How St Paul Evangelizes and Converts by J I Packer

How St Paul Evangelizes and Converts by J I Packer

The following passages are from J. I. Packer’s book, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God,” published in 1961 by InterVasity Press.

     For a complete picture of what the New Testament means by evangelism, we need not look further than the apostle Paul’s account of the nature of his own evangelistic ministry. There are three points to note about it.

1. Paul evangelized as the commissioned representative of the Lord Jesus Christ.

     Evangelism was a task that had been specifically entrusted to him. ‘Christ sent me. . . to preach the gospel.’(1 Corinthians 1:17 KJV) Now, see how he regarded himself in virtue of this commission. In the first place, he saw himself as Christ’s steward. ‘Let a man so account of us (myself, and my fellow-preacher Apollos),’ he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘as of ministers of Christ, and (in that capacity) stewards of the mysteries of God.” (1 Corinthians 4:1 KJV) ‘A dispensation of the gospel (i.e., a commission to dispense it: “a stewardship”, RV) is committed unto me.” (1 Corinthians 9:17 KJV) Paul saw himself as a bondslave raised to a position of high trust, as the steward of a household in New Testament times always was; he had been ‘approved of God to be intrusted with the gospel’,(1 Thessalonians 2:4 RV) and the responsibility now rested on him to be faithful to his trust, as a steward must be, (1 Corinthians 4:2 KJV) guarding the precious truth that had been committed to him (as he later charges Timothy to do—1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:13f), and distributing and dispensing it according to his Master’s instructions. The fact that he had been entrusted with this stewardship meant, as he told the Corinthians, that ‘necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16 KJV) The figure of stewardship thus highlights Paul’s responsibility to evangelize.

     Again, Paul saw himself as Christ’s herald. When he describes himself as ‘appointed a preacher’ of the gospel,(2 Timothy 1:11 KJV) the noun he uses is kèryx, which means a herald, a person who makes public announcements on another’s behalf. When he declares, ‘we preach Christ crucified’, (1 Corinthians 1 :23 KJV) the verb he uses is kerysso, which denotes the herald’s appointed activity of blazoning abroad what he has been told to make known. When Paul speaks of ‘my preaching’, and ‘our preaching’, and lays it down that, after the world’s wisdom had rendered the world ignorant of God, ‘it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe’, (1 Corinthians 2:4 KJV) the noun he uses is kerygma, meaning, not the activity of announcing, but the thing announced, the proclamation itself, the message declared. Paul, in his own estimation, was not a philosopher, not a moralist, not one of the world’s wise men, but simply Christ’s herald. His royal Master had given him a message to proclaim; his whole business, therefore, was to deliver that message with exact and studious faithfulness, adding nothing, altering nothing, and omitting nothing. And he was to deliver it, not as another of man’s bright ideas, needing to be beautified with the cosmetics and high heels of fashionable learning in order to make people look at it, but as a word from God, spoken in Christ’s name, carrying Christ’s authority, and to be authenticated in the hearers by the convincing power of Christ’s Spirit. ‘When I came to you,’ Paul reminds the Corinthians, ‘I.. . came.. . declaring unto you the testimony of God.’ I came, Paul is saying, not to give you my own ideas about anything, but simply to deliver God’s message. Therefore, ‘I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified’—for it was just this that God sent me to tell you about. ‘And my speech and my preaching (kerygma) was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.’ (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 KJV) The figure of the herald thus highlights the authenticity of Paul’s gospel.

     Thirdly, Paul considered himself Christ’s ambassadorWhat is an ambassador? He is the authorized representative of a sovereign. He speaks, not in his own name, but on behalf of the ruler whose deputy he is, and his whole duty and responsibility is to interpret that ruler’s mind faithfully to those to whom he is sent. Paul used this figure twice, both times in connection with his evangelistic work. Pray for me, he wrote from prison, ‘that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.’ God, he wrote again, has ‘committed unto us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were intreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God.’ (2 Corinthians 5:19f RV) Paul called himself an ambassador because he knew that, when he proclaimed the gospel facts and promises, and urged sinners to receive the reconciliation effected at Calvary, it was Christ’s message to the world that he was declaring. The figure of ambassadorship thus highlights the authority that Paul had, as representing his Lord.

     In his evangelism, then, Paul consciously acted as the slave and steward, the mouthpiece and herald, the spokesman and ambassador, of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, on the one hand, his sustained boldness and unshakable sense of authority in face of ridicule and indifference; hence, on the other hand, his intransigent refusal to modify his message in order to suit circumstances. These two things, of course, were connected, for Paul could regard himself as speaking with Christ’s authority only as long as he remained faithful to the terms of his commission and said neither less nor more than he had been given to say (Galatians 1:8ff). But while he preached the gospel that Christ had entrusted to him, he spoke as Christ’s commissioned representative, and could therefore speak authoritatively, and claim a right to be heard.

