What’s the Best Evangelism Strategy? Some Wisdom from John Piper

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Image: DesiringGod.org

Christians and non-Christians argue about the truth of the Bible all the time. (Because Internet . . .)

Christians even argue with other Christians about how to argue about the truth of the Bible: what’s the wisest strategy?

While working on the book Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption, I concluded that there isn’t a wisest strategy. There are countless wise (and unwise) strategies; it depends on the person, the situation, your knowledge, your story, theirs, your relationship, the time of day. Sometimes you give them evidence for the resurrection a la William Lane Craig. Sometimes you aim at their presuppositions a la Schaeffer, Van Til, and Frame. Sometimes you ask how certain they are that they are going to heaven a la D. James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion. Sometimes you give your testimony a la Christian celebrities. Sometimes you serve their needs first, talk later—I almost said “a la Jesus,” but I don’t want to suggest that this way bears his special endorsement. Jesus himself used different strategies with different audiences: compare the artful argument of John 4 with the withering invective—and later the ardent pathos—of Matt 23 (“woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” and then “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!”). Paul adjusted his method similarly: his approach to Gentiles in Acts 17 was not the same as his approach to Jews in Acts 13).

My choice of apologetic strategies is not ultimate; God is ultimate. But in his sovereignty he has ordained that his gospel spread via human messengers (Acts 1:8; Matt 28:19–20). I don’t save or damn people, but my choices in how (or whether) I bring the gospel and defend the Bible do matter. And I believe there is something I should aim at in both evangelism and apologetics; in one sense you could say that there is one ultimate strategy behind all other valid sub-strategies.

The ultimate evangelism strategy 

The ultimate strategy for defending the Bible is revealed in John Piper’s probing book, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness.

The argument of this book is that the final step of certainty concerning the Scriptures is the step of sight, not inference. The pathway that leads to sight may involve much empirical observation, and historical awareness, and rational thought. . . . But the end we are seeking is not a probable inference from historical reasoning but a full assurance that we have seen the glory of God. Thus, at the end of all human means, the simplest preliterate person and the most educated scholar come to a saving knowledge of the truth of Scripture in the same way: by a sight of its glory. (15)

Warranted Christian belief

My gifting, training, and bent may incline me to one sub-strategy or another (and mine do), but every sub-strategy ought to aim ultimately at this sight of divine glory. No matter how I defend the Bible, I should by God’s grace try not to let the person with whom I’m speaking come away with the wrong impression—the impression that their faith ought to rest finally in anything other than God himself.

Piper asks, insightfully,

What warrant—what good foundation—in the Christian Scriptures provides a well-grounded trust? What basis of belief in the Scriptures as the word of God will, in fact, honor God? (15)

Piper is here, as so often, channeling Jonathan Edwards, who says that true Christian faith, the kind from which genuine love flows, must be grounded on “a reasonable persuasion or conviction.” But he may not mean what you think by that phrase. Edwards explains in his famous and influential book, Religious Affections,

By a reasonable conviction, I mean a conviction founded on real evidence, or upon that which is a good reason, or just ground of conviction. Men may have a strong persuasion that the Christian religion is true, when their persuasion is not at all built on evidence, but altogether on education, and the opinion of others. (295)

Edwards drives his point home by pointing out that Muslims may possess exactly the same kind of merely cultural conviction concerning the truth of Islam. Such conviction alone is not a sufficient basis for saving, Christian faith. Faith that flows from culture or peer pressure is not supernatural, as true Christian faith is. Even the devils believe, and tremble (Jas 2:19). Not all faith in Christ is saving faith.

Neither, as Piper explains, is blind faith something to be commended. A mere “leap into the unknown is no honor to one who has made himself known.” (15) No, that sort of faith “glorifies its own risk-taking boldness.” (131)

Instead it’s through direct sight of God’s glory—again, through the window of Scripture—that people both trust God’s word and honor him at the same time. As Edwards says, in the paragraph out of which Piper’s book appears to have grown,

The mind ascends to the truth of the gospel but by one step, and that is its divine glory. . . . Unless men may come to a reasonable solid persuasion and conviction of the truth of the gospel, by the internal evidences of it, in the way that has been spoken, viz. by a sight of its glory; ’tis impossible that those who are illiterate, and unacquainted with history, should have any thorough and effectual conviction of it at all. (299, 303)

Apologetic strategies

So, ultimately, all apologetic approaches must aim at this one goal: to put the glories of God on display. But no apologetic strategy for defending the inspired Word is guaranteed to work. Offering a direct sight of divine glory didn’t always “work” for the incarnated Word (John 1:10).

