Positive Evangelism – What Part of “Gospel” Do You Not Understand?
[Continuing the discussion of positive evangelism]
I suspect that if you have followed the train of thought in my previous posts, at this point you may be asking, “But if I do not have a published set of questions and answers, or if I do not have a ‘tried and true’ chain reference to follow, what am I going to use as a text for my evangelistic Bible study?”
To which I answer, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, “What part of the word ‘Gospel’ do you not understand?”
Another way to phrase the question is this, “Why do we feel like we have to improve upon something that we all (or virtually all) agree is inspired by the Holy Spirit?”
If the dating theories held by most scholars are correct (huge “if”), the gospels were among the last of the New Testament writings to be penned. That has some fairly significant implications as to their importance in relation to the other NT writings. If the letters to the various churches were being circulated and if they were being viewed as inspired and authoritative, the creation of the gospels and their inclusion in the canon of Scripture become both very important issues.
There are a lot of “ifs” in that last paragraph, and at this point in time there is simply no way to know when each book of the New Testament was written with a definite degree of certainty. But very early in the history of the church there was correspondence being sent from apostle to congregation, and from congregation to congregation. If this correspondence was sufficient for the task of evangelism there would have been no need for a scroll-length record of the life of Jesus. How many “gospels” of Plato do we have? Have you ever read the “Gospel of Socrates?” A true understanding of evangelism must come to grips with the fact that, despite the works that were being written, circulated, and deemed authoritative in the first few decades following Pentecost, at some point it was recognized that a record of the life of Jesus needed to be committed to paper. And, in God’s wisdom, we have not only one such record, but four.
It is a strange twist of history, but our New Testaments begin with the material that quite possible was written last – or very near the last. Why? Because the letters and other materials within the canon of the New Testament are basically unintelligible without the story of Jesus as their foundation. Clearly, Acts-Revelation contain some wonderful and life changing doctrines; but without the birth, life, teachings, and the record of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus these doctrines would be like skin without a skeleton and muscles to fill it out.
Returning now to my thesis – that virtually all mass-produced evangelistic programs are fundamentally flawed at exactly this point – I want to ask those who use these programs: where to they typically begin? Where do you find the answers to most of the questions in the brochures? Where do you find most of the Scriptures in the “follow the bouncing Scripture” chain references? I know the answer – in the books of Acts – Revelation, primarily in the writings of Acts and also heavily in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In one chain reference evangelistic study that I have the only references that are underlined in my “official” study New Testament are in John 1 and 8 (relating to Jesus’ divinity) and the obligatory reference to Mark 16:16, mandating the necessity for baptism. That’s it. The entire course of study focuses on the remainder of the New Testament, mostly on the sinfulness of man and the references in the letters to the necessity of baptism.
The question/answer formats are even worse, in my opinion. As I mentioned earlier, many begin with a telescoped explanation of salvation history, traveling through Old and New Testament history at a breakneck speed while covering a mere fraction of the relevant texts. The rich texture of the Old Testament is compressed into a Adam-Noah-Abraham-Moses sequence. Then, with the turn of a page we jump over centuries of God’s relationship with his chosen people and we land in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus. A few questions relate mostly to the death of Jesus, and then we spend most of our time in the books of Acts – Revelation, once again with a disproportionate amount of time in Acts and the major letters of Paul.
Thus, in programs specifically designed for the purposes of evangelism, the “evangel,” the “Good News,” the “Gospel” is virtually ignored.
I return to the questions I started with. What is it in our psyche that compels us to feel that we have to write a curriculum, create a set of questions, or manipulate a series of Scripture quotations for evangelism when we have four complete and Holy Spirit inspired gospels to use? How can we as sinful human creatures improve upon God’s own word? And why do we think that we have to?
What part of the word “Gospel” do we not understand? Are we smarter than Matthew Mark, Luke and John? Are we smarter than God?
If we claim to be a people of the book, if we claim to speak where the Bible speaks, if we want to be followers of Jesus Christ, doesn’t it make sense to do our evangelism out of the books that God gave us for that very purpose?
It is my firm conviction that a study focused entirely upon one of the four gospels that is relevant to the student’s life and experiences is the best, and dare I say only, method of positive evangelism.