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).

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