The Gospel of God in the Power of God

Updated!

The missionary James Fraser, while he was preparing to preach in SW China,  decided to go through the New Testament, especially Acts, to see how the gospel was preached. As he read through the New Testament again, he was struck by the simplicity of the gospel. So he went throughout the marketplaces of the different towns, and explained it to the others that he would meet. What he had found, when he looked for not just, “What did Jesus do?” but “What did Jesus and the apostles say, do and teach?”, was that the center of the gospel was the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and he made this the center of his own evangelistic efforts. Even more, he noted that the gospel included the call to repentance and the promise of the forgiveness of sins, and he kept these as the expected response and the promised benefit as well.

So, this takes us beyond the simple inquiry of approaching the gospels about evangelism with just the question: What did Jesus do? Here are the questions which form a starting point for a deeper, more robust inquiry:

  • What did Jesus command?
  • What did Jesus preach as the gospel?
  • What did the apostles do?
  • What did the apostles command?
  • What did the apostles preach as the gospel?

  And eventually, you will consider the question: What did Jesus teach in his post resurrection teaching? And then you come up with the outline of the gospel that James Fraser found and then the one which apostles used as they entered into the worldwide mission to spread the gospel throughout the world. The Lord Jesus himself supplied the basic outline of the gospel. In fact, he made it a central part of his teaching to the apostles during the 40 days after the resurrection, before his ascension and before the day of Pentecost. This summary of the gospel was the center of his post resurrection teaching, which was the capstone of and culmination of his earthly teaching ministry. In this post-resurrection teaching ministry it can truly be said that Jesus Christ was personally and literally bringing his church into being through his Word, and giving the apostles all that they would need to begin their mission after his ascension. It can truly be said that this often underemphasized post resurrection ministry lay behind the majority of the preaching and teaching in the book of Acts, and carried through to the New Testament books written by Peter, Paul and others.

So then, the center of his post resurrection teaching was the explanation of all that had happened in his life, ministry, death and resurrection according to the Old Testament revelation of himself as the Messiah , and then the constant reinforcement of his great concern for the spreading of the good news which centered on his own suffering and death. That was his constant command to the apostles, and to all who had become his disciples, who had witnessed his resurrection, to begin their mission. This has likewise been the continuing mission to those who have received his salvation ever since.

The need since then has ever been for the people of God to go back to his Word, and to get the message of salvation straight. The message of salvation is the gospel of life, the acquittal from the guilt of our sins by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. It is not something that we have made up, our own opinion, or religious idea, nor is it something that we have any authority or freedom to modify. It is something that we need to keep in our understanding and deepen our understanding, because we need to be sure of it to be sure of our own eternal salvation. And this is often the reason why over the years, when the church, meaning the leaders and the people in the institutional churches, there has often been a struggle within the churches with the problem of nominalism, the person with a connection to a church, but who has never truly gotten the message straight in his or her own life, and often has truly never received salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.

But once we have that message straight, the need then is for the church to get it out. For the church to get it out means that we need  to make it plain to others, to witness to Jesus Christ. This means that we take the message, when we have it straight,  and share the gospel of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus Christ himself has commanded his people. 

“And he said to them, ‘This is what is written, that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance to receive the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And, look, I am sending upon you the promise of my Father; stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:46-49).

 THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST IS THE SOLE MESSAGE OF SALVATION. The Lord Jesus himself gave us the outline of the message of salvation that he wanted for his people to explain and proclaim. It is his offer to the whole world of himself as Lord and Savior, and the message originates with him. It is not a Western, white man’s gospel, but it comes from a man from the Middle East, who grew up there, lived there, and died at the hands of an occupying army, and who rose from the dead beyond all expectations. He then gave the whole world the message of who he is, and what he has done for us in his life, ministry, death and resurrection, and it is the only message that he has given his people as the basis of eternal salvation.  And because it is his message, no one afterward has the right or authority, especially among those who would claim to be his followers,  to change it, edit it or try to suppress it by any means.

Of course, gospel means ‘good news’, and Jesus Christ himself is the center of the good news of the gospel. The only gospel that the Bible contains and recognizes has Jesus as the summary and the entire message. Therefore, to evangelize means to explain and emphasize the crucified and risen Lord as the scriptures present him to us. To try to put another message in its place is to attempt to present a Jesus or a Messiah other than the one which the Bible has presented or one which Jesus himself did not mention or recognize.

This is how Jesus himself summarized his gospel: “This is what is written, that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (v. 46). The summary of the post-resurrection teaching of Jesus was himself, as he fulfilled the scriptures, and he was himself his own visual aid and living proof of all that he explained. First, he explained all that the disciples had seen and experienced with him in the context of the Old Testament revelation of what the Messiah would be. This is part of the prior context of this statement, of the teaching about himself to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:26-27 and immediately preceding this statement in Luke 24: 44-45. All that he said cannot have been forgotten in the days afterwards; it beggars belief for anyone to think that anyone would not remember the the words of someone so familiar to them standing in front of them, whom they had seen die but were now seeing risen with the scars of his crucifixion upon him. And in his words he first of all explained how all this was in fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures, which they had known intimately from their earliest childhood,  as the Messiah of Israel. They would remember how during his preaching and teaching ministry before his crucifixion in Jerusalem how he had so often then presented himself as the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world through the gospel. But there was a difference now, all that he had said and done was now for them to have as the center of their message, the only Christ who saves, the Son of God of the New Testament. Among them, children of the most assertively monotheistic nation of the ancient world, he had credibly presented himself as the Son of God, and was now standing before them and making sure that they saw, knew and recognized that he was the center of their message. For two thousand years, since God first spoke to Abraham, then, the tutorial of the Jewish nation that there was one holy God who created and ruled the world was now finding its fulfillment in the person of his Messiah, who had come to present his salvation to the world.

