Evangelism in a Pluralistic Society:
A Reformed Perspective
Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology
Columbia Theological Seminary
Address to the 2002 Covenant Conference
November 8, 2002
I may be wrong, but I suspect that evangelism is not high on the agenda of many of us who belong to the Covenant Network. The word is not mentioned in “A Call to Covenant Community,” our statement of purpose. While it does say that Jesus “called all to repent and believe the good news,” it only obliquely suggests that we are commissioned to be evangelists. Why this silence and its implied reluctance on our part to talk about evangelism?
Perhaps the main reason is that we are appalled by the kind of evangelism we hear on the radio, see on TV, and observe in some self-proclaimed evangelists in our church: Evangelism that is interested only in the salvation of individual souls in the next world and ignores or openly rejects concern for social justice in this world. Evangelism that is arrogant, intolerant, self-righteous and exclusive in its claim that only Christians worship the one true God while others worship false gods, and that God loves, helps and promises to save us Christians and nobody else. So we leave evangelism to “conservatives” and “evangelicals” who “go in for that sort of thing” (some of whom, by the way, may or may not believe what we think they do).
But there are several good reasons why we ought not to shy away from the evangelistic mission of the church. First, according to the New Testament, which we too confess to be the unique and authoritative Word of God, it is not something we may or may not decide to get into. According to Matthew, the last words of Jesus to his disciples were, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Then in Acts we hear that Peter, Paul, and other leaders in the early Christian community invited their hearers to repent, be baptized, and turn to the God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus. From the very beginning and throughout its history, the Christian movement has understood its task to be not just to talk about the good news of God in Jesus Christ, or just to demonstrate it in the life of the Christian community. It is to invite people to accept, believe, and live by it themselves. That is our task, too.
Secondly, we in the Covenant Network ought not to be wary of the evangelistic mission of the church because we have resources in our own understanding of the good news that could help us understand evangelism not just as something we unfortunately ought to do but as something we can do — modestly but also gladly and joyfully.
Finally, if we in the Covenant Network (of all people!) took the lead in an attempt to discover a genuinely Biblical-Reformed theology of evangelism, we might discover — precisely in an issue that has divided our church into hostile liberal, conservative, and evangelical camps — a common ground that reconciles us and unites us in commitment to what God calls all of us to do — together.
Could that happen? Maybe. In any case, I believe it is worth a try, and in this lecture I want to make a few beginning steps in that direction. First I will propose a working definition of a Biblical-Reformed definition of the task of evangelism, then suggest some guidelines for fulfilling it.
I suppose that all Christians would agree that evangelism involves a two-fold task: It involves first of all witness in word and action (neither without the other) to the good news of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ, and in him the coming of the rule of God’s justice and compassion in and for the world. And it involves secondly the invitation to respond to this good news by confessing Christ as Lord and Savior, and committing one’s life to love and serve him as a member of the Christian community.
I believe that careful attention to this definition can enable us in several ways to understand and practice authentic Christian evangelism and to distinguish between it and distorted versions of it that are common in both liberal and conservative camps in the church.
I. Authentic Christian evangelism bears witness to God, not to our personal religious experience.
Some people are made uncomfortable by talk about “evangelism” and “witnessing” because these words remind them of self-congratulating and self-advertising Christians at “testimony” services or in personal conversation who talk mostly about themselves: how sinful, miserable and lost they used to be and how blessed, happy and saved they have become since they accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, and began to have a personal relationship with God.
Of course the witness Christians have to bear does include telling the story of our own “faith journey” and how we have experienced the presence and work of God in our own lives. But authentic Christian evangelism is distinguished from perversions of it in two ways.
First, the goal of authentic evangelism is not to talk about our personal religious experience as such, but to talk about the God we have experienced. It is not to lead others to know what great people we Christians are but what a great God we worship and serve. It is not to proclaim our faith in God but to proclaim the God in whom we have faith.
