IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
A consideration of the different types of evangelism in terms of the Great Commission shows that the church must he involved in evangelism in such a way that a systematic effort may take place in order to reach "every creature." A consideration of some common assumptions will show, not only that the church as an organized body must sponsor a systematic program of visitationópersonal-evangelism, but that a full program of evangelism is needed, utilizing several different types of evangelistic effort so that they effectively complement one another in a well-coordinated way.
THE PREVIOUS PREPARATION OF THOSE
WHO HEAR THE MESSAGE
An assumption that has sometimes been held by Christians is that those who hear the message are not ready to be given the call of the Gospel until they are adequately prepared by serious study of the Word of God as it is related to their sinful condition and until, as a result, there are definite signs of conviction of this by the Holy Spirit. This is in error. God does not reveal that he will always operate according to a particular plan before a person can be brought to true faith in Christ. Whatever is done in evangelism, Christians must not insist on a plan that requires more than what is given in Scripture on the matter of salvation. The assumption is wrong because it makes extensive human knowledge the key requisite to salvation. Rather, Godís working in salvation must always be kept in perspective. God alone knows how much a given individual needs to understand in order to have saving faith.
But there is not merely a lack of perspective concerning the working of God when inquirers are put through training in the Bible without extending a call to conversion. There is a positive danger in such training. Those who do not live in gross sin and are indoctrinated in Biblical teaching may sincerely come to believe that they are Christians and have faith in Christ when vital elements of true faith are missing. A person may grow up in the church and learn all the doctrines he is taught, and because of what he knows and assents to thinks that he is safe. He may learn as if by rote the correct answers to give, and think that he has responded to the Gospel call when he has repeated these answers to himself or others. This is what is wrong with training people in the Christian faith without extending the call to conversion; it puts them in a place where they can deceive themselves through unconsciously substituting knowledge for true faith.
A note must be made here concerning Jesusí ministry. It must not be argued that because Jesus had many disciples who later turned back and did not walk with him any more (John 6:66), that the proper approach is discipleship first and conversion later. The circumstances in Jesusí ministry were greatly different from what is found today. When Jesus preached, He spoke to Jews who had been prepared by the teaching of the Old Testament, and many of them knew God. So at that point of time, there was already a commitment to God and his revealed truth. In terms of Godís revealed will up to that point, they had gone as far as they could go. Only recognition of Jesus Himself yet remained, and as soon as this took place they would, of necessity, be committed to Him. But it is clear that some of them who professed to know God did not truly know Him. This is why they did not receive Jesus Christ and His teaching. In other words, the situation during Jesusí ministry would be more like preaching to a group of professed Christians today. Jesus would be preaching to them, "Unless you are converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into Godís kingdom" (Matt. 18:1-3). We see then, that Scripture must not be applied indiscriminately, apart from the historical background in which it was given. The examples of Jesusí ministry gives no support for the idea that discipleship should come before conversion.
There is also no Biblical warrant for delaying the call to conversion. There are examples, on the other hand, of those whom God prepared for conversion without any great period of study. A most prominent case is that of the Philippian jailor who went through no extended period of study before conversion (Acts 16:14-34) and was a Gentile with little or no background. In cases of those having an acquaintance with Judaism, baptism and induction into the church occurred the same day in which they first heard the message and responded (Acts 2:41; 8:27-38; 10:34-48). If extensive study were required these could not have been received as they were.
The problem is that appearances are deceptive. It is not a Biblical approach to salvation to stress the outward appearance, but rather to stress the attitude of the heart. This is why the church is to be very careful about its relation to new Christians. They are to be received even if they are weak in faith (Rom. 14:1). Actually, the preparation of people to receive the message is the work of God, and it is wrong to think that all of Godís workings within men are reflected in their outward appearance. What appears to be resistance may actually be a reflection of the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. Even a cold and logical antagonism may be a cover-up for conviction. On the other hand, apparent lack of conviction may be a cover-up. So someone who is talking to an unconverted person has no right to assume that God may not be at work preparing the heart for a call to respond.
