by Gavin Reid
(click to read foreword, chapter one, chapter two, chapter three)
Two recently published, and very significant, books about evangelism bemoan the lack of contact between those who enthuse about evangelism and those who take theology seriously. William Abraham opens his crucial study The Logic of Evangelism with the words: 'One of the undeniable features of modern theology is the scant attention it has given to the topic of evangelism. It is virtually impossible to find a critical, in-depth study of the subject by a major theologian.'1 And Bishop Michael Marshall, in The Gospel Connection, takes up Abraham's lament at the start of his second chapter. 'Surely', he writes, 'the theologians need the evangelists and the evangelists need the theologians.' However, Marshall moves on to a critical reflection on trends in Western theology:
The theologians most certainly need the evangelists. For too long we have assumed that theology is a specialist branch of philosophy concerned with ideas about God. Hence the reduction of Christianity into yet another ideology . . . theology has become primarily an activity of the mind tested in the laboratory of the debating chamber, the lecture room, or those interminable discussion groups!2
While I consider Marshall's criticisms a shade unkind and over-generalised, it is certainly an impression that can easily be gained, and thus it is small wonder that those who have great enthusiasms about their own discovery of the gospel are hardly likely to look to theologians for help, either with their own understandings or in the task of sharing their discovery with others.
Evangelism, therefore, is often regarded as the preserve of enthusiasts, and enthusiasm is not usually seen as linked to reflection and thought. While there is some truth in that caricature, it is ultimately unfair. But caricaturing affects the other side of the story also. Granted that theology and 'doctrine' are not exactly the same thing, the way we do theology in the West has affected the way we often write off 'doctrine' as somewhat removed from the realities of life and faith. We too easily regard a concern for doctrine to be the preserve of religious equivalents of 'barrack-room lawyers'. Doctrine, on this view, is dull stuff about print and propositions. It is the language - so some would say - of those who want to criticise and split hairs. Nobody was ever converted by reciting creeds at them or quoting chunks out of the Thirty-nine Articles.
This caricaturing on both sides is aided and abetted by a trend which has been more obvious in recent years -the emphasis upon experience. The charismatic movement has been a much-needed liberation from dry, cerebral Christianity which was strong on doctrinal or liturgical correctness while weak, and even repressive, on emotion and the experiential. If Christians are people who have been set free from a crippling bondage and have been forgiven and assured of the never ending love of God, how can they talk or sing about such realities as if they were chanting details from a telephone directory?
There is now much more of a place for the experiential in contemporary spirituality - whether it be in expressions of joy or whether it be in recognitions of vulnerability. However, as usually happens, every basically healthy development carries a danger. The danger with the emphasis upon feelings is that we disregard the rational. Doctrine is to do with the rational - but unless there are good reasons for our feelings, we are living unreal lives. Ultimately doctrine matters. It is not enough to say, 'Smile, God loves you.' At some point we have to say why we have grounds for believing and sharing such a sentiment.
In reality doctrine and experience are close relations. Doctrine emerges as people make sense of what they have discovered. The Bible is a book full of discoveries and experiences. It is about what people have learned about God as a result of experiencing him at work. Above all, it is about understanding the implications of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And in saying this, we are right at the heart of the business of evangelism, for, as the Church of England report The Measure of Mission affirms: 'We are charged to communicate that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is good news from God.'3
Doctrine and conversion
Is evangelism therefore to be considered as the communication of right doctrine? If we get it right, is that the secret of 'bringing people to faith'? The answer to this question is surprisingly complex, for two reasons.
The first reason is that of the Holy Spirit. The wind', said Jesus in his famous conversation with Nicodemus, 'blows wherever it pleases ... So it is with everyone born of the Spirit' (John 3:8). There can be little doubt that people come to faith in Christ in some pretty odd ways! Very often there appears to be no doctrine whatsoever involved. One person I have met came to Christ in a foxhole in the Second World War. As bullets flew overhead, he knew he needed a saviour in every sense - especially the physical! Others find it difficult to specify any particular moment as the moment of their conversion. For them, discovering Christ was a gentle process over many years. All one can conclude is that in one way or another the Holy Spirit acted to draw them to Christ.
