How do we present the gospel to a skeptical world? Let’s consider a few common approaches.
Arguing is one option: God’s existence is affirmed by proofs such as Christ’s miraculous resurrection. The premise is that undeniable evidence for the supernatural—with the moral implications of the supernatural God in view—will stir a decision to believe. This is the evidence-that-demands-a-verdict approach.
Others may prefer pragmatism. Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws set out the benefits of God’s wonderful plan to all who follow a simple problem-solution progression. Or Pascal’s wager is a similar logic-defined and benefit-based option: if God actually exists and calls for a response then a bet in his direction, expressed by faith, will have infinite rewards. Betting against him, on the other hand, will have eternal consequences—so why not make the safer bet?
Another popular option is evangelism by socialization. The aim here is to expose nonbelievers to attractive and socially adept Christians in community activities. Community based friendships allow Christians to share their faith in natural social settings. Even the more structured forms of community evangelism call newcomers to faith through group talks and individual conversations. Personal formation is the key, with the believers offering a social template for faith.
One observation stands out. Each model relies on human initiative: the reason-based models press for informed choice while the social models sell community benefits. God is ultimately and mysteriously credited with conversions once they occur but the duty to get the process moving is strictly human. And each approach, if done well, seems to bear good fruit.
Now let’s shift gears and consider God’s initiative in evangelism with John’s gospel as a guide. And, with that, let’s dismiss human agency as our first focus.
A text that sets a proper starting point is John 1:12-13. Here John elevates belief in Jesus—the “true light”—as if receiving him is a human choice. Yet the caveat is added that all who become the children of God “were born, not of blood nor of the will of man, but of God.” God’s role is crucial. Jesus affirmed the point, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
Yet this God-centered starting point seems like a contradiction to other texts in John that promote human choice. Just a few verses prior to the text just cited Jesus answered a question about faith: “‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’” (John 6:28-29).
So the call to believe is clear. But Jesus didn’t treat all believing as equal. Nicodemus was an example in chapter 3. Nicodemus initiated the exchange by approaching Jesus with a form of faith: he believed Jesus to be a divinely enabled miracle-worker. This repeated what some men believed about him in the preceding context—John 2:23-25—and which Jesus dismissed. So Nicodemus exemplified a flawed faith.
What was missing? Jesus pointed to the divine role in conversion: the Spirit brings God’s life to a soul. Let’s call this a faith-by-participation: a union with God by his Spirit is necessary.
Two later exchanges in John add to this picture of participatory faith.
In John 8:30 another group of professing believers tripped over Christ’s call to an authentic faith. The dispute began when Jesus called on them to embrace his words in full. But they didn’t buy what Jesus was saying and eventually tried to kill him.
The problem? By rejecting what Jesus taught they showed they couldn’t “bear to hear” his word because they were actually children and slaves of the devil and not of God—“If God were your Father, you would love me” (verse 42). So the family issue was critical: “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever” (verse 35).
The next example comes after Jesus healed the man born blind (John 9). In that episode Jesus asked the man if he believed. The man responded, “‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him” (verse 38). What comes next, in chapter 10, is a continuation of that event as Jesus compared the leaders—who claimed to have spiritual insight but were actually blind—to bad shepherds, “a hired hand,” rather than the “good shepherd” who is Jesus.
Jesus then offered the punch line for true faith: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me” (verse 27).
What do we do with this? As a starter let’s shift from a human-centered version of conversion to a response-based faith. And the key here is to invite people to hear the Father’s heart “who so loved the world” that he gave us his beloved Son and sent the Spirit to whisper that love into the hearts of all who are sheep longing to be led. It’s an invitation guaranteed to work.
I see what you mean by shifting from a human based response to hearing the Father’s heart. An unbelieving friend and I are doing a Bible study together now and as she and I read the Bible together I sense her opening her eyes to the truth of who God, the Father, Jesus, the Son and the Holy Spirit is and how much He loves her. It seems We are on a journey that God has for her and me together. She is beginning to listen to the whispers of the Holy Spirit more and not just give an expected church response. Thank you Ron, for addressing this issue. You have helped me make a shift from initiating to focusing on the heart of the Father. This is such an important issue for us today. Happy Thanksgiving
Oh good! May she be captured by his love.