What Evangelism Is (and Isn’t)

by Derek Brown

Those of us who have been Christians for many years or who have grown up in Christian homes may count the word “evangelism” a regular part of our vocabulary. We may not use it much in our daily conversations, but it’s familiar to us and we’ve heard it often among the members of our church community. Some of us may even say that evangelism is a vital part of our walk with Christ and something in which we participate on a regular to semi-regular basis.

Wherever we are at on this spectrum, it is essential for us to visit or, for some of us, revisit the topic of evangelism. Why do I say “essential?” We will discuss in more detail the reasons why we should concern ourselves with evangelism in subsequent posts. For now it is enough to say that we should reflect carefully on how to define this term for one simple reason: evangelism is the privilege and responsibility of every Christian. Whether you have been a Christian for a few months or a few years, Jesus Christ calls you, through his Word, to practice evangelism for his glory, your neighbor’s salvation, and your joy.

Toward a Definition
But what is evangelism? In order to help us navigate this important topic, we will provide a basic definition at the beginning of our discussion. We will refer to this definition throughout the subsequent posts in this series.

Evangelism is the faithful proclamation of the gospel (i.e., good news) through which we invite unbelievers to repent from their sin and believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, full pardon and justification from God, and entrance into a new life of holiness.

We will fill out this definition in more detail as we make our way through this series on evangelism. At this point we want you to notice that evangelism includes four essential components. First, evangelism is verbal proclamation. We cannot say that we have evangelized if we have not used words. Perhaps you have heard this popular quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” St. Francis never actually said those words, but this fact hasn’t stopped people from using this phrase or attributing it this friar from the 13th century.

Regardless of its origin, however, this statement—or, at least, the thinking reflected in this statement—can be found among many Christians today. The idea that the gospel is something we do rather than something we tell is more common among Christians than you might expect. In order to re-calibrate our thinking according to God’s Word, we must first say that true evangelism will always involve verbal proclamation. If we don’t use words, we haven’t evangelized.

Second, evangelism will always include the gospel. In the New Testament, the word translated “gospel” is the Greek word, euaggélion. To evangelize, then, is simply to proclaim the “evangel,” the good news. What is important to note here is that our conversations and proclamations must include a specific content or else we cannot call it evangelism. Understanding in greater depth the content of the gospel will be the aim of a later post.

Third, evangelism must include truth about Jesus’ death and resurrection for sin. We may talk to our friends or fellow students about the Bible or religion or important social issues, but until we have told them about Jesus’ death and resurrection for sin, we have not evangelized.

Finally, evangelism must include an invitation to repent and believe in Christ. In order to say that we have shared the gospel, we must be able to say that we have told people how to receive the riches promised in the gospel. Without inviting a person to repent of their sin and believe in Christ, we haven’t given them everything they need. What use is the best news in the universe if a person doesn’t know how to apply it to themselves?

We don’t want to press this point too far, however. In our efforts to evangelize, there may be times when we are faithfully presenting the whole gospel to someone and, because of the circumstances surrounding our conversation or a person’s responsiveness there may be times when we are unable to offer an invitation to repent and believe. Nevertheless, faithful evangelism will include, on the whole, a call to repent and believe.

What Evangelism Isn’t
Having touched briefly on what constitutes evangelism, we want to take our discussion a little deeper. Because some wrong thinking concerning evangelism has pervaded many of our churches, it is critical to establish clarity by way of contrast. In this section, we are going to examine a few common ways Christians mistake the practice of evangelism for other important aspects of the Christian life.

Before we launch into these common mistakes, however, it is important to recognize that all of the practices listed below are legitimate—even necessary—activities for a Christian, and may serve as a way to build relationships with others for the sake of sharing the gospel. There are times when talking to someone about social issues will naturally lead to speaking to your conversation partner about the gospel. Conducting our lives in holiness and purity will also be vital as we proclaim the gospel. Our point in this section is to help you identify the ways you might be prone to mistake evangelism for something else so that you can make genuine progress in your efforts to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.

Having a Conversation About God and Religion Is Not Evangelism
In various contexts you might find it fitting to talk with others about God and the broader category of religion. Given the fact that God and religion are often topics of interest in the media and the larger culture, it is likely that there will be times to engage these important areas with unbelievers. You might talk about the existence of God or the idea of a Supreme Being from a philosophical perspective. But these subjects, at most, are only ice-breakers to lead to evangelism and cannot be considered evangelism in and of themselves. And, as we will see in subsequent posts, it is not necessary to begin with such topics in order to move to talking about the gospel.

Talking About the Bible Is Not Evangelism
Similarly, evangelism is not merely talking to someone about the Bible. Is it good to talk to unbelievers about the Bible? Absolutely! In fact, we will see in later posts that one of our primary aims in evangelism should be to get people into the Bible for themselves. But we can be tempted to mistake discussions about the Proverbs or the literary diversity and beauty of Scripture for evangelism. Again, these are useful topics (any topic involving God’s Word is!), and they may often lead to sharing the gospel, but we have not obeyed the calling to evangelize until we talk specifically about the Person and work of Jesus Christ and the necessity to believe in Him.

