When I was in college, I occasionally went to the campus BSU (Baptist Student Union) with some of my friends. There was wonderful fellowship and support – and sometimes great home-cooked meals.
One evening, a speaker was encouraging us to share our faith with others on campus and asked how easy it was to “witness” to Christ among our friends. He divided the room up into five areas, from very easy, easy enough, no big deal, hard, to very hard. He gave us a few minutes to cogitate and then go to the area that seemed most accurate for each of us. There were about 20 to 25 of us there that night. Almost everyone started out in the middle of the room, but within a couple of minutes had gravitated to the “very hard” section.
I knew how they felt. They had images of sharing the Gospel with friends and winning people to Christ in some stereotypical way where everything is so effortless and people are radically transformed in a moment. We had all heard missionaries talk about this kind of experience and felt our own lives could not measure up to that level of evangelism on campus. You know, we had classes and homework and such.
However, at the time in my life, I was trying to look at everything from a fresh perspective and not just do things the way I or others always had. I walked over to the “easy enough” section as others were walking to the “hard” one. As more of my friends migrated to the “very hard” area, I ended up going to the “very easy” spot.
I got a few doubtful and who-do-you-think-you-are looks.
The speaker came over to chat. He was curious why I decided to stand in the “very easy to witness” spot. I simply explained that my goal was to share my faith by the way I lived my life, not by cramming it down someone’s throat. He could see my point. And then I got to explain myself to everyone who was standing in the “very hard to witness” group. They could see my point and I could see theirs. We all learned a lot that night about sharing our faith.
It’s one thing to live your life in a way that others notice that Christ is in your life. It is another all together to go out into the world, or even just your neighborhood, to actively preach the Gospel.
How do you preach the Gospel?
Not too long ago, a young minister posted this question in his Facebook feed: When you present the Gospel, what do you emphasize the most: sin, hell, heaven, the blood of Jesus, the cross, repentance, resurrection or what?
The responses came forth like water out of a gushing spring.
- We emphasize sin and the sinner’s inability to save himself. Then we talk about the cross.
- I always emphasize sin, the cross, and repentance. These three seem to cover everything. I show the sinner their need to repent and trust the Savior who died on the cross.
- The reality and penalty of sin and how Jesus paid the price. The surety of eternal life in Christ.
- The cross, which leads to the fact and punishment of sin. Then the resurrection, which leads to repentance/new life in Christ.
- Sin and The Cross.
- The Holiness of God and the sinfulness of man.
These are just some of the responses. You get the idea.
All those who responded were preachers or evangelists in some capacity. They were, and are, earnestly preaching the Gospel and trying to teach more people about Jesus. And I commend them for it. Not everyone feels called to preach the way these guys are.
But I disagree with their approach.
The more I examine how Jesus preached and taught his disciples to preach, the way Peter and Paul shared the “good news,” the more I think these ministers, and much of Christendom today, is preaching the Gospel with the wrong emphasis. They are putting the cart before the horse and trying to convert people using the message Paul wrote to people who had already accepted Christ. He preached differently to the non-believer.
How did Jesus preach the Gospel?
“Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
He did talk about the need to repent, but the focus was on the fact that the Kingdom was at hand and in order to see it, be part of it, be in it, you had to repent.
But what does it mean to repent?
The Greek word “repent” is metanoeo. According to Strong’s Concordance it means “to think differently or afterwards, i.e. to reconsider, (morally to feel compunction).” How true! Before you can be sorry for your sin and seek forgiveness, you must think differently about your sins. You must realize they are wrong.
Too many times, even when we know we have sinned, we justify our wrong doing. That is not repentance. That is not thinking differently about it.
John the Baptist also preached repentance to everyone who came to him. They confessed their sins. They repented (they thought differently about them), realized they were wrong, and then were baptized. But John rebuked the Pharisees for coming to be baptized without a true spirit of repentance in their hearts. They had not changed their way of thinking.
But even John said, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) His usual approach was not, “You better repent or you’ll go to hell fire and eternal damnation.” (Although he did warn those who continued in sin of its consequences.) He said to repent because the Kingdom is at hand. Those are two very different approaches. The first is based on fear of punishment. The second is based on the promise of salvation.
In the spirit of the original meaning of the Greek, I invite you to “think differently” about the meaning of repentance and how to preach the Gospel.
