It may surprise some readers that the English word evangelism does not occur once in the Authorized Version. And even its related term evangelist occurs but three times (Acts 21:8; Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:5). But these few passages do not convey a fraction of the large place given in the Word of God to what has been named “evangelism.” To discover this, one must examine the Greek term.
The Word for Evangelism
It is a compound word made of eu, meaning “good or well,” and angelos, meaning “messenger.” In the New Testament the word occurs in three forms: euangelion, which means “good news” and is uniformly translated “gospel”; euangelizo, which means “to tell good news” and is generally translated “preach” or “preach the gospel”; and euangelistes, which means “one who tells good news” and is translated “evangelist.” The close relation between these Greek words, which occur 130 times in the New Testament, would be more apparent to the English reader if they had been rendered respectively “evangel,” “evangelize,” and “evangelist.”
An examination of the New Testament passages reveals that the work which is called “evangelism” arises directly out of the Christian “evangel” or gospel. There were evangelists in the early church because there was an evangel to preach. The evangelists did not produce the evangel. The evangel produced the evangelists! Because this is so, all discussions of the work of evangelism should begin with its message.
The Message of Evangelism
What is the evangel, or gospel, of New Testament evangelism? It has several general characteristics: First, the gospel is a message of good news and therefore cannot be any mere system of law, ethics, or social program; second, the gospel is good news from God—a divine revelation, not a human philosophy; third, the gospel is good news concerning a person, the Lord Jesus Christ—what He is and what He did. More specifically, it concerns the incarnate Son of God who died for men’s sins and rose again from the dead (see Romans 1:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-4); fourth, the gospel is the good news of complete salvation in Christ by grace through faith apart from all human works and righteousness (see Romans 4:3-5; 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-10). Anything else, no matter how good it may appear, is not the gospel that saves men from sin and its final doom.
The Work of Evangelism
Viewed from one standpoint, the Lord Himself is an Evangelist, for the Scriptures state that He preached beforehand the gospel to Abraham (Galatians 3:8). But the work of evangelism during the present age has been committed wholly to men. Ephesians 4:11-12, a very important passage on the subject of evangelism, tells which men are committed to the work of evangelism. “And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying (building up) of the body of Christ.” The entire program of Christian evangelism is here. Note several things.
First, these names in this passage describe gifts to the church, not offices in the church. What is the difference? Offices are elective, wholly within the power of the church to confer or to withhold; and there are but two mentioned in the Bible—the eldership and the deaconate (1 Timothy 3). Gifts, on the other hand, are spiritual endowments, directly bestowed by a sovereign Christ. They may be and should be recognized by the church, but they cannot be conferred by any church. The church by election may create elders and deacons, but no church can make an evangelist or a pastor or teacher. Only God can do this.
Second, each one of the gifts mentioned in this Ephesians passage describes a distinct function in the church. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the fact of the gospel and founded the church. The apostles and prophets interpreted these facts under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, first orally and finally in the New Testament writings. The evangelists spread the good news, planting churches in new places. The pastors and teachers took over the new churches as shepherds of the flock.
Third, not all these gifts were intended to be permanent. Once the church was founded and equipped with the New Testament records, there was no further need of apostles, and the gifts associated with them passed away. But the work of enlarging the church, of pastoring and teaching it, must go on. Hence, down through the centuries and now, the remaining gifts are a permanent possession.
Fourth, a final purpose of these gifts is to build up the body of Christ through the ministry of its own membership. The pastors and teachers exist “for the perfecting of the saints.” And this perfecting of the saints is “for the work of the ministry.” And this work of ministering by the saints results in the building up of the body of Christ. God’s purpose in giving evangelists and pastors and teachers to the church was not to build up a closed clerical order which would monopolize the ministry of soul-winning, but to exercise this ministry with and through a trained membership.
The Responsibility of Evangelism
Thus I conclude, the responsibility of evangelism rests upon every member of the church as a general duty. No one can escape it. But in a special sense this responsibility rests upon that select group of men who have in special measure the divine gift of evangelism. A study of the New Testament conveys the impression that the evangelist was an itinerant, going to new places, starting new churches. Once the church was started, the pastor was to teach the membership and work with and through them to extend the work of evangelism in that locality, while the evangelist moved on to a new place.
Various modern-day churches have departed from the program of the Word in two serious respects: First, many pastors have failed to teach their people to become a self-propagating body. Perhaps there are too many elected to the eldership who do not have the divine gift of pastoring and teaching. Or, on the other hand, perhaps too many pastors fail because they are trying to teach their members to do something which they are not doing themselves. Laziness can destroy the value of the gift. And this first blunder has led to the second: Because the average church has not become self-propagating, it has turned this task over to the evangelist, thus hindering his wider ministry of preaching in new places. And the evangelist, in turn, has too often become satisfied to confine his ministry to already existing churches, to the neglect of the unevangelized fields.
The Biblical Assumptions of Evangelism
Certain presuppositions stand behind all true New Testament evangelism. They may not be dealt with in any formal way, yet they are always present in the background. For lack of space these assumptions can be stated only briefly.
First is the reality of sin and its doom. Tell me the attitude of a church toward sin, and I will tell you its attitude toward evangelism. The cult of Eddyism (Christian Science), which denies the reality of sin, has lectures but no evangelists. And Modernism (religious liberalism), which weakens the sense of sin, creates an atmosphere which stifles evangelism.
Second is the assumption that salvation is by free grace, the work of God—not by men. Since evangelism is the heralding of the good news, it cannot live in the dead sea of legalism. It is not good news to tell men that they must save themselves. It is good news to know that the work is done. The preaching of law and commandments as a way of salvation may produce proselytes but not converts. It may change opinions, but it will not change hearts.
Third is the assumption that a response to evangelism depends on human responsibility. Man is not responsible to save himself. He cannot save himself. But man is responsible for his choices. He is not required to climb the steep ascent to heaven, but he is responsible to choose the Way of Life when it is set before him. Wherever the sense of personal responsibility is dulled, whether by a hyper-Calvinistic theology or a mechanistic psychology, true evangelism ceases.
Fourth is the assumption of the absolute lordship of Christ. Before the Lord gave His Great Commission to evangelize the nations, He reminded the disciples that “all power (authority)” had been given Him both in heaven and on earth. If this is true, then every human soul must deal at last with Christ, either for salvation or for judgment. There is no other Savior. There is no other Judge. This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Again, if Christ has all authority, then He has the right to command me as a Christian—my life, my talent, my substance—in the work of evangelism. This is what Paul meant when he said, “Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
— Dr. Alva J. McClain authored numerous theological books and served as the president of Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, IN.