The message that Jesus Christ gave, the gospel message which he gave, is the message which his people, from the apostles onward, has needed to get and to keep straight. The church has never been the origin nor the judge of the message, but rather the steward of the message. And it is correct to assert along with the Reformers that the church is not the source of this gospel but rather that Jesus Christ creates the church through his gospel. And even more, the gospel will therefore include every implication and application of the death and resurrection of Jesus also throughout the New Testament, since the emphasis is not just on the fact but upon its meaning in the life of the world and its call to every person upon this earth. This then means what the apostle Paul called the scandal, the stumbling block, of the  cross to his day and age, the truth that all have sinned in this lost and dying world, and that there is no salvation in our own wisdom, speculations or attempts at good deeds, but only through the Jesus who died and rose again according to the scriptures, as Jesus himself has outlined in his gospel. This gospel is the only message which Jesus has given as the basis for saving faith, the message about himself, and the only message to which his Holy Spirit will bear witness. Therefore the only real witness, the only missional statement, the basis of scriptural evangelism and missions, is Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen.

The method that the apostles used, then, to proclaim Jesus did not seem to be a rote memorization of an outline with supporting verses. Rather, they seemed to be immersed in the truth of the gospel, had the  passages which Jesus himself probably explained to them deep within their hearts, and had a number of talking points to explain the gospel. They seemed to be knowledgeable enough to give a clear and understandable reference and allusion to a verse during preaching and teaching, even if it was more of an explanatory paraphrase. But the center of their preaching and teaching was still Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, crucified and risen. And the centrality of the cross, the Messiah who had suffered, filled their preaching and teaching as the heart of the gospel.

It is, then, the gospel message itself, the truth of the saving Christ, that brings his church to life, and it is not the other way around. In fact, one of the signs of a church or denomination that has begun or has the potential for a deep decline is when anyone gets an idea that he or she can fiddle with the gospel of Jesus and the message of the crucified and risen Messiah in any way. The decline of a church, Christian organization, then, comes with  the infiltration of people into positions of leadership who are not sold out completely to the gospel of salvation in some way. Maybe they do not indulge in a completely outright denial, perhaps, but usually comes down to the consideration and acceptance idea that there might be or is some other way to salvation other than Jesus Christ himself. What happens is that these people start to substitute their own speculations and superficial reasonings for the plain statements of Jesus Christ and the apostles in the New Testament. What this often comes down to, then, is that they try to figure out how to make it something with which we are comfortable and that we think that we can control and something that we think will be acceptable to the type of unbelievers that we want to become a part of our churches. The gospel of a living Lord who died for us is certainly nothing that that we can either find easily comfortable nor anything that we can control, but it is certainly something with which we can find full assurance, as something with which we need not be embarrassed before anyone in this world: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes . . .” (Romans 1:16-17).

Lately, then, I’ve also been seeing a confusion creep back into the evangelical church of evangelism with ministries of compassion, where evangelism is equated with actions like feeding the poor and homeless. For a generation since World War II this confusion was mercifully absent from the ministries of the evangelical church, where it was recognized as an unscriptural equivocation and foreign import from old mainline liberalism. That following Jesus means compassionate concern for the poor and downtrodden has really never been much in dispute in the evangelical church; the deliberate confusion of compassionate work for the poor with evangelism in terms of communication of the gospel has always been something that those serious about Biblical authority and who have examined the scriptures have rejected.  And it’s easy to see that the apostles themselves did not consider concern for the poor (Galatians 2:10) and evangelism (Galatians 2:7-8) to be the same thing. And the truth is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is as much for the up-and-outer – for example, the divorced rich man, for instance, living in an ornate home but drinking himself to sleep every night – as it is, for example, the skid row alcoholic, the down and outer, the homeless man in tattered clothes who likewise self medicates through alcohol in one of the many paths to self ruination of fallen human nature. And the problem with this confusion of evangelism with ministries of compassion is that it usually ends up destroying evangelism, and the ministries of compassion end up being small efforts with which busy and self absorbed church members feel comfortable. I do not think that it’s too much to say that this eventually becomes humanitarianism without a Savior and without a cross.

The promise, then, of the scriptural gospel  is salvation. It is the forgiveness of sins to those who repent of their sins. Salvation from the real guilt of sin before God, therefore, is the promise of Jesus Christ himself, to those who come to him in repentance. And the fact that Jesus himself outlines repentance as the expected response to his gospel and the forgiveness of sins as the promised result shows that neither of these can be excised from the preaching of the gospel, from scriptural evangelism or from Biblically based missions upon any earthly, human authority. Rather, these are part of the scriptural gospel from beginning to end, as undersigned by Jesus Christ himself.

In verse 47, then, Jesus went on to state, “ . . . and that repentance to receive the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” By his own words he made the promise of scripture that his gospel brings forgiveness of sins, and from the very heart of the Middle East, the city of Jerusalem, this promise would be made known and available to all the world. His name, the name of the crucified and risen Son of God, would be the signature upon the pardon available to all those who had sinned, upon the response of repentance. His death and resurrection that he had paid the price for the forgiveness of sins and his authority as Lord of all meant that he had the eternal right to grant forgiveness of sins to the whole world. And consider this, that the crucified and risen Lord presented this as the fundamental need of the whole world: not of political or economic liberation, nor physical sustenance, though those may be real needs in themselves for some in this life, but that the problem was sin and the solution was the forgiveness which he had come to provide. That need was so important that he had gone to the cross to make it available.

It is also, then, within the very same sentence, the word of Jesus that repentance is part of the reception of his salvation. Repentance in itself cannot be an earning of salvation, but rather it is a change of allegiance, a turning from one’s own way and a life in disobedience to God, which keeps the forgiveness which came at his own death from becoming a permission to sin. It is his expectation that his granting forgiveness of sins once, completely and forever, would be received with a change of direction from one’s own sin and selfishness to the entire, wholehearted commitment to the will of God, to the Son of God as Lord of one’s life from then on. And this would also include a change of heart toward Jesus himself , of repentance from the sin of rejecting him as Messiah to faith in him as one’s Savior and Messiah once and forever. At it worked itself out, then, in the apostolic preaching and teaching of the gospel, repentance led to living as a disciple of Jesus with Jesus as Lord over one’s life. (For more on the relationship of saving faith and repentance in the scriptures, see John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul and the Imperative Mood in Evangelism.)

