The push to be involved in evangelism is not new; it has received much emphasis in the last century or so in The Netherlands and in the USA. Lately we’re seeing an increased focus on it in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. Since we want to submit to the Word of God it’s good to consider this emphasis on evangelism in the light of God’s Word.
It is important to distinguish evangelism from witnessing. Some proponents of evangelism mix the two up, which is confusing and misleading. We all know that we must witness by our godly walk and talk. Evangelism however, according to my dictionary, “is the preaching or formal proclamation of the Gospel”.
The Bible is clear that such preaching must be done. The question is, however, is such evangelism a task for “the people in the pew”? Should they feel guilty for not engaging in evangelism?
A century ago Reformed churches in the Netherlands experienced a great fervour to stimulate evangelism. Church members were told: God calls you to evangelise. At that time a reformed minister, Rev K J Kapteyn, studied the pronouncements and brochures made by evangelism proponents and committees. He tested the claims in the light of God’s Word and wrote a brochure about it. What follows is a summary of what he said.
Evangelisation of the Reformed and Reformed Evangelisation
Believers are witnessing the spiritual decline of Western society as people increasingly turn to unbelief and return to paganism. To ‘stem the tide’ and ‘reach out to the lost’ evangelism organisations have been formed and meetings organised aimed at stimulating church members to engage in evangelism. The believers are encouraged to call unbelievers and those who have left the church back to the gospel.
There is, however, confusion about how to conduct evangelism. Questions abound: Who should stimulate it? Who are we really trying to evangelise? What is the goal? In an eagerness to evangelise, we even see people from different church federations uniting in carrying out evangelism.
But while everyone assumes we have the right and calling to engage in evangelism they seem to find it difficult to say just what evangelism really is, where it should take place, its aims and the difference between reformed and other evangelism.
A major evangelism congress recently decided that wherever there is a reformed church, its members are called to bring the gospel to unbelievers and those who have left the church in the world around them. If we can agree that this is the purpose of evangelism the question arises: Is this a God-given calling for all believers? Is it based on a command of Christ? Let us consider the texts used to justify such evangelism.
We see a frequent appeal to Matthew 5:14 and 16 where Christ says: “You are the light of the world” and “Let your light so shine before men”. To see if these words form a God-given command for evangelisation we need to see them in their context. You only need to see the complete sentence of verse 16, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”, to realise that believers will let their light shine when they do good works. Doing good works is what the Lord is telling His people to do to witness to the world.
When this is pointed out to the proponents of evangelism their response is to say, OK but that surely doesn’t exclude evangelism. But we need to be very careful here. We may not use Scriptural texts to say that which they clearly don’t say. The end does not justify the means. Exploiting the Lord’s words, making them say what they clearly don’t say in order to promote evangelism, is to bring in ‘through the back door’ a task not given here.
Then there is the appeal to Mark 16:15b: “preach the gospel to all creatures”. This is often referred to as the Great Commission. At first glance those words appear to be a command of the Lord for all believers to bring the gospel to everyone, also to those who have become estranged from the truth in Christian lands. But here again the context prohibits us from using this text for evangelism by ‘the people in the pew’.
Jesus spoke these words to His eleven disciples during the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension. The broader text says: “And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature’.” It’s a task He gave to the apostles. Exegesis shows that the word ‘preach’ here means that, as heralds of the King, they are to proclaim the gospel in view of His coming as Judge. This is also evident from the words that follow: “He who believes and is baptised will be saved: but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
Therefore this call is for those specifically appointed – the apostles, and by extension office bearers ordained to preach the Word – to proclaim God’s Word; it’s not a task given to every individual believer. The gospel must be proclaimed, but by ministers of the Word. They are the ones who are sent. Hence the gospel messengers are first the apostles and after them the church-ordained ministers of the Word.
Another text used to promote the idea that everyone has a task to evangelise is the parable of the Great Banquet (Mt 22 & Lk 14): “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” And after that: “Go out to the highways and the hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.” Again, we need to look at the context. Who were those invited? It can only refer to those who were acquainted with the promise of grace which would be fulfilled by God through the sending of His Son into the world for the New Testament service of atonement. God gave the covenant people of the Old Testament the invitation in Christ: Come, for all is ready. “The Kingdom of Heaven in near,” John the Baptist had said. And Jesus Himself calls to them: “Come to Me all you who labour and are heavy laden…” But the people of Israel rejected Him, and later they reject the gospel repeated through the apostles. This led to the apostles turning to the heathens and preaching the good news to them. They are the ones who are brought to the Banquet from the highways and hedges when Israel rejected the gospel. Here, again, the context clearly indicates that the proclamation of the gospel was to be carried out by those ordained to the task.
One could go on about the texts so carelessly bandied around in support of individual church members being called to preach the gospel to those around them. Professor Grosheide has openly admitted that evangelism cannot be defended with an appeal to Scriptural texts. But if that’s the case we should not continue to appeal to Bible texts to justify evangelism.
OK, so if there is no text that directly commands the ‘ordinary’ believers to engage in evangelism by preaching or formally proclaiming the gospel, could we not justify such evangelism as a logical result of what we read in Scripture? As a task we can draw from Scripture? We’ll consider that in the next article.
(to be continued)
Reference: Ds K J Kapteyn to Zwolle, Evangelisatie der Gereformeerden en Gereformeerde Evangelisatie