by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse
We hear a great deal about New Testament evangelism, visitation evangelism, crusade evangelism, revivals, etc. I sometimes get the feeling that evangelism is something one does instead of who one is. That is, evangelism is an activity that is viewed as separate from the other activities in your life, and it is done at certain specified times in a weekly schedule when you aren’t busy with something else.
I have chosen the title "Covenant Evangelism," not because it is original, creative, or because I see it as another type of evangelism among equally valid options. Rather it expresses what the biblical doctrine of salvation, the gospel of saving grace in Jesus Christ, is all about. The covenant speaks of who we are in our whole life. It speaks of the totality of our being, of our privilege in belonging to God, and of our responsibility to please him in everything. God tells us in the covenant that he will be our God and we will be his people, and we find out from the Bible that this does not simply mean that we as individuals belong to God, but also that our families, churches, and culture belong to him. Neither does it mean that only certain individual activities of our lives belong to him, but rather that every activity and endeavor of our lives is his and for his glory.
We might ask if there is any place in the Bible where a list of activities that belong to God is given. Deuteronomy 6:5–9 says, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates." That is, if you can think of something you do that does not involve your heart, soul and strength, and that can be done without sitting, walking, lying down or standing up, then that is an activity that does not belong to God and it has nothing to do with the Gospel. But you will not be able to find one. God is inescapable; he claims every part of our lives, and the good news is that in Jesus Christ all of life is redeemed. Therefore, covenant evangelism is nothing less than glorifying God and enjoying him in all that we say, think and do, and God promises that when we exalt Christ in that way in our lives he will honor that to the salvation of sinners and the reformation of society.
If this really is the meaning of evangelism, consider some aspects of non-covenantal evangelism, children and evangelism, and finally neighbors and evangelism.
Though there may be serious objections to some evangelistic methods, this does not mean that people who are converted by those methods are still not Christians. God is able to use and overrule even the weakest means for the salvation of sinners, and we ought to praise him that he is such a gracious and sovereign God. We also need to remind ourselves that sometimes those Christians who have a long heritage of covenant theology do not apply that theology to evangelistic practice, but instead adopt methods that contradict their heritage because those methods are popular and seem to be successful.
The first problem with non-covenantal evangelism is that it does not approach people in the context of their lives, but rather abstracts them from life and reduces them to targets for conversion. God has created everyone of us as physical beings with feelings, desires, pains, problems, goals, questions, fears, needs, etc. Besides all those things, we have all lost communion with God through the sin of Adam and have further alienated ourselves from God by our own sinful deeds, and thus we are all under the greatest of all miseries—a sin-cursed life that is under the wrath of God. To be sure, any evangelistic method that claims to be Christian offers relief from sin through Jesus Christ, but those that do not approach people on the basis of the covenant neglect very important parts of their lives. Instead, everyone is approached in exactly the same way with the same memorized outline or presentation. Not only is the person not treated as a significant individual, but the fullness of the Gospel is not set forth. The good news of Jesus Christ is much broader than getting the individual to heaven. It includes setting a person free from the ravages of sin in every part of a person’s life.
The second problem with non-covenantal evangelism is that it does not have as its goal the obedience of faith in every area of life. Another way to put it is the goal seems to be to get the sinner saved from the fires of hell and on his way to heaven, and of course that’s good, but without making the demands of discipleship clear, and that’s bad. All the benefits of salvation are emphasized, and there are many, but very little is said about the responsibilities of salvation.
I would go so far as to say that the deceit involved is as bad as a recruiter telling a young man about all the glories of military life without also telling him about the deadly possibilities. Jesus said that one cannot be his disciple without taking up the cross of discipleship daily and forsaking all to follow him.
The third problem with non-covenantal evangelism is that it doesn’t teach people to observe the whole counsel of God. When Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission he told them to go into all the world, preaching the gospel and teaching all nations to observe all things that he had commanded them. The Apostle Paul said to the Ephesian elders at the conclusion of his ministry among them that he had withheld nothing that was helpful to them, and that he was innocent of the blood of all men because he had not avoided declaring the whole counsel of God to them. In contrast to this, non-covenantal evangelism conveys just enough information to get the person "saved" and regards anything else as peripheral, since it is information supposedly not necessary to get a person to heaven. This kind of evangelistic minimalism actually is not the Gospel, but in fact is against the Gospel. To be saved means to bring every thought captive to Jesus Christ, and to think God’s thoughts after him. A person is not saved unless he understands that he can know nothing correctly unless he sees it in God’s light, according to God’s Word.
