I vividly remember the first time I tried to engage someone with the gospel. It was my boss from Big Apple Bagels. One day when I went to his home—we happened to be neighbors—my throat was full. My chest tight. I was only sixteen, but I had resolved to speak with him about Christ.
My strategy was simple. I would quote from and try to explain Ephesians 2:8–9. Salvation is by grace, a gift of God, received by faith. Total trust in Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary for salvation apart from any good works he might accomplish.
To my dismay, the conversation fell flat. My first attempt an instant failure. To be sure, I had honored Christ with my words, but I failed to reach my neighbor, my employer. I walked away from his house deflated and discouraged.
Now twenty years on, I understand a bit more of what happened that day. Unconsciously, though not mistakenly, I planned my conversation points according to my specific evangelistic tradition. Modern-day gospel proclamation in the West has largely been influenced by Reformation theology and a shared understanding of Judeo-Christian values.
So I grew up practicing apologetics to Catholics and other “Christians,” to those who would try to work for forgiveness. My emphasis was on justification by faith alone. My target audience: people who already believed in the deity of Jesus and accepted his resurrection. But that’s not the way evangelism used to be. It’s also not the way it will be in most contexts, increasingly so, even in the post-Christian West.
The Apostolic Evangel
One of the most helpful evangelism exercises that I know of came from a New Testament course taught by Tom Schreiner. He encouraged us, his students, to trace the kerygmatic speeches (evangelistic preaching) in the book of Acts. Specifically, he instructed us to observe each encounter with a view toward the original audience and corresponding message.
In some, the apostles addressed a Jewish audience. In others, as in Athens, the hearers were pagan Gentiles, those Paul elsewhere called strangers to the covenants of promise. In other words, they were people without God and without exposure to the biblical witness.
Increasingly, as America becomes more and more post-Christian, we will need to return to the resurrection in our witness.
As I set out to study the evangelistic methods of the apostles, I found significant differences in their approach. When addressing Jews, they often focused on the culmination of the promises of God in Jesus the Messiah. Toward Gentiles, they presented God as creator, ruler of all, and Jesus as the exalted judge of the nations. In neither did I find explicit arguments about faith and works.
But in each discourse one theme emerged as central. It was, as it turns out, the resurrection.
The resurrection was the culmination of their evangelism. It was the ultimate sign for which Jews should seek. It was the vindication of Jesus as the Messiah and the fulfillment of the Scriptures. For Gentiles, the resurrection was to be the demonstration of Jesus’ ultimate power and authority, the proof of a coming judgment.
The Risen Christ
What never occurred to me in that first evangelistic encounter was that my boss was, of all things, Jewish. I had approached him as someone who needed to quit trusting in his own works, which was accurate, but I had overlooked his primary need. The apostolic call to repentance and faith only comes after a demonstration of the identity and authority of the Christ.
What my neighbor needed first was to see Jesus as Messiah, as the fulfillment of the covenants and promises, as the one rejected and crucified by Jewish leaders but vindicated by God through the resurrection.
Years after that encounter with my neighbor, I found myself living in a predominantly Muslim country. Surrounded by those who seek to approach God on the merits of their own good deeds, I was tempted to lead with the message of salvation by faith alone. Ephesians 2 seemed like the perfect passage for evangelizing Muslims.
But to go there initially would be to bypass the principal of the gospel message: Jesus is Lord. Risen from the dead, Jesus is the exalted Son and eternal Judge. If Muslims don’t accept that premise, ceasing from good works will be of no benefit.
Which brings us to the importance of the resurrection in all of evangelism. The historical fact of the risen Christ simultaneously addresses the dual reality of his identity and mission, the irreplaceable core of the good news. Not only that, but the resurrection of Jesus challenges all other religions and all other so-called gods. And lastly, the resurrection uniquely demands a response, both intellectual and personal.
Increasingly, as America becomes more and more post-Christian we will need to return to the resurrection in our witness. As we encounter more Muslims than Catholics, as we talk to secular atheists and unflinching hedonists, we will be forced to confront people with the scandalous news of a resurrected Lord, an exalted King, and a coming Judge.
It’s not that we will abandon the message of justification by faith alone. But we must begin with the proper object of that faith. We must also realize that any argument against working for forgiveness will miss the mark with people who neither seek deliverance nor fear the court of heaven.
Elliot Clark (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) lived in Central Asia for six years where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and three children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas.