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.
Dr. Ted Miller, SOR Faculty
This series has attempted to provide a general framework for how God wants us to interact with what a culture accepts or promotes as “normal,” with the goal of understanding how we should contextualize the Gospel in our own culture, as well as others.
As Christians, we recognize that any culture can contain elements that reflect man’s creative goodness (a reflection of God’s image), as well as elements that reflect man’s sinfulness. Although God had established Israel in the Old Testament with a national and cultural identity for the purpose of establishing the worship of himself alone, He apparently intends the church to exist across national and cultural boundaries. Nevertheless, idolatry still posed a great spiritual danger to us (and continues to provoke God to jealousy), and it is here that Paul’s discussion in I Corinthians 8-10 may be helpful in guiding our interaction within various cultures.
Before he discusses the issue of meat offered to idols (starting in 8:1), Paul addresses reports regarding fornication by believers (1 Cor. 5:1+). Some in pagan culture encouraged unbridled sexual expression (i.e. fornication), and others regarded all sexual activity as being innately wrong, due to its being connected with the physical world—which some Gnostics (among others) regarded as inherently evil (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3a).
The former was certainly dominant in Corinthian culture, but Paul navigates between these two errors, unequivocally condemning sexual activity outside of marriage (1 Cor. 5:1-6:20), while at the same time affirming the divinely-ordained good of sexual activity within marriage (1 Cor. 7:1-40).
Paul thus affirms the goodness of the divinely-created order, while condemning its various perversions. When Paul turns to the topic of meat offered to idols, he follows a similar (dual) train of thought.
The meat itself is part of God’s created order (“The earth is the Lord’s”), but cultural idolatry—under the guidance of demons—can “weaponize” (in a spiritually harmful sense) an activity as morally innocuous as consuming a piece of meat.
When pagans within idolatrous cultures repent and turn in faith to the true and living God, they avoid (often instinctively) many of the symbols of idolatry, even though they explicitly acknowledge that the god(s) they worshipped never existed at all, and that there may not be anything inherently immoral with the object or the activity itself. And in such cultures, dealing with idolatry is simpler in at least one sense; false gods with names are more easily identifiable.
For Christians in cultures where Satan is primarily using cultural atheism, the task is much more difficult: how does one avoid unnamed false gods, let alone identify what cultural objects and actions would be used to encourage people to follow them instead of the one true God?
With these ideas in mind, I would like to close this series by proposing some likely principles and that govern the freedoms we have—and do not have—as we communicate the Gospel cross-culturally.
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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.