The Lord’s Way
Ernie Reisinger, in his book Today’s Evangelism, which was published in 1982, outlined a theology of evangelism in dialog with the errors of our day. He issued a clarion call for biblical evangelism. No truncated approach would do. Evangelism must have doctrinal integrity, must be done in the power of the Holy Spirit, and must not avoid confronting the sinner with the law as God’s standard of righteousness. It must include a call to repentance, just as our Lord and His apostles did. It must hem the sinner in to the reality of his sin and the consequences of not turning to Christ.
The example of our Lord Jesus Christ makes these things clear. One of the most instructive incidents occurred at the well of Jacob in Samaria. There are at least eight principles that can be discovered in the encounter which the Lord had with the woman of Samaria as recorded in John, chapter four.
1. The gospel is not to be a tool for competition among God’s people (John 4:1–3).
Our Lord left Judea for Galilee. But the text says that He did so when He “learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John...” Had the Lord been doing the work of evangelism today He would have been told, “You clearly are doing something that works. It would be a mistake not to capitalize on your success. To relocate when things are going so well may mean that you will miss an opportunity which might never come again.” But the Lord would not allow the hostile Pharisees to exploit an opportunity to drive a wedge between His own disciples and those of John.
2. The gospel crosses boundaries and breaks down the walls that separate people (John 4:4–9).
The Samaritans were a mixed breed. In ancient times it was customary for conquerors to move large segments of the population far from their ancestral homeland. This had the tendency to weaken them by cultural disintegration. The Samaritans were only part Jewish. Sargon of Assyria had destroyed the city of Samaria in 721 B.C. By his own testimony he carried away 27,290 of the Samaritans. He later rebuilt the city and populated it with other conquered peoples. They intermarried with the remaining Hebrews. Thus the Samaria of Jesus’ day was a land with a semblance of the Jewish faith but the people, who were the result of intermarriage, were despised by the Jews.
Many Jews, in their movement from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north, avoided Samaria altogether. The Lord Jesus Christ could have done so. But we are told that “He had to pass through Samaria.” It was not a geographical necessity. Our Lord’s travel plans were determined by divine providence. He would preach to the Samaritans and many would be brought to repentance. Our evangelism should be just as inclusive.
Daniel had prophesied that the Messiah would have a kingdom which would be composed of people from every nation (Daniel 7:14). The apostle Paul insisted that the church is a body where “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11b).
I still remember the example of my maternal grandfather. He lived in the “Jim Crow” environment of the post civil war South. But he would not allow himself to be segregated in his duty to the Lord. He was a faithful witness to both black and white, and many came to know Christ through his efforts. We must not allow ourselves to find the comfort of our “own kind” and believe that we have fulfilled our evangelistic responsibility by witness that is limited by concerns of race or class.
3. The gospel calls people from ignorance about Christ to knowledge of his uniqueness (John 4:10–12).
The Lord told the woman at the well that she would have sought living water from Him had she known who He was. This was not the beginning of an attempt to teach a full blown doctrine of Christ’s deity and humanity. It was a reference to the grace of God which was being revealed in Him. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” Our evangelism has to have enough of Christ’s person in it to make people understand that there is no way of salvation outside of His divine person. And they must also be told that salvation through Christ is a gift of the Father Himself. Christ Jesus must be presented to poor lost sinners as the embodiment of grace. “Are you greater than our father Jacob?,” was her reply. We must convince men and women that there is none greater than our Lord. This becomes clear when we attempt to explain the gospel to those who have been taken captive by cultic groups. They have a doctrine of Christ, but it is false and we must work to show them that the Word of God does not support their claims. A “Jehovah’s Witness,” for example must be shown that Jesus is Jehovah God. He must not be allowed to think that the Lord is merely a glorious lesser deity. He must be shown that prophets like Isaiah prophesied the coming of Jehovah God to the earth, and that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of those prophecies. There is none greater!
4. The gospel completely satisfies every need of a sinner and does so for all eternity (John 4:13–14).
There is a tendency among those who bemoan the shallowness of evangelism in our day to focus on the here and now and say little of eternity. Do not many preach deliverance from eternal damnation by various types of formalism? Do not many fail to call people to see their sinfulness and to repent? Do they not seem to reduce salvation to nothing more than escape from the horrors of hell?
