Peter Hastie: Mark, why have you written yet another book on evangelism? Have you discovered something new, or are you concerned that we are forgetting some of the basics?
Mark Dever: No, I haven’t discovered anything new. However, what really concerns me is for Christians to understand the fundamentals of evangelism in a way that is helpful in the contemporary scene. For instance, in America at the moment there is a real shortage of popular books on evangelism that I can give to young Christians. As a pastor, I was thinking, “What could I give to somebody? What book could I pass on to a young Christian?” 30 years ago I would have given them Paul Little’s book How to Give Away Your Faith, but that’s dated now, and it’s probably too long for today’s readers. I really like Will Metzger’s Tell the Truth, but again, it’s huge and it focuses on specific problems. I like Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, but it’s more useful for dealing with theological questions.
Of course, Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism is good for those who really want to get started in evangelism, but it’s a little dated. Also in Australia, John Chapman has written some very helpful books on the subject. However, I was having difficulty finding something that was available and useful in my context here in Washington. I just wanted a straightforward and simple guide. So I tried to write the kind of book that would be engaging and easy for a teenager to read. That’s why I wrote The Gospel and Personal Evangelism.
PH: How did you go about writing it?
MD: Writing this book was an interesting exercise. I would literally sit down at the end of the day and write a chapter of the book. Then I passed it to a few others for their comments. My aim was to begin each chapter with an introductory illustration that I could pick up again in the conclusion, and then include a few simple points in between. I did that in most chapters. I think it’s by far the most reader-friendly thing I’ve ever done. Of course, not everyone will find it as reader-friendly as they would like, but it’s as reader-friendly as I could get it.
PH:It has a couple of superb illustrations in it. I will never forget the one about John Harper, the Scottish minister on board the Titanic, who was still preaching the gospel to his fellow passengers even as he floated in the icy water, clinging to wreckage.1
MD: Yes, isn’t that John Harper story amazing? I read it in an old book and thought, “Well, this story is too fantastic to be true”. So I started digging around doing some research. In the story, as you will remember, his daughter was one of the survivors of the Titanic disaster. So I asked myself, “Okay, whatever happened to that daughter? Is she still alive? Where does she live?”
I managed to track her whereabouts to a few places, such as Chicago and Miami. She was a teacher there. I am fairly certain that she has gone to be with the Lord. Apparently she was quite a strong Christian. I was able to corroborate everything in the story. Although I wrote the story in popular form, I tried to use my historical training to ensure that the narrative was factually accurate. It’s an extraordinary picture of God’s faithfulness. While it certainly reveals Harper’s passion for the gospel, it also shows how God is able to use such simple things as our sharing the gospel in such challenging circumstances. We may be sinking in the North Atlantic in the most famous ship disaster of all time, but God can still use us to reach out and save others through our witness.
The John Harper story is also important for another reason: it reminds us not to be afraid of approaching others. We live in a time when people are increasingly skittish about evangelism—Christians and non-Christians alike. People are suspicious of evangelism, and misunderstand it, which contributes to our reluctance to share the gospel. When you add our fear of others’ reactions as well as our natural laziness to the equation, it’s not hard to see why we make such little progress in sharing our faith.
I also think our culture is becoming more hostile to the gospel. This trend may be more established in Australia than in the USA, but it’s now certainly the case that the postmodern mindset is dominant, particularly in the media. Therefore, when we start speaking in terms of certainties, we sound scary to other people. It’s interesting that Andrew Sullivan, a well-known liberal Roman Catholic gay activist, picked up some of my comments on evangelism, and on his blog on New Year’s Day, quoted them and called me the ‘voice of fundamentalism’. Essentially, all that I had said was that evangelism is not imposing anything on anyone; it is simply sharing the truth. I mean, an evangelist no more imposes his views on others than a pilot imposes his views on his passengers when he lands a plane on a runway. I bet the passengers are glad!