Second, the story we Christians have to tell is not only about how God has been present and at work in our individual lives; it is to set our little stories in the context of the story of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, David and the prophets of ancient Israel, Mary and her son Jesus, Peter and Paul (all of them Jews — and the reason why Jews can never be the target of Christians evangelism: They were the people of God long before we Christians came along.). To tell this story is to tell the long story about a just and loving Creator who created all human beings in God’s own image, and who from the very beginning and throughout the history of the world has been at work for the good of all human beings, every one of whom God loves just as much as God loves us Christians. It is to tell the story of the crucified Messiah of Israel whom God raised from the dead and made to be not just “my” Lord and Savior but Lord and Savior of the world. It is to tell the story of a living Christ who by the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of the God of Israel) continues his healing, reconciling, liberating work not only in the lives of Christians but also in the lives of people of other religious traditions and no religion at all.
Evangelism that interprets our little stories in light of this larger story is more difficult than evangelism that tells only “my” story. The story to which it bears witness cannot be told in a few minutes; it requires a long, on-going conversation and hard work. It requires the confession that we Christians are not people who have it made and know all the right answers, but rather that we are people who ourselves are only on the way to learning to understand our own lives and the lives of others in light of what the Bible tells us about the God we confess. It requires willingness to listen to the stories of people whose religious experience is different from our own, and openness to recognize the presence and work of the living God and living Christ we confess in their stories, too. Such evangelism is not easy, but it does set us free from both the burden and the pretension of making ourselves rather than God the center of our witness.
II. Authentic Christian evangelism bears witness to God, not to the Christian community.
Christian evangelism includes an invitation to join the community of those who confess and serve Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and who gather week after week to rehearse their story and learn afresh what it means to live by it. But there is a kind of evangelism that only replaces self-congratulating, self-advertising, and self-serving witness to personal religious experience with self-congratulating, self-advertising, and self-serving witness to the Christian community . It can take a conservative or a liberal form. And both of them compromise and contradict the good news authentic Christian evangelism has to announce.
Self-glorifying conservative evangelism sets out to bear witness to Jesus Christ as the way, truth, and life, but turns it into witness not to him but to Christianity as the only true religion. Instead of bearing witness to the living God of the Bible made known in the crucified, risen, and living Christ, it bears witness to orthodox Christian theology about God and Christ. Instead of bearing witness to how great that God is, it bears witness to the superiority of Christians and their church in comparison to non-Christians and other religious communities. Despite its good intentions, instead of exalting and glorifying God in Jesus Christ, it exalts and glorifies Christians, Christianity and the Christian religion (whose role in history has often been a questionable one!)
On the other hand, self-glorifying liberal evangelism is what Karl Barth calls “self-glorifying Christian moralism.” It sets out to bear witness to God’s justice, unlimited love, generosity and inclusiveness in Jesus Christ. But it subtly turns it into witness to how committed liberal Christian churches are to inclusiveness, diversity, “hospitality to strangers,” and friendship with people outside and inside the church whose faith and life are different from each other. But this subtle shift from how wonderful God is to how wonderful liberal Christians and their churches are only exposes the great difference between them. Even the most liberal churches, for instance, tend to welcome into their fellowship just about everybody except those whose conservative or evangelical theology, or political and social agenda, or position on moral issues such as abortion, capital punishment, and homosexuality differs from theirs. And in so far as that is true, liberals belie in their own life together, and make unconvincing in the world around them, the very good news about God’s inclusive justice and compassion for all people they want to proclaim.
As different as they are, self-glorifying conservative and self-glorifying liberal evangelism both place their faith and hope not so much in what God has done, is doing and promises to do in and for the world as in what we Christians and our church can do if we can only convince (force, if necessary) other people to believe like we do, or if they would only join us in fixing everything that is wrong with the world and help us bring in the kingdom of God.
Authentic Christian evangelism is distinguished from distortions of it by the way it bears witness to God’s truth, wisdom, righteousness, justice, and ability to save the world, not that of even the most orthodox or liberal or middle-of-the-road church or groups within it. It openly confesses that it is first of all our own stumbling and questionable efforts to discern and serve the will and work of God that are judged, found wanting, and stand in the need of correction. It freely acknowledges that sometimes we Christians see more of the justice and compassion of God, and the reconciling and liberating work of the living Christ, among non-Christians than we see in the Christian church. It is gladly open to learn from outsiders some things that we should have learned about God and God’s will from our own Bible. It invites people to join a community of fellow sinners who gather week after week not to congratulate themselves for what liberal or conservative or evangelical Christians know and do that no one else knows and does, but to hear again the good news of what the living God of the Bible is saying and doing for our good and for the good of the world around us, and to learn ever afresh, in every new situation, what we have to say and do thankfully, freely and joyfully to love and serve that God — joining hands with others who in different ways serve the cause of God’s justice and compassion for all people, everywhere.
