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EvangelismHow to Share the Gospel Faithfully
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 John F. MacArthur
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTheology of Sleep: Evangelism According to Jesus
The Scripture's longest and most detailed instructions concerning evangelism are found in Mark 4. This series of parables is our Lord's Magna Carta on evangelism, and the foundation of His teaching is the parable of the soils. The point of this illustration runs contrary to much of today's evangelistic thinking as it demonstrates that neither the style of the evangelist nor his adaptation of the message ultimately has an impact on the results of his efforts. Jesus' understanding of evangelism is a resounding rebuke to those who suppose that a pastor's dress, style, or music helps him reach a particular culture or crowd, or that diluting the gospel to make it more acceptable produces true conversions. The reality is that God's power comes through the message, not the messenger.
The disciples were confused. They had left their homes, lands, extended families, and friends (Mark 10:28). They turned their backs on their former lives to follow Jesus, whom they believed to be the long-awaited Messiah, and they expected to see other Israelites make similar sacrifices and believe in Jesus as well. Rather than national conversion, the disciples found much animosity. Jewish leaders hated Jesus and His teachings, while many of the masses were only interested in signs and wonders. Few were repenting, and doubt was beginning to grip the Twelve.
The problem was not Jesus' ability to attract an audience. As He traveled around Galilee teaching, the crowds were huge, oft en numbering in the tens of thousands. The disciples were oft en pressed tightly together. Occasionally Jesus would have to get into a boat and push offshore into the lake to teach, merely to escape the crushing weight of the desperate miracle seekers.
But as fascinating and impressive as the scene was, it was not producing true believers. People were not genuinely repenting and embracing Jesus as Savior. Even the disciples' own expectations were not being realized. The prophecies of Isaiah 9 and 45 spoke of a day when the Messiah's kingdom would be global and without end. By the time the events of Mark 4 occurred, the Lord's ministry had been public for two years, and the notion that Jesus was establishing that kind of kingdom seemed far from reality. Consequently, few people were sincerely following Him. The Old Testament described the Messiah as bringing to Israel both national salvation and international supremacy. Thus the massive crowds were only interested in miracles, healings, and food—not salvation from sin.
So it was not surprising for the disciples to have questions. If Jesus was truly the Messiah, why were many of His followers so obviously superficial? How could the long-awaited Messiah come to Israel, only to be rejected by the nation's religious leaders? And why did He not exact power and authority to establish the promised kingdom with the fulfillment of all that was pledged in the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New covenants?
The issue was this: Jesus was preaching a hard message that required radical sacrifice from His followers. On the one hand, following Christ was very appealing. It offered freedom from the labyrinth of oppressive man-made regulations imposed by the Pharisees (Matt. 11:29–30; cf. 17:25–27). On the other hand, following Christ was daunting, because it required finding the narrow gate, denying oneself, and obeying Him even to the point of death (Matt. 7:13–14; Mark 8:34). To follow Jesus required recognizing that He was divine, and that apart from Him there is no salvation and no other means to reconciliation with God (John 14:6). It also meant completely abandoning Judaism that focused on religious practice instead of a penitent heart turned to God.
Many Jews expected the Messiah to liberate them from Roman occupation, but Jesus refused to do so. Instead, He preached a message of repentance, submission, sacrifice, radical devotion, and exclusivity. The crowds were drawn to Him because of the miracles He performed and the power He possessed; the disciples, however, recognized that His approach, as powerful and truthful as it was, was not turning the curious into converts. When the disciples asked, "Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?" it was an honest question born from the reality of what they experienced (Luke 13:23 NASB). One can even imagine the disciples entertaining the idea that perhaps Jesus' message should be altered, even if just slightly, to manipulate the people's response.
The Messenger Is Not the Means
In many ways, current evangelicalism is similarly confused. I have oft en noted that the dominant myth in evangelicalism is that the success of Christianity depends on how popular it is. The perceived mandate is that, if the gospel is to remain relevant, Christianity must somehow adapt and appeal to the latest cultural trends.
