What Is Reformed Evangelism?

Evangelism—it’s important. In fact, it’s to be part of the warp and woof of any healthy church. As Reformed Christians, we’re right to ask if there’s a distinctly Reformed way to evangelize. The answer is yes, although that doesn’t make it more complicated or burdensome, but less so.

What makes Reformed evangelism uniquely Reformed is simple: biblical evangelism is Reformed evangelism. As Reformed Christians, we’re conscious not only of the “what” of Christianity, but the “how.” We believe, in other words, that both, and not only the “what,” are to conform to God’s Word. That frees us from being run by methods—the hustle of trying various tricks and tools until we find one that works (at least once). We should be interested in people, not gimmicks.

What do we find in the Bible about evangelism? First, it’s clear that it’s to occur through the church. There are no lone gunners for Jesus in the New Testament, and where we do find any (Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, for example) they’re given the full story and are brought into the fold. That doesn’t mean evangelizing always has to be inside the church building, but it does mean that it’s to be clearly a result or fruit of the church, even if there are only a few people directly involved in it. It also means that the eventual goal of evangelism is to see those evangelized in the church and ultimately a part of it.

The Scriptures make clear that the pastor, among his duties, should also be an evangelist, as Paul had instructed Timothy (2 Tim. 4:5). That doesn’t mean the pastor should be knocking on doors every day, but it does mean part of his ministry is to be a “good news-er” or evangelist, one who speaks the good news to those who either don’t know it or are unclear about what it is. We also see in the New Testament the pattern for people coming to Christ, especially in Paul’s ministry: he came into town, preached and taught, but didn’t then leave, saying, “Good luck!” to those he left behind. Instead he helped gather new believers into their own community, introduced the sacraments, gave instruction to set aside elders and deacons for worship, ministry, and rule, and was sure to stay in touch after he’d gone. Paul, in other words, was a church planter.

Off the Hook?

If you’re a lay person, you may at this point be thinking, “Whew! Well, that lets me off the hook.” But wait—not so fast. In 1 Peter 3:15, we’re all told to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Interestingly, the apostle Peter writes, before instructing us in this, to “revere Christ as Lord in your hearts” for this very purpose. We revere him because he is worthy, of course; but note that Peter here is writing something imminently practical, that Christians ought so to revere Christ for the express purpose of being always prepared so they don’t come up short or get thrown off guard when asked about their faith or their behavior because of their faith. We’re to have an answer ready to give for any question about the hope that we have in Christ.

This might be termed defensive evangelism, being prepared with the good news for someone who inquires about our lives, church, or why we do the things we do and don’t do the things we don’t do. The answer should never be, “Well, that’s the way I was brought up” or “My family and I have always done things this way,” but the “good news,” that is, that God himself in Christ has given himself for me, in payment for all my sins, and in doing so has made me a “new creation” and has provided me with an entirely other orientation. Would you like to know more about that?

But if there’s a defensive kind of evangelism, there’s also an offensive kind. By this I mean not waiting for someone to ask you a question but taking the initiative with people. Well, isn’t that the pastor’s job? Sure. But in Ephesians 4:11, one of the gifts given to the church that Paul enumerates is, yep, evangelism. We may think that this is still only the pastor’s job, until we read all of Ephesians 4:11: right next to the listing of evangelists as a gifting from the Lord is another gifting—“pastors and teachers.” Oh-oh. Does that mean one doesn’t have to be a pastor to be an evangelist? Yes, it does.

Let’s put this in perspective. First Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 list numerous gifts given by the Lord to and for the church. Ephesians 4:11 lists roles to be fulfilled because of some of these gifts. Are they offices? Some of them are. Are all of them? “Prophets” is listed as one of the roles, yet a first-century church prophet needn’t be a pastor-teacher or apostle. Just ask Agabus. Can the same be said of evangelist (aside from a classis-confirmed church planter)? I think it can. This is simply to say that evangelism is a gift, just like giving, prophecy, or even (strong) faith. We all should give, are prophets (in terms of speaking God’s Word), and have faith, yet there’s a distinction drawn by Paul in terms of gifting nonetheless.

