Just how do people come to know Christ? Some elements of conversion to Christ are a mystery, while other elements of the process have been revealed. Christians hold different beliefs on the roles that God and mankind play in the process of salvation and evangelism. There are two extreme positions on how people come to respond to Christ. One position is that everything depends on God. From this perspective Christians have no responsibility and play little role in leading others to Christ. The danger in this position is that it can lead to passivity in reaching out to the lost.
The second extreme position is that conversion depends entirely on the schemes and methods of the people who are sharing their faith. The dangers here are threefold.
First, it places too much pressure for conversion on the witness. This can lead to paralyzing fear, self-doubt, and insecurity.
Second, the witness may be tempted to manipulate the spiritually searching to get a verbal decision in order to feel good about themselves or to please God and others. Because God creates people, they should be honored and treated with the same respect that God has assigned to them. Therefore, manipulation is out-of-bounds in God-honoring personal evangelism.
This indicates the third danger, the temptation to use methods that are out-of-bounds. A method such as bait and switch would reflect negatively on Christ and his church, so this approach would be out-of-bounds. Christians are to conduct themselves in every area of their lives in such a way as to reveal the character of God. Additionally, Christians will want to use approaches that operate within the purposes and majesty of God, so that in all things God is glorified (1 Cor. 10:31).
In the next several chapters, we will explore biblical truths about how people come to know and follow Christ as the forgiver of sins and the leader of their lives. In this chapter we will examine God's desire, God's role/activity, and God's tools in the regeneration process. In chapter 2 we will explore the role of the witness and follow with a discussion of the essential elements of the Christian message in chapter 3.
When so much of life revolves around our limited perspective, it is easy to forget that God was the designer of the universe and everything in it and thereby has all the rights and privileges to run the universe as He sees fit. This fact should give us great comfort, not fear.
So just what is God up to with His prized creations? From the beginning of humankind, God has been purposeful in His desire and His activities with people. The God who made us has positive desires toward mankind. And, unlike humankind, He also possesses unlimited power to act on His desires.
Plants live, die, and exist no more. The same can be said of animals, but this is not true of people. God created people to live for an eternity. People are born to live forever. This demonstrates God's yearning to have an eternal relationship with His people. God could have made us temporal beings with lives like the plants and animals, but He did not. We are created to be blessings to Him and trophies to His grace, power, glory, and honor forevermore.
The Old Testament contains passages that clearly indicate God's plan to bless all people. Although it can be misunderstood and misapplied, God's desire to bless His people is without question. As examples, God blesses by making available to all peoples the opportunity for marriage, family, rain, and other natural resources.
God's desire centers on reconciliation. "Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (Rom. 5:11). He acted, and we are to act, to reconcile the world to God through Christ Jesus.
God desires to establish a redemptive relationship with all of humankind. The Bible refers to the people of God as family, friends, and a community of faith. People become part of God's family through reconciliation, through a restoration of the severed relationship.
The fact that not all people come to redemption through Christ begs at least two important questions. First, is God capricious by desiring what He refuses to allow? No, the Bible clearly communicates that God is good. "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone" (Mark 10:18). "For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:13). Second, is God finite, ultimately unable to do what He says? No, biblical accounts indicate that God is infinite. People fail to receive reconciliation with God because of their sin, their own rebellion.
Paul wrote, "For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again" (2 Cor. 5:14-15). "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20). Serving as Christ's ambassadors provides us with a purpose, the ministry of reconciliation.
Not only does God desire an eternal relationship through reconciliation, but He also desires a communal relationship with Himself and others. God's call for restoration is not a call to live out the Christian faith in isolation. God desires to restore community and family among the redeemed. God created for Himself a people that would ultimately share His involvement with them to others through evangelism. Making a covenant with His people, He took actions to develop a family relationship, which would be expanded to include the Christian family of faith in the New Testament.
God's purpose for us involves our responding to His invitation to join His family. He extends this desire to all the people of the world. God's desire is open to all who would respond because He desires none to perish, regardless of race or heritage. Like the song "Jesus Loves Me" says, all are precious in His sight. Fisher Humphreys summarized: "God's purpose is to create a community of persons who freely choose to accept God as their God, who receive His love into their lives, and who respond by loving Him with all their hearts and by loving their neighbors as themselves."
The ancient Hebrews readily saw the need to address God's role in the existing world (Gen. 1) as did the early church (John 1). Simply but profoundly, the ancient witnesses understood their existence as an act of God: "In the beginning God created" (Gen. 1:1). God was living in community with Himself as Trinity and created all things to enjoy the benefits of such community. Thus God exists in a communal relationship, although it is somewhat mysterious to man. In Genesis 1:26, God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness."
