As always, we begin our study with the rules we try to follow when discussing faith or religious issues with other people:
- Respect others' sincerity, even if you don't agree with their beliefs. This means listening politely while they talk and try to explain. If you listen well, this will encourage them to listen well when it's your turn.
- Stick to the Bible. The most important and productive way to begin an answer to a question is "I believe that the Bible teaches." Your responsibility is to give them God's Word; accepting it, believing it, acting upon it is their responsibility, not yours.
- Be patient. It takes weeks to grow a tomato. Imagine how long it might take to grow a person's faith. Your love is shown by your patience.
Let's continue with typical questions.
One of the categories of questions was that of evangelism. Several of the questions in this area had to do with various approaches to take with people of different religious backgrounds; and how to become evangelistically minded. For example:
- How do you approach people who don't believe in God or who used to believe but they don't now?
- How do you respond to a Jewish person or a Mormon?
- How do you deal with those who feel that they condemn other people if they believe, especially their parents?
All of these are different people and situations, but there are some common elements in each. What I'm going to suggest here are some basic Bible principles that can be applied to each situation. There is no single verse that says, "this is how you approach a Jew/Roman Catholic/Mormon/etc."
The best place in the Bible to find information about evangelism is in the book of Acts. This is the eyewitness account of the establishment of the early church and how it went about in its effort to evangelize the world. In this book we see real people overcoming all kinds of obstacles (language, religion, persecution, immorality of great proportions, lack of resources, etc) and they still succeeded in winning souls.
Now, the questions that were asked all had the same obstacle in common, and that was a different belief system.
- One was a Mormon
- Another was a Jew
- One was a Protestant/ Roman Catholic
- Some who believe that there is no God
In the Bible we read accounts of Paul and others going out to preach in the world when there was no such thing as Christianity and the only people they talked to were people who belonged to other religions. For example:
- Jews who held that the Old Testament and the Mosaic law was their rule of life.
- Greeks whose idea or whose direction or philosophical ideas were established by the Greek philosophers and they were polytheists, they believed in a multiplicity of gods or semi-gods.
- The Romans were involved in Emperor worship.
- Various pagan beliefs (Nature religions; People worshiped trees, the sun and stars, or they had gods and goddesses, i.e. Diana of Ephesus.)
The names and the details of these religions are different than today, but like today they didn't accept the Bible as God's Word, nor did they know or accept Jesus as the only divine Lord and Savior.
We've been given no other plan or approach in evangelism than the principles and approaches provided in the New Testament. So let's review these and apply them to today's obstacles.
Principle #1 – Prayer
- Before Jesus sent the 70 out and later chose the 12 who would go out and evangelize – He prayed (Luke 6:12).
- Before the Apostles began their great ministry of evangelism beginning in Jerusalem – they were gathered together in prayer (Acts 1:12-14).
- Before the church sent out Paul and Barnabas to begin their great missionary effort – the church prayed for their success (Acts 13:1-3).
- When Paul's ministry was roadblocked or in doubt, when he encountered opposition to the message – he responded with prayer (Acts 16:25).
Prayer is the first step because it acknowledges the truth about each situation:
- God is the One Who is in charge
- We are only the servants
- Our friends and family need God and Christ and we are placing them directly into His hands through prayer
Through prayer we remove ourselves as the force through which the conversion comes (our intelligence, our arguments or approach) and we place the gospel of Christ and the efforts of the Holy Spirit as the key elements that bring about conversion.
- Romans 1:16 – "The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes."
- Romans 8:28 – "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called "according to His purpose."
So, for each question or case presented I would say that you should begin by making that person or situation a regular subject of your prayers. In this way you are establishing the correct relationship between yourself, the other person and God. And we are creating the best environment for the next principle in the biblical approach to conversion and teaching.
Principle #2 – Proclamation
When faced with a tremendous array of opposing belief systems, the Apostles simply began by preaching the gospel (Acts 2:1-38). They didn't start by trying to explain how Christianity was different than Judaism or how the doctrines of Jesus compared to the teachings of other religious leaders. In other words, they didn't begin with debate or comparisons, they began with proclamation.
Obviously there is a time and a place (and this is what prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit provides) but when the opportunity comes we need to share with our atheist, Muslim, Roman Catholic or Methodist friends and family – the reason for our faith. This gospel can be reduced to the following three statements:
A. I believe the Bible teaches that Jesus, the Divine Son of God, proven to be so by fulfilled prophecy and miracles and His own resurrection, died on the cross to atone for all of my sins (and yours too).
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
- Romans 3:21
who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord,
- Romans 1:4
B. My own resurrection and eternal life is made possible not by perfect obedience, but rather by faith in Him, which is expressed in repentance, baptism and faithful discipleship.
He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
- Mark 16:16
Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 2:38
You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.
- Matthew 10:22
C. Jesus is the only person through whom a person can be saved and thus have a relationship with the true God of heaven.
And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.
- Acts 4:12
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.
