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Lesson 4: Why You Should NOT Tithe (Selected Scriptures)

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“It would be political suicide to give that speech,” said an aide to his boss. “He’s right, Senator,” chimed in another aide. “It’s just one clear-cut statement after another” (Morrie Brickman, Reader’s Digest [4/83]).

It’s probably suicidal for a pastor to preach on why you should not tithe! It’s risky at best, because some may hear the part about not tithing and block out the rest of the message! I would guess that if everyone who came regularly to this church gave ten percent to the church, our income would probably triple, at least! So why am I not preaching instead on why you should tithe?

The answer is that tithing is not the New Testament standard for giving. Perhaps more than any other factor, giving reflects the condition of our hearts: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). You can fake some things, but you can’t fake giving your money! You may get mad at me, but I’m going to give it to you straight: If you give ten percent or less of your income to the Lord’s work, in most cases it reflects a lukewarm heart toward God. I used to give ten percent and thought I was doing fine. Then I made the mistake of preaching on giving! I discovered that God’s Word teaches that ...

We should not tithe because God wants us to give generously, and tithing is the bare minimum.

Our God is a generous, giving God who so loved the world that He gave that most precious gift, His only begotten Son. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). As God’s people who are to be like Jesus, we are to be generous givers.

The Bible teaches that God, who richly has supplied us with all good things, wants us “to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:18). But what does generosity mean? Isn’t giving 10 percent of my income to the Lord’s work being generous? If not 10 percent, how much should I give?

1. Tithing is not the New Testament standard for giving.

Many churches promote a concept called “storehouse” tithing, based on Malachi 3:10, where God tells Israel to “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” They teach that the local church is the storehouse, the tithe belongs to God, and His blessing is conditioned upon faithfulness in tithing. One pastor in a church near me in California preached that if his people weren’t giving ten percent to that church, they were in sin and needed to go home and repent!

Before I critique this view, let me point out that there are some commendable points regarding tithing: (1) Those who tithe are often acting in obedience to what they believe God has commanded. (2) Tithing gets some to increase what they give. (3) Tithing helps consistency and discipline in giving. But consider these seven reasons why tithing is not God’s standard for Christians:

A. Tithing was a part of the law of Moses; believers are not under the law.

Romans, Galatians, and other New Testament passages make it clear that Christians are not under the law of Moses. That does not mean that we are lawless, because we are under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:20-21; James 1:25; 2:8, 12; Rom. 13:8-10). Those aspects of the Mosaic law that reflect the moral character of God are valid under the New Covenant and are repeated as commands in the New Testament. But the church is never commanded to tithe.

Those who argue for tithing point out that Abraham and Jacob both tithed prior to the Mosaic law (Gen. 14:20; 28:22). Thus tithing supersedes the law, they argue. If the New Testament gave no further guidelines, that might be a valid point. But it does, as I will show. But there are other practices, such as circumcision and sabbath-keeping which pre-date the Law and yet are not binding on us.

If you examine the references to Abraham’s and Jacob’s tithing, you will see that God did not command them to tithe and there is no indication that this was their regular practice. On one occasion after a victory in battle, Abraham tithed the spoils from that battle, but nothing is said regarding his other possessions or his regular income (Gen. 14:20). To follow Jacob’s example would be wrong, because he was making a conditional vow before God, promising that if God would keep him safe and provide for him, then he would give God a tenth (Gen. 28:20-22). That’s hardly a good example to follow in giving! Tithing was required under the Mosaic Law, but believers are not under the Law.

B. Tithing was an involuntary tax to support Israel; believers are not a part of the theocratic nation.

In the Old Testament, there was both required and voluntary giving. The tithe was required. It was commanded for every Israelite to fund national worship and help the poor. In actuality, there was not just one tithe, but rather two or three ([1] Lev. 27:30-33, Num. 18:20-21; [2] Deut. 12:17-18; [3] Deut. 14:28-29), so that the total was not 10 percent, but more like 22 percent (see Charles Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life [Moody Press], p. 86). Thus if we are required to bring the whole tithe into the storehouse today, we had better up the percentage from 10 to 22 percent!

C. Tithing is not mentioned in any instructions to the church, although much is said about giving.

G. F. Hawthorne writes (New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Zondervan], 3:854:

Since the tithe played such an important part in the OT and in Judaism contemporary with early Christianity, it is surprising to discover that never once is tithing mentioned in any instructions given to the church. Jesus mentions scribes and Pharisees who tithe ..., but he never commanded his disciples to tithe. The writer to the Hebrews refers to Abraham paying tithes to Melchizedek and Levi paying his tithe to Melchizedek through Abraham ..., but he never taught his readers to follow their example. Paul writes about sharing material possessions to care for the needs of the poor ... and to sustain the Christian ministry .... He urges and commends generosity ... but never once does he demand, as a command from God, that any specific amount be given.

If tithing is to be practiced by the Christian church, it seems strange that Paul did not mention it when he wrote of giving, especially to the predominately Gentile churches which would not be familiar with the Old Testament.

D. Tithing is not mentioned in any writings of the early church fathers.

By itself this is not decisive, but it lends weight to the biblical arguments. If the early church practiced tithing, then the concept should surface somewhere in the writings of the church fathers of the second and third centuries. But it does not, even though giving was an important part of early Christian worship (see Hawthorne, pp. 854-855).

E. Tithing puts the wrong emphasis upon giving.

Tithing emphasizes your obligation to God; New Testament giving, as we shall see, emphasizes your willing, loving response to God’s grace. Furthermore, tithing limits giving by making a person feel that he has paid his dues (so to speak) and thus nothing more is required, when, in fact, much more could be done. Tithing has a tendency to put a person on a legal basis with God, rather than a love relationship. It’s the wrong emphasis.

F. Tithing leads to a false concept of stewardship.

It leads to the notion that 10 percent is God’s money and 90 percent is my money. In reality, 100 percent is God’s money, and He may want me to channel 90 percent into His work and live on 10 percent. Tithing can be a bad rut.

G. Tithing is burdensome for some and too easy for others.

If a man with a family of five makes $20,000 a year and tithes, he has $18,000 (apart from taxes) to support five people. If a childless couple makes $100,000 a year and tithes, they have $90,000 (apart from taxes) to support two people. That would be burdensome to the man with five mouths to feed, but ridiculously easy for the couple.

