This article was originally published in the ACR’s latest journal, which contains lots of helpful reflections on evangelism. You can access the journal in full here.
I want people to really believe
The simple goal of evangelism is for people to believe in Jesus and be saved. This is our mission. Whether it is through our personal relationships, large-scale events, evangelistic courses or the regular preaching of the word on Sunday—we want to see people come to faith in Christ and remain in Him. But if we want people to come to faith, we must first be clear on what real faith is. We may have gathered a crowd or filled a church, but have we made real disciples with real faith? Real evangelism must seek real faith.
The apostle John wrote his gospel, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). And yet John does not assume that we know what these terms mean. Throughout the gospel John pours meaning into these key phrases. He confounds our expectations as he teaches what it means for Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of God”. He challenges our focus on the material and temporary as he explains what sort of “life” Jesus offers. And he schools us in true discipleship as he shows what it looks like to “believe”. The gospel of John is a training manual in real faith, and would serve us well as we think about how to evangelise Sydney and beyond.
Real faith is based on the word of God
John’s first lesson is that real faith comes from the word of God. In John 4 Jesus converts an entire Samaritan town. But how did they come to believe? We are told that it was, “because of his words many more became believers” (John 4:41). To underline the point the Samaritans then say to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world” (John 4:42). Jesus spent two days with this village, and yet it was not his physical presence that led to real faith. It was what they heard. It was his words. Real faith comes through the word. John then offers a contrast between the real faith of the Samaritan village and the false faith of the neighbouring Jewish village. Jesus is welcomed by the same ‘believers’ who saw his miracles in Jerusalem, and yet Jesus rebukes them, “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will never believe” (John 4:48). John is teaching us that whilst the Jews’ “faith” rests in powerful displays of signs and wonders, real faith rests in the words of Jesus.
John then gives us a lesson in real faith as he narrates the healing of the official’s son. Jesus refuses to go with the official, instead only giving the man his word, “Go, your son will live”. And so, we are told, “The man took Jesus at his word and departed” (John 4:50). This story offers a model of real faith—the man took Jesus at his word, and his son received life. John is teaching us in the back half of chapter 4 that real faith does not come through the impressive signs and wonders. Real faith comes from hearing the word of God. This is the same lesson the Apostle Paul teaches the wayward Corinthians, who are constantly impressed with what was showy and powerful. For whilst, “Jews demand signs” the apostle Paul resigns himself to the weak and foolish preaching of the word (1 Cor 1:18-30). This is where real power is—and this is where real faith comes from.
How then should this shape our evangelism? Whilst we may not run signs and wonders ministries in our context, we will always be tempted to reach people through impressive demonstrations of power. To draw a crowd and gain a following through outward displays of strength rather than inward changes of the heart. And perhaps more than anywhere, it is within our youth ministries that we are most vulnerable to this temptation. Over the last decade or so there has been a ‘charismatic flavour’ to most youth conferences. Smoke machines, light shows, mosh pits and dance parties have become the norm as we look for new ways to attract and engage our youth. Of course, the word is not abandoned. Generally, good Bible teachers continue to grace the stage and offer good teaching from the Bible. But the conventional wisdom seems to be that you can have both—charismatic when it comes to singing and vibe, and evangelical when it comes to teaching. Start with a dance party and end with the Bible. What this fails to recognise, however, is that hype is not neutral. Hype does not only fail to bring about real faith, it also produces fake faith. If we set out to impress our youth with outward displays of power, we will foster within our youth a faith that is not based on the word. And what is true for our youth conferences is true for any evangelistic endeavour. In a world where appearance is valued and power is currency, we must still hold out the weak-looking word as the means of saving souls.
