And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. (Ephesians 6:15, KJV)
If you are a new convert, or one who has never received proper training, I wish to help you. As a Christian, you are eager to preach the gospel. Like a patriot who longs to fight for his country, you have the infinitely more noble ambition to take a stand for the faith of Christ and to take part in rescuing humanity from its continual downward spiral into depravity, ignorance, and ultimate destruction. Above all, you desire to honor God by declaring his truth, refuting slanders, and subduing unbelief and blasphemy.
You look at the theologians, preachers, and even some of your friends, who faithfully labor on the frontlines, declaring the gospel of Christ and facing the enemies of our precious revealed religion. You regard them as the Lord’s elite infantry. They seem to bear most of the burden of the Great Commission, while the rest languish in fear and apathy. You are embarrassed and gravely concerned that you belong to the latter group. Yet you hesitate, because you do not know what to say, or you do not know how to make an approach, or you worry that you might fail to answer all the questions that will be posed against your message. Or, you are intimidated by the hostility and the intolerance of the non-Christians, for clearly their tolerance is reserved for all views except the Christian faith. This is easy to explain once you realize that all of humanity is divided into Christians and non-Christians. All non-Christians, whether religious or non-religious, and whatever their religions, belong to the same group. Their difference consists only in confusion, and not in differences that matter, since they are united as one man against God, against truth.
So you agonize in fear and indecision, but it does not have to be this way. There is so much work to do. There is much ignorance and misconception about the Christian faith in both the non-Christians and those who call themselves Christians. Thus even if you have only the most basic grasp of the Christian faith, as long as it is accurate, you are already a more advanced and valuable individual than most of the population. You do not need to be a seminary graduate to preach the gospel (and many seminary graduates are useless), but there is no workaround for a lack of basic knowledge and conviction. And there is no excuse for a lack of continual improvement in your faith and understanding of the gospel. For someone who wrestles with doubts and many moral lapses, a temporary retreat is recommended, so that he may regroup and rebuild his faith, and so that he may not be destroyed by the assaults of the devil. Nevertheless, if you have this basic foundation, a foundation of knowledge and conviction, and of a stability in the faith that even a new convert should possess, then there is work for you to do. You are not helpless. You are not useless. There is a place for you on the frontlines.
The most basic and helpful idea is that salvation comes from the Lord. This means not only that God is the one who provides salvation or makes it possible, but that he is the one who controls how and to whom his grace is dispensed. The whole of salvation comes from the Lord, and it is not up to a man to convert himself from darkness to light in order to receive the gift of Jesus Christ; rather, conversion itself comes from God. A man cannot come to Christ unless the Father causes this person to do so by a direct action on his soul. And when God performs this action on a man’s soul, the person never fails to come to Christ and to believe in him. This action is not mere persuasion, but conversion by divine power – God flips a switch and changes the man’s whole inward disposition.
Even if you are a most moving speaker, you will never save anyone. God is the one who saves. Even if you are a formidable debater, and able to offer an endless array of arguments, you will never convince anyone. Non-Christians are irrational. They are dishonest and unintelligent. They are unwilling to acknowledge truth, and unable to process it. This is not to say that arguments are useless. The Bible insists that we must argue for the Christian faith, and to humiliate all non-Christians in debate. The issue is not whether to argue – you must argue, or at least learn to do it – rather, it is the exact role of arguments. Arguments that are biblical and intelligent honor God, demonstrating the truth of his revelation and the superiority of the Christian faith. And he sometimes uses the presentation of arguments as occasions to convert non-Christians. However, in themselves they are not necessary to produce faith, nor are they able to produce faith. Again, this is not because the arguments are flawed, but because non-Christians are idiots, so that they cannot perceive truth, and because they are liars, so that even if they perceive that you are right, they will not admit it.
It follows that we should define success in evangelism according to this fact, that it is God who saves, and that although he may use our attempts as occasions for him to work, strictly speaking, his action is independent from our efforts, and is not proportionate to our competence. No matter how perfectly we deliver the message and defend its merits, not every person will believe. Indeed, God commands every person to believe, because the Christian faith is truth and the only way to salvation. This command imposes a moral obligation to trust in Christ, and defines unbelief toward the gospel as sin. But God has not chosen every person to believe, and will not enable every person to believe. In fact, the Bible teaches that he actively hardens those whom he has created for damnation, and he blinds their perception, so that they will not see and be converted.
Although God commands that the gospel be preached to all men, he has determined that many of them will never believe. Your preaching serves not only to awaken the chosen ones from their spiritual slumber, and to be resurrected by the power of God, but it also serves to harden the hearts of those created for damnation, and to be a testimony or evidence against them, that hearing they truth, they nevertheless reject it and despise it. As Paul says, “To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Cortinthians 2:16). This is God’s design.