Here we find ourselves touching upon the second complication. The vast majority of conversions are gentle, and the result of processes of discovery rather than any particular crisis. They cannot be put down to a formal presentation of the gospel. Although evangelists should indeed take doctrine seriously, many of those who respond, and are therefore counted as converts because of evangelists, did not respond because of the particular message preached. Every evangelist can tell of those who come forward at the end of a sermon and preface their comments by, 'It wasn't anything you said, but ..." What has happened is that the Spirit has used the occasion to build on what had probably already been started in the hearts and minds of those who responded. Conversions are rarely simple stories!
This would appear to play down the .significance of doctrine, but there is more that should be said. It is true that a majority of converts will claim they were drawn to Christ because of what they saw in other people who believed, but evangelism does not end with attracting people to want to say 'yes'. It ends (if indeed it ever ends, because we spend our whole lives being changed by the gospel) with nurture; and nurture is about helping people to realise who it is that they have turned to, what it is they have joined and how it is that they should live. All this has to do with doctrine. Much of the great doctrinal material in the New Testament is to be found in the epistles, but they are simply letters to newborn Christians, helping them to grow up in an alien world. In today's church jargon, the epistles are nurture-group material.
The story of Cornelius (Acts 10) is relevant here. It is clear, early in the narrative, that the human side of conversion is in place. Cornelius has obviously turned to God, in spite of all the religious notions of his own culture and upbringing. When Peter eventually meets him he soon recognises that the centurion is accepted by God (v. 35). What the story makes clear, however, is that it was God's will that this person who showed repentance and faith should understand who it was that he believed in and what this meant. In other words, he needed nurturing in doctrine. He needed to know all that Peter - a prime witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - had to say.
A right understanding of the church
One of the fundamental problems we face with the encouragement of evangelism is that many in our churches are afraid of the prospect. Evangelism doesn't seem natural to the sort of church they feel they belong to - or want to belong to. Indeed, the idea of 'belonging' to a church is probably alien to many who attend.
A great deal of this can be traced to the Western idea (a particularly English one) that religion is a private matter and that therefore the institutional church exists for the benefit of its consumers. To people with such understandings the challenge of evangelism is not only a threat - it is to confuse things. The 'institution' and its agents may want to propagate their views in society, but it is hardly the task of the consumer-attender. There is a further consequence of this private-view approach to religion. 'Private' is seen to be part of a complex of ideas including reverence and the sacred. In our British culture, what is sacred needs to be spoken about with reticence and reserve. Evangelism -which is often caricatured as a brash and insensitive activity - hardly goes hand-in-hand with what is considered to be an appropriate reticence. God is too sublime to be 'sold', hawked around or commended to others.
St Peter, however, thought otherwise. In the first epistle attributed to him, we read: 'In your hearts set apart [Gk. = sanctify] Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have' (1 Pet. 3:15). This alliance between reverence and witness is a theme of the epistle. Peter - in words echoing phrases from the book of Deuteronomy - reminded his readers that: 'You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light' (1 Pet. 2:9, my italics). It is not clear who is meant to be the listener to these declarations of praise. Is it God, and are we therefore talking about worship? Or is it men and women, and are we talking about evangelism?
The truth, almost certainly, is that it is both. Witness is the other side of the coin of worship. It is saying to one's fellows what one says to God. It is a mark of integrity. How can one say 'How great thou art' in worship on Sunday and deny it through silence or even contradiction on Monday before others?
The link in Peter's mind between the church and the old covenant people of God was more than a useful illustration. It was of the essence. The old covenant people of God were people within a story. They were the people who had once been a collection of ill-used slaves in Egypt, only to be rescued by the intervention of God. The exodus was more than an episode in the past. It was a continuing story, ever present in the consciousness of the people. Whenever the harvest was gathered in, an offering would be made of the firstfruits, accompanied by these words:
My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians ill-treated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labour. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me. (Deut. 26:5-10)
Should a non-Jew wish to practise the Jewish religion, he would be circumcised and (certainly by Graeco-Roman times) baptised. The symbolism of being under water and rising alive from it identified the proselyte with the Red Sea story of the God who had rescued his people from slavery.
