"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Gospel: Witness or Sale?

[a post I wrote awhile ago elsewhere, reposting here]

What if the way we communicate the gospel is wrong?

Within Evangelical circles, I think it is safe to assume that most people think of sharing the gospel with an Arminian view. The models for sharing the gospel tend to be sales, persuasion, and manipulation. It is so ironic that a person can tell you one minute that conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, not methods, and then the next minute talk about evangelism primarily as knowing certain methods..


Two methods tend to be popular with Evangelicals currently. The first is cold-turkey evangelism. This is handing a tract to someone on the street and trying to get a decision (sinners prayer, ask Jesus into your heart, etc.) The two people (the evangelist and the potential convertee) know little or nothing about each other before the encounter.

The next popular method of evangelism is "friendship evangelism." This method consists in getting to know a neighbor or friend a little before trying to get a decision (sinner's prayer, ask Jesus into your heart, etc.). The two people know a little about each other before the person is asked to become a Christian.

After selling mobile phones for two years, I can tell you these methods seem to have more in common with two books I read in preparation for outside sales (Closing Techniques, and Cold Calling Techniques) than they do with Biblical or historic evangelism. Selling a product has a limited time where you educate the customer about the product (all the good parts, none of the bad parts) and get them to hand over the cash, or sign the contract. Yet, the marketplace tends not to be the main Biblical model for the Christian experience.


The relationship between Christ and the Church is frequently described as analogous to a Groom and his Bride. If we thought about this as our model rather than sales, our approach to non-believers would be entirely different. Instead of thinking of Evangelism as selling a product, we would look at it as courting towards the goal of betrothal.

We can immediately see a difference between giving enough information (all the good stuff) looking towards a sale; and giving (or the person learning) all the information (the comforting and the hard stuff) during a courtship. Also, as a salesman, I normally only had to use my words to convince someone to buy a product. I may tell the person I am concerned that they get the right phone and the right plan, and in fact I may even care that the customer does get the best deal. But the customer has no assurance that I am not just selling them a phone to get a better commission (which was more often the case).

Yet as a boyfriend and then husband, I had to demonstrate my love (more than concern) for my wife by my actions. The actions may range from symbolic (flowers), to being present, to listening, to helping her move, to doing other things that take away from my comfort or time to add to her well-being.


James writes in his second chapter that you show your faith by your works and therefore are "not justified by faith alone." I truly believe Calvin was right when he distinguished between James' justification before men and Paul's justification before God. James is here talking about how our faith is shown to be right before men, not how we are declared right with God. Yet, many evangelicals will stop there without truly exploring what justification by works is, and what is demanded by it.

If our faith is justified before men by works, then an evangelism by only words is not only ineffective, but Biblically lacking. Both Peter and Jesus tell us that people should "see our good deeds and praise God." ( Matt 5:16, 1 Peter 2:12) In fact, I have made the case elsewhere that this is how the Early Church understood James and evangelism.


The natural objection so far is that the gospel is a matter of the word. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 10, does he not? I do concede this willingly. Yet, if the gospel is a matter of words, why perform baptism or the Lord's Supper? Because the gospel is closely associated with the sacraments.

According to Augustine, sacraments are outward signs of an inward reality. I submit that good works themselves have a sacramental quality. Though the word is primary and the sacrament is void without the word, still the sacrament proclaims the gospel with the word. Consider how Paul describes the Lord's Supper: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes." (1 Cor 11:26) The Lord's Supper is a physical reminder that Christianity is not a mere mystical religion, but is concerned with the physical and the reality of the present world as well.

Looking at works sacramentally does not mean we "go into the world and preach the gospel and if we must, use words." All works need the word to infuse them with meaning. With the proper sacraments, we do this and proclaim Christ's death. In our works, we carry the proclamation of the Kingdom. In feeding the hungry, we proclaim "in the kingdom there will be no hunger." In housing the homeless, we proclaim "in the kingdom, there is shelter for the weak." In visiting the imprisoned, we proclaim "in the kingdom, there is freedom." Christ's reign is the proclamation of our works. Our works become a means of grace for others, and perhaps even for ourselves. In our works, what if we demonstrated grace, rather than merely talked about it? Is it not telling that the pagan Emperor Julian once complained of Christians in the fourth century:

"These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agapae, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes...Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods."

What if we were accused of the same today, that Christians not only fed their own poor, but the pagan poor as well, stealing converts? What if we showed the gospel to be carrying a cross, in all its difficulty of putting others' needs above our own, rather than showing the gospel to be a sales offer?

If our gospel has been reduced to "accept this offer, its a good deal," then have we missed the fullness of the gospel?

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