Let’s not consume all our energies arguing about the Word of God, let’s start using it.
Without the Bible world evangelization would be not only impossible but actually inconceivable. It is the Bible that lays upon us the responsibility to evangelize the world, gives us a gospel to proclaim, tells us to how to proclaim it, and that it is God’s power for salvation to every believer.
It is, moreover, an observable fact of history, both past and contemporary, that the degree of the church’s commitment to world evangelization is commensurate with the degree of its conviction about the authority of the Bible. Whenever Christians lose their confidence in the Bible, they also lose their zeal for evangelism. Conversely, whenever they are convinced about the Bible, then they are determined about evangelism.
As the Lausanne Covenant says, we must affirm “the divine inspiration, truthfulness, and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written Word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” Incidentally, the expression “without error in all that it affirms” was never intended to be an evasion or loophole (as some have suggested) but rather a clarification. It acknowledges that not everything contained in Scripture is affirmed by Scripture (e.g., the speeches of Job’s comforters whom God later rebuked for not having spoken of him what was right, [42:7]), and it therefore asserts the need for painstaking exegesis in order to determine what the original authors were affirming, and what God is affirming through them. We should be grateful that the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy helpfully elaborated this expression by saying in their “Short Statement” (1979) that Scripture “is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; and embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.”
Let me develop four reasons why the Bible is indispensable to world evangelization.
The Bible gives us the mandate for world evangelization. We certainly need one. Two phenomena are everywhere on the increase. One is religious fanaticism, and the other, religious pluralism. The fanatic displays the kind of irrational zeal which (if it could) would use force to compel belief and eradicate disbelief. Religious pluralism encourages the opposite tendency.
Whenever the spirit of religious fanaticism or of its opposite, religious indifferentism, prevails, world evangelization is bitterly resented. Fanatics refuse to countenance the rivals evangelism represents, and pluralists its exclusive claims. The Christian evangelist is regarded as making an unwarrantable intrusion into other people’s private affairs.
In the face of this opposition we need to be clear about the mandate the Bible gives us. It is not just the Great Commission (important as that is) but the entire biblical revelation. Let me rehearse it briefly.
There is but one living and true God, the Creator of the universe, the Lord of the nations and the God of the spirits of all flesh. Some 4,000 years ago he called Abraham and made a covenant with him, promising not only to bless him but also through his posterity to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1–4). This biblical text is one of the foundation stones of the Christian mission. For Abraham’s descendants (through whom all nations are being blessed) are Christ and the people of Christ. If by faith we belong to Christ, we are Abraham’s spiritual children and have a responsibility to all mankind. So, too, the Old Testament prophets foretold how God would make his Christ the heir and the light of the nations (Ps. 2:8; Isa. 42:6; 49:6).
When Jesus came, he endorsed these promises. True, during his own earthly ministry he was restricted “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24), but he prophesied that many would “come from east and west, and from north and south,” and would “sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11; Luke 13:29). Further, in anticipation of his resurrection and ascension he made the tremendous claim that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to him (Matt. 28:18). It was in consequence of his universal authority that he commanded his followers to make all nations his disciples, baptizing them into his new community and teaching them all his teaching (Matt. 28:19).
And this, when the Holy Spirit of truth and power had come upon them, the early Christians proceeded to do. They became the witnesses of Jesus, even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Moreover, they did it “for sake of his name” (Rom. 1:5; 3 John 7). They knew that God had superexalted Jesus, enthroning him at his right hand and bestowing upon him the highest rank, in order that every tongue should confess his lordship. They longed that Jesus should receive the honor due his name. Besides, one day he would return in glory, to save, to judge, and to reign. So what was to fill the gap between his two comings? The worldwide mission of the church! Not till the gospel had reached the end of the world, he said, would the end of history come (cf. Matt 24:14; 28:20; Acts 1:8). The two ends would coincide.
Our mandate for world evangelization, therefore, is the whole Bible. It is to be found in the creation of God (because of which all human beings are responsible to him), in the character of God (as outgoing, loving, compassionate, not willing that any should perish, desiring that all should come to repentance), in the promises of God (that all nations will be blessed through Abraham’s seed and will become the Messiah’s inheritance) in the Christ of God (now exalted with universal authority, to receive universal acclaim), in the Spirit of God (who convicts of sin, witnesses to Christ, and impels the church to evangelize) and in the church of God (which is a multinational, missionary community, under orders to evangelize until Christ returns.)
This global dimension of the Christian mission is irresistible. Individual Christians and local churches not committed to world evangelization are contradicting (either through blindness or through disobedience) an essential part of their God-given identity. The biblical mandate for world evangelization cannot be escaped.
The Bible gives us the message for world evangelization. The Lausanne Covenant defined evangelism in terms of the evangel. Paragraph four begins: “to evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.”
