Craig Dyer, training director for Christianity Explored Ministries, writes this week’s blog post. Craig’s role takes him all over the globe, but the Dyer’s currently live near the airport in Glasgow.
A thunder-bolt in the Departure lounge
23rd January 2013: I was sitting in the departure lounge of Entebbe Airport about to fly home to Glasgow. I’d been in Uganda for a Christianity Explored evangelism-training conference. I finished my report of the trip and turned to the next of that day’s McCheyne Bible readings. There and then Matthew 23:15 hit me like a thunder-bolt,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”
I looked around the departure lounge expecting everyone to be as shocked as I was, as though the verse had been announced over the public address system. I had read that verse each 23rd of January for as many years as I have been using McCheyne’s plan. Never before had it struck me so forcibly.
Jesus issues a serious warning about evangelism. The recent convert being twice as much a son of hell is not a reference to a more severe experience of hell. Rather the convert to legalistic Phariseeism was already naturally lost. Then the evangelist persuaded him to follow a way that promised heaven, but was leading to hell. The unwitting convert was like someone trying to escape from a burning building and being lead down a corridor with the promise of a door only to find a dead-end.
The church cannot ignore these severe warnings to the Pharisees, since the Lord also cautioned His disciples to beware the yeast of the Pharisees. What can we learn?
Enthusiasm is not enough
Whatever their motivation, the Pharisees went to considerable lengths, travelling over land and sea and not to hold a stadium convention, but to win a single convert. Yet how deadly the result of that effort and aim was. There is, in some quarters, colossal effort applied to bringing outsiders into the community of the church family. That’s great, but our enthusiasm needs to be for more than getting people in and around believers. And it needs to be driven by more than a sense of people’s needs, or excitement over the potential for transformed lives. We need to be enthused by the gospel to tell the gospel; to know why we are reaching out, and with what? Otherwise we are in danger of keeping the lost, lost, while thinking they are found.
Increased enthusiasm for evangelism would be a great blessing to the churches and the world, but only insofar as it arises from an increasing understanding of the specific dangers the gospel rescues people from, and how the gospel is to be carefully applied.
Winning can mean losing
How do we rate success in evangelism? The way Jesus frames it here, the effort is put into closing the deal, and a manufactured outcome when he becomes one, you make him... There’s a contemporary danger here if we rate success by apparent outcome.
David Platt relates a very striking account of a young man whose only thought of hell was triggered strangely, by viewing a Tom and Jerry cartoon in which Tom was sent to hell for his wrong-doing. Later, the man asked a Christian friend if he believed in hell. The Christian affirmed that he did, and emphasised that it was to be avoided at all costs. He then proceeded directly to ask the young man to bow his head and repeat a prayer of repentance and faith. A moment later the Christian shook the young man’s hand warmly and assured him that he need never worry about hell ever again.
The Christian in the story is a well-meaning, Bible-believing, evangelism enthusiast. He knew the reality of sin and hell. He felt the urgency of warning others. He was excited about the power of Jesus to rescue people from that calamity. So he got his friend to repeat a prayer, and assured him he was saved. If the cartoon viewer did nothing other than comply with the request of his Christian friend in repeating a prayer, and is banking on that for his salvation, then is he not in danger of being twice a son of hell?
Opening the book, not closing the deal
Evangelism is nothing more and nothing less than telling the good news of Jesus from His Word – who He is, why He came into the world, and what it means to follow Him. Being a disciple of Jesus means more than making a verbal profession of faith, it means turning around and going the other way. Even if no one responds positively evangelism has taken place if the good news of Jesus is told.
We long for greater passion and fervour, for widespread boldness in cross-cultural and counter- cultural evangelism. But even with that zeal, and perhaps particularly with it, we are in danger of thinking that bringing people to salvation is humanly achievable. It’s not. In Mark 10 when the disciples watched the rich man walk away and asked ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus answered, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God.’ Evangelism is not ‘closing the deal’, but faithfully opening the Bible with people, making Jesus known, and trusting the Holy Spirit to do what we can’t. It won’t be perfect. It doesn’t have to be. God in His sovereignty does the difficult bit.
My work with Christianity Explored Ministries means that I’ll probably be back in Entebbe Airport soon. But we don’t go anywhere to offer a quick-fix programme with results guaranteed. It is thrilling to see communities of believers in around 85 countries with a growing knowledge of, and confidence in Mark’s Gospel to do its work, as God’s Word in them and through them. Under the tree in the centre of a Ugandan village, in the teaming slums of Delhi, amidst the excitement in Brazil’s six state capitals where the games of the Confederations Cup will be played in 2013 and the World Cup in 2014, in the cafeteria of a NASCAR race team in the United States, among inmates in 30 prisons across the UK, in a nuclear submarine somewhere in the N. Atlantic, in the heat of an Emirate’s hospital, in the chill of a Latvian University dormitory, in lunch clubs for old-age pensioners, and lunch-hours for busy city workers, in countries that are wide open to the gospel, and some that are firmly closed, in homes, halls, cafes, church-buildings, in groups large and small, and one-to-one, believers are pointing unbelievers to Jesus in His Word.
As long as the church depends on the Lord and finds in His Word our method as well as our message, then we’ll avoid the staggering dangers of Matthew 23:15, and the Lord will continue to do the impossible across land and sea.