If our evangelism is increasingly unbelievable, what can we do to be more believable to an inoculated, indifferent and, at times, antagonistic society?
In evangelistic seminars, people are often asked to answer a question that goes something like, “How can I get eternal life?” We might scoff at the question, assuming it too unrealistic to come from our unbelieving neighbors, but I actually know someone who was asked this very question. But instead of telling the person how to get eternal life, he avoided it by asking a question in return. He had the evangelistic ball all teed up, and didn’t even answer the question!
You’ll probably think of him as an evangelistic failure, especially after I tell you what he did next. Instead of inviting the seeker to repent and believe in the gospel—to have faith—this so-called evangelist told him he needed to do good works (serve the poor) before getting eternal life! Now he’s a failure not only by evangelistic standards but also by Reformed standards.
I’ll tell you his name. This so-called evangelist was Jesus Christ.
In Luke 18.18–30″>Luke 18:18–30, a young wealthy man comes to Jesus inquiring, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a softball question, just sitting up there, and Jesus whiffs it completely. He doesn’t even answer the question! He would have flunked the evangelism class. What was he thinking? A lot could be said about this exchange, but let me just point out three things.
Question the Mind
When evangelizing, all too often we are looking to give answers—to deliver the doctrine, win the argument, check the box. But Jesus responds with a question, something he does quite often. Why? Because he’s not seeking converts; he’s engaging hearts. All too often, our evangelism reduces people to projects.
1. Not saying anything about Jesus earns A-
2. Saying Jesus’ name in conversation earns A
3. Mentioning what Jesus did (on the cross, for your sins) earns A+
4. Giving a “whole gospel presentation” earns A
We are caught in a performance act and the listener is our spectator. Evangelism is easily reduced to a gospel infomercial. We do the talking, you do the listening, and then we’ll give you an opportunity to respond. I shudder to think how often I’ve just looked to get Jesus off my chest, clearing my evangelistic conscience.
Not Jesus, though.
He listens and responds to the rich, young professional: “Why do you call me good?” (Luke 18:19). He doesn’t just inform the head; he questions the mind. Notice Jesus dignifies the man’s vocabulary choice. The fact that the man said “good teacher” would have slipped by most of us. But Jesus is paying attention and he asks, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” Commentators suggest several options for Jesus’s remark: 1) Jesus is denying his own goodness, which doesn’t comport with the rest of Luke’s Gospel. 2) Jesus is pointing away to Yahweh’s goodness and making no commentary on himself. It is the regular confession of the Psalms, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.” 3) Perhaps Christ is identifying with Yahweh’s goodness.
But let’s keep reading to find out what Jesus is doing.
Aim for the Heart
Jesus tells the young man, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Instead of telling him the gospel, Jesus tells him to sell literally “as much as he has” and give it to the poor. That’s everything. Why? Why would Jesus, when asked how to inherit eternal life, tell someone to go do good works?
Because he’s aiming for the heart. We frequently aim for the head. Jesus asks questions, because he wants to draw him out, understand him, and he sees the man’s deepest desire is to do something. Doing is valuable to keepers-of-commandments. Perhaps this is why he called Jesus “good.” The rich do-gooder holds keeping the law as a high virtue. “What must I do?”