Let me run an idea past you.
We’re doing evangelism all wrong.
This is the general order of conversion to Christianity as I have experienced it:
- A realization that something is wrong with the way we live life.
- Repentance from the sins that we know about
- Acceptance of Christ as Lord
- Salvation and Transformation in Christ
This is the formula. When someone asks “What must I do to be saved?” we know the five steps: Hear, Believe, Repent, Obey, Be Baptized.
We treat it as an equation where Salvation is the end result of the formula. And, like a math equation, if you take one of those away, the result changes.
1+1+1 = 3
You can’t remove any part of the equation and still end up with 3. Likewise,
Hearing + Believing + Repentance + Obedience + Baptism = Salvation.
To remove even one of those aspects is to arrive at a different result.
But what if Salvation isn’t a math equation?
One of the things that the New Testament promises Christians is transformation in Christ. The book of Titus gives a startling contrast between a life before Christ and a life with Christ. In chapter 1, Paul tells Timothy that, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” (v. 12). In Titus chapter 3, he reminds Timothy that these very same Cretans are to be “subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work. They must not slander anyone, but be peaceable, gentle, showing complete courtesy to all people.” (vv. 1-2). Paul expects there to be a complete reversal in the behavior of the Cretans. But the reason he gives for this transformation is not so that they can gain salvation, but because Christ had already given them salvation. (vv. 4-6).
The Cretans behavioral transformation is not in anticipation of salvation. Rather, their salvation affects their behavior. When they belong to Christ, they abandon their old nature and begin to resemble the nature of Christ.
This isn’t the only instance of this, either.
In John chapter 8, a woman is brought to Jesus. She has been caught in the act of adultery, which is an offense punishable by death under Jewish Law. The crowd gathers to watch and participate in her stoning. Her death is assured; all the evidence is against her.
When Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the crowds, though, they disperse. They, too, are guilty of sin. While they may not have been caught in the act, like this woman, they have deserved judgment. So they drop their stones and walk away.
Jesus then makes this statement: “Neither do I condemn you.” (v. 11)
The woman’s death was guaranteed. There was nothing that could be done about it. She deserved it, and yet she was saved. At no point in the exchange did Jesus ask if she was sorry. At no point did he ask her if she was repentant. He simply brought salvation. Salvation came to this woman, though she had taken none of the five steps towards it. Jesus offered what the woman did not even ask for.
But that’s not the end of the story. After Jesus has already saved this woman from death, Jesus offers this: “Go, and sin no more.” (v. 11)
He saved her from death, in order to bring about a transformation in her.
In the New Testament, salvation breeds repentance.
Which brings us back to evangelism. If salvation always precedes repentance, why is repentance the first thing we ask of the world? Why do we require obedience as a prerequisite for salvation?
The Gospel is that while we were enemies of God, he saved us (Romans 5:10). The Gospel is that, now that we are saved, he transforms us into His image through his Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). The Gospel is that salvation showed up long before our obedience. Our obedience is the result of the salvation that is already ours.
At this point, it needs to be said that salvation is not a single event. There is not a point in my life at which God saved me. God continues to save me. Salvation is not merely an escape from the consequences of sin, it is the continual renewal of our spirits in his service. Salvation is the process of repentance. Salvation is the process of obedience. Salvation is the process of transformation.
Because of this, we cannot be content with who we are. When people join into the family of God, we spur one another on to surrender more and more of ourselves to the transformative power of Christ. We must continue to be transformed, shedding our earthly habits, and moving closer and closer to the image of Christ. We cannot forget or ignore obedience to Christ. We must stand firm against the sin that so easily entangles us.
But we have to keep it in perspective. This transformation comes through salvation.
Therefore, we cannot preach a gospel of repentance and obedience without first preaching a gospel of salvation.
So here is the Gospel, as I’ve come to understand it:
You are important to God. You do matter. God loves you. He has already begun the work of salvation in you, and he wants you to become a part of it.
It’s not always fun. Sometimes it’s painful. God is not going to leave you as you are. He wants to perfect you, and the process of perfection is not easy. But it starts with Love. Regardless of who you are, what you are, what you believe, and what you’ve done, God intimately desires for you to know him. And if you come to know that love, I am confident of this – that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.