III. Authentic Christian evangelism bears witness to the love of God for all kinds of people.
There is a kind of (conservative and liberal) evangelism that is interested in bearing witness to the good news about God in Christ only to people who are “like us” and would “feel at home” in “our kind” of church — people of the same ethnic identity, economic class and social class, with the same repressive or permissive moral standards and right- or left-wing theological and political convictions. Such evangelism can sometimes be successful in building big churches. But it says in effect, “If you are not like us, we do not care about you, we do not welcome you into our company — and neither does our God.” In attitude and action it belies the very good news it sets out to bear witness to.
Authentic Christian evangelism is a wide-open invitation to all kinds of people to come hear the good news of God in Jesus Christ, investigate it, and if they choose become a part of the Christian community. It is evangelism that is not only willing to accept them if they come, but actually seeks them out and takes the initiative to welcome them.
Such evangelism may offend some who want the church to be an exclusive club of like-minded people, but it sets us free not only to talk about but actually demonstrate the good news that God is not just for people like us but for all kinds of people — including those who in the church and in its wider environment are suspicious of one another, afraid of one another, and enemies of one another
IV. Authentic Christian evangelism bears witness to the saving grace of God. .
Almost everyone agrees that the evangelistic task of the church and of individual Christians is to bear witness to God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ by what we say and how we live together in the Christian community and in the world around us. But authentic, biblically based evangelism differs from distorted versions of it by the way it preserves three aspects of God’s grace that traditional evangelism tends to forget or ignore.
1. God’s grace is both “justifying” grace and “sanctifying” grace. One of the great strengths of traditional evangelical proclamation is its emphasis on what is called the justifying grace of God, the good news that God loves, accepts, forgives, helps and saves unworthy, undeserving sinners. But from the perspective of scripture and Reformed-Presbyterian tradition, one of the great weaknesses of much evangelism is a one-sided emphasis on this aspect of God’s grace. It leads evangelists to talk only about the “benefits” of Christ’ life, death, and resurrection — what God gives us and does for us in Christ. And it leads those who hear such proclamation to think only of what they “get out of” being Christians — to believe that the meaning and goal of Christian faith and life is only that they should be blessed; their problems solved; their needs met; their wishes fulfilled; their lives made happy, secure and successful; their souls saved. It leads, in other words, to what Karl Barth called “pious egocentrism” or “pious narcissism.”
What is wrong with such evangelism is that it makes the justifying grace of God an end in itself. It forgets that God’s grace is what Calvin called a “two-fold grace” — justifying and sanctifying grace, justifying grace that is fulfilled in sanctifying grace.
According to scripture and Reformed theology, God’s grace is indeed grace that promises all sorts of good things and frees people from anxiety about the future. But it is also grace that frees them from self-centered preoccupation with their own happiness and welfare in this life and the next so that they may be free to love God and their fellow human beings. It frees people from fear of what God will do to them if they do not believe and do the right things. But it is also grace that frees them from pious greed that thinks only of how God will pay off if they do believe and do right. It is grace that frees us from a religion based on greed or fear, and frees us for religion based on thankful, obedient response to God’s goodness.
The grace of God is the grace we Christians meet in Jesus Christ, who not only loved, forgave and helped sinners, and promised them salvation, but invited them to follow him and promised them the wisdom, courage and strength they needed as they set out on the costly and dangerous path of discipleship. It is grace that promises salvation to those who in Jesus’ company are willing to be the friend of religious, social and moral outsiders; who put commitment to the kingdom of God and God’s justice and compassion over commitment to making money and accumulating possessions; who love their enemies and the enemies of their society, and seek their good rather than to get even, seek revenge, and pay back.
