The Duty of Evangelism
Duty is a loaded word with many implications. It implies an obligation of action despite obstacles or trials that stand in the way. Duty assumes resistance. It assumes doing something regardless how I may feel on any given day.
In a way, duty is the antidote to pragmatism or a superficial happiness. It is the attitude that says no matter what the outcome, I will do this or that, because it is my duty. No matter how I feel, no matter what the results are, I will do it anyways because it is my duty to do so.
Now, assuming our specific duty is biblical, we have no reason to fear this word. On the contrary, we have every reason to lean into it. It is a good word. No—it is a necessary word. There is a reason why the writings of the Reformers and Puritans are saturated with the word. They realized that regardless of all odds, obstacles, or feelings, they had a responsibility before God to carry out the tasks and behavior which He had assigned to them: whether in the sphere of family, work, church, finances, or even diet and recreation. There is not a realm that exists in which God has not laid before us certain duties. Not so that we can be saved, but because in Christ we have already been saved and there are now expectations of us as His people when it comes to living our lives as “new creations.” An obvious and helpful example of one of these Christian duties comes in the form of evangelism.
Duty as a Compelling Motive
“Duty” as a motive for evangelism may come across as coarse or even legalistic. We typically like to think of other motives when it comes to evangelism, such as seeing people saved or growing our churches. These are noble and biblical motives, sure enough, but they aren’t the only motives. They aren’t even the best motives. There are times when such motives won’t be enough.
For instance, some days we are not euphorically bursting with love for the lost, especially when they have rejected our efforts in hostile or demeaning ways. Our love for the lost is important, but love is a feeling that is prone to fade in and out depending on our circumstances. Also, because we are people who still struggle with sin, including selfishness, evangelizing merely because we love the lost would be a flimsy and even irresponsible foundation upon which to build. We need something else. Likewise, when it comes to the motive of seeing our churches grow through our evangelism. This is something we all desire. But to what ends? What if plain and simple gospel proclamation isn’t “working”? What if our churches aren’t growing despite our consistent evangelism efforts? The temptation will be to either throw in the towel and quit, or to water things down to make the gospel more palatable to the masses. This is where the word “duty” comes in as a protective measure against such temptations.
Duty as an Emboldening Motive
The very nature of evangelism requires such a word as duty. This is because in several respects, evangelism is different from any other Christian practice. It entails intentionally speaking to a lost person about Jesus and sin, even though at present, as far as we can tell, the person has no love for Christ or hatred for sin. And despite our modern assumptions about man, biblically speaking, unless they are being drawn by God, we are sharing Jesus with someone who doesn’t want to hear about Jesus. Evangelism is sharing the good news of Christ with a lost person, and then calling that person to repent and believe the message—not exactly the most pleasant circumstance, at least from the world’s perspective. What other Christian duty is like this? Evangelism is confrontational, uncomfortable, and a catalyst for awkward tension, regardless of how respectfully and gently we do it.
The uniqueness of evangelism can be seen when we compare it to worship services, another Christian duty. If the government were to tell us we can no longer maintain corporate worship of the Lord, that does not terminate our duty of corporate worship. So it is with evangelism. Even if it were illegal, we would still be obligated to do it. In both scenarios, the way we worship or the way we evangelize may be different from how we would ordinarily do things, but we would still do it, hopefully. But there is one remarkable difference about evangelism that can’t be said about regular worship with the saints. I point this out in my book, 10 Modern Evangelism Myths (RHB, 2021):
How would Christians in the West respond if it suddenly became illegal to meet together for church or study the Scriptures or attend prayer meetings? Would we do it anyway? Yes! This scenario is not exactly hypothetical. Such an attempt is likely on the horizon in the West, as demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic. But when it comes to evangelism, things are much different. It is possible to meet in secret when it comes to worship and Bible studies, without society knowing it. But evangelism necessarily involves the unbelieving community knowing what we believe, including the offensive parts, since it is the unbelieving persons of society we are called to evangelize.
Even when evangelism is seen as offensive, distasteful, politically incorrect or illegal, we are still called to do it. This will expose us to harassment and danger, which is why the word “duty” is so essential. It implies doing something despite the difficulty which that thing will cause. And isn’t that what makes evangelism so difficult? It necessarily brings about conflict. This is not to say we must intentionally seek conflict when evangelizing. We shouldn’t be rude or obnoxious. On the contrary, we should be respectful and aware of the contexts in which we are evangelizing. But even if the person we evangelize gets converted, there will be conflict between the new believer and his old way of life, including his relationships. And if he doesn’t get converted, there will now be conflict between himself and us, whether it is open hostility or something more subdued. When it comes to the gospel, there is no neutrality. And hence, when it comes to sharing the gospel, it will cause a response, whether unto salvation or further condemnation, and all because we opened our mouths about Jesus.
