Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 2 August 2015
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Help in Conversions
How would you help someone to become a Christian? How confident are you about sharing God with someone else? I am no expert in this and I am not naturally excited about talking to people all of the time. On my rest day, I usually do not see anyone (I recharge sitting in my ‘cave’ and I need ‘alone time’) and when I am flying somewhere, I am not jumping out of my skin to talk to the person next to me. On the other hand, I know plenty of people that are wired exactly the opposite way. Some of them have served on staff at Living Grace with me (e.g.: Gretchen Mitchell, David Challenor). These people are amazing. God fills their tank by letting them mix with people. They even process their thoughts by talking to someone else. [They hate sitting by themselves in their office.] On their rest day, they go out and have coffee with people. These people make great evangelists.
I am not quite in their league and you may not be quite like that but Jesus called everyone to be part of the great commission of the church – “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) – and – at this point of my life – at least I am no longer shy talking about God. In fact, God is my favourite topic. All of life is related to him. All of life only has meaning through him. He is my past, present and future. What else is there? I can only talk about soccer for so long. It’s okay to talk about work and family and hobbies but even at work I am at work because I am serving God at work and really everything in life is aligned to God’s calling and purpose for what he wants to do for me and through me. God is in everything and keeping God out of the conversation for an entire evening is hard work.
How would you help someone to become a Christian? I am no expert that can point to hundreds or thousands of conversions but my sense is that this is where you need to start before you do anything for God: Become so excited about God that everything else pales into insignificance and you lose all shyness about proclaiming the love of God and the sacrifice of his Son Jesus Christ for the world.
Matthew 12:33-34: Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit … For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
2 Corinthians 5:14-15: For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
Let God fill your heart. God is amazing. On Sundays, my number one objective is not to make God boring (glorifying him cannot ever be boring). You may not agree with everything that I say and I may not always be right but I rather have us wrestle with the depth of God’s love and character than be bored with shallowness. I want our worship services to be a little unpredictable. I want them to stretch us (and me) beyond what we already know. Therefore, the running sheet is not fixed. There is room for spontaneous promptings by the Holy Spirit because faith in God is meant to be an adventure – which needs the courage of explorers – the daring to believe all of God’s promises (for instance, calling people forward for prayer). What is God going to do? Will we have a Sunday where a new miracle occurs? Will there be a wave of joy in the Holy Spirit? Will God lead us into repentance? Will someone come to faith? Will there be a sound like a violent wind (see Acts 2) which brings the neighbourhood into our building? God can do anything and he will because much needs to happen to disciple nations.
What I find a little intimidating is the expectation in some circles that if you follow a certain outreach method, in one conversation the person becomes a Christian. For instance, the book “Evangelism Explosion” by D. James Kennedy works with two questions which are meant to steer the conversation to a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ. The questions are:
1. Have you come to a place in your spiritual life where you know for certain that if you were to die today you would be in heaven?
2. Suppose that you were to die tonight and stand before God and he were to say to you, “Why would I let you into heaven?” What would you say?
These are two great questions but they presuppose that the person is already convinced of the reality of God, heaven (hell is implied), the need to gain entry into heaven and accountability before God. And even then, with all of this background knowledge, there is still much to explain in one conversation. How would you manage to introduce these two questions to a stranger here in Toowoomba and then in ten minutes explain the good news of salvation?
A. Grace (God’s mercy)
1. Heaven is a free gift
2. It is not earned or deserved
B. Human Person
1. Is a sinner
2. Cannot save himself
1. Is merciful – therefore doesn’t want to punish us
2. Is just – therefore must punish sin
1. Who he is – the infinite God-man
2. What he did – he paid for our sins and purchased a place in heaven for us which he offers as a gift which we may be received by …
1. What it is not – mere intellectual assent nor temporal faith
2. What it is – “trusting in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation”
Is this going to work? Another well-known resource is the Billy Graham tract ‘Steps to Peace with God’ and – again – there is much ground to cover in one conversation:
1. God’s Plan—Peace and Life
God loves you and wants you to experience His peace and life.
