Since people move from the lost side of “God’s and-yet bridge” to the right side, the power of the gospel to change a life is the result of salvation. Their biblical status, and even their existential situation, is changed in the exchange. For example, “guilty” is not only a divine verdict but also a personal feeling. When unbelievers embrace the gospel, both the theological verdict and personal feeling of guilt are changed to “forgiven.” Yes, they are theologically forgiven by God, but they also sense being forgiven by God. “To us who are being saved it [the word of the cross] is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18) in an ongoing, transforming, and liberating way.
A simple willingness to serve in evangelism gives internal power to us as God’s workers. That power is not autonomic or automatic, a self-talking, a self-willing, a psyching-up of the self to serve God. That power is a God-inspired, God-inaugurated, and God-intensified confidence in him alone. It’s not the believing in yourself much like an athlete needs to take to the field, for no amount of believing in yourself will endow the power of God upon your evangelistic ministry. However, one of the outer realities that nurtures evangelism relates to the gospel in itself as power – the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. To paraphrase Paul, “I am not ashamed. In fact, I trust and am confident of the gospel” because of its output – the power of God for human salvation. The fact that the gospel saves everyone who believes empowers and unleashes me in the evangelistic ministry.
We know that alternate religious claims do not offer salvation. But what about secular messages that seek to provide meaning without reference to God. Leadership messages, motivational thoughts, advertisements for successful living, directions for self-improvement, and witty and wise sayings regularly arrive in my inbox. Most I discard, for after a while they sound alike, since the authors begin to borrow from each other! Some I keep for illustrative value. One word can be written on any message without Christ – empty. Paul uses radical phrases like “empty deceit” or “hollow deception” or “foolish talk” or “human tradition” of all messages “not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8 NRSV).
Learn to think that evangelism results in the ultimate and immediate good of the unbeliever, that evangelism itself is part of your social action. Paul writes, “For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:33). Consider taking that good to include earthly good in experiencing the implications of eternal life, of having found Christ’s promise of abundant life in the present. You do not have to apologize for evangelizing, as though you only bring some future, heavenly message irrelevant to unbelievers’ present situations. In contrast to the uselessness, and even deceitfulness of current empty offers of any kind of salvation, anywhere in the world, you are really engaged in providing the greatest gift for their comprehensive good, beginning immediately on earth. In evangelizing, we are distributing a message that provides fullness rather than futility, offering a powerful rather than whimsical hope, assuring an eternal rather than vanishing promise to humanity.
Evangelistic gifting and calling may only relate to specific individuals, but a responsive application of Jesus’s commission goes out to all Christians. Since Christ’s final commission is as much an external and theological as an internal and spiritual obligation, it claims believers regardless of personal inclination, gifting, or maturity. His commission is not a target to aspire to; it’s a command, a strategy, and a task to be personally obeyed by Christians as individuals and organizations who are furthering this commission.
Found in the Bible five times (in the Gospels and in Acts), the commission of Jesus carries a specific evangelistic thrust in Luke 24. Between the death and resurrection of the Messiah and the upcoming clothing of Pentecost power, Jesus furnishes amazing motivation for Christians to personally obey: “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (v. 47 ESV). So Peter (Acts 2:38; 3:19) and Paul (Acts 17:30) personally preach repentance, resulting in people experiencing the forgiveness of sins to keep from a judgment to come.
Jesus’s commission continues until he returns. In fact, the promise of the grand commission is in effect “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Exegetical discussion about the “go” in the Matthean version – whether the participle is to be subsumed under “making disciples,” paralleling “baptizing” and “teaching,” or functions with an imperatival force preceding a straightforward imperative (i.e., “go” and “make disciples”) – may diminish the foundational component of discipleship making – evangelism. If the Risen King is issuing a distinct command, then the evangelistic force of the commission is rather acute. Even if “going” is parallel to “baptizing” and “teaching,” an evangelistic going is the underpinning of disciple-making. “Son, go and work today in the vineyard,” says the master in Matthew 21:28 – possibly a grammatical and parabolic precursor to Matthew 28:19. The apostles didn’t divide the preaching of the gospel from making disciples. Preaching the gospel was part of making disciples (cf. Acts 14:21).
In any case, this commission has lasted twenty centuries already. With no predictable finish line, it sets its expectations of all Christians rather high – a biblical-theological reality that must be personally taken into account. We simply follow the Master who himself will turn us into catchers of men (cf. Luke 5:10).
His work in unbelievers is an incentive to your evangelism: the Holy Spirit is already working in the lives of unbelievers before you get there. From the beginning of time, having created the world (Genesis 1:26–27), and “striving with sinful human beings” (Genesis 6:3), he convicts the world of guilt in regard to sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11).