In no way am I diminishing the need for us to acknowledge and repent of our sins in the traditional meaning, but could Jesus have been saying something totally different? For example:
Hey guys, I have some really good news! Great news! Amazing news! The kingdom of heaven is at hand. It’s already here and now. But you’ve got to look at things totally differently. You’ve been told the kingdom of heaven is way off in the future, will never come or that it doesn’t even exist. But I have good news. The kingdom of heaven is NOT way off in the future. It’s not way off in the sky somewhere. It is at hand. It is here and now, but you can’t see it with your eyes or perceive it with your self-centered approach to life or the limitations you have accepted about yourself and God. You have to change your whole way of thinking before you can understand it. You have to look at things, including yourselves, from a spiritual perspective instead of a material, earthly perspective. You have to be born again (born from above in the original Greek).
The good news of Jesus
The good news that Jesus brought was not that we are all miserable sinners. It was that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand and that he was the Way to this kingdom. He was constantly telling parables to explain what it was like. He wanted people to see themselves in this new light of heaven’s at-handedness and accessibility.
You can try to scare people into heaven like many preachers do. That’s the Nebuchadnezzar approach to forcing worship in a predetermined way. Bow down to my gold statue or I’ll throw you in the fiery furnace. If you don’t repent and accept Jesus, you will burn in hell forever. I know of churches who pride themselves on this fear-mongering and sincerely believe they are able to win more people to Christ because of it. Maybe they do. But it’s not the way Jesus preached.
Right about now, you will argue with me and quote all the places Jesus talked about hell and the consequences of sin. I know. He said those things. We cannot gloss over sin and its consequences. But his comments were usually in a specific context referring to a specific situation, attitude or group. Jesus did not turn a blind eye to sin. He was especially hard on those in high religious positions whom he perceived to be hypocrites. But he was also compassionate to those caught up in sin. He came to forgive them, to free them from the bondage of sin.
My real point here is that Jesus’ overall focus was on preaching the glories and wonder and now-ness of the Kingdom of Heaven. When he preached, people felt the power of God. They felt the presence of this Kingdom. They believed him. The natural result was they wanted to repent, not out of fear, but in anticipation of the glories of the Kingdom here and now, as well as in what Jesus called “the resurrection.”. They couldn’t help but repent. In the presence of such love, their sins, both conscious and deeply hidden-away-and-forgotten sins, came bubbling up out of their hearts to be washed away in Jesus’ love.
This is a completely different approach from scaring the living daylights out of someone to get them to become a Christian.
You can’t scare people into heaven
When I lived in Texas years ago, I heard of a radio preacher who said that even if you had to hold a gun to someone’s head to get them to be a Christian, that was okay because everyone had to be saved. That is extreme and not following Jesus’ example.
It’s really a question of balance and emphasis. The more I study the New Testament, the more I am convinced that too much of the preaching to non-believers today has the wrong emphasis. As I said above, many of the phrases preachers use today when evangelizing to those who have not become Christians are actually things Paul was writing to people who were already in the church and had sinned. Those are two different audiences and the message needs to be tailored to whom you’re speaking. We are saying to someone unfamiliar with Jesus the things Paul wrote to those who already believed.
Preaching the Gospel includes action…
Jesus didn’t preach with words only. He preached by healing sickness and disease and raising the dead, feeding the multitudes, walking on the water. He was practicing what he preached. He expects us to do the same. That is the Gospel in action. When you tell someone about Christ and they are healed as a result, you know you’re doing something right.
…and telling who Jesus is
And when Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, and Paul to the non-Christians in Asia and Europe, they first gave a Bible lesson about how Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in Scripture. When people knew that Jesus was the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah, they wanted to repent and join the church.
When you share the Gospel message, remember how Jesus preached. You can’t ignore sin and the need for repentance, forgiveness and redemption. You can’t leave out the Cross, but remember Paul said the crucifixion without the Resurrection is meaningless (see I Cor 15:13, 14).
There is so much that can be said here. I have just share a few thoughts.
Keep the focus on the glorious presence of God’s kingdom which is “at hand” today as much as it was in Jesus’ day. God will show you what to say each time you preach. Don’t make a formula out of your words. Let the Holy Spirit move you afresh each time you tell someone about Christ. Most of all, show people through Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah.
How do you preach the Gospel?