There are seven reasons that argue against tithing. Then what is God’s standard for giving?

2. Generous grace giving is the New Testament standard.

When you say “grace,” a lot of people, unfortunately, connect it with hang-loose, undisciplined living. But that is not grace! Nor is grace the balance point between legalism and licentiousness. Rather grace (as a system) is totally opposed both to legalism and licentiousness, which are two sides of the same coin.

Legalism and licentiousness both operate on the principle of the flesh. Legalism is an attempt to earn standing with God through human effort and leads to pride or condemnation, depending on how well you do. Licentiousness casts off restraint and lives to gratify the flesh.

But God’s grace is His unmerited favor based on Christ’s sacrifice. The motivating power in grace is the indwelling Spirit of God. The person under grace responds out of love and gratitude to God and depends upon the indwelling Holy Spirit to conform his life to what God requires. With that basic understanding of grace, let me spell out some things that grace giving is not, and then some things that grace giving is.

A. Grace giving is not ...

(1) Random and irresponsible. It does not mean that you give every now and then, hit and miss; rather (as we shall see next week), it is planned and systematic (1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 9:7).

(2) Based on feelings. Being under grace does not mean living by feelings. Living under grace means walking by faith and obedience in response to God’s love. There are many commands under grace.

(3) Usually less than the requirement of the law. God’s grace should motivate us to excel far more than the minimum under the law (1 Cor. 15:10).

(4) Giving God the leftovers. God deserves the best, not just what is convenient. If we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, then we won’t just give Him what’s left over after the bills are paid. He deserves first place.

Thus grace giving is not sloppy, irresponsible, haphazard giving whenever we feel like it.

B. Grace giving is based on ...

(1) God’s example in Christ (2 Cor. 8:9). Aren’t you glad that God did not just give a tenth! He gave all. The Lord Jesus Christ was infinitely rich. He dwelled in the unimaginable splendor of heaven, apart from the sin and corruption of this world. But He gave that up, laid aside His privileges, and took on human flesh. He could have chosen to be born as a prince in palatial splendor. But instead He was born and lived in poverty. He ultimately impoverished Himself to the maximum by taking upon Himself the sin of the human race in order that we might become rich (2 Cor. 5:21).

Grace giving looks to the nail-pierced hands of the Lord Jesus, who gave Himself so that we might be rescued from the wrath of God, and says, “Lord, You gave all for me! What can I give back to You?”

(2) The concept of stewardship. “You are not your own, for you have been bought with a price ...” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). All that we are and have belongs to God, not just a tenth. I am merely the manager of His resources. As a good manager, I use the Owner’s resources to further His work (see Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37; 11:27-30 for some examples).

(3) Inner motivation, not outward compulsion (2 Cor. 8:3-5; 9:7). Motive and attitude are crucial. It is better to give a small amount based on a loving response to God’s grace than it is to give a large amount based on outward pressure or pride. Note the attitude of the Macedonian believers: they had an abundance of joy (2 Cor. 8:2); they gave of their own accord (8:3); they begged with much entreaty for the favor (8:4!); first they gave themselves to the Lord (8:5); they had both the readiness and desire (8:10-12, 9:2); they gave cheerfully, not grudgingly or under compulsion (9:7).

We should not think, “How much do I have to give?” but rather, “How much can I give?” We should not wait for someone to pressure us with a need; we should look for needs that we can meet (8:4). I look for and give to Christian organizations or workers that do not pressure donors with desperate appeals for funds. You almost don’t notice these workers because there are so many pleading for your money so that they “won’t go off the air next week.” May I say, “Let them go off the air!” Christians ought to give based upon inner motivation, not outward pressure. Grace giving is based on ...

(4) A new relationship with the Holy Spirit, not the old dispensation of the Law. Romans 8:14 says, “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.” Galatians 5:18 says, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” The context of both passages shows that Paul is talking about the Holy Spirit leading the believer into righteous, godly living. In Galatians, such righteous living is spelled out in the context, in part, as sharing financial resources (6:6, 10).

It’s easier in some ways to follow a set of rules. Just give your 10 percent and that takes care of the matter. But God wants us to be led by the Holy Spirit. That’s kind of scary! The Holy Spirit might want me to give 35 percent or who knows how much! But the point is, I am not living by rules, but in a relationship with the living God.

(5) How much God has prospered you. How much should you give? How much has God prospered you? (Note 1 Cor. 16:2, “as he may prosper”; Acts 11:29, “in the proportion that [they] had means”; 2 Cor. 8:3, 11, 12). Generally, they gave according to their ability, and in some cases beyond their ability. Sometimes you should give sacrificially. (We will look at that next week.) But the general principle is, give as God has prospered you.

When God entrusts you with more money, instead of spending it on more junk that you have to protect from moths, rust, and thieves, you should ask, “Lord, how do you want this money used in Your kingdom?” As God gives you more, you should increase the percentage you give, not just the amount. If you have enough to live comfortably, then invest the rest where God pays guaranteed, eternal dividends.

But here’s the catch: we need to start giving where we’re at, and not put it off until someday when we’re rich. The Macedonians gave in the midst of a great ordeal of affliction, out of deep poverty (2 Cor. 8:2). Jesus commended the poor widow who gave all she had to live on, but He was not impressed with the large gifts of the rich, because they had much left over (Mark 12:41-44).

George Muller is remembered as a man who received millions of dollars to support his orphanage, in response to secret prayer, without making any needs known to others. What many don’t know is that Muller gave away vast amounts to the Lord’s work out of funds that were given for his personal support. From 1870 on, he personally contributed the full support for about 20 missionaries with the China Inland Mission. From 1831-1885, he gave away 86 percent of his personal income! As the Lord prospered him, he could have lived in style. But he lived simply and gave away the rest.


Generosity and grace giving are built on the qualities we have already studied. If you’re free from bondage to greed and debt, you won’t be enslaved to money. If you’re a person of integrity and if you’re faithful as a manager, not the owner, of your money, then when God supplies you with more, you will prayerfully channel anything above personal and family needs into His kingdom.

