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.
On Friday 9 March 2018, more than 650 people gathered at St Andrew’s Cathedral during their lunch hour to give thanks to God for the life and ministry of the twentieth century’s most famous and, arguably, most effective evangelist, Billy Graham. The congregation was glad to give thanks to God for this man of humble origins who spoke to presidents and princes, as well as hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens at mass gatherings, and millions more through radio, television and eventually satellite and the internet.
Billy Graham ‘finished his race’ full of conviction and hope, and without any whiff of scandal. Anyone could recognise that this was in some sense the end of an era but some, on social media and in newspaper and online columns, sought to portray the death of Billy Graham as signalling the end not only of his generation of evangelicalism but of the Christian mission altogether. At least in the West, it was opined by some, science and technology, the indisputable moral failures of the Church, the triumph of personal and sexual autonomy and much more besides, mean that Billy Graham’s message of ‘the Bible says’, and his preoccupation with ‘winning souls’ can no longer have a credible place in contemporary society.
So some have said, since the Athenians scoffed at the Apostle Paul’s talk of resurrection. But far from being superseded, the task of ‘testifying to the gospel of God’s grace’ remains the great need of the hour. While it is true that the evangelistic mission today faces social and cultural challenges different from those confronted by Billy Graham – global communism was a big theme for Billy – in reality, the dismally predictable sinfulness of the human heart, the breath-takingly gracious provision of God in the gospel of his Son, and the eternal purpose of God to unite all things in heaven and earth under King Jesus – mean that the work of evangelism at its most fundamental, spiritual level is just the same as it ever was.
Billy Graham embraced new technologies over more than five decades of global ministry – and in our day, there are new resources, methods and opportunities for evangelistic engagement – but the work of making known the ‘glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ and calling on our hearers to ‘repent and believe the good news’ remains the same, and the necessity, urgency and priority of the task has not diminished in any way. How could it?
This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witness of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. Luke 24:46-49
What God had planned from the beginning and anticipated in the Old Testament Scriptures, came to pass in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Now a way has been opened, through the atoning death of the Son and his glorious resurrection in triumph over sin and death and the devil, to forgiveness of sin, adoption into God’s family, fellowship with the Father in the power of the Spirit. This is a gospel for all nations – to be preached to the ends of the earth – since Jesus has atoned for the sins of the world and been appointed by his resurrection, Lord and Judge of all.
No doubt, the contemporary context in which we proclaim this message is challenging. We can no longer assume, as Billy Graham could, that people know what we mean when we use words like ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’, or speak of ‘the Bible’ or ‘the church’. People have a shallow understanding at best of ‘sin’, ‘the Cross’, ‘resurrection’ and ‘heaven and hell’. But we confront much more than biblical illiteracy. Contemporary attitudes to sexuality, gender, and identity are simultaneously amongst the most powerful idols of our age and deeply contrary to the Bible’s teaching on such subjects (notwithstanding the unconvincing accommodations and barren harmonisations offered by liberal theology). In the areas that our culture regards as preeminent in establishing our sense of self and identity, we are most deeply at odds with it.
Then, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has exposed not only a deep seam of evil within the life of most Christian denominations through the period nostalgically associated with the hegemony of the Christian worldview, but also a shameful failure on the part of those who were once esteemed as the guardians of morality and compassion to act to protect the innocent and vulnerable. None of this can be denied. In the face of such failure and wickedness, the temptation for Christians to fall silent – out of shame, out of fear, out of a sense of needing to win back trust – is understandable. But we must not add to past failure to hear and care for survivors of child sexual abuse, a failure in the present to offer the gospel of light and life to our generation. The Lord will hold us accountable for both.
True, when it comes to the work of evangelism, our cultural context is challenging. But it is also needy. The culture of sexual autonomy and permissiveness is producing a whole new generation of victims. Consider the countless thousands of women who have claimed #MeToo as a vehicle of truth-telling in the face of power wielded for purposes of sexual exploitation and the tsunami of online-porn addiction distorting real relationships between real people. For those worn out with sexual exploitation and manipulation, tired of photo-shopped images and online intimacy, the gospel provides deep cleansing from sin, real connection with the God who alone can satisfy our deepest longings, and enduring and satisfying truth about ourselves and our value and place in the world.
It is not only those wounded by the gods of this age who need to hear of the Saviour who loved them and gave himself for them. The passing crowds, our neighbours and colleagues and fellow citizens are diagnosed by Scripture – ‘darkened in heart, without God or hope in the world’. They are just what every Christian was until we met the God who raises the dead and justifies the wicked. Jesus said ‘wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it’. That’s tweetable, unpopular and deeply divisive – but spoken by one ‘who had authority’. We must proclaim Christ in our generation because like every generation, without Christ, we are condemned already, alienated from God by nature and choice, and facing his just judgement.
