The Hermeneutics of Evangelism: Some Additional Reflections

by W. Jackson Watts

At the recent Free Will Baptist Theological Symposium in October, I presented a paper entitled “Hearing the Gospel: Reflections on the Hermeneutics of Evangelism.” Drawing on the nuanced way we understand the idea of “hearing” (listening and obeying), I attempted to sketch out some of the ways in which human sinfulness shapes the way people hear our presentations of the Gospel. Specifically I argued,

“As discouraging as the experience of seeing people reject the Gospel can be, it may be equally unhelpful to ascribe these failures in communication to one single cause rather than a plurality of factors which shape the response of listeners….Instead of opting for simplistic reasons for failures to receive the Gospel, contemporary Christians should adopt a more biblical, multi-dimensional approach. Because the Bible demonstrates human sinfulness as a complex, multi-dimensional reality, evangelists—that is,faithful disciples—should expect to encounter varied obstacles to the reception of the Gospel. Yet they should still strive faithfully to evangelize in light of these challenges. Such an approach is true to the biblical witness and contemporary experience. Furthermore, it highlights the profoundly theological nature of evangelism.”

My paper goes on to highlight and describe some cultural features or lenses of human life, namely language, power, and personal peace, and how the Gospel is often heard (or misheard) through them. Hopefully by attending to the ways each of these function, we can unleash the Gospel’s full power in order to break through some of these barriers as the message of Christ calls all people, in all sorts of sin-stained cultural contexts, to repent and believe.

As any presenter does I suppose, I recognize certain limitations or ways in which my argument could be strengthened, expanded, or even clarified. I was thankful for the thoughtful and appreciative responses that followed my presentation. But if I revised my paper, there is a matter or two that I would expand upon or include some comment on. Here I’d like to add one additional thread to this important topic.

An Important Consideration

Much of my writing consists of an attempt to help the church strengthen its ways of thinking and living out Christian doctrine in the world. This theme in my writing appeared at the 2012 Symposium when I presented a paper on the relationship between doctrine and practice. Since then, I find myself increasingly preoccupied by this subject. Being a pastor and theology student brings me back to this again and again.

In some instances, I think the most noticeable, practical impact of this preoccupation is that I am writing on topics that essentially try to strengthen theologically the ways we’re thinking about a familiar topic. In the case of this year’s Symposium, it was the topic of evangelism. My concern was that without giving sufficient attention to the multi-dimensional nature of human sinfulness, we might under-appreciate why people sometimes reject the Gospel. While it’s certainly true that God blesses many of our evangelistic efforts even when we know little-to-nothing about some of the people we share with, sometimes our lack of familiarity with them, as well as our own cultural context, hinders us from growing more competent with the way we channel the full scope of the Gospel at them wherever we encounter people.

The one fear that I had in presenting this paper was not that people would deny the validity of the argument itself. Rather, I feared that they might not appreciate the weight of it, and thus think that while my paper offered some helpful reflections, it only made more complex a task which should be rather simple: sharing the Gospel. In the end, however, not a single comment or response so far has offered that critique. Still, I think it’s worth saying that it is possible to read my paper and notice a void concerning the work of the Holy Spirit. After all, if the Spirit is drawing, convicting, and even at work in the life of the evangelist prior to the evangelistic moment, then it might be easy to dismiss the value of us learning more about how people “hear the Gospel.” “We just need to preach the message,” some will say, “and either they’ll obey the Spirit’s leadership or they’ll reject Him.” I think a few comments are needed to address how the Holy Spirit’s work relates to my presentation.

First, I begin my reflection on the practice of evangelism with the deeply-held belief that without the Holy Spirit, no human being will be saved. This is a point at which Arminians and Calvinists agree, though they construe the nature of the Spirit’s work a bit differently. But I believe that it should be easy for Christians in different traditions to agree on this point because there is so much clear, Scriptural testimony to support it. The Spirit must first draw a man for Him to be saved.

Second, the Holy Spirit’s power to apply the preached Word is such that it doesn’t require the evangelist to possess years of education about sophisticated concepts like hamartiology (the doctrine of sin), Constantinianism, culture, or, Lord-help-us, “plausibility structures” (thank you Peter Berger). Yet we agree that the Holy Spirit, according to God’s good pleasure, works through human agents to communicate the Word using partly our own words, personalities, and backgrounds (including our education).

So while we must make every effort to not make evangelism too complex so as to discourage Christians from evangelizing (or confusing our hearers!), this concern for clarity actually support my basic argument. I think many people may not hear our Gospel presentations clearly because we’ve assumed that a one-size-fits-all approach shouldn’t be up for revision, even when we’re finding people walk away from us without having trusted Christ. Rejection of the Gospel doesn’t leave us culpable for people’s rejection; it should leave us reflective about what just happened, praying that God will teach us through every victory and every failure–even if they’re only perceived victories or failures.