Therefore, the true definition of success is not in how the non-Christian responds, but in our performance as considered apart from its effects. Are you faithful to speak up for Christ, or do you compromise, and retreat into the shadows as the unbeliever blasphemes? Is your message biblical and accurate? Is your presentation precise and unambiguous? If you are faithful to speak, sound in doctrine, and clear in presentation, then your effort is a success. You have performed your duty. You are called to deliver a message, not to convert a soul. You are called to speak, so as to provide the occasion for God to do whatever he wants with the person. If you faithfully perform this, then you are a success whether the person is converted to Christ or hardened against him.
This removes the psychological burden from you to produce a certain effect, as in conversion and the like, an effect that you really have no power to produce, and that you cannot claim credit for if it happens. Once it is clear that your main task is to deliver a message, you realize that this is something that you can already do, and can easily learn to do better. Since it is not up to you to worry about the outcome, this gives you the freedom to focus on the message.
This is the most important thing: the message should be a summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith – God, creation, man, sin, Christ, the atonement, justification by faith, judgment and the afterlife. We do not have in mind an exhaustive and technical study of these doctrines, but only a most elementary level of understanding that is nevertheless intelligible and accurate. In the first place, these doctrines should have been your first course of learning as a Christian, and you may have learned something about most or all of them even before you became a Christian, when you were on your way to conversion. These doctrines constitute a summary of the Christian faith, and a sufficient basis for a conscious acceptance or rejection of this religion. A person who truly believes what the Bible teaches on these topics is rightly said to be a Christian, and one who denies them is rightly said to have rejected the Christian faith, and also eternal life. This summary of the Christian faith, once introduced to the unbeliever, also serves as a basis or starting point for future discussions.
Therefore, this approach is not to be underestimated. Sometimes one who is supposedly more educated in theology and apologetics, precisely because he thinks he is capable, but evidently not very sharp, can become distracted and argue with a non-Christian for several hours about an issue that is not pivotal to salvation, and concludes without having transmitted the gospel message. In comparison, to be able to tell someone what the Christian faith teaches by a summary of its major doctrines is a great accomplishment.
If the main focus is to deliver the message – a simple telling of what the Christian faith teaches – then this is something that you can do today. You may begin even if you are still unable to explain all the doctrines, or to answer all the questions and objections that will arise. You may even admit this to the non-Christian: “I am a new Christian (or I have never received the proper training). I know that there are arguments that vindicate the faith, and that there are refutations to all your challenges. But I am not yet familiar with them enough to articulate them myself. This is my shortcoming, and one that I strive to rectify. But I still want to talk to you about the Christian faith, and if it is his will, it is really God’s word and God’s power that will convert you. For now it is sufficient that I tell you what the Christian faith affirms, or some of its basic doctrines. If God wants to save you, he will change your mind and cause you to believe.”
In 2 Kings 7, we read about four lepers. Their city was under siege, and there was very little to eat. They said to themselves, “Why sit we here until we die?” So they walked toward the enemy’s camp. They were certainly not better warriors, but the Lord caused the enemies to hear the sound of a great army, so that they fled and left all their belongings. It would be absurd to credit the lepers, since they only walked toward the enemy, and did not fight anyone; in fact, they intended to surrender. But God was pleased to use that as the occasion to work. Victory comes from the Lord. Biblical arguments can overwhelm all non-Christians, and honor the Lord Jesus by demonstrating the truth of the Christian faith. So arguments are not worthless, and it is the Christian’s duty to learn to argue for the faith. But when all is said and done, the salvation of a soul comes from God alone.
Come to the frontlines and tell the message. Give a summary of Christian doctrines. If you are unable to do more at this time, do at least that. If you are unable to explain every detail and refute all opposition, at least make sure the non-Christian understands what the Christian faith is. Then, trust in God’s word to work, and in God’s power to produce the effect that he wishes.
As for how you should introduce the topic, your options are limited but not grim. One who is more mature and capable in the faith can at times take an aggressive approach. He can seize control of the conversation, disregard the awkwardness, and force his point across. From biblical teachings and examples, it is clear that this approach has God’s approval and the Spirit’s endorsement. But even for someone who can do this, it is not always the most appropriate or effective.
A Christian who is ill-equipped or at the learning stage should petition the Lord for more natural opportunities. This does not need to be so much a strategy of fear and retreat than one that expects providence to provide an advantage, so that one may talk about the Christian faith in a context that minimizes pressure and hostility, and that retains the sinner’s attention for a longer period of time. Once a person asked me, “What did he mean by ‘born again'”? This was one of those natural opportunities, but most of them are not nearly as straightforward. Sometimes a statement about ethics, or even politics, technology, or sexuality, can serve as an easy lead-in to a discussion about ultimate commitments, worldviews, and religions.