The apostles saw the church in the same light - people of the story. At the last supper, however, Jesus had rewritten the story. Once again a nation had been created by an act of God. The slavery and bondage on this occasion had been to sin and the power of Satan. The act of deliverance was the body given for us and the blood shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins. The Passover and Red Sea crossing elements in the story of the people of the old covenant are merged and replaced by the cross of Calvary and the empty tomb. There is a new story and a new people. The major difference is that whereas there were only hints in the Old Testament that membership of the people of the story might be open to the non-Jew, it was now clear that the membership of the new people of the story was intended to be open to all.
For the Christian community, therefore, the story is more than a constant reminder of the identity of the people of God. The story is the good news that has to be shared, first in Jerusalem, then Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The rite of initiation into the people of God is no longer circumcision but baptism, a change which reveals that, among other things, there is now no distinction between male and female: ' ... all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Gal. 3:27-8).
Christians, therefore, are the new covenant people of the story. Witness and worship are two sides of the same coin. For the church to be true to itself, it must continue to remind itself of the story of its deliverance. The Holy Communion service is the setting par excellence of that continuous retelling.
Writing on Zwingli's theology of the eucharist, Alister McGrath picks up this theme which the Swiss theologian saw and which (even if there is more to the eucharist) surely must hold true: 'Zwingli affirms that the Eucharist narrates the foundational event of the Christian community, and that by doing so, it gives substance to the values and aspirations of that community, and enhances its sense of unity and purpose.'4 In the same article McGrath quotes some telling words from Alasdair Maclntyre's work After Virtue:' ... we all live out narratives in our lives and . . . we understand our own lives in terms of narratives that we live out ... '5 As people of the story - receiving it from others and seeing ourselves caught up in it - Christians find themselves to be new people with a new identity and purpose in life.
For the church to be true to itself, however, it must also be retelling its story to those outside its membership. It was founded on the work of apostles and is itself apostolic. It exists not to stand still, but to go - not only to listen, but also to tell. Evangelism is therefore an essential element of what the church is and what it is meant to do. Any doctrine of the church that does not see evangelism at the heart of its being is a false doctrine.
Before we can talk meaningfully about the 'place' of doctrine within evangelism, we need to be clear as to the nature of evangelism itself. The suffix 'ism' tends to distort things - it makes evangelism a subject in itself rather than an activity. We tend to use the word in a static rather than a dynamic way. We talk of 'doing' evangelism, when the New Testament simply talks in terms of 'evangelising'. The noun 'evangelism' is relatively new. Its first recorded use, in English, dates to the middle of the seventeenth century. The New Testament talks about the 'evangel', meaning the content of the story. It talks about 'evangelists', referring to people with a particular gift and calling of story-telling, and it speaks of 'evangelising' as the natural activity of snaring good news - any good news, and the particular good news of Jesus.
It is hard to discern any sense in which the New Testament Christian community felt it was engaging in a special activity by evangelising. What we see is a community of people discovering that they were caught up in the implications of the story of Jesus and recognising that they were called to carry on living out and sharing the story. Peter and John, when urged by the authorities to keep silent, replied: 'Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard' (Acts 4:19-20). Speaking about the story that was taking place around them was part of the obedience and integrity of the first Christians.
True evangelism is therefore the healthy and necessary overspill of the story that holds the church together and which gives it a sense of purpose. This means that the story also becomes testimony - my story. The distinction that some make between 'doctrine and evangelism', with which I started this essay is, in fact, a false one. My testimony cannot be unrelated to doctrine because it cannot be unrelated to the story of Christ.
It is only when we have established evangelising as the essence of the general life of the church that we can understand evangelism or evangelists. An evangelist is someone with a particular gift for commending the story to others and calling for response. That gift is often tightly bound up with the personal testimony of the evangelist. He or she may well have had a particularly dramatic and sudden conversion - as was the case with St Paul. Because of this the evangelist can see the darkness of life without Christ in greater contrast to the light of life with him. It is perhaps significant that St Paul had a clear sense of his calling at the time of his conversion experience. When he later related his call it was expressed in stark terms: 'I am sending you ... to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me' (Acts 26:17-18). The particular evangelism of the evangelist relies on the general ongoing evangelism of the church. In its turn, the particular gift of the evangelist encourages the general evangelism of the church. All gift-ministries have the same effect. The gifts are given not to endue status on the recipient, but grace upon the community. They are given as visual aids and reminders of parts of the continuing agenda.
