Posts Tagged ‘witnessing’

Piper: Ultimately, scripture is the “God-ordained means of creating saving faith”

October 26, 2016

In the sermon I posted yesterday about witnessing, I argue that the proclamation of the gospel possesses its own power—through the Holy Spirit—to change lives. Therefore, if our efforts to witness never include a deliberate proclamation of the gospel, we are robbing our witness of power, and we shouldn’t be surprised when we fail to make converts.

As I’ve said before on this blog, the vast majority of church growth—especially once you subtract confirmations or baptisms of children who already go to church—is “sheep-stealing”: already-Christian people leave one church to join another.

Surely, our Lord wants us to do better. As I said in my sermon,

The gospel, Paul writes in Romans 1, is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” As I said earlier, citing 1 Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The gospel is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” but Paul continues: “to those whom God has called,” the gospel of Jesus Christ is the “power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Do you see the point: The gospel itself has power. God has made it to be that way. God calls people through our gospel proclamation. If we aren’t proclaiming the gospel to people, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not making disciples! [pick up smartphone] If we as a church aren’t sharing the gospel as our number one priority, it’s like we’ve spent money and resources to build this amazing device but we’ve removed the battery… or we’ve disconnected the power supply… This may be the greatest thing people would ever experience, but they’ll never know because all they have is this blank screen! It’s not working! There’s no power! They need power. And the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power they need!

I was heartened to read that John Piper, in his irenic yet critical assessment of Andy Stanley’s recent sermon “The Bible Told Me So,” makes a similar point. As important as it is to clear away intellectual hurdles that prevent people from believing in Christ, mere intellectual assent can’t bring someone to saving faith.

Saving faith is not the persuasion that the resurrection of Jesus rose bodily from the grave. That persuasion is essential to saving faith, but not the essence of it. The devil knows that Jesus rose from the dead, and he is not saved (see also Luke 16:31). The essence of saving faith is seeing the supreme beauty of Christ in the meaning of the event, and embracing him as Savior, and Lord, and the greatest Treasure in the universe. Satan does not see the crucified and risen Christ as supremely beautiful, and he does not treasure him. But believers do. That is the essence of saving faith…

The gospel is more than the events of crucifixion and resurrection. It is a God-given narrative of what the events meant (as in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “for our sins”). It is not merely the assembly of events and evidences. It is a divine interpretation of their meaning…

What young preachers need to be clear about in deciding how they will preach is how God planned for the glory of Christ to be revealed to more and more people as the centuries pass. When Stanley says, “For the first 300 years the debate centered on an event, not a book,” that’s not quite right. The debate centered very largely on which written witnesses provided a trustworthy interpretation of the event. The church realized immediately that everything hung not just on whether the event happened, but on what it meant: What were its roots, and accomplishments, and implications for life and eternity? Who was this man, Jesus? Whom can we trust to tell us? How then shall we live? Who can tell us this with authority? That was the issue, not just the event.

God was kind enough to bring those authentic, long-trusted Gospels and Epistles together in the New Testament in due time. But their trustworthiness and authority were functioning from the middle of the first century onward. And the most significant reason God provided these Gospels and Epistles from the beginning was so that the compelling beauty and worth of Christ would shine through these God-given writings. That is how people came to faith. They saw the glory of Christ shining through the writings God had given — or the oral heralding or reading of them.

Therefore, what I am suggesting is that in our present New Testament we have the consummation of God’s demonstration of the beauty and worth of Christ. It is God’s own complete portrait of the glory of his Son — the meaning of his work from eternity to eternity, and its implications for human life.

Piper says that this truth has several implications. Chief among them is that the

testimony of God in Scripture to the truth and beauty and worth of Christ is self-authenticating. That is, the decisive cause of saving faith is not human argument (as crucial as that is). The decisive cause is described in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” God creates a real illumination of our hearts by lifting the veil so that we can see the glory of what is really there in Scripture.”

Another implication is that “God’s portrait of Christ, as he is presented in the inspired Book, is the God-ordained means of creating saving faith.”

Finally, lest you doubt that Piper is one of his generation’s most gifted preachers, he concludes his essay with this:

So my concluding suggestion is this: join Andy Stanley in caring deeply about winning “post-Christians”; join him in moving beyond simplistic and naïve-sounding shibboleths; join him in cultural awareness and insight into your audience; join him in the excellence of his teaching and communication skills; and join him in his belief in the complete truthfulness of the Bible. And then spend eight years blowing your people’s post-Christian circuits by connecting the voltage of every line in the book of Romans with their brains.

