Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Previous article in this series: March, 15, 2005, p. 276.
God is a God of order.
Within the covenant sphere He uses believing parents to nurture, influence, and mold the hearts of children. Outside the covenant sphere He uses believers to reach out to others to share the gospel with them and, by the work of His Holy Spirit, to draw them within the covenant sphere.
In mission work, God has bound together the preaching of the gospel and the personal witness of the believer as His ordained way to save souls. This is true in a mission field of labor and it is true in the established local church. The link between the local church and the non-Christian is the witness of the individual child of God.
True, mission outreach has as its focus the non-Christian. By saying this, we do not negate the care and burden we have for one who may already be converted but has not come to enjoy the true doctrine of the Bible or to enjoy the freedom of the new life in Christ that the Bible espouses. Both of these people become the burden of the missionary in his labors as well as of each one of us as we witness to our neighbors. There is something special about the unbeliever who is lost in sin and, without God’s mercy to save him, will perish. Though the task may be more difficult, the urgency becomes more profound. Our heart of love reaches out to the most destitute because we know God is able to save, should He desire. When God desires this and brings it to pass, nothing can match the deep joy that flows from our hearts for His love and mercy shown to such a sinner. If you shed a tear of joy when your child makes public confession of faith, you can identify with what I am saying here. This converted heathen becomes your spiritual child in the Lord. Our admiration for God’s sovereignty is renewed as we witness firsthand His power to save.
Now I want to focus on a simple question, what is the goal of personal evangelism?
The answer is that, since personal evangelism is intimately connected with the preaching of the gospel, the goal is the same: the salvation of the sinner. To put it differently, the goal of personal evangelism is the conversion of the sinner to God. Now we have to explain that a bit, especially in light of so much confusion that takes place in connection with wrongful evangelism.
Frequently we hear that personal evangelism is “to win souls for Christ.” I know the Bible uses that term in Proverbs 11:30, and when used from that perspective, it is proper. However, so much man-centered evangelism uses that term in connection with what is called “confrontational evangelism.” The emphasis ends up this way: we witness to someone who is not a Christian and the goal is that, on the spot, at that very moment, the sinner is converted to God and becomes a Christian. The idea is that we must confront the sinner with the demands of the gospel and, if we do it correctly, this is the occasion for his immediate salvation. It is this sort of notion that has given rise to the notable “four spiritual laws,” which supposedly have saved thousands of souls. We reject all such notions and do not see the role of personal evangelism that way. It is far more correct to speak of personal evangelism as “sowing seeds” and sharing the content of the Word of God with one who is interested and praying that the Holy Spirit will use it in His own time.
Similarly, we ought not to speak of the goal of personal evangelism as bringing in the masses for Sunday worship. Again, we believe that part of the blessing of God on personal evangelism is that God may use it to bring others under the preached word of God. But the man-centered emphasis of the modern “Church Growth” movement has the perspective that teams of members go out and witness to others and make the gospel so attractive that we may expect thousands to respond. This may produce a mega-church all right, but the focus is not on the pure word of the gospel, but rather on what man wants and finds attractive.
Still others speak of the Christian as being the “salt and light of the world.” Their perspective onMatthew 5:13-16 is that the goal of personal evangelism is to get people to be a good element within society itself. Now, we would never deny that the Christian is the best citizen in the land and the best contributor for social responsibility, for that is true. But when we speak of the goal of evangelism on such a human, horizontal plane, we never come to grips with God’s intended purpose in the salvation of His people.
Hence, we should be clear on the following goals as they relate to personal evangelism.
First, we must emphasize that, since the salvation of the human soul is God’s domain and only He is able to accomplish it, we must set forth from the very outset that the one great goal of all evangelism, including personal evangelism as it relates to the preaching of the gospel, is the glory of our sovereign God. This is important because if we consciously include this in ourgoal, we will also be careful to incorporate in our methodology God-honoring methods. Nothing may detract from God’s honor, and everything must contribute to it. The glory of God is the purpose of our entire existence, “That we should be to the praise of his glory who first trusted in Christ” (Eph. 1:12). Paul expresses it so beautifully in Romans 11:36: “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen.” God has all the glory; we are called upon to acknowledge it by our praise.
Secondly, the Bible describes fallen man as being in a terrible condition of human depravity with its resultant state of guilt before God. As we begin to sow the seeds of the gospel in our personal evangelism, we do so with the humble prayer that God will begin to convict the sinner of his sins and of the need for forgiveness in the blood of Jesus. The darkness of human sin blinds the eyes and deceives the heart. Such sinners need to have the scales taken from their eyes and their hearts opened to the God of love. An honest dealing with sin is crucial for the appreciation of God’s great gift in giving us His Son to be our Savior. The goal of all evangelism is the tears of the repentant sinner dried at the foot of the cross.
Thirdly, regarding those who are already saved and searching for a deeper faith, the goal of personal evangelism is to minister to such people and to share with them the knowledge we have of the Bible as it relates to both doctrine and life. Edifying the saints is an important aspect of evangelism, and every believer has the qualifications to minister to such fellow saints. Some may not understand the teachings of the Bible, or they may have backslidden and made a mess out of their lives. Yet, if they see in us something they desire for themselves, they are responding as Peter teaches us in I Peter 3:15: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts; and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” Meeting such needs is a glorious opportunity to share the gospel.
