this attitude and accusation is the assumption that spiritual “truth” is subjective and relative. It’s really just whatever you like, and no one religion is absolutely true. There are smatterings of “truth” in all the world’s major religions, and you can pick and choose the “truths” that feel right for you.
One way to counter this objection is to ask, “Are you then saying that Jesus was in error?” If the person responds, “What do you mean?” you can cite John 14:6, where Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Or, Peter said in reference to Jesus (Acts 4:12), “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” If those statements are true, then other “ways” to God must be false. Jesus is either the only true way to God or He was mistaken. But you can’t take a little of Jesus and a little of Buddha or Mohammed and piece it all together.
Another defense is to point out that truth is very narrow. What if you went to a doctor and he said, “Here are four different prescriptions that people have liked; take your pick”? You said, “Which one is right for my illness?” He said, “Well, some people like the flavor of # 1. Others prefer # 2, 3, or 4. And some like to mix them together and down them all at once.” But medicine is not a matter of personal preference. It is a matter (we hope) of scientific truth. One medicine is best designed to cure a specific disease.
If God objectively exists as the eternal Creator of the universe, and if Jesus came to this earth as God in human flesh to reveal the Father to us, then His word is the truth and the only truth. All other religions are human speculations about God; but Jesus claimed to give us true revelation about Him. And He claimed to be the only way to the Father.
I had a philosophy professor in college who made this claim. I raised my hand to protest and cited a couple of verses that showed her to be wrong. In a very unphilosophical manner, she retorted, “Which Bible are you quoting from—the Catholic Bible or the Protestant Bible?” The other students laughed and she never dealt with my question directly.
If someone makes this claim, you could ask, “Have you read the Gospel of John?” Chances are, he has not. But even if he has, you can then take him to many verses and ask, “How does this read to you?” In John 5:18-29, the Jews were seeking to kill Jesus because he made Himself equal to God. Rather than correcting their accusation as a misunderstanding, Jesus goes on to show that He is equal with God. The Father shows Jesus everything that He is doing (5:20). Just as the Father can give life to whomever He wishes, so also the Son (5:21). The Father has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father (5:22-23). Whoever hears Jesus’ word and believes in the One who sent Him has eternal life (5:24). These are claims of deity!
You can also take the critic to John 8:58, where Jesus claims to be in existence before Abraham was born. Or go to John 10:28-33, where Jesus claims to give eternal life to His sheep and to be one with the Father. Or, in John 14:9, He tells Philip that whoever has seen Him has seen the Father. Or, in John 20:28-29, when doubting Thomas sees the risen Jesus and exclaims, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus doesn’t rebuke him for blasphemy, but rather affirms his faith.
“Aren’t you guys just making this up in your heads? If it makes you feel good to believe in Jesus and heaven and all that sort of thing, that’s wonderful for you. But I’m not into that religion stuff. I believe in myself and in living the good life.”
This is another attack on the matter of absolute truth in the spiritual realm. It assumes that religion is a subjective preference that helps some folks, but it can’t possibly be true for everyone.
But it ignores that Christianity is rooted in history, especially in the history of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament prophesied specifically about Jesus. Here you could turn to Isaiah 53 and read it without giving the reference, asking the one you’re talking with, “Who is this talking about?” If he knows anything at all, he will correctly say, “That’s talking about Jesus.” You can then say, “Yes, and it was written over 700 years before Jesus was born.” You could do the same with Psalm 22, which describes Jesus’ crucifixion 1,000 years before His birth and hundreds of years before crucifixion was devised as a means of execution.
But, also, go to 1 Corinthians 15:1-19, where Paul stakes the entire Christian faith on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. If He is not raised from the dead, our entire faith is in vain. But if He is raised, then He is Lord of all. He is coming again to judge the world, as He claimed. That is not merely psychological! It has serious ramifications for every person!
This person is trusting in his own good works and in his hope that God will be nice to those who have tried to do the best they could. The person may be a regular churchgoer or not. He may just be a decent person who has never committed a crime or done anything worthy of going to prison. He thinks, “Surely, God wouldn’t send a good person like me to hell, would He?”