Evangelists therefore have an important role, but to define evangelism in the light of their particular gift is to distort matters. Evangelism is not solely 'preaching the gospel' - that is the ministry of the evangelist. Evangelism is much more the natural sharing of the story in daily life against the continual hope that increasing numbers of people may. discover that the promises and possibilities it contains are for them and their children.
Contemporary, developed urban society, however, does not easily allow relationships to flourish - unlike the case in New Testament times. Life is more structured, and therefore evangelism has no choice but to have to be more structured and even contrived. A group has to be 'set up'. Once upon a time it would just happen. John Wesley could stand in a market-place and shout about Christ and he would draw attention. A meeting would be generated. It was something others would do for other purposes. Today, if someone tried the same tactic they would be drowned by traffic noise, thought to be odd, and probably asked to move on for causing an obstruction. Meetings, today, have to be specially planned.
Because of the necessary contrivedness of so much evangelism - especially the evangelism of evangelists -we can easily lose sight of the essential naturalness of the general evangelism of the people of God. The truth, however, is that the majority of conversions still come as a result of the general witness of the people of God in everyday relationships, rather than the particular ministry of evangelists. Their story rubs off on others. It is caught and sensed as much as it is taught and learned.
This being the case - where does 'doctrine' come in within evangelism? If Christianity is caught rather than taught, is there therefore no place for teaching and content? The answer is 'yes', but the question reveals another common misunderstanding. People rarely convert to Christ through taking in and grasping doctrine. They turn to the Lord through an attraction to the people of the story. They also turn to Christ because of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. That turning is real. There is usually a recognition that something better has been found than had been found before. Turning may sometimes be the turning of guilt about past and present situations, but it can often be the turning of attraction to the new possibilities. This is why an evangelism which concentrates on trying to create a sense of guilt can be false. Many new Christians only feel guilt later on, when they fully realise the implications of their past way of life in the light of a growing understanding of the holiness of God.
Doctrine in evangelism is not so much what converts as what establishes the new believer. We can see in the case of the woman at the well (John 4) and Cornelius (Acts 10) that the New Testament contains cases of people who became believers before they fully knew what to believe. The main lesson to learn from the Cornelius episode is that God does not consider the attitude of readiness to believe to be enough. As we have seen, Peter needed to come to Cornelius to provide the doctrine - to fill out the details of what the centurion was groping towards. Doctrine matters.
Doctrine, evangelism and nurture
Thus far I have tried to look at the doctrines that lie behind the practice of evangelism. I have, in particular, argued that everything hinges on a correct doctrine of the church - one which sees itself as the people of God particularly chosen and called to declare his praises. It is because this biblical understanding is so little recognised that evangelism often becomes an awkward element to put in place. I have also argued that when we analyse how the majority of people grasp (and are grasped by) the gospel, we discover that, in practice, evangelism is more complex than the communication of certain doctrines. Nevertheless, because nurture is central to the completion of the evangelising process, doctrine is ultimately vital.
Are there, then, a set of doctrines which - whether at the nurture stage or earlier - must be expounded and understood? The answer has to be in the affirmative. If the church is to be obedient to God, it must witness to the truth about God. We should not set out to evangelise on the basis of 'never mind the quality, feel the width'. Having said this, it does not follow that a person's saved status in the sight of God depends on his or her accurate grasp of a set of necessary doctrines. Probably the vast majority of Christians are, and always have been, imperfect in their understandings.
There is a second reason why we need to think in a thorough way about doctrine within evangelism. Not only is it part of our obedience to God to attempt to speak the truth about him, it is - said Christ - the truth that sets us free (John 8:32). Doctrine affects our spiritual health.