God Himself was living a form of community, the Trinity, prior to forming mankind in His image. The very nature of God's existence involves community. The Trinity was a forerunning model for the human family, which must live in community. These foundational concepts found in the Old Testament pointed in the direction of the redeemed community God would be creating through Christ.
The act of creation was the first expression of the divine community. The community God created in the garden became a covenant relationship with His people in the exodus. God desired to lead His people, and if they would follow, they would experience His blessing and protection. Moses brought this idea into theological focus in Exodus 19:5-6: "'Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites."
As God initially created humankind, He showed His desire to have a lasting relationship, a covenant, with them, and for them to have good relationships with one another. This relationship came with the gift of free will to people. Because of their own desires and the trickery of Satan, man and woman chose to disobey God and thereby severed the once-perfect relationship. Adam and Eve's decision to go their own way had enormous consequences for them and for all of mankind—separation from God.
When mankind's relationship with God was broken by the sinful, freewill choice of His creations, God expressed His desire to restore that relationship by providing them with a covering for their bodies so that they might not be embarrassed before Him. This was God's first act of mission: to seek, cover, and restore His creation; but it would not be His last. This expression of His desire continues to take shape through His intentional efforts to restore a right relationship with His creation that has been broken by sin.
We have lost our first blessing, but Isaiah reminds us that one of God's desires is to be gracious and compassionate toward us in our fallen state. "Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!" (Isa. 30:18).
God acts on His desires by sending messengers to His people. With the Ninevites we see God's desire to be gracious and merciful carried out through a reluctant prophet, Jonah. God is also receptive to granting mercy at the request of His servants. In response to God's plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded with God for His mercy. God promised not to destroy the cities if Abraham could locate a few righteous men (Gen. 18-19).
God's intentional purpose is wonderfully implied by His offer of the sacrificial vehicle for reconciliation to Himself. God established the use of blood sacrifices to cover the sins of His people (Exod. 12). God also established worship and the ritual festival, which were forerunning aspects of community. God's desires seen in the Old Testament foreshadow His desires and acts as recorded in the New Testament.
The New Testament is filled with demonstrations of God's desire to bring real life to people. As an example, Jesus tells us, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:10-11). Jesus came to bring meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in life based on God's desires and plans.
God's intention and plan was not to condemn the world but to save it. Jesus said, "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (John 3:17-18).
The New Testament gives us further insight into the clear desire of God for His people. God's desire is that people come to a saving relationship with Him, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. From Peter we learn that God is resolute to save all those who enter into a covenant relationship with Him. "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9).
Jesus wept over the lostness of the people of Jerusalem. "As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it" (Luke 19:41). His tears moved him to action, ultimately to the deepest sacrifice of death on the cross. Jesus said, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). And once they were found, Jesus referred to some of His followers as "friends," not slaves. Jesus' death and resurrection provided mankind a way out of a desperate and helpless condition. His sacrifice gives hope for our hopeless state. Hope is a deep human need.
Another aspect of God's desire is to bring life, hope, meaning, purpose, justice, love, kindness, and all things which are good to His people. Even the fruit of the Spirit, as revealed in the writings of Paul, demonstrates God's desire for His people. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law" (Gal. 5:22-23).
Scripture teaches that evangelism did not and does not begin with the desires or schemes of man. Clearly, from the Old Testament through the New Testament, we see that God desires to have an intimate relationship with His creations, individually and corporately. From Genesis to Revelation we see God creating man for relationship with Him and with one another for His glory (Rev. 5:12-13).
People have been and are now on the heart of God. However, God moved beyond desires; He acts on our behalf. He has taken and continues to take the initiative in all aspects of salvation, including evangelism. Both the Old and New Testaments reveal the activity of God on our behalf.
Many philosophers throughout history have missed an essential aspect of God's interplay with humankind. Although God is distinct from His creatures, He is not distant from them. God is obviously above all of His creation. Only God could create something from nothing. Everything else that has been created was created from something already in existence. Yet God alone was able to create everything from nothing. He did not just create us; He created us in His image and likeness.
We glean from Scripture and nature that God is intimately involved with His people and not just when we follow His commands. After the disobedience of Adam and Eve, we see God walking with them. "Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden" (Gen. 3:8). From this point we begin to see God's active involvement with His people when He begins to extend His grace. We see God on mission with His people as He seeks them out in Genesis 3:21. He demonstrated concern about their shame by providing them a covering for their nakedness and the gift of His presence.
God's redemptive character is especially highlighted in His handling of Cain's wrongdoing. Even when Cain persisted in the wrong kind of sacrifice, God confronted him and reminded him of the way. What mercy God showed to Cain! But this mercy was not limited to the Jews; it was also extended to the Gentiles. In Acts 15:15-19, a quotation of Amos 9:11-12, James related how from the beginning God intended to include the Gentiles in His redemption plan. The exodus account testifies to such inclusive mercy: everyone who came out of Egypt became part of God's covenant community (Exod. 19-23).
