For the latter half of 2021, our church has been gathering on the first Saturday of the month to visit every home within a two-mile radius of our church. Our plan is to share the gospel with the residents of each home, making our way strategically through the entire neighborhood to then start the process again.
Our efforts to proclaim the gospel to our neighbors has led to much edifying discussion among our people about the theology and practice of evangelism. Some of our door-knocks are met with disdain, others with indifference, still others with genuine interest. A question that naturally arises from these varied experiences relates to our expectations: What kind of response should we anticipate when we share the gospel with unbelievers?
Over the years as I’ve pondered this question and conversed with others about it, I’ve heard some argue that we should expect nothing less than what the prophets of old experienced. Isaiah, for example, was told by God before he even commenced his ministry that he would meet stern resistance and see no fruit (Isa 6:9-13). Jeremiah saw nothing but rebellion to his ministry. For the most part, the message of the prophets would go unheeded. Mockery and rejection would be their portion. Christians, it is claimed, should be ready to face the same kind of rejection and spiritual barrenness.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve heard others argue that we should expect results like we see in the early portions of Acts where mass conversions are the rule, not the exception. Success in terms of actual conversions should be the norm whenever we preach the gospel.
So, what should we expect when we evangelize? As it turns out, the biblical portrait is far more nuanced than what these two extremes provide.
Should We Expect Little to No Fruit?
The problem with comparing our evangelistic efforts with the experience of the Old Testament prophets is that such a comparison fails to reckon with the drastic differences between the Old and New Covenants. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all the other Old Testament prophets ministered within a covenantal administration that did not provide the spiritual resources for an appropriate response to the commands contained in the covenant. Nation-wide disobedience was predicted in the covenant documents themselves (see Deut 30:1). Moses spoke directly about the need for radical heart change (Deut 10:16), but the covenant under which he labored did not provide for such heart change.
The New Covenant, however, is different from the Old Covenant at this very point. In the New Covenant, God grants the necessary heart change for his people and provides the Spirit to enable an appropriate response to his Word (Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 36:26-27). Unlike the Old Testament prophets, Christian evangelists are equipped with a message that comes with the Spirit (2 Cor 3:1-17), which is why the New Covenant gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:16). The very nature of the New Covenant should encourage us to expect genuine conversions at the preaching of the gospel.
Should We Expect Conversions at Every Turn?
Now that we are equipped with the New Covenant gospel and the attendant Holy Spirit, should we anticipate large-scale conversions and professions of faith every time we share the good news? Again, Scripture steers us away from this conclusion as well.
While it is true that the early church experienced a massive in-gathering of saints in her early stages (e.g., Acts 2:41, 47), such numeric success was not the unmitigated norm, even in the book of Acts. Paul, for example, was met with severe difficulty in Lystra, appearing to gain possibly only once disciple at first (Acts 14:10). The idol craftsmen in Ephesus didn’t take kindly to Paul’s message, to say the least (Acts 19:21-41). And throughout his epistles, Paul describes the resistance he experienced from enemies of the gospel (e.g., Col 2:1; 1 Thess 2:15; 2 Tim 4:15). For these reasons, we cannot conclude that post-Pentecost apostolic ministry was always met with immediate success.
The Gate is Narrow and the Harvest is Plentiful
Jesus’ own ministry helps us navigate this question of evangelistic expectation. Our Lord told his followers that the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and few find it (Matt 7:13). This statement implies that our evangelistic efforts will be met with resistance because if only a “few” find that narrow gate that leads to life, then “many” will reject the gospel message and opt for the broad road. But Jesus also told his disciples that the harvest is plentiful (Matt 9:38). This comment implies that our efforts will find a good amount of success as we gather many people for the kingdom of God through our faithful gospel proclamation.
Jesus’ balance between anticipating resistance and success in gospel ministry bears itself out in the disciples’ own evangelistic endeavors. As we noted above, the apostles experienced gospel triumph and rejection as they proclaimed Christ throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).
But even when they experienced opposition or a general lack of interest, fruit was still present. After Paul was stoned in Lystra, he went with Barnabas to Derbe and won many disciples (Acts 14:21). Lystra itself eventually gained disciples, (Acts 16:2), most likely due to Paul’s return to that city after his stay in Derbe (Acts 14:21). Even among the mockers in Athens were some who believed and joined the apostles (Acts 17:34).
Why is Matters: Your Expectations Will Shape Your Methods
It is vital to hold these two expectations in careful balance in our hearts. On the one hand, if we train ourselves to expect only resistance to the gospel, we may find that our expectations become self-fulfilling. Think of it. If I saturate my mind with the anticipation that I will surely meet settled defiance when I share the gospel, I may not expend much of an effort in persuading my neighbor to believe in Christ. I won’t think of creative ways to help them see the truth more clearly. I won’t follow up. What’s the point? They’re not going to believe anyway.
On the other hand, if I anticipate only success, then I may be tempted to tinker with the gospel in order to procure a “profession” from my neighbor. If I am meeting opposition when I share the good news, I may need to adjust the message in order to secure conversions and avoid persecution. But we must remember that the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Cor 1:18). It isn’t beautiful to those who are spiritually blind (1 Cor 4:1-6). True conversion requires a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, so taking notches off the gospel is not only pointless; it can be downright cowardly.
But, if I know that I will encounter both resistance and success in my evangelistic labors, this will help ensure that I don’t compromise the gospel or compromise my diligence in persuading my neighbor to believe (2 Cor 5:9). This is the pattern of the apostles.
Paul, for example, recognized that those to whom he proclaimed the gospel were naturally hardened to the truth and blind to the glory of Christ. He knew that only a sovereign, supernatural work of grace could raise spiritually dead people to life (Rom 8:28-30; Eph 2:1-8). He knew he would suffer at the hands of those who hated God and hated the message of the cross (Acts 9:16). But he also knew that the gospel was the power of God unto salvation, so he did whatever he could to win people to Christ. “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them….I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:19, 22). The apostle longed for and prayed for the salvation of people (Rom 10:1). Knowing the terror of the Lord, he sought to persuade others to trust in Christ (2 Cor 5:9).
Paul didn’t resign to rejection, flinging out the the basics of the gospel with couched indifference to those he knew weren’t going to believe. Nor did he naively expect that every person he spoke to would turn to the Lord Jesus. Rather, believing in the power of the gospel and the attending ministry of the Holy Spirit, Paul persisted in his evangelistic work, bearing with opposition and persecution while making himself a servant of all with the aim of winning as many souls as possible.
Paul also recognized that he may not see fruit from his gospel efforts immediately. He might plant, another might water, and the growth might come later, when God deemed it to be the right time (1 Cor 3:6). Believing in the power of the gospel is believing that it has the power to save anyone you evangelize. But that salvation may come long after you’ve planted the initial seeds.
So, what should we expect when we evangelize? We should expect people to be saved. We should expect people to turn to the Lord in repentance—perhaps in that moment, perhaps later. We should also expect that the gospel will draw the ire of our neighbors because it is foolish and offensive to the unbelieving heart. Some may merely shrug off our earnest efforts to warn them of the wrath to come; others may argue passionately; still others may firmly say “No, thank you,” and swiftly shut the door in our face. But the bent of the New Testament is toward gospel success, as we see in the ministry of the apostles, particularly Paul. Therefore, knowing the goodness of Christ, the power of the gospel, the promise of the Spirit, and the preciousness of the soul, we press on, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to all people while anticipating a glorious harvest.