Evangelism is proclaiming the Gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ which is God’s power to save all who believe it and turn from sin to follow him.
This article explains what ‘Evangelism’ is and explores the enduring Biblical message, motives and methods for its practice in every age and culture. Jesus himself was an ‘Evangelist’ who called his followers to learn how to ‘evangelize’. His Apostles provide us with clear instructions about the message, motives and methods of evangelism in every age and culture. Within these enduring guidelines, Christians and Churches will explore a wide variety of ‘evangelistic’ initiatives that prove effective in different contexts. ‘Evangelism’ is both a thrilling privilege and the urgent priority of God’s people. Because it is God’s mission for which he has delayed the end of the world, it obeys the ‘great commission’ of Jesus to make disciples of all nations, and it is the means by which the Holy Spirit draws all who are chosen for salvation from the horrors of hell into the happiness of heaven, to the glory of God forever.
Let us consider what the Bible says about the message, motivation, and methodology of evangelism.
One Message in Evangelism
“Evangelism” is proclaiming God’s “evangel” or “gospel.” This message or “Word” is empowered by God to create saving faith in people to believe his gospel, turn from sin and follow Jesus. The word “gospel” means “good news.” It was used in the Roman Empire of New Testament times for momentous public announcements like the birth of an Emperor. The “Gospel of God” is God’s sensational announcement to his world, progressively revealed throughout the Bible (Rom. 1:1-17). The Gospel is not everything good announced in the Bible but has specific content.
In the Old Testament, God’s gospel promised a kingdom and a king
The gospel was first announced in God’s promise to Abraham of a kingdom bringing blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:1-3 – called “the Gospel” in Gal. 3:8). The history of Israel provides an earthly picture of this future Kingdom through which wonderful heavenly blessings will come.
God again announced his “Gospel” in Isaiah’s repeated promises of a King for his Kingdom (Isa. 40:9-11; 52:7-10; 61:1-2). They announce that the Lord himself will come like a shepherd gathering his lambs. He will reveal his salvation to all nations. And he will liberate his people from their captivity in exile from God and gather them into his Kingdom. Astonishingly, this mighty deliverer will be the LORD’s suffering servant, punished in the place of sinners in death and rising to life to “justify” (qualify) them for heaven (Isa. 53:4-12).
But then there was silence for centuries. Until the explosive moment when Jesus emerged in Galilee, “proclaiming the gospel of God, “The time has come” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1)
In the New Testament, God’s gospel announces Jesus as Lord and Savior
The mystery of the Gospel becomes crystal clear when Jesus is unveiled as the promised King saving sinners into his Kingdom. There are many versions of God’s Gospel because it concerns a person and not a formula. But two glorious themes emerge in them all: Jesus is our Lord (his identity) and Jesus is our Saviour (his activity). Both are stunningly good news for the world.
Jesus is our Lord
In Romans 1:1-4, Paul explains the Gospel of God for all nations is “regarding his Son.” If we’re not talking about Jesus, we’re not talking about the gospel. Paul repeatedly summarises it with the phrase, “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:4; Acts; Col. 2:6; 2Cor. 4:5):
- “Jesus” means the crucified Galilean of history;
- “Christ” means the promised Messiah-saviour of the Old Testament;
- “Lord” means the divine and risen king over all.
God’s Gospel celebrates how amazing Jesus is: Jesus is Christ our Lord. It then tells us what he’s done:
Jesus is our Savior
God’s Gospel celebrates Christ’s four greatest achievements:
- Christ came as our King (Mark 1:14-15) – Mark’s gospel is entitled, “the good news [gospel] about Jesus the Messiah” and announces, “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news [gospel] of God…The kingdom of God has come near!” Jesus is the long-awaited King rescuing people into his heavenly Kingdom. He demonstrated the benefits of life under his rule with merciful forgiveness, wise teaching and compassionate miracles. This gospel is how God’s kingdom grows in the world today, as people surrender to the rule of Jesus and become citizens of his heavenly kingdom.
- Christ died for our sins (1Cor. 15:1-4) – Paul reminds the Corinthians of God’s saving Gospel, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” Christ died (voluntarily and not as a victim) for our sins (as our loving and self-sacrificial substitute). He died “according to the scriptures” – to satisfy the justice of God. His death is undeniable because he was buried by his disciples.
- Christ rose to rule (1Cor. 15:4-7) – Paul continues, “…he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.” The New Testament triumphantly proclaims that as promised in the Old Testament and by Jesus, he was raised to life and enthroned in heaven. Paul reminds us his resurrection is also undeniable because “he appeared” to many people on many occasions.
