Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Previous article in this series: December 14, 2005, p. 139.
We ought to pause a moment to get our bearing as to where we are going with this series of articles. The general theme is “Personal Evangelism.” We are considering this subject in connection with the efforts of each local church to do outreach ministry. Our contention is that any such effort must include and emphasize the importance of personal evangelism by the members of the congregation. We wrote two articles that set forth the legitimacy of the activity within the office of believer: every member of the church has the calling and qualification to share his faith with others. Then we wrote four articles addressing a series of nine hindrances or obstacles that have to be overcome if we are going to practice this calling among us. We now want to direct our attention to the positive side—that is, how we can go about doing this work and what we must keep in mind in actually engaging in personal evangelism. We begin this by considering what it is that we share when we personally evangelize. The answer is simply, we share the good news of the gospel.
Two things have to be said at this point.
First, please remember that by expressing it this way we do not in any way minimize the importance of the preaching of the gospel. This seems to be the biggest difficulty we face in giving a proper place to personal evangelism. I would think that in light of what we have written in the past, this ought to be acceptable to our readers. The preaching of the gospel is God’s way of declaring the good news of salvation to everyone, whether in the local church or on the mission field. It is because of the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit through the preached word that the believers who embrace this word are equipped to take the word preached and function in their office of believers and practice personal evangelism. Also, the great goal of personal evangelism is to excite others to come and hear the preaching of the word in the established church. Personal evangelism is no threat to the preaching of the gospel. It depends upon it and expands its usefulness outside the walls of the congregation. We have cited enough passages from the Bible in our past writings so that we can now move on.
Secondly, as we say something about the content of the gospel, the good news that is shared with others by our personal evangelism, we must of necessity be brief. We speak of everything we learn from our pastors as they preach to us every Lord’s Day. We grow through our own reading of the Bible and personal study. We talk about our faith with fellow Christians and members of the congregation and learn from their experiences how the Bible speaks to them and how they apply it to their own lives as children of God. We ask, what do we say to non-Christians, nominal Christians, or even weak and seeking Christians, when we share with them the gospel? The broad answer is: everything that God gives to us in the Bible and that forms for us the basis of the good news that means so much to us personally. We want, now, to condense and simplify this knowledge so that we can better witness personally to others.
For our encouragement, we are among the most equipped and blessed people on the face of the earth to know what to say. There are precious few churches that have such a solid catechism program, Bible Study meetings for every age, and good preaching on the Lord’s Day as we do as churches. Our members, including our youth, have every advantage to know and appreciate the gospel. Even controversy has sharpened our knowledge in areas of doctrine and life. What a difference there is between us and new converts who have opportunity personally to evangelize and do their best with their limited knowledge and experience. We do not say that they are not qualified to do this, because then we deny God’s work in them, and experience testifies the opposite. In their “first love” God enables them to reach out to others and be a blessing to bring into the church many other non-Christians. From the point of view of ability to know what to say and how to express it, we have some advantage over them. This ought to encourage us to press on with the task. They have the advantage of “first love” motivation, which most of us lack. Our difficulty and lack is the motivation to go out and do it. This is why new converts in the midst of the congregation are such a blessing and motivation for us all.
Where do we start when we have the opportunity to share the good news of the gospel with someone who is not a Christian? Let’s just give a few highlights.
First, we must begin with God!
The Bible does this: “In the beginning God….” The good news of the gospel is all about our God. The world is full of false gods. As we do personal evangelism, we do not have to take up controversy with those around us first thing. If we are truly converted to God, we have in our hearts an excitement of who our God is. We cannot help but speak to others about all His wonderful works. “Many, O Lord my God, are thy wonderful works … if I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered” (Ps. 40:5). I recall during a visit to India that we had opportunity on a Sunday morning to speak about our God as a Friend (something quite foreign to any other god). The occasion was our praying together in a local coffee shop during breakfast and a local Muslim came up and asked if we were Christians. He wanted to speak with us. We talked for over an hour with him about who our God really is. That is where the gospel begins.
You may ask, should we not begin by pointing out that a non- Christian is a sinner in need of Jesus? The answer is that such a person will never know his sins, unless he stands before the God of the Bible. People have so many ideas about sin; even heathen people do, and they quite often speak about hell for sinners. When we share the gospel with non-Christians (and even other Christians who are not Reformed) the issue is always, who is God. When we speak about the holiness and justice of God as set forth in the Bible, such a person begins to realize that the one true God is pure and cannot tolerate any sin. God defines what sin is, and we stand before Him as if we are in His courtroom and He is the judge who makes such determination.
This is done so effectively in Romans. After the greeting, Paul expresses to the Roman Christians his desire to bring the gospel to them, and he details that gospel in terms of the “righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17). Furthermore, he defines the heart of the gospel in terms of justification by faith (Romans 1:17). He does not hesitate, then, to speak of the wrath of God upon the wicked, pointing out that idolatry is not ignorance but conscious rejection of the God revealed in creation, and therefore they are accountable to Him even though they wallow in their immorality, including homosexuality (Romans 1:20-32).
This is also done in our Heidelberg Catechism. I have already used Romans as the biblical basis for “proofing” the Catechism, because it follows the same pattern as the Catechism. I know my comfort, so as to live and die happily in the threefold knowledge of how great my sins and miseries are, how I am delivered from my sins in Christ, and how I shall express my gratitude towards God for that deliverance. If you examine the Catechism in the first part, man’s sinfulness is determined by God Himself. God is the One who defines sin, and not just as a few wrongful deeds, but as sinfulness rooted in our fallen human nature.
