[Note: article updated—see below.]
When I first arrived in Sydney in 1981 as a keen young curly-haired Christian from country NSW, I knew nothing about expository preaching or house-parties or quiet times or the importance of things being ‘helpful’, or any of the other commonplaces of modern evangelicalism.
And I had certainly never heard of ‘personal evangelism’—the idea that any Christian could be trained to explain the gospel to their friends and neighbours and family. And so it was with a mix of curiosity and excitement that I embarked on a new course that was just starting to do the rounds called Two Ways to Live. The course materials were fresh off the Gestetner,1 and there was no accompanying DVD (such things in those days still being in the realm of science fiction), but it was revolutionary for me, and for so many others. Not only did I come to understand the gospel clearly (probably for the first time), but I was trained to share that understanding with other people if and when I got the chance.
I don’t remember being particularly good at it—especially the part that involved showing some boldness with my non-Christian friends. But I learnt an enormous amount through the training, and I saw the world with new eyes. There were only two ways to live, which meant that the great multitude from every nation and tribe living in red-roofed houses all around me, sitting next to me on the bus, milling with me in the shopping centre—the vast majority of them were living as rebels against the God who made them, and doomed to face his judgement. And here I was in possession of the news that they desperately needed to hear.
I guess I was a young and inexperienced Christian, but it had never crossed my mind before that the gospel had been entrusted to me, simply by virtue of being a Christian disciple. And that the most loving and caring thing I could do for everyone around me was not to keep that glorious news to myself.
It also never crossed my mind that ‘personal evangelism’, and training people in it, might be a controversial or contested practice—but so it has become.
Over the past couple of decades, various evangelicals have contested the idea that every Christian should be taught and equipped to understand the gospel, and to be able to share the gospel personally with others. Perhaps this resistance has stemmed from a desire to preserve the importance and position of the ‘Evangelist’ as a singularly gifted and commissioned individual; or it may have been motivated by a desire to avoid placing an undue burden on everyday Christians, or to avoid making them feel guilty for not being Billy Graham.
Whatever the motivation, the ensuing debate has been dissatisfying and largely counter-productive. Often the question was framed as: “Is every Christian an evangelist?” I remember John Dickson (the ‘no’ case) and David Mansfield (the ‘yes’ case) debating this question in the pages of Southern Cross in the 90s. John made the legitimate point that ‘evangelists’ were special people in the New Testament, and that there was no explicit command anywhere for Christians to be evangelists or even to evangelize (using those terms). He concluded that it was therefore unreasonable to place this burden on Christians when the New Testament didn’t. David responded, also quite legitimately, by asking how as a matter of love Christians could not feel a burden to evangelize, given the plight of those around us and the saving news of the gospel that we have in our hands.
There was a palpable sense of two brothers both keen to see the gospel spread, but speaking past one another. But not only were debates like these usually without resolution, the consequences have been damaging. It is difficult, of course, to trace cause and effect in these matters—but it is hard to deny that the urgency and effort to train every Christian to be eager and equipped for personally sharing the gospel has dwindled over the past 15 years. It’s simply not on the agenda for most churches.
The problem, as so often is the case, was in the question and the way it was phrased. “Is every Christian an evangelist?” is not a question the New Testament seems interested to answer.
A much better question, and one which the Bible says a lot about, is this: “How does becoming a Christian change the way we speak in manner and content, to one another and to the world?”
Spirit-filled people speak differently. This is one of the key characteristics of those who are in Christ, who are saved by him and are one with him, who live in the new age of the Spirit. We are liberated not only to live a new life but to speak new words.
This is because our words are an outpouring of who we are. As Jesus says: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). We speak new words because we have a new heart.
This is also why the characteristic activity of the Spirit-filled person throughout the Bible is prophecy. When the Spirit rushes upon you, the immediate impulse is to speak the word of the Lord. When God takes some of the Spirit that was on Moses, and puts it on the 70 elders, they break into prophecy, although it doesn’t last (Num 11:25). And when Joshua wants Moses to stop Eldad and Medad prophesying, Moses replies (I think with a hint of exasperation in his voice): “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Num 11:29).
Moses’ wish comes true at Pentecost. As the Spirit falls upon all the gathered disciples, they begin to tell forth “the mighty works of God” in the languages of the nations that are gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:11). And when Peter explains to the stunned crowd what is going on, he makes clear that this extraordinary event is the fulfilment of the Old Testament hope that one day God would indeed put his Spirit on all his people, and that they would all prophesy: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…” (Acts 2:17).
