There was once a set of young friends: two boys and two girls, of an age when gender pressures didn’t matter yet. One day, they were playing tag in a playground next to the primary school they attended, and having fun. Eventually, they stopped for a rest and to chat a bit, but one of the boys, suddenly serious, asked his friends, “Did you guys know you have to be saved?”
“Saved from what?”, one of the girls replied.
“Saved from hell!”, he answered, “You have to ask Jesus to save you, or you will go to hell when you die.”
“Oh,” she said, “I’m OK, I go to Mass every week.”
The other girl shook her head, and rolled her eyes. “I’m Jewish, we don’t have to worry about that.”
The boy, somewhat confused, tried to steer the conversation back towards what he thought was a very serious thing, but he failed. The girls were not impressed. They believed they had it covered. He dropped the subject.
Later, he had a private chat with the other boy, who asked him what he needed to do. Warming up a bit, the first boy earnestly explained, “You have to ask Jesus into your heart, and you have to really mean it!”
“OK,” said his friend. “I’ll do it tonight.”
The next morning, the second boy called the first, and simply said, “I did what you said, but it didn’t work.”
Nonplussed, the first boy replied, “But did you really mean it?”
“Sure I did, it just didn’t work.”
And that was that. The first boy never raised the issue again. The friendship with the girls didn’t last as long as middle school, but the boys hung out together until they were sophomores in high school. They didn’t talk about religion much, and when they did it was neither deep nor involved. His attempts at sharing his faith failed.
That first boy was me. Those were my first real attempts to share my faith, and they were dismal. I’ve come to recognize that the Lord can work with a lot less, but I don’t think I even managed to plant a seed. If the Lord worked in any of my friends lives later, He surely had to bring in someone else to finish the job. And sadly, that is also the case with a lot of believers. Many do not have a clear grasp of what the Lord has done in their own lives, much less how to share it with others. And it could not escape me, that to be able to share one’s faith, a believer has to both understand the process he or she went through, and also be able to reasonably tell others about it.
First, let’s define some terms. When I say “believer,” I mean someone who has fully placed their trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin, and their future in heaven. Furthermore, their faith has been ratified by the presence of the Holy Spirit in their heart and life (in other words, you know their faith is real by the way their life has changed). When I say “saved” (as I did to my young friends, without explanation), I am referring to the state someone is in who has placed their faith in Christ in such a way. When I say “sharing one’s faith,” or something similar, I mean the process of explaining to a person about the work of Christ so they can make the decision to place their trust in Him, or, sadly, reject the message. The “gospel” literally means “good news,” and by it I mean the news of Jesus Christ and what he has done, and exactly what it means to place one’s trust in Him. By “faith,” I mean the certain knowledge of the gospel that leads to full trust in Christ. That term is in itself an issue with many, because they think “faith” means conviction on the basis of a gut feeling that may not have anything to do with fact. But when I say faith, I mean a certainty based on real facts one has been convinced of, but isn’t based on things that can be perceived directly (see Hebrews 11:1 … something that warrants a study all its own).
So, on to my thoughts about sharing faith.
One of the biggest difficulties, I think, is that there has been a concerted attempt to create a ritual of acceptance of the gospel. We want a series of steps to follow, a set of conditions to meet, an outline to share. The first method I was taught was the “Romans Road.” Later, when I was with Child Evangelism Fellowship, we used something called the “Wordless Book.” Campus Crusade uses a method called “The Four Spiritual Laws,” and many others have adopted that method as well. All of these have a place and can be effective, but all of them pose a danger that if all that is done is guide a person through the prescribed steps, and pray the prayer at the end. The person sharing thinks the person who prayed is now automatically a believer, and so does the person who prayed, but it won’t necessarily be so. It’s entirely possible that all they have really done is satisfy a ritual, and their heart may or may not have actually followed. It is a trap far too easy for the lazy, or simply timid, to fall into. Sharing faith is an intimate and sometimes very difficult thing, and the temptation to run through a list and call it “done,” is far too easy to fall into. In the worst of cases, the ritual is treated as if it was the gospel, and not just a way of illustrating the gospel.