- Christ will return to Judge (Rom. 2:16) – Many Christians are unaware that Scripture explicitly says judgment is part of the gospel e.g. “the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ as my gospel declares” (Rom. 2:16). Jesus consistently explained his judgement will begin an eternity of extravagant blessing in his renewed creation for his repentant followers but an eternity of torment in hell for his unrepentant enemies.
The spectacular benefits of God’s gospel are life in his heavenly Kingdom
God’s Gospel is described as the gospel of peace, hope, life, righteousness and grace. This is not to say that if we talk about peace or hope we are proclaiming the gospel. Rather these words describe the wonderful benefits of the gospel for believers. We begin to experience the reassuring comfort of peace with God even in tragedy and pain, the uplifting encouragement of our hope of heaven, the deep satisfaction of abundant life in knowing him, the joy of Christ’s righteousness counted as ours and growing within us, and the sweet generosity of God’s grace. One day, when Christ returns, we’ll know these joys perfectly in his renewed creation. These benefits of the gospel are life in the Kingdom of God: the blessing originally promised to Abraham.
This one message can be helpfully summarized in one simple word: SWAP. God became an ordinary man in Jesus to swap places with his people on the cross: there he was treated as if he was us and punished for our sin; so we can be treated as if we were Jesus and accepted as God’s children into heaven. Because despite everything…he loves us passionately. This gospel is not a good idea or good advice but very good news!
Five Motives for Evangelism
In 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul is defending his unimpressive and unpopular evangelism from the scorn of false teachers, he reveals five of his motives for evangelism. They all relate to Christ:
First, obedience to Christ: “we make it our aim to please him” (5:9) – for when Jesus called his disciples he said “follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (all believers are evangelists), and when he rose from the dead he commanded them, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matt. 28:18-20).
Second, the fear of Christ: “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ…therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord we persuade others” (5:10-11). Christ will reward our evangelism because, among the many ways to love our communities and relieve suffering, evangelism is our highest priority because it rescues people from eternal suffering in hell.
Third, gratitude to Christ: “the love of Christ controls us because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died…that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised” (5:14). The love of Christ expressed in suffering the shame, pain and hell we deserve for our sins on the cross drives believers to tell others about him.
Fourth, the message of Christ: “All this is from God who, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation … entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us …” (5:18-20). Through the Apostles then and through all who faithfully proclaim God’s gospel now, God calls people to be reconciled to him.
Fifth, the day of Christ, “Behold, now is the favourable time; now is the day of salvation” (6:1-2). This age in which we live, the “last days” before Christ returns, is the wonderful age of evangelism – when God is constantly calling people from all nations to salvation through his gospel.
So our evangelism should be motivated by obedience to Christ’s command, fear of Christ’s judgment, gratitude for Christ’s love, responsibility for Christ’s message, and excitement at the opportunities granted by Christ in these days in which we live.
Four Methods of Evangelism
There are many wonderful Bible passages prescribing godly evangelistic methods:
First, a loving church: “they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:42-47). In the Jerusalem church, recently filled with the Holy Spirit for prophesying the wonders of Jesus from the scriptures, it wasn’t just through a few gifted individuals but the whole church community devoted to learning, loving, sharing and praying, that people were daily being saved.
Second, a respectful manner. The Apostle Peter instructs Christians scattered across the Roman Empire and experiencing persecution to speak with gentle honesty, “Do not fear what they fear, do not be frightened, but in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” Fear is dissolved away by believing our own gospel that Jesus is Lord, authorizing our evangelism and sovereign over our conversations. But we must be equipped to answer people’s queries, ready to testify to our hope in the risen Jesus. But we must speak gently and respectfully, remembering we were all once lost and ignorant of God, and keeping a clear conscience before God – rejecting all exaggeration and exploitation. Promising health and wealth or taking advantage of people in need is evil.
Third, a cultural flexibility. Paul explains that while he will not twist the gospel message in order to make it more palatable, he is always willing to be culturally flexible and radically contextualize his ministry: “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some” (1Cor. 9:22).
Fourth, an honest sincerity. Paul has explained that, unlike so many false teachers, we are not “peddlers of God’s Word” for-profit but people “of sincerity” (2Cor. 2:17). In chapter 4, having explained that evangelism is the ministry through which God’s Holy Spirit gives new life, he elaborates four principles:
- Tell the truth: “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s Word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (4:1-2). We must not manipulate people or twist the gospel to make it more popular but speak truthfully.