The BIBLE says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
2. Our Problem—Separation
Being at peace with God is not automatic, because by nature you are separated from God.
The BIBLE says: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
3. God’s Remedy—The Cross
God’s love bridges the gap of separation between God and you. When Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the grave, He paid the penalty for your sins.
The BIBLE says: “He personally carried the load of our sins in his own body when he died on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24).
4. Our Response—Receive Christ
You cross the bridge into God’s family when you receive Christ by personal invitation.
The BIBLE says: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).
To receive Christ you need to do four things:
1. ADMIT your spiritual need. “I am a sinner.”
2. REPENT and be willing to turn from your sin.
3. BELIEVE that Jesus Christ died for you on the cross.
4. RECEIVE, through prayer, Jesus Christ into your heart and life.
CHRIST says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in” (Revelation 3:20).
The BIBLE says, “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).
What to Pray:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner and need your forgiveness. I believe that you died for my sins. I want to turn from my sins. I now invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as Lord and Saviour. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Many people today no longer know anything about the Bible and it creates enormous pressure to run through core teachings of the faith in a few minutes: creation, the fall, sin, human corruption, Jesus’ sacrifice substituting for us, repentance, receiving Christ by faith and commitment in prayer. Good luck! This is going to stress you out and the person that you are talking to because it will be hectic – and a little rude to cut out all distractions and easy-going conversation – to race through all of these teachings.
Throughout the Bible, the turning of people towards God and their embracing of the good news that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ takes time. It is always a process. (Apparently) Billy Graham once said: “It takes twenty people to lead someone to Christ. The first person thinks she had nothing to do with it. The last person thinks it was all him. The work of cultivation was those first nineteen people. And if they’re not careful, they can think their effort was all for nothing.” A change of world view does not happen overnight. Before you commit your life to a completely new direction – before you risk a relationship with God – you want to carefully test what is going on – God’s truth and what he is like.
The first three thousand people who became Christians in the history of the church (this happened soon after Jesus had ascended to heaven and from heaven poured out the Holy Spirit on his people), they all had had previous exposure to Jesus and much Bible teaching:
Acts 2:16-24: No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people …
Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
Likewise, the man from Ethiopia (that was baptized after only one conversation about Jesus) was not unprepared. God sent someone to approach him when he was actually reading and studying the Bible (Acts 8:26-40). This man had already been drawn to the history of God with his people and had spent a great deal of money to acquire a copy of one Bible book (Isaiah) before the invention of the printing press and cheap mass production.
In Acts 10 we read another breakthrough story of a man and his entire family and friends becoming Christians after listening to only a fragment of a single sermon (Acts 10:44: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.”) but there had already been a most committed journey of seeking God and desiring him to the point of praying to him and giving generously to those in need.
Acts 10:1-5: At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.
Jesus himself was not anxious to close a conversation with a prayer of faith and commitment. On the contrary, he refused people joining him unless they were absolutely certain that they were willing to pay the price of following him and trusting him with their lives:
Luke 9:23: Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Luke 9:57-62: As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Luke 14:25-33: Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
Jesus was not desperate to swell the number of his followers and neither do we as a church. What we have is precious – the best news and reality for any living person. There is no need to approach others with embarrassment and bend over backwards to have them come and approve of Jesus and his people. The offer of mercy and hope is priceless and – in so many words – Jesus said to half-hearted people who were not serious of following him: “Don’t waste my time if you are not serious. There are others that I want to save.”
Therefore, be careful about the instantaneous conversions after only one conversation. It is usually a process to change one’s life direction toward God – there is repentance which involves a turning around of one’s mind, will and emotions so that everything comes into submission to God – and if the process is cut short, the outcome very often is shallow. Someone may say the ‘sinner’s prayer’ just to get you off their back or respond in a sudden rush of emotions but not thinking anything through.
Even when someone begins following Jesus, it is only ever a beginning and needs ongoing training and perseverance in making the relationship with Jesus a life-style – something that is going to be there for eternity.