Scriptures themselves never spell out a complete and specific series of actions to take. In fact, the gospel is explained in several different ways in the Bible, depending on who is speaking, and whom they are speaking to. But it’s usually very simple in Scripture, like “believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,” (Acts 16:31) and “repent, and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). This is because the scriptural accounts leave out the fact that the people spoken to weren’t completely ignorant; they had a certain body of knowledge already, and what was said was what they needed to hear to pull it together. In fact, the first chapters of Acts were addressed mainly to Jews, who had a very good concept of sin and propitiation. They just needed to hear that Jesus was the one making the final propitiation. It wasn’t until Paul came around that they had to start dealing with those who did not, on any larger scale than just a few here and there. So we don’t find a succinct and simple explanation of the gospel in one place the Bible. Instead, all the particulars are spread throughout the various historical books and epistles, and it is necessary to put them all together. I believe this is an important clue as to how God wants the gospel shared. He does not want it to be a ritual, as many have made it. He wants people to understand and make an informed decision. If he had outlined some list in Scripture, people would be simply running through the list and saying, “I’m good” (like my young Catholic friend), without really being “good” at all.
So, what are these pertinent facts? I think it important to mention that what follows is my opinion, based on my understanding of Scripture. There will be those who disagree on some, or perhaps all, of my points. Some will think my emphases are in the wrong places. My goal is not so much to lay down something definitive as it is to make my readers consider what they do when they share their faith, and not carelessly assume things about how it is received. The Holy Spirit can and will fill in gaps in both what is said and what is heard; He can also deal with error, and error is certain to creep in anyone’s attempts to share their faith at one point or another. But it is foolish to turn it into a mere act of the flesh by creating a rote formula that may hinder the attempt.
First of all, there needs to be a knowledge of sin and what that means. In my own case, there was little need to expound on it, I already had a firm grasp on my unworthiness and a need for salvation. But many need it pointed out that their best efforts are not enough, and as good as they may be, it isn’t good enough. In Romans 3:23, it says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Not some, but all (see also Rom. 3:10-18). What we consider good, God does not (Isaiah 64:6). Many believe we are born essentially innocent, and you have to do bad things to become a sinner; this is entirely wrong, because sinfulness doesn’t have to be active. It is a broken state of being that all humanity is born into (Rom. 5:12, 1 Cor. 15:22). In other works, sinfulness is a state of being, not a tally of what you do and don’t do. Your behavior may illustrate your internal state, but it is not what is really important, your internal state is. The penalty for this sinful state is death (Romans 6:23), and in this context, death means eternal separation from God, commonly known as hell. There is some debate on exactly what hell will be like, and I’m not going to get into that too deeply here. But it will be eternal (Matt. 25:46), and it will be unpleasant, (Luke 16:28), and God will not overlook your sinfulness to spare you from it. There is again a fair amount of discussion on this particular issue, but the way I think of it is that God is perfect, and demands perfection. If you also aren’t perfect, you cannot co-exist with Him in eternity.
But God created humanity to share eternity with Him, and he does not want to exclude anyone, especially when that exclusion means eternity in hell (2 Peter 3:9). So how is that conflict resolved? Christ’s death on the cross was the payment for sin, and the propitiation to satisfy God’s wrath over sin (1 John 4:10). Again, that alone is a big topic, but it boils down to this: Christ died for humanity’s sinful state, and took any judgment or punishment for it on Himself. Because He is God, this is no trivial or incomplete thing, and it is sufficient for all people, for all eternity (Hebrews 9:11-28).
