by Craig Dyer
Not long ago, I was sitting in the departure lounge of Entebbe Airport, about to fly home to Scotland. I’d been in Uganda for a Christianity Explored evangelism training conference. I turned to that day’s McCheyene Bible readings. There and then, Matthew 23:15 hit me like a thunder-bolt:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
Being twice as much a son of hell means not to move to a more severe experience of hell, but that the “single convert” had (like the rest of us) already been under condemnation. Then, the Pharisee evangelist persuaded him to follow a way that promised heaven (law-keeping), but was leading to hell. The unwitting “convert” was trapped by false promise. He was like someone trying to escape from a burning building and being led down a corridor by a guide who claimed to know the way out, only for both come to a dead end with no way back.
We cannot ignore this warning to the Pharisees, since the Lord cautioned His disciples to beware of infection from their yeast. This is a serious warning for us about evangelism. What can we learn?
- Enthusiasm is not enough.
Jesus explained their hypocrisy in 23:13: “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” Yet the Pharisees travelled over land and sea not to hold a stadium crusade, but to win a single convert. Who could fail to be impressed? Yet the result of that enthusiastic effort was deadly.
Church leaders work hard to get believers engaged and enthusiastic about sharing the gospel. It seems like a minor miracle when it happens. But this passage shows that mere enthusiasm to win converts may mask spiritual unreality. Because…
- Winning can mean losing.
The travelling evangelist likely returned home feeling great that day. Job done; convert won. The problem was that the new convert had bought into a way of life that was powerless to save speaker or hearer. The Christian equivalent might be trying to convert people to a mere externally Christian lifestyle—going to church meetings, praying, tithing, etc. But no heart transformation may have occurred in either the evangelist or his or her prospect. Hypocrites produce hypocrites.
A floor above that are the Bible-believing, evangelism enthusiasts. They know the reality of sin and hell and the urgency of warning others. They are excited about the power of Jesus to rescue people from that calamity. So they get their friends to repeat a prayer/ sign a card/ tick a box, give them a hug, and assure them that they are saved. But if the friend is only complying with the request of the Christian, and is banking on that for his or her salvation, then is he or she not in danger of being twice a son or daughter of hell?
Opening the Book, Not Closing the Deal
Of course, we long for greater passion and fervour, for widespread boldness in cross-cultural and counter-cultural evangelism. But even with that zeal, and perhaps particularly with it, we are in danger of thinking that bringing people to salvation is simple and humanly achievable. It’s not.
In Mark 10, when the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answered, “With man this is impossible, but not with God.” Evangelism is not ‘closing the deal’, but faithfully opening the Bible with people to make Jesus known, and trusting the Holy Spirit to do what we can’t. Our efforts won’t be perfect. They don’t have to be. God, in His sovereignty, continues to do the impossible across land and sea.
Craig Dyer is training director at Christianity Explored Ministries and associate pastor at Harper Church, Glasgow, Scotland. Convinced of the power of God’s word to change lives, he summarizes his work as “equipping hundreds to train thousands to rescue millions.”