Of course, I understand Sullivan’s concerns about the special nature of religious truth-claims, but he needs to realize that evangelism is not simply looking at someone and saying, “Look, you have to become a Christian”. Instead, an evangelist tells us the truth about who God is, and explains where we stand as a result of that. People can ignore us—indeed, they have every legal right to do so. Furthermore, evangelists have absolutely no desire to physically or emotionally coerce anyone. In a sense, we are like doctors: we have a duty to tell you the truth, care for you, argue with you (if that is useful), but we can’t compel you to do anything. People forget that there is a big difference between coercion and persuasion. The idea that evangelism is coercive is nonsense.
PH:You say that most Christians—even pastors—are ‘reluctant evangelists’.2 What do you actually mean by this?
MD: I mean that Christians, like everyone else, are prone to be selfish and scared, and wanting others to think well of them. So, although we possess what one part of us knows is the greatest news in the world, we don’t act as though it is. Consequently, we share the gospel less than we should.
PH: How big a problem is our reluctance to evangelize?
MD: Well, it was big enough a problem to encourage me to write the book. Of course, I believe that worldliness in the church is a lot more pervasive than a lack of passion for evangelism. Nevertheless, one of the results of worldliness is a waning enthusiasm for evangelism. I love Iain Murray’s definition of worldliness: towards the end of Evangelicalism Divided, he says that worldliness consists of loving idols and being at war with God.3 I think that’s true in the lives of too many professing Christians today. Unfortunately, many of our churches calibrate their life to these nominal Christians. The predictable result is that you get fake, hypocritical churches that confuse the message of the gospel and make it hard for others who are trying to do genuine evangelism. So there are other problems out there apart from reluctant evangelists, but the point is that we mustn’t be content to just sit around pointing out the errors in others; we actually need to be sharing the gospel and praying for people to be converted.
PH: What do you think are the underlying problems that give rise to our reluctance in evangelism?
MD: The most significant problem in stopping us evangelizing is never anything related to the specific time we find ourselves in. It doesn’t matter whether we live in the 19th or 21st centuries; we face the same basic problems that everyone who lives between the Fall and the return of Christ faces. So if anyone tries to sell you the idea that it is more difficult today than in other ages, don’t believe them. From the time of Cain until the last believer before Christ’s return, we are all fundamentally in the same boat. We suffer the same spiritual afflictions and tendencies. We all pass through the experience of Romans 7.
Nevertheless, there are some challenges that take a special form in our day. For instance, in the US and Australia, Christians face a very vigorous secularism that is dismissive of our claims. Indeed, some secularists are so worried about Christianity, they think Christians are about as dangerous as Muslim terrorists. They get really worried when we don’t invest our lives in this-worldly concerns. They look on us as unpredictable free agents. When we reject their relativism and make absolutist spiritual claims, they look at us as nervously as they would a terrorist with a suicide bomb strapped to his back. Of course, Christians are not into coercion in any form. But it is very hard to persuade secularists of that. All we want to do is share a message about the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. But our world is confused by the confidence we have in the gospel, and is threatened by it. Satan, I am sure, causes those things to echo in the world to increase this sort of common confusion.
PH: What are some of the most frequent excuses that you meet today as a pastor as to why Christians are not sharing their faith?
MD: Peter, I don’t even have to tell you the excuses that people at our church offer me; I just have to ask myself. Here are the reasons why I’m not phoning back a couple who are on my mind at the moment: it’s because I’m dog-tired; because I feel like I have so much to do and I don’t know where to start; because I think that there are other people who can do it; because I think I have already told them—I gave them a book to read. I could go on. You get the picture? And I’m the pastor and I’m only thinking about the last seven days! So I could only imagine what my own congregation is facing.
I think many people in the church are probably concerned that they can’t answer all the questions that might come up. I am sure this affects people by playing on their doubts—especially if they have their own questions that they are wrestling with. Actually, having a few questions of your own shouldn’t prevent you from sharing the gospel with others. You can explain to them that while you still have a few unresolved questions yourself, you don’t have enough faith to not believe. There is simply so much reason to believe the good news of Jesus Christ in history, in Scripture, as well as in our own experience that it would take a leap of faith not to believe in the gospel. And an honest conversation like that can be very helpful to a non-Christian.
