Today’s episode tackles a difficult but important truth: There is no way to obey Christ and bear witness to him and his gospel without being perceived as foolish by many people—that is, if we’re doing it right. This was true for the apostle Paul; it’s true for us. So let’s “lean into” this truth for a change and see what happens.
Devotional Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, August 6, 2018, and this is episode number 28 in my ongoing series of devotional podcasts. You’re listening right now to “Words of Love,” written and recorded by Buddy Holly in 1957 in all its double-tracked, analog glory. By contrast, give people an infinite number of digital tracks today, and they can’t create something that sounds nearly this good! Just wonderful! Anyway, you may be more familiar with the Beatles’ 1964 cover version from the album Beatles for Sale or the long-forgotten American LP Beatles VI. But I recorded Holly’s version directly from his 1978 greatest-hits album Buddy Holly Lives, also known as 20 Golden Greats.
But this song is today’s theme because I’m talking about “words of love” in the context of something that many of us contemporary Christians don’t like doing: that is, witnessing or the dreaded “E-word,” evangelism—sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others; telling others about Jesus and what he’s done for us, and what he means to us. We witness in many different ways, but at some point we have to do so using words. And in general Christians would rather receive a root canal than to witness with words. Yet the Lord himself has commanded us to do this important work: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
And perhaps you object: “Yes, but Jesus was directing these words to his twelve (or eleven but soon to be twelve) apostles. They followed this command, and here we are today. They no longer apply to us!” But that interpretation can’t be right: Because notice he says, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We haven’t reached the “end of the age” yet, therefore, he must have also been directing these words to his disciples up to and including those who will be alive when then end of the age happens. Right? That includes us! Moreover, when he gives the equivalent Great Commission in Acts 1—“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”—we know that even today we haven’t yet reached the “end of the earth” with the gospel. There remain in 2018 places that are yet unreached with the gospel, much less toward the end of the first century. So Jesus’ words weren’t merely for that first generation of apostles, but for all disciples until the end of the age and until the gospel message has reached the end of the earth.
As for another objection—“Yes, but the Great Commission isn’t for just anyone; it’s for ministers… like you, pastor Brent, not for me. I don’t have the gift of evangelism.” My first response to that is that we’re all ministers, whether we’re ordained or not. Philip, for example, in Acts 9, wasn’t a credentialed apostle; yet through his witness the gospel reached Ethiopia. Not to mention one of the most successful evangelists in all of scripture: the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, through whose witness an entire village was saved! The only qualification, as far as I can see, for doing successful evangelistic work is having had a life-saving, soul-saving encounter with Jesus Christ.
So… Are you a Christian? Are you born again? Then that means you’ve been given the Holy Spirit. So of course you can be a witness! Moreover, if you happen to be a United Methodist, when you joined the church you promised God that you would be a witness for Christ.
How are you doing at that?
Speaking of witnessing, a few years ago there was an item in the news that shook me up: ISIS terrorists captured a group of 21 Egyptian Christians and led them in chains to a beach in Libya, where each one was beheaded… Simply because they were Christians. From what I read, these terrorists posted the video online for all the world to see. But if ISIS thought that by killing these Christians they would be harming the cause of Christ in the world, they were badly mistaken. Each Christian—far from renouncing their faith in Christ, as perhaps the terrorists wished—each one shouted praises to Jesus before the sword came down and ended their lives.
And when I read this—when I saw a photo in a news article of these Christians walking on the beach to their imminent deaths—I was struck by a chilling thought, as I’m sure other Christians living comfortable lives in the safe, prosperous West also thought: “What if that were me? What if I were in that situation? Would my faith be strong enough to withstand the pressure that these Christians must have felt to abandon their faith in Christ? Would I be able to be a witness like them, even if it meant my life?” I assume that if these Egyptians recanted their Christian faith and swore allegiance to Allah, and Muhammed his so-called “prophet,” then their lives could have been spared. Yet these Christians persisted in their faith… they bore witness to Christ… and they were murdered. As martyrs.
Would I have the courage to do what they did?