The promise of the forgiveness of sins addresses the need that everyone everywhere in the world will always need first of all, the need to get right with God because of the guilt of their sins. Even more, the need of repentance as this response means that the forgiveness of sins that Jesus offers cannot be cheap grace, the permission of continuing in the sin which offends and alienates God, which treats God as a fool in offering a forgiveness which requires no change of life. Because people are naturally sinners by nature and by choice, there is that  condition of repentance, a change of heart before God and his will and a rejection of sin as the ruling power and authority in one’s life. This forgiveness of God then is not the geniality of an easy going God, but the gift of the God who hated sin and loved sinners to the point of providing the death of his Son on the cross and who raised Jesus to life to be Lord of all. The need of reconciliation with God, of a complete turnabout from sin to God to receive his salvation addresses the real need of people everywhere at every time. There may be some felt needs associated with this need for forgiveness, but the gospel then goes through to the real need of forgiveness of sin and salvation in Christ of everyone everywhere. And right here Jesus joins together both a gospel command – repentance – with a gospel promise – forgiveness of sins. So it’s normal, within the practice of Jesus himself, to join together both the commands and promises of the gospel with the presentation of the gospel, and Gospel commands and gospel promises were certainly presented together as during New Testament evangelism.

First, then, if anyone everywhere is ever to have any assurance of eternal life, it will be through the acceptance of the scriptural gospel, through becoming a believer in Jesus Christ. If anyone anywhere has been truly saved, it is because he or she has repented and received the forgiveness of sins upon the personal signature of Jesus Christ himself in his gospel. Getting the message straight, then, will first of all mean that the power and truth of the scriptural gospel will become and continue as a part of one’s own personal experience first of all. It will mean that one can tell others about the power of God to save through the gospel of Jesus Christ because that person has already experienced the saving power of the truth of God.

Second, the forgiveness of sins Jesus promises speaks to a need of the human heart which other religions address in some way, but never with a complete pardon based upon repentance. For instance, often people who claim to be Christians in the USA may in some way ascribe to the reincarnation and karma in a kind of syncretism with Hinduism on these matters. It has amazed me personally how much Hinduism resembles the pre-Christian religions and philosophies of the pre Christian West, the old Roman empire, which Christianity basically destroyed, such as Pythagoreanism with its emphasis on reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, the pantheism of Stoicism and mythologies with the multiple gods and goddesses and occult and magic of pagan religion. Hinduism even is based in part on the Vedas, which are more like the ancient Greek epic poems the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Theogony, which event the ancient Greek pagan writers, such as the poet and philosopher Xenophanes credited for the portrayal of the gods and goddesses of old paganism, and which even contain the old Indo European sky god Dyaus, who is known as Zeus among the Greeks and Jupiter among the Romans.   It seems like many Christians never realize the extreme contrast of all that there is from the Old Testament to the New Testament with what there is in Hinduism. Historically and theologically, Hinduism resembles much more the old philosophies and religions of the early Roman empire, the pre-Christian Western paganism, than what we find with the gospel of Jesus Christ that arose in the strict monotheism of post-exilic Palestinian Judaism. With Jesus, though, we have a real person lived in history, of the unabashedly monotheistic Jewish race and religion which continues today, and who lived in an easily verifiable time and place in history. We have someone whose teachings were not philosophical speculations and who offered not repetitious mantras but an approach to God in prayer as a loving Father and as the same person and personality that he created you to be. We have a Savior who died on a Roman cross and came to life with many witnesses in a historically verifiable time and place. And he offers the complete forgiveness of sins through his own death and resurrection instead of a continuous series of millions of reincarnations through various forms of life to wipe out the sins of an undefined past karma. And the gospel and promise of Jesus is is not the religion of a colonial power but the power of a man who lived, died and started the mission to reach the world in the heart of the Middle East, in a city under the domination of the world empire of that period.

So then, the Lord Jesus has given his message to the world, to be communicated by those who have received his salvation. But that is not all that he has given those whom he has called to be his witnesses. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls for messengers filled with the Holy Spirit. The communication of the supernatural gospel of salvation was never left up to the natural abilities of anyone. The message calls for messengers, and the risen Lord has given his requirement and promise that it is not to be left up just to the human abilities of the messengers. Even more, he has promised the supernatural promise of the Holy Spirit to his messengers, so that they can take it beyond where they would naturally be able to go of themselves and speak it with a power that no one of them would ever have in themselves.

First, the declaration of the Lord Jesus is that his followers are to be his witnesses, and this declaration is both a statement of fact and a command. Those who receive his salvation are to be the messengers of his salvation. It is not too much to say that this expectation of the risen Lord himself is that every believer has already been appointed a missionary in the part of the world where he or she lives regardless of the opinions of any human mission board or agency.

In verse 48, then, Jesus simply states, “You are witnesses of these things.” The first witnesses were the apostles, who were the prime eyewitnesses of his death and resurrection. But this declaration has never been understood to apply simply to the twelve apostles, but to everyone who has received his salvation thereafter. Here he makes the simple appointment of his followers to be his witnesses. Since then every believer in Jesus Christ, who has come to know the Lord of salvation, has been responsible to be a witness to the Savior. This simple declaration of Jesus Christ himself appoints all his followers in all ages as his witnesses. No one in any kind of church hierarchy can therefore override his simple appointment.No ordaining council, no laying on of human hands, no certificates or letters of recommendation from anyone nor underground opposition even from other believers else is either necessary to endorse his declaration nor can they contradict his declaration or appointment.