PH: Is reluctance in evangelism a spiritual issue? Didn’t Jesus say, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5)?
MD: It is a spiritual issue, but it varies, and you will notice it varies with different people. It’s a bit like peddling a bicycle: you have to push on both pedals to make the wheels go ’round. Similarly, you need faith in Christ as well as knowledge. The problem is that there are always Christians who want to push one pedal—either knowledge or experience. We need both. My task as a pastor is to remind people of the need for balance. If someone wants to stress personal union with Christ, I remind them of the need for knowledge as well. If they want to stress knowledge, I tell them about their need to depend on Christ.
PH: Should we ever engage in evangelism out of a sense of duty, even if we don’t feel like doing it?
MD: Yes, we should. But we should also want to evangelize because of the joy that God puts in our hearts. Ultimately, that’s the best reason for sharing our faith. However, we also need to be realistic and recognize that there will be times when we won’t be sharing our faith out of an overwhelming sense of joy. When that happens, that’s a call to look at our own devotional lives. Are we putting our hearts and minds before the Lord and under his cross everyday? Do we remind ourselves continually that we have been ransomed by the death of the Saviour? When we meditate on Christ’s death for us, it doesn’t mean that we never have struggles in our obedience, but it does help.
Although we are told to run the race, at the same time, I think that we are more likely to be motivated when we pray that the Holy Spirit would convict us more deeply about our own sin. Once we see more of our need and understand more of what Christ has done for us, he will become more precious to us. And this, in turn, will enable our obedience far more than sheer grunt effort.
PH: Employers are sometimes annoyed when Christians share their faith at work. Is it appropriate to witness on the boss’s time?
MD: This is a ticklish one. The first thing to say is that Christians who want to witness should be in a local church where the Bible is faithfully taught and where wise elders can give them good counsel on this subject.
Advice on evangelism needs to be tailored to individual situations. For instance, I know someone who needs to be encouraged to speak less and work more. That would be a better testimony for him because he has certainly let his work colleagues know about Jesus. It’s not that I don’t want him to witness about Jesus, but I have a lot of sympathy for his employer. He is paying for work to be done. On the other hand, I want to defend the right of employees to share the gospel in appropriate situations. Every situation requires wisdom and insight. I don’t think it’s wise to say, “Share the gospel every time you can”. I can see all kinds of problems that come from that approach.
However, there are also problems with the advice which says, “You must never witness at work”. So, that’s why I say, “Join a good church”. Discuss this issue with the elders and ask for their advice on your particular situation. If you need wisdom and guidance, then pray to the Lord to guide you. James 1 tells us that if we ask him for wisdom, he gives it without finding fault (v. 5).
PH: How about an elderly person who is house-bound or a young mother with several small children? How can they evangelize?
MD: Well, they are both presenting the gospel. They are fleshing it out in their words for much of their lives, before or after their time of confinement. But at the point where they find that they are tied down, they are filling up those words with a life that will help them invest those words with great meaning. So the important thing when you are tied down is to continue to model Christ’s love. This will ensure that your words, perhaps spoken long ago, will have fresh relevance, or it will help little ones to understand what it means to live the Christian life in days to come. A life well-lived in these circumstances can be hugely useful in evangelism.
We just had a funeral for a dear sister who had a stroke a few years ago. At the funeral, I asked the people to put up their hands if she had ever sent them an encouraging note. About 250 people’s hands went up. This lady—Helen—was just a wonderful Christian. She used her final years to exercise an incredible ministry of letter writing. And that confirmed the truth of the gospel that she had spoken to people for many years. Also, I think we have to realize that God sometimes gives us more time to pray, and when he does this, we can pray that he will bless those who have opportunities to speak to others.
PH: What sort of steps can a Christian take if they want to make evangelism a more meaningful part of their lifestyle? How do you get started?