Isn’t this why we get nervous before we evangelize? Perhaps nervous is too soft of a word. This is why we get downright terrified. This is why we all have difficulty evangelizing. The flesh doesn’t want the conflict. We recoil from pushback or looking foolish. We’re afraid we won’t have answers to their possible objections. And yet, despite our flesh or the conflict of evangelism, we must do it anyways. Why? Because we are commanded to do so by our Lord. It is His method for saving souls. “Faith comes by hearing.”
Not only do we see this example of obedient evangelism in the Acts of the Apostles, but throughout the early church as well. They too likely withered at the thought of conflict, especially knowing it would likely result in their death, torment, or loss of property. But time and again, in spite of intense and present threats, we see them evangelizing. What was their secret? Yes, the Holy Spirit. Yes, prayer. Yes, a supernatural devotion to Christ. All of these things are critical. But it was also their sense of duty. Speaking of the early church’s evangelism, one historian comments, “The conflict was inevitable, the direct result of the genius of Christianity. A Christianity which had ceased to be aggressive would speedily have ceased to exist. Christ came not to send peace on earth but a sword; against the restless and resistless force of the new religion the gates of hell should not prevail. But polytheism could not be dethroned without a struggle; nor mankind regenerated without a baptism of blood. Persecution, in fact, is the other side of aggression, the inevitable outcome of a truly missionary spirit; the two are linked together as action and reaction.”[i]
What was the result of such evangelism? Yes, scores of martyred Christians. Yes, many tense and awkward conversations. But also scores of new converts. The growth of the early church came mostly through ordinary Christians sharing the gospel in their everyday environments, despite the conflict it would bring: “Where, then, could believers make contact with unbelievers to win them over? Surely the answer must somehow lie where the Christians themselves direct our attention…in quiet obscure settings of every day.”[ii] Or again, “Being excluded from the normal social gatherings, their points of contact with non-Christians lay quite inevitably at street corners or at places of employment, or in the working quarters of dwellings.”[iii] “Evangelizing in private settings” was one of the most influential contexts for bringing about conversions to the Christian religion “en masse.”[iv] Kenneth S. Latourette confirms that “the chief agents in the expansion of Christianity appear not to have been those who made it a profession…but men and women who carried on their livelihood in some purely secular manner and spoke of their faith to those they met in this natural fashion.”[v]
Duty as a Universal Motive
Hence, we see that the duty to evangelize is not only for ministers, but it is for all who name the name of Christ. We also see how important every Christian is to the work of evangelism, whether they are ordained ministers or not, and how God uses His people in every walk of life to add to His church. Believers are called to profess the name of Christ to the lost. Backlash against such a message has always been the norm, but so are conversions. We must not be silent about our Lord. We may lose friends or look silly because of it. But we must not be ashamed of the gospel. This is one way to understand Christ’s promise that “everyone who acknowledges me before men I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33). Christ is here speaking of people who deny their Lord as an attempt to protect themselves from harm. Even in a climate where we are not actively being killed for our faith, we are still persecuted through societal isolation, loss of job, friends, or even family whenever we take seriously the command to evangelize the lost. The next verse promises that Jesus did not come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword (Matt. 10:34).
To know that every Christian should be evangelizing can cause disturbance and shame for many Christians. Most of us feel inadequate when it comes sharing the gospel. But consider the demoniac, who was told right after his conversion to go and tell all about what Jesus had done for him (Mark 5:19). He knew enough of the gospel to share it with others. His sense of duty to Christ drove him on to do it. His feelings or emotions wanted to go with Christ across the lake. His allegiance to Christ’s command helped him overcome such feelings and catapulted him into what must have been an awkward and challenging mission field. These people had just demanded Christ leave their region. They had seen this man naked and crazed. They had lost property on account of his demons being exorcised. This was no easy task that Jesus put him up to. Yet there he goes, telling everyone what great things Jesus had done for him. Why? Because Christ had told him to do it. It was his duty to do it. So, he does it.
Duty as Pure Motive
Evangelizing without a sense of duty can also lead to pragmatism. When we are governed more by emotions or even “success,” we make the cross less offensive, our churches more worldly, and our evangelism less gospel-centered. In the West today, Christians often have the mindset that if we are going to be relevant in the culture, we must keep quiet outside our homes and churches about the gospel, or at the very least, come up with ways and methods that will allow evangelism to be inoffensive. Christians today are often so plagued by the fear of what outsiders think of us that we assume evangelism is not done properly if it creates any kind of scandal or outrage from the unbelieving world. This would be a mark of woeful ineffectiveness. Again, this is not to say we should be rude or intentionally brash or scandalous. Not at all. Rather, it is assuming that the truth is offensive in a culture that despises truth. It assumes that the perishing still thinks the cross is foolish. But in attempting to accommodate our evangelism to the culture, we have lost the appeal of being a savor of death to the dying (2 Cor. 2:16).
