November 1, 2013

God's Sovereignty and Gospel Conversations

This is the fourth in a series of posts regarding talking about the gospel. Each post will be a section from a booklet called "Gospel Conversations" that was printed in September at Northview Community Church. This post is an adaptation of the booklet's third chapter. If you would like to download a free PDF of the entire booklet, you can do so here.

The words “evangelism” and “evangelist” conjures up a plethora of reactions.  Some among us hear those words and immediately feel passionate and excited to talk to someone about the greatness and glory of Jesus.  For some, the words lead to thoughts of bait-and-switch strategies, or aggressive and domineering salespeople.  For others the words bring a deep sense of guilt and they would rather change the subject altogether.  Both evangelism and evangelist come from the root word evangel.  The word evangel comes from the Greek word euangelion which means “good news.”  The word evangel is essentially synonymous with the word gospel.  So, evangelism is simply communicating/articulating/preaching the good news, and an evangelist is someone who communicates/articulates/preaches the good news.

I have a friend named Fred.  He can make friends with anyone and everyone - and he makes sure every single one of them knows how much he loves Jesus.  God has equipped his Church by designing some amongst us to be gifted evangelists (Ephesians 4:11).  These people find it incredibly easy to talk about Jesus in any (and every) situation without having to force it.  Fred is one of these people, and I’m grateful that God has gifted him that way.

Evangelists are also typically the ones who are often tapped on the shoulder to help the rest of the church learn how to be a gifted evangelist.  Many resources and seminars try to persuade people that everyone is gifted as an evangelist and that the evangelism process is simple, natural, and easy.  One can almost get the impression that evangelism is as effortless as breathing, and if it isn’t then there must be something wrong with you.

For some, talking about the good news of Jesus is effortless.  Others in the church have different gifts (e.g., serving, teaching, helping, leading, etc.) that they bring to the community.  However, it is clear that in the New Testament all disciples of Jesus must be disciple-making-disciples (Matthew 28:19-20).  All disciples of Jesus ought to be able to communicate the basics of what they believe when the opportunities present themselves, even though not everyone will be gifted as an evangelist.

One author and teacher who helps Christians embrace their responsibility to talk about the good news of Jesus Christ is Randy Newman.  Randy is someone who has worked on university campuses for decades, talking about the hope that can be found in Jesus, and yet he doesn’t consider himself an effortless evangelist.  For Randy, every time he is about to talk about the gospel he feels anxious and uncomfortable.  In fact, Randy notes that one paradox of sharing your faith in Christ is, “If we think evangelism is supposed to be easy, we’re more likely to quit.”  Randy has embraced the fact that talking about Jesus will feel uncomfortable. Embracing that has helped him continue on with the task anyway.

Evangelism is simply the process of articulating the gospel, and discipleship is the process of helping people learn to follow and obey Jesus Christ as Lord and King.  Evangelism and discipleship may be better understood as two points on a spectrum that are connected (like a piece of string) rather than two completely separated entities that vaguely relate to each other (like two cliffs separated by a chasm).  It’s for this reason that the term “gospel conversation” can be helpful.  Every Christian should be able to talk about the good news of Jesus Christ, even if they aren’t a gifted evangelist.  Furthermore, Christians should talk to people of all backgrounds about the importance of the gospel.  They should talk about the gospel with atheistic, Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist people in their sphere of influence.  They should talk about the gospel with nominal Christians in their sphere of influence.  They should even talk about the gospel with people in their sphere of influence who are committed to submitting to the Lordship of Jesus in all areas of their life.  The gospel is the power of God for salvation, and salvation is a multidimensional process that includes our life today and our hope for tomorrow.  The gospel is essential for life, therefore, conversations about the gospel are also essential for all of life.

What is meant when the term “gospel conversation” is used?  For our purposes it can be defined as:

A compassionate conversation that (1) clearly articulates the gospel (2) with the intent that the participants may turn from their sinful rebellion to holistically following and trusting Christ (3) for their good and God’s glory.

Let’s spend a little bit of time unpacking each of the three main parts of our definition.

1.  Clearly articulates the gospel
In order for a conversation to be a gospel conversation, there must be an intentional articulation of the gospel.  This does not mean that in order for a conversation to be a gospel conversation you have to articulate every aspect of the whole good news of the Bible (i.e., Creation - Rebellion - Reconciliation - Consummation), or every aspect of the message of salvation (i.e., God - Man - Christ).  However, a gospel conversation will seek to intentionally explore and clearly communicate at least a portion of either the whole good news of the Bible or the message of salvation.  While it is ideal to articulate the gospel from beginning to end, not all conversations will allow this to happen in a natural way.

2.  Participants turn from sinful rebellion to holistically following and trusting Christ

Monologues involve one person talking to another person or a group.  A conversation is by its very nature a two-way exchange.  It is for this reason that gospel conversations do not merely seek to influence one of the conversation partners, but both conversation partners.  There is a desire and intent that both conversation partners will turn away from their sinful rebellion, believe and receive the gospel, and holistically follow and trust in Jesus Christ.  It is not insincere or inauthentic to come to a conversation with an intent to communicate something.  In reality, we all come to conversations and try to be understood and communicate something that we believe to be true, beautiful, or important.  Intention is not disingenuous.  However, intention and manipulation ought to be differentiated.  While we have the intent in our gospel conversations for people to repent and believe the gospel, we ought never manipulate a person in the process.  We can talk about how Jesus is more glorious than we can conceive of, but we must allow the Holy Spirit to do the work of convicting of sin and making Jesus seem more precious than they could have ever imagined.   

