What is the Goal of Evangelism?
Some hold that the goal, purpose, chief end of evangelism is the conversion of the lost. No doubt, we have here a truly noble sentiment and one worthy of contemplation. If the goal of evangelism is the apparent conversion of the lost, then we, should develop a methodology which is resistant to all other influences and keeps as its main purpose the apparent winning of souls. What Henry Ford did in the manufacturing of automobiles, we can do even better for the production of converts. After all, Henry wasn’t doing the Lord’s work and we are. Now this method must be simple and to the point. The last thing we want to do is to introduce too many complexities in this matter of apparent conversion. The goal here is visible conversion not conviction. Another necessary item to reach our goal is a heaping measure of sensitivity toward the unconverted. We must be very careful not to say anything that would be contrary to their world view. Everyone knows you can’t convert somebody whom you offend. Remember “visible conversions” are the goal. A good tool to use in our arsenal toward apparent conversion is pity. Methodologically speaking, pity helps to get converts. If we must say anything about Jesus to get converts, then let’s cause people to feel sorry for Him. Tugging at people’s sympathies can be done something like this: “Poor Jesus there on the cross, dying for you. Won’t you feel sorry for Him and follow Him?” History shows this one is a proven winner.
Another technique we can use to achieve apparent conversion, is the “Things go better with Jesus” line. This will work great for people whose lives are going smoothly. We don’t ask them to change anything; we just ask them to add Jesus, and bingo, we have ourselves a ready-made board member. This line is also a great hook for the miserable because it communicates that their lives will be forever harmonious after conversion.
Regarding content, always remember that the goal here is apparent conversion. People are not theologians so never con-fuse them by giving them content. They can be visibly converted without it and get it later if they want to. Remember that people will only be confused by the facts. If we must insist on content then we should keep repeating in different forms the proven mantra, “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” People like hearing that.
In the matter of conversion we must be very careful about the atmosphere we create. Lighting should be dim. Our focus groups show that dim lighting is favorable for the emotional response we want to produce. Also an organ is always to be preferred to a piano. Pianos are too vibrant and alive and we want to create a somber and sober atmosphere. After all, this is a serious matter and we want to treat it that way.
When it comes to crunch time (the call for the decision), remember we want to urge people to do the right thing (for their own good of course). Prospective converts need closure on this conversion thing, so have them do something that will prove to them for the rest of their lives they are converted. Have them walk an aisle, sign a pledge card or pray a prayer.
Is the goal of evangelism the apparent conversion of the lost, or is the goal of evangelism the glory of God which, by God’s grace, Will lead to the conversion of His people? And if the goal of evangelism is the glory of God, how does that change our thinking about the way we evangelize?
For too long the evangelical church has been making apparent conversion the goal of the Evangel. John Murray flatly says:
Conversion, it ought to be remembered, is not the gospel. It is the demand of the gospel message and the proper response to it.1
Though well-intentioned, we have turned the response to the gospel (conversion) into a Holy Grail that must be obtained at all cost, even at the cost of the gospel itself. We have forgotten that we are not primarily responsible for the individual’s response to the gospel; we are primarily responsible to proclaim accurately the gospel, and pray passionately that God will move mightily through the foolishness of our preaching. What the evangelical church needs today in her evangelistic outreach is a massive move away from decades of a vapid, mindless methodologicalism that; is totally devoid of any Reformed ballast. Without this ballast we will continue teetering precariously close to Pelagius’s fondest aspirations for the church. We will continue to have churches full of’ “converts” that have little interest in Christ.
A Reformed ballast contends that the goal of evangelism is the glory of God. Since it is God’s glory that is at stake, we are constrained to evangelize in a way that is God-pleasing. The way we know what pleases God is by the Holy Spirit bringing to life the Word of God. And what does the Word of God say about God-glorifying evangelism?
It says that the kind of evangelism which most glorifies God is the type that. always holds before the lost the character; and person of God (Acts 17:22ff). Evangelism that starts with people’s needs is destined neither to honor God nor convert people. When we start with the needs of people we have a gospel that makes sin solely subjective. Sin is defined in terms of a “rotten world” and a “rotten life.” While that maybe true and, while we must sympathize with people’s, rotten lives, this is not the essence of sin in the Reformed tradition. In the Biblical Reformed tradition, sin is primarily objective. Sin is rebellion against the, majestic sovereignty of the most holy God; sin is a denial of God’s sovereign rights, and sin is holding as vile the person and character of God.