Now this message for evangelism, like the mandate for evangelism, comes from the Bible. To begin, let us look at this negatively. First, it does not come from the Scriptures of other religions. We read and study these with respect. Many of us have to confess that we should be more familiar with them and more respectful toward them than we have been. What they contain of truth, beauty, and goodness we ascribe to Jesus Christ, the Logos of God and Light of the World (John 1:1–9). We are ready to quote them appreciatively when they affirm what Scripture affirms—much as Paul in Athens quoted the Greek authors Epimenides and Aratus (Acts 17:27–29). But we cannot accept that they were specially or supematurally inspired like the Scriptures of Old and New Testaments. Nor can they lead their readers to salvation, since they do not bear witness to Christ as the only Savior of sinners, which is the main function of the Christian Scriptures (cf. John 5:39, 40; 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:15).
Second, our message does not come from the tradition of the churches. True, a message has come down to us in the living tradition of the church, as our friends in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches emphasize. Further, we evangelical Christians need a doctrine of tradition that recognizes the activity of the Holy Spirit in illumining the minds of his people in every generation. Nevertheless, we cannot rely on church tradition for our message, for we cannot accept the “two-source” theory of divine revelation, namely that Holy Scripture and holy tradition are independent, equal, and authoritative sources of doctrine. Rather do we see tradition standing alongside Scripture as a fallible interpretation of an infallible revelation. We feel obliged to affirm the supremacy of Scripture over tradition, as Jesus did, when he called the traditions of the elders “the traditions of men” and subordinated them to the judgment of Scripture as the word of God (Mark 7:1–13).
Instead, our message comes out of the Bible. As we turn to the Bible for our message, however, we are immediately confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand the message is given to us. We are not left to invent it; it has been entrusted to us as a precious “deposit,” which we, like faithful stewards, are both to guard and to dispense to God’s household (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:12–14; 2 Cor. 4:1–2). On the other hand, it has not been given to us as a single, neat, mathematical formula, but rather in a rich diversity of formulations, in which different images or metaphors are used.
So there is only one gospel, on which all the apostles agreed (1 Cor. 15:10), and Paul could call down the curse of God upon anybody—including himself—who preached a “different” gospel from the original apostolic gospel of God’s grace (Gal. 1:6–8). Yet the apostles expressed this one gospel in various ways—now sacrificial (the shedding and sprinkling of Christ’s blood), now messianic (the breaking in of God’s promised rule), now legal (the Judge pronouncing the unrighteous righteous), now personal (the Father reconciling his wayward children), now salvific (the heavenly Liberator coming to rescue the helpless), now cosmic (the universal Lord claiming universal dominion); and this is only a selection.
The gospel is thus seen to be one, yet diverse. It is “given,” yet culturally adapted to its audience. Once we grasp this, we shall be saved from making two opposite mistakes. The first I will call “total fluidity.” I recently heard an English church leader declare that there is no such thing as the gospel until we enter the situation in which we are to witness. We take nothing with us into the situation, he said; we discover the gospel only when we have arrived there. Now I am in full agreement with the need to be sensitive to each situation, but if this was the point which the leader in question was wanting to make, he grossly overstated it. There is such a thing as a revealed or given gospel, which we have no liberty to falsify.
The opposite mistake I will call “total rigidity.” In this case the evangelist behaves as if God had given a series of precise formulas that we have to repeat more or less word for word, and certain images that we must invariably employ. This leads to bondage to either words or images or both. Some evangelists lapse into the use of stale jargon, while others feel obliged on every occasion to mention “the blood of Christ” or “justification by faith” or “the kingdom of God” or some other image.
Between these two extremes there is a third and better way. It combines commitment to the fact of revelation with commitment to the task of contextualization. It accepts that only the biblical formulations of the gospel are permanently normative, and that every attempt to proclaim the gospel in modern idiom must justify itself as an authentic expression of the biblical gospel.
But if it refuses to jettison the biblical formulations, it also refuses to recite them in a wooden and unimaginative way. On the contrary, we have to engage in the continuous struggle (by prayer, study, and discussion) to relate the given gospel to the given situation. Since it comes from God we must guard it; since it is intended for modern men and women we must interpret it. We have to combine fidelity (constantly studying the biblical text) with sensitivity (constantly studying the contemporary scene). Only then can we hope with faithfulness and relevance to relate the Word to the world, the gospel to the context, Scripture to culture.
The Bible gives us the model for world evangelization. In addition to a message (what we are to say) we need a model (how we are to say it). The Bible supplies this too: the Bible does not just contain the gospel; it is the gospel. Through the Bible God is himself actually evangelizing, that is, communicating the good news to the world. You will recall Paul’s statement about Genesis 12:3 that “the scripture … preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Gal. 3:8, RSV). All Scripture preaches the gospel; God evangelizes through it.