Luke 8:4-8: While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
Luke 8:11-15: “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”
However, as a note of encouragement, sometimes God breaks all the rules for us when we are just desperate to see someone being saved. A man from Tonga was on a mission trip to Fiji and his quest to lead anyone to Jesus was a failure. Finally, he began praying in a public park and he prayed for a long time and he prayed: “God, whoever is going to come and stand under this tree will be my convert.” Hours later there was a man standing at this very spot but he was not interested in God and he was a policeman. Yet, the Tongan was a big man and strong and he simply grabbed the man (who was not small himself) and with an iron grip dragged him to a church. The policeman complained: “Do you know who I am? Let me go. This is against the law.” But it was no use.
The Tongan took the man to a particular church that was known as the ‘weeping church’ because people would begin to weep as the presence of God came upon them. The Tongan pushed the policeman into a pew and sat at the end of it so that he could not escape but had to listen to the preaching. At the end there was an altar call for salvation which nobody heeded and, just to break the deadlock and get out of the place, the policeman in Fiji went forward, mouthed a prayer against his will and without conviction but then experienced the birth of a new life. I am no longer sure whether he also began to weep but he felt changed and he said that even the colours of creation looked so much brighter. He had an experience of God and the Tongan had his convert in the most unconventional way.
There is hope for all of us. If you get stuck with the process or struggle with methods of salvation conversations and you get confused whether someone is ready to commit, just give up and pray and grab a man’s arm and drag him here. I should add that the policeman from Fiji had a praying mother and we know him. He is Pastor Vuniani Nakauyaca, an amazing pastor who went on to pioneer the Healing the Land movement.
However, back to the more common journeys of conversion. It takes time and, for this reason, I think that our Shed Happens men’s ministry is one of the most perfect frontline mission tools that we have. It’s not preaching. It’s not asking for other people’s commitments but it is simply a witness of how ordinary lives and broken lives can be touched by God or even more basic still: it is a witness of men becoming real about their lives. Maybe as you take a second look at what is happening in life – the battles and the pain and the values that emerge – you want to consider whether something else is possible. If other blokes experience healing in their brokenness, maybe Jesus can do the same also for you.
This brings me to another problem of the high-pressure conversion strategy of one conversation doing it all. There is no time to tell stories. There is no time to get an exposure to what God is willing to do for us. People loved Jesus’ preaching but one of the primary drawing cards for seeking him out was his demonstrations of God’s love for them. He healed their sick, drove out tormenting spirits and performed miracles to validate his claims.
Matthew 4:23-25: Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness among people … people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them …
Matthew 9:35-36: Jesus went … preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them …
Mark 2:9-12: “Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
John 10:38: …even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.
1 Corinthians 2:4: My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.
Romans 15:18-19: I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So…I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.
Hebrews 2:3-4: …This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
Acts 8:6: When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.
The highly technical conversion conversations where you need to cover all of the major teaching concepts of the faith are complicated – and again boring – while simply telling stories of how Jesus touched your own life or simply retelling testimonies of what we have been experiencing with God is easy. Last Sunday in church … And it is real and exciting – pricks the interest of people who cannot be talked into anything by mere arguments.
There is time to let someone experience God, learn about the faith and consider the options for his future. Sometimes people tell me that my preaching is too complicated. [There are a few that tell me the opposite. It’s too simple for them.] What they often mean is that a newcomer or a new Christian or a distracted Christian cannot understand everything that I am saying. But I never consider this a problem. In my own experience, the books and sermons that I did not understand at first led me to the richest experiences of God’s truth later on. It just took a bit of time and effort and perseverance. I kept asking: “What are they talking about?” Especially when you are in church for the first time, I do not think that you would expect to understand everything immediately. If I visited a Buddhist temple because I was interested in the Buddhist religion, I would not expect to understand all the rituals or teachings immediately. I would go with the expectation that there was much to learn. However, what is important to me is that every time I preach there is an impression that God is real. The words come from an experience of him and I aim to include enough stories which illustrate the realness of God. There should be enough that communicates even to a child but then (I think) it is also exciting to wrestle with truth that goes deeper. I would be so disappointed if I knew it all and there was nothing new to learn about God for me. Not everything needs to happen in one sermon or one conversation. Give it time and let it go deep. [And if a sermon raises questions, debrief with your visiting friend at home. It is great when there is an interest in expanding and explaining truth.]