We should not forget that the pages of the New Testament bear witness that from the outset, the gospel appeared foolish and offensive to those who rejected it. Offensive, because it gives no heed to our protests of self-justifying virtue; because it calls on us to repent of the autonomy we hold most dear; because it lays at our feet the blood of the most beautiful man to walk the earth. Foolish, because it offers life through death, power through weakness, glory through suffering; because it calls for purity, humility and generosity when our hearts move us to self indulgence, self-exaltation and self-gratification.
From New Testament times the gospel has advanced despite external opposition and internal division, and in the midst of the suffering of Christ’s church. From New Testament times the kingdom advances by the prayerful proclamation of the gospel by God’s people, compelled by love and captured by a vision of his glory.
‘Be devoted to prayer’ says the apostle, but I fear we are not devoted to prayer. Jesus says, ‘I will build my church’ but we think, ‘we will build the church’. We’ll do it by the force of our logic or the depth of our scholarship; we’ll do it by the eloquence of our preaching. We’ll do it by the right marketing strategies or the right evangelistic tool or the correctness of our politics. Prayer seems so much like doing nothing. So we’ll build the church by tapping into the consumerist or entertainment or ideological motifs of the culture that despises the gospel, rather than by seeking God’s powerful, merciful intervention by his gospel in the lives of those who are as we once were, dead in transgression and objects of wrath. We must devote ourselves to prayer.
I’m confident that the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is being regularly preached in Sydney Anglican pulpits. But that is not quite the same as giving adequate, let alone urgent priority to the task of evangelism. How much of the ministry team’s time is spent in relationship with people who are not yet followers of Jesus? I need to quite deliberately make time to spend with my friends of other faiths and none – and the same can be true for church members who can just as easily find themselves with few non-believing contacts.
Giving time and emotional energy and prayer and thoughtfulness to making Christ known in the circle of relationships that the Lord opens to us necessarily means having less time for other, worthwhile activities. Here’s the rub. In our cultural context of the rejection and marginalisation of Christianity as foolish or wicked, and in the face of our own institutional failures, there are numerous diversions to capture our attention and consume our energy.
Local churches have ever increasing (and important) requirements to administer compliance frameworks. We can silence ourselves – even while others labour to protect freedom of speech – out of a sense that we have lost the right to speak. We can turn our attention to matters of social concern that are more likely to win the approval or even esteem of the culture. Advocacy on behalf of those detained by our government indefinitely and inhumanely is properly an area for Christian involvement. So too is the problem of homelessness, the socially corrosive effects of gambling, the defence of the unborn and those in the final stages of life, climate change and certainly, Indigenous rights. Indeed, we must engage in such areas, in a distinctively gospel-shaped way so as to bring the blessing of the gospel to the culture at large. We are to ‘do good to all’. Some will have special expertise to contribute, some will have unique opportunity or responsibility to do so.
But recognising the limit to how much time, energy, prayer and money can be devoted by Christians to activities beyond daily needs and immediate responsibility, especially in areas where others of good will are similarly involved, the work that only Christians can do should have first priority for most of us. Especially when this work, the work of evangelism, is the necessary and immediate consequence of the work of Jesus.
Jesus builds his church and brings the Kingdom as people hear, trust, and obey the gospel. ‘Gospels’ are for proclaiming. Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah anticipated by Scripture, and has been declared Lord and Judge by his resurrection; therefore, repentance and the forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.
The Triune God is present as the word of God, the gospel, is shared with others. The New Testament is replete with the power of God’s word to bring about salvation and righteousness in his people, to the praise of his glory and grace. It is by God’s word and not by bread alone that we really live (Matthew 4:4). God’s word judges the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12), saves (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18) and creates faith (Romans 10:17), sanctifies his people (John 17:17), brings about the new birth (James 1:18), performs God’s work in believers (1 Thessalonians 2:13), gives wisdom (Colossians 3:16), builds up and preserves believers for their inheritance (Acts 20:32).
The gospel of Jesus is sufficient for God’s purposes for his world and his people, powerful for salvation, bringing the new creation. It advances among us to the ends of the earth, according to God’s perfect will, by the proclamation of his people in dependence upon his Spirit, in fellowship with one another, to the glory of God. The prayerful proclamation of the gospel of Jesus remains the urgent and essential priority of the hour.