Growing in Grace: Evangelism
John Harper was born in a Christian home in Glasgow, Scotland in 1872. At the age of 14 he professed Christ and at the age of 17 he began to preach in the streets of his village. In September 1896, at 24 years old, he started his own church with 25 members. The church had over 500 members when he left 13 years later. In that time he had been married, widowed, and had a daughter named Nana.
Harper’s fame grew and he was eventually invited to come from where he now lived in London to participate in a series of meetings at Moody Church in Chicago. So Harper boarded a ship one day with his daughter Nana and a second-class ticket at Southampton, England, for the voyage to America.
Nana, who died in 1986 at the age of 80 recalls what happened next. She remembered being woken up by her father in the middle of the night. He told her that an iceberg had struck the ship. Another ship was coming to rescue them, but he was going to put her on a lifeboat just to be sure because the Titanic was sinking. As the ship went down, Harper found himself clinging to a piece of floating debris in the freezing water. As he approached another man doing the same, Harper called out, “Man, are you saved?” The man replied, “No, I am not.” Harper shouted back, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” The waves pushed Harper away and after a little while they brought him back to the same guy. He called out again, “Are you saved now?” The man said, “No.” Harper proclaimed, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Then losing his hold on the debris, Harper sank to his icy Atlantic grave.
What a story! That’s one of those stories that almost don’t seem real. I can honestly and shamefully tell you that my life as an evangelist is nothing like John Harper’s. And so the question remains for us this morning, what does Christ require for us in evangelism? How are we to share our faith? We’re finishing our “Growing in Grace” series this morning, which has been all about sanctification. We’ve been exploring the mean of grace given to us by Christ that enables us to grow in the faith after we’re saved. Church membership, serving the local church, prayer, and giving are all spiritual disciplines gifted to us by God to help us grow.
The final means of grace that we’ll look at together this morning is evangelism. It’s the logical final step in this chain of sanctification. The term evangelism comes from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, which means good news. This is where we get the English word gospel. Gospel is derived from the old English, “godspell,” which means good spell. To tell the gospel was to cast a good spell on someone. It was to reveal the mystery. So the word evangelism literally means to “gospel-ize” someone, to share the gospel.
Mack Styles has a great terse definition of evangelism. He says, “Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim of persuasion.” You share your faith with others, so that they’ll be saved. We want to be multipliers. We are called to be disciples who make disciples. And while Harper’s story may have simultaneously encouraged and discouraged you, let me exhort you this morning, Harper was extraordinary. But he was also incredibly ordinary at the same time. His circumstances were extraordinary, but he was, quite simply, a man telling other men about Jesus. He was a beggar telling other beggars where the bread is.
The big idea this morning is that you will grow as a Christian by sharing your faith. In Philemon 6 the Holy Spirit says, I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. Evangelism is a means of grace. Our text in John 1 shows us the same picture. The circumstances are different than ours, but the idea is the same.
The text tells us that John the baptizer was standing with 2 of his disciples when Jesus walks by. He again proclaims that Jesus is the Lamb of God. This prompts his 2 disciples to turn and follow Jesus. Jesus notices them and asks them what they’re seeking. They respond that they want to know where he’s staying. He then invites them to come and see. Then in verse 41, one of the disciples, a guy named Andrew, goes to find his brother to tell him about Jesus. We read that Phillip does the same thing after he meets Jesus and this is the important 1st element of evangelism. You should only do evangelism if you’re already following Jesus.
This seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s difficult enough to try and muster the gumption to share your faith as a Christian, why would a non-Christian even care to preach the gospel? The waters get a little muddied for those of us who have been raised in church. We’ve never known anything but the covenant community. We were Christians before we were believers. Maybe you’re here and you’re feeling guilty about evangelism, but you’ve never actually followed Christ. Especially for you middle school and high school students. Some of you grapple with guilt over telling your friends about Jesus because you hear it at church and home, but you actually aren’t a follower of Jesus yourself. You don’t need to evangelize; you need Christ.
Jesus came to save sinners. He lived the perfect life, he died in the place of sinners as a substitute, he resurrected on the 3rd day, proving that God accepted his sacrifice. He ascended into heaven and he’s coming back again. You need to believe this. You need to trust in Jesus. You need to give your life to Christ before you worry about telling other people about him. Andrew and Phillip told others about Jesus because they were following Jesus.
You’ll notice as well that the content of their evangelism was Jesus Christ. John the baptizer proclaimed, “Behold! The lamb of God,” Andrew told Peter, “We have found the Messiah (which means Christ.” Phillip reported to Nathanael, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” The content of their message was Jesus, but the way we present him is a little different. You see, these men lived in a different covenantal horizon than we do. Jesus had come and was fulfilling the mosaic covenant even as they met him.
These people were raised to know the story of the Bible just like we were raised to know the story of America. We know all about the pilgrims, the puritans, Paul Revere, George Washington, the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery, WWII. We sing songs about it, we stand and salute, it’s part and parcel of our American DNA. The same was true with them of the story of the Bible. Biblical theology was in their DNA. So when they heard, “Behold! The lamb of God,” or “the Messiah,” or “the fulfillment of Moses and the Prophets,” they understood that the promised one of Genesis 3.15 has come to make all things new.