Calvin taught us Presbyterians that God is a sovereign God whose work of saving grace goes on when, where, how, and among whom God pleases, also outside the church. But authentic Christian evangelism proclaims and demonstrates the grace of God promised to those who enjoy the blessing, gifts, and benefits of belonging to Jesus as they accept the dangerous consequences of belonging to him.
2. God’s grace reconciles people both to God and to other people. Evangelists have always proclaimed and invited people to believe the good news that through God’s grace in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, sinful human beings are reconciled to God. But popular evangelism has not always emphasized the fact that God’s grace in Christ at the same time reconciles human beings to each other. By its silence it has implied that it is possible to “get right” with God without getting right with other people.
Authentic, biblically based evangelism makes it clear that there is no such thing as a right relationship with God that is not manifested in and confirmed by a right relationships with others. “Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars.” It is true that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, but it is also true that this same Christ reconciles outsiders and insiders, educated and uneducated, haves and have-nots, male and female (Gal. 3.28). He is the Christ who breaks down the dividing walls of hostility that separate us form God and from one another.
Authentic evangelism, therefore, proclaims and invites people to receive and live by the grace of God that reconciles us to God as it both promises and requires reconciliation between men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, people of different races and sexual orientation, rich and poor, people like us and people who are different from us.
3. God’s grace is for individual Christians in the church and for the world. Traditional evangelism almost exclusively emphasizes the saving grace of God in the lives of individual persons and in the life of the Christian community. It has often ignored (even denied) the good news of God’s grace addressed to the world outside the lives of individual Christians and the church.
But that is not the way it is in the Bible. In the Bible God’s chosen people are not chosen to be God’s privileged elite, to be “in” with God while everyone else is left out. They are chosen to be “a light to the nationsthat my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”. Jesus was indeed concerned about individuals and their salvation. But his evangelistic preaching was not about that but about the coming of the kingdom of God and the rule of God’s justice, love, freedom and peace in the world. He was indeed concerned about the present and future well-being of the community of his followers. But before he taught them to pray for their daily bread, the forgiveness of their sins, and their deliverance from evil, he taught them to pray for the coming of the kingdom of God, that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven. He promised that if they would seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, then everything else that was important to them (including their own salvation) would take care of itself.
To quote Paul once again, the good news is that God raised Jesus from the dead and made him lord not only in the hearts of Christians and in the church, but Lord over all power, rule and authority everywhere. Paul taught that the risen Christ, though the Spirit, is at work here and now to create not just individual Christian believers and the church but a whole new humanity in a whole new heaven and earth.
So according to scripture (and in contradiction to some traditional evangelism), we do not have to “take” Jesus to the world or “sell” him to the world; we go out to meet him in the world where as our risen Lord, by his Spirit, he is already at work before we get there to tell people about him. That means that authentic and faithful proclamation of the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ can make no split between commitment to individual salvation and social justice; life in this world and the next; the spiritual and the physical welfare of human beings; Christian love in individual relationships and Christian involvement in social, political and economic relationships; a religious sphere in which God and the living Jesus are present and at work and a secular sphere in which they are not. The good news is that people are called by God’s grace to live in and for a world that is and will be God’s world — a world that God is not against but for.
A Last Word
How will people inside as well as outside the church respond to evangelism along the lines we have been talking about? When they hear this version of the good news about this kind of grace, some Christian individuals and churches as well as other people may prefer another gospel, about a different kind of grace, that offers more self-serving “benefits” and less demanding requirements. But others who are weary and bored to death with the false promises of an evangelism of cheap grace, pious narcissism, and consumer religion — they may at least be interested in a kind of evangelism that tells the truth about who the God we come to know in Jesus Christ really is, and what that God really promises, not just for the good of us Christians in our little Christian sphere but for the good of all people, everywhere Who knows, some might even want to join a community of people committed to serving not just their own self-interest (and that of their nation!) but a great God and the great cause of the kingdom of God in and for the world. They might even want to become Christians! And even if they don’t, they might learn that Christians and the God Christians worship are not their enemies but their friends.
[Editor’s note: Rabbi Joseph Edelheit offered a response to this paper.]