That kind of thinking used to be limited to the seeker-sensitive crowd, but it has recently made the leap into more Reformed circles. There are entire movements that would agree to the truths of predestination, election, and total depravity, but then also, inexplicably, demand that pastors act more like rock stars than humble shepherds. Influenced by the emotional rhetoric of bad theology, people tolerate the idea that the cultural shrewdness of a pastor determines how successful his message is and how influential his church will be. Current church growth methodology claims that if an evangelist wants to "reach the culture" (whatever that means), he must emulate the culture in some way. But such an approach runs contrary to the biblical paradigm. The power of the Spirit in the gospel is not found in the messenger, but in the message. Thus, the motivation behind the seeker-driven mind-set might be noble, but it is seriously misguided.
Any effort to manipulate the outcome of evangelism by changing the message or stylizing the messenger is a mistake. The idea that more people will repent if only the preacher were cooler or funnier invariably causes the church to suffer through a ridiculous parade of entrepreneurial types who act as though their personal charm can draw people to Christ.
This error leads to the harmful notion that a pastor's conduct and speech should be determined by the culture in which he ministers. If he is trying to reach an "unchurched" culture, some would argue, he should speak and act like the unchurched, even when their behavior is unholy. There are many problems with that kind of logic, but foremost is the false assumption that a pastor can manufacture true conversions by looking or acting a certain way. The bottom line is that only God is in control of whether or not sinners are saved as a result of any preaching.
In reality, the hard truths of the gospel are not conducive to gaining popularity and influence within secular society. Sadly, however, many preachers crave cultural acceptance so much they are actually willing to alter God's message of salvation and His standard of holiness in order to achieve it. The result, of course, is another gospel that is not the gospel at all.
Such compromises do nothing to increase the church's witness within the culture. In fact, they have the opposite effect. By creating a synthetic gospel, they facilitate filling churches with people who have not repented of their sins. Instead of making the world like the church, such efforts succeed only in making the church more like the world. This is precisely what Jesus' teaching in Mark 4 was designed to avoid.
The Parable of the Soils
The disciples, having a genuine burden that others would believe, were astounded that the masses were not repenting. There must have been times when they questioned the indicting, hard, demanding message Jesus preached.
The Lord responded to this rising tide of doubt by telling the disciples a series of parables and proverbs about evangelism. A year before He would give the Great Commission, He used this series of parables as His basis for instruction concerning evangelism (Mark 4:1–34). Mark devotes more space to it than to any other teaching in his Gospel and the focal point is the initial parable, a story about a farmer sowing seed:
Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it. Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away. And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred. (Mark 4:3–8)
This illustration is a paradigmatic explanation of what evangelism should look like. It is designed to answer a basic question that all evangelists eventually ask: why do some people respond to the gospel while others do not? The answer to this question clarifies the essence of evangelism.
The Missing Sower
The parable of the soils begins with a farmer. What is surprising about him is how little control he actually has in the growing of the crops. There are no adjectives used to describe his style or skill, and in a subsequent parable our Lord depicts a sower as one who plants, returns home, and goes to sleep:
And He was saying, "The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know.
"The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come." (Mark 4:26–29 NASB)
Jesus states that the farmer is ignorant of how the seed transforms itself into a mature plant. After sowing the seed, the farmer "goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts up and grows—how, he himself does not know."
This ignorance is not unique to this particular farmer, but rather is true of everyone who sows. The growth of the seed is a mystery that even the most advanced farmer cannot explain. And this reality is the key to the entire parable. Jesus explains that the seed represents the gospel, and the farmer represents the evangelist (v. 26). The evangelist scatters the seed—that is, explains the gospel to people—and some of those people believe and receive life. How this happens is a divine mystery to the evangelist. One thing is clear, however: though he is the human means, it does not ultimately depend on him. The power of the gospel is in the working of the Spirit, not in the style of the sower (Rom. 1:16; 1 Thess. 1:5; 1 Peter 1:23). It is the Spirit of God who raises souls from death to life, not the methods or techniques of the messenger.
