Insights from Green’s ‘Evangelism in the Early Church’, pt. 3

I’m going to wrap up this series with this post. There is probably a lot more to glean from this book and I look forward to rereading it sometime down the line. For now though I have many other books I need to get to and think on.

The fifth practical/ministry insight I’m taking from Green’s book is the importance of non-legalistic motivations for doing the work of evangelism. Green asserts that the early church had a more multi-faceted approach, finding motivation to take up the work from more that just a few verses at the end of Matthew’s gospel. First, he notes that the Christians were primarily motivated out of gratitude to God for all he had done for them. This doesn’t mean the Great Commission wasn’t important, but it does not appear with frequency in the writings of the early church. Green cites Roland Allen, arguing, “it would be only a minor loss if the textual doubts surrounding those verses [Matthew 28:16-20] prove justified [they don’t], and if it could be clearly demonstrated that Jesus never spoke those works. ‘The obligation to preach the gospel to all nations would not have been diminished by a single iota. For the obligations depends not upon the letter but upon the Spirit of Christ, not upon what he orders but upon what he is, and the Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of Divine love and compassion and desire for souls astray from God” (pg. 278). Coupled with this sense of gratitude and the ‘thrill’ it was to represent Christ to the world was a healthy sense of accountability. While the early Christians certainly believed one’s future was secure in Christ, they were also aware that everyone would stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of how they had stewarded their lives, including the opportunities to share the gospel (see for example Matthew 25:14-30). Green points out that while in the 2nd century this sometimes degenerates into a crude system of rewards and punishments it was not so in the earliest church writings, including the NT. Added to these two motives to preach the gospel was a genuine concern for the lost. Green comments, “Mankind is divided into those who accept him as the way to God and those who do not…It is one of the most objectionable elements in the gospel to modern man. No doubt it was to people of the first century. The scandal of Christ’s particularity has always been the supreme obstacle to Christian commitment. But these early Christians believed implicitly that Jesus was the only hope for the world, the only way to God for the human race. Now if you believe that outside of Christ there is no hope, it is impossible to possess an atom of human love and kindness without being gripped with a great desire to bring people to this one way of salvation. We are not surprised, therefore, to find that concern for the state of the unevangelized was one of the great driving forces behind Christian preaching of the gospel in the early church” (pg. 290). Green also points out that this concern for the unevangelized was fueled by a healthy theology of the end (eschatology). The church really believed, and not just in their formal theological statements, in Jesus’ imminent personal return to judge the world and in the reality of hell. Even in the second and third centuries when the hope of an immediate return had faded, “eschatological expectation played a notable part in galvanizing the church into mission” (pg. 369).

Why have so few in the modern church been equally motivated? Honestly, the is certainly a problem drawing parallels between the early church and the modern church on this point. When we look at the early church we are looking at those who were most active and recorded their activities. There may well have been large segments of the early church that didn’t do much by way of evangelism and weren’t motivated by gratitude or concern. Still, we can learn from those who were were active and properly motivated. One of the reasons people don’t respond with overwhelming gratitude for the grace they have been given is they don’t understand the ridiculous nature of that grace. We have grown up hearing we are really good. At church we may here a different story, yet I suspect notions of our inherit goodness still lay just beneath the surface in many evangelicals (I’m sure Barna’s got a statistic somewhere). I really don’t know that we’ll feel the proper gratitude for what God has done in Christ till we appreciate the horror of what we have done in our rebellion against God. If we don’t feel that we won’t be motivated much by it either.

On the whole it seems what is needed in the church is a deeper and truer love for Christ. (I feel like I’m getting repetitive in saying I include myself in this critique, but that if I don’t keep including myself I run the risk of coming off as self righteous). The task of spreading the good news of Jesus wouldn’t be something we do only when the level of guilt for not doing it rises to a critical level. Instead, it would be praising and commending the God we adore to others, calling them to adore him for who he is and what he has done.

Finally, the sixth insight, which may be the most important for me personally, comes in Green’s chapter on evangelistic methods. He begins his section on ‘teaching evangelism’ with a critique of Dodd’s ‘arbitrary separation between preaching and teaching, between kerygma and didache” (pg. 313). He goes on to write, “in early Christianity there was no such clear-cut distinction between the work of the evangelist and that of the teacher. This is, in fact, apparent throughout the period from St. Paul to Origen. Both of them evangelized through teaching the Christian faith” (pg. 313).

We have come to think of evangelism and teaching as two entirely separate functions – some texts are evangelist texts, some are meant for the believer. Some truths are useful for evangelism, some are not. I think the whole body of truths the church has been given are useful for instruction and evangelism. This can be pushed to far, for in the first post I outlined the particular evangelistic message used in ministry to the Jews and Gentiles. However, what I want to assert is the evangelistic potential of every passage of Scripture (I remember hearing RC Sproul talk about how he was brought to faith in a service where the preacher was preaching on an obscure passage from the prophets). All passages of Scripture are useful in evangelism because 1) all Scripture leads to or flows from the cross, and 2) God is sovereign and his Spirit and his Word are powerful instruments to do what is humanly impossible.

As I said, this has been a challenging insight, especially as I am thinking through plans for next semester and the college ministry. Last year we walked through the book of Revelation and were heavy on the teaching aspect. This year has been entirely topical and more weighted to the evangelistic component. How do we wed these two aspects of ministry? That is the challenge and one I am really enjoying contemplating. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this (if any of you have been keeping up with these really long posts).