Real faith is in the real Messiah
John’s second lesson is that real faith is in the real Messiah. In John 6, over five thousand people come to see Jesus. But what sort of a Messiah were they looking for? We are told that they came to Jesus hoping to see a powerful wonder-worker who might perform more signs (John 6:2). They pursue Jesus, hoping for a powerful military ruler as they seek to make him King by force (John 6:15). And they return to Jesus, looking for a material provider who can give them another loaf of bread to eat (John 6:26). They may be looking for a Messiah—but it is a Messiah of their own making. What is striking about this chapter is that whilst it begins with over five thousand people seeking Jesus, it ends with all of the crowd and most of Jesus’ disciples abandoning him. As they are confronted with the real Jesus they grumble like the Israelites in the desert. They cannot believe the claim that this man has ‘come down from heaven’ (John 6:42). And they certainly can’t stomach the idea that they must eat his flesh (John 6:52). This message of a crucified Messiah ultimately becomes the scandal or ‘stumbling block’ for his disciples (John 6:61). They came to Jesus looking for a wonder-worker, a political activist or a material provider—but all they found was a man offering his body and his blood. And they were offended. John is teaching that real faith must be in the real Messiah. That the message of Christ crucified is a stumbling block for Jews (1 Cor 1:23) and that the real Messiah is the stone rejected by humans on which they fall (1 Peter 2:4, 6-8). False teachers will still preach Jesus—but he will be a Jesus other than the Jesus preached by the apostles (2 Cor 11:4).
This is what makes the prosperity gospel or the social justice gospel so appealing. They promote a Jesus of our own making who offers us what we want. But faith in a fake Jesus is fake. But what about our own context? Is the Jesus we are offering the real Jesus? Leading evangelists such as Tim Keller, and more recently our own Sam Chan, have helped us think through the need for contextualisation when we present the gospel. They teach us to find our culture’s storyline and let the gospel fulfil it. We want our hearers to, “wish the gospel was true.” There is much to learn here, particularly as we face a rapidly changing world. But we must also tread carefully. As we seek to engage our culture, are we ready to lose the whole crowd by preaching the real Jesus? Will we still teach that our biggest problem is the coming judgement and not a lack of fulfilment? Or that our greatest need is a sacrifice for sin and not simply a life coach for direction? Or that our real hope is in the new creation, and not in making this world better? At its best, contextualisation is about finding timely ways to communicate the timeless truths of the gospel. At its worst, it is a cloak for preaching a false Jesus fashioned by our culture’s desires.
Real faith holds to Jesus’ teaching
In John 8 Jesus offers another test for real faith: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:32). This warning was given to the Jews who had “believed in Jesus” and yet by the end of the chapter this group of new converts reject Jesus’ teaching. They are offended that Jesus would call them slaves to sin (John 8:33) and outraged that he would call them children of the devil (John 8:44). By the time Jesus claims the very name of God, they have stones in their hands and are ready to kill him (John 8:59). Quite the follow up course for new believers! The point is clear—if you claim to ‘believe in Jesus’ you must believe in what Jesus says. And this does not mean simply intellectual assent—but obedience. For, “if you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). Yet this group of so-called believers only accepted Jesus’ teaching when it suited them. They believed that Jesus was the light of the world, but hated the light when it started to shine. It is the same spirit of unbelief that the Apostle Paul warns us of—those who have the form of godliness, but deny its power (2 Tim 3:5). And it is no surprise that the teachings on which this group of Jewish ‘believers’ stumble are the same teachings so called believers reject today—the sinfulness of man and the Lordship of Christ.
For many today, the teachings of Christ appear as a barrier to reaching the lost. How will anyone come to Christ if we teach that homosexual practices are sinful or that gender is binary? The response from some within the church is that we must change. Evolve. Bring our beliefs into the twenty first century. And all of this is in the name of evangelism—so that we can reach the lost. This is not new. So-called believers denied the bodily resurrection in an age of reason, the judgement of God in an age of relativism and sexual ethics in an age of permissive individualism. Each time it is insisted that we must change what we believe if we are to reach the people of our day. But Jesus teaches that anyone who does not hold to his teaching is not a real disciple. This has never been more relevant in the lead up to the third Global Anglican Future conference. Sadly today, parts of our worldwide Anglican communion seem to echo the Groucho Marx line: “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I’ve got others.” And this acquiescence comes at a time when those who do make a stand for biblical Christianity face growing hostility. But as churches around the world yield, we must make our stand and declare with our Lord that real faith holds to Jesus’ teaching. If we want people to really believe in Jesus, we must proclaim what our Lord taught.
Real evangelism will seek real faith. It will preach the weak-looking (weak-sounding?) word instead of seeking to impress with pomp and power. It will proclaim the crucified Messiah who died for our sins, and not simply the Messiah the world wants. It will remain steadfast to the teachings of Christ, and not conform to the values of our world. I want people to really believe in Jesus. And so, as Jesus sends us out to make disciples of all nations—let’s be sure that this is what we’re doing.