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Daniel Propson on Evangelizing the Decent, Deserving & Lost
Ask a dozen of your countrymen, “Do you believe in Jesus?” and few will say “No.” Evangelism is not what it used to be; the good news, for better or worse, precedes us. “What would Jesus do?” is an alarmingly unthreatening question to the average Western individual. Twice as alarmingly, it has become a basically secular question.
The secularized common man can answer a slew of catechetical questions in a satisfactory way. Is there a God? No doubt. Does God love you? Duh. Should you love your neighbor? Of course. Is prayer a good and effective practice? Well, yeah.
They know (whether or not they follow them) all the basics of the faith, except two: the internal reality of sin, and the external reality of the devil. These are not insignificant details. Sin is the chasm between man and his goodness, and the devil is king of that chasm.
The Good News of Depravity
Though many of us talk of a “personal” Jesus, we have forgotten that his enemy is just as personal, and is just as keen on being our “friend.” We have lost sight of what holy men and women have known for centuries: that we are in a battle, and that (to our shame) we frequently fight for the wrong side.
We are bound to sin, of course, but true Christians often find this bondage too obvious even to mention, and secular Christians don’t see what the big deal is. For them, sin is a familiar: a dear and seemingly obedient creature, a little rough around the edges, whom one doesn’t like to show to company. (It is dear because they protect themselves from its ugliness; it is obedient because they have never asked it to go away). These people know they have a tether around their neck, but they think of it as a chosen—and therefore unbinding—constraint.
The dominant opinion seems to be that evil is undeniably real, and that evil is external. Bin Laden is evil; Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold were evil. Me? I’ve got problems, sure, who doesn’t, but I’m a pretty good guy—good enough, anyway.
If the Evil One has a plan for our lives (and I gather he does), that statement must figure prominently in it. As long as we consider ourselves decent, we will consider ourselves deserving.
The first step in freeing a man from his chains is informing him that he is bound by them. This is not a matter of telling him to “be good.” He cannot be good unless he knows Jesus. The advice to “be good” is neither good news nor bad news, but, in the face of our fallen nature, it is horribly depressing.
Thus, the wise evangelist emphasizes his own disentitlement: that he is not good enough, that he has broken faith with his God, that he is inconceivably grateful to be forgiven. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:1–3).
Our entry into evangelism is brokenness. My telling a man not to move in with his girlfriend is likely better than remaining silent, but nevertheless it is not evangelistic. Evangelism brings the fullness of my own experience to bear: that I myself have not been able to free myself from lust and cowardice even when I have decided to, but that Jesus has freed me. This is good news indeed.
Thus, Satan attacks our language first. He looks for domesticated words that will sneak into our minds and corrupt us: It is awkward to accuse a friend of betraying his wife and children—better to speak of his “indiscretions” or even his “difficulties.” Satan also emphasizes certain shades of meaning: It is impolite to call an underdressed woman in public lewd. The word “risqué” will suffice. He blinds us to those realities that cannot be called by any other name.
When we speak in the right words, though, the right thoughts often follow in our neighbor’s mind. We are not being “confrontational” or “imposing our values”; we are simply speaking the truth in love.
A tenet of sound Christian ethics has always been to prioritize means over ends: to do the right thing in the right way, and let God take care of the results. To choose the wrong word, even to “win a hearing,” is to prioritize ends over means, with the almost inevitable result that we do not achieve the end we want but help confirm others in their sins.
However serene their external circumstances, our friends are on a battlefield. It is good to introduce a man to the Church (that is, the gathering of soldiers), but it is perhaps better to acquaint him with the enemy. One is not likely to join an army—however musically pleasant and inspirational—unless he has cause to join in the war.
Sin is that cause. It is awful news. But it gives us a reason to look for more, to listen for the good news, to be evangelized.
We have something to learn from the most maligned group of Christians around, the street preachers who yell at people that they are going to hell. The problem with them is that they make the gospel unattractive—a stylistic error—not that they emphasize sin too much. We do not need to shout words of damnation, but we ought not passively let our friends proceed to hell.
“Sin” will only return as a useful category if people like you and me talk about it. Sermons can get people convicted about sin, but friendships will best help them respond to that conviction. What is whispered in the ear of a friend will be shouted from the rooftops.
Lighting Up Evil
This is not an encouragement to condemn individual sinners, mind you. We do enough of that already. Rather, it is an attempt to appeal to men’s consciences. Openly examining or admitting to one’s own sins (both personal and corporate) in the company of others invites them to a self-examination. When a poor man calls himself greedy for withholding tithes, how can the rich man not be moved?
If our lives are transparent, our words will shine as light to our neighbors. Some will hide from us, their consciences so dull as to hardly accuse them. But some will see the darkness in their hearts; and the darkness itself, looked at clearly, opens the way to the Light. Looking at anything clearly points us to God, for he is the Maker of all things.
As John writes: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light, because their deeds were evil.”
A city on a hill gives light to those who dwell in darkness. We sinners know what it is to dwell in the shadow of death, to wish to hide our evil (to hide it, perhaps, even from ourselves). In time, those who remain in that shadow forget the meaning of evil itself, and only know that they are comfortable in darkness.
Our call is not to condemn them; there is a time, and a Court, for that. Our call is to bring to light the reality of evil. The space between hell and heaven can only be bridged by he who knows the empty longing in his heart that pines for God. Let us be wary lest our brothers and sisters fill that space with sin, with a word they cannot even name.
Daniel Propson is an English teacher at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He and his wife attend St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Detroit, and are members of the Word of Life community in Ann Arbor. They live with their two young children in midtown Detroit.