It is therefore right to give a Gospel-call just as soon as the message has in its essentials been delivered, on the first contact of an individual. Christians involved in personal evangelism ought to assume that God has brought them into contact with the person for the very purpose of using them in bringing him to saving faith, and they should continue in that way until they have a definite sign otherwise. But one can really know if a person has not been sufficiently prepared only when he has personally been given a clear call to respond and doesnít.
This is one error, that people have not had enough preparation to respond properly to the Gospel call unless they have had considerable study of Biblical truths. A more common error is to assume that after a brief presentation those who respond have had an adequate previous preparation. The fact that a person sincerely responds does not necessarily mean that he has understood the message or has true faith.
It is not too uncommon for people to "accept Christ as their personal Savior" and then several years later realize that they have not really trusted Jesus Christ as they ought. They turn to Him in a new way that they had not done before, and life takes on a new dimension that was previously missing. They may express this as "surrendering their lives to Christ" or as a step in "sanctification." In fact, because Christ has not been recognized as Lord (Rom. 10:9) the person had not been truly converted. The ĎĎpostóconversioníí conversion is merely evidence of the fact.
Apparently the "post-conversion" conversion experience has been common enough, so that church leaders have felt the need to give an interpretation for it. Unfortunately the explanation has not always been the right one. There has been, it must be feared, wishful thinking concerning so many who have "accepted Christ" but have not entered into the deeper experience and close fellowship with Him. Instead of reiterating the necessity of a full surrender to Christ and a close fellowship with Him from the start, credence is given to the idea that a person can be saved without this and that one who is unyielded to Christ merely misses out on the blessings of the "deeper Christian life." Perhaps they are encouraged to become a "spiritual" Christian instead of being a "carnal" Christian or "babe in Christ." Thus, a two-tier Christianity has developed, in which there are many who, when looked at objectively, could be called "dead" Christians. They have no interest in spiritual things, the Bible, nor the conversion of lost men, women, and children. They are just not yet "alive" to the main things in the Bible.
But the true explanation is that when they came to their first point of decision concerning Christ, those who later were truly converted simply did not yet have adequate preparation to be converted. God was at work in their lives to bring them to Himself, but that work had not yet come to full fruition. Then, after sitting under the preaching of the Word of God, their eyes being opened, they saw their need and turned to Christ. Finally they reflected back on their experience and recognized that they had come to an important milestone in their life.
THE CONVERSION OF THOSE WHO HEAR THE MESSAGE
False Conversion. Closely related to faulty conceptions about the previous preparation of those who hear the message are wrong assumptions concerning conversion. It is quite easy to get false conversions ó religious decisions on the basis of human persuasion, psychological manipulation, and social influence. In many cases these are so obvious that there should be no need to discuss them. Yet there is such a desire to hope for the best in the case of people involved, that Christians are often tempted to believe that they are somehow going to be saved, regardless of what the Scripture teaches to the contrary. And this is especially true when the person is in a Christianís immediate family. They are, however, easily recognized for what they are as "nonstarters," because there is absolutely no change whatever in their lives; they have merely adopted certain ideas of salvation in their minds.
These thoughts on the part of Christians and non-Christians alike are encouraged by misconceptions concerning the doctrine of eternal security. When presented in the form of saying that all who at some point "sincerely believe in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior" are eternally secure no matter what may take place afterward this caricature may be seen for what it is, a sham that converts the Gospel into a lie from hell. Certainly there is a difference between belief from the heart and sincere mental assent, and the latter does not make anyone "eternally secure." The true doctrine of eternal security states that because God performs a work of regeneration in the heart at conversion, and since the new creature in Christ becomes a part of His adopted family, God Himself takes the responsibility to preserve that person, bringing influences into the personís life so that he will never turn away from Christ but will persevere to the end no matter what the pressures may be. Under this teaching true conversion must always be distinguished from a mere "decision for Christ" or profession. And if a "Christian" does not endure to the end we may be assured by Scripture that he has fallen away for the purpose of making it clear that he was not one "of us" (I John 2:19). One who has been truly born again is certain to endure.
