Presenting the Gospel to Strangers (2)

Last time we began to consider some important principles which must govern the way in which we approach the stranger. We saw, first of all, that we must be honest. We bring the Truth of the Gospel and therefore must come in a truthful way. 

In the second place, when we approach the stranger, it is essential for us to ascertain his spiritual condition. We bring the gospel and that gospel is one. There are not many gospels. Yet, that gospel has various aspects to it, aspects which are applicable to different needs. It is difficult to know just what aspect of the gospel is needed most by the stranger, without discovering his spiritual condition. Sometimes the stranger is an unbeliever. Other times he is a Christian, in need of further instruction. He may even be someone who thinks that he is a Reformed Christian. To each of these people we must bring the gospel, emphasizing one of its various aspects—the same gospel, but applying specific aspects of the truth to specific needs. You can bring the gospel in a general way to a person, but if you are not touching his need, you are not very relevant for him. And there certainly are many needy people in this world. There is a great ignorance of the truth. Even among those who call themselves Christians, you find very few who properly understand the true meaning of the gospel. There are so man cults and sects, false churches and false Christians. The lie abounds in our age. Therefore we must be able to discover the specific needs of the stranger and then have the wisdom and grace to bring the truth very specifically to that need. 

Finally, in our approach to the stranger, we must always use the Scriptures. This is the most important principle of all. When we go to the stranger, we must understand that we have no authority of our own. It doesn’t matter who we are, or how well we are respected by those close to us. To a stranger, we have no authority in ourselves. We are just a stranger presenting what we believe. No one has to believe anything we say. That is why it is imperative that we come with the Scriptures, with the Word of God. We have to make those whom we contact realize that we are not simply bringing our own word. We do not simply speak for ourselves and that is all. What we bring is the Word of God. Otherwise our discussion becomes an argument. They say what they think is right and we say what we think is right. And when the argument is all over, rather than feeling that he has been confronted with God’s Word, the stranger feels that he has had a good argument on an intellectual question and that is all. We must take great care to show them that what we say is what God says in the Bible. We must support everything we say with the Scriptures. In that way, when we are all done, they will know that God has spoken to them and not merely a man. 

In connection with that, we must also understand that there is very little place for our creeds and confessions in our dealing with the stranger. Certainly our confessions are true. They are beautiful expressions of the truths of God’s Word. They mean much to us as Reformed believers. And when dealing with anyone who is of a Reformed background, they can be very useful to us. But when we present the gospel to the stranger, that which we love, that which is authoritative to us, and that which we see as a systematic expression of the truths of the Word of God, means nothing to them—absolutely nothing. In fact, when we bring our confessions and creeds, often times the stranger accuses us of bringing man’s word rather than God’s Word. They look at us as though we are trying to force them to believe what has been devised by fallible men. Our creeds, then, become a hindrance rather than a help. We must be very careful, therefore, that we always go to the stranger with the Scriptures. They are the Words of God and they give us all the authority we need when dealing with the stranger. If the stranger responds to the gospel of grace, then in time and with discretion we may introduce him to our confessions. 

With this understanding of the principles of a proper approach to the stranger, we can now proceed to consider what we actually say to him, And, obviously, what we bring is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is our only message. We can bring no other. But when we say “gospel of Jesus Christ,” we are talking about a vast body of knowledge, the whole of the Word of God as recorded in the Scriptures. For the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation are the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. It is impossible, however, in our first contacts with the stranger, to bring to him the whole of the Word of God. We could talk to him about thousands of subjects for months and years, and still not exhaust the riches of the gospel of Christ. That is why we must very carefully zero in on the most important and central issue of the gospel. We must begin with the heart and core of the gospel, with that one theme that is found on every page of Holy Writ. We must bring the sovereign grace of the sovereign God, Who sovereignly saves His people. For that is the heart of the gospel. That ought always to be first and foremost in our presentation. 