The believer in Jesus Christ who has experienced the salvation of Jesus Christ and who knows the living reality of the Savior in his or her life can therefore testify to the Savior and the reality of his salvation. The power of his salvation in our lives is our testimony, backed by the truth of the gospel events in the Bible and the historical trustworthiness of the Bible, and even more by the power of the gospel through the Holy Spirit. The present day believer is still responsible to explain the way of God’s salvation as in the Bible and to be a witness to the salvation of Jesus which he or she has already received, or otherwise, the reasonable conclusion is that he or she is not a believer at all if he or she has no Savior or no salvation to which he or she can testify. From all that there is in the New Testament, from the words of Jesus himself before and after the resurrection, each believer is called to be a witness to this world of the salvation that he or she has received or he or she is not a follower of Jesus Christ. It is as A. B. Simpson once said: “We are missionaries, every one of us with a commission and trust as definite as those we send overseas.”

So then, evangelism comes down just to simple obedience to be a witness to Jesus. I’ve heard over the years some strange justifications for evangelism, such as those who seek to lead lots of outward decisions for Christ, because they thought that the person would never then be lost – this is based upon an underlying belief in the eternal security of the believer based in a kind of pop Calvinism. Or, those who may have a prior underlying belief in a pre-tribulation rapture to try to get as many decisions for Christ before the rapture, and even presenting the pre-tribulation rapture as itself being a reason to pray the Jesus prayer, so that you won’t be left behind. But these kinds of justifications are really never necessary, since Jesus simply gives his people the assignment to be his witnesses, and his people simply need to be obedient to his assignment.

A reasonable application of this assignment would be for each believer in Christ to make it a goal for one’s life to be a witness for Jesus Christ anywhere in the world.  This would entail first of all, becoming as consistent a disciple of Jesus Christ as possible and to know the Word and the gospel clearly enough to be able to share it with someone else. Furthermore,  churches need to see evangelism training not only as swelling their numbers locally, but also as training for evangelizing cross culturally. And certainly the official leadership of the church needs to understand its own role to equip the church for this according to their own assignment in Ephesians 4:11-12 and never, ever to let anyone in the professing church to get away with trying to put any kind of obstacle in the path of anyone who seeks to be a witness to Jesus Christ anywhere in the world.  And in view of the fact that persecution may strike and scatter a church at any time, such as in Acts 8, it is crucial to make this a consistent part of our ministry in the body of Christ, since unexpected persecution may lead to a growth in the church by scattering the witnesses.

Here are then some suggestions as to how a person in a relatively affluent culture such as in North America, Europe and developed nations such as Japan, or perhaps anyone who is in a nation with some kind of educational system. Early in life, there are some preparations that a person can make to be available and prepared as a witness from very early in life. Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn other languages, whether within a school system or even as a family and personal project. Take linguistics courses if possible and learn the cultures as well as the languages. These languages in particular may prepare you for being a witness in parts of the world where the gospel has not been communicated thoroughly: Hindi, Russian, Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and Farsi. Then do such things as get a Bible and memorize key evangelistic verses in those languages and write your testimony and translate it or even familiarize yourself with gospel literature in those languages.
  • Get a passport for international travel and keep it current.
  • Develop and keep job skills that are both marketable and useful worldwide, that could prepare one for vocational ministry throughout the world. Engineering and software development are two areas of expertise which could open doors to personal ministry worldwide now. (For parents seeking to motivate children in languages, science and math, that these subjects may help to open doors for ministry worldwide if they lead to vocational expertise in worldwide demand may help.)
  • Learn to live frugally in terms of resources and resiliently in the face of deprivation and difficulties.

To those who will be his witnesses, then, God promises the power of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ. Those whom Jesus Christ has appointed to be his witnesses have the power of God available to them through the Holy Spirit, and this is his basic spiritual equipment to spread the gospel.

Jesus then concludes his instructions to the apostles in verse 49: “And, look, I am sending upon you the promise of my Father; stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” His instructions were to remain in Jerusalem for a little while until the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and all this is expanded upon in the book of Acts, chapters 1 and 2, with the results continuing through chapter 28 of the book of Acts. The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church would then come upon the church by the authority of Jesus himself to those who had prepared themselves by uniting in prayer. This shows the scriptural emphasis of the day of Pentecost: it is not so much the ‘birthday’ of the church, in that phrase borrowed from Augustine and repeated since then. Rather, it is the empowerment of the church to spread the gospel to all nations. And this is explained in the words of the risen Jesus to the apostles in Acts 1:8: “But you will received power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and to the furthest extent of the earth.”

This, then, is the highest and most scriptural reason for anyone to welcome, seek and receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit in his or her life: to glorify God through being a witness to Jesus Christ anywhere in this earth. So many people may seek to know the power of the Spirit of God to experience happiness or to try to be something in themselves or to accomplish something to make themselves look good in front of other people. Rather, the highest scriptural reason to seek the power of the Spirit of God, from the words of Jesus himself, are to have the full spiritual equipment to fulfill the mission that he has given us to be his witnesses. This is why so many, when they give themselves in full consecration to God receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit, since that consecration includes the consecration of oneself to be witness in the power of the Spirit – and if it doesn’t, then that full consecration is not complete, because something of such supreme importance is being held back. Therefore the fullness of the Holy Spirit, the enduement of spiritual power from God himself, the power in which Jesus himself spoke and ministered throughout his earthly ministry, is the primary qualification for evangelism and ministry, as it has been throughout all the ages of the church and everywhere in the world.

Clearing up this one point can often be a spiritual breakthrough to new life and ministry for many, many people. For instance, a church elder once asked Charles Finney, “Mr. Finney, what would you think of a man who was praying week after week for the Holy Spirit but could get no answer?”

Finney replied that he thought that such a person would be praying from false motives. So the elder asked the further question, “But from what motives should a man pray? If he wants to be happy, is that a false motive?”

So Finney continued with his reply, “Satan might pray with as good a motive as that,” and he quoted Psalm 51:13: “’Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will be converted unto thee.’” And Finney concluded, “The Psalmist did not pray for the Holy Spirit that he might be happy, but that he might be useful and that sinners might be converted to Christ.”