Whose Job Is This?

Do you see where I’m going with this? Christ’s church in its various congregations can and should explore its gifting among its members (besides the pastor) for evangelism. Like giving, prophecy, and faith, we all have this gifting, but some more so, or are more disposed to it, than others. Not everyone has the gift of evangelism in full measure, although everyone should be able to give an answer if asked. But some may have it and are not encouraged to develop it since evangelism has always been seen as “the pastor’s job.” The pastor, because he’s in the called role of a shepherd-teacher, needn’t be the only one with the gift of evangelism. Maybe you have it, too. (Gulp!)

How do you know if this is your particular gifting? Are you a conversationalist or the quiet type? Are you a listener as well as a talker? Do you know the Scriptures and have a vision for the kingdom of God, its growth and inevitable success, even though you may not be witnessing that just now? But I’m not good at this; I’ve never done it, you might say. If you’ve never done it, how do you know you’re not good at it?

No one likes to be rejected, and with Christian evangelism, there’s a lot of that. This is where our Reformed theology comes in handy. There are many good books on evangelism written from a Reformed perspective. I’ve read quite a few over the years, but one stands out above the rest: J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. It’s short, well-written, and stands up even though it’s well over fifty years old. Packer offers much wisdom in this little book, but most valuable is his thesis evident in the title itself.

As Calvinists, we know that we can’t save anybody—not even ourselves, let alone someone else. It’s God who saves, but faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). How will they know if they don’t hear, since many wouldn’t dream of ever darkening the door of a church? We need to tell them, while realizing it’s not up to us. To understand that God is sovereign in salvation unburdens us. It means we don’t have to major on method, worry about having said the wrong thing, or be concerned that we’re somehow not winsome enough. God will take our faltering words, so long as they’re also his words, and do with them what he pleases. That he will do something is clear: His Word never returns to him void but accomplishes what it’s been sent forth to do (Isa. 55:11). This should really be the reason to exclaim, “Whew!” It’s not up to us.

God’s Conduit

A Calvinist, as such, is the only truly liberated evangelist. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prayerful about any evangelism we may be doing, or that we shouldn’t care about being sloppy or unprepared, or chalk up every badly gone conversation to the sovereignty of God without reviewing how we could and should improve our approach. But it does mean that the weight of what’s going on spiritually during any evangelistic encounter isn’t in the approach; it’s in God. We’re only to be faithful to his Word, gently, patiently telling people what it says.

Does that make you feel a little better about the possibility of taking this on? It should, since you’re not alone, even though it may be just you and a co-worker at the water cooler, or the guy in front of you in the long line at Starbucks, or the person sitting opposite you in the food court at the mall nursing her tea. You have the church behind you, your pastor to help answer difficult questions, and your prayer group to remember that so and so. But most importantly, you have God, Who’s at work in and through that encounter, as you gently bring his Word, yes, but also before the encounter even happened. That should make you feel good about the possibility of evangelism indeed.

Here’s another thought. The gospel isn’t for everybody, and if God deigns to save someone, that person will get saved, so where do I come in on all this? First, the gospel is for everybody. Paul, addressing the Areopagus, said, “He commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). That doesn’t mean everyone will repent once they hear. Some may later, some not at all. Not every call is effectual. But it does mean that we’re to be “profligate” with the gospel.

Who will believe, how, and when is not up to us and, really, none of our business; it’s God’s. We, however, need to be on hand to encourage, teach, and disciple into the church those who do believe. Moreover, it’s true that if someone has been marked for salvation by the Lord, that this person will become a Christian with or without you. But think of the privilege, and joy, of being an instrument in God’s hands for this to have happened! That, too, after all, falls within the sovereignty of God, doesn’t it?

I’d mentioned a conversation at the water cooler or while in line for coffee or while taking a breather in the mall’s food court, but we know these, although possible, are highly unlikely. We need a venue, a means for approach, a way in. There are several, which I’ll lay out in my next article.

Gerry Wisz is a freelance writer, college instructor, and semi-retired public relations professional who, with his family, is a member of Preakness Valley URC in Wayne, NJ.