Key to the New Testament model of everyday evangelism is explaining distinctive living with distinctive speaking.
Is your preaching and teaching ministry doing enough to prepare your church for the task of evangelism? In this series, Andy Paterson offers biblical encouragement that every Christian has a role to play, free from false guilt.
This is part 12 in the series.
“Preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words.”
It may sound clever but, contrary to popular belief, St Francis of Assisi never said it. It may even be the fig leaf used by many an evangelical to cover over their cowardly silence when opportunities arise. It’s wrong.
Distinctive gospel living must be explained and shared with distinctive gospel words.
Life and lip
‘Life’ and ‘lip’ go together. Nowhere is that clearer than in what are becoming our favourite verses in this series of articles – Colossians 4:2-6, especially 5-6:
“Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
As we have previously noted, Paul moves from instructions about prayer (especially for his own preaching) to instructions for distinctive Christian living. Believers in Colossae (and beyond) are to live in such a way that they will need speech to explain their behaviour and point to Christ. And this speech will be ‘full of grace, seasoned with salt’.
Although some think Paul is saying that elements of wit and wisdom should be found throughout their speech, like salt in a meal, the safer and simpler explanation is that Paul is that grace should be the tasty seasoning that permeates and flavours everything they say.
It’s not primarily about what you say, but rather how you say it. It’s not primarily about the message; it’s about the manner.
Now that’s not to say the message isn’t important, far from it, but it’s not the specific point that Paul is making here.
He isn’t talking about public proclamation but private conversation. It’s as believers live in their communities, with all the joys and tensions that can bring, that they should naturally be communicating in ways that are grace-filled.
Living and speaking for Christ
We need to remember that these words in Colossians 4 had been preceded in chapter 3 by some strong words of command and encouragement to the believing community. Listen to how they were to live and speak:
“But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:8-17)
I make that at least ten references to various forms of speech!
It’s in chapter 4 that we see these ‘ethical’ commands have an outward-looking orientation. Why speak and behave like this? So that others will be drawn to Christ.
This isn’t just about the Christian community retaining a distinctive purity for its own good (although that will be an undoubted side-effect) but so that others will become aware of the relevant and radical difference that being a follower of Jesus Christ makes.
Of course, this is the same point that Peter makes in the verses that precede his call for gospel readiness. He is passionately concerned that believers should use their speech in such a way that commends their Christian profession.
He begins by quoting from Psalm 34:
“Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
they must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.
… But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:10-11,15)
It’s no surprise that James speaks often about the dangers of the tongue in his letter. He’d come to hear how the behaviour of many was contradicting the truth of the gospel and so he implores them to use their words carefully (James 3:1-12).
Such a corrective is needed today as Christians are not generally known for their gracious speech. Some are better at judgement than grace. Some approve of street preachers who are arrested for homophobic comments, spoken (or so it seems) in a desire to enforce Christendom values rather than to win hearts and minds. Spittle-filled rage at Pride rallies, declaring that ‘queers go to hell’ doesn’t seem the best way to commend the gospel message in its entirety.
My wake-up call to this teaching came as I angrily shut the door on the latest couple of Jehovah Witnesses.
My arguments against their false teaching had been great. I marshalled my knowledge of Greek, history, and theology and demolished their heretical suggestions, but grew in anger and frustration at their refusal to see the sheer logic of what I’d put before them, culminating in a less than gracious parting on the doorstep.
But as the door slammed shut, I reflected that although I’d won the argument, I hadn’t won their hearts. My abrasive manner contradicted the very love of which I had been speaking, and so I determined in the future to speak respectfully, gently, and graciously to such callers, carefully suggesting that further investigation on the internet might give them more insight into the points I was making (although the change in tactics of this movement - away from house calling to stalls near major urban hubs - has somewhat limited my new resolution!).
In fact, this characteristic of gracious, respectful, and gentle speech should mark all our interactions. As Christians are pressured to conform to the new standards imposed upon them by the secular elites, our responses will stand out in sharp contrast to the dogmatism, arrogance, and bile that sometimes gets directed towards Bible believers. Rather than buckle in a cowed silence, we have an opportunity to speak truth with dignified restraint, not rising to the barbs of the ‘thought police’.
But let’s face it, the reality is that, for most of us, our interactions are with friends, colleagues, and family. These are not confrontational situations; these are times when living under the lordship of Christ will naturally overflow in our comments and observations.
We’ll seek to talk about going to church as naturally as we would attending a concert; to be full of gratitude for things that have happened to us; to offer to pray into a tough situation our friend is facing; to be honest and open about our own brokenness and experience of grace. In other words: Jesus will litter our conversations both in the words we use and the way we speak them.
And let’s not limit our communication just to spoken words. In our social media-obsessed age, what we write or share on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms also speaks volumes about the reality of the gospel in our lives. We need always to have an intentionality about what we share.
Too often believers can be compromised by those throw-away, careless comments that litter social media, and by detracting trivialities. We live out the glory, joy, and seriousness of our faith as much in these ‘virtual’ contexts as in our physical interactions.
Employers are increasingly using the Facebook contributions of a prospective employee to assess their suitability or otherwise. It gives them an insight not only into what that person does but how that person reacts; it provides a window into their personalities.
I’m fearful that some believers are better known for their political views or sporting affiliations than for their Christian profession; that they are more concerned with promoting their own prejudices and preferences than with commending their Saviour.
Next time: Who’s in charge of evangelism?