If, then, Scripture is itself divine evangelization, it stands to reason that we can learn how to preach the gospel by considering how God has done it. He has given us in the process of biblical inspiration a beautiful evangelistic model.
What strikes us immediately is the greatness of God’s condescension. He had sublime truth to reveal about himself and his Christ, his mercy and his justice, and his full salvation. And he chose to make this disclosure through the vocabulary and grammar of human language, through human beings, human images, and human cultures. He used very lowly anthropomorphisms, speaking of himself as if he were a human being who rolled up his sleeves, enjoyed the smell of burning meat, or changed his mind. Through the apostles he communicated in koinē Greek, the common language of the office and the market place, and was even prepared to overlook, indeed use, the well-known grammatical howlers perpetrated by John in the Revelation. So complete was his adaptation to the human condition that his message never sounded alien. It was homely, simple, appropriate.
Yet through this lowly medium of human words and images, God was speaking of his own word. Our evangelical doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture emphasizes its double authorship. Men spoke and God spoke. Men spoke from God (2 Pet. 1:21) and God spoke through men (Heb. 1:1). The words spoken and written were equally his and theirs. He decided what he wanted to say, yet did not smother their human personalities. They used their faculties freely, yet did not distort the divine message. Christians want to assert something similar about the Incarnation, the climax of the self-communicating God. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). That is, God’s eternal Word, who from eternity was with God and was God, the agent through whom the universe was created, became a human being, with all the particularity of a first-century Palestinian Jew. He became little, weak, poor, and vulnerable. He experienced pain and hunger, and exposed himself to temptation. All this was included in the “flesh,” the human being he became. Yet when he became one of us, he did not cease to be himself. He remained forever the eternal Word or Son of God.
Essentially the same principle illustrated both the inspiration of the Scripture and the incarnation of the Son. The Word became flesh. The divine was communicated through the human. He identified with us, though without surrendering his own identity. And this principle of “identification without loss of identity” is the model for all evangelism, especially cross-cultural evangelism.
Some of us refuse to identify with the people we claim to be serving. We remain ourselves, and do not become like them. We stay aloof. We hold on desperately to our own cultural inheritance in the mistaken notion that it is an indispensable part of our identity. We are unwilling to let it go. Not only do we maintain our own cultural practices with fierce tenacity, but we treat the cultural inheritance of the land of our adoption without the respect it deserves. We thus practice a double kind of cultural imperialism, imposing our own culture on others and despising theirs. But this was not the way of Christ, who emptied himself of his glory and humbled himself to serve.
Other cross-cultural messengers of the gospel make the opposite mistake. So determined are they to identify with the people to whom they go that they surrender even their Christian standards and values. But again this was not Christ’s way, since in becoming human he remained truly divine. The Lausanne Covenant expressed the principle in these words: “Christ’s evangelists must humbly seek to empty themselves of all but their personal authenticity, in order to become the servants of others” (paragraph 10).
The whole question of resistance and receptivity of the gospel has been prominent in the pre-COWE study groups and will be throughout the miniconsultations. We have to wrestle with the reasons why people reject the gospel, and in particular to give due weight to the cultural factors. Some people reject the gospel not because they perceive it to be false, but because they perceive it to be alien.
Dr. René Padilla was criticized at Lausanne for saying that the gospel some European and North American missionaries have exported was a “culture-Christianity,” a Christian message, that is, distorted by the materialistic, consumer culture of the West. It was hurtful to us to hear him say this, but of course he was quite right. All of us need to subject our gospel to more critical scrutiny, and in a cross-cultural situation, visiting evangelists need humbly to seek the help of local Christians in order to discern the cultural distortions of their message.
Others reject the gospel because they perceive it to be a threat to their own culture. Of course Christ challenges every culture. Whenever we present the gospel to Hindus or Buddhists, Jews or Muslims, secularists or Marxists, Jesus Christ confronts them with his demand to dislodge whatever has thus far secured their allegiance and replace it with himself. He is Lord of every person and every culture. That threat, that confrontation, cannot be avoided. But does the gospel we proclaim present people with other threats that are unnecessary, because it calls for the abolition of harmless customs or appears destructive of national art, architecture, music, and festivals, or because we who share it are culture-proud and culture-blind?
To sum up, when God spoke to us in Scripture he used human language, and when he spoke to us in Christ he assumed human flesh. In order to reveal himself, he both emptied and humbled himself. That is the model of evangelism which the Bible supplies. There is self-emptying and self-humbling in all authentic evangelism; without it we contradict the gospel and misrepresent the Christ we proclaim.
The Bible gives us the power for world evangelization. It is hardly necessary for me to emphasize our need for power, for we know how feeble our human resources are in comparison with the magnitude of the task. We also know how armor-plated are the defenses of the human heart. Worse still, we know the personal reality, malevolence, and might of the Devil, and of the demonic forces at his command.