Flash forward two years: My family and I are visiting New York City on summer vacation. We’re sitting on a crowded subway train in Manhattan. A well-dressed and well-spoken woman—with a lovely Jamaican accent—stands near a door and begins preaching the gospel. She pauses for the loading and unloading of passengers at each stop. For all I know, this happens often on New York subway trains. While she speaks, commuters stare at devices, newspapers, books… No one looks up, no one makes eye contact with the woman… including me. I mostly stare at the floor. I want to be cool, you know… I want to blend in alongside everyone else.
Later, when we got off the train, my family debriefed about the experience. We agreed that there was literally nothing untrue in her gospel message. She emphasized God’s love, the abundant life that we have in Christ, the opportunity that we all have to repent of our sins, to turn to Jesus, and to receive eternal life. She was faithful to talk about God’s judgment, but hers was not a “turn or burn” kind of message. She seemed perfectly kind, perfectly respectful. Even perfectly sane… in case you’re wondering. We wondered whether this method of evangelism was effective. I said that it isn’t ultimately up to us to judge her effectiveness.
Paul tells us, for instance, in Romans 1:16 that the gospel itself is the “power of God,” which I take to mean that when the gospel is faithfully proclaimed, the Holy Spirit works through the message to reach people with it. Therefore, the Holy Spirit was giving power to this woman’s words, and the extent to which her message was effective was between God the Holy Spirit and those in her audience who needed to hear it. We can’t know whether she was effective, but it seems very likely that in her own way, she was. Remember Paul’s words: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, but to those who are being called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” It doesn’t matter how or where or in what context we preach the gospel: despite its power it will always be received by many as a stumbling block and as foolishness. Right? Do you think Paul was an effective witness, an effective evangelist, an effective gospel preacher? Of course he was! Probably the greatest ever! Yet people still heard Paul’s message and thought, “What an idiot! He’s so misguided” If that was true of Paul, how much more for us!
Regardless, this woman made me uncomfortable… and I’m here to tell you that this is my problem, not hers!
Because this woman’s bold witness filled me with guilt. It reminded me of what a coward I usually am when it comes to witnessing. Her example judged me. Because I know that I wouldn’t have the courage to do what she did.
We moved recently to Gwinnett County, which is in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Before doing so, we lived in Fayetteville, on the south side. For whatever reason, there was a period of time in the spring when nearly every weekend in our previous neighborhood Jehovah’s Witnesses were out in full force. I mean every weekend. So I resolved to talk to them when they knocked on my door and share with them the true gospel—not the distorted, deeply heterodox version of the gospel that they were promoting. And I did talk to them. But I wished that they were not out there canvassing in my neighborhood, telling people about their wayward church and their distorted version of Jesus—who to them is nothing more than the archangel Michael, not God become flesh! For the sake of people’s souls I didn’t want Jehovah’s Witnesses to share their distorted gospel message from a version of the Bible that they have badly mistranslated and misinterpreted.
I didn’t want them to lead people astray with a false gospel! Because, after all, I want people to know Jesus, the real Jesus!
That’s what I wanted!
But… not so much that I would get out there, that I would knock on strangers’ doors, that I would canvass this neighborhood, that I would seek to tell people about Jesus—the real Jesus. Heaven forbid I do that! Can you imagine the embarrassment?
But… then I remembered: “Thank heavens! We Christians don’t have to do that! Because we know that going door to door sharing the gospel—or even inviting people to church—doesn’t work. That’s what all the experts say! They have research… or at least they must have research, since so few of us Christians seem to do it anymore!” We let the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons corner the market on door-to-door evangelism!
Yes, I’m being sarcastic. For all I know, the conventional wisdom is correct: knocking on neighbors’ doors or strangers’ doors is an ineffective way to share the gospel. But if so, let’s at least admit that that’s a convenient fact for most of us Christians—because the vast majority of us wouldn’t want to do it! To walk up to a stranger or even an unsuspecting neighbor and initiate a conversation about Jesus…? I mentioned those Egyptian Christians at the top of the episode—who weren’t afraid of dying for their faith. Would I have what it takes to be like them? I don’t know! Because I’m less afraid of dying for my faith than dying of embarrassment for my faith! What is wrong with me? What is wrong with us? Because while of course we always want to witness in appropriate, effective, sensitive ways—I’m sorry!—being uncomfortable, or being embarrassed, or being afraid of witnessing is hardly a sufficient reason to avoid doing it entirely!
