Seven things we often mistake for evangelism
We have not obeyed the calling to evangelize until we talk specifically about the person and work of Jesus Christ and the necessity to believe in him.
Having touched on what constitutes evangelism in the last post, we want to take our discussion a little deeper. Because some wrong thinking concerning evangelism may have pervaded many of our churches, it is critical to establish clarity by way of contrast. In this section, we are going to examine a few common ways Christians mistake the practice of evangelism for other important aspects of the Christian life.
Before we launch into these common mistakes, however, it is important to recognize that all of the practices listed below are legitimate—even necessary—activities for a Christian, and may serve as a way to build relationships with others for the sake of sharing the gospel. There are times when talking to someone about social issues will naturally lead to speaking to your conversation partner about the gospel. Conducting our lives in holiness and purity will also be vital as we proclaim the gospel. Our point in this section is to help you identify the ways you might be prone to mistake evangelism for something else so that you can make genuine progress in your efforts to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
Having a conversation about God and religion
In various contexts, you might find it fitting to talk with others about God and the broader category of religion. Given the fact that God and religion are often topics of interest in the media and the larger culture, it is likely that there will be times to engage these important areas with unbelievers.
You might talk about the existence of God or the idea of a Supreme Being from a philosophical perspective. But these subjects, at most, are only ice-breakers to lead to evangelism and cannot be considered evangelism in and of themselves. And, as we will see in subsequent posts, it is not necessary to begin with such topics in order to move to talking about the gospel.
Talking about the Bible
Similarly, evangelism is not merely talking to someone about the Bible. Is it good to talk to unbelievers about the Bible? Absolutely! In fact, we will see in later posts that one of our primary aims in evangelism should be to get people into the Bible for themselves. But we can be tempted to mistake discussions about the Proverbs or the literary diversity and beauty of Scripture for evangelism. Again, these are useful topics (any topic involving God’s Word is!), and they may often lead to sharing the gospel, but we have not obeyed the calling to evangelize until we talk specifically about the person and work of Jesus Christ and the necessity to believe in him.
Defending the Christian faith
The practice of defending the faith against unbelieving arguments is usually referred to as apologetics. When someone engages in apologetics, they are not “apologizing” for the Christian faith; they are defending the truth of Christianity through specific argumentation, usually through appeals to evidence from the areas of history, philosophy, or science.
For example, a Christian might argue for the historical reliability of the gospels by providing an unbeliever with several sources outside the Bible that support the Bible’s historic claims. Or, a Christian might defend the reasonableness of Christianity by arguing that only the Christian worldview adequately explains reality, while all other worldviews are insufficient to explain what we see, feel, and experience. A Christian might address the problems inherent in an evolutionary view of the origin of life. These are useful and important activities and may often intertwine with our evangelistic efforts. But until we have explained a person’s plight before a holy God and offered them the grace found in the death and resurrection of Christ, we have not evangelized. Pastor Mark Dever puts it this way:
Apologetics is defending the faith, answering the questions others have about Christianity. It is responding to the agenda others set. Evangelism, however, is following Christ’s agenda, the news about him. Evangelism is the positive act of telling the good news about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through him.
Offering solid evidence for the reliability of the Bible in the areas of history, science, and philosophy, and geology is sometimes useful to defend the truth against attack. But we must keep in mind, as Dever observes, that when we do make such defenses, we are answering the unbeliever according to their agenda. They have questions about the reliability of the Bible and the truthfulness of the Christian faith, and they are presently making those questions the centerpiece of the conversation. We may engage those questions in order to demonstrate the durable nature of biblical truth and the self-refuting nature of unbelief, but will be doing so from a defensive posture rather than an offensive one.
When we preach the gospel, however, we are addressing the unbeliever according to Christ’s agenda by positively proclaiming the nature of man’s dire situation and the glorious solution provided in Christ. We may muster a load of evidence for the truth of the Bible, but until we have told people that they face God’s judgment and can be saved by repentance and faith in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have not evangelized.
Discussing important social issues
There are many cultural issues about which Christians should be concerned. And walking faithfully to Christ will often require us to engage others on what they believe about, say, abortion and the sanctity of life. We may find warm agreement or sharp disagreement with unbelievers over various social issues and find these discussions intellectually and emotionally stimulating. But our conversations about these matters, even though we may be defending the biblical position, cannot be considered evangelism until we have explained the reality of sin and the meaning of the cross. Again, finding common ground on or engaging in mentally invigorating debate on these kinds of may be a means by which you move a conversation to the gospel, but they are not the gospel. As important is the abortion issue is, a person does not escape eternal judgment by becoming pro-life.
Telling someone they are a sinner
Because evangelism involves explaining to an unbeliever that they are sinners by nature and by personal choice, it might be easy to conclude that we have evangelized once we have told someone about their spiritual condition before God. Some so-called Christian groups have formalized this error in the way they conduct their “outreach” ministries by only telling people that they are worthy of God’s judgment. But telling someone that God is going to punish sin is not yet evangelism. Until we have offered Christ and his death on the cross as the only way to avoid this punishment, we have not shared the good news.
Doing good deeds
The Christian life must be a life fully of good works (Matt. 5:16). Jesus Christ died for the express purpose of creating a people that are “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Believers are to be rich in good works and constantly engaged in providing for other people’s needs in practical, concrete ways (Titus 3:14). But providing food, shelter, clothing, and financial help is not evangelism. These good works adorn our evangelism and demonstrate that Christ is concerned about the whole person, not just the soul. But we have not yet evangelized until we tell those to whom we offer these earthly provisions about their sin and the solution God has provided in Jesus Christ.
Living a holy life
When we come to Christ, we immediately embark on a life of holiness (2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 4:24). God gives us new desires for holiness and purity, and we begin to walk in fresh patterns of life. Our interests change, our entertainment habits change, our lifestyle begins to change, and our time and energy is now stewarded differently. Sexual purity becomes a priority, integrity a non-negotiable, and we seek to guard our mind and heart from temptation. But we cannot mistake personal holiness for evangelism. Yes, it is important that people see a difference in our lives, but our holiness of life, in and of itself, cannot save someone. Granted, a holy life will adorn our words with authenticity, and a compromised, hypocritical lifestyle may hinder someone from believing the gospel, but our lives, by themselves, can save no one. Until we speak the truth about our sin and the goodness of Christ, we have not evangelized.