Dr. Timothy Tennent: Evangelism and the Wesleyan Witness
As Wesleyan Christians we have sometimes struggled to articulate our understanding of evangelism. There are two pressure points which have sometimes distorted the evangelical understanding of evangelism. First, the 16th century Reformation was, among other things, a tumultuous time in church history where the church was seeking to recover the core gospel message. In the process, they shined a huge light on the doctrine of justification. This doctrine had been lost and needed to be reclaimed. While, as Wesleyans, we stand in broad appreciation of this, we also recognize that in the process a huge reductionism took place which essentially conflated the word “justification” with the word “salvation” such that to this day when someone asks you, “Are you saved?” we all know that what they really mean is “Are you justified?” But, the reductionism of salvation to mean only justification is a huge loss for the church. At the core of the Wesleyan revivals and the subsequent emphasis on holiness, sanctification, class meetings, band meetings, etc. was an attempt to shine a light not merely on the doorway into the house of salvation, but on the whole house and the larger biblical meaning of “salvation,” which does look back on our justification, but also fully embraces the ongoing work of sanctification and even our future glorification in the eschaton when we are brought into full union with Christ. So, the word “salvation,” as it turns out, looks simultaneously in three directions and we cannot merely reduce it to justification.
The second major problem we have faced is more contemporary as the church in the 20th century sought to commodify and simplify the gospel into its simplest form, but ended up, at times, making it transactional and reductionistic. We should never criticize, for example, the Four Spiritual Laws tract or any Billy Graham crusade, because God has mightily used them both in personal and group evangelism, but it is worth asking why our movement would likely have never produced such a tract to begin with. It is not that we are not committed to justification but rather that our movement has had a larger concern about not just becoming a Christian, but being a Christian, which inevitably carries deep concerns about the larger, more holistic work of salvation. Instead, the 20th century tended to put a deep wedge between the words “evangelism” and “social action” and actually pitted them against each other, which helped to further cement the word “evangelism” with justification and make wider social concerns ancillary to the gospel.
When thinking about evangelism it is always helpful to remember the wonderful summary statement of Jesus’ ministry which is repeated twice in Matthew’s gospel: “He went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matt. 4:23; 9:35). This summary statement of Jesus’ ministry makes clear that teaching, preaching and healing are all intricately related to what is meant by the word “gospel.” The core problem is that we have to examine the whole ministry of Jesus as well as the whole ministry of the early church in Acts to see the fundamental unity of word and deed in the Scriptures. In the incarnation, God’s word and deed are one.
On the one hand, the Scriptures teach us, through precept and through example, of the central and abiding importance of proclamation. Paul says to the Corinthians, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:23-24). Paul admonishes the church at Rome that the unbelieving world will not be saved apart from the public preaching of the gospel. He says, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14-15). The proclamation of the word is central to our identity as the church. If the church ever ceases to call the world to repent and to put their faith solely in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, then we cease to be faithful to Christ and the Apostolic message.
On the other hand, the Scripture also warns us against the perils of a “dead faith.” James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Jam. 2:14-17). James explicitly connects the witness of the church with the signs of righteousness in the Old Testament when he says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (Jam. 1:27). The church took their social responsibility seriously, as is evidenced by the dispute which broke out in the church concerning the daily distribution of relief for widows in need. The Greek speaking believers charged that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of relief in favor of the widows who were Aramaic-speaking. The Apostles resolved this dispute by appointing the first seven deacons who were responsible for distributing the relief with equity (Acts 6:1-7).
From the earliest days, word and deed were united in the New Testament’s understanding of the life and witness of the church. The Apostle Paul, the great preacher, teacher and church planter, worked tirelessly in raising money for those in distress in Jerusalem due to famine and persecution (Acts 24:17, Rom. 15:25-29, I Cor. 16:1-4).
So, as Wesleyans we are eager to embrace a holistic view of evangelism which embraces all the ways the coming New Creation is breaking into the present evil order. No one person can fully embody the import of the word “evangelism.” Only the church collective can fully reflect the breadth of the term. The reason for this is that the gospel is multi-faceted, and the challenge inherent in all Christian communication is that we are often compelled to say two or more things at the same time, and omitting any of them ends up distorting the full meaning of the word.
Thanks for addressing the holistic scriptural view of salvation. Justification and sanctification come into harmony with such clear, scriptural exposition!