In this church, we don’t use pressure or gimmicks to get people to give. I want your giving to be between you and God, based on your response to the love He has shown you at the cross. Also, I want to encourage each of you to refuse to give to any organization that uses pressure and fund-raising gimmicks. If you believe in the work of this church, then give generously as God has prospered you, out of love for Him.

Don’t assume that because we don’t use pressure we don’t have needs. I believe it is legitimate to inform the church family about needs so they can give wisely. We have needs: to meet our monthly budget; to get some better office equipment; to pay off the mortgage on the house next door so that we can use it and the house across the street for ministry; to buy more property for adequate parking; to pave the lot behind the church. We have to turn away missionaries who need support. I believe the way to meet these needs is to help God’s people get their hearts right before Him and to teach what His Word says about money and giving. As we respond to God’s grace by giving generously, the needs will be met.

A farmer who was not much concerned with spiritual matters once went to hear John Wesley preach. Wesley was preaching about money and he soon had the farmer’s attention, because his first point was, “Get all you can.” The farmer nudged his neighbor and said, “This is unusual preaching! I’ve never heard the likes of this before. This is good!” Wesley talked about hard work and purposeful living.

His second main point was, “Save all you can.” The farmer became more excited. “Did you ever hear anything like this?” he exclaimed. Wesley denounced waste and extravagance. The farmer was quite happy, thinking, “I do all this.”

But then Wesley advanced to his third point, which was, “Give all you can.” “Oh, dear! Oh, dear!” moaned the farmer. “He has gone and spoiled his sermon.”

I hope you don’t think that I have spoiled this series on money by saying, “Give all you can.” God has given all for us; He wants us to be cheerful, generous givers who respond to His grace.

Discussion Questions

  1. Agree/disagree: In most cases, not giving more than 10 percent reflects a lukewarm heart toward God?
  2. What is the biggest hindrance to generous giving among Christians? In your own life?
  3. Should we give out of obedience even if we don’t feel like it? Isn’t that legalism?
  4. If 10 percent isn’t the standard for giving, how do we know when our giving pleases God?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Finance, Spiritual Life, Tithing

Lesson 5: Giving God’s Way (Selected Scriptures)

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In 1987, Chet Atkins and Margaret Archer wrote a song that was sung by country star, Ray Stevens, which went in part: “If he came back tomorrow, there’s something I’d like to know. Would Jesus wear a Rolex on his television show?”

That same year, a well-known religious personality told his TV audience that if they didn’t give $8 million to his fund-raising campaign, God would call him home. Folk singer Arlo Guthrie commented wisely on this when he said, “I firmly believe we shouldn’t negotiate with any terrorist on any level” (both of above in Newsweek [5/4/87], p. 17).

TV religious hucksters have given a bad name to Christian giving. Because of such abuse, pastors may be afraid to deal with this important subject. But we need to be clear on what Scripture teaches about giving. Last week I answered the question, “How much should I give?” by saying that only giving a tenth is, in most cases, to fall short; rather, God wants us to give generously as He has prospered us.

This week I want to conclude our series by answering five other questions that will help us give God’s way: (1) Who should give? (2) Why should I give? (3) How should I give? (4) To whom should I give? (5) What will happen when I give?

1. Who should give? All believers, but not unbelievers, should give to the Lord.

Giving is a privilege and responsibility for those who have received from God the gift of eternal life. But it is wrong for churches or other Christian ministries to appeal to unbelievers for funds. Third John 7 mentions Christian workers who “went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles.” Unbelievers cannot offer good works to God. It is wrong to give an unbeliever any basis for thinking that he can gain merit before God by giving or any other good deed.

Unbelievers frequently gripe that the church is always after their money. They are right in one sense: God is after their money, because their hearts are bound up with their treasure, and God wants their hearts to be devoted to Him. The fact that they resent giving shows the condition of their hearts. But we need to make it clear that if a person has not given his heart to God in response to God’s giving His Son on the cross to pay the penalty for his sins (2 Cor. 8:5), then we do not want him to give to the Lord’s work. Giving should be a thank offering to God, and a person outside of Christ cannot properly give such an offering (Heb. 13:16).

Giving is for believers, and it should be done by all believers. Poor Christians as well as rich should give to the Lord (2 Cor. 8:2; Luke 21:1-4). That is one reason it is wrong to be in debt, because you aren’t free to give generously when you owe creditors. But even if you can’t give much, you aren’t exempt from giving. Those who are supported in Christian ministry are not exempt either. In fact, they should set the example (Acts 20:35).

2. Why should I give? I should give because God has first given to me and I want to please Him.

In giving, motivation is crucial. There are many ...

A. Wrong motives for giving:

(1) Pride. If you give to be honored by men for your great generosity, you are giving for the wrong reason. Giving is to be done in secret before God (Matt. 6:1-4). Naming buildings or putting up plaques in honor of donors violates this principle.

(2) Guilt. We should not give because we feel guilty about having so much. If we’re not being good stewards of what God has entrusted to us, then we should repent and give from the right motivation.

(3) Greed. Luke 6:38, “Give, and it will be given to you,” is wrongly used to motivate people to give so that they will get. Jesus is not promising that if you give, God will give you more in return. He is stating the principle that if you are a generous person, others will be generous toward you. But you may give and be impoverished because you gave.

(4) Pressure. Responding to high-pressure tactics of Christian fund-raisers is another wrong motive. We are not to give “under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7).

(5) Gimmicks. This is related both to greed and pressure. All sorts of gimmicks are used to get people to give: “For your donation, I’ll send you my latest book.” I get fund-raising phone calls, where I’m told I can charge it on my Visa! I’ve been told that if I will give, the names of my loved ones will be entered in a special book to be placed in the lobby of the new building! Or, the worst is, “We’ll send you a special prayer cloth, blessed by brother so-and-so.” These are all worldly gimmicks, opposed to biblical giv-ing.

(6) Power. Money is power. Some people threaten to take their large gifts elsewhere if you don’t do what they want. That may be how politics operates, but that isn’t how God’s church operates. It’s wrong to show preference to the wealthy (James 2:1-9). It’s sin to use your money to try to buy spiritual influence (Acts 8:18-24).

