What needs to be conveyed to unbelievers in order that they might understand and embrace salvation?
Many of the modern trends in evangelism have tended to take a minimalist approach to the question. Unfortunately, the legitimate desire to express the heart of the gospel clearly has given way to a less wholesome endeavor. It is a campaign to distill the essentials of the message to the barest possible terms.
The glorious gospel of Christ — that which Paul called “the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16) — includes all the truth about Christ. But American evangelicalism tends to regard the gospel as a “plan of salvation.” We have reduced the message to a list of facts stated in the fewest possible words—and getting fewer all the time: “Six Steps to Peace with God”; “Five Things God Wants You to Know”; “Four Spiritual Laws”; “Three Truths You Can’t Live Without”; “Two Ways to Live”; or “One Way to Heaven.” (This is not a critique of these specific presentations, but is merely an observation that we seem eager to produce and use “plans of salvation” that enumerate and consolidate the gospel message.)
Another trend, equally dangerous, is to reduce evangelism to a memorized script. Often, evangelism training consists of having Christians memorize a series of questions, anticipating that each question will fall into one of a few categories that has a preplanned response.
But the gospel is not a message that can be capsulated, abridged, shrink-wrapped, and then offered as a generic remedy for every kind of sinner. Ignorant sinners need to be instructed about who God is and why He has the right to demand their obedience. Self-righteous sinners need to have their sin exposed by the demands of God’s law. Careless sinners need to be confronted with the reality of God’s impending judgment. Fearful sinners need to hear that God in His mercy has provided a way of deliverance. All sinners must understand how utterly holy God is. They must comprehend the basic truths of Christ’s sacrificial death and the triumph of His resurrection. They need to be confronted with God’s demand that they turn from their sin to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior.
Furthermore, in all the instances where Jesus and the apostles evangelized — whether they were ministering to individuals or crowds — there are no two incidents where they presented the message in precisely the same terminology. They knew that salvation is a sovereign work of God. Their role was to preach truth; the Holy Spirit would apply it individually to the hearts of His elect.
The form of the message will vary in each case. But the content must always drive home the reality of God’s holiness and the sinner’s helpless condition. Then it points sinners to Christ as a sovereign but merciful Lord who has purchased full atonement for all who will turn to Him in faith.
Christians today are often cautioned about the danger of saying too much to the lost. Certain spiritual issues are labeled taboo when speaking to the unconverted: God’s law, Christ’s lordship, repentance, surrender, obedience, judgment, and hell. Such things are not to be mentioned, lest we “add something to the offer of God’s free gift.”
Worse still, there are some who take this reductionist evangelism to its furthest extreme. Wrongly applying the Reformed doctrine of sola fide (faith alone), they make faith the only permissible topic when speaking to non-Christians about their duty before God. Then they render faith utterly meaningless by stripping it of everything but its notional aspects. This, some believe, preserves the purity of the gospel. But what it has actually done is undercut the power of the message of salvation.
It has also populated the church with false converts whose faith is counterfeit and whose hope hangs on a bogus promise. Numbly saying they “accept Christ as Savior,” they brazenly reject His rightful claim as Lord. Paying Him glib lip service, they utterly scorn Him with their hearts (Mark 7:6). Casually affirming Him with their mouths, they deliberately deny Him with their deeds (Titus 1:16). Addressing Him superficially as “Lord, Lord,” they stubbornly decline to do His bidding (Luke 6:46). Such people fit the tragic description of the “many” in Matthew 7:22–23 who will one day be stunned to hear Him say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”
If there is no simple description for an evangelistic conversation, then what should the evangelist say when proclaiming the gospel? What are the points we need to make clear if we are to articulate the gospel as precisely as possible? In the days ahead we’re going to lay out the basic, yet fundamental, building blocks for faithfully communicating the way of salvation to a sinner: the holiness of God, the depravity of man, the work of Christ, and God’s demands upon the sinner. These are truths we need to embrace as Christ’s people and master as His witnesses.
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