Sunday, February 3, 2019

Peter’s Kind of Evangelism

I think that you all know how Matthew ends his Gospel. He quotes Jesus’ call to the Church to make disciples of the nations. It’s about evangelism. Jesus wants His Church to be spreading the Good News about Him so that more and more people come in repentance and faith to follow Him in this life and into the next. That’s pretty obvious. All you need to do is read what Jesus said.

What has also seemed pretty obvious is how this evangelism is supposed to happen. I’m guessing that many of you have had the same experience that I have had when it comes to this topic. One particular church that I was a member of stressed the importance of all of the members spreading the word, all the members doing evangelism. The church had classes to train us in personal evangelism. And to put that into practice, it organized opportunities to do it. That, of course, was in addition to the times when we were to seek out people on our own to speak to them about the Gospel. The goal was for every member to talk to lots of people about the Gospel, personal evangelism. And we all knew that this was the way that we were to obey what Jesus clearly said at the end of Matthew.

There is a problem though. It certainly is obvious that the Scriptures lay out the Church’s responsibility to make disciples, to spread the word. But it actually isn’t obvious that the Scriptures call every Christian to do personal evangelism.

Consider this. While the letters of the New Testament touch on all sorts of issues and questions about how to live faithfully for Jesus, you will not find in any of those letters a command for the saints to do personal evangelism. And when you look at the four Gospels, Jesus’ commands to go and speak are directed to the twelve or what we would call missionaries. And the book of Acts is about how apostles, evangelists and missionaries preached the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire.

In all of this, there is no command for lay Christians like you to do personal evangelism. And when there is no command in the Scriptures there can be no command from the pulpit.

But be careful. That there is no command for you to do personal evangelism doesn’t mean that you are forbidden to do that. I would hope that all of you would take advantage of the opportunities you may have to speak the Gospel to people you encounter. It’s just that I cannot command you to do that.

This is important because while there are plenty of Christians whose situations and personalities make personal evangelism quite easy for them to do, there are plenty of Christians whose situations and personalities make personal evangelism quite hard. Why should I make them feel guilty when they aren’t actually guilty? We all have different callings from the Father. We need to identify them and work hard to obey them. And for many Christians that does not include doing lots and lots of the personal evangelism that I was told I was obligated to do.

Having said all of that, I also need to tell you that the Scriptures do have something to say to every Christian about evangelism. There are some commands about this. And where there are commands there needs to be obedience.

This morning we’re going to take a look at what Peter has to say about this. Listen to what he wrote.

…sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence… 1 Peter 3.15

Today, we’re going to take this Scripture apart to look at the different aspects of Peter’s teaching about how all of you are to do evangelism.

Let’s start with this.

to everyone who asks you

What’s interesting about this is that it isn’t a command. We’ll get to a command, but this isn’t it. This is an assumption. Peter assumes that unbelievers will be coming to the saints to whom he is writing. They will come to ask questions about the Gospel.

Now, stop and consider what that means. For one thing, Peter was expecting the distinctive Christianity of those saints to stand out and be noticed by the people around them. Peter was expecting those saints to be different. He was expecting them to be different enough and different in a very appealing way so that others would come to ask, ‘How do you do that?’

Here’s the first thing that I’d like you to notice about Peter’s kind of evangelism. It’s based on a changed life, a life that is so very different from and so much better than the lives of those who do not know Jesus. That’s where it all starts.

Please understand that this doesn’t mean different as in weird and creepy. This is different and appealing. There is something attractive here, attractive and foreign to the people who are watching. They see it and want it because it obviously makes life work better. But it is also obvious that they don’t have it. That’s the foundation for Peter’s kind of evangelism: living the difference that the Gospel makes.

Why would Peter expect this? It comes from this part of what Peter wrote.

…sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts

Now, this is a command. But it isn’t some new command that Peter just made up. He’s simply reminding those saints of something that they’ve heard before: Jesus is Lord. Peter is just reminding them to go and live what it means that Jesus is Lord. And the only way that that can happen is if He is set apart as special, sanctified, and that in the depths of the heart where all our root desires live.

The key issue in any life, and in any culture, is this: who is Lord? Who is to receive my loyalty? Whom am I to look to for my wants and needs? Whom am I to obey first and foremost? Peter’s audience lived in a time when many were saying, ‘Caesar is Lord’. Peter is simply reminding these believers that as popular as that kind of thinking might have been, it’s a lie. Jesus is Lord. And what they need to do is live that truth.

It is as believers strive to live that way - it is as they sanctify Christ as Lord in their hearts - that their lives will be markedly different from those around them, different and attractive, at least to some.

It is helpful to note that Peter singles out one particular aspect of being a Christian that will attract the attention of those around them: hope.

…give an account for the hope that is in you…

Peter is telling these saints that unbelievers will come to ask about their hope. He could have picked some other Christian virtue, but this one fit the best because of the situation of the believers that Peter was writing to. Peter wrote his letter to a group of saints who were suffering. One clear theme of Peter’s letter has to do with the suffering those saints were facing. And they were facing some serious suffering.

Let me read you a couple of sentences from right before our text.

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts… 1 Peter 3.13-15

What do you do if you are leading a life filled with suffering, a life that will likely always be filled with suffering? So many Americans place their hope in things that don’t come through, things that fail to keep their promise, things that disappoint. That is why we have a growing problem with drugs that promise escape, drugs that kill. And that is why we have a growing problem with suicide, a promised solution for hopelessness.