B. Right motives for giving:

(1) I give because God has given to me. I mentioned this last week, but it bears repeating because it is the prime motive in grace giving. God has given us everything (James 1:17). He gave His Son to provide for our salvation. He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph. 1:3). He “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). Because He has given so abundantly to us, we should respond by giving generously back to Him.

(2) I give because I want to please God. Out of response to God’s grace in my life, I will want to please God by pursuing various spiritual goals:

*I want God to be glorified. God is glorified when we give from the right motives and in the right way (2 Cor. 9:13). God’s glory is the overarching goal of the Christian life.

*I want my heart to be right before God. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). Your heart follows your treasure. If I want my heart concerned with the things of God, then I must invest in His work.

*I want God to be my master. “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24). Generous giving loosens your grasp on money.

*I want my life to be used by God (2 Cor. 9:10). God could have chosen to work apart from us, but He did not. He could have used angels or loudspeakers from heaven to spread the gospel, but He chose to use us. And it takes money to further God’s work. If you don’t give, God will use someone else and you’ll miss the blessing of being used of God.

*I want to lay up treasures in heaven. Investments on earth are insecure and transitory. Investments in heaven are secure and eternal. There is no more sound investment than that of reaching people with the good news of Christ. God credits money which we give to further His kingdom as fruit to our account, and He will reward us for it someday (Matt. 6:4; 19-20; 1 Tim. 6:19).

*I want my faith to grow (2 Cor. 9:8-11). God will provide money for you to give if you will trust Him for it. If you are willing to be a channel for God’s resources, He will give you money to give. But if you bottle it up and keep it for your own comforts, the flow will dry up. Ask God to give you money to give. Then make sure you give it!

*I want to be a compassionate person (1 John 3:17; James 2:15-16). In a day like ours, when we’re hit with so many needs from all over the world, it’s easy to close up your heart and not give at all. I know we can’t respond to every poor person around the world, but we need to do all we can to show compassion in the name of Christ (Matt. 25:31-46).

*I want to be a worshiper of God. Giving is a sacrifice that pleases God (Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:16). King David knew the connection between giving and worship. He said, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24). I like to give enough that it pinches our lifestyle. If it’s convenient, it’s not worship. Worship is costly.

Thus because God has given so abundantly to me, and because I want to please Him, I am motivated to give cheerfully and generously to His work.

3. How should I give? I should give in accordance with biblical principles.

There are several basic principles of giving:

A. I should give in a pre-planned, systematic way.

(1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 9:7). “As he may prosper” implies that whenever I receive income, I should give. “The first day of the week” implies regular giving as an act of worship. “Just as he has purposed” implies advance planning, not giving on impulse. In response to God’s grace, each household ought to sit down and determine a fixed amount they believe God wants them to give, and then follow through systematically. You should not wait until the offering plate is coming down the aisle and then think, “Oh no! I haven’t given for a while. I’d better drop something in.”

How do you arrive at the percentage? Pray about it and start with something above ten percent. Then trust God by increasing the percentage each year, especially if you get a raise. Warning: You’ll be tempted to spend the extra on yourself! Give it as the firstfruits, off the top, and trust God to meet your other needs.

B. I should give in secret to the Lord, not in public before men.

As I already mentioned, giving because of pride, power, or human recognition are wrong. Jesus says that we are to give in secret, but with the awareness that God is watching (Matt. 6:1-4). Every time you give, do it before the Lord.

C. I should give sacrificially at times.

The norm is, “as God has prospered.” But at times God wants us to give more than we think we can afford (2 Cor. 8:2-3, “beyond their ability”). Perhaps you systematically give 15% of your income. An opportunity to give comes along and the Lord says, “I want you to dip into your savings and give $2,000.” Or some extra money comes your way, and the Lord says, “Instead of 15%, I want you to give it all.”

I read of a church of 400 members in Thailand where every member tithes. In their case, tithing is sacrificial giving, because the members all make only the U.S. equivalent of 20 cents a week, plus their rice! But because they give sacrificially, they support their own pastor, they have sent two missionary families to other hard-to-reach areas, and they generously help other poor. One other fact: each member of this church has leprosy!

Thus all believers are to give from biblical motives in line with biblical principles.

4. To whom should I give? I should give to destitute family members, to spiritual ministries, and to the needy.

We’re all inundated with so many requests for giving. How do we sort them out and determine which ones to give to and which ones to ignore? I can’t answer that question completely, but I can give some guidelines:

A. Give to destitute family members.

This is your first priority in giving, since to fail to do it makes you worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). “Your own” refers to your immediate family: children, aged parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters. This does not include a lazy, irresponsible family member who doesn’t work and who squanders money on alcohol and drugs (2 Thess. 3:10). A “widow indeed” (1 Tim. 5:3-16) refers to a godly woman without any family members to look after her. The church must help these, but widows with families were to be cared for by their families. It is not right to deprive your own family of the necessities of life in order to give to others.

B. Give to spiritual ministries.

Since the local church is God’s ordained means for evangelism and discipleship, it ought to be next in priority for giving after destitute family members are cared for. Those who labor at preaching the Word are worthy of financial remuneration (Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). The church is also to support workers sent out to evangelize and plant new churches in places where the gospel has not penetrated (3 John 7; 1 Cor. 9:3-14).

You need to be wise about giving to Christian organizations. Here are some questions you can ask to get maximum effectiveness from your giving:

What does the organization believe? Do you know and agree with their statement of faith, their objectives, program, and methods? Is it strategic in completing the Great Commission?

Financial questions: Is there an audited financial statement available? Is the organization a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability? How much do they spend on program versus overhead? (More than 25% on administration and fund-raising is suspect.) Does your gift go where you intended? Is your gift tax-deductible? (This may affect the amount you can give.) Does the organization have a standard of excellence along with freedom from waste and extravagance?

What do you know about the people involved with the organization or the person you may support? Are they people of biblical conviction and integrity? Do they depend on the Lord for their ministry and support or do they use high-pressure appeals for money? Are they clear in their objectives? Are they accountable for their ministries?

C. Give to needy persons.

We should give to help meet physical needs: food, shelter, medicine, etc. (Matt. 25:35-40; Luke 10:30-37; Rom. 12:13; 15:26-27; 1 John 3:17-18). There is an order of priority here (Gal 6:10): First we help believers, locally and in other areas. Second, we help others (“all men”) as a part of our witness, offering assistance in the name of Christ. If you want, you may designate part or all of your offering to our church “SOS” fund, which goes to help the needy. We use this fund almost every week.

Thus the general priority for giving moves outward from your immediate family, to your extended family, to the local church (including needy saints), to the outreach of the church through missions (including helping needy unbelievers).

5. What will happen when I give? When I give, God will bless with His results.

I cannot be exhaustive, but let me mention five results:

A. I and my family will be blessed. God blesses faith and obedience which are at the heart of biblical giving. If you give, God promises to supply your needs (not your wants!--Phil. 4:17-19).

B. Others’ needs will be met (Phil. 4:16, 18; 2 Cor. 8:13-14; 9:12). God’s work and workers will not be hindered. The needs of the poor will be met.

C. God will be thanked and glorified (2 Cor. 9:11-13, 15). He will get the praise if we give His way.

D. The Body of Christ will be united in prayer and fellow-ship (2 Cor. 9:14). Since your heart follows your treasure, you will be concerned about and will pray for those to whom you give.

E. People will spend eternity with God because of your giving. How can you put a price tag on that? What could possibly be more important?


If believers will give from biblical motives, in line with biblical principles and priorities, God will bless with His results.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells the story of a farmer who reported happily to his wife that their best cow had given birth to twin calves, one red and one white. He said, “You know, I think we should dedicate one of these calves to the Lord. We’ll bring them up together, and when the time comes we’ll sell one and keep the proceeds and we’ll sell the other and give the proceeds to the Lord’s work.”

His wife asked him which one he was going to dedicate to the Lord’s work. “There’s no need to bother with that now,” he replied. “We’ll treat them both the same and when the time comes we’ll do as I say.” And off he went.

A few months later, the farmer came into the kitchen looking miserable and unhappy. When his wife asked what was wrong, he sadly said, “I have some bad news. The Lord’s calf died.” “But,” she said, “you had not decided which one was to be the Lord’s calf.” “Oh, yes,” he said, “I had always decided it was to be the white one and that’s the one that died. The Lord’s calf is dead.”

Lloyd-Jones observes, “It’s always the Lord’s calf that dies!” (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount [Eerdmans] 2:95-96). That story shows how easy it is to have good intentions about giving to the Lord’s work, but also how easy it is not to follow through.

There’s a story about a stingy Scotsman who accidentally tossed a crown into the collection plate thinking it was a penny. When he saw his mistake, he asked to have it back. The deacon refused, so the Scotsman consoled himself by saying, “Aweel, aweel, I’ll get credit for it in heaven.” The deacon responded, “Na, na, ye’ll get credit for the penny.”

May I ask, “How is your account in heaven?” Are you storing up many treasures there, so that you are rich toward God? Or, are you storing up treasures here on earth? If your account in heaven is meager, there’s still time. Begin now, even today, to sit down as God’s steward and get your financial house in order. Purpose to begin giving God’s way. And don’t let God’s calf die!

Discussion Questions

  1. Should a Christian who is in debt give?
  2. Is it wrong for a church or Christian organization to accept money from unbelievers (including foundations)?
  3. Since the world has now become our neighbor, how can we know which needs to meet and which to ignore?
  4. Is it wrong for American Christians to live in luxury when there are so many needy people around the world?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Finance, Spiritual Life, Tithing

Contend Earnestly For The Faith

Article contributed by Stand To Reason
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Three years ago I sat on a short bench in a small stone church on the outskirts of Oxford. In a tiny graveyard outside was a flat tombstone with the name “Clive Staples Lewis” etched into the granite.

The pew my wife and I were sitting in was the same place C.S. Lewis occupied with his brother Warnie every Sunday morning for decades as they worshipped together at Trinity Church.

This man, C.S. Lewis, probably more than anyone else in the 20th century, lived out the admonition of a passage I want you to think about. Here it is:

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

Never before in my lifetime has this verse been more important for Christians to hear, consider, and heed.

Note three elements in this verse that are essential to Jude’s entreaty.

First, Jude makes reference to a specific message with specific content, the “faith once and for all delivered”—the foundation of “our common salvation.” Second is the admonition to “contend earnestly” for that faith—to proclaim it, guard it, and defend it. Finally, Jude reminds us that it had been “delivered” to the saints—passed on from the disciples to the next generation in the church.

Here’s why those three elements of Jude’s admonition are critical for you and I right now. At the beginning of the 21st century we are in the cultural and theological fight of our lives. The attack is coming from many directions, but we are facing serious challenges on two broad fronts. Simply put, we have trouble in the world and trouble in the church.

Trouble in the World

Currently, the Christian worldview is facing assault on multiple fronts.

Our story starts, “In the beginning, God,” yet a host of dedicated writers—collectively known as the “new atheists” 1—have been doing their best to ensure our story never gets off the ground. There are also attacks on the integrity of our authority base, the Bible,2 and a myriad of assaults on the historicity of the central player in our drama—Jesus of Nazareth.

In the midst of this academic attack, there is an increasingly pervasive godlessness and a militant relativism in the culture. The 21st century began as an era of radical skepticism, especially in the area of morality and religion. As a result, the moral rulebook is being rewritten. Right has become wrong and wrong right.

In addition, there is an increasing hostility towards those who take Jesus seriously regarding the Great Commission. Jesus said he came, “To seek to save that which was lost” (Lk. 19:10), “to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28), and “to call sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:32). That was the way He described His own mission.

Yet when we proclaim this message—Jesus’ central message—we court conflict. Indeed, to be faithful to Jesus’ claim that He is the only Savior is increasingly considered an example of “spreading hate.”