Children and Evangelism
It may seem strange to begin a positive discussion of evangelism by talking about children since most people think that getting the worst sinners (adults) and the most influential sinners (adults) saved is what evangelism is all about. But that is just another mistake of non-covenantal evangelism. Rather than seeing the Gospel as the major formative influence in the life and culture of the person from childhood, evangelism is viewed as trying to salvage a few pieces of a life and culture that have been formed primarily by non-Christian influences.
If we view evangelism from this non-covenantal perspective, then our children will be, at best, step-children, and worst, orphans. Like Cinderella, they don’t get the goodies reserved for the truly important people.
But according to the Bible, covenantally evangelizing children should be the main evangelistic activity of the church while the conversion of adults should be the blessed by-product. There is certainly nothing wrong with adult conversions. We all pray that God would be pleased to convert the nations, but the normal, ordinary means of extending the kingdom of God is through covenantal, or generational, or child evangelism. This is the import of such passages as Gen. 18:19, Ex. 12:26, 13:8, Deut. 6 and Prov. 23:13, 14.
These passages show us that the continuation of Gospel blessings—we might call them covenantal blessings—is not automatic, not without exception, and not independent of the means of grace. If it were, then there would be no need for instruction of our children. In light of this it is surprising when evangelical Christians emphasize foreign missions to the neglect of true home missions. A great deal of time and money is spent to send missionaries to foreign countries while very little effort may be made to teach our children to love Jesus and walk in his ways. We may lament the millions in foreign countries who are still in the darkness of sin, but pay little attention to our own children who may be going blind before our very eyes. If so, we fail to appreciate the fact that the foundation stone upon which all world evangelism is built is godly children raised up to be a mighty army by which the world is conquered for Christ.
Now this means that our definition of evangelism will have to be broader than simply getting the soul saved from the fires of hell and put on the road to heaven. Evangelism from the point of view of the covenant includes training children and others to apply the whole Word of God to the whole of life. It means taking people where they are, showing them how sin has affected every part of their being, thinking and doing, and helping them to appreciate how redemption in Jesus Christ restores all of life to its proper role of glorifying and enjoying God. It also means that the Christian school is one of the most important tools for evangelizing the world, one we should give our best efforts to, and one that will be greatly opposed by the unconverted.
Neighbors and Evangelism
It is only after we have a proper perspective on children in evangelism that we can discuss evangelizing adults who may be our near or distant neighbors. And we will never be very successful in adult evangelism if we fail to train our children in the Gospel. That is, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Unconverted sinners around us will evaluate our words in light of what they see in our families. Since our neighbors are inescapably covenantal, by virtue of being creatures of the covenantal God, they will undoubtedly judge what they hear from our mouths by what they see in our homes. St. Paul says of the nation Israel in Romans 2:24 "the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you," quoting several Old Testament passages where God is speaking. There is, then, a direct connection between the affect our words have on non-Christians and the validation of those words given by our lives.
It is possible, then, and a very understandable tendency to be zealous about evangelizing those at a distance from us, but unwilling or lazy about teaching the Gospel in all its fullness and applications to those who are near to us, in our own homes and neighborhoods. Our mouths may even be slammed shut by the well-known reputation we and our children may have for being undisciplined, even ungodly.
The questions you must ask yourself are, "Why has God placed me in the neighborhood where I am? If God wants me to take seriously the whole make-up and history of those to whom I witness, what am I doing to build relationships with my neighbors and others with whom God has put me in contact? Do my relationships with my children support or contradict what I hope and pray my neighbors will believe about the Christian life? Would I rather send a check to pay for someone else to evangelize far away from me than to glorify God by my words and deeds right where I am?"
The Church and Evangelism
By virtue of having a physical building and street address, or even by just having a regular place to worship, the church is one of the neighbors in a neighborhood. It is to be hoped that the people living in the neighborhood will at least like the church, and at most become part of the church family. In your own neighborhood, however, you don’t expect or require that your neighbors become members of your family before you agree to do acts of kindness on their behalf, and neither should the church. What a happy circumstance it is when a church is a blessing and benefit to the community, a stabilizing influence, and a haven in times of stress and disaster.
Of course the greatest blessing the church can bring to its community is the good news that God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself, but it is possible to pester people with the good news. The biblical model is to be such good servants that God finally exalts us to the place of leadership as we read of the master who said, "Well done, good and faithful servant," and exalted him to a place of even greater service.
God calls us to serve in our communities, and he has prepared us for that with many gifts and abilities. Let us be diligent in using those for the growth of God’s kingdom.