A few chapters later in Acts, the disciples are again gathered, and again the Spirit fills them, and again the result is speaking the word of God (i.e. prophecy):
And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:31)
What they had begun to do at Pentecost they continued to do through the work of the Spirit.
This Spirit-impelled speech also continues to feature in the early church, as the New Testament epistles describe it. In particular, the important passage in 1 Corinthians 12-14 describes and regulates this Spirit-filled speech. In 12:1-3, the Spirit opens our mouths to declare that Jesus is Lord—because only the Spirit can change our hearts to willingly submit to Jesus as Lord, and our mouths only reflect what is in our hearts. As the chapters unfold, Paul explains that because we have all been baptized by and in the one Spirit, we should manifest or give expression to the Spirit’s presence by acting in love for the common good. In particular, he urges us to be zealous for prophecy, because by prophecy (that is, speaking the word of the Lord under the power of the Spirit) we encourage and build others, including the outsider in our midst (14:24-25). Paul expects the Corinthians to come to their gatherings with intelligible words to say (whether in the form of “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation”), and he wants them to use these words for edification, for ‘building’ (14:26).
The same picture emerges elsewhere in the NT, although we can only mention some examples briefly here:
- In Ephesians 4, the result of the Christ’s work in us through the Spirit is that we speak the truth in love to one another and to our neighbours (4:15, 25); our speech should be fashioned according to the need of the occasion, and have one aim in mind: “that it may give grace to those who hear” (4:29).
- One chapter later, Paul urges us to be filled by the Spirit, with the result that we speak to one another (in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs) and give thanks to God always and for everything (5:18-20).
- In a similar vein, the consequence of the word of Christ dwelling richly among the Colossians is that they will be “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col 3:16), as well as being ready to speak a gracious and salty word to outsiders as they interact with them (4:5-6).
To put it another way, when God pours his Spirit upon us, he radically re-shapes us at the deepest level—at the level of what the Bible calls our ‘heart’; the centre of our thoughts and will and personality. He springs us from the dark and delusional prison we were trapped in. He fills our hearts with his own presence, with his Spirit, and sets us free to live under the bright blue sky of the truth.
Christ-centred, Christ-exalting, Christ-filled speech is simply an exercise of the freedom of the Christian. It will be variegated—as variegated as we are in our linguistic abilities, our education, our background, our circumstances, our opportunities—but it will also be a universal consequence of being filled by the Spirit.
The nature of this speech is that it will meet the need of our hearer (as Eph 4:29 says), giving grace to the one who hears. But this brings us to the next logical question: which hearer? Is the new Spirit-impelled speech of the Christian mainly directed to other Christians, or to non-Christians as well?
In one sense, simply to ask this question is to answer it. Can we think of any possible reason why we should speak the powerful liberating word of the Lord only to our Christian brothers and sisters?
But here, too, it is easy to fall victim to a misleading dichotomy, as if the categories ‘Christian’ and ‘non-Christian’ are the only two relevant ones.
Moving everyone to the right
It is quite correct to say that there are only two kinds of people in the world—those who in the words of Two Ways to Live are living ‘Way A’ (rebelling against God, facing his judgement) and ‘Way B’ (submitting to and trusting in Jesus, forgiven by God).
But it is also true that within those two broad categories there is a wide spectrum of difference. There those who are ‘far away’ from Christ, either never having heard his name, or having fiercely and outrageously rejected him; and there are those who are “not far from the kingdom”, perhaps in the process of investigating the claims of Christ and coming to understand their implications. There are also people at all sorts of places in between.
Now at one level, every person needs to hear the same word—about Jesus. But how we speak to someone ‘far away’ and someone on the verge of becoming Christian will obviously be different. The first step with someone who is far away may simply be befriending them and letting them get to know you as a Christian.
The same is true with Christians—there is a spectrum. There are new Christians, growing Christians, struggling Christians, weak and suffering Christians, Christians needing a spiritual size-12 boot applied to the backside, and so on. And each one needs a word that meets them where they are, and helps them to press forward towards the goal.
What is that goal? It is captured in Paul’s brilliant personal mission statement in Colossians 1: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).
Our desire and intention for each person we know or meet is the same: out of love, we want them to be ‘in Christ’, and not only in him, but mature in him.
We could represent all this in what I’ve been calling the ‘moving to the right’ diagram:
Our desire for each person—no matter where they are on the spectrum—is that he or she might move to the right, towards Christ and maturity in him. And so the words we speak are aimed at doing that—at helping each one to take a step to the right, even just one step; to make progress from where they are to where we long and hope and pray that they would be.