- John 14:6
When you simply proclaim the gospel you set the agenda for further discussion, you set the standard against which other beliefs will be tested. The gospel message has power (Romans 1:16) for salvation because only it addresses the principal issues that all persons deal with, whether they are atheists, non-Christians or believers who require further teaching in the true doctrines of Jesus:
- Personal sin and failure
- The desire to know the true God and His Will
- Fear of death and the hereafter
Instead of debates and polite discussion and comparisons of doctrines and practices (worship, traditions, etc) when you get the chance, just lay out the gospel itself and let them deal with it, not you. They may simply refuse to respond or simply reject it altogether and if they do then at least you know that you've given them one thing they needed most, the one thing that truly has the power to bring them to God and save their souls; and you fulfilled your spiritual duty on their behalf.
You're responsible for proclaiming the gospel, not for their decision or the response – that's their responsibility.
If you have the opportunity (whether it's in a conversation, an invitation to a Bible study or worship, giving a book/video/bulletin article/BibleTalk.tv website) opportunities are the result of our prayers and God's response through the work of the Holy Spirit. If you have an opportunity, the goal is to proclaim the gospel; if you've done this then the next principle comes into play.
Principle #3 – Perseverance
Note that in the Bible, Jesus and the Apostles continue to preach and teach many of the same people over and over again. Jesus spent three years in close company with His Apostles, repeating the same message. The Apostles, especially Peter and Paul, actively proclaimed the gospel and encouraged the Jews to believe and accept the truth.
We look for some kind of silver bullet that will convert each different type of resistant belief or disbelief. We want a penicillin-type scripture reference that will win over a Catholic, or transform a lifelong Muslim into a Christian.
Even Jesus, with His perfect teaching and miracles did not win over Nicodemus in one sitting. It took years for this Jewish teacher to accept Christ and then only secretly.
Our best chance comes when we begin with proclaiming the gospel, and keep the dialogue going by discussing how the various parts of the gospel affect or compare with the other person's religious life or beliefs. Of course, that's if they want to continue or to follow up on the discussion. If they do, then at least you're sharing what is truly essential and important. For example:
- The atheist might take exception to Christ's divinity and this would lead him to deal with all kinds of evidence that points to Jesus as divine.
- Catholic, Protestant and the Mormon individuals would certainly take exception to the proper response required by God (adult repentance, immersion, lifetime fidelity) for salvation and this would lead them to a deeper understanding of the primary authority of Scripture over tradition or church rule.
- The Muslim would stumble over the fact that Jesus is the only way to salvation and this would force him to examine the credibility of both Muhammad and Jesus to see which one is the true and final Messenger and Savior.
We need to remember that "ignorance" is no excuse, no one is excused from judgment because they didn't know or no one taught them the truth.
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
- Romans 1:18-20
Proclaiming the gospel, therefore, is the best favor we can do for someone, and persevering and discussing and teaching them the details and the demands of it is truly an act of faith and love on our part. So whether they stumble over it or they're saved by it, they need to hear it as many times as possible and we need to first proclaim, then persevere by explaining it as long as they'll let us.
And in doing so we need to remember that Jesus, the Apostles, and every Christian since has had a mixed response:
- not everyone wants to hear
- not everyone will believe
- not everyone will respond, no matter how many times you repeat it. That's their failure, not yours.
Principle #4 – Patience
It took the Apostles 10 years to figure out that the gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. It took the Jewish Christians 20 years to accept the Gentiles as equal partners in Christ. It took me 30 years to obey the gospel. Some situations and prospects look hopeless. And they look like this because we discount both the power and the plans of God.
In the early church no one would have thought that Saul, the crazed Christian hunter, could ever be converted. Not the person who was sent to him to proclaim the gospel to him (Ananias - Acts 9:10-13). Not even the Apostles themselves would believe that Saul had been converted – even after he had been baptized!
So what happened to this man?
- Did Ananias debate him? No.
- Was he impressed by the sacrifice and the martyrdom of the Christians that he persecuted? No.
God is the one who dealt with Paul on the road to Damascus and prepared him to hear the gospel, which he believed and responded to, when it finally came time. Now, I'm not saying that God appears miraculously to certain "hard to convert" people to prepare them for the gospel. What I am saying is that God has many ways of preparing our hearts to receive the good news.
- Sometimes it's the loving kindness of a Christian friend or family member or co-worker
- Sometimes it's a close call with death
- Sometimes it's the sudden realization of how heavy our burden of guilt is
- Sometimes it's losing somebody we love
- Sometimes it's the overwhelming goodness and kindness we experience that causes us to search
In these and a thousand other ways, God is continually drawing men and women, continually wooing us to search for Him, to find Him in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit's great work in the world is to bring things together to draw all men to God. Our prayers also serve this purpose. Our work and ministry are like signposts that point the way for those who have begun to search.
We need to be patient, however, because sometimes it takes a long time to bring a prodigal home. Sometimes they have to go to the deepest depths before they begin to search for a way out. Sometimes being patient and letting God do His work is the only thing left for us to do.
If this is the case, we need to remember and trust that God will do everything to save your friend or your family member, because
He desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
- I Timothy 2:4
Regardless of the religion or the lack of religion, the best way to evangelize any individual is to follow the pattern for evangelism in the New Testament.
- Pray for the lost specifically
- Proclaim the Gospel
- Persevere in teaching and example
- Patiently wait upon the Lord, for His ways and His judgments are perfect