Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

Index of Articles
reprinted from the June 2001 edition of Essentials  
  Evangelism through the Looking Glass of God's Sovereignty

Stephen Abbott

Stephen Abbott works part time as the EFAC Vic Training Officer and part time as lecturer at Ridley College
  The Bible's teaching on God's Sovereignty has enormously significant implications for evangelism as Paul's brilliant message presented to the Athenian religious watchdog society illustrates (Acts 17:22-31). There, God is declared to be 'the world's life-support system'. He not only "made the world and everything in it" (24) but continues to personally sustain human life, "he himself gives all people life and breath and everything else." (25). He also supervises the comings and goings of the nations, "he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live." (26). As sovereign Lord he is bringing everything towards his appointed goal, "he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed (the risen Christ Jesus)" (31). It is on the basis of God's sovereign government, sustaining grace and sure goal that he demands a response from humanity, "now he commands all people everywhere to repent." (30).  
  It is clear from the unfolding story of the early church that God is the primary active agent in evangelism. He initiated the gospel of Christ, launched the worldwide program of gospel proclamation and stimulates the positive responses of faith to the gospel (Acts 2:471). But what of today? What might be the foundational elements of an evangelism strategy which takes seriously God's sovereign activity in evangelism? What should we look for in an evangelism training tool or technique or strategy if God is sovereign? Answering these questions will be the focus of this article.  
  A Quick Recap  
  Last time, I introduced my three lens tool (see diagram below) expressing my conviction that the dynamic application of these three lenses will go a long way to equipping Christians and local churches for a gospel ministry which is both uncompromisingly true to Scripture and authentically relevant to society.  
  Since God is completely in purposeful control of all things, not least in redeeming and drawing people to himself through the gospel, our response ought to be an issue of alignment with God's activity. I suggest there are at least six key elements, which ought to impact the community of faith's approach to evangelism and disciple making, that proceed from employing the first lens of God's Sovereignty.  
1. Prayer  
  It was Dean J. C. Vaughan who said, "If I wished to humble anyone, I should question him about his prayers. I know of nothing to compare with this topic for its sorrowful self-confessions."2 One of the saddest observations on today's Western evangelical churches has to be the lack of energy given to prayer. It is not that we do not believe in it (Who dare say such a thing?), or that we do not schedule it into the church's program (How could a spiritually minded church avoid this?), it is just that congregations by and large do not do it. Clergy and Christians when asked, "What are the most poorly attended gatherings in the church's calendar?" reply with a uniform unequivocal chorus, "Prayer meetings!"  
  Why is this? Does it reflect the inadequacy of Christian leaders to model and teach the essential nature of dependence upon God? Do we rely upon our own human energy, creativity, and the latest and greatest church growth technologies to grow Christ's church? Do we mirror our secular world where God is marginalised and prayer is the last recourse when all human resources have dried up? Whatever the cause, the reality is few, if any, Western churches give adequate attention to prayer and therefore fail to adequately recognise that evangelism is God's sovereign work.  
  What a contrast to the Bible's emphasis! The Lord Jesus himself began and ended his own ministry in prayer (Lk 3:21; 23:46) and taught his disciples to do the same (Lk 11:1-13; Jn 15:16). The Twelve Apostles would not be distracted from making prayer an absolute priority alongside the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). It is no accident that this decision is followed with these words, "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." (6:7). Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles urges his young charge Timothy to make prayer for all people the "first of all" activity of the Christian community since this is to align themselves with the sovereign Lord's redemptive work and concerns (1 Tim 2:1-6).
  It appears to me quite a contradiction that pragmatism - doing what works - has overshadowed prayer in the amount of attention it gets within the life of churches today. We find ourselves studying the latest church growth books, attending the latest and greatest seminar on how to build an effective church, listening to the best practitioners on cassette tape or watching their new video release - 'Seven (the biblical perfect number) Sure Fire Steps to Growth'. We want the best workable tools for doing ministry we can get our hands on and the Lord of the Church calls us to "ask, seek and knock" because the Heavenly Father has the essential resource - the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13) - we need to be effective in advancing the gospel and maturing disciples. The Christian community wants what works and here is the irony: the clear testimony of the Word is that prayer works (Luke 11:9-10; Philippians 1:19; James 5:16b; 1 John 5:14-15).