MD: Again, join a local church that preaches the Bible. Talk to the elders there and let them know your desire. If you see an older person you know who is a good evangelist, tell them you have noticed this and that you would love to learn from them. Take stock of your own relationships. Sit down with a blank piece of paper and write down the names of those people that don’t know the Lord, but do know you, and then just start praying daily for opportunities to share the gospel with them. Start thinking about how you can make legitimate opportunities to share Christ with them.
Also, I think that the more you come to know the Bible—both in reading it extensively and also meditating on it deeply—the more integrated your understanding of all of life will be. And this means that there will be fewer steps between what you are doing at work and sharing your faith in Christ.
PH: Knowing that there are such things in life as divine appointments, how should that affect the way we witness?
MD: I guess I tend to see divine appointments everywhere. I am always on the alert for opportunities. So I prefer to err on the side of witnessing too often than not enough. I deliberately go to the same places. I try to get to know people by name. It’s a little more difficult in a place like a cafeteria where there’s a lot of movement, but if it’s place where people wait on you, then you have more time. I like to tip well. You can be an empathetic and kind person. That will sometimes give you more time to talk with them right there. You can freely bring them into conversations you are having with friends, especially if you are having a Christian conversation. I don’t know how many times I have said, “Hey, we were just talking about such and such. What do you think?” Most people don’t mind being asked that way. It’s not threatening—it’s not an immediate frontal assault, and if you have been kind and friendly to them already, then they are likely to start talking. When you do this, people sometimes open up about their lives, and they’ll tell you if they go to church and what their background is. This can sometimes lead to good gospel conversations.
PH: Do you have any positive tips that you could offer in terms of witnessing to people like shopkeepers and people with whom we have constant contact?
MD: Just be a kind customer. We had this one Hindu family living just down the street from our house when we lived in England, and we got to share the gospel with that family a number of different times. I never saw any response, but we were sowing and praying.
I also know a girl who has become a really enthusiastic Christian. I remember meeting her several years ago. She lived in a house near us. She was standing out the front smoking, not apparently interested in religious things, but she did have a respect for spiritual matters when I spoke to her. So as we talked, she expressed an interest, and began to come to church occasionally. Over the years, I have watched her come to Christ, be converted, baptized and changed in wonderful ways. It’s a real joy to me when I see things like this.
PH: Do you do any evangelism with people in your neighbourhood?
MD: I live in an old home by American standards, so I guess it’s old by Australian standards too. It was built ’round the 1870s on Capitol Hill. I have a huge bay window here in my study, and sometimes when I look out, I will see people just standing there and looking at the house. Tourists always come along this area. If I see people outside looking at the house, I will just open the window and lean out and start talking to them. You know, I’ll just say, “Hello”, and introduce myself, and tell them the history of the house. Sometimes I have invited them in. At other times, I’ll go down to the street and talk to them. I don’t do that often, but I do it sometimes. There are opportunities around. It takes time and motivation to take them.
PH: Is it every Christian’s job to evangelize?
MD: Yes, every believer should evangelize. I know some Christians think that evangelism is only for people with special gifts for it, but I don’t believe the New Testament teaches that. While Paul does say that some believers have the call to be evangelists, all of us have the responsibility of evangelism. Similarly, he talks about gifts of ‘mercy’. Nevertheless, we are all called to be merciful. He talks of gifts of faith, but we are all called to have faith. So all of us are called to evangelize, while some are specially gifted for this ministry.
The Apostle Peter addresses Christians in general in 1 Peter 3:15 when he says, “[be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you”. One of the first great evangelists we encounter in the book of Acts is not an apostle or an elder, but a deacon—Phillip, who witnessed to the Ethiopian eunuch. Personally, I think it’s unhelpful to suggest that the task of evangelism is essentially the responsibility of ministers. I know some scholars like John Dickson take this view, but I disagree with it. John has written a lot of good things about evangelism, but on this point, I think that he is wrong. The Great Commission is not just for paid professionals.
