Originally published with Ligonier Ministries on May 1, 2011. Used with permission.
It does little good to encourage people to discipline themselves to evangelize if they do not know the gospel. Try this experiment in your church, class, or small group to reveal one’s level of preparedness to share the gospel. Distribute paper and then ask people how many times they think they’ve heard the gospel. Some, if they’ve professed faith in Christ for many years, may answer that they’ve heard it hundreds or even thousands of times.
“Good,” you say. “Now, please write the gospel on that piece of paper.”
Then watch people freeze and stare at you as though you’ve asked them to list the names of every member of Congress.
Be prepared for an uncomfortable silence and many blank sheets of paper — despite the presence of some of your most devoted members.
By repeating this exercise, I’ve become convinced that a great percentage of even the church’s most committed members are so unclear on the gospel that they cannot write it in their own words and in the simplest terms, even in the comfortable context of a gathering of believers. And if they cannot communicate the gospel in such a friendly situation, how can we expect them to share the gospel in the world?
The gospel must be clear to believers before they can share it clearly with unbelievers. This is not to say that a person must be able to articulate every nuance of the gospel before he can effectively witness, nor is it to imply that God cannot use an imperfect presentation of His gospel to save people. Nevertheless, I believe there’s a widespread lack of clarity among professing Christians about even the most basic aspects of Christianity’s distinctive message — the gospel. And if people have a doubtful g rasp of the essential Christian message, how can they be expected to share that message?
Can a person genuinely understand and believe the gospel, and not want to share it with others, not look for ways to spread it? The gospel is self-perpetuating. The Holy Spirit works through the gospel to create spiritual life in a dead soul, then He works again through the new life He creates to spread the message of Jesus yet again. The new life God creates through the gospel causes a person to love the gospel and to love it in such a way that he or she wants to share its message.
One effect of the gospel upon the believer’s heart is the creation of a new “gospeler,” that is, a person who wants to tell others about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Notice that I said the person wants to evangelize. For various reasons, he may often fail to do so, but the desire is present. And the desire isn’t based upon merely wanting to live up to others’ expectations, but is rather a genuine longing to see people become followers of Jesus.
So if these effects haven’t occurred in the hearts of those claiming to believe the gospel, at least one of two problems exists. Either they have merely agreed that the gospel is true — mistakenly thinking that simple agreement is saving faith — but have not in their souls actually relied on the gospel, or else they simply do not understand the gospel.
But despite the normality of gospel- changed people wanting to share the gospel out of the overflow of its effect in their lives, there’s still a sense in which evangelism must be a discipline. For it’s easy even for a “gospeler” to become so overwhelmed by his responsibilities and burdens that he rarely finds himself in a situation for meaningful conversation with non-Christians. Viewing evangelism as a discipline as well as a delight means that sometimes we intentionally choose to be with lost people— when we’d probably enjoy being with Christians instead — in hopes of talking about Jesus with them.
And let’s not forget that the gospel is a message that is communicated most clearly through words, words about the person and work of Jesus Christ. The discipline of evangelism is about being intentional to speak those words. While the consistency or inconsistency of our Christian example around unbelievers can affect the integrity of our witness, no one is saved by watching a good example. Ultimately, it’s not actions — important as they are — but the message of “the gospel [that] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples for Him of all nations by means of His gospel (Matt. 28:19–20) cannot be done incidentally or accidentally. There is an intentionality about that supreme task that implies discipline. What’s one thing you could do to be more intentional about speaking of the life and work of Jesus?
Dr. Donald S. Whitney serves on the advisory board of Speak for the Unborn. He is Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Associate Dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Founder and President of the Center for Biblical Spirituality.