What, then, are the doctrines at the heart of the witness and nurture within the evangelism process? In the 1968 report of the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Evangelism there was an attempt to trim things down to an 'irreducible minimum':
The ingredients of the Gospel as given, though they fall far short of even a full outline, are nonetheless more than is required for saving faith. Yet the attempt to define the irreducible minimum which is essential for saving faith is fraught with danger, for brevity too easily leads to obscurity. It is necessary, however, to summarise that minimum for the sake of later sections of the Report, and at the same time to emphasise that the summary must be understood in the light of the fuller statements already made.
The first essential is belief in Jesus Christ as both fully man and fully God. The second is a realistic understanding of the plight of man as a helpless sinner before a Holy God. The third essential is belief in the atoning death and triumphant resurrection of Christ as the sole means of a man's redemption from sin and reconciliation to God. The fourth essential is the response to the work of the Holy Spirit, the response of repentance and faith as a genuine turning from sin and an act of trust in God.6
These words set out a crisp and helpful summary of the gospel as it has been preached by evangelicals for many years. However, it suffers from the besetting failure of much evangelical evangelising. The message - although it starts with Christ - is essentially man-centred. It pictures God as completely focused on redeeming individual people. It fails to do justice to the great theme at the heart of Christ's teaching - the kingdom of God. William Abraham in The Logic of Evangelism opens his chapter on "The Gospel' with an insistence that our message has to centre not on humanity's need, but on God's reigning activity:
Any vision of evangelism that ignores the Kingdom of God, or relegates it to a position of secondary importance or fails to wrestle thoroughly with its content, is destined at the outset to fail . . .
What is at stake is the fundamental theological horizon within which both Jesus and his followers conceive and carry out the first, and paradigmatic,.evangelistic action of the church.7
I have personally found it helpful to base a nurture course for new Christians and serious seekers on the Lord's Prayer. It means that we have to start positioning ourselves as the creatures and children of a heavenly Father whose kingdom and will is being made to happen 'on earth as it is in heaven'. This, for me, is the doctrinal starting-point for the gospel, but we have this understanding because it was revealed in and through Christ. So, then, we shall make a beginning.
The nature of God as seen in Christ
The first thing to be clear about is that God is. The coming of Christ is, for the Christian, the ultimate proof that humanity is not 'alone in a meaningless universe'. Before us and beyond us there is the One who is what he is. He is the creator of all that is - which in turn invests all that is with significance. Not only is he creator, he is also sustainer. Not only is he sustainer, he is sovereign. He works within the ebb and flow of history to bring about his purposes without violating the genuine freedom of action that is given to us all.
He is judge now. All history bears witness to the fact that those who make themselves into gods through the abuse of power end up as the losers. The wicked are confounded, usually in this life, certainly in the next.
What we see clearly in the example and teaching of Jesus, however, is that the creator, sustainer, king and judge is most nearly and appropriately described in the word 'Father'. The word Jesus used was the trusting, intimate word that would be on the lips of a child -'Abba'.
To know that in spite of all appearances of randomness and of impersonality in our universe there is a loving heavenly Father is good news indeed. I am not the result of a haphazard cosmic accident. I am meant to be in a world that was meant to be, and meant for me and for all the created order.
And the coming of Christ together with the gift of the Spirit reveals that God wishes to be in a father/child relationship with us. Jesus witnessed to the Father in his teaching, and the Holy Spirit 'testifies with our spirit that we are God's children' (Rom. 8:16). To become a child of God is to become someone who knowingly is caught up in God's amazing work within the world -someone who has an awareness (usually imperfect) of God's agenda and who is called to bear witness to it. There are many who - like Cyrus in the Old Testament - are unknowingly serving God's purposes. The privilege for Christians is that they know that this is their purpose in life. Purpose in life is a gospel blessing.
The nature of humanity as seen in Christ
While Christ is the supreme revelation of the fact and nature of God, he is also the one who reveals the truth about men and women.
He reveals this truth in two ways. First, in himself he reveals the best that can be said about human beings. We are made in the image of God. We are capable of sacrificial love for others. We are capable of hungering and thirsting for what is right. We are capable of living in constant fellowship with the Father.
At the same time the reaction of people around Jesus to him reveals other aspects of human nature. True goodness is a threat to us. 'Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil,' wrote St John (John 3:19). Whoever met with Jesus was put into a crisis. His presence judged people. They saw humanity as God intended, and it was disturbing. They sensed the presence of God, and the instinctive reaction was to want to say, 'Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!' (Luke 5:8).
