The First Priority
The Apostle Paul put it this way: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved” (Rom. 10:1). Jesus said it even more concisely: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk. 19:10). Their intense passion for the salvation of the lost was articulated by prophet predecessors. Isaiah, transmitting God’s desire, said, “Look unto me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22).
There can be no question about it, the call to lost humanity—Jew and Gentile—to “be saved,” is the dominant theme of the Word of God. It is as central to the message of the Old Testament as it is to the New, for every Jewish sacrificial altar bore witness to the fact that we are sinners in need of redemption—people need to be saved!
And it is not an archaic concept springing from the minds of ancient religious fanatics. Look around you. From all sides the cry comes. Save our youth; save young minds; save our cities; save us from drink and drugs; save our planet; save our farms; save our nation—salvation is the song of this generation. The only difference is where the call is coming from and what it is leading us to. The world wants salvation from their circumstances and the consequences of someone’s misdeeds. God offers salvation from sin, new life, security—present and eternal—and the promise of life after death in a far better place than this.
So why are Christians so reticent to communicate their message of salvation? And why are Jews and Gentiles so scornful of our telling it and calling for a decision to accept what God offers in grace? And why are we so easily intimidated by those who insist we should keep it to ourselves?
The answer may be that those who know Christ as Savior don’t feel they can communicate the message properly; that is, sit down with a friend or relative who needs to be saved and share how he can come to the Messiah. I’ve found this to be particularly true of those who have a desire to witness to a Jewish friend. The fear of incompetence that will lead to rejection stifles attempts to obey our commission to evangelize.
Something to Consider
Although one needs a knowledge of how to explain the way of salvation, it is vital to remember that we are not selling something to a reluctant client. Too many people have treated the issue of personal salvation as a sales floor experience in which a believer must sell people on his product. This is not the case. Coming to trust Christ is more appropriately compared to a maternity ward than a sales room. Jesus had a purpose when He referred to the salvation experience as the new birth (Jn. 3). It is just that. Conception, development, labor, and delivery are all indispensable parts of the process. We may deliver the Word of God that brings about conception in the human heart, but God alone can nurture that Word, create the conviction (labor), and deliver that person to new life in Christ. Essentially, then, we must remember that an individual’s salvation is between God and that person; we cannot force anyone to embrace Christ as Savior. It is strictly that person’s decision, and that’s the way God intended it to be.
What Can We Do?
An Israeli friend of mine said it best, I think we were together at a college conducting a Bible conference. During a question-and-answer time, someone raised the issue of witnessing in Israel and asked which method proved most effective in presenting the gospel to Israelis.
His perceptive answer was this: “In Israel you evangelize best by living a normal Christian life.” By saying this, he was not promoting evangelism by osmosis; that is, say nothing in the hope that something will seep through to the people around you. No, my friend was very active in sharing his faith in the Messiah verbally. His emphasis was on the fact that undergirding the effective communication of the Word must be life patterns that demonstrate the reality of knowing Christ.
One of the striking things about our Lord’s witnessing ministry was the lack of a discernible, systematic approach to witnessing to the truths of the gospel. He spoke to the needs of individuals in an intensely personal way—not pressing them into a particular witness mold, but fashioning His words to their personal situations.
Buttressing His words was a lifestyle that drew needy people to Him and provided the opportunity to communicate truth to them. Three characteristics predominated: credibility, sensitivity, and accessibility.
Jesus’ credibility was established through a combination of His words and works—there was a consistent compatibility between what He said and what He did. Thus the quality of His life provided the skein from which the fabric of His ministry was woven. When the common people came to hear Him speak (Mk. 12:37), they did so with an understanding that whether they agreed with Him or not, Jesus lived what He preached. Even His enemies were forced to conclude, “Never man spoke like this man” (Jn. 7:46).
Christ’s sensitivity often took Him where others would not go, to minister to people with whom others refused to associate (Lk. 5:27–32; Jn. 4:27). He met people in the contingencies of their day-to-day lives and was Spirit-sensitive to the opportunities those circumstances presented. He could love them to life because He was sharing life on their level with a compassionate ear open to their needs.
Sensitivity and credibility would have availed nothing had not the Savior been accessible. The imponderable wonder of the creation rests in the fact that God, in Christ, became available to man. This is not only our planet’s supreme historical occurrence; it was also the hallmark of His earthly ministry—Jesus was available to people where they were.
People sometimes complain that they do not have opportunities to share their faith. In many instances this is the result of never being around people who need their witness. Cloistered Christians never make a difference. If we are out among the people establishing credibility and demonstrating compassionate sensitivity, it will not be necessary to contrive opportunities to speak. The Spirit of God and heart-hungry people will provide abundant opportunity to respond to their spiritual needs with a life-giving message.
The Provocation Principle
The summary expression of true biblical evangelism is discovered in a few words found in Romans 11. In context, the subject is the setting aside of Israel because of her unbelief. Consequently, during this age of grace, the door of salvation has been opened to all individuals, Jew and Gentile. Saved Gentiles, who are admonished not to despise spiritually stumbling Jewry, have been grafted into Christ and thus are provided with a magnificent opportunity for evangelism. Paul expressed the situation succinctly: “but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealousy” (Rom. 11:11).
When the Jewish people, Paul said, witness the demonstration of the Christ life in believing Gentiles, and then hear the explanation proclaimed in the gospel witness they will be provoked to consider the claims of Jesus their Messiah, and a precious remnant will believe and be saved.
While the specific subject of the verse is limited, the principle is universal. The transmission of the faith rests squarely on this principle of provocation. It was this balanced demonstration and proclamation that made believers of the first century a dynamic force for God. Their winsomeness, worship, and work were the living embodiments of their living, triumphant Lord. What a pagan world saw in them provoked their minds and hearts to be receptive to the Spirit-empowered Word of life.
As our lives provide inquiry, and the message of His life penetrates needy hearts, we will be properly serving the first priority and loving them to life.