Shortly afterward, Finney went out and when he returned later, he found out that the elder had come to this conclusion about himself: “What you said forced upon me the conviction that I had never really been converted, that I never had any higher motive than a mere selfish desire for my own happiness.” This conclusion had broken him, and he became a new man through true repentance and receiving the forgiveness of sins and the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

So then, if you are today a believer in Jesus Christ, it is because someone else was faithful enough to his or her assignment to have shared the gospel with you. Someone else was gracious enough and cared enough to share with you the greatest news in the world to meet your greatest need. And thus you are likewise called to be a part of the chain of witnesses around the world and across the centuries, to bring the gospel to others in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So this then brings to us the question: have we – each of us, not just some of us – really every put in the time to seek and to receive all the ministries of the Holy Spirit that are involved with spreading the gospel and with empowering our witness? Consider further what Jesus had to say about this: “When the Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who is from the Father, he will witness about me; and you yourselves will bear witness, since you have been with me from the beginning . . . if I go away, I will send him to you, and when he has come, he will convict the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment; of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, since I am going to the Father, and you will no longer see me; and of judgment, because the rule of the world has already been judged” (John 15:26-27, 16:7-11). There is obviously more exposition of these scriptures that could be done, but this shows us that Jesus spoke about the conviction of the Holy Spirit not as some kind of magical guilt-trip mist but connects his work of conviction with the ministry of the gospel through his disciples. But even more, we can trust the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, will then make us as passionate, confident, forthright and loving in the communication of the gospel as Jesus himself.

So then, this brings back the question on whether the churches in the USA have been sidetracked away from this that Jesus has spoken with the ‘seeker friendly, church services for seekers’ mentality since the early 1990s. Personally, the more I think and pray about it, that mentality gave far too much credit to fallen human nature, that anyone apart from Christ knows what he or she is seeking but is spiritually shy about it, and far too little to the seeking and saving initiative of God in Jesus Christ through his people. It often seems to assume that the real need is for the shy seeker is just some information offered in an entertaining and non-threatening way, and that the shy seekers may come to Christ if they just have several questions answered. Rather, what scripture says about fallen human beings is that, “  . . . if our gospel has been concealed, it is concealed among those who are perishing, in whom the god of this world has blinded their minds so that they cannot see the light of the the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God . . . and we ourselves were dead in our trespasses and sins, in which we once went about according to the fashion of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the children of disobedience; in whom we once conducted ourselves by the desires of our human nature and acted on the wishes of our human nature and our own understanding, and we were by nature children of wrath as the rest of mankind . . .” ( , II Corinthians 4:3-4, Ephesians 2:1-3). And who among us can give any real amount of credence to our having received salvation to our own seeking and receiving information, as much as to the reality that “ . . . God, who said, ‘Out of darkness let light shine,’ is the one who has shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6).

Scripturally, the gospel of God in the power of God can bring a person to salvation in a very short time, and no protracted times of seeking or conviction are really necessary. Rather, the gospel of God in the Spirit of God can take a hardened sinner into salvation in a very short time. For instance, does anyone really think that the 3000 saved on Pentecost were really just seekers after salvation in Christ, and just needed several questions answered in order to come to repentance and find salvation in Christ? Did the apostles ever use community theater as a normal evangelistic method? Even more, though there will be seasons of openness to the gospel in the lives of many throughout their lives, there is really no scriptural necessity that gospel of God in the power of the Holy Spirit must wait for those period of openness in the lives of others. Rather, many, many times gospel of God in the power of God through the Holy Spirit has opened up hearts and in an astonishingly short time from the perspective of man.

The call of the Lord Jesus to witness continues to come to us today through his Word. He himself has already done the most essential part in his death on the cross when he took the penalty for our sin that we deserved. His death is the reason that through the gospel God offers forgiveness instead of his wrath. The living Lord then stands by his people now who are his witnesses with all the power of the Holy Spirit, and so his plan is that we should share the life changing message that all need to hear, the life changing message that we share out of love for the Lord and for others who have the same need what we have had for the Savior.

If you, then, have already received Jesus Christ as your Savior in repentance and faith, then you have already received the first and greatest qualification to be a witness to his salvation. Moreover, the Lord Jesus himself extends the assignment to you personally. So consider and address every excuse that you may have as to why you cannot witness to him now, since you will one day come face to face before him to give account for all your life, and that includes your assignment to witness to him. Consider that the acknowledgment of him as Lord and Master means that acceptance of his assignment to be his witness. Make it your personal act of submission to him to be his witness out of love to him, and seek from him the opportunities for witness. Accept no message coming from you life other than the scriptural gospel of salvation. And furthermore, consider it to be unacceptable for you or any other believer to in any try to set any kind of obstacles or stumbling blocks to anyone else seeking to witness for Jesus Christ.

In addition, then, if you have been born again of the Holy Spirit by faith in Jesus Christ, make it your goal to be constantly filled with the Holy Spirit. The fullness of his Spirit is the power to love and to witness to Jesus Christ beyond anything that we are in ourselves, and he takes us beyond any of the fear, intimidation and self concern and self consciousness before a world that is often hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, don’t leave home without him.

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Assignment: Earth

The following post is the transcript of a sermon that I have preached in every church where I have served as pastor, and several other churches as well. The last time I preached it I mentioned that it seems like a whole generation has grown up in our churches which has never heard a single sermon on the Great Commission, and the leadership of that church seemed to be both shocked and in agreement. I offer this in the hope that we never let this be the final word. Rather, I would encourage preaching not only on Matthew 28:18-20 – the passage commonly called the Great Commission – but also in its alternative forms, in Luke 24:46-49 and Acts 1:8.

The style will be kind of rough in some area, since I preach primarily from an extended outline. Because my writing and speaking styles are different, and I have a strong memory, I was never able to write out a sermon effectively and preach in the same way, since the memory of what I wrote and the way that I wanted to express it in my speaking style always interfered with each other during the time of actual preaching. I was always able to preach most effectively when I was preaching extemporaneously from an extended outline. So, in an actual preaching situation, this wouldn’t have represented my actual words, but more the way I would express my meaning in my writing style. 

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Matthew 28:18-20

The founder of the China Inland Mission, Hudson Taylor once said, “The sun never sets on the world. One half of it is always in the light of day. Likewise, God never intended part of his world ever to lay permanently out of reach of the light of his truth.”

