A distinguished visitor was speaking through an interpreter to a Korean audience. “What is patriotism?” he asked, and paused dramatically. “What is patriotism?” he asked again. Then, rising to his climax, he shouted, “Patriotism is love of country.” Even in English that is not too impressive a climax, but in Korean it was a disaster. For the word “patriotism” in Korean is literally “love of country,” and what he had asked the interpreter to do was to cry dramatically, “What is love of country? What is love of country? Love of country is love of country.”
“What is evangelism?” I ask. And I answer, quite correctly, “Evangelism is evangelizing. It is preaching the evangel—with a power, with a purpose, and with a strategy.” But this really does not mean very much until we face up to the more basic question: If evangelism is preaching the evangel, what is the evangel?
The first answer to that question is a six-letter Anglo-Saxon word. In their direct, no-nonsense way, the Anglo-Saxons gave the Greek word its exact equivalent in their own language: “good spiel” or “gospel.” How much more common sense they had than some of us. “Gospel” has a nice pious ring to it—how we love it, but we forget that it probably means as little to the average man today as the Greek “evangel” did to the Anglo-Saxons. Today’s word is not “evangel,” not even “gospel”; for modern man the word is “good news.” It is a good lesson in evangelism to note that when the American Bible Society called its latest edition of the New Testament just that—Good News for Modern Man—it had a runaway best-seller on its hands in less than a month. The “evangel” is not given to be hidden behind the religious jargon of ecclesiastical Greek or Latin or even Anglo-Saxon. The evangel is the good news.
It is what the angel said at Bethlehem: “Don’t be afraid; I have good news for you …” (Luke 2:10, NEB). It is what Jesus preached from village to village in Galilee: “the good news of the Kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). It was what brought Paul to his feet unafraid before the kings and governors of Rome—an unprepossessing little man from a conquered race, but “not ashamed of the good news,” as he said.
There are three key biblical proclamations of the good news: the angelic, the messianic, and the apostolic. Any biblical definition of evangel must encompass all three.
1. The apostolic evangel. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel [the evangel, the good news].” But why wasn’t he? He was a Roman citizen, Writing to Rome. Was not the Gospel—full as it was of “nonsense about love and meekness and humility and turning the other cheek, and a god who died like a criminal!”—a ridiculous thing for a Roman to be preaching? Rubbish for slaves or for women, not for self-sufficient, world-conquering Romans. That was Rome’s attitude. Its standard was the eagle, its symbols the ax and the short sword. Not the cross. Rome wanted victory, not sacrifice; power, not meekness.
So Paul stood up and said to Rome, “The good news I have for you is power.” This is the first characteristic of the apostolic evangel. The evangel is power. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation.” As a creedal Calvinist with propositional theological tendencies, I find that I often need this explosive reminder that there is a dynamic and a movement in the good news that will not suffer the compressions and containments of any creed, however true. It is precisely because the evangel is, first of all, power, that evangelism, which is the proclaiming of the evangel, can never be equated, as some would have it, with the cold, clear transmission of orthodoxy to the unbeliever.
This is not to minimize the indispensable nature of truth. But in the Bible, evangelism begins with power because the evangel is power. Not only with Paul in Romans. Consider also the significant sequence in the great commissioning scene that opens the Acts of the Apostles. How does Jesus make his first evangelists? First, says Luke, “he showed himself alive” to them “by many infallible proofs” (1:3). But that was not enough. The “infallible proofs” did not make them evangelists. They knew they were still not prepared, and asked for more information. But Jesus rebuked them. Knowledge does not make evangelists, either. “It is not for you to know …,” Jesus said (1:7). The evangel is not inside information about “times and seasons”; it is not “infallible proofs.” It is power. Jesus said, “You shall receive power … and be my witnesses” (1:8).
The power of the Spirit received, the power of a personal encounter with God—this is the good news of the evangel. So Paul, remembering a cataclysmic moment on the road to Damascus, says, “I am not ashamed of the good news, for it is the power of God unto salvation.” The good news, however, is not always cataclysmic, for experiences will differ. With Wesley at Aldersgate the experience was only a warming of the heart. The good news is not the experience but the power. It is “good news of salvation,” says Paul, and that, as Barclay remarks in his commentary on that phrase in Ephesians 1:13, “is news of that power which wins us forgiveness from past sin, strength for the future to conquer sin. It is good news of victory.”