Finally, a robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit is essential for understanding the multi-dimensional nature of human sinfulness, which is what causes us to try different ways of presenting the Gospel. Sometimes God wants to reach persons in ways that differ from our expectations! The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit delights in doing things that unsettle both unbelievers and believers. He receives more glory this way, just as the stable was more glorious than any Hilton, or the cross more than any throne. I believe this shapes our evangelism because the Holy Spirit, whose power we desperately need, has a way of confronting people’s unique culturally-conditioned rebellion against God. And this doesn’t disqualify our usage of words, categories, and ways of presenting the Gospel unique to that situation. Rather, it can be a Spiritually-directed act which is happening.

In the panel discussion that concluded the Symposium, Clint Morgan highlighted the work of the Holy Spirit in evangelism. I definitely appreciated that as I personally don’t know as much as I’d like to about how He does what He does in our lives. But I recall Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:8).

Thanksgiving Message

by the Commission for Theological Integrity

This week is a special week for perhaps all of us as we travel or welcome in travelers, prepare our favorite dishes, and  consider God’s many blessings on us and our families. We know this holiday as ‘Thanksgiving.’ Though Thanksgiving is a civil holiday–that is, it is nationally recognized and tied to an earthly nation’s history–it is certainly a holiday which calls to mind many Christian themes which we as believers would want to reflect in our lives. Among these themes is that of gratitude.

Gratitude certainly seems to be the spiritual attitude that the apostles were trying to engender when so often in their writings we find the command, “Give thanks.” Those who walk in the Spirit are able to give thanks because they are persuaded about the blessings of God in salvation, including their ongoing sanctification. Yet they also recognize the material blessings which are enjoyed are graces from God as well.

So as we all unplug this week and spend time with family and friends, the Theological Commission wishes to simply offer a “Happy Thanksgiving” to all of our website’s readers. We will resume our normal Tuesday post next week.

The First Word on Last Things

by Randy Corn

“Mr. Corn, I just don’t understand why we have to study this stuff.”

That was the objection of a student at Welch College where I served as an adjunct Bible instructor. The “stuff” was an introductory overview to eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) before our class surveyed First and Second Thessalonians.

My first thought was this was the typical college student objection to studying anything. I recalled the remark of one the longest-tenured teachers at my alma mater: A college student was “someone who paid for something and then hoped he didn’t get it!”

But this young man was not the class sloth; he would end up with a solid B at the end of the semester. Why did he object to spending a day discussing such things as the Second Coming of Christ, the differences between Amillennialism and Premillennialism, and the differences within Premillennialism about the Rapture?

Why Study Eschatology?

When the question was asked, my immediate response was because this was a biblical subject and we were in a Bible class. I was convinced that if the students could put First and Second Thessalonians in an eschatological framework it would give them a deeper understanding of what the apostle Paul was driving at in these epistles. I’m afraid it came across to my questioner as, “I’m the teacher, you are the student, and I get to decide what we will study.”

The question and the inadequacy of my answer stuck with me until I was back in my church office that afternoon. I wondered if this was one of those subjects I found fascinating but the next generation could dismiss with a yawn. Was the problem in my presentation? Had I unnecessarily complicated it with a number of hyphenated theological terms?

Maybe the problem was application. Perhaps that questioning student was voicing the complaint many feel when preachers and Bible teachers fail to show how a biblical subject touches their lives. There was probably some truth in all my ponderings. I decided what I needed to do was convince my class that eschatology really was in important Bible doctrine, one that impacts daily Christian living. I would present them with an apologetic for eschatology.

     (1) Frequent Bible References

The next class period I met the students at the door with a single sheet of paper which gave my reasons for studying eschatology. The first was that the Bible gives a great deal of attention to the subject. Christians should be interested in anything God chooses to reveal in His Word.

Scholars have counted as many as 1,845 references to the Second Coming of Christ in the Old Testament and 318 in the New. In fact, 23 of the 27 New Testament books speak of the Second Coming in one way or another.

     (2) Basic Elements of Faith

My second reason for studying eschatology is that the Bible speaks of it as one of the elementary things of the Christian faith. This is explained by such passages as Hebrews 6:1-2 :“Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us goo n unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”

Note that the last two items mentioned in verse 2, “resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment,” are listed in what the writer of Hebrews calls “the principles of the doctrine of Christ. The word “principles” is literally “of the beginning.” Some translators even render this “the elementary principles.” Obviously then, eschatology is one of the foundational things Christians should learn.

The apostle Paul certainly believed this. He speaks often of the Second Coming in First and Second Thessalonians and seems to do so building upon the knowledge that the Thessalonian church already had of those doctrines. When we go back to Acts 17, we find that he only spent three Sabbaths there before being run out of town.

The only conclusion we can draw is that Paul had some basic teaching about eschatology in what we might refer to as his new convert course. If Paul the great church planter thought it was so foundational, eschatology certainly ought to be studied by Christians today.

     (3) Guidepost for Tomorrow

A third reason I gave the class for studying eschatology is that it gives us insight into what to expect. Now some obviously make too much of this, going to the extreme of setting dates for the return of Christ. Still, it can be a reassurance to us that the very things which will shock the world are prophesied in the Bible.

