And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
Acts 16:31-32 (ESV)
We recently conducted Grace’s Vacation Bible School, ending our last lesson on Family Fun Night with the passage above from Acts 16. This is a neat story of joy in the midst of troubles, compassion for the lost, and “responsible evangelism.” Perhaps you have heard this story, as it is often taught in many church contexts, but you never thought of “responsible evangelism” when being reminded of the gospel’s simplicity. It is true that Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer simply “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” However, we must remember verse thirty-two, which states “they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” The concept of “word” conclusively infers that further instruction was required and that believing “in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” was the central point of Paul and Silas’ answer to the jailer’s question but needed further elaboration. Howard Marshall writes of the jailer’s conversion experience, “But all this needed fuller explanation than could be given in a brief formula, and so there and then the jailer and his family were given Christian instruction.” (Marshall, TNTC – Acts.)
What exactly was the instruction that Paul and Silas gave? The text does not specify, but I believe we can safely assume the instruction encompassed a four tiered approach to the gospel that we often find within the narratives of Acts, which includes an accurate understanding of God and His works, the Fall and sin’s consequences, God’s provision of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, and the need for response (repentance and faith). Such an approach should always be characteristic of our evangelism to be responsible. We should be careful in confirming the person we are evangelizing has an adequate understanding of the gospel and the commitment that he or she is about to make. Marshall goes on to write in applying the text of Acts 16:32, “We may note in passing that it is not enough simply to face people with gospel proof-texts; there is normally need for careful instruction adapted to their particular situation and for personal, pastoral care if the task of evangelism is to be successful and lasting in its effects.” (Marshall, TNTC – Acts.)
In conducting responsible evangelism through the sermon, I pose this question after the gospel presentation, “If anyone would like to know more about how to have a right relationship with God through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, you may come forward, and we will have counselors ready to talk more with you on this subject.” The invitation is an invitation to a further dialogue about the gospel message. Such a dialogue can clear up any misconceptions on the part of the “seeker” or any fuzzy ambiguities I, as the preacher, may have communicated inadvertently about the gospel and its requirements.
In conducting responsible evangelism, our policy with children who respond to the gospel, lets say in ministries like VBS, is to have a conversation with them here at the church, and then later to have a second conversation about the gospel with them while they are with their parents or guardians. Even if we are satisfied that they have an acceptable knowledge and level of commitment to the gospel, we want to see the children display a level of commitment to their faith through consistent attendance in worship over the next few weeks and months before we consider baptism. Mark Dever writes, citing Kenneth Chafin:
Do not baptize babies and be careful about baptizing young children into formal local church membership. Here is what a former Baptist pastor and professor of evangelism at Southwestern said a few decades ago, as he noted the trend to younger and younger baptisms: “At a time when he is too young to choose his clothes for himself, at a time when he is too young to choose a life's vocation, at a time when he is too young to serve on a church committee, at a time when he is really too young to vote intelligently on business matters in the church, at a time when he is not considered legally responsible by any agency in the community, there has been a tendency to feel that he is sufficiently responsible to make a life-binding, permanent-type decision concerning his relationship to Christ and his church. If we are unwilling to feel that the child is capable of making lesser decisions, how can we justify our confidence in the efficacy of this greater decision at this age?” The question is not whether a five-year-old or ten-year-old can savingly confess Christ. The question is the congregation's ability to discern. The large number of nominal Christians and rebaptisms in Southern Baptist churches seems to answer the question clearly in the negative. We are not meant to be able to distinguish fully a child's love and trust in God from their love and trust in adults, especially their own parents. That becomes clearer over time as the young adult's life feels the pull of the world, the flesh, and the Devil and yet follows Christ. Baptists around the world know this; Baptists in America used to know this. We can again. (John S. Hammett & Benjamin L. Merkle. Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline.)
We should be especially careful with children regarding their understanding and commitment to the gospel message lest we give individuals a false sense of security regarding their salvation.
In conducting responsible evangelism, I am also very cautious about giving anyone the wrong impression regarding the salvific effects of “walking an aisle,” “voicing a specific prayer,” or placing trust in the act of baptism. “Walking an Isle” can lad to further dialogue about salvation. “Praying a specific prayer” is a good avenue to express the faith one believes. And baptism is important, for it was commanded by our Lord as a symbolic profession of faith, but none of these acts have salvific merit in and of themselves. Only the work of Christ atones for our sin. However, I have spoken to many nominal Christians who claim their security of salvation is found not in their perseverance of the gospel faith (Col 1:23; 2 Peter 1:3-10); but rather their security rests in the fact that they once “walked an aisle,” “said a prayer,” or “were baptized” at some point in the past. Each one of these actions has a beneficial role in the process of evangelism if communicated correctly, but each one of these actions can have a detrimental role in the process of evangelism if communicated and performed incorrectly.
Finally, I am very cautious about the appearance of any type of manipulation. If as the Scriptures teach, we are called to preach the gospel clearly (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8) the Word of God is powerful to elicit faith (Rom 1:16; Rom 10:17), God is the one who draws the lost to Himself (John 6:44), and the Spirit is the one who regenerates lost souls (John 3:1-6), then there should be a confidence in the Scriptures and God’s effectual work in the life of the unbeliever. Of coarse this does not mean we discount the choice of the one evangelized, nor does it mean that we should not passionately encourage them to receive the gift of God’s grace (2 Cor 6:2). However, it does mean that we should be sensitive to the work of the Spirit in an individual’s life; we should be patient; and we should avoid any appearance of manipulation.
I am sure there are other considerations we could cover in being responsible with our evangelistic practices, but I will leave you with the encouragement to continue studying the intricacies of the gospel; be obedient in sharing the gospel; take time with those God gives you to thoroughly discuss the gospel; do not be hasty or impetuous in the witnessing process; and trust in God’s sovereign control, work, and timing over an individual’s soul.
Until next time, this is Pastor Daniel writing, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”