Evangelism and Proclaiming The Gospel of Jesus Christ In A Fallen World
- Friday, September 07, 2007
While I was a seminary student, I was pastor of a small rural church. I struggled each week to prepare and deliver sermons that would provide spiritual nourishment for that little congregation. At the time, I attributed this struggle to a number of factors: lack of experience, the 75 mile commute that began early each Sunday morning, lack of time — I was a pastor, a student, and also worked another job to make ends meet. Since that time, while serving for over eighteen years, as a pastor, a missionary, and a professor, I have come to recognize that the source of this struggle is spiritual rather than circumstantial. In this article, I would like to present four guiding principles that can help us deal with this spiritual struggle that we find ourselves involved in during the process of preparing and preaching the gospel.
First, we are to proclaim the Word of God in the power of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul contrasts eloquence and superior wisdom (1 Cor. 2:1) of human teaching which shows itself in wise and persuasive words (1 Cor. 2:4) with his own preaching which is a demonstration of the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5). The issue here is, "Which is more important in preaching, form or content?" There are those in Corinth who believe that the form of the message, "eloquence and persuasive words," reflect the endowment of God's wisdom on the speaker through the work of the Spirit (Davis 1984, 78-81). In Paul's preaching, however, the power of the Spirit comes through the contents of the message, "Jesus Christ and him crucified" (v. 2). The real contrast here is between two kinds of power.
Paul refrains from any technique of communication that, on its own merit, might elicit a response from his listeners. The implication is obvious: a response drawn out by anything other than the Gospel simply proclaimed will more often than not prove to be something less than a saving response. . . . Where the affections of people are at stake, there must be no competitors allowed. The Gospel must capture their hearts, not the genius of those who communicate it (Azurdia 1998, 198).
One Sunday just after I finished preaching, a young woman in my church in Tokyo said to me, "There was power in your message." I thanked her for her compliment. It occurred to me however, that a message's immediate impression is not nearly as important as its power to incite change in the lives of those who hear it.
When the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, it does "not come by itself," that is "simply with words." Rather, when God's Word is preached it is accompanied by work of the Holy Spirit. According to John Stott, it is through the work of the Spirit that the power of the Word "penetrates" the "mind, heart, conscience and will" of both the speaker and the listener, bringing with it "deep conviction" of the "truth and relevance of the message" (1991, 33-35). The Holy Spirit teaches people that the Word of God is true and calls for their response. Without this inner-working of God's Spirit, no amount of clarity or persuasion on the part of the speaker is adequate to call men and women to repentance and eternal life. So we must always keep in mind that the sword we bear is the Spirit's sword. As Bernard Ramm writes,
There are two hands on the sword: for we take the sword, and yet, since it is the Sword of the Spirit, his hand is also on the hilt. We are not to use this sword by ourselves, on our own authority, and by our own sovereignty. We are to be completely sensitive to the pressure of the Spirit's hand in ours. Unless the Spirit wields the sword, we shall use it to no avail (1959, 58-59).
Second, we are to proclaim God's Word purely, without adulterating or defiling it. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:2, "We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God." The implication here is that we must put aside behavior that is shameful because it distorts and falsifies the Word of God. This means, above all else, getting ourselves out of the way so that the good news of Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God are free to do their work. Jesus is the light of the world. We are, at best, only a reflection of that light. The light of Christ only shines clearly through those who not only preach but also live the gospel. So often the message of the gospel is clouded for our hearers by what we do as much as by what we say. They hear us speak about the power of the gospel to bring personal transformation, but then see us live totally untransformed lives. If what we say about the power of the gospel is true, that truth must be enfleshed in us.
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