This summer as I was on a short-term mission trip in China, I did a lot of thinking about how our attitude toward evangelism is a result of our assumptions about how the Christian life and evangelism fit together. This blog post is a result of that reflection.
Without a doubt the central mission of the Church is to spread the Gospel to all the world. We are tasked with bringing to a dying world the message that in Jesus’ death, he has defeated death and brought life and salvation to all people. We are right to want to engage both those near us and those far from us with the Gospel of Christ.
However, as sinful human beings we seem to have a way of messing up everything. We often turn evangelism into something that we must do or else. We turn the spreading of the Gospel into Law. At best, this makes us feel guilty about how we fail to spread the Gospel, and at worst this makes us conceited and self-righteous about our own evangelistic efforts. In effect evangelism can turn into a new monasticism, creating divisions between Christians who are focused on worldly things and Christians who are really focused on “doing mission.”
Usually when we think about evangelism we think about the “Great Commission” from Matthew 28:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (ESV)
It is right to say that Jesus commands us to bring the gospel to all nations. Jesus directly commanded his apostles to do this and this command also applies to us. However, when Jesus talks about evangelism elsewhere it is not usually in terms of a command.
In fact, Jesus normally compares evangelism or spreading the word to the scattering of seed. Each of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, contain the parable of the sower. The fact that all three of the synoptics contain this parable should clue us in to the fact that they and Jesus considered it to be very important, even foundational, for our understanding of how the kingdom of God grows. By contrast, the Great Commission text is found only
in Matthew and the long ending of Mark (which is likely not original anyway). This is not to say that the Great Commission is a wrong way for thinking about evangelism, but that in Jesus’ teaching it is not the most common or prominent way of talking about it. And yet the command of the Great Commission is often our most common way of thinking about evangelism.
In the parable of the sower, the seed falls on different kinds of soil and while the seed will sometimes take root, it is usually prevented from bearing fruit because of bad soil, birds, or thorns. In the same way, many people will not persevere in the faith because of the cares of the world or the love of money. However, if the seed falls on good soil, then it will bring forth an incredible amount of fruit. (See Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8).
Note that in all of this the sower does nothing to actually make the seed grow. The sower sows the seed and is gone. God is the one who brings the fruit when and how he desires, not the sower. In the same vein, Mark records Jesus shortly after the parable of the sower saying:
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29, ESV)
God is the one who makes people Christians. He certainly uses us, but he does not need us. God could call people to the faith directly, without Christians at all. And while this is not normally the case, the point is that God has everything under his control. He will work how he wants. And while we do want to think critically about how we can best bring the Gospel to all people, we also have to remember that God is the one ultimately doing the work, not us. We are his tools and his instruments. We do not need to be overly anxious about whether we’re doing enough or not doing it right, as if our failures would prevent God from calling to faith those whom he will call.
Not only do we need to repent of our anxiety about evangelism, but we also need to repent of any pretensions we may have of being real or better Christians because we are living a really “missionally focused” life. I have seen so many well-meaning Christians become heavily involved in short-term mission work only to turn their work of spreading the Gospel into a new Pharisaism, a new Monasticism. They look down on Christians who are not “missional” enough. What was once motivated by a love of God and other people becomes motivated by fear, a fear that if they don’t do enough, then they are failing Jesus. This is the real problem.
Such an attitude reveals a belief that we as human beings are the ones who expand God’s people. But God has always been the one who calls his people. It was God who brought his people out of Egypt, delivered the promised land to them and protected them from their enemies. It is God himself who became a man and died to call all people to himself. He is the one who calls, gathers, and enlightens his church with his word and his sacraments, not us. Realizing this does not lead us to being slothful in spreading the word, rather it frees us to actually love people. We no longer spread the word out of compulsion. We spread the word not just because Jesus commanded us to do it, but because the Lord is our shepherd and he has made our cup overflow with his love. We are able to spread the Gospel-seed because we have first received it ourselves. God is the one who gave it to us in the first place.
Evangelism is not Law, but Gospel because God is the one who does it. We may be the ones who scatter the seed, but he is the one who brings the increase when and how he pleases. And in the meantime we can rest in the comfort that we have such a loving God who so graciously blesses us and all people with his word. He is the king of creation and he will call all nations to himself in his own ways and in his own time.