The concept of “friendship evangelism” is very popular with this generation. If friendship evangelism means that Christians are to be friendly to unbelievers and preach the good news to them, then that is wonderful and should be encouraged. But all too often it is a cloak used by people who are too frightened to open their mouths about the exclusivity of Jesus Christ, the only Savior from sin, death, and hell.
The Fable of Friendship Evangelism
For them, the focus in upon friendship and there is little evangelism. The Bible does not frown upon preaching the forgiveness of sins to one’s friends. God calls believers to proclaim the good news to all people—friends or enemies. Preach to one and to all. Preach to your neighbors and to your children. However, Christians, who can be sinfully prone to be people pleasers, should not attempt to covertly hide behind evangelistic programs touting friendship over faithfulness to God and His Word. Open mouth. Disengage clutch. Preach.
Here is a “hitting the funny bone” moment: it is seemingly harder to preach Jesus Christ to friends. We feel that if we can establish a friendship with someone that friendship will serve as the launching pad for discussions about Jesus. Certainly, that can be true and it does occur. But the counterintuitive truth is this: preaching to friends and family is very, very difficult. There are no social mores to consider when I am seated next to a person on a trans-Atlantic flight. They will never see me again. I will never have to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. Christmas eggnog is out of the question. I know there are exceptions, but you know I am generally right. So why are we tricking ourselves with the desire to establish friendships first? My hunch is that we are either afraid, weak or lazy. Or all three?
I loved my Grandma and Grandpa Abendroth. Henry and Erna were totally old school. As in, old school Lutherans. German Lutherans. Stoic, German Lutherans. I never remember them talking about God, the Bible, Jesus or church, except before every meal: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, let this food to us be blessed. Amen.” Repeat every meal or get scolded. When Grandpa got sick and the doctors warned us that he would not get better, I concocted a strategy to preach the Good News to Grandpa. But that meant getting Erna away from the bedside in the hospital. I knew she would not like me preaching to him. After all, what good is baptismal regeneration? The hatched plot was foolproof. Almost. Kim, my wife, would take Grandma to the hospital cafeteria for lunch and a coffee. I would approach my dear grandfather and proclaim the full forgiveness found in Christ Jesus and urge him to trust the Lord. I would tell him that he could receive Christ’s benefits through faith alone.
The second Kim and Erna walked down the hospital corridor I breached the room and sat next to Grandpa. I can hear the exact words that I uttered, even thirty years later: “Grandpa, you know how much I love you. If a blindfolded man approached a cliff, and was sure to fall to his death, would it be unkind to tackle him, even if he had the breath knocked out of him? What I am going to say now is going to knock out your proverbial breath. Grandpa, it does not look like you are going to make it. It looks like you are going to die. I am afraid that you are trusting in your religiosity and your baptism for eternal life. If that is the case, when you die, you are not going to heaven—you are going to hell. The Bible says that Jesus Christ, the Savior, perfectly obeyed God’s holy laws and He also died on the cross for sinners who broke God’s holy laws. He was raised from the dead and is now exalted. You must believe in Him. I am concerned for your soul.”
“Nurse.” “Nurse!” Grandma stood at the door yelling. She knew what I was doing. She did not like it and she screamed for help. Things were never the same between us after that “episode.” I can only hope that the Lord intervened in my grandparents’ lives before they died and caused them to be born again (1 Pet 1:3). If I had witnessed at the deathbed of someone who was not family, there would have been no issues—no breaches in familial love and fellowship. Actually, I have preached to many people on their deathbeds. When I don’t know them well, it is so easy to speak about Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. It is not easy to be at a deathbed, but the words are easy to say. But the second that the person is an unsaved relative or friend, things get super complicated. Friendship makes evangelism harder (usually).
If you do have friends, I encourage you to preach the good news to them. Living a good life in their presence is not evangelism. Give them the triumphant indicative, “God saves sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, the risen Savior.” Make sure you include what Lorraine Boettner states this way: “The gospel is the good news about the great salvation purchased by Jesus Christ, by which He reconciled sinful men to a holy God.”1 Remember that your life (and mine) is not the good news. No one has ever observed a moral life and been saved. Yes, we want to live a life that honors the Lord Jesus who redeemed us, but there is no evangelism unless we open our mouths and speak the truth in love (Rom 10). Good news is proclaimed, not lived. Actually, the only person who ever perfectly lived told us in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20) to proclaim the good news about him.
1. If you are not a Christian, then believe in the God of such good news!
2. If you are a Christian by the sovereign grace of God, do not ever think that you should move beyond the gospel. Some Christians believe that the gospel was for their salvation, but now they need to move on toward “deeper” topics. Jerry Bridges provides a wake-up call for such thinking: “The gospel is not only the most important message in all of history, it is the only essential message in all of history.”
3. When you need motivation, ponder the gospel of the Triune God. Spurgeon wrote, “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin: but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.”
4. Guard the gospel!
John Calvin wrote:
Without the gospel, everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom, folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinners justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. The gospel is the word of life and truth. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe, and the key to the knowledge of God, which opens the door of the Kingdom of Heaven to the faithful by releasing them from sins, and closes it to the unbelievers, binding them in their sins. Blessed are all they who hear the gospel and keep it; for in this way they show that they are children of God. Woe to those who will not hear it and follow it; because they are children of the devil.2
5. Preach the gospel to your friends.
6. Preach the gospel to your enemies.
7. Remember that you do not need a relationship with someone so that you can preach the gospel.
8. Live a holy life, but never mistake it for evangelism.
9. Do not mix law with the gospel. Categories matter.
*Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Mike Abendroth’s Evangelical White Lies (NoCo Media, 2016).
1. Lorraine Boettner, What Is the Gospel? Accessed from http://www.reformed.com/publications/whatisthegospel.php.
2. John Calvin, Preface to Pierre-Robert Olivétan’s 1535 translation of the Bible, accessed from http://biblestudy.churches.net/CCEL/C/CALVIN/CALCOM/CALCOMG1.HTM#Heading14.
©Mike Abendroth. All Rights Reserved.
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Excellent brother, excellent! Have reached the same conclusions about “friendship evangelism”. It is a worldly methodology (I.e., premised on natural reasoning not evidenced in scripture).
Grateful to hear of your boldness with family. May we all find Christ’s love compelling us to the same practice.
While on his deathbed, B.H. Carroll, the founding president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, implored with his successor, L.R. Scarborough, to keep the Seminary “lashed to the cross.” The Gospel is everything.
American views on evangelism have been mostly Arminian based, which have led to two extremes. The first being that we are responsible for the salvation of others and held liable if we don’t tell others (The O.T. watchman on the wall). This has led to the bull in the china shop approach where the gospel is pushed when no opportunity is present, nor interest on the part of the hearers. The second extreme is that we are so afraid of making a mistake or being offensive, that we don’t share the Gospel at all. The assumption is that because of our mistakes, it will be our fault that others reject it.
How freeing is the truth, that those whom God chose before the foundation of the world and Jesus atoned for will NOT be lost! We are responsible to share that truth, but the outcome is not on us.