The most revealing response to human nature as demonstrated in the total event of Jesus was the crucifixion. People not only rejected the one who came to them as the revealer of God, they set out to destroy him. The crucifixion would not have been possible without a complex of human reactions and behaviour. People with vested interests plotted, those who were religious leaders demonstrated bigotry, those who were political compromisers compromised, people who had opened themselves to evil released their wickedness, those entrusted with the law twisted it, those who were ordered to flog and crucify did not challenge their orders, and hundreds of shallow-thinking, ordinary people went with the tide of opinion and chanted 'crucify'.
What is demonstrated in Christ and in what happened to him is that, while men and women are God's masterpiece in creation, they are deeply marred by sin. Made to be God's children, they have naturally tended to be used by the evil one in opposition to the kingdom. As Jesus said with a stark finality: 'He who is not with me is against me' (Matt. 12:30). There seems to be no place for neutrality in this analysis. Thus we see that human nature is being judged by Christ and that this judgement has eternal consequences. The two sides of for and against are also pictured in the parable of the sheep and the goats as facing a final and eternal judgement and division (Matt. 25:31-46). To those whose lives (as well as their lips) revealed a 'for' stance, the judgement is 'Come . . . take ... the kingdom prepared for you' (v. 34). For those who have demonstrated an 'against' stance, the judgement is: 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels' (v. 41).
Our modern, liberal minds may well find such words hard to swallow. We will clutch (properly) at the fact that this is parable and poetic imagery, but it remains undeniable that Jesus is clearly speaking of ultimate realities and we have to take his drift seriously. Jesus is bad news as well as good. Such gospel as we have is set against the backdrop of humanity under awesome judgement.
The saving action of God in Christ
'God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him,' records St John in John 3:17. To dwell on the themes of judgement and condemnation is to distort what Jesus was all about. To omit such themes, however, is to make Christ meaningless.
When our Lord gathered his followers around him to celebrate the Passover, the meal that celebrated and re-enacted the saving action of God in Exodus, he rewrote the script. What emerged was a meal that celebrated and re-enacted another and greater saving act of God -the cross.
St Paul was insistent in his teaching that the cross was at the heart of the gospel. 'I resolved to know nothing while I was with you', he wrote to his friends in Corinth, 'except Jesus Christ and him crucified' (1 Cor. 2:2). To the Galatians he wrote his famous words: 'May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world' (Gal. 6:14).
The crucifixion marked the height of humanity's rejection of God, but at the same time it demonstrated the way in which God makes forgiveness possible. Many attempts to explain how the cross makes salvation possible end up in crudities, with God somehow being cast in the role of a near-tyrant determined to lash out at somebody and Jesus heroically dashing to the rescue. The New Testament writers do not attempt to spell out the mechanics. What we still find, however, is that the cross was at the heart of God's saving act - this is especially so in Paul's letters. We also see that God is not cast as the outside tyrant, but that he 'was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them' (2 Cor. 5:19).
St Peter recalled the moving prophecy of Isaiah 53 about God's suffering servant who was 'pierced for our transgressions' so that 'by his wounds we are healed'. He wrote: 'He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed' (1 Pet. 2:24).
What is important about the atonement is that it has happened in Christ. It is much less important to be able to explain it exactly. However, the saving act of God, while focused on the cross, should not be limited to it. The whole 'event' of Jesus from birth to resurrection and ascension is part of God's great saving act. It was the resurrection that changed the Jesus story from a humanity-centred tragedy to a God-centred triumph. It 'declared with power' that Jesus was Son of God (Rom. 1:4). The first Christians would never have concluded as they did about Christ and the cross had it not been for the resurrection - a resurrection that they witnessed and were certain was genuine because of 'many convincing proofs' (Acts 1:3).
Today, as we contemplate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we find ourselves looking at another world - another and more important level of reality - breaking into our own. For the space of a few years the king and the kingdom of God broke into the muddy affairs of our own regimes. The Jesus story opens our eyes to see reality as it truly is. We develop an understanding of ourselves as well as God. We catch a vision for how we should live and where we are going. And as the New Testament writers describe what we call the ascension, the message to all who will follow is: 'Watch this space.' There is more to come for the story of the planet, and there is eternally more to come for all who are 'for' Jesus.