When it comes to preaching, nothing is more powerful and self-authenticating than the Spirit-anointed, passionate, expository exultation over the inspired text of Scripture. If you don’t believe that, perhaps you have never seen such preaching.

Do you believe this? I do—although I confess I haven’t always acted like I do.

But that changes now: My invitation at the end of the sermon I quoted earlier was to invite members of our church to join me in creating a “witness team.” In fact, we’re having our first meeting tonight. I don’t know who or how many will show up. But we’re going to discuss ways in which our church can share the gospel in a more deliberate way with people outside of our church—starting this weekend, when literally hundreds of people from our community will be on our church property for our annual “Trunk or Treat” festival.

For starters, I’ve ordered a couple hundred tracts from Crossway. I’ve also ordered some pocket-sized New Testaments to give away to visitors.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights.

Sermon 10-09-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 8: How We Witness”

October 25, 2016


Most Christians are afraid of witnessing. Instead of admitting our fear, however, we often make excuses for why we shouldn’t witness. We tell ourselves, for example, that we don’t want to risk “turning someone off,” or that we don’t know someone well enough to talk about religion. What excuses have you used? This sermon challenges us to overcome our fear.

(Sorry… no audio or video this week. 😦 )

Sermon Text: Acts 17:16-34

If you’ve lost a job recently, and have had to find a new one, you know all about networking. The idea behind networking is, when it comes to getting a good job, it’s not what you know, or how good your resumé is, or how well or poorly you interview, or even how skillful or well-qualified you are. No: it’s all about who you know. “Networking” is about marketing yourself to the right people, meeting the “right” people—people who can help you find the right job.

It’s about putting yourself out there, going up to complete strangers and introducing yourself, and making small talk, and talking about how great you are. Many people, especially people who are shy and introverted, would rather die than do these things.

A consultant named Andy Molinsky wrote an article in last month’s Harvard Business Review about the discomfort that many people feel about networking. His advice? Step outside your comfort zone and do it anyway. Otherwise, he says, you’ll make excuses to justify why you shouldn’t do it: “Networking isn’t that important,” you tell yourself. “It’s the quality of your work that counts,” or “People who network are slimy or full of themselves, and I’m not like that.”

I bring this up because I’m interested in talking about witnessing—that fifth promise we make to God and to one another when we join a United Methodist church. We promise to witness. Yet for many of us, the prospect of witnessing is at least as scary as speaking in public, or making small talk with strangers, or anything else that’s outside of our comfort zones. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 02-23-14: “Hearers and Doers, Part 2”

February 28, 2014


Perhaps the most important way in which the church fails to be “doers of the word and not hearers only” is when it comes to the work of evangelism. If we Christians believe that eternity is at stake in the question of a person’s decision to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation, wouldn’t we approach this task with greater urgency? Instead, we are often reluctant to witness to our faith. Why? What can help us become more faithful in this mission?

Sermon Text: James 1:19-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

So, Satan made news in Hollywood this week. I’m sure that was a mistake on Satan’s part. Usually, he goes about his work in Hollywood under the radar, without anyone noticing!

Be that as it may, Satan was in the news. You may recall that last year, Roma Downey, former star of Touched by an Angel, and her husband, Mark Burnett, creator and producer of the show Survivor, produced a hit miniseries called The Bible. They announced last week that they are recycling part of that miniseries to create a theatrically released movie about Jesus called Son of God.

If you saw the original miniseries, however, you may notice one small difference: Satan didn’t make the cut this time.

Literally, they’re cutting out the scene in which Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness. When the original miniseries aired, that scene caused controversy after Glenn Beck tweeted that he saw a resemblance between Satan and President Obama. And that’s all anyone was talking about the next day. Roma Downey said she didn’t want a repeat of that experience. She said, “I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus. I want His name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon for 03-11-12: “The E-Word, Part 2”

March 15, 2012

"The Baptism of the Eunuch" (1626) by Rembrandt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Where's the water, by the way?

Many of us are very reluctant to share our faith with others. It might feel intrusive or pushy. It might make us feel like we’re selling something. We worry that our efforts will feel phony. As I share in this sermon, however, if we Christians are not witnessing to our faith as a regular part of our routine, we’re already being phony: if we believe what we say we believe about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we should naturally want to share that news with others.

What are some practical ways in which we can witness? I explore this question in the following sermon.

Sermon Text: Acts 8:26-39

The following is my original manuscript.