The fact is that there is the possibility of self-deception concerning oneís relation to Christ. The parable of the ten virgins teaches this (Matt. 25). The five foolish virgins were confident, even after they had been shown to have lacked oil, that they were going in to the marriage. A man may also think himself to be something, when he is nothing, and deceive himself (Gal. 6:3). He may have faith, but it may be no more faith than that of the devils who believe (James 2:19). A faith that does not produce fruit is a dead faith and invalid. And one who is not a doer of the Word deceives his own self James 1:22).
But self-deception may extend to those who are church members as well as to those who apostatize or never show any more interest in Christ after their "conversion." There can be those who have that same dead faith but for some reason become joined to a church, participate in its social program, attend its meetings, and hear the Gospel being preached. Yet because their faith is dead, they are not being saved. On the other hand, there will be those who will sincerely claim to have prophesied, cast out devils, and done many wonderful works in the name of Christ, but who will be turned away (Matt. 7:21-23). It is therefore possible for people doing works that require great faith, to believe sincerely that they are serving Christ and be self-deceived about their own salvation. It is commonly recognized that there are false conversions obtained by fleshly means, but this possibility of self-deception on the part of sincere people who have dead faith is often overlooked.
The matter of concern is to find a way to keep people from being deceived by thinking that they have faith, when in reality they do not have true faith. The problem is that it is all too easy to have the wrong message as well as having the wrong methods. There must be a correct understanding of what true faith is, if people are not to be deceived. Faith must be declared not only as a believing of what Jesus Christ says and who He is, but also declared as the following: a turning to, a resting in, a yielding to, a trusting fully in, a following of, a surrendering to Christ, a taking of His yoke, and a shunning of all else for Him. As has often been pointed out in the past, there can be no true faith without true repentance, that is, without a change of mind about, a renouncing of, and a turning from oneís self, the flesh, and the world. It is greatly feared that what has too often been preached is a false Gospel of simple "faith," that is offered only as a "fire escape" from hell.
But suppose a person who is "converted" without having true faith is counseled in one of todayís evangelistic crusades or in one of todayís evangelical churches. What happens to him? Typically he is led through four verses of Scripture, showing the fact of manís sin, its penalty, that the penalty has been paid by Christ, and that each man must personally accept Him as their Savior by faith. He is told, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31). Then even if the person is without understanding, but sincere and goes through the motions of praying to "receive" Christ (Rev. 3:20), he is then systematically indoctrinated in "assurance of salvation." The above Scripture is taken out of context, and the "convert" is asked to read a verse like I John 5:13, "These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life. . . . "He is asked if he "believes" on the name of the Son of God, if he believes God would lie, and then is shown that the verse is the "promise" of God that he personally must have eternal life, since he "believes." This is the common practice, and though it is done with good intentions to help and strengthen those who have been truly converted, it does inestimable harm to multitudes who are just as lost afterward as before they were "saved." The fact that many are saved in spite of such means does not negate the fact that many are lost by such means inside the church!
It does no good to think that at least those who are lost by such means are inside the church, where they can hear the preaching of the Word of God. Apart from the deadening influence and hindrance they put in the way of the truth, Christians must come to realize the difficulty of reaching these unconverted church members. With the kind of indoctrination they have had, how is it possible for them to see themselves as being in danger from the sins they are committing? After all, they have the assurance of the Word of God that they have eternal life, the kind of life that can never be lost. They believe Christ has paid the penalty for their sin, and nothing can touch them. As far as they are concerned, the preaching is for the lost, not for them. Oh, what a horrible surprise they will get when they come to their deserved end! And what bitterness they will have in hell for those who lulled them into thinking they were safe!
In contrast to this false approach to assurance, the right approach points new converts to following Christ and understanding His salvation as revealed in Scripture. When encouragement is needed the existence of green buds in their lives, which are the marks of a new Christian, should be pointed out. They should be encouraged to see them by reading about them throughout the entire letter of I John ó this is the meaning of I John 5:13. Much of Scripture is written for the very purpose of giving assurance of salvation. The view that assurance cannot come without deep study calls into question both the clearness of Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:16).