Did you hear that: Just because we’re uncomfortable with witnessing is not a sufficient reason to avoid doing it! We will be judged by God for our failure to witness when the Lord has given us opportunities to do so!
So you and I may rightly say, “But this method isn’t effective, or that method isn’t effective.” O.K., then let’s figure out some method that is effective—with my earlier qualification that the Holy Spirit ultimately makes a method “effective.” But we need to figure out a method that works for us because, A), we’ve been commanded by Jesus to be witnesses, to make disciples for Jesus Christ, and, B), the stakes are too high for us to avoid witnessing: because nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance for people, not just strangers but many people that we know and love! Evangelist Dwight Moody was once criticized after one of his evangelistic sermons. A woman in the audience said, “I don’t like your methods for evangelism.” He said, “I agree. I don’t like my methods, either. How do you do it?” She said, “I don’t.” “Well, in that case, I like my way of doing things better than your way of not doing them.”
Brothers and sisters, let’s face facts: We are mostly not doing evangelism. We are not witnessing. We have no idea, based on experience, whether or not some particular form of evangelism is effective or not. But speaking for myself, I would sure to like to find out. Wouldn’t you?
Because if we’re waiting for a method of evangelism that doesn’t risk making us uncomfortable… or embarrassed… or afraid… or self-conscious… a method of evangelism that will somehow be easy for us and, well… respectable to us… a method that won’t potentially make us look like fools in other people’s eyes—a method that won’t humble us in some way—then I suspect that we’re going to wait our entire lives, and no one, no one, no one is going to be saved as a result of our witness. And shouldn’t that matter to us?
And I get it! The typical Methodist method of evangelism—and here I go, picking on Methodists again—but they’re my people!—I know them. If I were Lutheran I’m sure I could criticize Lutherans; if I were Baptist I’m sure I could criticize Baptists… But the typical Methodist, um, method of evangelism… or at least what passes for evangelism… is this: that if we just get out in the community and love people and serve people, perform acts of kindness for people… that will be enough… People will see how much we love them, and they’ll of course they’ll happily forgo sleeping in on Sunday mornings—perhaps the only day of the week they can do that—and come to church. And after they come to church, so we tell ourselves, then they’ll hear the gospel, often through osmosis, and they’ll get converted. Somehow. Because of course we Methodists are famous for having so many adult conversions, after all! Sorry, that was sarcasm again… But this so-called “method” of evangelism is not faithful to who we are as Methodists. Listen to our United Methodist Book of Discipline, paragraph 130, entitled “Faithful Ministry.” Listen to this eloquence, this directness, this forthrightness:
The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world.
I notice it says “witnessing and serving community.” It’s as if we Methodists, in general, have opted to be a “serving community” while forgetting about the “witnessing” part. Still, you heard that part about convincing the world of the reality of the gospel or leaving it unconvinced. That’s it, right there!
By contrast, we Methodists do neither; we never force anyone to make a choice. We just sort of string people along—“Hey, it’s O.K. that you never trusted in Christ as your Savior… Come to our Trunk or Treat; come to our Easter egg hunt; let us sell you a pumpkin; send your kids to VBS. We won’t ask anything of you. We won’t try to convince you of the reality of the gospel. We hope, of course, that you’ll be so moved by how nice we are that you’ll believe the gospel—by osmosis, over time—but whether you do or not, don’t worry… We’re not going to put any pressure on you. Our church is a pressure-free zone. All are welcome; nothing will be expected of you… Believe, don’t believe; we don’t care. Well, we do care, but we won’t tell you why care. We won’t tell you what’s at stake in accepting or rejecting the gospel. We won’t ever tell you about eternal life or eternal separation from God. Heaven or hell… That’s what the Baptists are for.”