This is heady stuff. It is as exciting as the taste of new wine. No old bottles will be able to contain it. I like and I preach the old words—ransom, justification, satisfaction, reconciliation. They are all true and biblical. But they are essentially theological, and it can be as much of a mistake to confuse theology with evangelism as to mistake social service for evangelism. The word for the evangel—the word for today—is power. Not black power, or student power, or flower power, but God power. “I am not ashamed of the good news, for it is the power of God.” The evangel is power.
But, secondly, the evangel is fact. Having said so emphatically that the evangel is power, we must add quickly, and just as emphatically, that the evangel is also fact, and that it is the business of theology to help us distinguish fact from fiction in the evangel. When the Reformation was being criticized for lack of saints’ bones and wonders and miracles, Calvin dryly remarked that Satan also has his miracles, “to delude the ignorant and inexperienced.” “Magicians and enchanters have always been famous for miracles,” he observed.
Evangelism may be power, and not theology, but the same apostle who was so excited about the power of the Gospel, as he began his letter to the Romans, goes on in that same epistle to write twelve of the most closely reasoned theological chapters in all of Scripture. Paul was the greatest evangelist in history not only because he had power but because he had learning. So many charismatic movements fail at this point. They speak with the power of the Spirit, so they say. How strange that through them the Spirit does not say anything theologically worth remembering.
I said before that “infallible proofs” do not make evangelists—power does. That is true. But if the evangelist’s evangel is not true to the facts, it is not good news at all. It is only wishful thinking, or false propaganda, which is even worse. A few months after we had been overrun by the Communists in Peking, I heard of a slogan they had posted in huge characters across the walls of a bookstore in Tientsin. It was a warning, I suppose, against what they called “dangerous thoughts.” The slogan was this: “Any fact which is not in accord with revolutionary theory is not a true fact.” Without tongue in cheek, the Christian can say: “Any preaching which is not in accord with the facts is not the true evangel.” “What the apostles preached,” says James Stewart, “was neither a philosophy of life nor a theory of redemption. They preached events. They anchored their Gospel to history” (Thine Is the Kingdom, p. 29).
The classic apostolic capsule of the facts of the evangel is in First Corinthians, chapter fifteen. There Paul writes: “Do you remember the terms in which I preached the gospel to you …? First and foremost, I handed on to you the facts …” (vv. 2, 3). The facts he chooses as his summary of the good news are the two most fundamental facts of all existence: death and life. In Christian symbolism they are portrayed by the cross and the crown. There is no evangel without both these facts.
a. The first fact of the good news is death. There is this much at least to be said for Paul: he tells it like it is. Someone has remarked that he was truly “called to be an ambassador,” but he was no diplomat. He breaks all the rules of modern preaching and begins with the last thing men want to hear about—death.
But where else can we honestly begin a world like ours? The one big brutal fact of modern life is death. Some, like the secular existentialists, say that death is the only really meaningful fact, for life has lost its meaning. That is not true, but death is at least an inescapable fact.
If the good news must begin with the facts, perhaps death is as good a fact as any with which to begin. It is a fact man had better learn to recognize and accept. But I must confess that there have been times when I thought Paul was a little too blunt about it. I have been tempted to play more lightly with the word evangel. I wanted to cry out that it means “good news,” not bad. I wanted to preach of the love of God, not of sin and death.
My intentions were good. And I was partly right. More right, I think, than those evangelists of doom who enjoy preaching about sin and death and all the fires of hell. It was D. L. Moody, a better evangelist than they, who said, “Don’t preach about hell if you can do it without tears.”
Yes, my heart was in the right place, but I was wrong if I thought I could leave death out of the Gospel, for death is the first fact of the good news, says Paul.
But where is the good news in death? Chesterton tells of standing on the Mount of Olives with Father Waggett, looking down at Calvary. “Well, anyhow,” said Father Waggett unexpectedly, “it must be obvious to anybody that the doctrine of the Fall is the only cheerful view of human life.” Chesterton was startled for a moment, until he reflected that it is the only cheerful view because it is the only profound view (quoted by H. C. Alleman in the Christian Century, Dec. 29, 1943, p. 1531).