But although an outwardly visible activity is implied in conversion, appearances are deceptive, because God works in varying ways with different individuals in different situations. In particular, one must be aware of deceptive appearances with regard to signs of conviction and sincerity. On the one hand, conviction may be so hidden that it scarcely appears at all. But more deceptive is the case when an individual is greatly agitated. There is a sorrow of the world that produces death rather than leading to repentance (II Cor. 7:10), and this truth is confirmed in experience. Many are observed to cry with many tears who will not turn to Christ; they call on God to forgive them, but at the same time refuse to acknowledge Christ when it is made clear that they must do so. Apparent sincerity can also be deceiving to the Christian worker. A person may be truly sincere but misunderstand, even when the truth has been presented correctly. It is a fact that much of what one hears may not register in the mind if the mind is not fully oriented to the thought presented. Thus, the sincerity of a person is no sign that they have a right understanding of the message being presented. The Christian ought to do all possible to make the message clear and be sure that it is straight. He has no way, however, of knowing for sure that the other person has had a right understanding of it, even when he has responded to the Gospel call.
What signs may one look for as indications that a person who has responded to the Gospel call has understood the message and has been truly converted? There will be a difference between a pagan and a secular society with regard to this. In a pagan society a person bound by idolatry and the power of evil is clearly converted if he is freed from his bondage and turns to Christ. In a secular society or where there has been a Christian background, the idols are not so clearly seen. If one could see the gods of people today and it were just as clear that they were freed from their bondage and had turned to Christ, it would be no more difficult to know with some assurance that they had been truly converted than for those in a pagan society. Even among those whose experience seems to have been clear, there is still the possibility that a reformation of life was brought about by some purely psychological prompting, and that there was no regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. The heart is so deceitful that Christians are commanded to examine themselves to see that they are in the faith (II Cor. 13:5). Such a command would be meaningless if Christian assurance were so clear-cut that no examination of their present experience were necessary and it depended only on a "decision" in the distant past. In the last analysis only the marks of a Christian given by Scripture for the Christianís use in obeying this command will give an answer to the question of whether a person is truly converted or not. The one who has brought him the message can only listen to the testimony of what God has done and see the fruit that is budding forth.
When converts come into the fellowship of the church, then, it must not be assumed that they are in every case truly converted. What should be assumed is that when people respond, God is at work to bring them to Himself. Perhaps they have already been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and are ready to grow in grace. But perhaps they have not. In that case, the Word of God needs to be applied to these "converts," as it would be to one who had nor responded. Such a "conversion" is to be understood as the opportunity for a preaching ministry of the Word for these people. Thus, there is a need for evangelistic preaching for perhaps, many, of those who have "become Christians." First, what they should have is a fuller understanding of their need, which can come about by the evangelical preaching of Godís law. We learn in Scripture that the law was a school-master until Christ came (Gal. 3:24). So just as it prepared the Jews for Him, it can prepare those who have not fully turned to Christ. Secondly, they should hear teaching on the doctrines of salvation, to show them how Christ in His person is the answer to their every need. And thirdly, they should get preaching on what a Christian is, so that they can examine themselves in that light whether it is clear that God is at work in them (John 3:2 1).
The follow-up of those who respond to the Gospel call clearly must have a dual purpose. It must, on the one hand, care for the needs of the new-born Christian, to help him to grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ (II Pet. 3:18). The one who has not been regenerated, on the other hand, needs a fuller understanding of Godís program and requirements for salvation to bring him to the point of true conversion. The task is to develop a follow-up program that will meet the needs of both of these types of people at the same time.
Most follow-up proceeds on the assumption that only minimal instruction is necessary or possible. Also, those who respond are presumed to be converted, or else no account is taken of any other possibility. The emphasis, therefore, is on the supposed immediate needs of a convert. Behind this seems to be a fear that if this is not done the convert may be lost. There is something inconsistent in this. If he may be lost, there ought to be some effort, however small, to see to it that true conversion has taken place. But there usually is no thought of this in follow-up. The items covered are directed toward establishing the true convert. Such are pointless for the unconverted, who are not ready to receive spiritual things (I Cor. 2:14). But if one is truly converted it is impossible, according to the doctrine of Godís preservation, for him to be lost. The fear is unfounded.