The concern of the God of the Bible is for the entire world. This concern has been revealed above all in the person and mission of his Son Jesus Christ.This concern is motivated by a love that reaches each person no matter who he or she may be, and this is demonstrated shown by the death of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world, so that salvation may be available for all. Even more, it is shown in the resurrection and ascension of the Lord to be the ultimate authority in the universe. And again it is  shown in the constant repetition of the assignment to his church, to reach the world with his message. This assignment was given during the forty days of his teaching ministry to the apostles after his resurrection and before his ascension. This assignment is based upon all that he has already done, and is  backed by his universal authority and constant presence for their assistance. Thus through the apostles he gave to the church the command to reach all the people of this earth with his gospel. This command was repeated in the passage of scripture generally called the Great Commission, namely, to go and make disciples of all the world, from all the nations of this world. 

This assignment is the great, unfinished task of the church of Jesus Christ. This task that always requires renewed attention and constant prayer;  this task makes it necessary to learn the direction of the Lord to fulfill his command and to receive from him all that is necessary to fulfill the task. And this task is completely impossible to us if it were up to us alone. But, it is not to him as he works through us as we respond to his command with faith and obedience.

So this, then is the command: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The risen Lord has commanded his followers to make disciples everywhere in the world. All the people of the world are to be targets for the gospel and prospects for becoming disciples. The mission field for the church of Jesus is everywhere, and everyone is a prospect for becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The basis of this command is the complete and universal authority of Jesus Christ. The risen Lord has all authority in his hands to claim disciples from all the world, and upon this authority he has the right to give his church this command.

In verse 19  the risen Lord Jesus asserts his own universal authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” This startling statement is yet backed by the amazing fact of the crucifixion and resurrection. The nail prints were still visible in hands and feet of that person who made this statement, and who stood there, alive, to make this claim before those who were eyewitnesses of this resurrection. He was no ghost or apparition, but the Lord risen in the same body which had walked the roads of Galilee and Judea, who had touched and healed many, and who had taught them, corrected them, and loved them. Even more, it is his claim to have the authority of God himself over all the universe, as he had claimed and demonstrated himself to be the unique, eternal Son of God in all that he had said and done. Moreover, his claim to have all authority implies rightfulness to claim the individual submission of all on earth to himself. So, his call to make disciples comes from his own right to the faith, obedience and worship of each person, based upon his being the ultimate authority in the universe.

Therefore this is the assurance that everywhere the gospel of Jesus Christ is valid, that it is right to call others to become disciples of Jesus, even if they are adherents of other religions: it is the authority of Jesus Christ himself. The authority of Jesus himself is behind all evangelism, discipleship and missions. It means that everyone everywhere has to answer to Jesus Christ above all, because he has all authority in heaven and on earth. And that means that what we will say will be not from our own opinions when we speak his gospel but ultimately based in the word and authority of the Lord to who all must give account. So this, then, is the total and complete justification for the work of evangelism, discipleship and missions: the Lordship of Jesus Christ himself. So also his possession of all authority in heaven and on earth is the beginning,  center and goal of missions, and is the reason for becoming a missional church and a missional believer in Christ.

Making disciples, then, requires going to the world with the message of the gospel.  Making disciples requires those who are disciples to go to those who are not disciples. Making disciples then requires those who are disciples of Jesus Christ to share the gospel so that others might become disciples of Jesus Christ.

This is then the heart of the assignment that Jesus gave to his church, in verse  18: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations”. This means that it is the responsibility of his church to go to others with the gospel.  For the apostles this would have meant first evangelizing Jerusalem and building a strong church there. And then would have meant ending out missionaries – such as Philip, Barnabas, Paul, Silas and Timothy to build strong, witnessing churches in other cities. These churches would then send forth more missionaries, until all have heard the message which Jesus gave them to share with the world, the good news of his death and resurrection, to make forgiveness and eternal life available through repentance and faith in him. (See Luke 24:46-49 for the parallel passage in which he give the actual message and his promise of the power of the Holy Spirit for witness.)  Making disciples would mean for them to call others to the same faith in and commitment to Jesus Christ that they had come to, as the entry point into discipleship, just as they had done. 

The mandate to go to others is thus the responsibility of the whole church and of every individual believer. This is contrary to the “come” strategy of churchianity. The “come” strategy attempts to attracts others to our group, and may put the emphasis on the pastor and the pulpit, our wonderful group of people, our entertaining and uplifting services, or our humanitarian works of mercy and kindness. All those may be good, but they are not the fulfillment of the command of Jesus. And Jesus definitely put the task of evangelization before every believer  with this command. His command means that every believer is to be a missionary, or, in the current trendy, word, missional, in the sense of being ready to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and to make disciples for Jesus Christ, and to go into all the world that message until there is no where else to go with that message.

There’s a story of a Marine who asked this question of the drill instructor: “Sir, what are our chances of going overseas?”

This was the answer: “There are three kinds of Marines. The one who are overseas, the ones who have been overseas, and the ones who are going overseas. So I would say your chances are pretty darn good.”

So it’s the same thing with the church of Jesus Christ: there are no exceptions to his command to go into the world and make disciples. There are those who are going out to do it, those who are preparing, and those who are continuing to do it. It may be in another culture, or in another nation, or it may be with the people in one’s own city and neighborhood. But there is no believer who can claim to have Jesus as Lord of his or her life and make the claim at the same time that he or she is exempt from this command.

Making disciples, then, means leading people to a complete commitment to Christ as Lord. The full Biblical implications of his sovereignty means becoming responsible disciples for oneself and to understand what this means for making disciples in dealing with others.

This is how Jesus explained what he meant by making disciples: (v. 18b –19): “ . . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Making disciples is thus the process of evangelistic reproduction. Jesus’s meaning for the apostles would have been for them to reproduce the process they had been through with him.They had responded to him with repentance and faith in him, baptism, and then following his Word, as it can be found in the gospels. The goal of conversion, of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior would be defined as discipleship. This would begin with a public commitment of water baptism, and the disciple of Jesus would then continue as a responsible follower of Jesus.