Second, the important link between sharing the virtues and praises of God and confronting the sinner with his guilt before God is the sovereignty of God. The Reformed faith is so helpful in this regard. You need but speak a few moments with a non-Christian about God and sin and he will soon make this point: “Why should I accept your God as telling me what to do? I have my own religion; you have yours. Nice to meet you!” The answer to that is God’s sovereignty, though we might not want to use that word, because the non-Christian would not understand it. We have to press on with this observation, that God has the right to expect every human being to behave himself on His terms and to define sin according to His standard, because He has created the universe and preserves every human being. We must point out that we are talking to each other this very moment because of God’s care.
Now is the time to focus on the origin of man and how God created him. This God is so great that He not only made the first man and woman, but continues providentially to keep the universe in place. God made the first couple perfect and without sin. Man voluntarily disobeyed God, even after God had warned him, “the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Adam represented every human being, hence God’s punishment justly falls on everyone of us. Romans 5:12, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” From that moment on, the human race became spiritually enemies of God, lovers of pleasure, as described in Romans 1:20-32. Their very nature became, as the Catechism says, “incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil.” God had every right to punish the entire human race with physical death at that moment, “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He could have destroyed the heaven and earth right then and there. But He did not. Why not? The answer is that He willed to save a people whom He had chosen in Jesus Christ His Son. He had planned, even before He had created man, that man would fall into sin; but, more than that, He also planned a way of salvation. With His eye upon saving His people, God preserves the universe and keeps every natural law in place. We owe our existence to Him who is the Lord of the universe. He has the right to tell us how to live and to call us to account.
Third, Jesus is God’s Son, whom He gave to die on the cross to satisfy His own justice and merit forgiveness. Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Also, “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This is the heart of the good news of the gospel. Because there is among many heathen religions mention of gods having a family and sending family members to earth to do all sorts of things with mankind, this can easily be confused as just another such narrative. The emphasis here must be on the unique way in which God sent His Son. He Fathered Him by means of a virgin, so that His Son was both God and man. This was necessary, as His work on earth was to make payment for man’s sins, and the debt of sin was everlasting punishment in hellfire. The cross has a wonder about it in that it is not just a story of a good man who was made the victim by evil men, but it is God’s cross. He willed that His Son be on that cross as the only way in which He could put on His Son His just wrath for the sins of His people. God gave His own Son as the substitute in place of man, who could never bear it. This sets forth the amazing depth of God’s love for His children; He punished His Son in order to spare us. The resurrection becomes, then, the confirmation on God’s part that His Son bore this punishment and God was satisfied. The cross reveals both justice and mercy or love in amazing harmony.
Fourth, our proper response to this wonderful work of God in giving us His Son is to acknowledge our sins by repentance (heartfelt sorrow and desire to forsake them) and to embrace Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.Romans 4:25; Romans 5:1: “Who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification. Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” At this point, the great truth of our justification by God through faith must be set forth. Justification is of great value because it establishes the legal basis for our being adopted as God’s children and enjoying the benefits of forgiveness of sin and everlasting inheritance. The condemned sinner must hear from God the Judge that he is righteous by means of his faith in Jesus. He is not righteous on the basis of his faith, because faith is God’s wonderful gift to us by grace (Eph. 2:8-10). Faith is the means or the tool that God uses to join us to His Son Jesus Christ, and through that union imparts to us the benefits of His suffering and death.
That faith includes our active response to the call of the gospel. Romans 10:9, 10: “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” For this reason, in our presentation of the gospel, the matter of confession of the Lord Jesus must not be simply stated as a fact (abstractly as a biblical teaching), but must be set forth as an urgent and necessary response. To our listener, our personal witnessing does not differ one bit from the call of the gospel set forth in the preaching of the gospel as far as the message is concerned. The difference is that in the preaching Christ Himself addresses the sinner; in our personal evangelism we share the message as we talk about God and His Son, Jesus. This is why we want to lead a seeking soul to the feet of Jesus, who speaks in the midst of His church by the word preached.
Finally, what is a proper response to God for this salvation? It is a thankful and obedient life. Romans 13:8-10: “Owe no man anything, but to love one another; for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not covet, and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” One of the joys of personal witnessing is to help a young Christian learn to say thanks by teaching him to pray, to emphasize that holy living is not by force, but by thankful response and willingness of heart. This becomes the beginning of a lifelong pilgrimage of changed living to the glory of God.
I close with this threefold summary.
First, use of the Bible is important, for God speaks through His Word. Memorize the location of key passages that will help you in your sharing of the good news. Use the Book of Romans.
Second, the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” The apostles said the same, “Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). This makes it so urgent for us. Not only do we rejoice in the God of our salvation, but we know He is the only God, and Jesus is the only Savior. The burden and motivation to speak of Him in personal evangelism is the salvation of souls. We don’t know whom God is pleased to save, thus we care about every soul that crosses our pathway, for it may be God’s very purpose in placing that person there, that we direct him to the Savior.
Finally, faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). The emphasis there is on the preached word. Personal witnessing is God’s means to prepare the heart for that great work of salvation. None of us knows just when and how God saves a soul, but one thing is sure, He uses personal witnessing and preaching as the means to accomplish it. For that we must be eternally grateful to God.
It is His wonderful work.