The apostle Paul understood this principle. When he brought the gospel to Corinth, he planted the church and left it in the care of Apollos. Later he described the experience this way: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase" (1 Cor. 3:6). God was the one who actually drew sinners to Himself, changed their hearts, and caused them to be sanctified. Paul and Apollos were both faithful, but they most certainly were not the explanation for the supernatural life and growth. This truth caused Paul to say, "So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase" (1 Cor. 3:7).
Jesus intentionally highlights the farmer's lack of influence over the growth of the seed. In fact, Jesus stresses that the farmer, aft er planting, simply went home and fell asleep. This is directly analogous to evangelism. For a person to be saved, the Spirit of God has to draw him, and regenerate his soul ( John 6:44; Titus 3:5). This runs counter to the notion that the results of evangelism can be influenced by the wardrobe of the pastor or the kind of music that is played before the message. A farmer could have a burlap or a cashmere seed bag, and neither would have any effect whatsoever on the growth of the seed. The pastor who thinks designer jeans will make his message more palatable is akin to a farmer investing in a designer seed bag so that the soil will be more receptive to his seeds.
Do not mistake this as an apologetic for wearing blue suits. The point Jesus makes is not that the evangelist should wear a tie and sing hymns. The entire parable is making the statement that as far as evangelism goes, it simply does not matter what the evangelist wears, or how he does his hair. Such externals are not what makes the seed grow. When people argue that a pastor who behaves like a particular segment of a culture is better able to reach that culture, they fail to understand Jesus' point.
All the farmer can do is sow, and all the evangelist can do is proclaim. As a preacher, if I thought someone's salvation was contingent upon my adherence to some subtle aspect of the culture, I could never sleep. But instead I know that "the Lord knows those who are His" (2 Tim. 2:19). It is not coincidental that the New Testament never calls evangelists to bear the responsibility for another person's salvation. Rather, having proclaimed the message faithfully, we are called to rest in the sovereignty of God.
Of course, the fact that the farmer went to sleep is not an excuse for laziness. It is wrong to think that the style of the evangelist determines who and how many will be saved. But there is the equally serious error of using God's sovereignty as an excuse not to evangelize. Often called hyper-Calvinism, this view incorrectly assumes that since evangelists are not capable of regenerating someone, then evangelism itself is not necessary.
But that perspective likewise misses the point of Jesus' teaching. The farmer did sleep, but only after he diligently sowed his seed. A farmer who thinks, "I can't cause the seed to grow, so why bother even planting?" will not be a farmer for long.
The truth is, Jesus' description of the farmer provides the model for evangelism. The evangelist must plant the gospel seed, without which no one can be saved (Rom. 10:14–17). Then he must trust God with the results, since only the Spirit can give life (John 3:5–8).
Not only is the farmer's style irrelevant to the success of his crops but Jesus also does not suggest that the sower should alter his seed to facilitate growth. The parable of the soils portrays six results from the sowing process, but at no point do those results depend on the skill of the sower.
The absence of discussion about the seed likewise corresponds to evangelism. Jesus assumes that Christians will evangelize, using the true seed—the gospel. Altering the message is not an option. Believers are warned against tampering with the message at all (Gal. 1:6–9; 2 John 9–11). The only variable in this parable is the soil. If a frustrated evangelist looks at how difficult his task is, or how closed his culture seems to be to the gospel, the problem is not with the faithful messenger or the true gospel. Rather, it lies in the nature of the soil into which the true seed falls.
Jesus describes different kinds of soil where seeds are sown—some do not produce salvation's fruit, but others do. All six of these soils paint a picture of inevitable responses to evangelism, as the soils represent various conditions of the human heart.
Sowing on the road
The first kind of soil is not receptive at all. Matthew 13:4 describes some of the seed as falling "by the wayside." Fields in Israel were not fenced or walled in. Instead of fences, there were paths that crisscrossed the fields, making borders. These paths were purposely uncultivated. Since the climate in Israel is arid and hot, the paths were roads, beaten as hard as pavement by the feet of those who traversed them. If seed fell on these paths, birds following the sower would swoop down and snatch it.
Excerpted from Evangelism by John MacArthur Copyright © 2011 by John F. MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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