  Christian communities that have a functional, not just a confessional belief in God's Sovereignty will be 'prayer-full' communities. Such Churches will have prayer at the centre of their gospel strategies, evangelism training tools, home groups and assemblies. The pressure to be pragmatic and therefore focus on the technology and tools for effective evangelism will always remain, for this tendency is a spiritual battle not just a symptom of the spirit of the age. The evil one will do anything to keep believers off their knees and their mouths shut for gospelling. It is essential that the appalling lack of prayer that exists in the church today be rectified. The church must repent and give herself to prayer above all else, for prayer is where the Bible tells us to begin gospel ministry and here is the irony of it all, prayer is the most practical thing as well. Peterson makes this point sharply and succinctly when he writes, "Anything creative, anything powerful, anything biblical, insofar as we are participants in it originates in prayer. &127 Prayer means that we deal with God first and then with the world."3  
2. Preaching  
  It is pretty clear from Scripture that prayer's inseparable companion in God's effective methodology/technology for disciple making is preaching (Rom 1:16, 2 Cor 4:6). However, unlike prayer I suspect that most evangelicals operate on the basis that the proclamation of the gospel is God's primary sovereign means of bringing people to faith and maturing them in faith, in Christ Jesus (Acts 10:44-46; Col 1:28; 1 Thess 1:4-6; 1 Pet 1:23-25).  
  Yet despite our commitment to preaching today, Christians are prone to think primarily of, and sit most comfortable with, the public context not the personal face-to-face context of gospel proclamation. This is not the New Testament pattern where public and personal gospel communication are part of God's sovereign mix in expanding his church (Acts 8:4-40; 11:19-21; 20:20). Preaching may be a human activity but it is one that is engaged in because of the sovereign prompting of God in obedient preachers and personal witnesses. Chapman reinforces this point by indicating that gospel ministry was not just the prerogative of the apostles but also the 'rank and file' disciples, "God &127 takes the initiative by calling and directing the world wide programme of evangelism. The Bible pictures God out in front calling us to join Him in His ongoing work of evangelism and not the reverse. God took action and not only sent His Son, but as a consequence of that action commissioned the apostles and the disciples into a world wide programme of evangelism."4  
  One of the consequences of this should be the equipping, empowering and validating of the ministry of Christians in the marketplace and neighbourhoods of our rural, suburban and urban communities. There is simply just not enough training and encouragement given to the opportunities for evangelism that arise in believers' daily encounters with the world. Churches' home grown, often inwardly focused, programmes, events, committees, budgets, etc. swamp Christians so they have no energy or time left to gospel their own personal contacts. I am convinced that the vast majority of churches need to take a lesson from Burke's Backyard, they need to prune to grow!  
  These first two implications of God's sovereignty are foundational and need to be bound together for as Packer writes: "there are two sides to the evangelistic commission. It is a commission, not only to preach, but also to pray; not only to talk to men about God, but also to talk to God about men. Preaching and prayer must go together; our evangelism will not be according to knowledge, nor will it be blessed, unless they do. We are to preach, because without knowledge of the gospel no man can be saved. We are to pray, because only the sovereign Holy Spirit in us and in men's hearts can make our preaching effective to men's salvation."5  
  3. Patience  
  In a world of the instant and the urgent, this is one fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) which gospelling Christians need to embrace. Again we note this is an issue of alignment, for God himself is patient as both Paul (Rom 2:4) and Peter (2 Pet 3:8-9) remind us. God's patience is self-evident in that he has delayed his Son's return so that people may have opportunity to repent and believe the gospel. If patience is an essential element of the loving character of our sovereign God it also ought to be evident in the life of those who represent him to the world.
  How often have we heard Christians express their disappointment and almost despair that their family member or friend did not respond to the gospel? How often have we met outsiders who have expressed hurt, even anger, because a believer had insensitively rammed the gospel down their throats?  
  It is critical to remember in this discussion that personal regeneration - spiritual new birth from above - is an activity of the Holy Spirit that we do not fully understand and certainly cannot manipulate (John 3:7-8). Therefore, the wise and alert Christians having sown the powerful Word of the gospel, will watch for signs of fertile soil and encourage its growth. The process of making disciples is one that will probably involve the evangelist in a variety of activities including "acts of mercy, patient conversations, stern rebuke, &127 the sharing of one's spiritual pilgrimage, or an act of calculated silence."6 Making disciples is a process that will necessitate much longsuffering and patience. It may be helpful to think of the process as painstakingly joining together the links of a delicate fine gold chain that will ultimately, under God's sovereign hand, bring the unbeliever to God. The consistent question the intentional witness is always patiently asking is, 'What will be the best response I can make in this relationship to advance the cause of the gospel?'  
  It has probably become clear that patience is just one side of a coin which obedient Christians, who understand the sovereignty of God in evangelism, carry with them every day. Now we must turn to the other side of this coin.  
