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the gospel has no elevator pitch

I was recently asked to comment on a newer method for engaging folk with the gospel. This particular method is a variation of several other methods including the Child Evangelism Fellowship “Wordless Book” that utilizes colors as talking points, Evangelism Explosion’s two diagnostic questions (If you were to die tonight where would you go? and If God said, “Why should I let you into heaven?” what would you say?), the ever-popular Four Spiritual Laws, Billy Graham’s famous Bridge Illustration, and the one I was trained in as a brand-new believer, the Romans Road.

All of these methods are really ways to engage in conversation, though they purport to be gospel presentations. They may have their place. It may be helpful for some to have a talking point in the back of their mind when engaging with unbelievers. I have no doubt the motives and intentions of those who employ them are good and right, though I question the real value of such techniques, particularly as they are all very, very recent in church history. A significant problem with each of these is practical: they often lead a follower of Jesus to make these tools into something they were not meant to be—guilt-inducing. The idea is if I don’t insert—that is, force—the conversation to become a “gospel presentation”, then I have been unfaithful to Jesus. There is no good news in this!

Again, tools such as these can be quite helpful. I have used Billy Graham’s bridge illustration on numerous occasions, but I want to go deeper and examine a more basic and more fundamental question about these tools, for I fear such tools may cause one to think he or she has proclaimed the gospel when in reality what has been presented is a sales pitch designed to “close the deal”. Let me illustrate the problem.

We have four lengthy books included in the New Testament canon called “Gospels”. Why are they called Gospels? While each is formally anonymous, the earliest manuscripts of each are unanimous in identifying each author in the manuscripts’ titles: the Gospel According to Matthew, the Gospel According to Mark, the Gospel According to Luke, and the Gospel According to John. That is, the Gospel of Matthew is the written account of the gospel Matthew preached. The Gospel of Matthew isn’t fitting on the back of a phone. There are certainly ways we can summarize the high points of the gospel Matthew preached. Paul, in that famous passage in 1 Corinthians 15, reminds the Corinthians of the gospel he preached, namely, that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”.

When reading this summary and then reading the formula presented in the aforementioned tools such as the Wordless Book or the Four Spiritual Laws, notice there is no “if you” statement in Paul’s summary of the gospel! This is because the gospel is not an “if you” declaration but a “Christ has” proclamation! As I shared in my sermon on January 7, the gospel is the proclamation of what Christ has accomplished, not what you must do to go to heaven or what you need to fix the brokenness in your life or how you can have a happy marriage.

Here’s where we begin to see problems with such evangelism tools. We are so entrenched in our consumer-driven culture, we don’t realize we often reduce the proclamation of the gospel to a sales pitch. We lay out the facts, reminding the consumer of his or her felt needs. You’re sinful and broken. You can’t fix your own problems. Here is something that will make your life better. We dress it up in spiritual language, but if we reduce it to its base crassness, this is what we’re presenting: the gospel is the solution to all your problems. But hold on! Act now and get a heart-warming sense of eternal security in which all your future problems will be solved, too!

The gospel that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and the entire apostolic church proclaimed was the victory of God in Christ through his Spirit. As I said a couple weeks ago in my sermon, the gospel of Jesus is not a call to action, but a proclamation of what Christ has done. The right response to this proclamation is faith, but the proclamation itself is not a call to action. Let me show you this in Acts 17 when Paul proclaimed the gospel (note: he didn’t share it, or try to get anyone to pray a prayer!).

The context is a group of philosophers loved to get together and discuss the latest ideas. As Paul walked through Athens he saw altars and idols all over the place, including one to “the Unknown God”—just in case they missed one. As Paul interacted with them Luke tells us they were perplexed by Paul’s proclamation of Jesus and the resurrection. The concept of a bodily resurrection was simply foreign to them, especially of one Paul acknowledged had been crucified by the Romans. If there were anything the Romans had perfected, it was killing people by crucifixion. Some philosophers decided to hear more of Paul’s strange message so they brought him—catch that!—they brought him to the Areopagus to speak with the group of philosophers. As I read this text, notice that God is the subject of the verbs. Paul is proclaiming to these men what God has done.

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17:22–31 ESV

Paul tells them the right response to his proclamation is repentance and faith, but nowhere does Paul suggest there is something for them to do. Paul’s proclamation ends rather abruptly: God proved all he said by raising Jesus from the dead. Mic drop. No call to action. But, there was a response!

