Abiding Fuels Evangelism
Rachel Gilson (MDiv ’20)
This post originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition.
If we want to see our neighbors trust in Jesus for salvation, the most important thing we can do is abide in him ourselves. No strategy or plan can unseat the necessity of abiding in Christ, because salvation cannot be accomplished apart from his power and presence.
We need to be careful not to empty the cross of Christ of its power by relying on worldly wisdom. Wisdom and strategy have a place, but we need to keep the main thing the main thing.
Abiding in Christ means taking up the means of grace every day, putting ourselves constantly in contact with God’s Spirit, God’s Word, and God’s people. If we’re going to invite our neighbors to repent of their sins, we must always be repenting. If we’re going to invite our neighbors to trust Jesus with their money, time, and bodies, we must strive to do the same. We can’t authentically offer others what we don’t have. We must live as branches in the vine.
If we’re truly abiding in Christ as individuals and as a community of disciples, we’ll be empowered by the Spirit to live out Paul’s vision in 2 Corinthians 5:18–21:
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
God is always the One doing the work of reconciliation; he established it through Christ by his own initiative and power. Because of this work and his love for us and the world, he also gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That means we can’t sit on the sidelines. We’re commissioned to be his active ambassadors.
Especially instructive is Paul’s tone in verse 20 where he “implores” the Corinthians to be reconciled to God. The verb “implore” comes from a Greek word that means “to ask for something pleadingly”—functionally, to beg. Imploring or pleading isn’t the only tone we can have in doing the work of ministry, but it can be a helpful corrective to the culture-war posture that has dominated much of American evangelicalism.
Begging puts you in a vulnerable position, but evangelical churches in America have too often been obsessed with strength. Instead, we should look like Christ because we’re abiding in him. We should demonstrate the strength of meekness and the gentleness that comes from trusting in God to vindicate. We should have the willingness to be broken—a willingness that comes from love.
Having the proper posture that comes from abiding in Christ, we then turn to consider an intelligent strategy that will help us carry out the work of reconciliation. An abiding-in-Christ strategy will be the strategy of the missionary.
In this sense, we still have much to learn from Lesslie Newbigin. He boldly declared the need for a missionary encounter with the West, and this need is just as pressing now as it was in the 1980s. We cannot move backward to Christendom; the way forward must be found in an unembarrassed proclamation of incarnation and Trinity and the cross, and in an openness to how these ancient forms will take new shape today.
Newbigin saw clearly that the gospel is always embedded in cultural forms, and it must always be in confrontation with every culture, lest it be overtaken by irrelevance or syncretism. It must be a confrontation in the same way that Christ confronted, with the same motivations, goals, and tactics. Michael Goheen, in describing Newbigin’s thinking on the confrontation of Christ, expressed it like this: “The cross of Jesus means a total and costly identification with the world, on the one hand, and yet a radical separation from its idolatry, on the other.”
If we want our neighbors to trust in Jesus, this is the approach we need—which of course requires we know our culture’s idols enough to separate from them and know the world enough to identify with it. Abiding in Christ is the best way to find this balance, because Christ walked it during his earthly ministry.
Oliver O’Donovan writes in this vein but from the angle of ethics. The gospel is an affirmation of the life God gave to Adam. Therefore, “the gospel, too, has an aspect of condemnation, which judges and puts to death all that stands in the way of human life.” The culture-war posture wasn’t wrong to offer condemnation per se, but if we want people to come to Christ, we need to condemn what Christ himself condemns—and in the way he does it.
Only by abiding in Jesus fully will we be empowered by the Spirit to proclaim his judgment upon sin in a way that always invites sinners to repentance and life. Consider, for example, the beloved passage about the woman at the well in John 4. She knew that Christ was for her, even though he confronted her about her sexual history (v. 18) as well as her religious confusion (v. 22). When we highlight what’s out of step with God in our neighbors’ lives, can they see that we, and more importantly Jesus, are for them? He came that they might have life and life to the full—the same life we’re abiding in.
In Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods, he notes that early Christians took the world by storm, seeing a major world conversion, even though their beliefs were considered in many ways offensive, even repulsive. Their strong insistence on devotion to Jesus, which created a new community with distinctive ethics, couldn’t be stopped. Our abiding in Christ by God’s Spirit could produce a similar effect today. What seems impossible could happen because God is seated in heaven and does all that pleases him. As we look to him with expectant hope for our neighbors, we need to truly abide in him ourselves.
Rachel Gilson (MDiv ’20) is a writer, speaker, and campus minister. Her book, Born Again This Way, was an honorable mention for the TGC 2020 Book Awards.