Two Dangers in Evangelism

There are two main dangers to be avoided in evangelism. The first is that, in sharing the Gospel, we do not love people enough. Beating someone over his head with the Bible is not especially helpful. Telling the truth is important. However, it must be done in love. There is a balance here that takes away every extraneous obstacle to the Gospel, and simply allows the Gospel to speak.

The other danger is to water down the message of the Gospel to the point where there is no offense left in the Gospel. Scripture itself says that the cross is a stumbling block to Jews, and simply foolishness to the Gentiles. In fact, unbelievers don’t like the Gospel. Mark Dever wisely warns us of the dangers here. I really appreciated his emphasis on clarity. Peter was very clear in Acts 2, a passage that Mark explains very well. Acts 2:36 “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Blaming those who are listening for the crucifixion of Christ is not exactly the thing most calculated to win the approbation of the masses. However, what happens? The Gospel cuts them to the very heart. In fact, 3,000 were added to their number that day.

In short, there must no extra offense to the Gospel, whether it be that we are wierd, or unloving, or not good listeners, or whatever else there might be. How can we be sufficient for such things? Only by the grace of God. But we cannot take the edge out of evangelism. The Gospel has all the comfort for non-believers that a surgeon’s scalpel does. It cuts. But the Gospel doesn’t leave us there in a state of open-heart surgery. It also closes the wound with the healing balm of sins forgiven. Only by such surgery can the heart be made clean and fresh again.


Cardinal Bellarmine, the main theological foil to the Reformation, once said of the Reformation that its fundamental sin was…assurance! That anyone could possibly know that they are saved was a gross sin, according to Bellarmine.

The Reformation thought quite differently about the matter. They saw assurance as quite possible, though they put careful qualifications onto their statements. Chapter 18 of the WCF is a model of care about this very topic.

Unbelievers may have some notion of salvation, but it will fall away eventually. They can have no assurance of salvation. It is quite possible for the believer to have a certain assurance that they are saved. What is the ground for such an assurance? You may be assured (!) that the ground of our assurance is mostly outside of us. It is made up of various elements: the promises of salvation given in Scripture, the testimony of the Holy Spirit working in us, the inward evidence of grace operating in our lives, the cross and resurrection of our Lord, and the other means of grace all work together to provide assurance.

The most important qualification that can be made about assurance is that even if one does not have assurance, one can still be saved. It is not so much of the essence of faith, but that many Christians struggle long and hard to attain it. It does not take a special revelation from God over and above Scripture to attain to assurance. Rather, it comes through the normal means of grace. The fruits of assurance (contrary to the Roman Catholic Church) are not licence to do whatever we want, but rather thankfulness and gratitude to God, peace and joy, strength and cheerfulness, and above all obedience.

Assurance waxes and wanes, depending on whether the believer is making full and diligent use of the means of grace. Sin also attacks our assurance. But even in the midst of falling into temptation, we can be helped. If we struggle, then that very fact is evidence of grace. The unbeliever has no struggle with the sin principle in his life. There is no need. But in the Christian life, it is different. There is a peace there that starts the war between the sinful nature that we possess and the grace of God. These are at war with each other. It is part and parcel of the battle between the two ages, of which I spoke here.

Notice clearly how many different things filter into assurance. prayer, Scripture reading, Holy Spirit testimony, election, the promises of Scripture, the sacraments, fellowship with other believers; all of these things feed into assurance. This is one of the problems with the Federal Vision: there is an over-emphasis on the sacraments in assurance to the detriment (not exclusion) of the other means of grace. Yes, baptism is a means of grace. But it is not the only means of grace, nor the most important. There is in the Federal Vision an almost complete aversion to any kind of self-examination with regard to grace. It is usually called “navel-gazing.” However, as Scripture says, the Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are the children of God.

That being said, the dangers of immoderate self-examination are not to be underestimated. Robert Murray M’Cheyne had it about right when he said, “For every time you look inside yourself, look ten times at Christ.” If we look primarily to ourselves, we will sink, as Peter did when he was walking on the sea. But when he looked at Christ, then he was able to walk. Let us look primarily to Christ for our assurance.