A warning must be given against an ambivalent attitude toward individuals who have responded to the Gospel call. Those who have from all appearances turned to Christ are to be received as Christian brothers. We are to love our Christian brothers (I John 4:21), but it is clear that if we withhold ourselves from some who are not truly converted, we will withhold ourselves from some who really are, because we cannot accurately judge. Furthermore, those who are weak in faith are to be received, and not for the purpose of straightening out their erroneous ideas by arguing with them, either (Rom. 14:1). The proper approach is to give testimony concerning the way God has worked with us, in a way that allows the love of God to be expressed, and which applies the Word of God to practical problems. Even fleshly behavior is not a sign that one is unconverted, otherwise the Apostle Paul could not have compared it to the behavior of "babes in Christ" (I Cor. 3:1). "Babes in Christ," of course, are true converts, since they are "in Christ." In other words, erroneous ideas and fleshly behavior are not criteria for treating a new Christian in a different way from others.
The true convert and the ones who have responded but are not yet converted are to be received as Christians. Fortunately they both need follow-up containing similar elements. Specifically, they need further instruction in the Gospel, to learn more of the Person of Christ and His saving work; one needs this to grow in the knowledge of Christ, and the other needs it in order to have a more complete understanding of Godís program of salvation. Also, both need instruction concerning Christís lordship over oneís life; one needs this to prepare him for the first steps of discipleship, and the other needs it so he may more fully count the cost of being Christís and come to a fuller understanding of Godís requirements in order to be brought to the point of true conversion. In addition, there must be actual training in discipleship and the Christian life.
Inevitably, training in discipleship and the Christian life will bring about a shakeout of those who are not going to come to Christ. The right kind of follow-up will cause them to balk along the way. For those who are being saved, the steps will gently lead them in the way, but for others the spiritual force of it will produce a conflict so great that they wonít be able to stand it. That this is the right approach is shown by the call in Scripture to discipleship and holiness. The need for an evangelistic approach during follow-up to those who are not truly converted demonstrates the need for a full and coordinated program of evangelism in the local church. Follow-up may not be thought of as a ministry only to new Christians, but must be thought of also as a type of evangelism in its own right to those who are not yet converted. Thus, the effort should be recognized as "follow-up evangelism," an effort that completes the work started in the outreach of the church.
EVANGELIZATION OF THOSE WHO DO NOT RESPOND
In addition to wrong assumptions concerning the previous preparation of those who hear the message, and wrong assumptions concerning the conversion of those who respond to it, there are further assumptions that cause Christians to fail in fulfilling the command of the Lord Jesus Christ to evangelize the world. It is frequently and wrongly assumed that when a brief presentation has been made and the person who hears does not respond, that the task of evangelism for that individual has been completed. Nothing could be further from the truth. As has already been pointed out, many who come into the churches may not have had adequate previous preparation to understand the message of salvation. What is true for them may also be true for those who do not respond to the message. Christian experience confirms that many who later Ďcame to receive Christ did not respond to the first presentation of the message or come into contact with a church right away.
In the first place, it must be pointed out that visitationópersonal-evangelism is generally inadequate in reaching this kind of person. It cannot fulfill Christís command of evangelism, even though it is the only type of evangelistic effort that can give any assurance that the church has "reached" every person. To preach the Gospel to every person means to take out the message in such a way it could be used by the Holy Spirit to bring them to conversion. It must be remembered that God is the One who must do the work of converting; Christians are not responsible for persuading them, as though conversion can take place apart from the regeneration of a personís heart. But Christians must find ways to present the message so that it meets the individual non-Christianís misconceptions with answers from Scripture.
But in this there is a problem. As a matter of fact most Christians never will be able to deal with the misconceptions that many non-Christians have. They simply cannot be trained to meet the special needs of the different people they come across in their visits and other contacts. Their personalities may be too different. Their educational background may differ so much that the Christian may not even be able to comprehend the kinds of difficulties that a non-Christian has. And this is on top of a general lack of training in approaching others with the message, not to speak of a general ignorance of much of the specific teaching of Scripture in relation to what is to be presented. Thus, it is usually not possible for one Christian to be prepared for all eventualities, even if there is time and opportunity for many visits.