Therefore the measure of evangelism is not decisions recorded but disciples that are made. Disciples tend to reproduce disciples. So, many of the failures in areas of expecting baptism as the outcome of a real conversion and teaching complete obedience to Jesus  are a strong reason for why many churches see shallow conversions, and may record a number of professions but may not produce  godly, consecrated believers with a life of witness, missionary vision and support. The command of Jesus means that his teaching and commands must be absolutely central in the life of the person whom the church can legitimately consider to have been saved with the salvation of Jesus Christ.

There was once an author who reported this on the evangelistic efforts in another denomination: “ We have too many nonresident members today . . . people who feel they have made the one-time decision, walked to the altar in answer to that appeal, and yet are not aware of what they were doing and what is expected of them.” I mention this not to say that my own denomination is any better, but that it describes the case of many in the churches who are sitting back, soaking in sermons, reveling in praise and worship, but living little for Jesus as the Lord of their lives as far as having demonstrated that they are seeking to learn and follow everything that he was commanded them.

Therefore Jesus’s directions for our mission challenges some present notions of evangelism. His assignment redirects our attention to first of all to going to others with the gospel and then training those who receive the gospel to be responsible disciples here. And since like produces like, this also implies the need for the person sharing the gospel to be a responsible disciple himself: for the person claiming and proclaiming salvation to have been baptized and a conscientious follower of Jesus Christ in his or her daily life. This means our seeing ourselves as Christ’s missionaries, whether we go outside the our own country and culture or not, since our own country and culture will always be included in the nations. It means that the vision and burden for the world of Jesus Christ, his standing assignment for his church, therefore must penetrate our lives.

But Jesus does not leave us just with a command, though; he gives a promise that makes it certain that it will be fulfilled. Those who go can take complete confidence in this:  The risen Lord is also present with his people wherever they are making disciples. His promise is often used as a general kind of comfort, and it is definitely that. But in the original meaning, he promised his presence not so much as a general comfort but specifically in the context of the mission that he has given his church to reach the world. His promise of his presence thus finds its true fulfillment when his people are fulfilling their mission.

Jesus promises he will be with us, wherever we go, until our mission is done. He will be with us as we follow his will and as we share his concern for the world. His promise is therefore the basis of an indescribable confidence to go into the world with the gospel.

Jesus gives the promise of his presence in verse 20: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”. This was meant not as his assurance of companionship – although that is a part of his promises, as he promised in John 14:21 and 23 — as much as the promise of his helping presence. In the fullness of the his own teaching about his mission this promise is to be understood in the light of the promise of the Holy Spirit that fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in prayer on the day of Pentecost. That day is to be understood not as the birthday of the church, as Augustine mentioned, but rather as the coming of the power of God through the Holy Spirit upon his church to empower them to be witnesses for Christ throughout all the world.  The point was not the tongues, but the witness of power, as Jesus himself said in Acts 1:8.  So the impossible challenge of the assignment which Jesus gave was to be fulfilled only with the assurance of the divine presence and power to do so. The promise of his helping presence was looking forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit, who can justifiably be called the Spirit of worldwide missions.

Therefore the impossible task is ultimately the work of the Lord who does the impossible, and this is the assurance that the task will be fulfilled.The Spirit of Jesus is here to transform us into the likeness of Christ The power of the Spirit of Christ has come to give us his strength to endure in faith and obedience beyond our own ability. The Holy Spirit is available to give us boldness to witness to him, and above all to guide us to pray in his name for the provision of all our other needs. And this is not at all to make us comfortable here in our own situation, but to give us power and ability to make the gospel of Jesus Christ known everywhere.

Here is testimony of David Livingstone gave at Cambridge University in England. He gave it as he held the students in awe with his gaunt body, with one arm that had been crushed by a lion: “Shall I tell you what sustained me amidst the toil, the hardship, and the loneliness of my exiled life? It was the promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.’”  And that same assurance is available to his people when they go on his assignment to bring the gospel to the world and make disciples of all nations.

Jesus Christ therefore is in the midst of his people as they go out to fulfill his command to make disciples of all nations. His presence is the assurance that missions will not fail, because the because the Lord who is behind missions will not fail.

Our assignment is planet Earth Our mission is to make disciples everywhere. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the message with which disciples make disciples. That good news is that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and that he rose from the dead to be seated in heaven with all authority in heaven and earth. He has provided eternal life as a free gift, but once that free gift has been received, the person who received it cannot remain the same. Thus wherever anyone receives that gift of eternal life, he or she enters into that living relationship with Jesus Christ called discipleship, and that assignment of Jesus becomes part of his or her life.

So then, are you a disciple of Jesus Christ? This question is the same as asking whether you have received eternal life in by faith in Christ. Jesus did not consider that anyone could be saved who was not also his disciple. If you have not made that step of faith, to receive eternal life by putting your faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, that is the first and most necessary thing for you to do. We cannot assume that someone is a disciple and is going to heaven because he or she simply shows up at church and goes through the motions in the worship service. So I ask you again: are you certain that your faith is in Jesus Christ now and forever as your Lord and Savior, and that only because he has suffered and died for you that you received forgiveness for your sins and eternal life?

But then again, if you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, are you living as a disciple of Jesus Christ?

Water baptism is the declaration of discipleship before the entire world. If you have not been baptized, therefore consider it according to the Word of God. Here it is the explicit command of Christ, and not something that comes from a church tradition. So ultimately the primary issue in following through with water baptism is the authority of Jesus himself. And this is one issue that we do not need to wonder what would Jesus do, because we have his own example of what he did do, that he followed through with water baptism himself, at the beginning of his ministry and reception of his own power for ministry with the filling of the Holy Spirit.  

Living as a disciple then means learning, believing and following the Word of Jesus Christ; what are you personally doing to learn and follow the Word of God in your life?

If you are a disciple of Christ, what are you doing to lead others to become disciples of Jesus? Do you know how to be an effective witness to Christ? have you been trained to witness in a scriptural manner? If you have been trained to witness, what are you doing to put it into practice in your daily life?

If you are a disciple of Jesus, do you stand with your brothers and sisters in Christ in the mission to reach the world with the gospel? For years we’ve talked about being missionary churches, becoming world Christians and becoming missional. But continuing as a disciple of Jesus Christ entails commitment to reach the world with the gospel, whatever the terms we use. It entails prayer in support of the worldwide mission of the church and giving toward the fulfillment of the worldwide mission of the church and also includes the willingness to go oneself, in whatever way the Lord might lead

Finally, is the church you attend truly a Great Commission Church? That isn’t just a cliché, and it isn’t something that we can assume is true without considering how much the assignment of Jesus Christ to your church determines what happens in your church. It means that the command of Jesus Christ is the primary direction of this church as a whole, and is the primary influence upon the way that every ministry is approached, and the way that every fellowship is directed. So, this question remains: is your church a Great Commission Church?

More Than a Few Ideas on How to Spark Evangelism in Your Church

Back in the 1970s and 1980s many churches had explicit evangelism training programs – many of which were Evangelism Explosion training – but it’s not too much to say that many of them have since been discontinued. I’ve heard that most professedly evangelical churches in the United States do not teach people how to witness for Christ much any more. Here are some ideas to get back some of the evangelistic spark:

Regularly present in the gospel in the preaching ministry of the church. Do this even in sermons that deal with issue that would primarily concern those who have already received Christ. This does not have to be an explicit altar call but rather regularly pray for and seek a fresh way to share the gospel in the course of the sermon. Include also answers to common objections to the gospel in the sermon, such as, “What about someone who has never heard of Christ?” Most pastors would be surprised how much what they say which can be used in an evangelistic conversation might find its way into the hearts and later the conversations of their congregations.

Note how Jesus and the apostles engaged in presenting the gospel during the course of preaching and teaching. During this process it will become clear that they used a variety of openings to deal with people about their most pressing spiritual need, had memorized scriptures and knew the gospel thoroughly, depended on the power of the Holy Spirit and sought and prayed for his working (Acts 4:29-30), would move from human needs and gospel promises to tell people about their most pressing spiritual needs of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and would concentrate on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the center of the gospel (I Corinthians 15:1-11).

Encourage anyone in the congregation over the age of six to memorize John 3:16. This one verse summarizes the gospel, and can be used as the start to many, many witnessing conversations. Many who may have a church background may know the verse, and treasure it for its emotional association with a family and church attendance, but never have understood its real message. Then move to have them include other verses such as Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 6:23.

Regularly include a witnessing testimony in the church services. Have someone  share his or her testimony in the church services once a month or so. Start with the currently serving board of elders and other church leaders. Encourage testimonies from a variety of backgrounds.

Encourage the people of your congregation to write down their own witnessing testimony for their own personal use. Even if they do not share it in a church service, they could share it with friends, children, or their grandchildren.

Occasionally include a dramatization of an evangelistic conversation in a church service. Once I participated in a demonstration in a Sunday evening service of an Evangelism Explosion home visit with the pastor and a couple from the church. Avoid making this too humorous. Again, include some variety and some answers to common objections and evasions that people may bring up during an evangelistic conversation.

Regularly pray for the salvation of anyone in attendance at church services and the family members, friends and neighbors who do not know Christ as Savior. The more that the people in the congregation hear this prayer request from the pulpit, the more that they will understand how much they need to be consistently, faithfully and passionately need to be praying for the salvation of those that they know.

Encourage people regularly to pray for the salvation of their family members, friends and neighbors who do not have an explicit Christian testimony. Show them how, and then continue to tell them how. Encourage each prayer meeting, church choir and musical group practice and Bible study to make this a regular part of their praying, much more than any physical needs and ailments (the ‘organ recital’ that has often been a regular part of traditional midweek prayer meetings). 

Encourage all ministries of a church to have an evangelistic component, and everyone in public ministry and in the Sunday School to know how to share the gospel. Could the worship leader in your church share the gospel with someone else? Or the piano player? Or one of the ushers? If someone had a spiritual need, would they need to hunt down a pastor to turn over that person to the pastor to handle?

Guide adults – parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, teachers and neighbors – on how to share the gospel with children. Children can come to know Christ at an early age, but too many just take them to church but never discuss the gospel with them. Tragically, it seems also that many who attend churches succumb to the idea in some parts of the culture that they’ll wait until their children grow up and let them choose for themselves. This would be a good example of an evangelistic conversation to model before a congregation yearly, and you could even have an adult stand in for a child for this example.  These kinds of evangelistic conversations require the adult to be extremely gentle and loving and to explain everything simply and thoroughly without the use of Christianese. Moreover, experience with these kinds of evangelistic conversations can help believers to be extremely loving and gentle and explain everything simply and thoroughly without the use of Christianese when they are sharing the gospel with adults.

Aim to reach adults with the gospel as well as children. Don’t fall for the statistic that a person is not going to come to Christ if he or she hasn’t come to Christ by a certain age. Who did Jesus reach primarily? Adults. Who did the apostles reach primarily? Adults. The statistic is misleading; it is not scripture. Rather, it may indicate that the adults in our churches generally do not know how to share the gospel with another adult, rarely do so or do not pray for others that they know to come to faith in Christ as a regular part of their prayer time.

Make sure that everyone in every paid ministry and staff position is a believer, adheres to the scriptural teaching that those who do not trust in Christ are lost eternally, and knows how to share the gospel – even support people. I think that churches and denominations lose their evangelistic spark and missionary drive when people come to positions of leadership who do not hold to scriptural convictions about the lostness of mankind and the need of everyone for the salvation in Christ. I don’t think that churches and denominations ask enough about a person’s convictions in these areas during interviews – such common sense questions as, “How would you share the gospel with me if I indicated to you that I was not born again?” or “Have you ever led someone to Christ?” or “How would you lead this congregation to be a witnessing church?” or simply, “Do you believe that someone who has not come to faith in Christ is lost?”