You can ask this person, “How good do you have to be to get into heaven? Would ten sins keep you out? What about 100 or 1,000? Do you have any idea how many times you have violated God’s holy law?” Take him to the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount or the two Great Commandments. Have you ever stolen anything or fudged on your taxes? Then you’re a thief in God’s court. Have you ever been angry at anyone? Jesus says that you’re a murderer. Have you ever lusted after someone? Jesus says that you’re an adulterer. And God doesn’t grade on the curve. If you break one of God’s commandments once, you’re guilty of breaking His whole law and will be condemned on judgment day. Over a lifetime of sins, you’ve not got a chance! If he feels convicted of his sins, then show him God’s remedy in Christ.
Usually, the person who says he doesn’t believe in the Bible has never read it as a seeker of the truth. So you can ask, “Have you ever read it through, asking God to reveal Himself to you?” Or, you can say, “The main message of the Bible is how a person can have eternal life. What is your understanding of what the Bible teaches on this crucial matter?” You will probably hear some version of being a good person or doing good works. You can listen and then ask, “If you were mistaken on this, would you want me to tell you?”
You can ask, “Is there an error or contradiction that keeps you from believing in Jesus as your Savior and Lord?” The Bible is amazingly consistent with itself, seeing that it was written by at least 40 different authors over a period of 1,500-2,000 years. Archaeology and history have consistently supported the biblical record.
Also, depending on how long you’ve been a Christian, you can say, “I’ve studied the Bible for [x] years and have found that many of the so-called ‘errors’ or ‘contradictions’ have reasonable answers. I can’t answer them all, but there is enough truth in the Bible that I’m sure that the seeming contradictions come from my lack of understanding, not from the Bible. The seeming contradictions between the gospel accounts show that the writers were not in collusion, concocting a story.” Encourage the person to read the Bible as a seeker of truth, not as a critic looking for errors. God doesn’t answer skeptics, but He will reward seekers. And encourage him to ask as he reads, “Is Jesus who He claimed to be?”
There are many different modern translations, but they are all based on the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The manuscript evidence for the Bible is very reliable. And, no major doctrine is affected by any textual variant or reputable translation. (The Jehovah’s Witness translation, The New World Translation, is not reputable because they change the text and translation to fit their heretical doctrines.)
The Bible must be interpreted in its historical, literary, linguistic, and cultural context. Poetic sections and figures of speech are to be taken normally, just as we take them in English. Which “literal” interpretation bothers you the most? Why? Do you understand what Jesus means when He says that we must believe in Him to have eternal life?
The real issue here is, does God exist? If God is God and if He spoke the universe into existence out of nothing by the word of His power, then He can perform miracles. Just because you’ve never seen one does not mean that they have not happened.
The miracles in the Bible do not occur evenly through various times. They occur in clusters, especially around Jesus and the apostles. The key miracle to consider is Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. The entire Christian faith rests on it. Have you considered the evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead? There is: the empty tomb; eyewitness accounts; changed lives of the witnesses; integrity of the witnesses; and, willingness of the witnesses to die for what they had seen. Refer them to Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict or his More Than a Carpenter.
You can ask a lot of questions here: What conclusions are you drawing from this belief? Are you saying that everything in the universe happened by sheer chance, without God? Do you believe that something came out of nothing? Do you think that man evolved out of pond scum over billions of years through random mutations and natural selection? Why does the fossil record not have billions of “missing links”? How could anything as intricately balanced and finely tuned as the natural world have happened by sheer chance? Where do you find evidence that random chance produces such evident design, even given a billion years? Would a billion years produce a 747 jet out of nothing without a designer and builder? How do you explain the concept of irreducible complexity? Certain biological features require all the parts to be together and working at the same time. This couldn’t have happened over a long time.
Moving to the more spiritual, if you believe that we just happened as a biological accident with no God, then how do you find meaning and hope in life?
You can say, “I thought you believed that moral issues are relative to each culture. Are you saying that these things are absolutely wrong? Do you believe, then, that certain things are absolutely true and binding for every culture in every age? How can you rightly judge that the Bible’s views are wrong, if in fact the Bible teaches these things? Isn’t your view as narrow and exclusive as the views in the Bible that you find offensive?”