Spiritual Humility

Matthew 5:1-3
The great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones once went to preach at a certain town. A man met him at the station, and asked for his bag immediately, and almost took it from him by force. The man said, “I am a deacon in the church; I am a mere nobody, a very unimportant man, really. I do not count; I am not a great man in the church; I am just one of those men who carry the bag for the minister.” He is like the pastor who got an badge from his congregation for his humility. The congregation immediately took it away from him, because he wore it! Well, that is a very good illustration of the opposite of what Jesus is saying here.

At the end of chapter four, we see that Jesus’ ministry consisted of three things: teaching, preaching, and healing. We see then that people must be healed before they will listen. They must be healed before they will obey.
Then we see what Jesus does at the beginning of this Sermon. There are two important things to notice about these first two verses. The first is that Jesus went up a mountain. We are meant to think here that Jesus is that prophet that Moses spoke about in Deuteronomy 18: “another prophet like me shall arise among you, and you shall listen to him.” Just as Moses received the law on a mountain, so also Jesus interprets that law on a mountain. Jesus sits down, which is what rabbis usually did when they taught. The second thing we need to see is that Jesus is the real point of the Sermon on the Mount. Notice all the things that Jesus did in just these two verses. Sometimes, it is easy to forget that this Sermon is about Jesus. We think often that the sole purpose of this Sermon is to teach us how to live. It does do that, but the way in which it does that is to teach us something about Jesus. We are going to see that Jesus is the best example of all of these beatitudes, as well as the best example of everything else in the Sermon.

Jesus here starts the first of what will eventually be five sermons. He begins His first sermon with blessings, and ends His last sermon with curses. This is in Matthew 23. You will remember that in Deuteronomy, half of the people sat on Mount Gerezim, and the other half sat on Mount Ebal, and they recited the blessings and the curses one to another. That is reflected here in the structure of the five sermons. Furthermore, the OT ends with the word “curse.” And the first sermon that Jesus preaches in the NT starts out with “blessing.” this means that, in comparison with the OT, the NT is a blessing. However, there are still blessings and curses. Those who obey Jesus’ voice and follow Him will have the blessings. But those who will not hear and obey Jesus’ voice will receive curses.

The Sermon on the Mount is most likely a summary of what Jesus said on the mountain, and probably many other times and places as well as here on the mountain. That helps to explain why there is not a contradiction between Matthew and Luke. Luke says that this sermon happened on a plain, whereas Matthew says that it happened on a mountain. The fact is that they are both right. Jesus taught the same things over and over again. Repetition is key when one is teaching something. There are significant differences in the wording of Luke’s version, enough to confirm our opinion that Jesus taught these things on more than one occasion.

What did Jesus teach? He taught about the kingdom of heaven. That is the central message of the Sermon on the Mount. We can see that because the first and last beatitude have as the consequence the possession of the kingdom of heaven. And we can see that what Jesus says about the kingdom of heaven goes directly against everything that the world says about values. Jesus turns the world’s values upside down. In fact, nowhere else in Scripture is the difference between the world and the Christian so clearly shown as in this Sermon. The world says, “blessed are the rich, blessed are the happy-go-lucky people, blessed are those who stick up for themselves, blessed are those who are not hungry for anything, blessed are those who triumph over their enemies, etc.” Everythig the world says is directly opposed by what Jesus says. We are to give up worldly values, and follow Jesus instead.

It is important also to recognize, as we approach the beatitudes, that Jesus is not describing here some kind of elite group of Christians. Nor is Jesus saying that we can each have one of these characteristics. They all come together, and they are all to come to all Christians. It is not like Benjamin Franklin’s little experiment. He tried to master one virtue at a time. Then when he mastered that virtue, he would move on another virtue. But what he found was that the experiment was a pathetic failure. As soon as he moved on to another virtue, he found that the first virtue would somehow decay. That is not the idea here. There is a progression in the Beatitudes, as we will see. However, they are all to be there, and they are all to grow together as well.

What is “blessedness?” As one writer says, this word is a refrain that is like great bells of heaven, ringing down into this unblessed world from the cathedral spires of heaven inviting all men to enter. Fundamentally, it means that God approves. This is where ultimate happiness lies, because these beatitudes indicate what God wants for His children.

What we have here is a fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah 61:1-3 says this: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.”

