Evangelism vs. Compassion
By Carl Nelson
Evangelism is changing. The methods we use to tell people that Jesus can open the door to a relationship with God are different than what was effective before.
Americans today know less and less about God and the Bible. A generation ago, a majority of people were aware of their own sin that separated them from God. Today, most non-religious people have no concept of sin, nor recognize that they are separated from God.
So we need to learn new ways to tell the Good News and help people meet Jesus.
One effective way is to integrate the spoken words of truth and explanation of Good News with the active and living results of Good News. Many call this a Holistic Gospel—combining the words and deeds of Jesus’ Gospel into an integrated living and spoken witness.
Some Christians have resisted this movement because it appears to some that it places less emphasis on evangelism. However, we should be just as concerned when proclamation-only-evangelism produces less and less fruit, as it is doing in American culture today. It is also true that deeds of mercy and justice cannot replace words and proclamation that explain and announce the Good News to help people accept Jesus.
Rather than viewing this as an either-or approach, Christians should consider a both-and approach. We should learn better how to combine and integrate the living results of Good News with the spoken explanation of Good News.
The book of Ephesians has helped give me a framework to understand how we can stay focused on proclaiming the Good News about salvation in Jesus, and at the same time be working to fight injustice and show love and mercy to others in the name of Jesus.
Here’s my summary of the book of Ephesians in a nutshell. We were separated from God by sin, but Jesus sacrificed himself to make peace between us and God, then gathered us into a new community called the Church, and through the Church, God intends to overcome suffering and destruction and reestablish His created order, with the end result being that God’s glory is revealed to the ends of the universe.
A mistake I have made is to minimize the entirety of God’s redemptive purposes achieved through Jesus Christ.
Yes, Christ is the one who achieves our salvation, but our salvation is not just for us; it also serves a greater purpose. Too many times we end the story right there. We only think about our salvation, and we forget why God has saved us.
God is on a mission to rescue a broken and hurting world and to bring people back to himself. Ephesians 3:18 tells us that after we become followers of Jesus, we should seek to understand and be filled with the “the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ. By doing so, we become like Jesus as we take on the defining characteristic of Jesus—His all-consuming love for others.
When we are filled and moved with the compassion and justice of Christ, we become part of God’s mission to bring the world back under His control.
And this I believe gets to the heart of the matter of how we collectively as the Church bring glory to God.
As a historical movement, evangelicalism has been at the forefront of both spiritual revivals and combating injustice. But in the past century, we’ve become caught up in a debate about which is more important, evangelism or compassion, telling people about Jesus or loving them.
But if we properly understand the eternal purposes of God, I think the answer is easy. It’s not either-or; it’s both. God didn’t come here to just save us in the eternal realm and then leave us to exist in a broken world abounding with suffering and injustice. No, instead He created the Church to be filled with the overwhelming compassion of Christ to be at work in the earthly realm. To do what? To honor God by doing His will—to bring people back to God and to combat human suffering.
One year ago, I was at the Third Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, and the Rev. John Piper offered this explanation of the full complexity of the Gospel with our simultaneous responsibilities to tell people about Jesus and love people like Jesus commands. He offered this statement, explaining how Christians respond when we have met Jesus and been filled with his love: “As Christians, we care about all human suffering; injustice and human suffering on earth and especially eternal suffering of people who never know God.”
In other words, when the Church does evangelism and at the same time works to end human suffering, we’re doing it for the same reason. We do it because we are filled with the person of Jesus and motivated by His love for others.
That love manifests itself through two simultaneous actions: telling people about Jesus and loving people as Jesus wants us to, recognizing that our ultimate problem with eternal consequences is our separation from God, to whom we can only be reconciled to through Jesus Christ.
This article originally appeared in the Minnesota Christian Examiner in December 2011, and is used here with permission.