Judas saw the same Jesus whom Peter saw, but he did not see him as compellingly glorious, beautiful, and all-satisfying. (163)

But it must remain our goal to place God’s glory before people so the Spirit can call them to repentance and faith. This is true no matter whom you talk to, regardless of their education, religious background, or social class.

Indeed, one of the most helpful (and, for me, validating) themes in Piper’s book arise out of his discussions of Jonathan Edwards’ approach to evangelizing the Housatonic Indians of western New York. He wrote,

The gospel was not given only for learned men. There are at least nineteen in twenty, if not ninety-nine in an hundred, of those for whom the Scriptures were written, that are not capable of any certain or effectual conviction of the divine authority of the Scriptures, by such arguments as learned men make use of. (304)

To have a conviction, so clear, and evident, and assuring, as to be sufficient to induce them, with boldness, to sell all, confidently and fearlessly to run the venture of the loss of all things, and of enduring the most exquisite and long-continued torments, and to trample the world under foot, and count all things but dung, for Christ; the evidence they can have from history, cannot be sufficient. (303)

Here were genuine believers who could never be won to Christ by sophisticated philosophical arguments, even from a master like Jonathan Edwards. Indeed, such arguments would have been, to them, meaningless. Likewise, Piper values historical reasoning but does not view it as the ultimate strategy for displaying the truth of the Christian religion:

What turned my focus (not my approval or my interest) away from historical reasoning as a support for faith was the realization that most people in the world—especially in the less-educated, developing world—have neither the training nor the time to pursue such detailed arguments in support of their faith. And yet the Bible assumes that those who hear the gospel may know the truth of it and may stake their lives on it—indeed must stake their lives on it.

When I pastored a small congregation of non-Christian adults in the deep South (long story), not once over five and a half years did any of them ask me about the historical reliability of the Bible. And though I assumed that reliability, I did not defend it. My goal was to lay the claims of God in the text of the Bible before them in order to put on display his divine glory. And I was under no illusions that I could compel them to see it. I only sought by God’s grace to try. When people did not see that glory, or when they saw it and shrank from it, I was deeply saddened and sobered. But I took comfort in the words of Paul:

Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:3–6 ESV)

By God’s grace, let us peel back the curtain and pray that the light of Christ shines through.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
 
 

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Comments

  1. Jeff O'Neal says:

    This is a great topic, Mark. I appreciate what you presented here and I look forward to reading Piper’s book. I do not like some of his theology but Piper has written some powerful books. “Don’t Waste Your Life” was a real pivotal book in my walk on the path the Lord has set for me.

  2. 16 Even if I preach the gospel, I can claim no credit for it; I cannot help myself; it would be agony for me not to preach. 17 If I did it of my own choice, I should be earning my pay; but since I have no choice, I am simply discharging a trust. 18 Then what is my pay? It is the satisfaction of preaching the gospel without expense to anyone; in other words, of waiving the rights my preaching gives me.
    19 I am free and own no master; but I have made myself everyone’s servant, to win over as many as possible. 20 To Jews I behaved like a Jew, to win Jews; that is, to win those under the law I behaved as if under the law, though not myself subject to the law. 21 To win those outside that law, I behaved as if outside the law, though not myself outside God’s law, but subject to the law of Christ. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. To them all I have become everything in turn, so that in one way or another I may save some. 23 All this I do for the sake of the gospel, to have a share in its blessings.

    The Revised English Bible. (1996). (1 Co 9:16–23). Cambridge; New York; Melbourne; Madrid; Cape Town; Singapore; São Paulo; Delhi; Dubai; Tokyo: Cambridge University Press.