4. Perseverance  
  The history of the Christian church has been littered with seasons of apathy and faltering in its purposeful and energetic proclamation of the gospel of Christ Jesus. It has wilted under the various spiritual attacks of the evil one such as persecution, appeals for religious pluralism, the distractions of a social gospel, denominational housekeeping, church prosperity, nominalism, mysticism and bad theology. The list could go on for it is important to recognise that Satan and his minions will never cease in their efforts to get the community of faith to drop its gospel bundle and to move from the Lord's mission agenda to a maintenance agenda.  
  It is the sovereign character of God that can motivate that persevering spirit in the midst of opposition and/or disappointment. Packer writes, "far from inhibiting evangelism, faith in the sovereignty of God's government and grace is the only thing that can sustain it, for it is the only thing that can give us the resilience that we need if we are to evangelise boldly and persistently."7 This reflects Jesus' teaching on the way of salvation, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God." (Mark 10:27). Piper writes, "'All things are possible with God!' - in front the words give hope, and behind they give humility. They are the antidote to despair and pride - the perfect missionary medicine."8  
  Hopefully we can see that our commitment to ongoing evangelism is a matter of alignment. Since God is sovereign and passionately concerned with humanity's salvation, having endowed the gospel with saving power, believers and Christian communities should patiently and persistently be aligning their passions, priorities, principles and practices of life with those of the Lord Jesus.  
  5. Partnership  
  a. With the Sovereign Spirit: We are never to perceive ourselves as some sort of spiritual James Bonds who, having been given our mission and a few technical resources, are sent out to overcome the strongholds of the enemy on our own. Such an image is completely alien to the New Testament picture, which is one of complete dependence on the Spirit for the fulfilment of the Christian mission. The Bible affirms that it is through the Spirit that the Lord Jesus remains with his disciples to the close of the age. (Matt 28:20; Jn 13-16; Acts 16:7; Rom 8:9; 1 Pet 1:1). Luke/Acts very clearly presents a pattern of 'prayer - Spirit empowering - gospel ministry': Jesus (Lk 3:21-23); the apostolic community (Acts 1:14, 2:1-4); early church (Acts 4:29-31). We also note Peter's Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14-41), which incorporates the declaration of the fulfilment of Joel's prophecy, "I will pour out my Spirit on all people &127 And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved" (2:17-21) and in a sense sets the program for the rest of Acts. Marshall aptly writes, "Luke especially understood the gift of the Holy Spirit as equipping the church for mission, and consequently he regarded the essence of being a Christian as the activity of mission."9  
  The sovereign work of the Spirit in evangelism is of course not limited to his mission-prompting work in believers but to his convincing/convicting work in the unbeliever (John 3:5-8; 1 Cor 2:10-16; Eph 2:18; 1 Thess 1:5). In John's Gospel, Jesus makes special note of the Spirit's illumination ministry. Through the gospel he will convict the world of its need of Christ Jesus, "But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment:" (John 16:7-8).  
It is in recognising that the sovereign Spirit is the senior partner in our fulfilment of the Great Commission, that we can be rescued from discouragement and from falling into manipulation when people do not repent and believe the gospel. No skill or cleverness of ours can produce new birth in the lost. Our responsibility is to faithfully proclaim the powerful transforming news of the gospel of Christ crucified. It is the Spirit's task to apply it. In this partnership we make ourselves available and prompted by the Spirit, we initiate contact and endeavour to confess Christ. He convinces and converts in his own sovereign time.  
  b. With the Saints at Large: We cannot leave this discussion of our partnership with God's sovereign Spirit without making some reference to our engagement with other believers and churches outside of our own personal denominational and relational ties. Since the first churches were established during the dawn of AD, the church of Jesus Christ has been beset with the divisive cancer of quarrels, jealousy, spiritual pride, competitiveness, destructive criticism and the like. This disease weakens the Body, destroying our attractiveness to the world and therefore eats away at our evangelistic effectiveness. How it must grieve our Heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ that we all too often trample all over his work performed through fellow believers who are not perceived as "one of us" (Mark 9:38-42).  
  What the Lord clearly wants is partnership not party spirit, cooperation not competition, celebration not criticism of other's successes in ministry, Christians and churches who are zealous for, not jealous of the advance of the Kingdom of God on another's turf. However, we must not be naive in this process and rush in where angels fear to tread. In seeking to work in evangelistic partnership and cooperation with other Christians in the work place or other churches in the local suburb it will be important to ensure these ventures do not compromise the truth. Any partnership with others must, if it is to maintain fellowship with the sovereign Spirit, be founded on the apostolic gospel, which is based solely on grace and received solely by faith. Our fellowship, love and unity is one which is rooted in the truth of God's Word and therefore in an unwavering commitment to the incarnation, life, death, bodily resurrection, ascension and second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The pluralistic post-modern appeal for tolerance will challenge the Christian community to broaden the margins of religious fellowship and to abandon the whole notion of absolute universal truth. Yet we must remain unmoved, for there is only one gospel that has the power to save and we must not compromise it (Rom 1:1-6; 1 Cor 1:10-2:5; Gal 1:8; Eph 4:3-6). Partnership with the Spirit must of necessity mean a partnership with Christians and churches who hold to the truth of the Word of God, the gospel, which is described as "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph 6:17).  