If we are agreed on the need for time and process and everything that we have said, how would you summarize the main points that you want to communicate in due season? I am not an expert here but what do you think about the following summary:
1. Seek God and you shall find him.
2. The search will require everything of you
3. But you cannot do it in your own strength.
4. The new life with God happens by faith
5. And he will change your identity, character and destiny.
We have already commented on points 1 and 2. Finding God takes a search and cannot last without a deep life commitment. But God promises that the search is never in vain – Luke 11:9-10: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
However (point 3), maybe contrary to human perceptions, we need God to initiate the search and guarantee its successful completion. We always rely on God’s strength, not our own:
Ecclesiastes 3:11: … has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
John 6:44: No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.
I like encouraging people to ask God to show himself to them. God will always respond to a person’s search and prayer for finding him.
For this reason, (point 4) everything in our relationship with God happens by faith. We simply trust Jesus to give us grace which empowers everything that we are and do. Nothing in the Christian life happens because we make it happen – either through commendable attitudes or superior performance. We simply walk out what God initiates and we draw on his strength for everything by faith.
Ephesians 2:4-10: But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Romans 5:1-2: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand …
This makes the Christian faith such an overwhelming experience of God’s love. He is always there to help and bring everything to a good outcome. We give up all of our stuff and he makes sure that we have access to all of his good ‘stuff’ by an act of simply trusting him (and even this trust he places in our hearts).
And (point 5) for Christians, life gets better all of the time (despite the call to follow him even in persecution and a fallen world) because he is changing our identity, character and destiny:
New identity as sons and daughters of God
John 1:12-13: Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he [Jesus Christ] gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
Romans 8:14-17: For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
2 Corinthians 3:18 [PHILLIPS]: But all of us who are Christians … are transfigured by the Spirit of the Lord in ever-increasing splendour into his own image.
Colossians 3:10-11: Each of you is now a new person. You are becoming more and more like your Creator, and you will understand him better. It doesn’t matter if you are a Greek or a Jew, or if you are circumcised or not. You may even be a barbarian or a Scythian, and you may be a slave or a free person. Yet Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.
Ephesians 4:21-24: But that isn’t what you were taught about Jesus Christ. He is the truth, and you heard about him and learned about him. You were told that your foolish desires will destroy you and that you must give up your old way of life with all its bad habits. Let the Spirit change your way of thinking and make you into a new person. You were created to be like God, and so you must please him and be truly holy.
New destiny in heaven
John 14:1-3: Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
Revelation 21:4-5: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
1 Corinthians 15:12-26: But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
I repeat again the outline which I have introduced earlier:
1. Seek God and you shall find him.
2. The search will require everything of you
3. But you cannot do it in your own strength.
4. The new life with God happens by faith
5. And he will change your identity, character and destiny.
This can help to get some clarity on the need for time to process the Christian faith and the depth of commitment required and it also highlights the commitment of God to guarantee a successful search for him and all the promises of his grace which are accessed by faith, not human effort.
In closing, may I encourage you not to err on the other side of the one conversation conversion method? Don’t wait for ever to ask for a faith commitment. Jesus said that the harvest is ripe. He said that “the harvest is plentiful” (Luke 10:2). I used to play soccer on Monday nights with other seniors. And there was a fellow Christian from another church and I asked him how we would bring the others to Jesus. He wasn’t keen on witnessing by speaking up. He told me that he wanted to establish relationships first. But I challenged him: “You have been playing with these guys for ten years. How much longer do you want to wait?” Don’t be shy. Birthing new Christians may take time but it is almost always a good time to ‘sow a seed’ at least. God is always at work drawing people to himself. Recognize what he is doing and go for it. There may be a rejection and there may always be a rejection from certain people (Jesus did not promise universal acceptance of the truth) but surely there comes a time that is right to pop the question: “Do you want to belong to Jesus? Do you want to follow him? Do you want to trust him? Do you want a new life?” Amen.