Sophisticated people may ridicule our belief, and caricature it, too, in order to make their ridicule more plausible. But we evangelical Christians are naive enough to believe what Jesus and his apostles taught. To us it is a fact of great solemnity that, in John’s expression. “the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). For until they are liberated by Jesus Christ and transferred into his kingdom, all men and women are the slaves of Satan. Moreover, we see his power in the contemporary world—in the darkness of idolatry and of the fear of spirits, in superstition and fatalism, in devotion to gods which are no gods, in the selfish materialism of the West, in the spread of atheistic communism, in the proliferation of irrational cults, in violence and aggression, and in the widespread declension from absolute standards of goodness and truth. These things are the work of him who is called in Scripture a liar, a deceiver, a slanderer, and a murderer.
So Christian conversion and regeneration remain miracles of God’s grace. They are the culmination of a power struggle between Christ and Satan or (in vivid apocalyptic imagery) between the Lamb and the Dragon. The plundering of the strong man’s palace is possible only because he has been bound by the One who is stronger still, and who by his death and resurrection disarmed and discarded the principalities and powers of evil (Matt. 12:27–29; Luke 11:20–22; Col. 2:15).
How then shall we enter into Christ’s victory and overthrow the devil’s power? Let Luther answer our question: ein wörtlein will ihn fällen (“one little word will knock him down”). There is power in the Word of God and in the preaching of the gospel. Perhaps the most dramatic expression of this in the New Testament is to be found in 2 Corinthians 4. Paul portrays “the god of this world” as having “blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ …” (v. 4).
If human minds are blinded, how then can they ever see? Only by the creative Word of God. For it is the God who said “let light shine out of darkness” who has shone in our hearts to “give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (v. 6). The apostle thus likens the unregenerate heart to the dark primeval chaos, and attributes regeneration to the divine fiat, “Let there be light.”
If then Satan blinds people’s minds, and God shines into people’s hearts, what can we hope to contribute to this encounter? Would it not be more modest for us to retire from the field of conflict and leave them to fight it out? No, this is not the conclusion Paul reaches.
On the contrary, in between verses 4 and 6, which describe the activities of God and Satan, verse 5 describes the work of the evangelist: “We preach … Jesus Christ as Lord.” Since the light which the Devil wants to prevent people seeing and which God shines into them is the gospel, we had better preach it! Preaching the gospel, far from being unnecessary, is indispensable. It is the God-appointed means by which the prince of darkness is defeated and the light comes streaming into people’s hearts. There is power in God’s gospel—his power for salvation (Rom. 1:16).
In our day there is a widespread disenchantment with words. People are bombarded with words by advertisers, politicians, and propagandists, until they become “word-resistant.” In countries where television is available, words lose their power because of the greater power of images. After all, what is a word? Only a puff of breath, and in a moment it is gone, so intangible and transient is it.
But the Bible has a different perspective. Behind every word is the person who speaks it, and the authority he possesses or lacks. God’s Word has power for the sole reason that it is God who speaks it. His Word is creative (“for he spoke and it was done” Ps. 33:9), productive (“my word … shall not return to me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose” Isa. 55:11), and redemptive (“it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” 1 Cor. 1:21). Still today God honors his Word. Whether we share it with a single individual or preach it to a congregation or broadcast it by radio or distribute it in print, through it he can put forth his saving power.
Not that we have a superstitious view of the Word of God. We do not attribute magical efficacy to the words of Scripture as if they were spells bringing a blessing or a curse. Their power is due solely to the fact that the God who once spoke these words still speaks through what he has spoken. His Spirit still uses the Word as his sword. We should never separate the Word of God and the Spirit of God.
We may be very weak. I sometimes wish we were weaker. Faced with the forces of evil, we are often tempted to put on a show of Christian strength and engage in a little evangelical saber rattling. But it is in our weakness that Christ’s strength is made perfect and it is words of human weakness that the Spirit endorses with his power. So it is when we are weak that we are strong (1 Cor. 2:1–5; 2 Cor. 12:9–10).
Let us not consume all our energies arguing about the Word of God; let’s start using it. It will prove its divine origin by its divine power. Let’s let it loose in the world! If only every Christian missionary and evangelist proclaimed the biblical gospel with faithfulness and sensitivity, and every Christian preacher were a faithful expositor of God’s Word! Then God would display his saving power.
Without the Bible world evangelization is impossible. For without the Bible we have no gospel to take to the nations, no warrant to take it to them, no idea of how to set about the task, and no hope of any success. It is the Bible that gives us the mandate, the message, the model, and the power we need for world evangelization. So let’s seek to repossess it by diligent study and meditation. Let’s heed its summons, grasp its message, follow its directions, and trust its power. Let’s lift up our voices and make it known.
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