  Why not explore ways in which your church could participate in creative gospel partnerships with other evangelical churches in your local community? For then Jesus' prayer for the disciples, "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (Jn 17:23), will at least be occasionally demonstrated as he intended, rather than simply remaining a theological idea.
  6. Praise and Thanksgiving  
With this final of the six elements, we discover that we have come full circle. We began with prayer, humbly asking God to extend his grace to others and we end with praise, humbly adoring and honouring God for doing just that. It is because God is the sovereign Lord of salvation, the Alpha and the Omega, that Christians begin and end at the same place, expressing both humble submission and adoration to Almighty God in the ministry of evangelism.  
  Jesus himself praises God for revealing the gospel to the disciples ("little ones", Lk 10:21). Like our Lord we should praise God first for our own salvation and then for the fact he continues to save others both through our own ministry and the ministries of others. Peter, James and the other elders in Jerusalem broke out in voluntary praise both when they personally realised that the gospel had been given to the Gentiles (Acts 11:18, Cornelius' household) and when they heard the account of God's ministry among the Gentiles through Paul (Acts 21:17-20). The life-transforming ministry God works in the lives of sinners is, of all God's earthly activities, the cause for unrestrained praise (Gal 1:24; 1 Pet 1:3-9). The Lord reminds us that heaven celebrates when sinners repent and are saved for in this is the Father glorified (Lk 15).  
  In almost all of his correspondence Paul makes the reality of faith in Christians a frequent source not only of praise, but especially of thanksgiving (Rom 1:8; 1 Thess 2:13). I suspect that thanksgiving and praise are elements of gospel ministry that do not have the priority and high profile they ought to have in many churches today. Yet, if we are quick to acknowledge the grace of God in saving people with praise and thanksgiving we will all the more readily continue to ask God to advance the cause of the gospel among lost people.  
  Authentic believers will readily identify that they are simply earthenware vessels struggling with their own fallenness but through which God's grace is proclaimed. Therefore we ought to be quick to acknowledge that any positive responses we see are the direct result of the merciful kindness of God's sovereign hand. May we unhesitatingly praise and continually thank the Lord both individually and corporately, for the wonder of his grace in using imperfect followers and saving sinful people through our witness.  
  Some Final Reflections  
  We have taken time to explore six clear and central implications which flow on to the community of faith from an understanding of God's Sovereignty in the evangelistic/disciple making mission of the risen Christ, namely: prayer, preaching, perseverance, patience, partnership and praise. Our discussion has forced us to acknowledge the centrality of God's Sovereignty in the Lord's mission for the church as Loscalzo comments, "Evangelism begins with, is sustained by and ultimately ends with God. We don't convert people. We don't 'win' anyone to the Lord. We don't make Christians. God does. Therefore evangelism is a divine task, though it has a human dimension. We are workers with God."10 It is knowing the Lord's rule that makes prayer, preaching, patience, perseverance, partnership and praise essential elements to be incorporated into any strategy of gospel outreach, whether these be at the initiative of either an individual, home group, local church or denomination.  
  How these various implications could be incorporated will be as varied as Christians' and local churches' creativity and imaginations allow. However, they ought to be employed always within the parameters of 'Biblical Integrity', the second theological lens, which will be the focus of the next article in Essentials.  

1 See also Acts 8:26-39; 9:1-19; 13:2, 48; 15:6-11; 16:14; 18:27; 19:11-12, 20; etc. [return to text]

2 Source unknown. [return to text]

3 Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 28-29. [return to text]

4 John Chapman, Know and Tell the Gospel - New Edition (Kingsford, NSW: Matthias Media, 1998),60. [return to text]

5 J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, (London, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 124. [return to text]

6 William J. Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989) 104 [return to text]

7 Packer, Evangelism, 10. [return to text]

8 John Piper, Desiring God, (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1986), 196 [return to text]

9 I. H. Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, (Exeter, England: The Paternoster Press, 1970), 200. [return to text]

10 Craig A. Loscalzo, Evangelistic Preaching that Connects, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 16, [author's emphasis]. [return to text]

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