I was very provoked by Geoff’s comment on the previous post about the challenge the ‘evangelists’ have in the West and whether their task is to teach the church to witness. And this post is one in process. I was brought up to either take every opportunity to share one’s faith, even carry a tract, or maybe feel a little guilty afterward about missing an opportunity. Now a few disclaimers (or disclosures) that will reveal a process I have been on for decades.
I have covered in the series on eschatology why I do not believe the Bible teaches the eternal punishing of ‘sinners’. In summary: the soul is not immortal; God alone has immortality; the tree of life was barred to humanity so that ‘they might not live forever’; the imagery drawn is from Sodom and Gomorrah, they being destroyed by eternal fire and all that remained was the smoke of their torment, and from the closing verses of Isaiah where ‘their worm did not die’, the fire was not quenched but the result was non-existence. This is the difference between eternal punishing and eternal punishment. One is unending and ongoing, the other (at some stage) final and irreversible. I also consider that many of the warnings in the Gospel are concerning the ‘hell’ of AD70, so not relevant to the issue of eternal destiny.
Then I lean to the blurred line position of ‘all who receive Christ’ are saved (we then have to wait to see what it means to receive Christ – what about those who received an image of Christ, and how perverted is an image until it is no longer a Christ but an anti-(replacing the authentic) Christ?), and all who ‘reject Jesus are lost’ (again what does it mean to ‘reject’ Christ). This is not a Universalist position but holds solidly to the universal inclusion through the Cross. This gives room for those to be included in the age to come who have not come through the narrow door that those from an evangelical / fundamentalist background have been (implicitly) taught to work with. Though it needs to be noted that the above is well within the boundaries of evangelical faith.
This takes some of the angst out of the ‘one opportunity so quickly discharge your responsibility’. Other issues I have with the hard line ‘one opportunity’ scenario is that we can treat people as objects to be saved, preached to, or whatever. Something I think is far from the scenarios we find in the Gospels with Jesus or in the Acts with the Gospel mission. There was a ‘I-Thou’ relationship (to take out of context a quote) that seems to me to be about the encounters we read there. In many of the scenarios a giving in relationship was the context, and that takes time.
Then we come to look at the Pauline Gospel with some central elements concerning the death and resurrection that proclaim a new foundation for the world. A new creation is on its way because he is the ‘firstborn of all creation’, and (I think) by implication there was a new way to be society in the light of that. Paul could proclaim this in the market place alongside the other philosophers. The huge added dimension was a transcendent one, witnessed to by the inbreaking of heaven’s realities with miracles and the expulsion of demons. Immediate signs of another dimension, and subsequent signs of a different dimension evidenced socially if someone took a focus on the transformation among the marginalised.
For me then the proclamation of the ‘kingdom of God’ was not a three step 1) all sinned; 2) Jesus died for all; 3) receive him and you are saved. Hence I think our call and Paul’s preaching was ‘to bear witness’. This seems to accord with his desire to come to the Roman church to proclaim the Gospel, not to reduce this to work with them to ‘evangelise’.
Now the flip side. There is wonderfully more than enough evidence throughout the letters that personal salvation is a reality. Paul spoke of wanting all to be in his situation (minus the chains) when addressing the royal court. He wished for them to be as he was personally bonded to Christ.
This is why we need to be very sensitive to the ‘in the next five minutes I need to get across the deeply core aspect of the cross that Jesus was present to reconcile all to God’. If we call that evangelism, then let’s be very sensitive to evangelise. I simply think that is one aspect of bearing witness, and an aspect that if forced in another situation might not be a bearing of witness.
Praying for a sick person without explaining the four spiritual laws, digging someone’s garden or whatever might be the most powerful witness we can bring at a given time. Our witness is not to how good we are, nor to how bad someone is who is not a ‘believer’ but our witness is to Jesus, that there is a new creation here and coming.
So my tentative position is that we are to bear witness. We must resist the temptation to evangelise at all costs. We have to be passionate about Jesus so that we see people as he saw them. Perhaps to the religious person we might have to insist that without them being born again they will not even perceive the kingdom; maybe to the rich person we might need to exhort them to sell everything for without it they can never be free to enter bondship to Jesus; perhaps to the financial cheat we should go eat with them and only when they look to put right waht they have done do we take the liberty to proclaim that salvation has come to their household; maybe… Yes all gospel stories and ones centred in on Jesus’ ministry to Israel so they have their limitation, but maybe they also have enough provocation to bring me to repentance over the situations where I have opted to evaneglise when I should have born witness, or have missed on out on that specific opportunity to ‘evanglise’ when I opted to avoid it.