Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Living the Compelling Life by F. Stoner Clark

They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he
talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”
                                                                                              Luke 24:32 NLT

Luke’s account of Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent exposure to his disciples is among the most glorious narratives in the Bible. In a few short verses he takes the reader from the disciples’ depth of despair regarding Jesus’ crucifixion to the euphoria of their discovery of his resurrection. In this brief passage we see sub-stories of the disciples’ unbelief, the supernatural encounters of the women with angels and the disciples with Jesus. We see reinforced the miraculous nature of Scripture as Jesus recounts his story from the writings of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms. We also see the power of the Word to bring revelation as Jesus opened the eyes of the disciples on the Emmaus Road and “they knew him.”

Of all the marvelous sub-narratives subsumed under this account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the one I find most intriguing is the brief exchange on the Emmaus Road between disciples with one another following their encounter with Jesus. “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road?” I think the thing that excites my interest in this particular situation is the impact Jesus had on the disciples as he related Scripture to them. Not only did they have awesome revelation from Scripture, but something very significant also took place in their hearts that they could only describe as a “burning.”

Since we are dealing here with a metaphor, we can only attempt to supply meaning through a contextual interpretation. What is it that we believe these disciples meant more literally when they referred to hearts that “burn within us”? I can only relate here my own conjecture as to their meaning. First and foremost, their hearts were made incredibly alive to Jesus and his words to them. In some measure the disciples became through this encounter greatly heightened in their awareness, attentiveness and earnestness toward Jesus. Their hearts were aflame, lit up! One of the properties of fire that I believe is germane here is its consuming nature. In this case the disciples were completely consumed with Christ. It was as if nothing else in this world existed or mattered except their focus on Jesus and his revelations. So consumed were these disciples with Christ that they interdicted their original journey to remain in Emmaus and returned to Jerusalem that they might convey what they experienced with Jesus to fellow disciples.

Understanding that there are many significant messages intrinsic to the Luke 24 account, this particular narrative relating the encounter of two engaged disciples with Jesus most arrests my attention at the moment. It is my belief that not only does Jesus desire to have this same impact on all his followers, but he also intends that the lives of his followers have a similar influence upon those with whom they interact in his name. Imagine bringing the compelling life of Christ into every spiritually fertile scenario. Isn’t this the authentic reality of the incarnational life in Christ? This is what from eternity past Father God has always desired, that is, to inhabit his temple. In the Old Testament God declared his intention to dwell among his people. With the advent of Christ, his followers become the spiritual fulfillment and reality of that desire.

 Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you (1 Cor 3:16 NKJV)?

In studying this passage I am intrigued with the possibility that embedded within this account could be a New Testament paradigm for evangelism. I introduce this thought with not a little reticence based on the average person’s penchant for organizing things methodologically. History confirms how linear and systematizing we tend to be in approaching such topics as evangelism. We want everything neatly packaged and tied up and capable of being presented in precise little steps that can be easily memorized and rotely presented. Most of us learned the “Roman Road” early in our salvation experience. Do you remember the introduction of the Four Spiritual Laws?  I believe this tract was introduced through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ in the early 90’s. Another popular method—generally known as the “Wordless Book”—uses multiple colors to present the gospel by relating various concepts to a particular color. I’m sure others of you could recall additional similar plans of salvation that have been adopted and utilized down through the years.

It is not at all my intent here to disparage these various methods for how one might share the gospel with another person. I have no doubt many have come to know the Lord through their employ. However, I believe there can be a subtle flaw inherent with all systematic or methodological approaches to conveying the gospel. The most compelling aspect of Jesus’ conversation with the disciples was not the soundness of his argument. It was not even the profound veracity of his words. The most compelling reality in this interaction was Jesus’ very presence. In our urgency to convince all believers to effectively share the gospel, there is a great tendency to equip and encourage them by providing the most facile tools we can. Everyone is capable of learning a series of steps or scriptural references and using such methods does help many persons overcome their reticence or fear in sharing the gospel. We all tend to be creatures of habit and most of us are uncomfortable with ill-defined scenarios. Having an established “roadmap” for getting into, going through and then getting out of a situation can offer a lot of comfort and encouragement.

I want to suggest several objections to the above kind of approach to personal evangelism and then examine whether we can ascertain a legitimate paradigm for evangelism from our Emmaus Road passage. Once again, I want to acknowledge that there have no doubt been countless conversions to Christ through the use of various formulaic approaches to personal evangelism. However, it is still my contention that given the statistically poor recidivistic rate associated with this approach it behooves and challenges us to explore a more potentially biblical effort. My heart in this is that persons being evangelized not be confronted with an intellectual choice but brought to an encounter with Christ himself. No effort at personal evangelism is going to guarantee perfect success. However, we can do some things to ensure that persons with whom we engage with the gospel will be challenged with having to respond to a personal encounter with Christ.