In case you haven’t heard, we are in the midst of a heated political season. There’s a satirical negative political ad on YouTube you might have seen. The idea behind the video is that all these negative attack ads, regardless who’s running them, follow the same script. All you have to do is change the names and some of the words. It’s like “Mad Libs.” Anyway, it goes something like this:

“Can we risk an America run by [insert opponent’s name]? He clearly doesn’t understand that America is built on hard work, not [insert opponent’s previous occupation]. Sure, now he says he opposes [insert hot button issue; show news clip], but he used to support [hot button issue; show grainy footage with dead politician]… Around here, that [insert downhome metaphor] just don’t [insert verb]. Better ask yourself: Can America risk [insert opponent’s name].”

You get the idea. There’s something generic, impersonal, and inauthentic about these ads. I’m sure that when I talk about doing the work of evangelism, the E-word… otherwise known as “witnessing”… you’re worried that I’m talking about doing something generic, impersonal, and inauthentic—that I’m talking about following some script. Read the rest of this entry »

What is the gospel, exactly?

March 12, 2012

Yesterday, I finished my two-part sermon series on evangelism. I hope yesterday’s sermon gave some practical advice on how to do it. One gaping hole in my presentation was that I didn’t spend time talking about what exactly the gospel is. At some point, we need to be able put the gospel into words.

An early draft of the sermon included the following paragraphs, which I cut due to time constraints. In it, I summarize the gospel. How did I do? What would you add? What would you subtract?

I hope that last week I got across the point that we who have given our lives to Jesus Christ have an urgent mission: to share with others, through our actions and our words, the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s urgent because people in our community and all over the world are living and dying without being in a saving relationship with God through Christ. And why does that matter? Well, if what we say we believe about Jesus is true, it isn’t simply the case that it doesn’t matter what we believe about God, so long as we’re sincere; or that Christianity is one of many possible paths to God; or that God is going to forgive everyone in the end, regardless of what they believe about God’s Son Jesus.

I understand the emotional appeal of believing these things—in part because I’ve had non-Christian friends who put me to shame when it comes to loving other people and performing acts of kindness, and I’m tempted to say that on that basis they should be saved—that they’ve “earned” salvation every bit as much as I have. The problem is we don’t earn salvation. In fact, we’re all sinners—even the most virtuous among us. One ironic side-effect of growing closer to God—what the church calls “sanctification”—is that we simultaneously become more aware of how far short we fall of God’s glory. We become increasingly aware of our sinfulness and how much we need God’s saving grace.

Left to our own devices, we’re all in trouble because of our sin. Fortunately, God didn’t leave us to our own devices. God has rescued us through Christ’s atoning death on the cross. As Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Out of love, God took care of our problem with sin on the cross, which enables us to be in right relationship with God—not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is and what God has done for us through Christ. We no longer have to fear standing before God in final judgment, because in Christ, God has already read our verdict: and that verdict is “not guilty.”

Now because Christ defeated death in resurrection, we can face death with confidence, knowing that it no longer has the last word: we, too, will be resurrected into God’s coming kingdom. And not only that: we have power through the Holy Spirit to live differently now—to live now as if God’s kingdom were already here. And that means loving our neighbor, loving our enemies, and working for justice and peace in the world. Through faith in Christ we become everything God created us to be.


Does this describe your feelings about the E-word?

March 9, 2012

From Rick Richardson’s Reimagining Evangelism:

People often say to me some version of the following: “I don’t like to push things on people if they don’t want them. I’m kind of introverted, I’m not good at arguing with people, I avoid conflict, and I hate awkwardness in relationships. So evangelism is not for me. I feel guilty that I don’t share my faith. But I feel inadequate, shut down and even inauthentic about becoming an extroverted crusader for God.”1

1. Rick Richardson, Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 18.

Sermon for 03-04-12: “The E-Word, Part 1”

March 7, 2012

In this two-part sermon series starting today, I talk about a word that makes many Methodists uncomfortable: the E-word… evangelism. Whereas we Methodists distinguish ourselves as Christians who love and serve so many people in our world, we are often reluctant to say “why” we do it. Yet the need to say why has never been greater.

Increasingly, people in our community don’t understand what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. We can be confident, however, that if they knew, many of them would say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. In fact, many of them are waiting for people like us to help show them the way.

Sermon Text: John 4:19-39

Last week, at Oxford University, the very famous atheist and bestselling author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, debated Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There weren’t many fireworks in the debate. It was a polite and respectful conversation—which isn’t a surprise given how kind and gentle a man the archbishop is. But something remarkable did happen. Dawkins admitted that he is not actually an atheist. He is merely an agnostic: while he doesn’t think God exists, he’s unwilling to say for sure.

This was a remarkable admission. But what was more remarkable was how Dawkins responded when asked how certain he was that there wasn’t a God—to put a number on it, to give us the odds. He said that, in his opinion, the odds against God’s existence were 6.9 out of 7. Read the rest of this entry »

Recommended books on evangelism

March 3, 2012

Tomorrow in Vinebranch we begin our two-part sermon series on evangelism. I’ve read several books to get ready for these sermons. I can heartily recommend a couple. The first is Reimagining Evangelism by Rick Richardson. He handles contemporary misconceptions about evangelism well, and gives us a new way of thinking about how to do it: It’s about inviting friends to join us on a spiritual journey. None of us, after all, has already arrived.

He also nicely emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has already prepared people to hear and receive the gospel; our job is to follow his lead. This emphasis takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?

When I was in high school, I desperately wanted to be an effective witness, but I was often uncomfortable with the ways in which I saw it done. I had a friend—Heavy Metal Mark—who was really into hair metal. (This was the ’80s, after all.) He loved bands like Mötley Crüe and their nearest “Christian” equivalent, Stryper. He had long hair and even wore spandex occasionally. You get the picture.

He occasionally went to the mall with a group from my church to hand out gospel tracts and attempt to engage strangers in conversation about Christianity. One day, he invited me to come along. I even considered it. Doing something to be a witness is often better than doing nothing. Plus it might assuage my guilty conscience—since I mostly did nothing.

One of my sisters caught wind of what I was thinking and said, “If I saw Heavy Metal Mark approaching me with a gospel tract at the mall, I would want to run in the other direction!” I got her point and relented. I’m not saying that Heavy Metal Mark’s aggressive form of evangelism couldn’t be effective in some situations, but it wasn’t for me. And that’s O.K.

Maybe witnessing isn’t something we approach as if it were a root canal. Maybe it shouldn’t fill us with dread. Maybe it can be more organic… more natural. Something to fit our unique personalities and gifts. This is mostly what Richardson’s book is about.

Another good book is Can We Talk: Sharing Your Faith in a Pre-Christian World. I was confused about the subtitle, but I think the author, a professor at Asbury Seminary named Robert Tuttle, is being optimistic.

Tuttle made it his mission to identify some universal convictions that the good news of Jesus Christ addresses. For example, one thing that most people in the world share, regardless of culture, is a conviction that they have failed to measure up; they’ve let other people down. He demonstrates through case studies how we can connect this conviction, along with other universals, to the “remedy” provided by the gospel. It’s a very practical book.

I get no “promotional consideration” for recommending these books, although I can be bought. Publishers, please contact my agent. 😉

There is no evangelism without words

January 27, 2012

As some of you know, I’ve felt convicted for several months that I’m not doing enough in the area of evangelism. I’m not doing enough personal evangelism, and I’m not providing enough leadership in that area to my congregation. I repent! I want to change. But the truth is I don’t know how to do it. Not very well, at least.

So I’m reading books. A few that I’ve read so far have been deeply theological. I speak that language, so I appreciate this emphasis. By all means, let’s understand what evangelism is and why we bother with it. But I finish these books thinking, “O.K., so tell me how to do it.” This has happened a few times. These books float about five feet off the ground. They’re vague. They talk about “hospitality” and “community” and “mission.”

You know what they mostly don’t talk about? Opening your mouth and letting words come out. When to do it. How to do it. What to say. For many of these authors, words are a last resort. And you’ve only earned the right to use them on someone after you’ve helped him move a piano up a flight of stairs. You have to become his best friend first. (I’m only exaggerating a little.) “Relationship, relationship, relationship,” these authors say. God knows how Philip converted the Ethiopian eunuch. He only just met the guy!

I am increasingly convinced that no evangelism takes place without words. We’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. Do we need to look at the decline of mainline Protestantism as proof?

God bless the man who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” (It’s usually attributed to St. Francis, but he probably didn’t say it.) So comforting, so reassuring, so wrong.

I get that our words mean nothing if they’re not spoken with integrity, and actions speak louder, etc. But there is no gospel without words. There is no evangelism without words. Or if there is, it’s so exceptional it’s not even worth mentioning. We’re not doing evangelism right if we don’t, at some point, explain what the gospel of Jesus Christ is or why it matters to us. I’m sure this is really obvious to many of you, but for some reason I didn’t get it. I don’t think I’m alone.