Finally, we ought to include one more aspect, and that is that the goal of personal evangelism is to lead people into the local church. This is often neglected today because so many “Christians” have been hurt by someone in the church or have convinced themselves they can be Christians without being part of a local church. This is wrong, and we must correct such notions. Hurt people must be encouraged to find healing and forgiveness within the body of Christ but also to learn that their perception of the church may be so ideal that it is far from reality. There is no perfect church; in fact, every church is far from perfection. Fellow sinners must learn to interact with each other in the way of loving, forgiving, and seeking strength to bear with one another’s faults and burdens. The church is necessary for spiritual life. The Reformers correctly insisted, and this is expressed in our Reformed confessions, e.g., Belgic Confession, Article 28, that there is no salvation apart from the church of Jesus Christ. The church is our spiritual mother. Converts mentioned in the Bible were always added to the church (Acts 2:47).
In light of the goals mentioned above, we want to draw three conclusions. First, when we speak of the conversion of the sinner we include in that work of grace the conversion of the whole person. Salvation is the work of God that begins in the heart of man. Regeneration is the first work of God in the human heart, “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The heart is the center of man’s spirituality, for “out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:14). Jesus emphasized this as He taught, in distinction from the Pharisees, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: these are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man” (Matt. 15:19, 20). This is important. As we share the gospel with a non-Christian, we focus on his heart, and he must forsake all hatred and learn to love God and his neighbor.
It follows, then, that a changed heart will affect a man’s entire nature. His mind will be affected, so that he thinks God’s thoughts. His human will is also affected, so that his desires and affections are changed. He desires to please God and he enjoys God’s fellowship more than the pleasures of sin. His emotions come under the power of God’s transforming work. He learns to control his anger, he fears God rather than men, and such like. And, yes, even his body comes under the power of grace, for he knows that his body has now become the temple of God, which we have from God, and we are not our own but are bought with a price, in order that we may glorify God with our body and spirit which are God’s (I Cor. 6:19, 20).
This change is not such that one no longer has to contend with sin in his nature. Rather, the work of salvation is God’s work, which transcends the flesh. The old man of sin still remains, and the converted person has to learn to say yes to God and no to sin as he struggles to overcome the motions of sin in his flesh (Rom. 7:14ff.). The result of this spiritual tension is that his life is changed. Conversion results in a changed life. Almost all of Paul’s epistles demonstrate this. The first part of each letter includes doctrinal teaching, which is followed by instruction on how a child of God serves God with his whole life.
Secondly, there is one important observation to be made in light of what we have just said. Such a conversion, which begins from the inside and affects the whole life of man, is the work of the Holy Spirit alone. No human being can convert a person from death to life. Ephesians 2, Ezekiel 37, as well as Acts 2 demonstrate that unsaved man isdead in sin. When we share the gospel in its early stages of personal evangelism, we know that there must be some powerful work of God if such a person is going to be saved. This is confirmed both by scriptural teaching and by personal experience. The dead sinner needs a work of grace administered by the Holy Spirit if conversion is to be realized. We never know if it is God’s will to perform such a work in the individual with whom we may be sharing the gospel. We do know that God promises to bless our witnessing and to work by His Spirit in every soul it pleases Him to save. This gives us confidence and strength to press on.
Thirdly, since the Holy Spirit always works through the Word of God, the Bible, we must make extensive use of our Bibles when we speak to others. Human reasoning, quoting of great men, emotional appeals will not convert. The Holy Spirit works through the Word. Reading the Bible, explaining Bible passages, holding personal Bible Studies—all are used by God to set His truth before men. Again, this is what God promises. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:16). Did not our Lord use this method when He contended with the devil? How could He shut the devil’s mouth from telling lies? He thundered at him over and over, “It is written!” For those readers who have some experience in personal evangelism, you can testify from your own experience as well. It is amazing how you can speak abstractly or try to convince by human reason, and nothing seems to get through. Simply take your Bible, open it up to a number of passages that say what you want to say, and the person responds, the light comes on, the Word convicts.
Finally, since the goal of evangelism is the conversion of the sinner, which only God is able to do, we must say in conclusion that such work requires diligent prayer. The New Testament is filled with references that emphasize the need to uphold preachers in prayer, e.g., Ephesians 6:18-20;Romans 15:30. Personal witnessing is not preaching, it is the preliminary work of God preparing one for preaching and therefore requires the same spiritual attention. Surely, in the work of ministering to the souls of lost people, the desire that God may do His work forces us to acknowledge how feeble and fallible are our efforts. At the same time, it is so assuring to look heavenward to behold by faith Jesus at the right hand of God, who sends His Spirit to accomplish what His soul desires to do.
As we recognize this, we confess that boasting about how many souls we saved is offensive both to God and to man. Rather, let him that glorieth, glory in the Lord.