“And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-21, NLT)
Over my years of ministry I’ve seen a lot of people come to Christ. Some of those responses have been during the altar call at the end of a sermon. Others have been in people’s living rooms or my office at the church building. More came at kid’s camps and youth camps, Vacation Bible Schools, or revival meetings. As I reflect on some three and one half decades, I wonder if I made it too difficult. I wonder if embedded within those appeals was a certain level of doctrinal statements that really didn’t need to be included. I wonder if I was trying to make sure that these “lost sinners” were a good fit for my neatly ordered biblical interpretation.
These last verses of 2 Corinthians refreshed this internal conversation in my mind. Paul affirms several things in these four verses that should speak into the way we should do evangelism.
- Paul speaks of the ministry of evangelism as a task that God has delegated to believers. So far, so good.
- The task of evangelism is the function of introducing people to Jesus, who actually is the one who reconciles us to God. In the Greek, reconciliation is a secular, diplomatic word used to broker peace and friendship between two parties that are estranged.
- Not only have we been assigned this task, we have been given the message to share. The message is not our own. Like ambassadors, we deliver the message on behalf of the Kingdom of God which we represent. Ambassadors are messengers who do not speak in their own name nor act on their own authority.
- The invitation is simply, “Come back to God!” Nothing more, nothing less. As you know, the “sinner’s prayer” is no where in the Bible. Yet the sinner’s prayer that I often used included many theological affirmations that may or may not have been relevant to what was at hand. When I look at the Gospel record, Jesus never had anyone repeat a prayer. He simply said, “Come, follow me.” That was the ask.
- Finally, Paul concludes with the reaffirmation that Christ is the one who reconciles us with God, reminding us once again that we are simply messengers. Life change is a miracle that only Christ can perform.
You may think, “Wait, there’s more of this that needs to be unpacked. We have to let them know that they’re horrible sinners facing impending judgment and damnation. We need them to know that they have no hope and are on the broad road to hell! And then we need to have them promise to (fill in the blank) and to stop (fill in the blank).” My response to that is simply, “Isn’t it the Holy Spirit’s job to do that?” (John 16:8)
I’m not arguing for a soft appeal or a lesser version of the gospel. What I am arguing for is that evangelism should be the first step in the call to a life of discipleship. When Jesus invited the disciples to follow him, he took three years to unpack theology, mission and ministry through a process of discovery. The Old Testament scriptures would have been part of this, for sure. But it also included observations from nature, empire and religion as well as their own personal experiences. He confronted their biases, fears, prejudices and assumptions. He mentored them, challenged them, and let them fail forward. When he ascended, he commissioned them to continue the work of making disciples. All of that took place after the invitation to “follow.” It’s a process, and a long one at that.
Part of the challenge, I think, is a misrepresentation of the word “repent.” Repentance is having a change of mind which leads to a change of course of one’s life. But our doctrinal propriety has cheapened the word repentance and reduced it to behavior modification. We have made it less about stepping out of our kingdoms where we rule and reign into God’s kingdom where he rules and reigns, and more about stopping our vices and bad habits. Which one is the harder ask?
Another difficulty is the insistence that salvation comes at a specific point in time. I once heard an evangelist say, “If you can’t cite the exact date, time and location when you came to Jesus, you’re probably not saved.” But is that correct? If that’s the case, I’m in trouble!
Maybe we just don’t trust God to complete the work he begins in a person when they choose to follow Christ. Maybe we’re impatient, or afraid they won’t vote in November like we think they should. Could it be that we’re more concerned about reaching people who will become like us instead of working to help them become like Christ?
One of my favorite communicators is Erwin Raphael McManus. Every time I listen to one of his sermons he concludes with a gospel invitation that invites people into faith by praying, “Jesus, come into my life. That’s not all you and Jesus will have to talk about, but for now, pray, Jesus come into my life.” I think that courageously captures the essence of what I’m describing.