But the Christians that Peter was writing to had put their hope in a better place. They were waiting for their Father to keep His promises. And as they did that they were blessed by the Father. They were blessed with lives that were different, lives that attracted the attention of those around them. They were living out their claim that Jesus is Lord. And it showed.

So, Peter calls these saints to be ready to make a defense to those who ask. Now, that word, ‘defense’ sounds like being in the midst of an argument or at least a formal debate. That’s not what Peter is getting at. Peter wants the people to be ready to answer this question: ‘How do you do that? How can you still have hope with all the garbage you have to deal with?’ The answer to that question is obvious. The answer is the Gospel.

Back in the days of my youth, Christians could use those booklets with their four steps to salvation - God, sin, Christ, faith. We could use them because, generally speaking, the unbelievers that we would talk to had some idea of what those words meant. Their understanding might have been very faulty, but at least they understood the words. That is no longer true. ‘God’ is any higher power, if there is one. ‘Sin’ is about silly church rules about sex and liquor. ‘Christ’ is a curse word. And ‘faith’ is a blind leap into the dark, something only stupid people do.

More and more, we are returning to the situation of the first century Christians. Many around us know nothing about the Gospel. They don’t even understand what the basic words mean. There are still some exceptions. But they are exceptions. And the younger the group, the rarer the exceptions. So, while those four words - God, sin, Christ, faith - are still good pointers in explaining the Gospel, you can’t just say them and assume that you are being understood. You need to explain in very basic terms what those words mean. Without that, your explanation of the Gospel will make absolutely no sense.

God. He is the person who has created everything and everyone. As a result, He has expectations of everything and everyone. He has a right to those expectations because He has created everything and everyone. He owns it all. He owns us all. Failure to meet His expectations is unacceptable. Failure to meet His expectations will have dire consequences. Failure to meet His expectations results in His appropriate anger. Some of those consequences are experienced now and others later.

Sin. This is any failure to meet God’s expectations. And the fact is that we all have failed to meet those expectations. Those failures can be things we do. But they also include the thoughts we think and the attitudes that we hold. And since we have all failed here, it is only right for God to apply those dire consequences to all of us.

Christ. God has not yet applied all those consequences to His creation. Instead, He decided to become one of us to deal with those consequences. That’s who Jesus is. He has come to absorb in our place God’s proper anger at us because of our failure to meet His expectations. Jesus has come so that we won’t have to face those dire consequences.

Faith. These benefits that Jesus provides are granted only to those who accept as truth those three other points: God, sin, Christ. That means that such people regret their failure to meet God’s expectations, accept as truth that Jesus has come to deal with the dire consequences they deserve and resolve to work at living according to this claim: Jesus is Lord.

The way that Christians today give an answer for the hope that is within them will be very different from the way that Christians did that a generation ago. And it will be different from the way that will need to be done in another generation into the future.

A key element in Peter’s ideas about evangelism is suffering in hope. That is what made those saints stand out: suffering in hope and having their lives changed by the blessing of God.

Today, American Christians do not suffer very much. But that will change. Christians will suffer. But will we be suffering in hope?

And that gets us to the last element of Peter’s method of evangelism:

…yet do it with gentleness and reverence… 1 Peter 3.15

Let me translate this a bit more literally with words that I think will make more sense.

…yet do this with meekness and fear… 

That first word is about your attitude toward unbelievers. It is to be with meekness. Jesus was meek when it came to His last days. He could have commanded twelve legions of angels to crush His enemies. He could have argued eloquently before Pilate. He could have come down from the Cross as He was taunted to do. He didn’t do that. He controlled Himself so that He could obey the Father. That’s your example of meekness in the face of suffering.

The second word, fear, is about your attitude toward God. Jesus has commanded His Church to spread the Gospel. Peter has described to these saints, and to us, one way that is to happen. Failure to meet God’s expectations will have dire consequences.

Listen to Jesus as He warns His disciples about those consequences.

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Luke 12.4-5

Following Peter’s description of evangelism - sanctifying Christ as Lord, being ready to give an answer, suffering in hope, and doing all of this in meekness - is not optional. These are things you are to do. God has expectations.

Last thought. So, what are you to do with all of this? What makes that question especially poignant is that you are not suffering, not like the saints that Peter wrote to, at least not yet. So, how can someone see any difference in your life?

I have a couple of thoughts.

First, you don’t need to wait for life to get harder before you work on sanctifying Christ as Lord in your heart. That takes prayer. Pray that you would be shown where His lordship over your life is being compromised by your serving some other lord, some idol. Once that prayer is granted, work hard, depending on the grace that the Spirit gives, to put that sin to death so that Jesus will be Lord in that area of your life. Work on that now.

Second, Peter chose hope because it fit the situation of those saints. But there are other Christian virtues. Peter offers a list in his other letter.

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. 2 Peter 1.5–7

That’s just a partial list of Christian virtues. But I’m sure that there is at least one here that you can work on, one that will make you stand out when it comes to the unbelievers that know you. Pray that Spirit would guide you to one. Then, work on it. Work on it with prayer. Work on it depending on grace. Work on it by sanctifying Christ as Lord in your heart with that virtue in mind. Then, see how the Spirit changes your life so that people will come to you asking, ‘How do you do that?’ And then, be ready to give them an answer.