But there is even more cheer than that in the evangel’s “fact of death.” The first fact of the Gospel, as Paul sums it up in First Corinthians 15, is Christ’s death, not the sinner’s. Or as that remarkably durable Puritan John Owen put it three hundred years ago: The good news is “the death of death in the death of Christ.”
The good news is that in the biblical evangel the hard facts of sin and death are not isolated from the love of God; the deepest proof of that love is “that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The Bible does not dodge the fact that sin causes death, that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). But its spotlight is not on man’s death by sin but on Christ’s death for sin. That is the good news.
If this be so, the evangelist can never, never be vindictive. He must present the facts without apology, but also in love, without condemnation. In How to Give Away Your Faith, Paul Little tells how a drunk bumped into Charles Trumbull on the train. He was “spewing profanity and filth.” He lurched into the seat beside Trumbull and offered him a swallow from his flask. Trumbull started to shrink back. A lesser man might have blasted the man for his sins and condition, but instead Trumbull politely declined the drink and said, “No, thank you, but I can see you are a very generous man.” The man’s eyes lit up, and Trumbull’s remark was the beginning of a conversation that brought the man to the Saviour. That is evangelism. It communicates the good news, which is not condemnation but salvation. Over against the hard facts of sin and death, it places another fact: that “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
b. There is a second fact in the Gospel. The greatest fact is not death but life—that Christ, who died for our sins, “was raised to life.” The first fact is the cross. The second fact is the empty tomb and the crown of life. Let us make sure our evangel contains both these facts. “To preach only the atonement, the death apart from the life,” says P. T. Forsyth, “or only the person of Christ, the life apart from the death.… is all equally one-sided and extreme to [the point of] falsity” (The Cruciality of the Cross. p. 42).
There is more than a careful balance between these two facts in the Gospel. There is movement. The dynamic of the Gospel is its movement from death to life. The Bible calls this salvation.
It should be noted that this is a reversal of man’s normal understanding of history. The natural, mournful rhythm of existence as history records it is that man lives, and then he dies. Christian history turns this joyfully around: we were dead but now we have come alive. For “God who is rich in mercy, for the great love he bore us, brought us to life with Christ, even when we were dead in our sins—by his grace you are saved” (Eph. 2:4, NEB). We laugh at the “Brother, are you saved?” evangelistic cliché. But in a world where more and more people confess that they have somehow lost all sense of meaning in their lives, what more central question is there than, “Brother, are you really alive?” That is what “saved” means. The good news is life: we have moved from death to life.
But as always in the evangel, the accent is on Christ. As only Christ’s death makes of death good news, so only as Christ “was raised to life” do we have life. It took a miracle to wrench the course of history from its grim life-to-death inversion and bring it back again from death to life. It took a miracle, the hinge miracle of history—the resurrection. Death is the first fact, but not the great fact. Not even the cross stands at the hinge. “No cross, no crown,” said William Penn, for without the cross the Gospel is a frothy thing. But “no crown, no Gospel,” says Paul. “If Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void, and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14, NEB).
The new breed of theologians has been right at one point, at least. Without the resurrection, God is quite dead. But what they have not been so willing to recognize is that without God, man is just as dead. Without him, life first loses its meaning. Then it loses itself. This is precisely how Malcolm Muggeridge, the acid-tongued social critic of our times, describes the world of the imminent future: “psychiatric wards bursting at the seams” and “the suicide rate up to Scandinavian proportions” as we rise “on the plastic wings of Playboy magazine” (quoted in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Feb. 2, 1968, p. 54). First the loss of meaning—bursting psychiatric wards; then the loss of life—soaring suicide rates. D. T. Niles puts it in more sober terms:
There are … attempts to make life meaningful apart from God. Existentialism is only the best known of these attempts. The Gospel answers that true meaning lies in the fact that we are the sons of God. There are attempts to direct man’s struggle for food away from man’s hunger for God. Communism is only the best known of these attempts. The Gospel answers, living is not Life, for Life is to live with God [That They May Have Life, p. 39].
The “good news of salvation” is life.
This, then, is the apostolic evangel: power, and death, and life. There is no evangelism without the fire, without the cross, and without the crown.