3.  Their good and God’s glory
How people respond to the gospel has an eternal effect. It’s our desire that people would respond positively to the gospel so they can be reconciled to God, enjoy him more than anything else in the universe, and experience the benefits that accompany reconciliation with God.  We don’t communicate the gospel so we can feel less guilty or put a checkmark beside ‘evangelize’ in our mental Christian to-do list.  We share the gospel for the benefit of others.  We seek that in all areas of our life, including our conversations about the gospel of Jesus Christ, God would be glorified.  The Creator has designed us to function at our best when seek to make much of God and enjoy him more than anything else in the universe, and also when we seek the wellbeing of others.

Gospel Conversations and God’s Sovereignty

The Bible is full of examples of the sovereignty of God over all things.  God is sovereign over Creation (e.g., Job 38:1-21), our plans (e.g., Proverbs 19:21), and even salvation (e.g., Acts 13:48, Romans 8:29-30).  Whenever the topic of God’s sovereignty is raised in a conversation about evangelism and salvation, there is a myriad of responses.  One response goes something like this:  “If God is sovereign over salvation, then humans do not have the ability to choose freely; everything is determined and human actions have no consequence.”  Another response is:  “If God is sovereign over salvation then he does not need us to evangelize in order for someone to come to faith in Jesus Christ.”

After a lengthy discussion on the sovereignty of God over the salvation of both Jews and Greeks in Romans 9, the Apostle Paul says the following regarding the importance of both preaching, and responding personally to, the gospel:

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ (Romans 10:12-15)

J.I. Packer’s book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, explores at length the connection between God’s sovereignty and proclaiming the good news of Jesus.  Packer argues that, rather than the sovereignty of God prohibiting our gospel conversations, it’s only because of God’s sovereignty that we have any hope of anyone coming to faith at all.  Packer states that God’s sovereignty doesn’t negate the nature and duty of gospel evangelism.  He maintains four things regarding God’s sovereignty and evangelism (or gospel conversations):

  1. The belief that God is sovereign does not negate the necessity of gospel conversations
  2. The belief that God is sovereign does not negate the urgency of gospel conversations
  3. The belief that God is sovereign does not negate the genuineness of gospel invitations
  4. The belief that God is sovereign does not negate the responsibility of people to respond to the gospel

Furthermore, Randy Newman, in a discussion about the role humans play in evangelism, articulated another helpful paradox of evangelism:  “When we remember that evangelism is impossible, we are more likely to evangelize.”  What Newman means is that without the sovereignty of God and the empowering of the Spirit, it would be impossible for someone to come to saving faith in Jesus Christ.  God is sovereign over salvation and humans are responsible to respond to what they have heard.  The Bible presents both the sovereignty of God and human responsibility as true.  As disciples of Jesus it is our responsibility to help others begin, or continue, their life as a disciple of Jesus. And knowing that God is sovereign ought to form our attitudes regarding our engagement in gospel conversations.  Packer notes three attitudes that should be formed in light of God’s sovereignty over salvation:

  1. God’s sovereignty makes us bold
  2. God’s sovereignty makes us patient
  3. God’s sovereignty makes us prayerful

All three attitudes highlighted by Packer are important to keep in mind.  We can be bold in our gospel conversations because we recognize that God is sovereign over salvation and it will only be through the Holy Spirit’s work that someone will come to saving faith.  We need not worry about fumbling with our words.  The Spirit is able to use the words of the faithful to accomplish his purpose.  God’s sovereignty makes us bold in our gospel conversations.

We must also remember to be patient.  We are not able to force someone, or convince someone, to believe the gospel.  It is up to God’s timing when someone will come to believe the gospel and submit their lives to the Lordship of Christ.  We ought to continue on in our conversations with those in our sphere of influence no matter how hopeless or frustrating the situation may seem.  God’s sovereignty makes us patient.

We must remember to be prayerful.  Prayer is essential for a gospel conversation.  Prayer expresses our dependence on God.  When we are prayerful we recognize that it is God who saves (Acts 13:48, Romans 8:29-30).  When we are prayerful we also recognize that it is God who empowers us to speak the gospel.  We must also understand that prayer is a means by which people come to, and grow in, their faith in Jesus Christ.  Prayer is a priority for disciple-makers (Acts 6:1-4) and we are all called to be disciple-makers (Matthew 28:18-20).  God’s sovereignty makes us prayerful. We pray for our gospel conversation partners before we chat with them, and we are wise to silently pray for them as we converse with them.

Even though we are not all gifted evangelists, we can all engage in gospel conversations.  Gospel conversations are compassionate conversations that (1) clearly articulate the gospel (2) with the intent that the participants may turn from their sinful rebellion to holistically following and trusting Christ (3) for their good and God’s glory.  As disciples of Jesus Christ, we can trust that our Lord is sovereign to call and pursue people to himself.  It is our job to be faithful in our witness about our faith, and we engage in the conversations with boldness, patience, and prayer.

Recommended Reading
Packer, J.I.  Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.

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