I realize that John is probably trying to help some people overcome their guilt because they find evangelism hard, and I sympathize with his intention. I agree with him that some believers are faithful in the way that they live, but at the end of the day, they will not share the gospel with as many people as someone else who has special gifts from God. As a pastor, I have the opportunity every week to share the gospel publicly in a way that most of the members sitting in our church do not. However, that doesn’t absolve them of the responsibility for reaching others with the gospel. I recognize that not all of us may have the same abilities and talents in sharing the gospel. But I want to keep the heat on all of us for getting the good news out there. I don’t see a clerical class in the New Testament to which evangelism has been delegated. Preaching is not the only way to evangelize; it can happen in everyday conversations too. And you don’t need a special gift to witness to the Lord in these situations.
PH: How important is the ordinary Christian’s conversation in spreading the gospel as opposed to formal preaching?
MD: It’s difficult to answer that question. We certainly need both. We need the word proclaimed so that we hear the gospel clearly, but then it’s also very natural to have people talk about the Christian faith in ordinary conversation. In 1 Corinthians, the wife goes home after church and talks to her husband about the questions that were raised by the sermon. Again, I am sure that Paul had a lot of questions and answers going on after his lectures in the hall of Tyrannus. Furthermore, Peter in chapter 3 seems to suggest that there are a lot of informal situations where people can discuss the meaning of the Christian faith. So I think that there are many things in the New Testament that show us that the godliness of our conversation plays an important evangelistic role. The apostles are clear that we mustn’t limit the explicit sharing of the gospel to formal preaching. It can also happen in ordinary conversations.
PH: I notice in your book that you mention John Bunyan and a very critical sort of conversion that came not so much from preaching, but from ordinary conversation.
MD: Yes, Bunyan hears the washer women talking as if they knew God. I don’t know if I have ever told you this, but there is the story of the conversion of the famous Puritan William Perkins. Perkins was an undergraduate at Cambridge. One day, as he was walking along, he heard this town woman (i.e. not a student) slapping her little son and rebuking him. She said, “Watch it, boy, or you’ll end up like drunken Perkins”. Perkins was suddenly overwhelmed that his name had become a byword in the town for the life of a wastrel. He realized that he had become a moral cautionary tale, and the Lord used that mother’s words to convict him of his sins. Suddenly he woke up to his spiritual plight, and he was converted. So, yes, God can use even stray, honest comments to bring people to himself.
PH: You have said that it’s not simply the fact that we talk about Christ that’s important; it’s the way we talk about him that is also vital.
MD: Yes, that’s certainly the case. It’s what I hope both myself and my Christian friends will do. I heard Maurice Roberts at a dinner conference refer to the privilege he had of ministering to the Scots in the Highlands where the people spoke freely, naturally and fully of the things of Christ. He said it was music to his ears. I know exactly what he means; it’s music to my ears as a pastor. I don’t mind talking about a football game—that’s fine. I don’t want Christians to be unnatural. But I do want to hear them talking fully, freely and naturally of the things of the Lord in their own lives too.
PH: What do you think produces that sort of thing?
MD: It’s obviously the grace of God. Part of it must be a very humble, straightforward trust in God and in Scripture that enables you to evaluate life in a childlike way. It means you can say, “All right, I know the Lord God is a powerful reality. He has captured my heart. This is what I am going to talk about.” I remember someone coming to Capitol Hill Baptist in the midst of the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal. They were with us for about an hour while we were in discussions. At the end of our meeting, this visitor came up and said, “I can’t believe it. I have just been with all you people—many of whom work in politics—for an hour and I haven’t heard one person mention Clinton or Lewinsky. The whole of Washington is abuzz with this scandal, but I haven’t heard a word of it here. It’s amazing! This church is like an oasis. People here obviously have much more important things to talk about.”
PH: You have said that when we evangelize, we must maintain a balance between honesty, urgency and joy. What do you mean by that?