2. The Messianic evangel. But even earlier than the evangelism of the apostles was Jesus’ own evangelistic ministry. There is a direct relation between the two, of course. They proclaimed what he did: their good news was his power, his death, his resurrection life. But there is also a significant difference. Jesus’ own evangel as he preached it in the villages of Galilee was focused on a part of the Gospel that not all evangelists have recognized as evangelistic. What Jesus preached was “the evangel of the Kingdom.” And that is, in a sense, a social gospel. It is a prophetic gospel.
Perhaps we have not recognized it as the Gospel because we have not wanted to. We complain that it confuses the issue. It takes away the personal cutting edge from evangelism, the call for decision, we say. It dilutes the spirit with politics. But kings are inescapably political, and Jesus is King!
What are we to do with Jesus’ evangel of the Kingdom? What he preached was more than personal salvation. The gospel of his Kingdom is “peace, integrity, community, harmony and justice,” as Hoekendijk so rightly declares. For the Kingdom is what the King came to establish, and he is “Prince of peace” and “King of righteousness” (Isa. 9:6). All this may be social gospel, but it is no heresy. It is simply the affirmation of the lordship of Jesus Christ. It is as old as the oldest creed of the Church, and it was the first Gospel preached by the Church’s Lord, as recorded in chapter four of Luke’s Gospel: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18, 19, RSV).
The earliest creed of the Church, biblical theologians tell us, was “Jesus is Lord.” This was an even older test of orthodoxy, apparently, than the beloved evangelistic companion phrase, “Jesus is Saviour.” Paul uses it as just such a test. “No one can say Jesus is Lord,” he writes to the Corinthians, “except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
But once again let me run up the red flag of warning against separating the two statements. The Bible does not give us one creed for pious evangelists, “Jesus is Saviour,” and another creed for broad-minded activists, “Jesus is Lord.” The Creed of the Church and the teaching of Scripture is that “Jesus is Lord and Saviour,” and let not man put asunder what God has joined together. Bringing the two together reminds the evangelist that the broad ethics of the Kingdom are an essential part of the Gospel. Bringing the two together reminds the activist that the boundaries of the Kingdom are not the boundaries of this world, that the Kingdom comes not by social reform but by the will of God, and that men are called not to establish the Kingdom but to enter it. “[Christ’s] ethical teachings are the righteousness of that Kingdom,” writes Dr. John Bright. “As such, of course, they are incumbent upon all the servants of the Kingdom. But by the same token they lie beyond men who do not acknowledge its lordship.… To realize the ethics of the Kingdom it is first necessary that men submit to the rule of that Kingdom” (The Kingdom of God, p. 221). Calvin said the same thing, echoing the words of his Lord: “No one can enter the Kingdom of heaven except he who has been regenerated.”
In other words, no one can say “Jesus is Lord” who has not first said “Jesus is Saviour.” The Messianic evangel calls for commitment both to Christ’s person and to his program!
3. The angelic evangel. But earliest of all the evangels in the New Testament—earlier than the apostolic evangel, earlier than the Messianic—was the evangel of the angels. It is also the least complicated. The angel simply sang with joy: “Do not be afraid; I have good news for you: there is great joy coming to the whole people. Today in the city of David a deliverer has been born to you—the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10, NEB).
The lost note in most of our evangelism is hilarity. The evangel is a theme for singing, and if we cannot sing it, it is not the Gospel. It can be power and fact and ethics and invitation and all the rest, but take the joy out of it, and it does not really grip the heart.
And we? We take this lovely, fragile, hilarious, singable thing, the Gospel—and argue it. Or we take this simple thing, the good news, and philosophize it. Some years ago a distinguished professor came to Korea. He wanted to preach. So Graham Lee, one of the early missionary evangelists, took him out to a little country church and prepared to interpret for him. The man’s first sentence was, “All thought is divided into two categories, the concrete and the abstract.” Graham Lee took one look at that little country congregation of toothless grandmothers and sturdy farmers and little children sitting on the bare, dirt floor, and instantly translated it, “I have come here all the way from America to tell you about the Lord Jesus Christ.” And from that point on the sermon was firmly in the hands of the angels!
It is as simple as that—the Gospel. If you cannot preach it, at least sing it. Proclaim it as truly and simply and as earnestly as you can. This world of ours is dying for the kind of happiness the “good news” of the love of God in Christ has the power to give.
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