On the Test

I shared a few more reasons with the class, and then a hand went up. “Mr. Corn, is this going to be on the test?” I had taught only two semesters, but I knew if I said “no” the students with rare exception would toss my notes in the waste can almost as quickly as they would dismiss my lecture from their memories.

“Probably” was my reply. I know that kind of answer frustrates students, but my hope was that in putting my reasons for studying eschatology into their short-term memory, a few might seep into their long-term memory as well.

Eschatology is important. The same reasons I gave my class for studying it should compel preachers to make it part of their pulpit plan. As long as we avoid being either too technical or too abstract, the insights of eschatology can be of real benefit to every believer. After all, if we take seriously the admonition to preach the whole counsel of God, then what excuse can we give for failing to instruct those under our care?

As we have pointed out, eschatology is one of the “elementary principles” with which all Christians should be familiar. Our church members may not be facing an exam over the sermons we preach or the lessons we teach, but a healthy dose of eschatology can help them pass the test of day-to-day life.

Symposium Notes

by the Theological Commission

Last Tuesday the Commission for Theological Integrity shared some initial reports from our successful 2014 Symposium. Presentations were well-received, the evangelistic zeal of attendees was encouraged, and a lively panel discussion were part of this year’s program. This week we follow with two exciting announcements. You can listen to the panel discussion here .

First, we are pleased to now make the 2014 collection of presentations available in digital format, available for download at the discounted rate of $10. For those wanting a sample of what they missed by not attending this year’s event, readers may download and listen to the panel discussion featuring Mark Coppenger, Clint Morgan, Rodney Holloman, and Barry Raper.

Second, the Commission is also excited about their 2015 events, which will include their annual Theological Trends seminar at the National Convention in Grand Rapids. The title of the seminar will be “Discipleship in Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective.” More information will be provided soon concerning this important event, including the guest speakers.

Our other event that we want to inform readers about is our 2015 Symposium, which will be held on the campus of Hillsdale FWB College in Moore, Oklahoma. The 2015 theme will be “The Theology of Discipleship.” As readers can see, the theme connects both of our main events next year, and we hope that in turn they will complement each another. Just as evangelism is critical to the church’s ministry, so is discipleship. Because discipleship is charged with theological significance, we felt that this should be given the same level of attention that evangelism is.

We invite your questions and paper submissions for next year’s event. Papers can begin being submitted as of March 1 to fwbtheology@gmail.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

Panel Discussion Mp3

2014 Theological Symposium

This past Monday and Tuesday, over 130 students, professors, church leaders, and laymen converged on the Thigpen Theater of Welch College for the 2014 Free Will Baptist Theological Symposium. In gathering for this event, the attendees were giving attention to a range of scholarly papers, but especially ones related to the Symposium theme: “Evangelism in the Post-Christian West.” This year’s program included the following presentations:

  • Aaron Baldridge (GA): “A Renewed Ministry Model for New Priests: Implications of the Priesthood of Believers for the Ministry of Evangelism”
  • Jeff Cockrell (NC): “Provoking to Jealously: Paul’s Missionary Strategy”
  • Charles Cook (TN): “Twentieth-Century Evangelism: Exploring the Legacies of Lesslie Newbigin and Billy Graham”
  • Mark Coppenger (TN): “Evangelism in a Post-Christian World: Ten Lessons I Think I’ve Learned”
  • Greg Hollifield (TN): “Danger Ahead: Preaching and Teaching the Warning Passages of Hebrews, or, When the Plain Meaning of the Texts Contradicts Your Own Personal Theology”
  • Eddie Moody (NC): “Preparing Congregants to Survive, Thrive in, and Influence a Post-Christian Culture”
  • Phillip Morgan (TN): “Let them be hereticks, Turcks, Jewes, or what soever”: Thomas Helwys’s Seminal Argument for Universal Religious Freedom in England”
  • Jackson Watts (MO): “Hearing the Gospel: Reflections on the Hermeneutics of Evangelism”

These presentations were followed by a panel discussion on the conference theme, featuring panelists Dr. Mark Coppenger of Southern Seminary, International Missions Director Clint Morgan, Commission member and pastor Rodney Holloman, and Dr. Barry Raper of Welch College and pastor of Bethel Free Will Baptist Church. The panel discussion was moderated by Jackson Watts of the Theological Commission.

The audience listened intently to Dr. Coppenger's enthusiastic presentation.
The audience listened intently to Dr. Coppenger’s enthusiastic presentation.

Further Symposium content will be made available in the coming days, including conference papers. Presently the bound edition can be purchased by mail for the price of $25. All purchase requests can be made by emailing fwbtheology@gmail.com, or by making checks out to “Commission for Theological Integrity,” and mailing them to the attention of Matt Pinson at 3606 West End Avenue, Nashville, TN, 37205. Next year’s Symposium will be held on the campus of Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College in Moore, Oklahoma, on October 26-27. The Symposium theme will be announced soon.

Preserving and Promoting Free Will Baptist Doctrine