MD: I think that it is possible for us Christians to be unbalanced on any one of those three points. We can either focus on one or ignore one. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that you want to do everything out of the joy that comes from knowing the Lord. Well, a lot of people aren’t built like that emotionally. If they think that some sort of feeling is the basis for their action, they are going to feel justified sitting around, although they are going to feel bad that they have never taken one step of obedience because their heart is cold.
Again, let’s say you don’t want to stress the urgency of the gospel. Imagine that you are a hyper-Calvinist, and you just figure that people’s salvation is a matter for the sovereignty of God. Well, if that’s the case, there will never be the heartfelt pleading that you would see in a Spurgeon or an Edwards, or in the Apostle Paul where he pours out his heart in Romans 9 and 10 for the Jewish people. If joy or urgency are missing from our presentation of the gospel, then our testimony to Christ will be missing that sort of fullness that we find in the New Testament.
PH: What about the element of honesty?
MD: Well, I think that honesty in presenting the gospel goes out the window when you want people to respond to the message, but you are prepared to accept any sort of response. Of course, the only true response is heartfelt repentance and faith. However, if you don’t feel the need to be honest in your presentation, then you will calibrate your presentation of the gospel to whatever gets the response you want. So you ask yourself, “What must I say to get people to pray the sinner’s prayer?” But that’s not faithful gospel preaching. You can’t work backwards like that. I heard about a pastor in a church of 5,000 people who employed two seminary students whose main responsibility was to get four new people baptized each week. When asked, “What happens if they can’t meet the quota?”, his response was, “Then I’ll find two students who can”. This man wasn’t even remotely interested in true gospel preaching. He was results-driven.
PH: You say that in our desire to make evangelism relevant, we become advocates of irrelevant non-evangelism. What do you mean by that? And to what extent should evangelists be prepared to offend people?
MD: If you are not offending people, then you are not an evangelist. If you look at Paul in 1 Corinthians 1, there is no gospel without the offence. This is God’s wisdom. It never seems sensible to us in our flesh. Too often preachers want to deal with people simply at the level of publicly accessible reason. We participate with them in their own epistemology. But this is not New Testament preaching. We have a message that is not from this world; it is from God. We don’t know it by our own cleverness; we know it because God has revealed it.
PH: Are there some dangers in thinking that a personal testimony is the same as evangelism?
MD: Sure, because people today are very open to others getting help from their own religious sources, whatever those sources may be. It’s, again, an ‘offence’ question. Most people are glad for somebody else to share their own story of how they have found spiritual help. The problems start when you begin to universalize your story—when your narrative becomes authoritative and begins affecting their lives as well. If you say that the gospel lays a claim upon them, then you are invading their personal space, and they feel as though you have no right to be there. Now we don’t even begin preaching the gospel until we get into their personal space and they feel the demands of God upon them.
Testimonies are great things about what the Lord has done for us, but no-one will be offended when you talk about what God has done for you. You need to be specific about sin, about Christ’s death on the cross, about others’ need for a saviour, and about their need to repent and trust in Christ.
PH: Is it easy to mistake apologetics for evangelism?
MD: Yes, it is. The reason is because you are often talking about things that are related to the gospel, and you are defending the Christian faith. So you are doing some of the same things that you do with the gospel. However, the difference between apologetics and evangelism is that in apologetics, you are answering objections that the world raises, whereas in evangelism, you are bringing the message that Christ brought. So unbelievers tend to set the agenda in apologetics, and you set the agenda in evangelism. And to evangelize properly by delivering the gospel, we need to follow God’s agenda.
PH: There is a growing focus within the evangelical church on apologetics. Do you think that is helpful?
MD: There’s nothing wrong with it in itself. I love people thinking about apologetics. I just think that we have to be careful. We need to realize that we can argue about evolution or the existence of God or any number of things, but until we tell people the message of the cross, we have not evangelized them. It’s fine to deal with people’s doubts and explain why they have good reasons to believe in Christ. But until we tell them the good news of Jesus Christ, we haven’t done our job. They need a saviour that God has provided them in Christ. Once they know that, we can do as much apologetics as we need to.