For example, a number of years ago the Southern Baptists planned to evangelize Jews during a summer outreach in Chicago. A consortium of religious groups in that city—including Christian denominations, amazingly—demanded that the Baptists stay home. They warned that evangelism in their city would encourage hate crimes. In fact, a Jewish group claimed it invited “theological hatred.”3

This tendency to see the Gospel as a message of hate gained momentum after 9/11. As the smoke still billowed from the wreckage of World Trade I & II, Thomas Friedman wrote a column in the New York Times titled “The Real War” warning of what he termed “religious totalitarianism”:

If 9/11 was indeed the onset of World War III, we have to understand what this war is about. We’re not fighting to eradicate “terrorism.” Terrorism is just a tool. We’re fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism….a view of the world that my faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated. That’s bin Ladenism. But unlike Nazism, religious totalitarianism can’t be fought by armies alone. It has to be fought in schools, mosques, churches and synagogues, and can be defeated only with the help of imams, rabbis and priests.4 [emphasis added]

He then applauded a rabbi who “…set up his own schools in Israel to compete with fundamentalist Jews, Muslims, and Christians, who used their schools to preach exclusivist religious visions.”5

This same theme keeps popping up everywhere I go: We are the enemy. Last fall on the radio I heard Chris Matthews of “Hardball” fame say the people in America most like the Taliban were the Evangelical Christians.

This puts any church committed to fulfilling the Great Commission directly in the crosshairs of the culture wars.

Trouble in the Church

There’s not only trouble in the world—trouble from the outside—but there is serious trouble on the inside. Sadly, in spite of the plethora of materials available to believers, there is still a profound biblical illiteracy in Christian circles.

In 2005, researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Denton conducted a “National Study of Youth and Religion” and recorded their finding in their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Here’s what they discovered.

First, they learned there is no generation gap with young people when it comes to religion. Teens were not “spiritual seekers,” but rather were at home in church circles with 75% identifying with some form of Christianity.

The second thing they discovered, however, was not comforting. When these same committed Christian teenagers were interviewed one-on-one about the specifics of their convictions, almost none from any religious background could articulate the most basic beliefs of the faith.

Smith and Denton summed up their theology as “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” To these teens, religion was about being nice and enjoying a relationship with a God who mostly wanted them to be happy and feel good about themselves—which was, as it turned out, the very same religious view of their parents.

But the picture gets worse.

In September of 2009, I was a guest at an interfaith dialog in Los Angeles with Roman Catholic priest Gregory Coiro before a large Jewish audience on Rosh Hashanah.

When asked why Jesus was the only way of salvation, I offered a lucid account of the Gospel. Father Coiro then affirmed the importance of Jesus, but assured the audience that their honest and sincere pursuit of Judaism counted as saving faith in God’s eyes. These Jews were safe, beneficiaries of the cross even though they rejected Jesus.

Surprisingly, large numbers of Protestants agree. God doesn’t really care what faith you follow since they all teach basically the same life lessons. In the midst of this theological confusion, Christians of all stripes are falling away from the truth en masse, becoming casualties of a culture that celebrates pluralism.

With trouble in the world and trouble in the church, what do we do to fulfill Jude’s exhortation? Paul’s last letter gives the answer.

Paul’s Swan Song

If you visit Rome and take the right tour, you will be shown an ancient cistern northwest of the city. Originally meant to hold water, it later served as a dungeon. Mamertine prison is a circular, low-ceilinged, underground room of rock where prisoners were lowered in on a rope.

I’ve seen pictures of the dank, dismal interior. Against one wall there is a low, protruding rock shelf of sorts. It’s the only flat place in the cell, the only surface someone could write on. This is likely the very spot—this small ledge of rock—where the apostle Paul wrote his spiritual last will and testament. We know it as 2 Timothy.

Of all the New Testament books, 2 Timothy is my favorite. It was Paul’s final message, his swan song, the last thing he ever wrote. It is clear, uncomplicated, and to the point, speaking forcefully and practically to the challenges of the 21st century.

2 Timothy gives the answer to our question about guarding the Gospel, because that is the book’s theme, found explicitly in 1:14: “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.” Paul’s message is absolutely vital to each one of us today because he tells us exactly what it looks like in any century to contend earnestly for the faith.

You see, the early church was also facing trouble on two fronts.

There was trouble for Christians in the world. They were under tremendous attack in that culture. In A.D. 64, a fire broke out in Rome that raged for six days and seven nights, totally destroying a great part of the city. Emperor Nero falsely charged the Christians and punished them with “the most exquisite tortures,” as the historian, Tacitus, records in his Annals:

They were covered with the hides of wild beasts and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and, when day declined, burned to serve for nocturnal lights. Nero offered his own gardens for that spectacle.6

In the midst of this extreme physical persecution of the church, Paul warned of a pervasive godlessness coming in the culture:

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. (2 Tim. 3:1-4)

Timothy would also be facing trouble in the church:

The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

Paul’s Simple Solution

What is Paul’s answer to Timothy’s challenge, which is the same challenge we face? It’s refreshingly simple and the heart of it can be captured in three words: “You, however, continue…” (3:14).

Paul does not tell Timothy to look forward to any new movements of the Spirit, any fresh word from God, or any insider’s spiritual fad. He points not to future, but rather to the past. “Timothy, don’t look forward,” he says. “Look backward.” Here is the full citation, part of which I’m sure is familiar to you:

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:14-17)

Then Paul amps it up another notch. At the beginning of chapter four he challenges Timothy with the most sober language he can muster:

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His Kingdom: Preach the Word. Be ready in season and out of season. Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with great patience and instruction. Be sober in all things. Endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (4:1-2, 5).

Simply put, Paul tells Timothy to guard the Gospel by continuing in the truth already revealed. In other words, when all else fails, read—and follow—the directions.

But that is not enough.

Passing the Baton

I want you to notice something about 2 Timothy. Paul wrote his final letter to a person, not a group. He passed the baton of the Gospel to a faithful individual, a young man named Timothy, and then told him to do the same: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Note the four generations in this passage: Paul, Timothy, faithful disciples, and “others”—the baton being handed down from one individual person to the next. Paul knew it would not be enough for any Christian to continue in the truth. It also needed to be handed down. Indeed, guarding the Gospel is not complete until it has been passed on effectively.

When I became a follower of Christ at UCLA in 1973, I was a loud, opinionated, obnoxious, long-haired hippie. Now, 39 years later, I am no longer a long-haired hippie. I’m also not nearly as obnoxious as I used to be. I owe that transformation largely to one man: Craig Englert.