The first potential flaw relative to following a method of evangelizing is that the use of an intellectual argument often leads to an intellectual response rather than an authentic encounter with Christ. One’s acceptance of and belief in Christ cannot be predicated on reasonable or sound logic. We are not interested in winning persons over to our way of thinking but rather to bringing them into a legitimate encounter with Christ. Personal evangelism is not about introducing persons to a way of thinking or a belief but to a person. Conviction not only is a function of the truth of Scripture and the working of the Holy Spirit but is also dependent on the readiness within one’s heart to embrace the reality to which that person is exposed.

The kind of truth that would never be denied or relinquished, the truth for which lives would be laid down, doesn’t come through clever or cajoling arguments but rather by revelation. Revelation is something that happens in the presence of Christ. When Jesus inquired of the twelve as to whom they thought he was, it wasn’t an intellectual or rhetorical question. It was establishing the relational reality of how they knew him.  “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.’” Later, John would reference this kind of knowing Christ when he shared the following:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us (1.Jn 1:1-3 NIV).

The essence of what John was conveying is that the principal role and duty of believers is to bring the presence of Christ into every relationship and every situation. You can’t be in the presence of Christ and remain unchanged. The nature of the change you experience will be predicated on your openness to his transforming life and will.

Another potential flaw in formulaic approaches to personal evangelism is the risk of leading persons into a false conclusion which will ultimately redound in a false spiritual security. The goal of personal evangelism is not bringing persons into an intellectual consent of Christ or even inviting Christ into one’s heart. The biblical end of evangelism is bringing persons into the kind of relationship with Christ that results in their utter surrender to and ultimate following of him. The offer of salvation is far greater than the hope of gaining heaven. The truest sense of what it means to be “saved” is coming into a surrendered, following relationship with Christ that sets one on a transformational path that leads to conformity to the image of Christ. Recall that what most Christians refer to as the great commission—Matthew 28:19—is not about getting persons “saved,” it is very specifically about making disciples. In essence then, salvation is all about commencing a spiritual journey. Robert Mulholland defines the journey thusly:

"The process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others…"

Easy believism is devastating to the authentic call to give up one’s life and follow Christ. When Jesus bid persons to come and follow he was calling them out of one world into another. There is nothing more radical than the demands of the Gospel.

As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Levi got up and followed him (Mk 2:14 NLT).

Consider from the Greek New Testament the biblical depth of the word “follow” as given in Thayers Greek Lexicon:

To follow one who precedes, join him as his attendant, accompany him; to join one as his disciple, to become or be his disciple; to cleave steadfastly to one, to conform wholly to his example, in living and if need be in dying also…

During WWII in Germany an aberration to institutionalized Christianity emerged known as the “Confessing Church.” This movement was very much fostered and led by the renowned Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose work, The Cost of Discipleship, remains a classic within Christian annals today. In his discussion of the costliness of grace, Bonhoeffer comments on Jesus’ invitation to follow—“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."  He further elaborates on the subject of “cheap grace” thusly—“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

When Bonhoeffer incorporated the living and incarnate Christ in his understanding of discipleship and grace, he was nailing the core value and essence of what comprises personal evangelism. Anything short of bringing the living and incarnate Christ into the evangelism equation is simply an academic exercise leading to mental assent and false eternal security. Those disciples on the Emmaus road whose hearts burned within them where responding to God incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ.

Given the above discussion, is it possible we could extract a meaningful concept of personal evangelism from our Emmaus road passage that could be so adaptable so as to actually be considered a legitimate paradigm? There is a distinct difference between a formula and a paradigm. With a formula one follows given steps to the nth degree. With a paradigm, one is given a pattern or model for guidance allowing considerable leeway within the structure for individual adjustments. I believe we can extract from this encounter—not an absolute or end all model—but a very helpful paradigm for how one addresses personal evangelism.

So much of what has passed for legitimate personal evangelism down through the years has left many sincere Christians spiritually disabled, ineffective and feeling guilty. Teachings on this subject run the gamut from cold calling hard sells to anonymously leaving tracts in public places. The success rate for most of this type of evangelism is woefully poor and often when persons are led to the Lord by means of some formula they only remain committed for a relatively short period of time. What is it that we can derive from our Emmaus road narrative that could encourage and serve all believers in having an active life of personal evangelism that redounds to meaningful conversions and enduring discipleship?