We make a mistake, a great mistake, if we immediately confront the stranger with all kinds of peripheral and side issues. We must not go to the stranger with the intention of discovering whether or not he is divorced, belongs to the union, or goes to the theater, so that we can confront him on these issues first thing. That is putting the cart before the horse. Certainly our Protestant Reformed stand on these issues is right and biblical. We must even take care that we do not forsake these principles in this godless age of ours. But these are not the first things we say to the stranger. These things are not the heart and core of the gospel. If we bring these things first, many times we immediately close the door to any further discussion of the Truth. We offend the stranger and he will no longer hear us. He wants nothing to do with us. Thus he rejects us and our message without even hearing the heart and core of what we believe. We turn him away before we have had the opportunity to speak of God’s sovereign grace. That is a great tragedy. To turn someone away by these peripheral issues after he has become thoroughly acquainted with the sovereign grace of God is one thing. But to turn him away by these things before he knows the heart of the gospel is to belittle that which is the most important of all. The stranger, if he refuses our message and turns away, must refuse and turn away from nothing less than God’s sovereign grace. 

After the stranger has come to see the sovereign grace of God, he will more readily also come to see the implications of that central truth. Then these peripheral things will start to make sense to him too. If God gives him grace, he will in time come to see that divorce, union membership, theater attendance, and other such things are indeed inconsistent with the Reformed Faith. 

I do not mean, by this principle, to suggest that we ever deny the Truth. No, we must never deny the Truth—not on any issue. If the stranger himself brings up these issues, then we must speak on them. We must, as I emphasized earlier, be honest. Even if the Truth offends, we must bring only the Truth. We dare not be afraid of offending someone. But what I am saying is simply this. There are some things which are more important than others. And it is these more important things that we must emphasize and bring first. We bring the gospel of God’s sovereign grace. 

When we go to the stranger, then, we must have a very specific message in mind, depending upon his need. If we discover that the stranger is a “Christian” our purpose is to lead him to the Reformed Faith. For that is the true Faith. We can do that by beginning our discussion with a presentation of the doctrine of God. Most who say that they are Christians will acknowledge that God is God. They do not realize all the implications of that truth. But if you ask them, “Do you believe that God is sovereign?” very, very few of them will say, “No!” That, therefore, becomes a very good point of contact. It is a point on which you both supposedly agree and therefore the perfect place to begin. 

Go to the Scriptures and show them that God is indeed God. Show them that He is the great and mighty God. He is the One Who alone is sovereign and Who rules heaven and earth by His sovereign will and power. No one can frustrate His will and no one can resist His power. He is the mighty King Who in His great majesty upholds and governs all things (Ps. 93:1, 99:1-3Dan. 4:34-35Isa. 46:9-10Eph. 1:11Rom. 11:33-36). After leading them into these Scripture passages and after eliciting from them a confession of agreement with this general truth, we then proceed to make them see the logical and Scriptural implications of this truth. We show them that if they believe that God is sovereign, of necessity they must believe the five points of Calvinism. For the Reformed Faith alone is consistent with the truth of God’s sovereignty. It is at this point that we discover whether or not they truly believe that God is indeed God. We force them to see their inconsistency on this point, so that they either see the truth of the Reformed Faith or have to admit that, in their theology, man is sovereign rather than God. 

Even as with the “Christian,” so also when we go to the unbeliever, our purpose is to present God in all His sovereignty and majesty. But now we are especially concerned with presenting the promise and the command of the gospel. We call the unbeliever to repentance and faith. This is his duty before Almighty God. He must be made to see his sin and guilt, as well as the sovereign grace of God that saves His people from sin and guilt. 

This can be done in many ways, but one of the best ways is to follow the example of the apostle Paul and simply present Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Tell the unbeliever of the history of Christ. Begin with His birth, trace His life and ministry, and end with His death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. After sketching these facts of the history of Christ, go back and explain the meaning of the facts. His birth was a lowly birth, signifying the rejection He would face all His life. And yet it was a virgin birth, signifying His divinity. He was no ordinary man, but God’s only begotten Son. His miracles demonstrate that. He is the Redeemer, the Messiah, sent of God to save His elect people. The death of the cross was no ordinary death. It was a sacrifice for the sins of God’s people. And the resurrection is the sure sign that God has accepted His offering for sin. The unbeliever must see that Christ has power and authority to forgive sins and give life everlasting to as many as the Father has given Him. But he must also see that when Christ does this, the result is always faith and repentance. Thus the unbeliever is made to hear both the promise and the command of the gospel. 

With this presentation to the stranger, we become faithful witnesses who sow the seed of the gospel. What will become of that witness, we leave to the sovereign good-pleasure of God Who alone can give the increase. 

*(This is the second and final installment of an address given by Pastor Houck at the Mission Emphasis Day last May in the Kalamazoo Protestant Reformed Church.)