Christians who want to accommodate evangelism to the culture disregard the fact that this was never Christ’s approach, nor was it the way of the early Christians. George Whitefield, John Wesley, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards and even William Carey were all considered scandalous renegades by the church their community for their refusal to compromise with current evangelism practices. They were seen as “zealots.” They were see as radicals. But they were men compelled to evangelize by a sense of duty. They were willing to be fools for Christ’s sake, even when the church was embarrassed by them. Consider John Ryland’s response to the criticism of William Carey by other clergymen in their day: “I am almost worn out with grief at these foolish cavils against some of the best of my brethren, men of God, who are only hated because of their zeal.”[vi] Michael A.G. Haykin notes that one of the hurdles William Carey had to overcome was “the lack of support by fellow Christians in England.”[vii]
Reproach and scoffing are the responses we should expect when it comes to biblical evangelism. In some contexts, so are arrests, confiscation of property, or loss of life. In fact, why would we assume any other response? The world’s eyes are veiled to the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3). There are none who seek God (Rom. 3:11). But a church culture that sees salvific success as the most important reason to evangelize will also claim that any approach that brings conflict or polarization must necessarily be jettisoned—especially if there is no “one” who is saved. The underlying motive behind such an approach, whether or not it is acknowledged, is a fear of man and fear of conflict. Such fear is normal, but it doesn’t mean it is correct. What must drive us onward to evangelize is our duty to Christ, even when afraid of man or conflict.
It is one thing for the world to hate the Christian, especially for his bold evangelism. Christ Himself told us we should expect it. But why do Christians shy away from confrontation? The answer is easy. We are still in the flesh. We are prone to want to protect ourself from looking dumb or losing friends, even if this means to not evangelize. The flesh is still very powerful. Therefore, duty is essential. Consider examples from the Scriptures. R. C. Sproul notes that “Jesus’ life was a storm of controversy. The apostles, like the prophets before them, could hardly go a day without controversy. Paul said that he debated daily in the marketplace. To avoid controversy is to avoid Christ.”[viii] Do we think that Paul, the prophets, or even Christ delighted in being harassed, maligned, and eventually killed for what they believed? Surely it wasn’t an enjoyable situation to be in much of the time, if ever. So what drove them to keep pressing on, regardless of ill health, prison or loss of life? Duty. What must drive us on to evangelize, even when we don’t feel like it? Duty. Even when it might cause outrage or social inconveniences? You got it. Duty.
Duty as a Transcendent Motive
There are many biblical motives for doing evangelism: our love of Christ, our love for our neighbors, our desire to see our churches grow, our passion to see God’s kingdom advance on earth. But notice these all have to do with some type of emotion: love, desire, passion, etc. Emotion is not a bad thing. God has wired us to be creatures who experience and are influenced by emotions. But emotions can be fickle and unreliable. Other times, especially when it comes to evangelism, emotions such as fear can drive out more proper emotions such as love for our neighbor. Fear is a powerful force that can utterly quench any drive to do evangelism. And in such moments, it is duty which must carry the day. We evangelize because our Master tells us to do so, regardless of our feelings about it or the pushback it may lead to. Even if we feel unequipped or inadequate—and we always are—we must evangelize because it’s our duty to do so, trusting God will use our weak and fallible attempts to do great things for His name.
The power of Christianity has always been its bold, uncompromising gospel proclamation. It has proclaimed the gospel directly into the teeth of the fiercest, most ruthless societies ever known to man. And despite the persecutions such action brings upon the church, Christians have always dug in and preached even harder. The early Christians were considered aggressive and imprudent by the surrounding culture, even while other religions were taking steps to avoid persecution. There has always been a relentless zeal for gospel proclamation among God’s people. Some periods of church history demonstrate this more brightly than others, but it has been there, somewhere, even in the darkest ages. But it wasn’t boldness for the sake of being bold that drove them on. It wasn’t recklessness for the sake of recklessness. It was because the Master had told them to do it, regardless of how they felt or what would be the outcome. We must have the same mindset.
Evangelism is a duty we have to Christ. As society in the West becomes more and more like ancient Rome, it is important we are equipped with not only a passion for evangelism, a love for the lost, and a desire to see God’s kingdom advance on earth—it is also necessary we are equipped with the time-honored weapon of remembering that evangelism is a duty, no matter the consequences, and no matter how we feel.
[I] Herbert B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church (Bloomington, IL: Clearnote Press, 2014), 39.
[ii] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1984), 37.
[iii] MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire, 40.
[iv] MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire, 29.
[v] Kenneth S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper, 1944), 1:230.
[vi] Cited in A. de M. Chesterman, “The Journals of Daniel Brainerd and of William Carey,” The Baptist Quarterly 19 (1961-62): 151-52.
[vii] Michael H.G. Haykin, The Missionary Fellowship of William Carey (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2018), 5.
[viii] R. C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), xv.