We’ve been learning from Paul’s example how to witness well when our faith is on trial, which raises a question for us to consider today: How does evangelism actually work? How much of evangelism is the work of God, and how much is the work of God’s people? The issue has long been a tension in church history. This is understandable, considering the paradox of human and divine involvement. It is easy to get carried away with one aspect of this paradox to the exclusion of the other.
For example, some Christians object to praying for the conversion of the lost, saying that human prayers cannot influence God on this matter, for God has sovereignly decreed who is elected to salvation and who is not. At a meeting of Baptist leaders in the late 1700s, newly ordained minister William Carey stood to argue for the value of overseas missions. He was abruptly interrupted by an older minister who said, “Young man, sit down! When God pleases to convert the heathen, he'll do it without consulting you or me.” Such Christians may pray to be faithful witnesses, but they do not think it biblical to pray for the conversion of the lost. Yet as we’ll see, Paul clearly prays for the salvation of those whom he encounters. Our friends from the Reformed tradition should see that God uses prayers and persuasion to bring people into his kingdom.
On the other hand, some Christians place so much value on how the gospel is presented, as if it were all a big sales pitch, that they lose sight of the necessary work of the Holy Spirit. One gentleman once took me out to breakfast to explain to me how I needed to give more altar calls in church in order to “close the sale” (his exact words). If only Paul had had a marketing degree, how dramatically church history might have been altered!
So back to our question: How does evangelism work? Let’s see what we can derive from Paul’s trial before Agrippa in Acts 26—the longest and most elaborate in the book. Luke sketches the scene with great detail, leading some to infer that he was present in the visitor’s gallery as an eyewitness.
[Read Acts 25:23–27]
According to tradition, Paul was only a little fellow and not impressive in appearance: balding, bowlegged, with beetle brows, hooked nose, and yet despite this, “full of grace.” Wearing neither crown nor gown, but in a plain prisoner’s tunic with hands presumably bound, he nevertheless dominates the court with quiet Christlike dignity and confidence.
This was a dramatic moment when the holy and humble apostle stood before this representative of the worldly, ambitious, morally corrupt family of the Herods, who for generations had opposed God’s truth and righteousness. Herod the Great had tried to destroy the infant Jesus by ordering the slaughter of all small children in Bethlehem. His son Herod Antipas had beheaded John the Baptist as a gift to his stepdaughter. His grandson Agrippa I had ordered James the son of Zebedee executed by sword. Now we see Paul brought before Agrippa’s son, Herod Agrippa II. This does not look promising.
But Paul was not in the least intimidated. He takes the opportunity to tell his story, drawing attention to his days as a strict Pharisee, a fanatical prosecutor, and finally a commissioned apostle.
[Read Acts 26:1–18]
God’s role is to call and commission us to be his witnesses
Saul the Pharisee was convinced that it was his solemn duty to oppose the name and claims of Jesus of Nazareth as those of an imposter. Moreover, he had the courage of his convictions. Beginning in Jerusalem, armed with authority from the chief priests, he not only imprisoned many disciples of Jesus but also promoted the death penalty for them.
He searched the synagogues for Christians to punish and pursued them even to foreign cities.
One of those cities was Damascus. But before Saul reached his destination, a divine intervention took place: a heavenly light, more brilliant than the sun at noon, flashed around him and his traveling companions. Together they fell to the ground. Then a voice, addressing Saul in Aramaic, asked why he was persecuting him and (quoting a well-known proverb) declared it painful for him to “kick against the goads.” What are those?
Goads were slender pieces of wood, sort of like a pool cue stick. They were sharpened to a point on one end. Farmers used the pointed end to urge a stubborn ox into motion. Occasionally, the beast would kick at the goad. But the more the ox kicked, the more likely the goad would stab into its leg, causing greater pain. Kicking at goads is not a winning proposition. A contemporary equivalent might be the tire spikes you see with signs warning “do not back up—severe tire damage.” Don’t go against the way you’re meant to go. It’s hard to back up over the spikes; it’s hard to kick against the goads; it’s hard to go against God, like Jonah learned when he tried to run away from God, and Saul learned when he was confronted by the risen Christ.
In Paul’s account to Agrippa of what happened on the Damascus Road, however, what he stresses is not his conversion so much as his commissioning; not his becoming a disciple of Jesus but his appointment to be an apostle of Jesus. So Jesus’ first command to him was “Now get up and stand on your feet” (v. 16), a preface to his commissioning. Christ’s commission of Saul took the form of three verbs, all in first-person singular form, though in past, future, and present tenses: “I have appeared to you,” “I will rescue you,” and “I am sending you.”
“I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and a witness” (v. 16a). The general call to be a servant is narrowed down into the particular call to be a witness. Paul was to bear witness both to what he had seen of Jesus and to what Jesus would later show him.
“I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles” (v. 17). This did not guarantee immunity to suffering. On the contrary, it was part of the vocation of prophets and apostles to endure suffering. But it did mean that their testimony would not be silenced until their God-appointed work was done.
“I am sending you” (v. 17b) was Paul’s commission to be an apostle, especially to the Gentiles. (This is comparable to what the Lord told his first disciples on the first Easter.)
And what was Paul being sent to do? In essence, “to open their eyes” (v. 18a). The unbelieving Gentile world was blind to the truth of God in Jesus Christ. Yet this opening of the eyes meant more than just information—it meant conversion: “to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (v. 18b). Conversion includes both a radical transfer of allegiance and also of environment. It is both liberation from the darkness of Satan’s rule and liberation into the realm of God’s marvelous light and power. In other words, it means entering the kingdom of God. Now, of course, Paul had no power to do this, but Christ does. And we have no power to do this in ourselves, but we have Christ in us and with us to use us as his witnesses.
Because of a peculiarity in professional hockey, the fate of the Chicago Blackhawks in their scrum against the Winnipeg Jets last March was actually decided by a fan who was called into emergency goalie service. Scott Foster, a 36-year-old accountant, hadn't played a hockey game against serious competition in over a decade, but because of his background as a goalie for Western Michigan University, he’d been designated as an “emergency goalie,” an honor that usually just results in free food in the press box. It wasn’t Foster’s first time in the role, but when rookie goalie Collin Delia, himself substituting for regular injured goalie Anton Forsberg, was injured in the 3rd period, Foster was called into service. He literally walked down from the stands, put on his gear, and took to the ice. “The initial shock happened when I had to dress and then I think you just kind of black out after that,” Foster said. “I don’t think I heard anything other than ‘Put your helmet on.’” Whatever mental zone Foster entered as he took the ice, it was effective. He stopped all seven shots attempted, earned the team belt (an honor reserved for the game’s best player), and set social media ablaze with tweets and posts from fans and analysts who could not believe he had never played professionally before. “This is something that no one can ever take away from me,” Foster said. “It’s something that I can go home and tell my kids.”
Even if others overlook you, God has a mission in mind for you—no matter how unlikely that seems. God uses everything to prepare us, even when we don’t feel ready. God calls and commissions us to be his witnesses. He appoints us as servants and witnesses to what we know and have experienced of Jesus (v. 16). He commissions us to go to the people (v. 17), protects us from enemies of the gospel (v. 17), and helps us even when we don’t feel ready.
Okay, then—so what’s our role?
Our role is to respond obediently to God’s call
[Read Acts 26:19–23]
Paul then turns from Christ’s commission to his own response to it and addresses Agrippa directly. Christ had appeared to him and commissioned him; his obedience corresponded precisely to the charge he had received. First in Damascus, next in Jerusalem and Judea, then also to the Gentiles, he announced the Good News and called on people to repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their works (v. 20). Paul was clear from the beginning that although salvation is by faith (v. 18), it will be demonstrated by good works. In our role as witnesses for Christ, we must respond obediently to God’s call (v. 19). We must testify both to small and great alike (v. 22b), and trust God to open their eyes to his truth.
We see from this passage that Christian mission includes both divine and human activity. God initiates everything: He calls, commissions, equips, and protects the witness. But we have a responsibility to obey, testifying to both small and great. When we proclaim the Good News, God is actually speaking through us and makes our words fruitful, and Jesus is the one proclaiming light to the people.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a writer and a non-practicing Jew, wrote a lengthy article for GQ about Carl Lentz from Hillsong Church in New York City. As if still surprised by her encounter with a Christian she actually liked, Taffy writes: “And here I have to say out loud how much I like Carl. … I like him even though he is ideologically opposed to things that are important to me. … He is so worried for my soul, and this should annoy me, but instead it touches me, because maybe I’m worried about my soul, too, and Carl wants so badly for me to enjoy heaven with him. How can I fault someone who is more sincere about this one thing than I have ever been about anything in my life?”
And let’s be clear about one very important aspect.
Evangelism requires a verbal witness
[Read Acts 26:24–32]
Paul made no attempt to ingratiate himself with the authorities—he wanted the king’s salvation, not his favor. Note that he does not stop with the story of his own conversion; he was concerned that Agrippa be converted too. Paul calls for a response from Agrippa, and the court would have gasped at Paul’s bold confrontation of the king.
Too embarrassed to give Paul a direct answer to a direct question, yet too proud to let him dictate the topic of their dialogue, Agrippa takes evasive action with an ambiguous counter question: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (v. 28).
Agrippa uses the word peitho (“to persuade”) to describe what he sees Paul trying to do. This word is used seven times in Acts to describe Paul’s evangelism and means to work with people until their minds are changed and they accept the message proclaimed. From Paul’s speech here, it is clear that he worked hard to convince others about what he believed. He tells Festus that what he says is “true and reasonable” (v. 25).
We must say things that are true and reasonable so that people will be persuaded about the gospel (28–29). While it is true that we proclaim a divine wisdom that is higher than human wisdom, we can do so reasonably and understandably. Behind all this is our hope and prayer that all the people we encounter will experience salvation (v. 29).
Just being nice won’t lead others to Christ. We all know that words without deeds are dead. However, deeds without words won’t get it done either. Let’s say I have a neighbor, and I want to “preach Christ” to him using my good deeds. I greet him cheerily over the backyard fence. I invite him and his wife over for dinner and show them warm hospitality. I mention that I am a Christian but am careful not to get pushy about it. I help out whenever I can and try to be a good neighbor. I seek to display unconditional kindness toward him and to love him as I love myself. Eventually, my neighbor dies. Now what have my actions “preached” to him? That Christians are people who do good things for their neighbors? That niceness, kindness, and morally upright behavior are what make you a Christian? In short, my good deeds have preached justification by works. My actions may have preached something, but it isn’t the gospel. Evangelism may require good deeds to win a hearing, but it also requires a verbal witness.
Notice how Paul keeps referring to Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection is the cornerstone of Christianity, but many in the church do not know how to proclaim that message. It’s important that we emphasize the victory of the resurrection because if Jesus’ resurrection is true, it changes everything! As C. S. Lewis said, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Back to our original question: How does evangelism work? The answer is, it won’t if we don’t! Paul worked at it by praying, preparing, and proclaiming. We can work at it too, because it won’t if we don’t. And why should God have to raise up someone else because we weren’t ready or responsive to his call?
In 2014, Mike Vilhauer just wanted to go fishing, but luck wasn't with him. After wandering a short distance from his route to look for crickets to use as bait, the 58-year-old Vilhauer soon became lost. He was unable to reach police due to a weak cell phone signal and made several unsuccessful attempts at finding his way back. Vilhauer managed to stay alive by drinking out of puddles and stream beds along the way. He also made a shelter using pine needles and willow branches to stay warm.
After enduring five days without food or clean water, he wasn’t certain he was going to survive, but he wasn’t ready to give up. Hearing helicopters flying overhead, he spelled out an eight-foot-tall “HELP” on the ground using pine needles and was brought to safety after a rescue helicopter successfully spotted the sign. Oh, and one last tidbit: After it all was over, Vilhauer was given a piece of information that could have saved a lot of worry (and a lot of pine needles). There were no fish in that lake.
Every day, people wander off in life and get lost looking for something that isn’t where they think it is. People spell out calls for help any way that they can—desperate for someone to see. Sometimes, God appoints a spiritually aware disciple, in the right place at the right time, to recognize that they are in danger and losing hope. But hope is never out of reach—Jesus is just a prayer away. Someone you know needs to know Jesus. God may be preparing you right now to introduce that person to Jesus. The question is, when God gives that opportunity, will you follow Paul and respond obediently with a verbal witness? Can you do that? Can we do that? Because when it comes to how evangelism works—it won’t if we don’t.
David Ward is Pastor of Teaching Ministries for New Hope Church in Greenwood, IN.