By Paul Copan
We've seen them in all manner of places -- on street corners, in parking lots, at craft fairs, outside stadiums. Sometimes they wear placards admonishing hearers to "turn or burn." Or they warn America of coming judgment and doom. Many will point out that this is an extreme, unhelpful method. Instead, they say we should challenge individual "sinners" by exposing them to their failure to live up to the Ten Commandments. A common justification from those "witnessing" is: "You need to tell people the bad news before they can listen to the good news." After all, does Paul not tell us that the Law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24)? Is this not the reality of Romans 1-3?
I want to offer ten thoughts on this question. First, however, a little context.
My friend Robertson McQuilkin has frequently said, "It is easier to go to a consistent extreme than to stay at the center of biblical tension." The "bad-news-first bears" (to coin a term!) may sometimes fit in here -- namely, being insistent that talk of sin must always precede talk of salvation. My major point is that we, especially when Jesus himself varied his "methods," should be careful about reducing the communication of Christ to others into hard-and-fast formulas.
Indeed, a wider view of Scripture presents a mixed bag; repentance isn't always mentioned (say, if one already has a repentant, needy, or seeking frame of mind). We do not always need to announce, "You're a sinner," first, and only then proclaim, "there is a Savior." I am not denying the seriousness of hell, judgment, sin, or the need for repentance; indeed, I regularly talk with non-Christians about these themes. Remember, however, that Jesus saved his harshest message of judgment for the hard-hearted religious leaders of his day (e.g., Matthew 23). He regularly called on his hearers to turn and align themselves with God's kingdom agenda. Jesus often appealed to those who knew their neediness.
What's more, Jesus had the strong reputation of being a "friend of sinners" and not merely a preacher to them. He reached out to the "unlikelies" of his day -- to those whom the religious authorities considered the unlikeliest recipients of God's kingdom blessings: tax gatherers, prostitutes, Gentiles, lepers, the ceremonially unclean, the demonized. Jesus let them know that God had not forgotten them. Jesus illustrated the old saying that people must "know that you care" before they will "care what you know."
How many of us have the reputation of being "friends of sinners"? How many of us truly follow in the way of the Master? It's easier to preach a message of judgment than to exemplify Jesus, who actually got involved in the lives of others. As the Barna Group's David Kinnaman shows in his book unChristian -- which includes material from John Stott, Chuck Colson, and other leading evangelicals -- the unchurched are under the general impression that they are the "project" of the professing Christian. Most of them come away from "witnessing" encounters with the impression that Christians, however well-meaning, are legalistic and arrogant or superior-minded.
We should be careful about a formulaic method of communicating the good news. Helping people connect with Christ is more process than event. This process includes friendship, the integrity of Christian character, a loving community, and time to examine the implications of Christ's Lordship. Although I'm no open theist, Greg Boyd's Letters from a Skeptic nicely illustrates the process. The long process of evangelism was a reality in the life of Greg's father. The same is true of many honest questioners. I have seen repentance come after a lengthy process in which genuine seekers worked through their questions one by one.
Christ came to call sinners to repentance, and he earned the right to be heard by paying the price of friendship with "outsiders." Unfortunately, a number of the law-first-grace-later messengers I have encountered don't exude a friend-of-sinners demeanor.
For the record, I recognize that some in the church are gifted evangelists; they have received the grace to communicate the gospel to strangers effectively. Not all have this gift. I have also heard numerous stories of how God has used the placard-bearing "turn-or-burn" preaching to bring conviction to passersby. At sports events or on planes, I myself regularly engage in conversation with strangers about this or that angle of the gospel, depending on what may best connect them to the Savior. I have found that such encounters can be pivotal stepping stones for the non-Christian, leading to greater searching or deepening commitment later on.