There is often, however, a limit to the time available for personal evangelism. This is especially true for contacts with individuals outside of their homes, as for example, in many work situations. But there are limits in visitation, too. The Christian in most visiting situations does not know whether there will be an opportunity for another visit. Within the visit he must prepare the way for the eventuality of a preparatory witness in the case of one who does not respond to the Gospel call. Then, too, there is only so much that a person can absorb in one sitting. The presentation must be complete enough to bring the Gospel call properly to the hearer when God has prepared the heart, but it must be short enough to be delivered in one visit. Furthermore, those who are unprepared may be able to take only so much. The object then must be to prepare the way for further contact and communication.
A more complete proclamation is essential than that given in personal evangelism, to deliver the message to those who are not prepared to respond. It is quite unfair to label all who do not respond to the message "rejectors" of Christ. The hindrances keeping people from Christ are more varied and complex than can be fairly described as "excuses." People must be made to see their need as it is given in Scripture and be given an adequate reason of hope before it can be assumed that they have been evangelized. In many cases it may be necessary to refute lies concerning what is actually in Scripture before the message can be communicated. Consequently, other means are needed besides visitationópersonal-evangelism to reach those who do not respond to the message.
Other means for reaching people after they have been contacted and introduced to the Gospel through personal evangelism include literature, study groups, counseling, and preaching. Other types of evangelistic effort that have been mentioned before may be appropriate under certain circumstances. Literature, however, is the most direct and immediate means for further witness and preparation after a personal presentation has been made. Literature can provide further understanding of what has been presented personally, and it can give answers to specific questions in an indirect, nonthreatening way, more than any other means available. Another approach is a study group with other non-Christians, which allows a freedom to ask questions. Questions asked by one person are those another has been hesitant to ask. Pastors and church workers ought also to be bold to counsel non-Christians concerning their duties, even if they have not received Christ. There should be no hesitation to point out their influence on others, including their own children.
The objection that a more complete proclamation of the message is not essential because many actually do come to know Christ through a brief presentation rests on a misunderstanding of providence. God has proved Himself merciful when Christians are unmerciful. Because of the great sin that lies in man, none should respond either to a brief or to a long presentation. The results from a brief message demonstrate nothing whatever about the will of God with regard to the length of the presentation. Few in personal evangelism have done any justice to the message anyway, so there has never been a trial of what might happen if Godís children in large numbers were more faithful to His Word. God, however, has been seen to bless the efforts of those who go out in obedience to His command, even when they are careless in the discharge of their responsibilities. He takes their heartís desire in place of what they actually do. That does not give anyone the right to say that God does not desire carefulness and fidelity to the full message. No one should ever excuse disobedience in this respect. All of the means for evangelism that God has provided, as many as are true to His revealed will, should be accepted, so that God may use them in the salvation of lost people.
The important thing to notice about the different means mentioned above is the way in which they should be used. They ought to be used in a planned way from contacts made through visitationópersonal-evangelism. The visitation program provides for the systematic contact of all the people in an area, and "follow-up evangelism," through literature, study groups, etc. provides means for further proclamation and instruction to those who are unprepared. But the personal contact brings about openings for these other means that would not be possible otherwise. Christians have every reason to expect that their efforts will not be wasted, but that many will continue further to hear more and become converted.
It is clear from the discussions of this chapter that an integrated program of evangelism in the local church is essential if it is to fulfill in its particular locality the command of the Lord Jesus Christ to take the Gospel to every person. The experience of "post-conversion" conversions shows that some kind of effort must be made to evangelize some people after they have responded to the Gospel. The likelihood of considerable numbers of "converts" coming into the church without being regenerated indicates the need for an effort of major proportions. This program may be called "follow-up evangelism," since it follows the main types of personal evangelism. Because of the close connection between evangelism on the first contact of the unconverted and follow-up evangelism, an integrated program is essential, carefully coordinating the information obtained about the background, state of preparation, special needs, and reactions of each person dealt with. In the case of those who respond, a program must be available to get them started in the Christian life, on the one hand, and to increase their understanding of the Gospel message and the Christianís relationship to Christ, on the other. In the case of those who do not respond, other means of outreach must be available to prepare for the call of the Gospel those who will eventually respond. The greatest effort, however, must be put into the first contact, because it is there that people may be brought to see something of their need and be stirred to seek further understanding of Godís salvation, so that the other means may be applied.