We Methodists, in general, don’t want to be a stumbling block to anyone, and we don’t want to be perceived by others as fools. So we don’t share the gospel.
At that Methodist conference I attended on St. Simons Island a few weeks ago, one speaker told us about a method of, quote, “witnessing without really witnessing”—evangelism not by sharing “words of love” but works of love. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. But “works of love,” by themselves, will never go far enough. So instead of “witnessing without really witnessing,” suppose we also tried “witnessing with witnessing.” Do you think that might work? There’s a hymn we sing that says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” And there is scripture to back it up. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35.
But I’m going to argue that if we share only “works of love” and not “words of love”—that is, the gospel of Jesus Christ—we’re not nearly as loving as we think we are.
Because unless we’re telling others about Jesus Christ, sharing the gospel with them, inviting them into a relationship with Jesus, indeed, even warning them about the “wrath to come”—about Final Judgment and hell for those outside of a saving relationship with Christ—who could say that we’re adequately loving people? Right? I mean… if we genuinely believe that people will die and go to hell apart from availing themselves of God’s one and only rescue plan through his Son Jesus, how much do we love them—really—if we’re unwilling to move heaven and earth to convince them of the gospel?
This is old news now, but many years ago, the magician, comedian, and celebrity raconteur Penn Jillette—one half of the comic magic duo Penn and Teller—posted a video on his blog about an experience he had with a Christian businessman who talked to him after a show. For context, here’s an important fact: Jillette is also an outspoken atheist. Anyway, this Christian gave Jillette the gift of a Bible. And you can see in the video that Jillette was deeply touched by this gift; tears were welling up in his eyes as he told this story.
As I said, Jillette is an outspoken atheist, but he deeply appreciates Christians who share their faith, who witness to their faith—or proselytize, as he says, which means we try to convince others to give their lives to Christ. In fact, Jillette said that he doesn’t respect Christians who don’t share their faith with others. “I don’t respect it at all,” he said. He continued:
If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that, uh, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward… how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize them? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And [eternal life] is more important than that!
How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize them—or, as we would prefer, share the gospel with them?
That’s a little strong, I know. Jillette is not being quite fair… he has underestimated the fear of this social awkwardness. There is a lot of pressure to conform. After all, for that woman to stand up on that crowded subway car in New York City and preach the gospel… oh my goodness… she had to overcome a lot of social pressure! Conformity to social customs is a powerful force. But even if it’s not hatred that prevents us Christians from witnessing, you have to admit that it is an insufficient amount of love! Or faith… If we don’t really believe the Bible’s many warnings about judgment, wrath, and hell, to say nothing of Jesus’ many warnings, then I get it… Why risk embarrassing yourself to share the gospel—if everyone ends up in the same place anyway? Just keep on doing good charitable work… Keep on working for social justice… Keep on trying to make this world a better place… That’s a far more respectable line of work… But if we have faith—if we really believe the stuff we say we believe—then our failure to witness ultimately comes down to love. If we believe the gospel, what’s the loving thing to do or say?
Look, I’m sharing this with you because, as always, I’m talking to myself. I know that I haven’t been as faithful as I need to be in this area of witnessing. And I don’t mean the witnessing that’s part of my job. I have certainly become more faithful in sharing the gospel from the pulpit and in Bible studies and in the context of church gatherings. But I’m talking about out there… outside the walls of church. So consider this a line in the sand for me. I will be bolder in sharing the gospel with others. And if you don’t like my methods for evangelism, I can promise you that my way of doing things will be better than your way of not doing them.
Thirty years ago, I was a student at Georgia Tech. I had a history professor named Lawrence Foster. I had two classes with Dr. Foster. I liked him. He grew up in China before the revolution. His parents were Methodist missionaries—yay, Methodists! So whenever he talked about events that happened in China, which was often, he would draw upon his personal experience in China. And every time he did so, he would tell us that his parents were missionaries there… It was like he had forgotten he had told us this a dozen times already. But whenever he mentioned that his parents were missionaries in China, he would add this qualification: “They were medical missionaries; they were not proselytizing missionaries.”