Another way of putting this is that every disciple of Jesus has the joyful privilege and commission to disciple others—to help them come to know God in Christ, and then (once converted) to grow in that knowledge, obeying all that Christ has commanded (c.f. Matt 28:18-20). This discipling typically happens one step at a time, one word at a time, one prayer at a time.
This is love—to seek not our own good but the good of others. And what is their good? It is always to move towards maturity in Christ.
This way of thinking re-frames the old “Is every Christian an evangelist?” debate. It asks instead, “Should every Christian, with prayer and by the power of the Spirit, speak the truth in love so as to move their hearers to the right?”
The Bible’s answer to this question is a resounding “Yes!”. This, however, leads to another (and our last) question.
Can you train someone to do this?
Is this kind of Spirit-inspired speech something you can teach? Or is it, as a work of the Spirit, something that God does in and through someone?
Should we urge and exhort and train people to be intentional in speaking to others to move them to the right? Or is this something that arises spontaneously as a gift of God, as a manifestation of the presence of his Spirit?
The answer to all these questions is “Yes”. We tend to see our effort and God’s work in us as alternatives, but the Bible sees them as two angles or perspectives on the same action. Two classic verses will suffice to make this point:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom 8:12-14)
We have an obligation or debt to put to death the deeds of the body (to work out our salvation in fear and trembling), but it is God by his Spirit who is working in us, and leading us to do this. From our angle or perspective, we are working hard to rid ourselves of the sinful behaviour of our old life; from God’s angle, he is working in us, leading and prompting and enabling us to do this.
These two angles or descriptions of the one action are not opposed or contradictory. They are quite compatible (which is why this way of thinking about human responsibility and God’s sovereignty is sometimes called ‘compatibilism’).
So it is with our Spirit-filled speech as Christians. It is a manifestation of God’s liberating work in our hearts by his Spirit; and yet it is also something we should be zealous to seek and to cultivate (1 Cor 14:1). It is God’s work in us, and yet it is also our work in him. Like every other aspect of Christian discipleship, it is something we need to strive to do, to be encouraged and admonished to do, to be taught and trained to do, even as we trust in God to lead and enable us to do it.
Is this a useful way of getting past the old and discouraging debates about whether every Christian is an evangelist? I hope that you agree it is.
However, further questions remain. In particular, you may be asking yourself two sorts of questions:
- If all Christians are Spirit-filled speakers, what of the theology of gift? Surely it is true, in both the Bible and our experience, that we are all different, and have different gifts. Isn’t that the point of 1 Corinthians 12-14? So what aspects of Spirit-filled speech do all Christians share, and what is the role of teachers and evangelists?
- Given that we know what we’re trying to train people to do, how exactly do we do that? Or is ‘training’ just shorthand for a course like Two Ways to Live?
Next issue we’ll turn to these and other practical issues, but in the mean time, why not commit to thinking who you could speak the truth in love to, in order to encourage them to move a step towards maturity in Christ?
I’ve been off the air doing other things over the past few days; so sorry for not responding to particular questions and comments. A few final thoughts:
- First, my apologies for the somewhat brusque tone of a couple of my responses above. I confess to being a little frustrated that rather than discussing the merits (or otherwise) of my attempted re-framing of the questions, many of the comments related to personalities and the old debate and the history of the past 15 years—the very things I was hoping we might step lightly past in order to have a new conversation about Christian speech. Perhaps it was a vain hope; or perhaps the fault was mine in the way I introduced the article. Or perhaps that’s just one of the limitations of comment threads. I am certainly aware of my own limitations in trying to interact in this way.
- Some have suggested that what I am proposing is basically a re-statement of my side of the former debate. Others have suggested the opposite—that my position in this article has now become indistinguishable from the other side of the former debate. So I’m a tad confused about that.
- All in all, speaking historically, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the debates of the past 15-20 years or so (including John’s widely read book on the subject) focused largely on the part every Christian should play in God’s mission with respect to the role of ‘evangelist’. The question was framed in terms of seeking to differentiate ‘evangelism’ per se (that is, what an ‘evangelist’ does) from the multi-faceted obligations and contributions of all Christians to the mission of God. My article did not interact with this debate or approach, but sought to address the question from a different angle—from the perspective of the Spirit’s power to transform Christian speech, so that as a matter of Christian love and maturity we seek to speak the truth in love to one another and to our neighbours, according to our opportunities and circumstances (in constant prayerful dependence on God and his Spirit, as Lauren helpfully emphasised). I continue to hope that this will be a more helpful and productive perspective, because it is better anchored biblically and theologically. But I will leave it to readers to make that assessment.
That’s all from me.
- For readers under 35, Gestetner duplicators were the fashion of the time, especially among churches and schools. Think of a steam-driven photocopier. ↩