This first beatitude is the foundation of all those that will follow. So what does it men to be poor in spirit? We must first examine that word “poor.” It is a strong word. It does not mean merely that one has a shortage, as in someone saying, “I am a little short on money right now.” The word rather indicates abject poverty. It means that, spiritually speaking, the person has not had any capital at all for quite some time.

Matthew here does not mean material poverty, since he adds the words “in spirit.” Probably the best illustration of the definition of spiritual poverty is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14: He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The Pharisee thought that he had it all together. He was spiritually rich. He thought that God would look on him with favor, since he did all the right things. The tax collector, on the other hand, did not even look up to heaven, because he knew that there was absolutely no reason that God should look on him with favor. As the Puritan Thomas Watson says, “If the hand be full of pebbles, it cannot receive gold. The glass must first be emptied before one pours in wine.” It is the person who realizes that his righteousness before God is filthy rags. As the poet said, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” Another poet said, “Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law’s demands.” We often think that because we are pretty good people, or least we are better than that poor dumb sinner over there, that we can claim heaven’s rewards. Notice here that the beatitude is exclusive. The opposite is true: those who are spiritually rich are cursed. The only people who can inherit the kingdom of God are the poor in spirit. Spiritually rich need not apply. It is to realize that only God is spiritually rich. Only He can fill us. If we are already full of our own righteousness, then there is no room for God’s righteousness.

Jesus is the best example of being poor. The poet says, “Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor who for our sakes becamest poor.” He left the sapphire-paved courts for a stable floor. Christ knew what poverty was. He was not born into a rich condition. Paul says that He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant. That is our example. Albert Barnes wrote: “To be poor in spirit is to have a humble opinion of ourselves; to be sensible that we are sinners, and have no righteousness of our own; to be willing to be saved only by the rich grace and mercy of God; to be willing to be where God places us, to bear what he lays on us, to go where he bids us, and to die when he commands; to be willing to be in his hands, and to feel that we deserve no favour from him.” That is exactly what Christ did.

If that is what we have, then there is a rich promise awaiting us. The fulfillment of it awaits the consummation of the kingdom, but the joy of it is ours right now. We have the kingdom. It belongs to us. We are ironically poor and rich at the same time. We are poor by the world’s standards, but we are rich by God’s standards, when we rely on God’s righteousness to cover us, and His grace to save us.

This teaches us to be humble. Are we humble enough in how we deal with other people? We who are pioneers are very susceptible to this kind of thinking. We think that we are sufficient for the day’s tasks. We think that we do not need other Christians to spur us on to love and good deeds. The hand says to the foot, “I don’t need you. I can live life on my own.” The story that C.S. Lewis wrote about Prince Caspian illustrates this very well. Caspian is a very young prince who is trying to regain his throne, which has been wrongfully taken from him by his uncle. After a great battle is fought, Aslan (who is the Christ figure) says to Caspian, “Do you feel yourself ready to take upon yourself the rule of this country?” Caspian says, “I don’t think I am, sir.” Aslan says, “Good. If you had said you were, it would have been proof that you were not.” If we say that we are ready, it is proof that we do not yet understand the depth of our own sin and depravity.

Often we think about the wrong kind of heroes, and therefore we treat other people wrongly because of that. We think that the hero is strong in himself, has most of the desirable qualities that anyone could want. If someone else does not have them, we look down on them. But they just might be richer than we are, if you count riches spiritually. Dealing with someone else in a way that reveals our own low view of ourselves is true humility.

Humility is considering the other person to be better than ourselves. But often we do the comparison game. Who is better, me or me? Either way, I win. But if we want to do the comparison game, Jesus tells us, then we need to compare ourselves to God Himself. If anyone of us feels anything in the presence of God other than an utter poverty of spirit, it ultimately means that we have never faced him. To face the infinitely holy God is to realize how unholy we are, as Isaiah found out. So, if we dream about heroes, let us dream about Jesus. Let us dream about a hero who finds all his strength in God, who finds his righteousness in God, who finds true riches in heaven. That is the man who will be shouted from the rooftops of heaven to be a true hero. All those whom the world thinks are heroes will not even be remembered. Would we rather be remembered in this life, or would we rather have an eternal inheritance that does not fade or perish. Those who are poor in spirit are rich in the kingdom. That is what we are to be.