Defending the Christian Faith May Not Be EvangelismThe practice of defending the faith against unbelieving arguments is usually referred to as apologetics. When someone engages in apologetics, they are not “apologizing” for the Christian faith; they are defending the truth of Christianity through specific argumentation, usually through appeals to evidence from the areas of history, philosophy, or science.

For example, a Christian might argue for the historical reliability of the gospels by providing an unbeliever with several sources outside the Bible that support the Bible’s historic claims. Or, a Christian might defend the reasonableness of Christianity by arguing that only the Christian worldview adequately explains reality, while all other worldviews are in sufficient to explain what we see, feel, and experience. A Christian might address the problems inherent in an evolutionary view of the origin of life. These are useful and important activities and may often intertwine with our evangelistic efforts. But until we have explained a person’s plight before a holy God and offered them the grace found in the death and resurrection of Christ, we have not evangelized. Mark Dever helpfully explains,

Apologetics is defending the faith, answering the questions others have about Christianity. It is responding to the agenda others set. Evangelism, however, is following Christ’s agenda, the news about him. Evangelism is the positive act of telling the good news about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through him

The Gospel and Personal Evangelism

Offering solid evidence for the reliability of the Bible in the areas of history, science, and philosophy, and geology is sometimes useful to defend the truth against attack. But we must keep in mind, as Dever observes, that when we do make such defenses, we are answering the unbeliever according to their agenda. They have questions about the reliability of the Bible and the truthfulness of the Christian faith, and they are presently making those questions the centerpiece of the conversation. We may engage those questions in order demonstrate the durable nature of biblical truth and the self-refuting nature of unbelief, but will be doing so from a defensive posture rather than an offensive one.

When we preach the gospel, however, we are addressing the unbeliever according to Christ’s agenda by positively proclaiming the nature of man’s dire situation and the glorious solution provided in Christ. We may muster a load of evidence for the truth of the Bible, but until we have told people that that they face God’s judgment and can be saved by repentance and faith in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have not evangelized.

Discussing Important Social Issues Is Not Evangelism
There are many of cultural issues about which Christians should be concerned. And walking faithfully to Christ will often require us to engage others on what they believe about, say, abortion and the sanctity of life. We may find warm agreement or sharp disagreement with unbelievers over various social issues and find these discussions intellectually and emotionally stimulating. But our conversations about these matters, even though we may be defending the biblical position, cannot be considered evangelism until we have explained the reality of sin and the meaning of the cross. Again, finding common ground on or engaging in mentally invigorating debate on these kinds of may be a means by which you move a conversation to the gospel, but they are not the gospel. As important is the abortion issue is, a person does not escape eternal judgment by becoming pro-life.

Telling Someone They Are A Sinner Is Not Evangelism
Because evangelism involves explaining to an unbeliever that they are sinners by nature and by personal choice, it might be easy to conclude that we have evangelized once we have told someone about their spiritual condition before God. Some so-called Christian groups have formalized this error in the way they conduct their “outreach” ministries by only telling people that they are worthy of God’s judgment. But telling someone that God is going to punish sin is not yet evangelism. Until we have offered Christ and his death on the cross as the only way to avoid this punishment, we have not shared the good news.

Doing Good Deeds for Someone Is Not Evangelism
The Christian life must be a life fully of good works (Matt 5:16). Jesus Christ died for the express purpose of creating a people that are “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Believers are to be rich in good works and constantly engaged in providing for other people’s needs in practical, concrete ways (Titus 3:14). But providing food, shelter, clothing, and financial help is not evangelism. These good works adorn our evangelism and demonstrate that Christ is concerned about the whole person, not just the soul. But we have not yet evangelized until we tell those to whom we offer these earthly provisions about their sin and the solution God has provided in Jesus Christ.

Living a Holy Life is Not Evangelism
When we come to Christ, we immediately embark on a life of holiness (2 Cor 7:1; Eph 4:24). God gives us new desires for holiness and purity, and we begin to walk in fresh patterns of life. Our interests change, our entertainment habits change, our lifestyle begins to change, and our time and energy is now stewarded differently. Sexual purity becomes a priority, integrity a non-negotiable, and we seek to guard our mind and heart from temptation. But we cannot mistake personal holiness for evangelism. Yes, it is important that people see a difference in our lives, but our holiness of life, in and of itself, cannot save someone. Granted, a holy life will adorn our words with authenticity, and a compromised, hypocritical lifestyle may hinder someone from believing the gospel, but our lives, by themselves, can save no one. Until we speak the truth about our sin and the goodness of Christ, we have not evangelized.