PH: In large numbers of evangelical churches over the last 25 years, people have almost equated church growth with evangelism. Is there some inherent danger in there?
MD: Yes, because we can’t know at any given time how God will bless our faithful witness. So the apparent numerical growth of the church is never a good guide to how faithful we have been in evangelism. That’s not an excuse to say that if I am pastoring a church where I have never seen anybody come to Christ, then there’s nothing wrong. I assume that normally the Lord will be bringing people to himself through the instrumentality of the preached word. However, we have to be very careful that we don’t assume that if we are ‘X’ faithful in evangelism, then we will see ‘Y’ results right now. It doesn’t work like that. There are times when the gospel just seems to be powerfully at work in a nation, and thousands upon thousands are converted. If you think about what has happened in Latin America, Africa and East Asia all in the last hundred years, it is breathtaking. We have seen an expansion of the gospel as we have never seen before in the history of the church.
PH: So what is your view on religious awakenings? Should we be looking for a more powerful work of the Holy Spirit?
MD: Yes, but I don’t have any way to control the Spirit or create revival. I pray that the Holy Spirit would move upon the church, but at the same time, I want to busy evangelizing. I am not one of those people who moan and pray for revival all the time, but do nothing. Sadly, there are some fine Christian people who believe that the only way to advance the gospel is to pray for revival and nothing else. You don’t know if they have any non-Christian friends or if they have ever shared the gospel with anybody in the last 30 years. It’s depressing going to prayer meetings like that. I don’t want to pray like that. I do want to pray for the Lord to glorify himself and, yes, I also will pray for an outpouring of his Spirit, but I also will rejoice in what he is doing now, and I will try to be a faithful steward of the gospel by preaching it “in season and out of season”, as Paul reminds us (2 Tim 4:2). So I want to be careful not to make an idol out of revival, or to rely upon it to the point where I don’t plan for evangelism.
PH: Should you be discouraged if you don’t see immediate results in evangelism?
MD: No, it’s fine to talk and pray with friends about why that is. Obviously, the sovereignty of God is a factor, but we need to ask if there is anything else going on. Sometimes we have to wait a long time to see conversions. In the last two weeks, I have had two members of my congregation tell me about, in each case, two of their grandparents who were saved in the last year. Both sets of grandparents were in their 70s. What a wonderful testimony!
Then there’s the famous story about a young man called Luke Short who once heard John Flavel preach in Portsmouth in England. Shortly afterwards, he left for New England, and as a 100-year-old man, he was out ploughing his field one day, and sat down and remembered that sermon from 85 years ago, and was convicted of his sins and converted right there. Isn’t that an amazing story? It should give us renewed confidence in the preaching of the gospel.
PH: So how should that affect you as a pastor if you are not actually seeing a lot happen, but you are being faithful and sowing the seed?
MD: Keep going until you get good counsel that is persuasive for you that you should go elsewhere. I don’t want to say that it’s always a sin to leave that situation and go to another one, but I do want to point out the fallacy of thinking that if I were in the right place, I would be seeing an immediate response. Charles Simeon spent his first 12 years at Holy Trinity Cambridge in discouraging circumstances. Similarly, William Carey’s first years in India were full of disappointment. There are just too many stories like this in the history of the church. Remember how God was so patient with Israel. Again, don’t forget how difficult it was for Paul went he first went to Corinth. The Lord spoke to him and said, “Look, I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). Of course, that didn’t prevent him from going to other places. The Lord did give him direct guidance. I don’t know if we are going to get that same kind of direct guidance today, but I do believe in subjective guidance, and I think that it’s fine if we decide to move on after having taken counsel from wise friends. If we feel that our ministry has come to an end in one place, then it seems reasonable to move on.
Copyright Australian Presbyterian, March 2008. Used with kind permission.
1 Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, Crossway, Wheaton, 2007, pp. 13-15.
2 Ibid., pp. 15, 104.
3 Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2000, p. 255.