     But the commission to publish the gospel and make disciples was never confined to the apostles. Nor is it now confined to the Church’s ministers. It is a commission that rests upon the whole Church collectively, and therefore upon each Christian individually. All God’s people are sent to do as the Philippians did, and ‘shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life’ (Philippians 2:15f KJV). Every Christian, therefore, has a God-given obligation to make known the gospel of Christ. And every Christian who declares the gospel message to any fellow-man does so as Christ’s ambassador and representative, according to the terms of his God-given commission. Such is the authority, and such the responsibility, of the Church and of the Christian in evangelism.

2. The second point in Paul’s understanding of his own evangelistic ministry follows on from the first. His primary task in evangelism was to teach the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ.

     As Christ’s ambassador, Paul’s first job was to ‘get across’ the message that his Sovereign had charged him to deliver. Christ sent me, he declared,—to do what?—‘to preach the gospel’(1 Corinthians 1:17 KJV). The Greek word here is euangelizomai, meaning publish the euangelion, literally the ‘good news’. For that is what Paul’s gospel was. Good news, Paul proclaimed, has come into the world—good news from God. It is unlike anything that the world, Jewish or Gentile, had guessed or expected, but it is something that the whole world needs. This good news, the ‘word of God’ in the usual New Testament sense of that phrase,(Acts 4:31; 8:14; 9:1; 13:46; 2 Corinthians 2:17; Colossians 1:25; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 2:9 KJV) ‘the truth’ as Paul often calls it, (2 Corinthians 4:2; Galatians 2:5, 14; 2Thessolonians 2:10ff; 2 Timothy 2:18, 25; 3:8), is a full and final disclosure of what the Creator has done, and will do, to save sinners. It is a complete unfolding of the spiritual facts of life in God’s apostate world.

     What was this good news that Paul preached? It was the news about Jesus of Nazareth. It was the news of the incarnation, the atonement, and the kingdom—the cradle, the cross, and the crown—of the Son of God. It was the news of how God ‘glorified his servant Jesus’ (Acts 3:13 RV) by making Him Christ, the world’s long-awaited ‘Prince and… Saviour’.(Acts 5:31) It was the news of how God made His Son Man; and how, as Man, God made Him Priest, and Prophet, and King; and how, as Priest, God also made Him a sacrifice for sins; and how, as Prophet, God also made Him a Lawgiver to His people; and how, as King, God has also made Him Judge of all the world, and given Him prerogatives which in the Old Testament are exclusively Jehovah’s own—namely, to reign till every knee bows before Him, and to save all who call on His name. In short, the good news was just this: that God has executed His eternal intention of glorifying His Son by exalting Him as a great Saviour for great sinners.

     Such was the gospel which Paul was sent to preach. It was a message of some complexity, needing to be learned before it could be lived by, and understood before it could be applied. It needed, therefore, to be taught. Hence Paul, as a preacher of it, had to become a teacher. He saw this as part of his calling; he speaks of ‘the gospel: whereunto I am appointed a preacher . . . and a teacher’ (2 Timothy 1:10f).  And he tells us that teaching was basic to his evangelistic practice; he speaks of ‘Christ.. . whom we preach. . . teaching every man in all wisdom’( Colossians 1:28). In both texts the reference to teaching is explanatory of the reference to preaching. In other worth: it is by teaching that the gospel preacher fulfils his ministry. To teach the gospel is his first responsibility: to reduce it to its simplest essentials, to analyse it point by point, to fix its meaning by positive and negative definition, to show how each part of the message links up with the rest—and to go on explaining it till he is quite sure that his listeners have grasped it. And therefore when Paul preached the gospel, formally or informally, in the synagogue or in the streets, to Jews or to Gentiles, to a crowd or to one man, what he did was to teach—engaging attention, capturing interest, setting out the facts, explaining their significance, solving difficulties, answering objections, and showing how the message bears on life. Luke’s regular way of describing Paul’s evangelistic ministry is to say that he disputed,(Acts 9:29) or reasoned (dialegomai: RSV renders ‘argued’),(Acts 17:2, 17 RV; 18:4; 19:8f RV 24:25) or taught, (Acts 18:11; 28:31) or persuaded (i.e., sought to carry his hearers’ judgments). (Acts 18:4; 19:8, 26; 28:23; cf 26:28) And Paul himself refers to his ministry among the Gentiles as primarily a task of instruction: ‘unto me. . . was this grace given, to preach unto the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery. . .’ (Ephesians 3:8 RV) Clearly, in Paul’s view, his first and fundamental job as a preacher of the gospel was to communicate knowledge—to get gospel truth fixed in men’s minds. To him, teaching the truth was the basic evangelistic activity; to him, therefore, the only right method of evangelism was the teaching method.