Therefore God-glorifying evangelism which leads to God-glorifying conversion, starts with the character of the first Person of the Trinity. This must be stressed when we are dealing with a people that have virtually no accurate God-concept (again consider Acts 17:22ff). Evangelism must trumpet the excellencies, beauties and terrors of God. No attribute of God exhibits these qualities as well as His holiness. It is God’s holiness that reminds us of God’s standards for man. It is God’s holiness that clarifies for us the distance between God and man. God’s holiness explains each individual’s responsibility to God. God’s holiness forces us to speak forthrightly about His wrath against sin and sinners. God’s holiness justifies His intense anger toward the unrepentant. God’s holiness underscores the utter impossibility of men satisfying Him on their own merit. His holiness defines His mercy and grace. God’s holiness crystallizes for us the necessity of the incarnation, perfect obedience, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and the session of our Lord Christ at God’s right hand. God’s holiness adorns the beauty of His love.
Without holiness, God’s patience would be an indulgence to sin, His mercy a fondness, His wrath a madness, His power a tyranny, His wisdom an unworthy subtlety. It is God’s holiness that gives a decorum to all.2
In our evangelism we show our love for the lost best when we set forth most clearly the person and character of God. God-glorifying evangelism must insist on people seeing that their own personal problems are nothing in comparison with the problem they have with God. Their felt needs (rotten lives) are shamed by their real need (seeing their sin against a holy God). In our evangelism we need to cease trying to “fix” people’s lives by patching together the old nature. People must see their need for a new nature in Christ. Evangelism that emphasizes God’s holiness, by God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s quickening, brings this perspective.
A reintroduction of the Biblical Reformed ballast to “Evangelical” evangelism must also include a return to a Biblical understanding of regeneration. Jesus said, “You must be born again,” but He never suggested that we conceive and birth ourselves. God-glorifying evangelism recognizes quite simply that “salvation is of the Lord.” The way we typically frame repentance suggests that this is a decision that individuals can be cajoled and corralled into making for themselves. Yet, even Wesley, who is hardly the patron saint of the Reformed tradition, said “that a man cannot repent whenever he wants to.” We must again emphaslze the truth that what man most desperately needs to do (repent) is precisely that which he has no power to do and yet it still must be done. The Reformed doctrine of regeneration resolves, this paradox and casts us again on God as the author of our faith, and so again glorifies God.
Evangelism which emphasizes regeneration distances itself immediately from an easy-conversionism which:
far too frequently is so superficial and beggarly that it completely fails to take account of the momentous change of which conversion is the fruit.3
In the Reformed construct there is still the call to repentance and faith but it is framed in a way which spells out clearly that man must even seek repentance and faith from God. Bunyan in Grace Abounding, notes that he spent 18 months in repentance before Christ was revealed to him. The Reformed construct teaches,that even a person’s seeking of repentance and faith is a disposition given by God. Rightly understood, the Reformed doctrine of regeneration teaches that saving repentance and faith follows God’s work of regeneration. Practically speaking this means that conviction of sin is not necessarily equal to regeneration. People can sense their sin after a fashion without being regenerate (consider Judas). It also means that people can repent and believe after a fashion without being regenerate (consider Jesus’ conversation with “believing” Jews in John 8:31–47). The proof of regeneration does not lie primarily in one’s outward act of repentance and faith (praying a prayer, walking an aisle, or learning a catechism). The proof of regeneration lies in the God-produced continual desire for and love of Christ revealed in the convert’s walk with Christ after regeneration. Evangelism which has glorifying God as its goal always throws people back on God and His grace. Emphasizing regeneration does just that.
There is much more which could be said about the need or a Biblical Reformed ballast in our evangelism. We have not discussed the need to return to preaching the law. We have addressed a few urgent questions to our current practice of evangelism. A correct understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit is sorely needed in pop evangelism. Thinking on the “Order of Salvation” would benefit our evangelism as well. When one attempts to speak of evangelism that has glorifying God as its goal, he is urging serious study. So, while admitting that this treatise is woefully inadequate, let us close with just one more thought about God-glorifying evangelism.
God-glorifying evangelism exalts Christ and His cross, not with sentimentality, but with Biblical truth. This truth presents the cross in relation to the triune God before presenting it in relation to man. If we hold to the conviction that the cross is primarily about us we are in danger of missing the wonder of it all. The wonder is that God in His holiness would lay upon Himself His own righteous wrath before He would lay it upon His people. The wonder of the cross is that God, for the love of His glory, would rather bear the severity of His own intense wrath before He would pour that wrath out upon His people. The wonder of the cross reveals God as both just and justifier. Until we see the cross solving the dilemma of a righteous God, justly forgiving the sins He loathes without compromising Himself, we will always be in danger of missing the cross. The cross is not primarily about us but about Him. God-glorifying evangelism recognizes and proclaims this truth.
God give us the grace to proclaim the truth that evangelism’s goal is not superficial conversion but the glorification of God.
1. Murray, John, Redemption Accomplished And Applied (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing) 1995, p. 41.
2. Charnock, Steven, The Existence and Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House) reprinted 1996, Volume II, p. 114.
3. Murray, John. Op cit., p. 105.
Mr. McAtee serves as pastor in the Christian Reformed Church of Charlotte, MI.