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

Acts 17:32–34 ESV

Paul did not call for a response, but there were three responses. Some immediately rejected the gospel in unbelief. They were unmoved by the proclamation of the victory of Christ. Some were intrigued and wanted to hear more. They were not yet believers but they were open to considering the truth of God in Christ. Some, however, believed. Nowhere does the New Testament indicate those who respond in faith to the gospel do so by praying a prayer or signing a commitment card.

The very idea of an altar call is simply foreign to the New Testament Scriptures. Those who proclaimed the gospel simply proclaimed the victory of Christ. There is an appropriate response to the gospel—faith and repentance—but we do not see gospel preachers urging people to respond. You may think of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. There he told the people to repent and believe, but notice how Peter’s sermon actually ends:

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Acts 2:36 ESV

Peter simply proclaimed the victory of Christ. He proclaimed the good news that God raised him from the dead. He does not urge the crowd to respond. He simply proclaims the truth and leaves any response to that proclamation in God’s hands. Again, there is always a response to the gospel, but it’s not a response we should try to bring about. Some will believe and some will reject it outright and some may need more time. Here was their response:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 2:37–38 ESV

Notice very carefully that God brought about a positive response to the gospel. There was no effort at manipulation or forcing a response on the part of the apostles. They proclaimed the gospel and left any response to the Lord and his sovereign grace.

When it comes to various evangelism tools, they all purport to “share the gospel” but do so in a way that emphasizes the response of those hearing it, which results in the one “sharing” pushing for a decision. This is why I said earlier that we’re somewhat blinded by our consumer-driven culture and so we make the gospel into a sales pitch. The Gospel has no “elevator pitch” for even if one were to cite Paul’s summary of the gospel, if one were to respond much more would need to be said. The problem with the concept of an elevator pitch is the idea inherent in it that the aim is to “close the deal”—push for a decision.

It comes down to this, which I mentioned earlier: the gospel is not “if you” but “Christ has”. We don’t “share” the gospel—we proclaim it. We don’t need gimmicks to proclaim the good news of Jesus! We proclaim the good news of Christ’s victory. This happens most effectively in the context of a relationship, for as we often say, “Discipleship happens in relationship”. We proclaim what God in Christ through his Spirit has done. That’s it. When we do this, we’ve proclaimed the gospel. We must have faith in God’s goodness and mercy and in his sovereign grace to bring about the right response to the gospel. We will know that God is causing a response because people who hear the gospel will respond in one of three ways. Perhaps they will respond as many did on Pentecost: “What must we do to be saved?” Perhaps they will respond as many did on the Areopagus: “Could we meet again so you can tell us more about this?” And some—many—will respond in stubborn unbelief and mock us and Christ for proclaiming the resurrection.

Our responsibility does not include eliciting responses to the gospel. This is a good thing because it so easily becomes an attempt at manipulating a positive response when there is no real positive response. This is when unbelievers sense we are being pushy. It is true that God commands all men everywhere to repent, but it is not our responsibility to push for this repentance. We proclaim the truth of Christ and we live out the faith we ourselves have in Christ. That’s it.

I recall a man years ago who would often confront other believers by asking how many times that day or that week they had “led someone to Christ”. He kept track of his own tally of converts, like some gospel gunslinger putting notches on his belt for all his “kills”. Even more than manipulating people to get these “results”, he was attempting to manipulate God for he seemed to believe that if he pushed for a decision God was obligated by a person’s decision.

As Protestants we would reject the idea of baptismal regeneration. The act of baptism does not cause the new birth. We hold to a sacramental view of baptism, for God is at work in our baptism uniting us with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism is not the thing that causes this but faith is. While we reject baptismal regeneration many functionally accept “decisional regeneration”, or the belief that our personal decision to follow Jesus causes the new birth.

Peter is quite clear in his first letter that God is the one who causes us to be born again. Three simple words, rightly understood, will clear up so much: regeneration precedes faith. God works in us to cause us to be born again, and the result of God’s work in us is our response of faith. If we can grasp this concept then it will become quite clear that proclaiming the gospel does not include a push for a response, but a patient waiting on the Lord to draw men and women to himself through the preaching of the gospel.

Evangelism tools may have their place. A reading of church history makes it clear that such tools are not a necessary component of faithfully proclaiming the truth of the gospel, but some may find a measure of confidence in having a starting point. We must remember that salvation is of the Lord. Our job is to faithfully proclaim Christ, not to faithfully proclaim what others must do in response. As the Lord works in people he will draw them to himself and he will bring about the response he desires.