Dr. Pearson Johnson, Director of Student Care
This is the final post in the three-part series on seeking common ground.
The search for common ground with those we seek to evangelize is fraught with many dangers. We have sought to understand both the nature of the problem in seeking common ground, as well as the nature of those we seek to reach with the gospel. In this post, we want to focus on how the Scripture encourages us to approach unbelievers with the gospel. Compared to many missiological methods and theories of contextualization, the Bible gives a relatively simple and straightforward methodology when it comes to gospel witnessing.
We have to begin with the right assumptions. We have already determined that there are certain truths that we can start with, based on what the Bible says about mankind. All men know that they are created by a great God and that they are accountable to Him. All men, because of their depravity, suppress that truth. Many altogether deny it, and set up other forms of idolatrous worship in the place of the true God. All men know they have sinned against the God who created them. Though they will creatively excuse themselves, all know they will one day face judgment for their sin.
As we considered previously, Romans 1:19-20 explains that people know the truth, consciously reject it, and so are without excuse. In addition, 2 Corinthians 4:4 shows us that there is another power involved. It states: “the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.” Not only do men reject the truth because of their sin, but they are blinded toward the gospel’s truth by Satan’s work.
What is the Bible’s answer to the opposition of the sinner and of Satan himself to the message of salvation? The answer is in 2 Corinthians 4. Paul gives us a series of teachings that should guide our gospel witness. He teaches us that our witness should be filled with faith. We must believe that when the gospel is plainly presented in dependence on God’s power, it can transform sinners and overcome Satan!
First, because of the change the gospel has brought to our lives, we must “faint not.” We determine from the outset that we will present the gospel without becoming discouraged, knowing the same God who saved us can save anyone! It is not our responsibility to save others. It is only our duty to faithfully and earnestly proclaim the message. In faith, we must leave the results in God’s merciful and just hands.
Second, we must speak the truth plainly, not changing the gospel in a way we think will make it more acceptable. Paul uses strong words in verse 2, such as “handling the Word of God deceitfully,” to describe those who do not speak the entire truth of the gospel. Many preachers and missionaries promote a gospel that avoids talking about sin and repentance or right and wrong since that is odious to modern hearers and considered intolerant in a culture of religious diversity. Some preach a gospel that allows hearers to remain in their false religious systems. Paul is clear that this type of approach is not faithful to the true gospel and is certainly not faith-filled.
Paul’s third instruction is to confront the conscience of unbelievers by clearly speaking or “manifesting” the truth, knowing God is watching us do so (v. 2b). This is one place where our assumptions make a difference. We know, based on the truth of God’s Word, that their conscience will bear witness to the truth of our message.
This kind of straightforward gospel witness takes a great deal of boldness. Sometimes we are tempted to think effective evangelists can only be those who are naturally outgoing and thick-skinned. Sometimes we think people are effective only if they have a stirring, emotional testimony. His fourth point teaches us that, rather than promoting ourselves, we must focus on promoting Jesus Christ as Lord, and affirm the fact we are simply servants delivering our Lord’s message. Evangelistic boldness does not find its source in us, but in the message itself. Evangelism is not about the messenger, but wholly about the God of the message!
What if the hearer seems particularly sinful, hardened or opposed to the gospel? Paul reminds us next, that the powerful God who caused the light of Christ to break into the darkness of our hearts can do the same in the heart of any one to whom we are witnessing (v. 6). There are no shades of darkness—no levels of spiritual deadness. All, alike, are darkened and dead. As well, any person can be enlightened and enlivened.
Finally, he tells us that God works through simple, “earthen vessel” messengers, so that His surpassing power will be displayed in the saving of sinners (v.7). We may be weak, afflicted, persecuted, and opposed, but this only contributes to the radiance of the glory of God when we faithfully speak the gospel message and see lives changed!
Rather than searching for common ground, we must forge ahead in faith. We must believe what the Bible says about the sinner. We must believe what it says about the gospel. We must believe what it says about us as the messenger. Paul concludes by saying in v. 13: “We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak.” Let’s forge ahead in faith for the glory of God!
Dr. Pearson Johnson, Director of Student Care
In the last post, we began looking at practices in missions and evangelism that seek to find common ground—areas of philosophical, scientific, religious, or emotional agreement—upon which we can build discussions with unbelievers. It is my contention that there are no areas of neutral common ground upon which we can build. Furthermore, if we do try to build on areas of agreement rather than emphasizing the areas of disagreement where repentance is needed, we will do more harm than good.
In this post, we want to focus on the Scriptural teaching of depravity and sinfulness that explains why there is no neutral common ground and which lays the proper foundation for how we approach unbelievers with the Gospel.
When we consider giving the Gospel of Jesus Christ to unbelievers, whether they be in our suburban neighborhoods or in other global cultures, we must understand what the Bible says about the sinner. The Bible is very clear about sin’s effects on people.
First, all people everywhere are born sinners and are, therefore, subject to the depraving effects of sin. These effects are devastating.
Genesis 6:5 says, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
One may argue that this verse is only true of those living pre-flood—that they were worse than people today. Romans 3 says otherwise, when Paul states: “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no not one” (10-12).