Again, ask, “If I can give reasonable answers to some of these issues, are you saying that you would become a Christian?” Most of these objections are smokescreens. The person doesn’t want to face his own sin before God.
Regarding slavery, while it was permitted in Bible times, it was far different than the expression of it in the U.S. Paul’s approach to slavery eventually led to its abolition in Christian lands. It was committed Christians (like Wilberforce in England and Lincoln in America) who worked to abolish slavery in the West.
Regarding women, the Bible elevates and respects women far more than other world religions do. Jesus befriended and taught women. Women ministered to Him when men did not. He first revealed Himself after the resurrection to women. Paul commands husbands to love their wives with self-sacrificing love. The fact that women and men are assigned different roles in the home and in the church does not belittle women or diminish their significance.
Regarding homosexuality, the Bible clearly declares it to be sin. But it is not the unpardonable sin. Christ’s death is sufficient to forgive and restore homosexuals who repent, just as it does with other sinners. If you deny that it is sin, how do you determine right and wrong? What is your standard?
“Yes, and so is the world. Jesus warned about and condemned hypocrisy, and yet many of them are in the church or in ministry. But this does not invalidate who Jesus is. We are not to trust in church members or ministers, but in Jesus alone. Do you think that He was a hypocrite? Was He a phony? If not, you must trust Him.”
Probably a person who says this had religion forced on him as a child by strict, stern parents. So you may want to begin by asking, “Did you have a bad experience in church or in your family as a child?” Listen sympathetically and then try to point out that he has missed the truth about Jesus because of the hypocritical or mistaken behavior of those who claim to follow Him. You can ask, “As far as you know, did Jesus have absolute standards of morality? If so, do you think He was mistaken?”
Or, you can raise questions about how this person determines what is right and wrong. If he says, “We should all love one another,” you can point out that that was what Jesus called the second great commandment. But how do we know what real love looks like? Jesus set the example by laying down His life for us. Do you know why Jesus died on the cross? Also, you can ask, “Do you always love others? Have you always loved your parents, your mate, your children, your neighbors?” If not, you have violated God’s commandment and stand guilty before Him. How will you answer Him when you stand before Him? Then, direct him to the cross.
Yes, and you’re a cripple! We all trust in something. What are you trusting in? The person raising this objection is trusting in himself. He thinks that he is able to handle life’s problems and deal with life’s challenges without God or religion. Only weak people need religion. So he sees himself as “the master of his fate, the captain of his soul” (William Ernest Henley, “Invictus,” whose “fate” involved dying at age 54, by the way!).
God holds the “trump card” on each of us: death. You will die and it may not be at the time you choose. The question is, how will you answer to God, who sent His own Son to bear the penalty that you deserve for your sin? Will you say, “I don’t need a Savior?” Fine, you will pay the penalty of eternal destruction in a place of awful torment. You may say, “I don’t believe that.” Okay, but then you’re saying that Jesus was wrong, because He believed it and taught it often. You’d better make sure you’re right!
There may be a few more objections or questions that will come your way, but I think I’ve covered the most common ones. Almost always, they are a smokescreen to divert the conversation away from the person’s need to repent of his sins and trust in Christ. Your job is lovingly, patiently to direct the conversation back to the main issue: You are a sinner, under God’s condemnation. You need a Savior from God’s judgment before you die. God sent Jesus Christ as the only Savior. He died on the cross for sinners, to pay the penalty that we deserve. But you must turn from your sin and trust in Jesus alone as your only Savior and Lord. God gives eternal life as a free gift to all who trust in Jesus.
As John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Are you willing right now to turn from your sin and put your trust in Jesus Christ for eternal life? If he says, “I’m not ready,” you can ask, “Why not?” Don’t pressure him, but you can ask, “I just want to make sure that I’ve made the gospel clear. Can you tell me what you must do to receive eternal life?” And, “If you were to die without trusting in Jesus Christ, where would you spend eternity? Have a nice day!”
Here are a few resources that will help equip you with answers to common questions and objections:
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.