It is a little difficult to definitively categorize the men with whom the Lord interacted as to their actual relationship with God. Minimally they were sincere seekers who wanted to believe that Jesus was the true Messiah. However, like many other early “followers” of Christ, they were eventually dissuaded by failing to comprehend the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion.

But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel (Lk 24:20, 21).

The point I want to make here will probably be controversial to hard-line formalists but I believe it has real merit. Attempting to proclaim the gospel to other than those whose hearts are already predisposed to receive it is minimally folly and ultimately destructive to the cause. Once again, you cannot argue someone into belief in Christ. It is never a matter of logic or mental reasoning. We ultimately comprehend truth through our hearts having first processed data in our minds. Leading someone into a personal relationship with Christ based on logic makes salvation an intellectual pursuit. It leaves persons knowing “about” God rather than knowing him. The results of this type of approach are reduced to who comes off as the best debater. Intellectual conversions do not disciples make.

There is nothing more precious or higher or more holy than the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is through the Good News that we enter into that walk that calls us fully into the eternal relationship with God that cost Christ his life. The essence of this relationship is defined by no less than that which Jesus himself has had with the Father from eternity past. Our handling of this priceless message is further informed by instructions Jesus gave his disciples during his earthly ministry. On one occasion, Jesus instructed them to respond to those rejecting the gospel by simply ceasing their efforts and moving on. They were to “shake off the dust of your feet” as a sign to those being addressed. This shaking of the dust from the feet was not a sign of contempt on the part of the disciples. Rather, it was a message to the hearer that the disciples were basically “washing their hands” of the situation and bore no more responsibility toward them.

On another occasion—part of what we call the “Sermon on the Mount”—Jesus gave the following instructions:

“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces (Matt 7:6 NASV).

At a surface rendering these words sound incredibly harsh and even inflammatory. However, given the picturesque and metaphorical language of the New Testament Greek—as well as the character of Jesus—we know that Jesus was not literally calling people dogs and swine. His contrasting language was structured in such a manner so as to place the greatest emphasis possible on his key message. That message was simply that the precious truths of God’s kingdom were not to be indiscriminately broadcast to persons who would summarily despise God’s word and bring an angry response upon those sharing it.

How is it that one would know he has a willing recipient of his witness? I believe Peter answers this question in this manner:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…(1 Pe 3:15 NIV).

The key to personal evangelism is to live such a demonstrably surrendered life in Christ that others will be compelled to ask regarding the hope your lifestyle exhibits. This is making Christ attractive to the world’s lost. Living in this manner is not about being a goody two-shoes or someone who never messes up. It is talking about a lifestyle so selfless in all aspects that Christ is inexorably and palpably exalted in one’s life. When Christ in you is so exhibited and others begin to ask, you know you have fertile ground upon which to sow the word. Another part of the key in this scenario is learning to give out only as much as the inquirer is seeking. As Paul so plainly showed, some sow the seed while others watch and then it is God who gives the increase. Lifestyle evangelism is not about “closing the deal” on every occasion. It is about satisfying the present hunger being expressed in one’s questions. We should learn to simply answer the questions being asked, not those which are not being asked.

Another aspect of the paradigmatic evangelism found in our Luke 24 passage is seen in how Jesus interacted with those men on the Emmaus road. His first response was not to start immediately preaching the gospel to them. Jesus took time to discover just where these guys were coming from. He asked questions of them and determined their state of openness, the quality of their interest and their level of understanding. Few persons care to have someone start preaching to them regarding things they have known and embraced for years. Jesus in essence pin-pointed exactly how to connect with these disillusioned followers. When Jesus did begin to share, they were filled with awe and wonder.

The most compelling aspect of personal evangelism is the very presence of Christ himself. When the bewildered disciples and other disillusioned followers were gathered after Jesus’ crucifixion, he made a point of more than once appearing in their midst. On these occasions Jesus emphasized the physical reality of his resurrection and cemented his relationship with them. Additionally, Jesus ensured them that the experience of his presence was to be a continued reality through the giving of the Holy Spirit. Through these encounters Jesus’ followers came into renewed faith and belief which would manifest in the beginnings of a movement—the church—which would turn the known world upside down.

Evangelism that calls persons inexorably into an unrelenting following of Jesus Christ is one that brings the personhood of Christ into the equation. This kind of evangelism is a function of one’s relationship with Christ and cannot be reduced to a formula or a series of steps. Lifestyle evangelism radiates from lives where the cross of Christ is the guiding principle of those lives. Christ’s presence is the natural consequence of living the transformational life in Christ. This is the compelling life that others will ultimately seek to understand and inquire into. 

F. Stoner Clark

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