As a brand-new believer, brought to faith through the witness of a Pentecostal friend at school, I was taught that if I want to stay a Christian, if I do not want to lose my salvation, I must do three things every day. I must read my Bible. I must pray, especially for forgiveness. And I must witness to my friends about Jesus and try to persuade them to become Christians, too. Without fail. Every day. Or else.
It will be no surprise to learn that it was not long before I began to sink into a dark pit of discouragement. My regular failures in all three areas quickly shook my already fragile assurance to the core. Fear, not faith and certainly not joy, motivated my evangelism. But all this rested, as most soul-sicknesses in the Christian life do, upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the character of God and the way He has ordained evangelism to work. And so it was the discovery of an expanded vision of God that changed everything. The simple yet profound truth that liberated me from the crushing weight I carried was this: God is an evangelist. Indeed, He is the Evangelist.
Though we may not realize it, behind and before our “lisping, stammering tongues” ever manage to proclaim the good news about Jesus, before we can muster the courage to speak a word for Him, God Himself has been in hot pursuit of sinners to save. Few truths offer more encouragement to us in our efforts to share the gospel than this: God is the great winner of souls.
In His famous conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus declared:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16–17)
These words, so familiar from roadside billboards and the eye black of football stars, often slip past us without much thought. They have become a cliché of cultural Christianity. But the truth they proclaim is glorious. They tell us that the initiative behind the work of Christ on behalf of sinners is God’s. Jesus’ work demonstrates and expresses the Father’s prior love for sinners. Jesus did not persuade the Father to save. He does not apply the leverage of the cross to pry salvation from the Father’s miserly fist. No, the cross was the Father’s idea, conceived by His love for unlovely rebels.
Evangelism is God’s idea, hatched in the loving heart of the Father. And He is the greatest evangelist.
Paul puts it this way in Romans 5:6–8:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The love of God the Father for sinners precedes the work of Christ and is its basis and reason. The Apostle John likewise proclaims that the Father has sent the Son on a mission motivated by redeeming love:
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9–10)
God, in His love, sent Jesus into the world so that sinners might live. Evangelism is God’s idea, hatched in the loving heart of the Father. And He is the greatest evangelist.
This, surely, is part of what Jesus meant when He told the Samaritan woman that “the Father is seeking” true worshipers (John 4:23). But when the question is asked just how the Father seeks worshipers from among the mass of fallen humanity, all of them busily worshiping the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25), the answer is to be found in the mission of the Son. It is because the Father is seeking true worshipers that the Son therefore came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). God is not passively waiting for people to come to Him in the forlorn hope that sinners might somehow change course of their own volition and search for Him. No, God has acted to save in the sending of the Son. And the Son likewise has acted in perfect agreement with the Father within the eternal fellowship of the blessed Trinity. Thus, on the eve of His passion, Jesus could pray, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:1–2). The Father has committed authority to the Son to save those sinners entrusted to Him in the eternal election of God, and the Son has gladly embraced this mission. This is how Jesus understood His work. He declared, “I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also” (10:15–16). Christ is a missionary, sent to gather all the sheep of the Father’s flock under one shepherd.
The same can be said for the mission and ministry of God the Holy Spirit. In the upper room, Jesus told the disciples that “when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” (15:26–27). The Spirit of truth is sent by the Son from the Father to bear witness. He testifies about Christ, through the Word of God, to the world. And in and through this testimony, the Spirit gives new life to dead sinners (6:63; 2 Cor. 3:6). The Spirit Himself, like the Father and the Son, is an evangelist.
And it’s particularly here, as we consider the work of the Spirit as evangelist, that we begin to see the link between God, the winner of souls, and the church, sent out by God on mission to win souls. It belongs especially to the Spirit’s office to empower and enable the evangelistic ministry of the servants of God. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the life and ministry of our Lord Himself. It was by the Holy Spirit that He was conceived in the womb of the virgin (Matt. 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35). The Spirit descended like a dove and rested upon Jesus at His baptism (Matt. 3:16). He was full of the Spirit (Luke 4:1) and driven into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted (Mark 1:12). The Spirit of the Lord was upon Him, anointing Him to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). He knew joy in the Holy Spirit as He prayed (10:21). The Lord put His Spirit upon Him to proclaim justice to the Gentiles (Matt. 12:18). It was by the Spirit of God that He cast out demons (v. 28). It was through the eternal Spirit that Jesus offered Himself without blemish to God at the cross (Heb. 9:14). He was declared Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection (Rom. 1:4).
The mission of the church, our evangelistic labor, is really only the extension of the evangelistic work of the triune God.
At every point, the Holy Spirit rested upon Christ to empower Him for His atoning work. And, having been exalted to the right hand of the Father, Christ pours out this same Spirit upon the church (Acts 2:33). In John 20:21–23, the risen Christ tells the disciples: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” The church is sent by Christ to pronounce forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus. We have been sent to do evangelism. And for this task He has breathed out upon us His Spirit. The Apostle Peter reminds the churches of Asia Minor of “those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12). The Holy Spirit sent from heaven rests upon the ministry of those who preached the Word of God to the believers of Asia Minor. He endows the church with power to be Christ’s witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Thus, the mission of the church, our evangelistic labor, is really only the extension of the evangelistic work of the triune God. The Spirit-filled church of Jesus Christ is the soul-winning instrument ordained by the Father, sent by the Son, and enabled by the Spirit.
So here is the liberating truth: God is the true and great soul winner. The Father purposed to save sinners in love, and so He sent His Son for us. The Son of God has loved us and given Himself for us. The same Spirit who rested upon Christ now gives life to dead sinners, uniting us to Christ, and He empowers us in turn to bear witness for Christ. When we realize these great truths, when we see that God is the Evangelist, evangelism will cease to be a fearful work, pursued in an effort to curry divine favor. Instead, it will become a joyful expression of gratitude and an outpouring of holy zeal that others might know the salvation that has been lavished upon us by Almighty God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Dr. David Strain is senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss., and chairman of the board of Christian Witness to Israel (North America).