Theology matters. This truism becomes all the more apparent as one undertakes the task of evangelizing. In answering the question, “What constitutes successful evangelism?” there will be differing—and sometimes contradictory—answers. Someone will respond, “Great audiences, dynamic performances, eloquent preaching, and engaging music.” The tendency by some is an over-reliance upon a humanistic response. Instead of understanding the Lord is “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2, KJV), Christians have a tendency to think they must do something and do it well, otherwise people will not “get saved.” Another, however, will rightly reply, “All of these might be present but that does not guarantee successful evangelism.”
In order to be successful in evangelistic efforts, Christians must preach the gospel message according to divine directions. Matthew recorded the great commission in which Jesus gave the command to “make disciples of all the nations” (28:19) or to “teach all nations.” Mark recorded it this way: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (16:15, NASB). Luke states, “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations” (Luke 24:47). Put simply, preaching the gospel—the good news—is what it takes to be successful in evangelism.
But what exactly is the gospel anyway? The gospel is called the “good news” because it addresses humanity’s most serious problem—we are not holy and righteous as God is holy and righteous. In fact, every creature breaks his laws daily. As a consequence, every person will eventually stand before the Maker to be judged. And every one will be judged based upon his or her own “righteousness” or the righteousness of another. The good news of the Christian gospel, then, is that the perfect righteousness and obedience of another—Jesus Christ—will be counted, not for his own well-being, but for his people. Christ accomplished an amazing feat that no person could have ever done for himself. Jesus lived that perfect life of obedience and offered himself as a sacrifice on behalf of sinners to satisfy the demands of a righteous and holy God.
The Message of Grace
Timothy was commanded to “do the work of an evangelist;” and, in doing it, to “preach the word.” It is safe to say, then, that doctrinal preaching is essential. But what specific doctrines must be told? What was Timothy—and every Christian since—to proclaim? First, sin—its universality, nature, and consequence.
Paul, in Romans, establishes that all humanity is operating under the power and guilt of sin, the reign of death, and the impending judgment of God (3:9, 19; 5:17, 21; 1:18–19). He traces all this back to one man in the Garden who acted as the representative for the entire human race (5:12–14). Consequently, all people are born into this world “dead in trespasses and sin” (Eph. 2:1). No one escapes this poignant reality. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The result is entrapment to the power of darkness. Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Remaining in this radical condition and being “at hostility with God” (Rom. 8:7) separates and estranges the sinner from his Creator. Accordingly, the unbeliever has no rest (Isa. 57:20), no peace (Isa. 57:21), is darkened in his understanding (Eph. 4:17–20), condemned (John 3:18), and without hope (Eph. 2:12), all of which will lead to one final destiny—being eternally separated from God (Matt. 25:30–46).
The evangelist who ignores these awful realities and indisputable truths emasculates the gospel, proclaiming only partial truths. The person who professes a love for God and his neighbor must preach the God of the Bible—the God who is holy and rightly punishes sin. In fact, no one will ever truly desire salvation unless one first realizes that there is something from which one needs to be saved. During his earthly ministry, Jesus taught more on doom and the final punishment of the wicked than about love and heaven.
Second, redemption is through Jesus’ blood. The prophet recorded, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). There is a story of a judge who ruled fairly and always rendered justice in accordance with the law. Then, one day, a young man was brought before the court, because he had committed a serious offense. When the judge looked upon the defendant he was deeply saddened. He recognized his own son stood guilty before the judgment seat, but what was he to do? His mercy wanted to let his boy go unpunished, but justice demanded a penalty be paid. The judge did what only he could do in order to satisfy the debt owed—he declared the son guilty and ordered him to receive thirty lashes. As soon as he passed judgment, the judge stepped down from his position and instructed the guard to strike him instead. The judge received the punishment in his son’s stead. The father paid the penalty he had demanded. Likewise, God is the only one who could satisfy his own sentence. Anyone less than God would be insufficient to meet the demand necessary to satisfy the judgment. Only God could make payment. If God did not die in our place then the death of Jesus is of no value to the sinner.
Third, the resurrection of Christ. Paul reminded the Corinthians that if Christ was not raised from the dead then his teaching and their faith was in vain (1 Cor. 15:14–20). Christianity hinges upon the truthfulness of the claims that Jesus came to earth, died in the place of sinners, and was resurrected on the third day by the power of God. Otherwise, as Paul writes, if the claims of the resurrection are spurious, “we are, of all people, most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:20b).
Fourth, justification. The apostle exhorted the Roman church to rejoice. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). There is no condemnation for those who have been purchased with the blood of Christ (Rom. 3:21–26) and blessed are all those people who believe on Jesus, for their sins are covered (Rom. 4:7–8). On the Day of Judgment, the Lord will declare those who professed his name to be “not guilty,” because they will be covered by the perfect righteousness of Christ Jesus.
Fifth, regeneration. The unbeliever is spiritually dead and must be born again; otherwise she cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). The Holy Spirit must awaken her from her natural state so that she can fully and freely serve God (Ezek. 36:27). Once this is accomplished, the unbeliever is a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Sixth, repentance. Repentance is more than saying “I’m sorry.” It is a change of mind, brought about by the efficacious working of the Holy Spirit through the knowledge of one’s own sinfulness. It is a conscious conviction of sin (John 16:8).
Seventh, conversion. Following the recognition of a sinful state and the need for change, one must turn away from something (repentance) and turn toward another—Jesus. The moment an unbeliever surrenders herself to God she is converted.
Eighth, faith. Until an unbeliever stops trusting in her own righteousness, she does not have saving faith. The Bible differentiates between an intellectual assent of Jesus Christ and a personal trust in him. James records that even the demons believe—and shudder (Jas. 2:19). Saving faith transcends a mere cognitive knowledge of Christ and is described as a personal act that involves the heart, mind, and will that is given over to the one true God.
Ninth, obedience. We are saved by faith alone, but we do not possess a faith that is alone. James reminded his readers that faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17). We are freed from the curses of the law but we are not lawless people. Biblical obedience includes keeping the ethical teachings set forth in Scripture, resolving to obey and desiring to become more like Christ daily.
Tenth, assurance. The Christian can take comfort in knowing that the God who chose her from the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) will reside eternally in his sovereign care. There is a divine certainty the elect will be brought to dwell with the Lord in heaven (John 14:1–4; Rom. 8:28–29; Phil. 1:6). Christ assures his own they will not be lost but will be glorified at the last day (John 6:39). To put it another way, what Christ has promised he will perform.
Opportunities for evangelism reside all around us. People are dying daily without knowing the gospel. Salvation is possible for all who believe. We have been chosen as instruments to bring the gospel message to a lost world; we have the opportunity to participate in the process of salvation. The Lord assures us that our efforts will not go without lasting results. If we remain faithful to his revealed Word, then we will be successful in our evangelism efforts.