Did you catch that? They were medical missionaries; they were not proselytizing missionaries. Isn’t that a strange thing to say? Like… God forbid his parents would have risked their lives, their middle-class comfort, their safety, their prosperity—uprooted their family and moved to the other side of the world—in order in order to simply save people for eternity! What a waste of time that would be! I mean, where would your priorities be? Why not instead risk your life, your middle-class comfort, your safety, your prosperity—uproot your family and move to the other side of the world to make people more comfortable for a few years on this planet—before they face Final Judgment and hell?
Not that Dr. Foster believed that… In so many words, he was saying, “My parents were in China to actually help people—to do some good in the real world—not to give people some illusory hope about heaven and a God who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.’”
No, for Dr. Foster, the gospel was a stumbling block and foolishness, as it will always be to most people in this lost and dying world. You know what’s not a stumbling block and foolishness? Helping people with their physical needs, their medical needs; curing diseases; providing disaster relief; reforming political systems; preventing malaria; feeding the hungry… Those things will never be a stumbling block and foolishness. They will always be respectable. But preaching the gospel? We need to embrace this biblical truth once and for all: if we’re going to witness, really witness, we are going to risk making fools of ourselves (at least in the eyes of others). Let’s face that truth. Let’s “lean into it,” as they say.
Earlier this year, one of my heroes died. Billy Graham. I love Billy Graham, an affection no longer shared by many mainline Protestant clergy, not to mention most people in our culture at large. Perhaps because Graham had mostly been out of the public spotlight for the past 20 years or so, perhaps because many people second-guessed his son Franklin’s way of carrying on his father’s ministry, certainly because Graham remained stubbornly faithful to God’s Word and unpopular ways of interpreting it—but whatever the reason—Billy Graham’s death wasn’t nearly as newsworthy or noteworthy as it might have been some 20 or 30 years earlier, when Graham was commonly regarded as one of the the most well-respected people in the United States if not the world. But times change… In fact, Graham’s body was still warm when Washington Post columnist George F. Will, another atheist, published an uncharitable column about Graham’s life and legacy.
Will said that Graham was not in the same league with the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, MLK and Pope John Paul II. Why? Because MLK and John Paul accomplished something practical to make the world a better place—King in defense of civil rights and John Paul in defense of human rights. And here Will would credit John Paul for his role in toppling Soviet communism.
From Will’s perspective, therefore, the world is a better place because those two great religious men lived.
But Graham…? Not so much. At best, Will says, his preaching [quote] “gave comfort to many people and probably improved some.” Probably, he says. How generous!
But do you hear the contempt in Will’s words? Do you hear the scorn? There is nothing—I repeat, nothing—respectable or heroic or praiseworthy about the evangelistic work of Billy Graham… if the gospel weren’t true, I mean. Nothing respectable at all…
Conservatively, let’s say that “only” tens of thousands of people, a small fraction of the people who came forward during the altar calls of his many Crusades, were authentically converted to Christ. Big deal, the world says… or George Will would say. All that Graham accomplished is spiritual, which is to say, invisible… unreal. Our culture says that unless your religion is making a practical, tangible difference in people’s lives and in the world, you’re wasting your time.
Billy Graham, therefore, wasted all his time… Indeed, he wasted his life!
If the gospel weren’t true!
But of course the gospel is true. Therefore, there are at least tens of thousands of people who are in heaven right now—or will be before too long—because Billy Graham lived and remained faithful to his call. In which case, Billy Graham likely did the greatest, most important work of his generation! Because the gospel is true… and we believe it… Right?
I do believe it, even as I confess I haven’t been nearly as faithful as I need to be in bearing witness to the truth of the gospel. Well… that changes today. I repent.
O Lord, let it be said of me, “Brent White wasted his life. Brent was a fool.”
Or at least let it be said that I wasn’t afraid of being accused of wasting my life; I wasn’t afraid of other people thinking I was a fool. Lord, let me quote-unquote “waste my life,” let me be a fool, if by doing so I might save some people for eternity.