3. Paul’s ultimate aim in evangelism was to convert his hearers to faith in Christ.

     The word ‘convert’ is a translation of the Greek epistrepho, which means—and is sometimes translated—‘turn’. We think of conversion as a work of God, and so from one standpoint it is; but it is striking to observe that in the three New Testament passages where epistrepho is used transitively, of ‘converting’ someone to God, the subject of the verb is not God, as we might have expected, but a preacher. The angel said of John the Baptist: ‘Many of the children of Israel shall he turnto the Lord their God.’ (Luke 1:16) James says: ‘Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner. . . shall save a soul from death. . .’ (James 5:19f). And Paul himself tells Agrippa how Christ had said to him: ‘I send thee (to the Gentiles) to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God’, and how he had obeyed the heavenly vision by proclaiming to both Jews and Gentiles ‘that they should repent and turn to God’(Acts 26:17ff). These passages represent the converting of others as thework of God’s people, a task which they are to perform by summoning men to turn to God in repentance and faith.

     When the Scriptures speak in this way of converting, and of saving, too, as a task for God’s people to perform, they are not, of course, calling in question the truth that, properly speaking, it is God who converts and saves. What they are saying is simply that the conversion and salvation of others should be the Christian’s objective. The preacher should work to convert his congregation; the wife should work to save her unbelieving husband (1 Corinthians 7:16). Christians are sent to convert, and they should not allow themselves, as Christ’s representatives in the world, to aim at anything lessEvangelizing, therefore, is not simply a matter of teaching, and instructing, and imparting information to the mind. There is more to it than that. Evangelizing includes the endeavour to elicit a response to the truth taught. It is communication with a view to conversion. It is a matter, not merely of informing, but also of inviting. It is an attempt to gain, or win, or catch, our fellow-men for Christ.(1 Corinthians 9:19ff; 1 Peter 3:1; Luke 5:10) Our Lord depicts it as fishermen’s work. (Matthew 4:19; cf 13:47)

     Paul, again, is our model here. Paul, as we saw, knew himself to be sent by Christ, not only to open men’s minds by teaching them the gospel (though that must come first), but also to turn them to God by exhorting, and applying the truth to their livesAccordingly, his avowed aim was not just to spread information, but to save sinners: ‘that I may by all means save some’ (1 Corinthians 9:22 RV; Romans 11:14). Thus, there was in his evangelistic preaching both instruction-–‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself—and entreaty—‘we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God’(2 Corinthians 5:19f RV). His responsibility extended, not only towards the gospel which he was charged to preach and preserve, but also towards the needy people to whom he was sent to impart it, and who were perishing without it (Romans 1:13ff). As an apostle of Christ, he was more than a teacher of truth; he was a shepherd of souls, sent into the world, not to lecture sinners, but to love them. For he was an apostle second, and a Christian first; and, as a Christian, he was a man called to love his neighbour. This meant simply that in every situation, and by every means in his power, it was his business to seek other people’s good. From this standpoint, the significance of his apostolic commission to evangelize and found churches was simply that this was the particular way in which Christ was calling him to fulfil the law of love to his neighbour. He might not, therefore, preach the gospel in a harsh, callous way, putting it before his neighbour with a contemptuous air of ‘there you are—take it or leave it’, and excusing himself for his unconcern about people on the grounds of his faithfulness to the truth. Such conduct would be a failure of love on his part. His business was to present truth in a spirit of love, as an expression and implementation of his desire to save his hearers. The attitude which informed all Paul’s evangelism was this: ‘I seek not yours, but you.. . and I will very gladly spend and be spent for you.’ (2 Corinthians 12:14f)

     And all our own evangelism must be done in the same spirit. As love to our neighbour suggests and demands that we evangelize, so the command to evangelize is a specific application of the command to love others for Christ’s sake, and must be fulfilled as such.

     Love made Paul warm-hearted and affectionate in his evangelism. ‘We were gentle among you,’ he reminded the Thessalonians; ‘being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us’ (1 Thessalonians 2:7f). Love also made Paul considerate and adaptable in his evangelism; though he peremptorily refused to change his message to please men, (Galatians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 2:17; I Thessalonians 2:4) he would go to any lengths in his presentation of it to avoid giving offence, and putting needless difficulties in the way of men’s accepting and responding to it. ‘Though I was free from all men,’ he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law. . . that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law. . . that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak; I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.’ (1 Corinthians 9:19ff RV; cf. 10:33) Paul sought to save men; and because he sought to save them, he was not content merely to throw truth at them; but he went out of his way to get alongside them, and to start thinking with them from where they were, and to speak to them in terms that they could understand, and above all to avoid everything that would prejudice them against the gospel, and so put stumbling-blocks in their path. In his zeal to maintain truth he never lost sight of the needs and claims of people. His aim and object in all his handling of the gospel, even in the heat of the polemics which contrary views evoked, was never less than to win souls, by converting those whom he saw as his neighbours to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

     Such was evangelism according to Paul: going out in love, as Christ’s agent in the world, to teach sinners the truth of the gospel with a view to converting and saving themIf; therefore, we are engaging in this activity, in this spirit, and with this aim, we are evangelizing, irrespective of the particular means by which we are doing it. (42-53)

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