That is the heart of the gospel: that humanity in generally, every single person, is born in a state that God cannot countenance, and Christ’s death on the cross can repair it (there is, in my view, some element of mystery here – why did God choose this particular method, why was it necessary, what exactly transpires? – but there is more than ample scriptural evidence that it suffices). However, the question remains, how does a person avail themselves of what Christ did? This, by the way, is where so many of the rituals and rote formulas come from – they are attempts to codify this requirement. But the simple truth is, all you need do is ask for it from the provider, Christ himself. “Jesus, save me,” is all you need say, and there is nothing you need to do. Christ did all that was necessary. But, you may ask, if God doesn’t want anyone to perish, why isn’t it just automatic? Why didn’t Christ’s death on the cross just “fix” everything for everyone, all at once? That answer isn’t so easy. Some believe exactly that — it’s all covered and everyone is “good.” Others feel they have to heap requirements on the process that are never spoken of in Scripture; for example, you must “make Him Lord of your life,” or you must fulfill some sacrament, or satisfy some ritual. Yet none of those are true. The answer is faith. Remember what I said about faith earlier? It’s a recognition that these things are true, and that Christ’s death both satisfies God’s requirements, and that it applies to you. It’s not a daydream fantasy, it’s an acknowledgment of something you are convinced is true. When you are able to recognize this, and are able to come out and actually trust Christ it is so, then His sacrifice applies to you and your life. If you can’t get there, it will not.
I was once criticized that my view of the gospel amounted to “easy believism.” In effect, I was told that I was promoting one of the very things I am speaking against in this article, and if all people had to do is ask, there would be this rush to buy “fire insurance,” and people would just do it and be done so they would escape hell. Christ spoke of something similar in Luke 3:7 . But though I think the gospel is simple, I don’t for a minute believe it is easy. And this speaks to the question about “why isn’t it automatic for everyone.” You see, you have to utterly depend on Christ. You can’t say, “hey God, I’ll do this much, and You do the rest.” He has to do it all. My view, and I think Scriptures support it, is that one of the essentially broken things in every human being, that God cannot allow in His eternal presence, is pride. If you can’t lay aside the pride that insists you have something to offer Him, you aren’t truly trusting Him, you are trusting yourself. And that’s just a non-starter. It’s the very essence of the brokenness God is wanting to fix. But He doesn’t force it on anyone either (I just lost some readers, I know). He will help you get to that point (in fact, evidence is you can’t get there without His help), and He will help you take that step of faith … but He doesn’t push you over the line. And unless you are a five-year-old (Matthew 18:3) this is not an easy place to get to, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Pride is one of the big human motivators, and laying it aside to depend utterly on God is insurmountable to a vast number of people (Luke 18:25-27, Matt. 7:13-14).
Now that I have explained how I see the gospel, we are left with “how do I share it?” But once again, I think this is something we can’t boil down to a formula or one-size-fits-all summary. As I mentioned earlier, this is a very intimate thing, and you have to get a person to accept a very vulnerable mental state before they will hear it. There are those who have a gift for getting there with others and can seize upon the tiniest thread of opportunity and still get the message across. I’m not one of them. I have to work for it, and I have to work hard. Part of that is because I tend to overthink things, and sometimes over-explain. That said, if you don’t understand what Christ has done for you, you are going to have difficulty sharing it in a meaningful way with others. Secondly, if you are in a heated rush to share your faith, get a favorable reaction, and call it done, you are very much at risk of providing false assurances. God can work in those situations — I have seen it happen. But it’s not ideal. If all you can manage is, “trust in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,” by all means say it and trust God will do something with it. But don’t fill someone’s head with vague and misleading terminology they don’t even understand. At that point, you are just getting in the way, not helping someone along the way.
One of the hardest things for most believers to accept is that it isn’t their job to convince anyone. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job (John 166:8). It’s simply their job to tell the gospel to others. Some may require more explanation than others; some may have more questions than others, or more false impressions to overcome. God can deal with all of that. That was one of my errors as a young believer – I thought I had to work at getting people to accept what I was saying, when all I really had to do was say it. Something that follows from this kind of attitude is the conviction that you must “share” the gospel all the time, for any reason or none, in any circumstance. That’s tantamount to planting seeds on unbroken pavement. You aren’t likely to see anything grow there, and you are probably giving others an excuse to talk badly about you and what you are saying. Sometimes (sometimes), it’s better to let it go and wait until you have some fertile ground to plant that seed on. And sometimes you cast those seeds to the wind and they take root outside all reasonable expectations. My point is, you don’t force it, one way or the other. This is one of those times where I think you just have to go with your gut … because your gut is often the place where God is leading, and not your own imperfect ideas of Him.