Our great longing, our great responsibility
For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel. (1 Corinthians 1:17, NIV)
The Apostle Paul longed for people to become Christians. An exchange he had with King Herod Agrippa went like this:
Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian?’
Paul replied, ‘Short time or long - I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
This is our longing as a church, too! We want everyone to discover what we have found in Jesus. If you are reading this and are not yet a Christian, this is what we long for for you.
And yet - and this is a point perhaps not sufficiently noticed - Paul did not see his responsibility as converting people. His longing, yes - but his responsibility, no. Very clearly he teaches that it is God who works in a person to bring them to trust in Him. That’s why Paul prays!
What he did see as his responsibility was preaching the gospel. He understands himself to be a steward, a watchman and a herald - entrusted with a message by God, which everyone needs to hear. This is the message he calls the gospel of God (Romans 1:1). By extension, we Christians have the responsibility for passing it on, too. It is a message with momentous facts about God - and it includes how He wants us to respond to Him.
Applying this to ourselves if we’re Christians, our longing is that people become Christians, and our responsibility is to tell them the facts of the gospel. It is really vital to be clear about this, and to hold these two parts both distinct and together.
If we think of evangelism only in terms of trying to make people Christians, and forget our responsibility to tell people this momentous news of the gospel, then some damaging consequences will follow.
First, we will almost inevitably change our message to something more acceptable, in the hope that this will persuade them. This was the problem in Corinth, which Paul addresses in the first few chapters of his letter. It has been a problem many times since - for instance, the mid twentieth-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann famously (and influentially, at the time) went through the gospels trying to strip out the miracles. His motive was so that modern people, who didn’t believe in miracles, wouldn’t be put off. We are not immune to similar (but different) temptations to alter the message!
Second, if we strip out some essential of the message, when a person responds by saying they’ve become a Christian, how do we know their response is the real thing?
Third, in a suspicious culture, an organisation out for converts will attract distrust. What is their motive? What are they trying to do? If, however, rightly, and biblically, we stick to our God-given responsibility of passing on the awesome true facts about Jesus, people may not like it, but might at least understand our intentions to be good. Which of course they are: we are simply wanting to tell people real truth which they urgently need to know.
So we long for people to trust Christ. May we never lose that longing! But our responsibility as Christians is to help everyone clearly to understand the momentous news of His gospel fully and accurately, and how we can respond.