For two years—at great risk to life and limb—Craig took me under his wing. I’ve had other mentors since then, but I know with certainty that without Craig I would not be in the position I’m in today.

Craig Englert and others who followed him in my life were not content to guard the truth. They needed to entrust it to others—even me, as unlikely as it seemed at the time—in order for the Gospel to go forward. They passed the baton to me, as Paul had done with Timothy. Indeed, they were passing the same baton Paul passed to Timothy that was then passed down for two thousand years—from one, to another, to another until it was mine to carry.

In the summer Olympics of 2008 in Beijing, American runners suffered a humiliating defeat in the 4 X 100 relays. In the anchor leg, Darvis Patton handed the baton to Tyson Gay, but Gay never got it. In the middle of the handoff, they dropped the baton.

Tyson Gay was our best sprinter. We had the fastest team. It didn’t matter. They dropped the baton, so we lost the race. In fact, we never even finished that race.

Paul told Timothy, “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules” (2:5). “Timothy,” Paul said, “you cannot drop the baton.”

And we cannot drop the baton, either. If we do, we lose.

No Surprises

So how do we guard the Gospel? Two ways. First, we continue in the things already delivered to us. Second, we pass the baton. Those are the rules.

If we disregard Paul’s solution, we should not be surprised when we remain children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming (Eph. 4:14).

If we don’t guard the Gospel, we should not be surprised when we are taken captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ (Col. 2:8).

If we don’t pass the baton, we should not be surprised when we will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have our ears tickled, we accumulate for ourselves teachers in accordance to our own desires, and turn away our ears from the truth, and turn aside to myths (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

I asked Father Coiro at that meeting on Rosh Hashanah if there were any New Testament evidence for the assurances he offered our Jewish audience. He cited Jesus’ comment, “For he who is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:40). The Jews in our company, he pointed out, were not against Jesus. They must then, by default, be for Him, the priest reasoned.

Yet Jesus also said, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters” (Matt. 12:30). So what do we make of this apparent contradiction in Jesus’ teaching? Check the context. When we do, we discover that Jesus was referring to entirely different groups.

In the first case, Jesus was speaking of those who had been performing miracles in His name, but were not part of His core group of disciples—Christians, in other words, not unbelieving Jews. In the second case, Jesus was speaking to Jews who had rejected his Messianic claim.

The question for us, then, is, What kind of group were Father Coiro and I talking to at our event? People who were working miracles in the name of Jesus, or people who were rejecting Jesus’ messianic claim? Father Coiro had applied the wrong passage to our Jewish listeners.

When Jesus was speaking to a group like we had been that day, He said, “Unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (Jn. 8:24). When Peter was speaking to a group like we had been that day, he said, “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” (Acts 4:12). When Paul was writing about a group like we had been speaking to that day he wrote:

I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:2-4)

Finishing the Race

The key to contending for the faith—to surviving the spiritual onslaught of the 21st century—is to guard the Gospel. The key to that is found in two simple phrases. One, “Continue in the things you have learned.” Back to the basics. Back to the Word as it has been entrusted to us. And two, entrust it to faithful disciples who will be able to teach others also.

That’s it. Guard the Gospel by continuing in the truth already revealed, then pass the baton. Proclaim the truth faithfully, guard it diligently, and pass it on carefully. That is how we contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. That is how we guard the Gospel Paul entrusted to Timothy, now entrusted to us.

And not until we do that can we say what Paul said at the end of his magnificent letter: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”7

1 Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great—How Religion Poisons Everything; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion; Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell; and Sam Harris, The End of Faith.

2 E.g., authors like Bart Ehrman with his best seller, Misquoting Jesus.

3 Jeffery L. Sheler, “Unwelcome Prayers,” U.S. News & World Report, 9/20/99.

4 Thomas Friedman, “The Real War,” New York Times, November, 27, 2001.

5 Ibid.

6 Tacitus, Annals, xv. 44.

7 2 Tim. 4:6.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Cultural Issues, Engage, Faith, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Philosophy, Worldview


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This 9 part study on Evangelism was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2010. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.

For permission to reproduce/distribute these resources from Steve Cole (including the Word document and audio files found on the individual lesson pages below) please see's ministry friendly copyright and permissions page. Likewise, to reproduce/distribute PDF/audio versions of his messages which may be found on Flagstaff Christian Fellowship's website see their permission statement.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Life, Discipleship, Engage, Equip, Evangelism, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 1: Help Wanted (Matthew 9:35-38)

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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…

1. We need to see as Jesus saw.

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.

A. Jesus saw the great need of lost people (9:36).

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?

B. Jesus saw the great harvest of lost people (9:37).

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,

C. Jesus saw the great need for workers for the harvest (9:37b).

“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:

2. We need to feel as Jesus felt.

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.

3. We need to do as Jesus did.

What did Jesus do? He ministered to people’s needs and He prayed for more workers.

A. Jesus ministered to people’s spiritual and physical needs.

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.

B. Jesus prayed for more workers.

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.

Application Questions

  1. How can we become more sensitive to the needs of others? What practical things can we do to grow in this way?
  2. How do we show compassion to needy people without creating an unhealthy situation where they become dependent on us? What guidelines apply here?
  3. Often lost people seem to be fairly “together.” How can we make an opening for the gospel with people who don’t seem to sense their need for it?
  4. How can a Christian know whether God is calling him/her into “full time” Christian work?

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

Related Topics: Christology, Evangelism

Lesson 2: What Does it Mean to be Saved? (Ephesians 2:8-10)

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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:

1. Salvation is totally of God, apart from any human works or merit.

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:

A. To be saved, a person must have some realization of the fact that he is lost.

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.

B. To be saved means that the Lord Jesus Christ has rescued us from God’s wrath and judgment.

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).

C. God saves us by His grace alone, which excludes human works or merit.

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.

2. God’s gift of salvation is received through faith alone.

Saving faith is not a vague, general belief in God. Nor is it merely agreeing with certain facts. Saving faith has three elements:

A. Saving faith includes knowledge, assent, and trust.

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?”