The people you evangelize aren’t going to have the same background. Most Christians don’t even have a strong biblical theology, let alone unbelievers. Americans all have some kind of perception of Jesus, but it’s not biblically informed. We have to very simply bring them the person of Jesus. He is the answer to their need. Both Jesus and Phillip beckoned the disciples to “come and see.” That’s all we’re doing. We can’t make anyone love Christ. We’re not the Holy Spirit. We can’t change anyone’s heart. We can simply invite them to “come and see” Christ.
Christ is revealed to us in the gospel, the good news. God is eternally holy; he is just, and right. People have sinned against God. We have missed the mark, fallen short of his glory. We deserve hell, justice, and wrath. But Jesus takes that in our place by living the only truly righteous, law-abiding life, dying on the cross, bearing God’s wrath as our penal substitute, and laying dead in the tomb for 3 days. His resurrection is the hope all humanity. Because he rose again, we can too! This is the gospel. This is the good news we’re called to spread.
Which means there’s a lot of things evangelism isn’t. Evangelism isn’t whatever you perceive to be correct political involvement. It isn’t voting against abortion, though that is right. Evangelism isn’t posting conservative or liberal posts on FB. It isn’t fighting with your neighbor about illegal immigration or gun control, regardless of where you stand on these issues.
Evangelism isn’t debating evolution or RCC. Evangelism isn’t inviting someone to church or dropping your kid off at AWANA or youth group. Evangelism isn’t simply living a moral life, or sharing your personal testimony. Evangelism isn’t even the fruit of evangelism. People trusting Christ isn’t evangelism. We can’t make anyone do that, only the Holy Spirit can. Evangelism is simply teaching the gospel with the aim of persuasion. Telling nonbelievers the good news of what Jesus Christ did – his life, death, and resurrection.
Notice to whom Andrew and Phillip go with the good news about Jesus Christ; Andrew goes to his brother and Phillip goes to his friend. They bring the gospel to those in their relational vicinity. They bring the good news to those within their sphere of influence – their family and friends. That’s not to say that cold evangelism is wrong. Former generations used to knock door-to-door with the hope of having a gospel conversation. People would give out tracts. Some people may try to share the gospel with a stranger. When we were in Boston back in September we saw a guy street preaching downtown. Are these methods wrong? No. But I would also say that they’re not the norm.
The normal means of evangelism is through (1) relationships and (2) the church. We each have personal relationships with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, fellow parents at school and others. God has given us these relationships, partly, so that we might bring the gospel. They’re different for all of us. My unsaved family members are different than Holly Champoux’s and Don Rice’s, but we all have them. God has providentially placed these people in our lives so that we can let our light shine before them. Who knows? One of them may be a Peter.
The more formal means of evangelism that Jesus has left in the world though is his church. In the same book, the Gospel of John, Jesus says this “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13.35). Jesus says that the most effective means of evangelism is the church. When unbelievers come into our community, they should see the gospel, not only through the Word and sacraments, but also through our love for one another. We should be praying for each other, that we all have opportunities to evangelize and that we might be bold. When unbelievers come to our classes, flocks, youth group, and children’s ministry, they should see a community that is different, one that reveals the love of Jesus.
Let me offer a suggestion for you. If you struggle with evangelism, or you’ve never really thought about it, let me invite you to join us to think about it together. This summer on Tuesday nights Pastor Kevin will be teaching a class here at the church on evangelism. We’ll spend 3 months praying together and discussing a more full understanding of what evangelism is, and why and how we can best be faithful to King Jesus. If you struggle with sharing you faith, like I do, come and join this class in the summer. You’re not meant to do Christianity alone, even evangelism. Join us as we pray for one another, encourage one another, and help one another think through sharing the gospel.
How do we know that John Harper was preaching the gospel while floating in the icy Atlantic just minutes before his death? There was a prayer meeting held in Hamilton, Ontario a few months after the sinking of the Titanic. A man stood up in that meeting and relayed the account of Harper’s final evangelism. Then the man said, “As Harper sank, there, alone in the night with 2 miles of water under me, I trusted Christ as my savior. I am John Harper’s last convert.” The story really is amazing, but probably not for the reason that you’re thinking of. Sure, it’s commendable that Harper sought to preach the gospel even as he was freezing and drowning to death, but the miraculous thing is that God saw fit to save this drowning sinner.
It’s supernatural that this ancient gospel message made it’s way to this man and that the Holy Spirit illuminated his eyes to see the beauty of what Christ had done for him. This man was trying to survive on this floating debris, but what he didn’t understand until afterward is that his heart was already dead. He needed the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to make him alive and God sent John Harper’s beautiful feet with that good news.
Brothers and sisters, this is the good news that we bring. This is the good spell that we’re casting. This is the mystery that we proclaim, that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. So, move forward today in boldness to share the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1.16). Share your faith because it will teach you all of the good things you have in Christ (Philemon 6). Be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in you (1 Pet 3.15). It is the only way that God has given for men to be saved. We’re just drowning men telling other drowning men where the rescue is.