- Expect blindness: “And even if our gospel is veiled…the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (4:4). When unbelievers can’t understand the gospel, it isn’t because there is anything wrong with the gospel, but sadly something wrong with our audience: they are blinded, as we all once were, by Satan, and so we must pray for them.
- Proclaim Christ: “we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.” We proclaim the gospel of Christ for in his character and his cross we behold the glory of God.
- Honest sincerity: “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power us from God and not for us.” We are as weak and fragile as cheap clay pots, but our gospel is a priceless treasure. God wants it this way so people will realize that we are not evangelizing for personal benefit but because the gospel is true. And many passages encourage us to be willing to suffer for the gospel as Jesus did e.g. “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35) and Paul writes, “share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2Tim. 1:8).
It is no surprise to discover that our Lord Jesus’ priority was evangelism
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the Kingdom …when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd…” (Matt. 9:35-38)
His priority was evangelism (Matt. 9:35)
Jesus came not only to be the gospel but to proclaim the gospel and train others to do the same. For as God in his Trinitarian holiness is self-giving love, so in his relationship to sinners, he is righteous in grace in evangelism before he returns one day to be righteous in his wrath. So when God took flesh, he came as an evangelist! Notice the scale of his mission: he went through “all” the towns and villages: there were over 200 of them. This wasn’t a casual stroll but a determined and demanding effort. To be holy like Christ requires us to be both separated from sin and committed to evangelism. Indeed, Jesus’ preaching, small group discussions and conversational counselling were not primarily about parenting or marriage but salvation. Indeed, he avoided being distracted by his healing ministry in order to preach the gospel (Mark 1:38). Clearly, godliness is evangelistic. So while the defining activity of a church is bible-teaching the purpose of Bible-teaching is equipping believers to follow Jesus in lives of holy evangelism. Congregations are not to be like passengers on a cruise ship dedicated to their own comfort but like crew on a lifeboat dedicated to saving people who are drowning in sin. Because Jesus’ priority was evangelism!
His motivation was compassion (Matt. 9:36)
Jesus saw beneath appearances to people’s spiritual needs: he saw the crowds like flocks of sheep, prone to wander, vulnerable to predators, hungry for food but precious to the farmer i.e. desperately in need of the good shepherd (cf. Ezek. 34:11ff where God sees Israel desperately in need of good pastoral ministry beginning with evangelism: “I myself will search for my sheep……I will rescue them…I will bring them out from the nations and gather them). Jesus sees people, not primarily as wicked sinners deserving retribution, but as “harassed (lit. flayed i.e. stressed) and helpless” (lit. flattened i.e. burdened)! They don’t need us – they need him! The particular word “compassion” used of Jesus here is only ever used of Jesus in the gospels, and always of how Jesus sees people: it means “entrails” and describes gut-wrenching tenderness. The primary reason we commonly struggle to evangelize our communities is not that they are more hostile than another culture but that we don’t see them with Jesus’ gut-wrenching compassion.
His strategy was praying for workers (Matt. 9:37-38)
Jesus identified two features of the age in which we live: the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few! Notice that our challenge is not the hardness of society but the shortage of workers – not just clergy but believers prepared for the labour of evangelism. There’s no shortage of evangelistic opportunity for we are surrounded by unbelievers. Jesus describes himself as the “Lord of the harvest” willing to send out workers – as he then demonstrates in sending out the twelve in chapter 10. If we are to evangelize the world by making disciples in our communities, by cross-cultural evangelism and by church-planting we must begin with prayer to Jesus, the Lord of the harvest!
Our Lord finally encourages his people in the life-consuming task of evangelism with a stunning vision in Revelation 7 of the multi-cultural feast of the lamb in heaven. There we shall celebrate our Savior with a multitude no-one can count from every nation, tribe, people and language, all gathered … through evangelism.
- Trevin Wax, This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel
- Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God
- James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular
- David Robertson, “Four Ways to Witness to Atheists”
- David Robertson, Engaging with Atheists
- Rico Tice, Honest Evangelism
- John Chapman, Know and Tell the Gospel
- J. Mack Stiles, Evangelism
- J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
- Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism
- Tom Heasman, “Why Ben Fogle Needs to Hear Matthew 28:18”
- Tom Heasman, “The Longings, the Lie, and the Light”
This essay was first published on the gospel coalition website and is available here: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/biblical-evangelism/