B. Saving faith is God’s gift to us.

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.

3. Salvation results in a life of good works.

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!

Application Questions

  1. Some would argue that fallen sinners can, on their own free will, choose to believe in Christ. What Scriptures refute this? Why is it important to refute it?
  2. How can we impress on lost people the serious place they are in before God without alienating them with a message of “hellfire and damnation”?
  3. Is it mixing works with grace to appeal to lost people to submit to Jesus as Lord? Why/why not? Give biblical support.
  4. Why does Paul state that God prepared our good works beforehand? What is his practical aim?

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

Related Topics: Evangelism, Faith, Grace, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Lesson 3: The Mark of True Conversion (Various Scriptures)

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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…

1. Those who are lost must turn from sin to be saved.

Is repentance, as many purport, just a change of mind? No!

A. Repentance is to turn to God from sin.

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…

B. Our presentation of the gospel is incomplete if we do not talk about turning to God from sin.

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!”

2. Those who are saved will be marked by repentance as an ongoing way of life.

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:

3. When sinners repent, God welcomes them with great joy.

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.

Application Questions

  1. Is repentance different from a pre-salvation effort to clean up one’s life? How so?
  2. Some charge that preaching repentance to lost people is adding works to faith alone. How would you answer this?
  3. Is a person who makes a profession of faith but then is defeated by some habitual sin (like drinking or drugs) necessarily unrepentant? How can he know whether he’s truly saved?
  4. Some say that because faith alone saves, we should never confront an unbeliever’s sin. Is this biblical? Discuss Matt. 14:4; 19:16-22; 23:1-33.

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

Related Topics: Confession, Evangelism, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 4: Wise Witnessing (Colossians 4:2-6)

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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.

1. To be wise witnesses, walk with wisdom.

“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.

A. Walking with wisdom begins privately through prayer.

“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.

B. Walking with wisdom occurs outwardly by making the most of the opportunity.

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?

2, To be wise witnesses, talk with grace to those who are outside of Christ.

There are two things here: First, there is the content of the gospel itself; then, there is how we talk about that content.

A. Talk about the content of the gospel.

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:

B. Talk about the content of the gospel in a winsome manner.

Paul tells us (4:6), “Be gracious; be interesting; be sensitive.”

(1) Be gracious.

“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.

(2) Be interesting.

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?

(3) Be sensitive.

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!

Application Questions

  1. What do you find most difficult about witnessing? Why?
  2. Where is the biblical balance between sensitivity and boldness?
  3. To what extent should we go against our personality in witnessing? Should a shy person be bold?
  4. How can we be more alert to opportunities for the gospel?

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

Related Topics: Evangelism, Grace, Wisdom

Lesson 5: Jesus Teaches us to Witness, Part 1 (John 4:1-42)

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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.

Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well teaches us much about witnessing:

1. Contact others socially (4:7).

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!

2. Establish a common interest or link (4:7).

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.

3. Buy up the opportunity (4:10).

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.

4. Cross cultural barriers, if need be, to reach people (4:9, 27).

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.

5. Use a common situation to introduce spiritual matters (4:7-10).

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.

6. Arouse interest by your life and words (4:7-10).

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.”

7. Use the natural to explain the supernatural (4:9-15).

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.’”

8. Don’t expect a completely mature response from a seeking person (4:15).

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.

9. Point out the need, but do it graciously (4:16-18).

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.

10. Avoid arguments (4:12-14, 21-24).

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:

11. Don’t make concessions, but offer gentle correction (4:22).

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.

12. Stick with the main issue (4:20-26).

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?”

Application Questions

  1. What are some ways to contact unbelievers socially and establish common interests without being manipulative?
  2. How can we know how quickly to direct a conversation to spiritual things? When should we back off?
  3. Do you have any cultural barriers that you need to overcome to be a witness to someone you have contact with?

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

Related Topics: Christology, Evangelism, Wisdom

Lesson 6: Jesus Teaches us to Witness, Part 2 (John 4:1-42)

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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:

Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well teaches us much about witnessing:

1. Contact others socially (4:7).

2. Establish a common interest or link (4:7).

3. Buy up the opportunity (4:10).

4. Cross cultural barriers, if need be, to reach people (4:9, 27).

5. Use a common situation to introduce spiritual matters (4:7-10).

6. Arouse interest by your life and words (4:7-10).

7. Use the natural to explain the supernatural (4:9-15).

8. Don’t expect a completely mature response from a seeking person (4:15).

9. Point out the need, but do it graciously (4:16-18).

10. Avoid arguments (4:12-14, 21-24).

11. Don’t make concessions, but offer gentle correction (4:22).

12. Stick with the main issue (4:20-26).

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:

13. Confront directly with the person of Christ and His claims (4:13-14, 26).

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!

14. To be a witness, be a worshiper (4:23-24).

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.”

15. Focus on the need for a heart relationship with God, as opposed to outward religion (4:23-24).

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.

16. Anyone who has met Jesus can be a witness (4:28-30, 39).

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.

17. Put spiritual opportunities ahead of your physical needs (4:31-34).

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!

18. Keep your eyes open for an unexpected spiritual harvest (4:35).

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.

19. Sowing is necessary for reaping (4:36-38).

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.

20. When you reap a harvest, probably others have sown before you (4:38).

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’ encounter with the woman at the well teaches us much about the Savior:

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:

1. Jesus Christ is fully human (4:6, 7).

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).

2. Jesus is fully God (4:17-18).

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!

3. Jesus was concerned for people whom His culture despised (4:9).

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.

4. Jesus can give living water and eternal life (4:14).

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.

5. Jesus is the Messiah (4:26).

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.”

6. Jesus was sent by God and did His will (4:34).

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.

7. Jesus is the Savior of the world (4:42).

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.

Application Questions

  1. Which questions or objections (if any) need to be answered before the person can come to saving faith? Why?
  2. Why is witness most effective when it is an overflow of worship? Is guilt a good motivation to witness?
  3. What are some practical ways that you could be sowing the seed of the gospel? Pray about this!
  4. Must a person believe that Jesus is God to be saved? How much should we emphasize this in witnessing?

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

Related Topics: Christology, Evangelism, Soteriology (Salvation)