The two great redemption stories from the Old Testament likewise foreshadow the work of Christ on the cross with the shedding of blood for the remission of sin—the Egyptian sojourn and the Babylonian exile. Events surrounding the return from both Egypt and Babylon set the stage for the later work of Christ. From the Egyptian exile (sojourn/bondage, not exile or captivity) emerges the Passover lamb. Jesus Christ was the ultimate and final Passover lamb.
After a half century of exile, Daniel recognized the redemptive purpose of God. Daniel realized that it had been God's intention to restore prodigal Israel through the punishment of exile (Dan. 9:1-20). The use of seventy sevens is found in Daniel 9:24-25. In the New Testament Jesus told Peter that he must forgive seventy-seven times, the complete number for forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-22).
In several spots in the Old Testament we see God's desire for all peoples of the world. His plan was rooted in His unique relationship with the people of Israel. In Jonah we see God's heart toward the Ninevites. The people of Nineveh were living wickedly, and that greatly displeased God. However, God had compassion on the city and gave orders for Jonah to preach against the wickedness and warn the people of Nineveh (Jon. 1:2; 3:2). After the side trip that included time in the belly of a great fish, Jonah went to Nineveh and preached the coming destruction. The people repented and worshiped God, so God had compassion and relented in sending calamity to the people of Nineveh.
By the time of Jonah, God not only goes on mission; He sends others on mission. He sends us on mission. In this sense Isaiah, along with Micah, can be understood as proclaiming a universal appeal "and acceptance" among the nations (Isa. 11:10; 60:1-2; 2:1-5; Mic. 4-5). Amos 9:7 likewise emphasizes God's providential handling of the nations. Not only did He bring Arameans out of Kir; He also brought the Philistines out of Caphtor. God's love could not be confined to the chosen people of Israel.
From the beginning of time, God had a plan to get His message to all peoples. He created the Jewish people to be a channel of God's blessing, not simply a recipient of God's blessing. Jonah clearly understood this merciful aspect of God, and that is why he initially refused to do the will of God. He knew God was more than capable of forgiveness; He was also willing to forgive the evil Assyrians whom Jonah hated.
Throughout the Old Testament we see God interacting with His people in various forms and in various ways. Yet the people needed Him to come into the world Himself so that they might better understand Him and choose to follow him.
God provided the ultimate demonstration of His passionate desire for His people to be reconciled to Him by leaving the throne of heaven to be born into a manger in Bethlehem to live as a flesh-and-blood man. God chose to move from unlimited power and glory to live in a state of humble status, few possessions, pervasive misunderstandings, continuous rejection, physical abuse, and then, finally, the ultimate societal shame—death on the cross. He bore the spiritual burden of the sin of the world on His shoulders.
Sometimes people have difficulty understanding why God chose to break into history in the form of flesh and blood. Sometimes stories best address such perplexing questions. The Christmas story escapes some of us, mostly because we seek complete answers to our questions, and this one is so utterly simple. For the cynics, the skeptics, and the unconvinced, I submit a modern parable. I am unaware of the origin of the story below, but it continues to touch my heart and speak truth.
This is about a modern man, one of us. He was not a Scrooge. He was a kind, decent, mostly good man. He was generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men, but he did not believe in all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn't make sense, and he was too honest to pretend other wise. He just could not swallow the Jesus story and God's coming to earth as a man. "I am truly sorry to distress you," he told his wife, "but I am not going with you to church this Christmas Eve." He said he'd feel like a hypocrite, so he would much rather stay home. He stayed. They went.
Shortly after the family drove away, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound, then another, then another. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. When he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They had been caught in the storm and in a desperate search for shelter had tried to fly though his large landscape window. He had compassion for them and wanted to help them. He couldn't let the poor creatures lie there and freeze.
He remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony that would provide a warm shelter if he could direct the birds into it. He quickly put on his coat and galoshes and tramped though the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light. But the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. He hurried back to the house to fetch bread crumbs to sprinkle on the snow, in order to make a trail to the yellow-lighted wide-open doorway of the stable.
But to his dismay the birds ignored the bread crumbs and continued to flop around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms. Instead they scattered in every direction—except into the warm, lighted barn. Then he realized they were afraid of him. "To them," he reasoned, "I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know they can trust me, that I'm not trying to hurt them, but to help them." How? Any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.
He thought, If I could mingle with them and speak their language and tell them not to be afraid and show them the way to the safe, warm barn. But I'd have to be one of them so they could see and hear and understand. If only I could be a bird myself.
At that moment, the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. He stood there listening to the bells playing "Adeste Fidelis," pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow. At last, he understood God's heart towards mankind, and he fell on his knees in the snow. He had come to know the One who became one of us just to save us.