That is true, but there is nothing wrong with an emphasis on heaven and eternal life. Our Lord taught the Samaritan woman that His sort of water would “well up” to eternal life. Sinners need to know that sins are forgiven, and that the benefits in this life are large indeed. But they also need to know that the life begun with the new birth is unending and that they will learn to walk through this vale of tears with hope, because of what the Lord has in store for His own.
5. The gospel is preached to people who do not know their true need (John 4:5).
The woman at the well could only think of what a wonder worker might do for her present situation. Was it possible that this man could ease her work load by a miracle? Could he perhaps arrange for her to have a source of water that would mean that she would make no more trips to the well of Jacob? Health and wealth preachers have a ready made audience for their errors. It was true in Christ’s day and is so now. This ought to serve as a warning to us to be careful not to proclaim a truncated version of the gospel. There are certain truths that must be encountered if sinners are to see their real need. The Lord did not stop there and neither should we.
6. The gospel uses the law to prepare the heart for salvation (John 4:16–18).
Today’s evangelist would likely have led the woman in a rote prayer at this point. But our Lord raises a question that must have made things very tense: “Go call your husband.” “I have no husband,” was the woman’s reply. This was of course true. She had lived with five husbands and was now living with a man outside of marriage.
Evangelism is not biblical unless it preaches Christ and salvation in the context of transgressions against the true and living God. The woman was being taught that her need for the living water arose out of her condemnation by God’s good and holy law. She needed to see that sin had mastered her and that only God, the righteous judge, had the power to pardon. She needed to see, to feel her wickedness. This is why the Lord told the rich young ruler to keep the commandments. He had to discover that his posture before the bar of God’s justice was far more precarious than he had imagined and that what is impossible with man is possible with God.
7. The gospel believed produces true worshipers (John 4:19–24)
The Samaritan woman decided that the time had come to change the subject. “Let’s talk theology. Let’s talk about what is acceptable in the worship of God. Enough of this talk about me and my husbands!”
There are many ways that sinners have of changing the subject. It is a temptation for Christians to be diverted into arguments about the church, or questions of Christian liberty, or the social and political implications of faith in Christ.
Our Lord refused to be led into such a discussion but he was willing to take the woman’s question and turn it to good. He would teach her that salvation involves not only pardon and justification before God but is designed to create a new people whose primary occupation is the worship of God. This they will do, not with the discredited methods of man, but in Spirit and truth. They will be brought to honor God as he intends and will do so empowered by His own Spirit. A work of regeneration will change their hearts from the love of self and the world to a love for the Lord.
8. The gospel declares the Lord Jesus Christ to be the only one who has been anointed by God to save sinners. (John 4:25–26)
There are two areas of truth on which all that is good in evangelism may hang. This may be expressed with two questions, “Who is Jesus Christ, and what did the Lord Jesus Christ come to do?” There is great benefit in keeping our conversation close to the person and work of Christ when we are seeking the lost. The woman (apparently suspicious that the Lord might be the Messiah Himself) confesses that when the Messiah had come there would be a fuller revelation of God’s truth. “When He comes, He will tell us all things.” The Lord replied, “I who speak to you am He.”
Evangelism is not Christian unless it confesses Christ as the Anointed One. That is what “Messiah” means. It was the Son of God who received His redemptive office in the eternal counsels of God. It was the Son of God who fulfilled the prophecies of Jehovah’s appearance on earth at the “end of the ages” to accomplish what no one else could have done. It was Jesus the Christ, that is Jesus the Messiah, who came to die in the place of His people on the cross.
We live on this side of the cross. We know what God did in time, in history for the salvation of the world. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who must be the one that we point to when sinners become convicted of sin. “Look to Christ and live,” must be the heart of our message. We must revel in the truth that all of Scripture speaks of Him (Luke 24). This is the true evangel, “Jesus saves!” Not only was the woman delivered but she gave a testimony herself, according to her ability, which called many other Samaritans to believe on Christ. They, in turn sat at the Lord’s feet and heard for themselves.
A final word from Ernie Reisinger about what happens when sinners are saved is appropriate here. Speaking of God-centered evangelism and the necessity of the gospel coming to the sinner with, word and power, he said,
“When this is understood, there will be no more of this man-centered method of begging sinners to respond to an impotent Savior who is standing idly by, patiently and pathetically waiting for the sinners response. No! No! But rather, it will be lifting up a powerful Savior who is ready, able and willing to save all that come to God by Him. The sinner must come to this Savior who actually saves, not one who just makes salvation possible” (Ernest C. Reisinger, Today’s Evangelism, Its Message and Methods, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 104–105).