All people are sinners, and their sin causes them to go “out of the way” towards becoming “unprofitable.” This is a plain truth. What affect does sin have on the people we are trying to reason with?
This sin causes them to respond to truth they know by ignoring it or perverting it. Apart from the work of the Scripture and the Spirit which we will promote later, the Bible is clear how men respond to the truth seen in nature or known in their innermost beings. Romans 1:18-20 tells us that all men everywhere know certain truths from creation, yet they suppress these truths in their sin: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth [suppress the truth] in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”
All people have been given in creation enough revelation to know there is a Creator God who is eternally powerful and to whom they must give an account. Yet, in their sin, people suppress that truth and refuse to worship God. Instead, they worship a god they manufacture, either spiritually or physically. Ultimately, they worship themselves and their own lusts, as Paul goes on to say in Romans 1.
There is nothing we could present to a lost person by way of fact, logic, or argument that could be even nearly as persuasive or effective as the general revelation of Himself God has already given. God has made Himself known to all people in nature, in their consciences, and in their very constitution as humans. And yet all sinners reject the revelation God has given to all people everywhere.
Why do they reject the truth? Part of the reason lies in the purpose of this revelation. God’s general revelation is given to all people so that they are personally guilty for their sin of rejecting Him. As Romans 1:20 says, it is given “so that they are without excuse.” Ephesians 2:1-2 says, “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.”
They are sinners. They are truth deniers. They are, as Colossians 2:8 states, “spoil[ed] through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world.”
So, where is our hope to see them transformed? Is it in presenting more facts about nature or about creation? Is it in presenting better arguing through logic? Is it in showing more compassion? Is it in meeting physical needs?
No. God’s answer to mankind’s rejection of his truth is through the confrontational, yet compassionate, hope-filled message of the Gospel. The Gospel is their only hope, and it is our only hope. We will address this in the next post.
Dr. Pearson Johnson, Director of Student Care
We have all seen the movies or read the books about the adventurer who walked through the jungle, over many obstacles and onto what he thought was a patch of dry ground. Suddenly he found that, instead of walking on level ground, he was being sucked under by it. He had discovered quicksand!
Much current writing on evangelism and missions focuses on finding, in discussions of life and eternity, places of “common ground,” where we agree on certain basic principles. If we can find this place of agreement, then we can build a case for the truth from there. For some, common ground is philosophical: agree that the rules of logic follow for all people, so use logical arguments to convince others of the truth. For others, common ground is scientific: if we adhere to the scientific method, and provide enough evidence, then someone can be convinced. Others seek common ground where religious principles agree, as in the monotheism of Islam and Christianity. Dialogue can occur upon this agreement. Still others find common ground in their emotions. They appeal to the heart and the feelings. In all of these approaches, many people believe there is a neutral area at some point. If we can get down to that common point, then we can build our Gospel approach on that.
In the next few posts, I would like to begin to show that, biblically, there is really no neutral common ground outside of Scripture that we can build our proclamation of the Gospel upon. Beyond this, the search for common ground and the process of an objective, two-way conversation (“dialogue”) can lead to missions’ quicksand, where the truth is sucked under by the ground we had hoped to build upon. Common ground approaches lead to syncretism, or, the mixing of religions, philosophies, and worldviews, rather than the conversion to the truth.
By saying we have no common ground in Gospel witness, let me tell you what I am not saying. First, I am not saying we have nothing in common physically with unbelievers. We share a common humanity in many ways. I am not saying we do not have or should not have anything in common socially with unbelievers. We cannot become like unbelievers to witness to them, but we must have contact with them if we are to share the Gospel. Our purpose is not to stand in judgment on unbelievers, but to, in compassion, proclaim the good news of escape from judgment. We don’t even mean that we have nothing in common psychologically or culturally or even, in some ways, spiritually (in that we are spiritual creatures). We have a lot in common with all of humanity.
Also, please understand that I am trying to help us become more biblical in our proclamation. I am not questioning the genuine love for souls and desire for evangelism that is at the heart of the methods of many missionaries and evangelists. I am sure people have been genuinely converted using approaches focusing on finding common ground because they eventually were drawn by the Spirit through the Word spoken, not through arguments, logic, evidences or feelings. I do hope being more biblical in our approach can lead to greater effectiveness, however.
When it comes to the claims of Christianity and their being proven as true and verifiable, there is no neutral ground for both the Christian and non-Christian. Some assume that many people can and will make up their own mind in favor of the truth if presented with enough data—that good information will lead to good conclusions. Some think that if the right felt need is uncovered and met, true needs will be met eventually as well. Others think that if we can focus on areas of agreement, then logic, study, and/or evidence will eventually lead to overall agreement.
Biblically, however, these approaches start at the wrong point. Christians and unbelievers have a clash of worldviews that goes to the very heart of who we are. In the next post, we will look at the Scriptural teaching of depravity and how that guides our approach to evangelism and missions. Following that, we will propose a way forward in evangelism and missions that is wholly biblical, cross-centered, and theologically-driven.
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.