Consequently, you enter into any evangelistic initiative with the confidence that the Holy Spirit has preceded and will succeed the presentation of the Good News. The Holy Spirit already has been softening some, showing them their deep need for salvation in the face of their own sin, their lack of righteousness, and their upcoming judgment. In that work lies some of our God-given confidence in approaching nonbelieving audiences.
The Holy Spirit’s work in the nonbeliever prohibits us from using our apparent lack of giftedness to excuse us from engaging in evangelism. Timothy was to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5a), though he may not have been called and gifted as an evangelist. Why? A theological and existential situation demanded this priority: there are unbelievers around us whom the Holy Spirit is convicting of guilt in regard to sin, righteousness, and judgment. So though you may not sense an internal calling or gifting to be an evangelist, an external reality demands that you “discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5b). Those duties include the evangelistic presentation of God’s Word.
Finally, the Bible uses the reward of heaven as a theological inspiration to any sustained Christian service. Though not guaranteed, earthly reward is the usual result of conducting one’s life and ministry well. A full and fulfilled life often follows simple obedience to Christ. To know that none of our labor in the Lord is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58) gives us a powerful advantage and a divine privilege, never having to second-guess the worth of our work. A present sense of usefulness and fruitfulness could be viewed as wonderful immediate reward.
However, eternal reward is the definite result of serving God. Numerous scriptural passages incentivize service with the promise of reward. “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward” (1 Corinthians 3:14 ESV). Scripturally, heaven’s reward is a recognition of service, not a wage, given in God’s good pleasure (Luke 12:32; cf. Matthew 20:15), for any fruitful labor arises from an abiding connection to our source of power (John 15:5). Eternal rewards are strongly related, not as much to quantity (Matthew 25:14–30) or mere busyness of engagement (1 Corinthians 3:15, “burned-up work”) but to right motive (Matthew 6:1–18).
I place the reward of heaven at the latter end of this discussion, because the Bible includes reward as a motive for obedience. As much as it tries, the human heart may never be able to get away from a reward motive, so God simply recognizes what he himself has built into the heart – the desire for reward. But he severely limits the play of wrong motives by calling for them to be superseded by right motives (e.g., love of Christ) and by not disclosing the actual nature of his reward – its concrete content and precise time.
In relation to our topic, I suggest a twist that connects eternal crowns to evangelism. Paul asks the Thessalonians, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20 NRSV). At the coming of Christ, Paul’s endeavors which yielded Thessalonian fruit will turn Thessalonians themselves into his crown. “Paul contrasts this withering crown [a laurel wreath worn at banquets or given as a civic or military honor] to the Christians’ imperishable one (1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 2:5), seeing his converts as his own garland (Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19).” Those whom we reach for Christ will be part of the reward we receive with rejoicing.
The hard, real question is, what is of eternal worth? I dare you to find any work with greater eternal worth than evangelistic ministry, when mixed with right motive and action. To not lose out on rewards (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:15; Revelation 3:11) or lose full reward (cf. 2 John 8), winning others for the kingdom beckons your intentional, instrumental engagement. In the future, “those who turn many to righteousness [will shine] like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:3 ESV). Your evangelistic labor will not be in vain as long as your motives are more pure than tainted. You will never have to wonder if you are wasting your life. Would those whom you rescue from death be proof and part of the fruitfulness, the lasting fruitfulness, Jesus promises – “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:16; cf. Colossians 1:10)? If so, his definite appointment and your probable fruitfulness in taking responsibility to implement his commission will be rewarded.
The organizational purpose of Missio Nexus is “to advance the effectiveness of the Great Commission community in North America in global mission.” To refocus on evangelism as the “first-basic”—the first part and basic to Jesus’ Great Commission is more than a pleonastic rhetorical device. It is the very sacred ground-zero of all ministry existence, the personal starting point, the charter of the Great Commission community. If you or your organization are not discernibly contributing to evangelism as part of your unique and strategic fulfilling of the Great Commission, would you confess your personal and organizational sins? And then address the implications to re-integrate biblical-theological convictions in your core values and resource allocations for effectiveness.
These convictions about current spiritual realities and the permanent future human destinies of the lost are true regardless of personal or organizational obedience. I trust you will seek to regain prescriptive power for your glasses, a correction of missional astigmatism. That you will work the adjusters to clarify your evangelistic seeing in the inevitable erosion of vision concerning the ultimate needs of lost people amid the pressures of personal life and organizational leadership. Shall we as a Great Commission community begin to refocus, rebalance, even replant, our organizations with evangelism as our foundation – in heart, mind, soul, and strength – towards reaching into large numbers of desperate souls worldwide with lasting solutions?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Ramesh Richard serves as the founder and president of RREACH; general convener of the Global Proclamation Congress for Pastoral Trainers 2016; professor of Global Theological Engagement and Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary; and founder and chairman of Trainers of Pastors International Coalition. He holds a ThD in Systematic Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Delhi.