The nature of this age
The new Christian who takes sides with Jesus and who sets out to 'walk in the Spirit' will find 'joy and peace' in believing (Rom. 15:13), but will also experience tension upon tension. There is the internal tug-of-war between the 'old nature' dominated by self-centred concerns and the 'new nature' opening up to the Spirit of God. There is the tension of human mortality in which our hope of eternal life still has to reckon with our experience of growing older and frailer as we approach physical death. There is the tension of trying to live as those who are 'for' Christ in a world that both wittingly and unwittingly is caught up in the dynamics of being 'against' him. There is also the mysterious reality of finding ourselves caught up in the kingdom of light as it engages with the kingdom of darkness. St Paul wrote: 'our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms' (Eph. 6:12).
To respond to the story of Jesus is to be caught up in it and to enter, or at least touch parts of, the levels of reality in which God works. This is what it means to be a new person in Christ. It is good news, but it is no picnic. Unless we help seekers to understand the truth about the age in which we live, we are preaching a false gospel. When, however, people learn that the kingdom of God which broke out in and around Jesus also breaks into our world in and around those who seek to follow him (and beyond them in the purposes of God), then they will see that there is good news indeed in Christ. Further, all that we experience in these fragmentary ways in the present will finally come in fullness when God's will is done 'on earth as it is in heaven'.
Evangelism and doctrine are inseparable. The gospel event is the raw material from which all central Christian doctrines are developed. Evangelism is the communication of the story, and the implications, of the Jesus event. While many may find themselves drawn towards belief and commitment through the effect of warm human relationships, it is through a 'renewing of the mind' (Rom. 12:2) that conversion becomes a reality. That renewal requires a grasp of the right understandings -and thus we are talking about doctrine.
But the biggest hold-up to evangelism rests in the set of understandings that many have, not about the content of the gospel, but about the nature of the church.
If we believe the church is meant to be no more than a club for believers, or even to be fully described as a 'congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered' (Article 19), then we run the risk of having an understanding of 'church' to which evangelism is almost totally alien. It is here that we need to see the church in terms of the people of God called to declare his name and his worthiness to the world at large. To say this, however, is to make a doctrinal statement.
Questions for discussion
- In what ways does a wrong understanding of the church hinder evangelism?
- How do we evangelise in the light of the fact that most conversions are gradual?
- Is the author's claim justified that the digest of the gospel on pp. 70-1 is too man-centred? If so, what is the problem?
- If doctrine is of greatest importance at the nurture stage, what should evangelists talk about?
Notes: Doctrine and Evangelism
1. William Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), p. 1.
2. Michael Marshall, The Gospel Connection (London:Darton, Longman & Todd, 1991), p. 30.
3. The Measure of Mission (London: Church House Publishing, 1987), p. 38.
4. Alister McGrath, 'The Eucharist: Reassessing Zwingli', Theology 93 (January-February,1990), p. 15.
5. ibid., p. 18, citing Alasdair Maclntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) p. 197.
6. Evangelical Alliance Commission on Evangelism, On the Other Side (London: Scripture Union,
1968), p. 67.
7. Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism, p. 17.
For further reading
William Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989)
Peter Ball, Adult Believing (London: Mowbrays, 1988) Michael Marshall, The Gospel Connection (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1991)
Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell (London: SPCK, 1991) Donald Posterski, Reinventing Evangelism (Downers Grove,IL.: IVP, 1989)
Stephen Sykes, 'An Anglican Theology of Evangelism',Theology 94 (November-December, 1991), pp. 405-14
Gavin Reid is Assistant Bishop of the diocese of St Edmondsbury and Ipswich and serves on the parish team of St Michael's and St Luke's Beccles. He was formerly Bishop of Maidstone. He retains his interests in evangelism and the place of faith in national life which date back to his time as Secretary for Evangelism at CPAS and Director of the 1984 and 1989 Billy Graham Missions in the UK.
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum