24 November 2010

Sanctification. Evangelism, Not So Much

I started to write what's below and then stopped at a point because I was not sure if I was saying something false, or at least something too controversial. Then Kevin DeYoung wrote this:
The fact of the matter is if you read through the New Testament epistles you will find very few explicit commands that tell us to evangelize and very few explicit commands that tell us to take care of the poor in our communities, but there are dozens and dozens of verses in the New Testament that enjoin us, in one way or another, to be holy as God is holy (e.g., 1 Peter 1:13-16).
So I'm going ahead with it...

I recently read a story of how excited a young man was when he first discovered J.I. Packer's Knowing God. The rich truth that "the basic fact of my life was living to know my creator" was something he never learned in church. Upon telling his youth pastor this, he was rebuked, "Your purpose isn't to know God. Your purpose is to win souls. That's what you are here on earth to do- be a witness and win others to Christ."

Sadly, I can identify with that attitude and I'm guessing you can too. Here's an idea: Our primary focus in the Christian life should be sanctification, not evangelism.

Maybe you don't see those two things as opposed to each other. They should both happen, right? Yes, they should both happen. But I am just trying to take my cues from scripture, and I find in every New Testament epistle the directions given to common Christians is focused on sanctification, on growing in holiness. It's all over the place. Where do we find focus on personal evangelism? To be honest, I don't find much.

Please keep in mind as you react to this that, because of The Great Commission, I believe evangelism is an important part of the Church's mission. But beyond that, I contend (shockingly I'm sure) that most passages used to emphasize personal evangelism are misinterpreted or stretched at best. It just isn't there.

Example: Philemon 1:6, "...and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ." I've heard Thabiti Anyabwile, a man with whom I am together for the gospel, use this verse to demonstrate how evangelism can cause one to grow deeper in knowledge of the gospel. By telling people about Jesus, they will probably have questions that you don't have an answer for, so you go looking for answers. This in turn better prepares you for the next evangelism opportunity. That is all true, but I don't believe that is what this verse is saying. I'd be pretty disappointed if that's all it meant.

The word for "sharing" in this verse could mean "communication" or it could just as well mean "fellowship." In the context of Philemon, we understand that Paul is writing to Philemon to urge him to lovingly receive Onesimus. Onesimus was a slave of Philemon's who ran away. Philemon had a right to punish him if he ever returned. But Paul's whole purpose in this letter is to inform Philemon that Onesimus is now a fellow believer in Christ and so he should receive Onesimus into his fellowship and forgive him.

In light of the context, I believe the phrase about "sharing your faith" refers to Philemon's fellowship with believers, not communication with nonbelievers. The greater context of verses 4-7 refers to Philemon's love and faith for Jesus and "for all the saints," and Paul says "the hearts of the saints have been refreshed" through Philemon. In verse 22, Paul asks Philemon to prepare a guest room for him, hoping to soon visit him. Notice in verse 2 the reference to "the church in your house," which indicates Philemon opened his home as a meeting place for Christians. All this suggests that Philemon was wealthy and probably provided for the needs of poorer believers in his community.

Paul's reference to "every good thing" is meant to contrast worldly wealth with spiritual wealth. His prayer is that through Philemon's sharing of his home and material "good things" that Philemon would realize the true blessings of good things he has in Christ which become apparent through the fellowship of faith. "The sharing of your faith" is exercising your gift of grace and participating in all those things a church should do: bear each other's burdens, encourage one another, rejoice together, serve one another, teach one another, worship Jesus together, and so on.

And we could say the purpose of all that was Philemon's sanctification.

I could go on but I will pause for objections. Can you find me a passage which exhorts me to evangelize?


Josh said...

1 Timothy 4:5 "As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry."

I agree that sanctification is our primary concern. But don't fall off the other side of the horse.

Think about how Jesus sum up the Law in Matt. 22:37-40:

"And he said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.'"

Loving God with everything we have in every sphere of life (be holy as I am holy) is our first concern, but the second is its practical application: love your neighbor as yourself. If your neighbor is not fulfilling the first commandment, and does not know Christ, the most loving thing you can do for him/her is evangelize.

I fall FAR short of this obligation.

Steve Martin said...

"They can't hear if they don't have a preacher."

Open your mouth once in a while and speak of the new hope in you, because of Christ.

Maybe I'll do it every now and then, too.