Someone who is helping me get it is Robert Tuttle. I’m reading his book Can We Talk? Sharing Your Faith in a Pre-Christian World. He challenges his readers to pray every morning this prayer: “God, make me sensitive to my opportunities for ministry.” He says that it will open doors for us to share our faith. Ministry is obviously much more than witnessing with words, but he wants us to pray for opportunities to use words in order to help people come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Here’s an example of how not to do it. I belong to a civic organization outside of church. We had our monthly meeting tonight. I was a little bored (don’t tell anyone!) and grumpy because my entree was too salty. I made only a perfunctory effort to be sociable. I introduced myself to a few people I didn’t know. But I didn’t try hard.

And you know what thought didn’t cross my mind even once? “What if these people haven’t yet experienced the good news of Jesus Christ? What can I do to find out where they are spiritually? How can I help them understand the gospel?” And I’m supposedly a full-time minister! What’s my problem?

Anyway… You get my point. This is what I’m working on right now.

Robert G. Tuttle Jr., Can We Talk? Sharing Your Faith in a Pre-Christian World (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 73.

What exactly is witnessing?

September 27, 2011

I grew up in a Southern Baptist youth group that stressed the importance of witnessing. In fact, I can easily summarize the main message of every retreat and youth camp we went on as follows: Don’t have sex (or do those things that tend to lead to it). Don’t drink or do drugs. Do witness. I was a goody-goody so the first two weren’t a problem. But the third thing was a big deal. At least a few of my friends and I witnessed. Or wanted to. The problem was that we were young and immature and didn’t know how to do it well.

I know witnessing isn't handing out this.

One of my youth group friends was Mark, who was really into heavy metal of the ’80s hair-metal variety. He had long hair and wore spandex like he was in Mötley Crüe. (As you might imagine—if you’re old enough to remember—he switched allegiances from Satan’s music to Stryper when they came along.)

One time, Heavy Metal Mark and some other youth group friends were going to the mall to witness. “Witnessing” in this context meant handing out gospel tracts to complete strangers. They invited me to go with them, and the idea made me deeply uncomfortable. Nevertheless, owing to some combination of guilt and peer pressure, I was seriously considering it.

My sister Susan was mortified. She said, “If I saw someone like Mark approaching me in the shopping mall in order to talk to me about Jesus, I would run in the opposite direction!” I don’t know if it was my sister’s words, but I begged off. I don’t believe handing out tracts to complete strangers in a shopping mall really counts as witnessing, and it may actually cause harm. It feels pushy, impersonal, and condescending: “You, Mr. Unsuspecting Passerby, are obviously a sinner in need of God’s saving grace. Since I, unlike you, have all the answers, let me give them to you in the form of this boilerplate tract.”

As Stephy Drury has frequently pointed out over on her funny, insightful, and more than slightly depressing blog “Stuff Christian Culture Likes,” evangelical Christians can know they’re doing evangelism wrong if their efforts actually avoid fostering genuine relationships with people. This rules out, for instance, sloganeering on billboards, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.

To this day, I’m deeply afraid of doing it wrong. I’m afraid of turning someone off to Christianity. I’m afraid of being one of those people.

You know… those people. Like Heavy Metal Mark. Or, worse, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come around knocking on your door at the least convenient time. Or Mormons. I was running on the greenway just last week when a couple of white-short-sleeved-shirt-and-tie Mormon missionaries passed me on bicycles. I can’t help but admire their commitment—even if it is to a deeply distorted, heterodox version of the gospel. In fact, a large part of me hates that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are out there, potentially leading people away from the orthodox Christian faith.

But who am I kidding? Another part of me hates that they’re out there—trying so hard in their own way to witness—because it reminds me that most of the time, I am not! Or can I safely say that we are not—”we” meaning United Methodists (but I’m sure this applies to plenty of other Christians). Most of time, we don’t even think about it! Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to their credit, think about it. A lot. Witnessing is a part of their DNA in a way that it ought to be a part of ours but isn’t.

Let’s face facts: we United Methodists are lousy at witnessing!

We are at least talking about it more. We changed our Book of Discipline 15 years ago to say that the church’s mission is to make disciples. We changed our membership vows a few years ago to emphasize witnessing: we pledge to serve Jesus and support the church through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and—you guessed it—witness.

But how do we do it? What does witnessing look like today?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. Because when I ask many of my clergy peers, they’re more apt to tell me what it isn’t—for example, it’s not handing out tracts to strangers at malls. Or they describe something that sounds exactly like marketing. Or they make witnessing seem very passive. As if it weren’t something we had to do at all, just something we had to be.

I’m not buying it. What is it really?