Follow-up & Discipleship

(Continued from previous post)

6) We do encourage people to attend church, read the Bible, pray etc. when they accept Jesus verbally. However, we don’t say what implications there will be in terms of salvation if they don’t do any of that. The way these things are presented, they sound like something good to do rather than absolutely important or critical. These things help to prepare new converts for the trials that they are going to face in v.13-15. Yet this part of the gospel presentation is so brief and almost kind of “after the fact”, as everyone basks in the euphoria of a soul being saved already. And if you are saved once, you are saved forever, right? No matter what happens tomorrow. That’s our assurance.

You pointed out a deficiency in how many churches conduct their discipleship, but assumed that everything needs to be presented upfront or else the gospel presentation is defective. As I indicated in my citing the gospel messages in Acts, the apostles and early church evangelists did not lean heavy on perseverance when presenting the gospel. Instead, they major in proving that Jesus is the Christ, primarily because of the audience’s Jewish background, and repentance.

It’s not that they did not emphasize attending church, reading Scripture, prayer etc. They did:

  • Acts 2:42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

It’s just that these were part of the discipleship training, the follow-up, not loaded into part of the gospel presentation.

As Paul pointed out, the essence of the gospel is:

  • 1 Co 15:1-4 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

Perseverance and follow-up are important, but not of first importance. For Paul, it’s first things first, and that means believing in Jesus as the Christ, trusting Him as our Lord and Savior. Discipleship comes next, or else the good news won’t get preached to the end of the earth.

Having said that, nowadays many churches are failing in making disciples of all nations. We emphasize converts, building bigger churches, not making disciples who make disciples. No wonder we are not fulfilling the Great Commission as we should.

(To be continued)

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Gospel Presentation

(Continued from previous post)

3) Why do we preach belief only but not perseverance (v.15) as part of the gospel?

We preach belief because that’s the model in the NT e.g. in Acts:

  • Acts 2:38, 40 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. … And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”
  • Acts 3:16, 19 And on the basis of faith in His name, it is the name of Jesus which has strengthened this man whom you see and know; and the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect health in the presence of you all. … Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord;
  • Acts 8:35-37 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. 36 As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 37 [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] 
  • Acts 10:42-43 And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. 43 Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”
  • Acts 13:38-39 Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you,39 and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.
  • Acts 16:30-31 and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
  • Acts 17:3-4 explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.”And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.
  • Acts 17:30-31 Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

In all 8 evangelistic sermons to non-believers, whether by Peter, Phillip, or Paul, the focus is always on believe in Jesus, not perseverance. Do they preach perseverance at all? Yes, but to disciples, not to non-believers:

  • Acts 14:22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

The sequence is therefore first faith in Christ to be saved, then strengthen their faith to persevere. We do it not to sugarcoat the gospel, but to follow the natural order of first new birth, then nurture.

4) While justification is by faith, faith by itself without deeds is dead, but we don’t mention it as part of the gospel presentation. Why?

Faith is “proven” by works to show that it is “saving faith”:

  • Jas 2:14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
  • Jas 2:17-18 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
  • Jas 2:20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?
  • Jas 2:22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;
  • Jas 2:24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
  • Jas 2:26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

It’s not that we don’t mention deeds as part of the gospel. We do, but we are careful to point out that “works” is a result of faith, not a cause for our salvation. We emphasize this because the teaching of world religions, as well as the prevalent secular worldview, is that you save yourself by doing good deeds, which is wrong.

We know the value of good works:

  • Mt 5:16 Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
  • Eph 2:10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
  • 1 Tim 2:10 [adorn themselves] … but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.
  • 1 Tim 5:10 having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work.
  • 1 Tim 6:18 Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share,

We just don’t want non-believers to confuse “works” as a means to salvation. It isn’t. It is an “end”, not a “means”.

(To be continued)

Parable of the Sower

Q.  I have some questions about the Parable of the Sower. Your comments are greatly appreciated.

A. The inquirer put a lot of thought into this parable and asked multiple questions touching on many theological issues. I will therefore answer them in several installments. Here’s part 1:

1) If the parable is about the gospel and hence salvation, it would seem to mean that real saving faith is not determined at the moment of confessing faith, since temptations (v.13), worries (v.14) and perseverance (v.15) happen later on in life.

The parable itself is in Lk 8:5-8, which narrates a typical agricultural scene about a farmer sowing his seeds. When Jesus’ disciples questioned Him what it meant (v 9), He said it is about the mysteries of the kingdom of God (v 10). So the subject is kingdom of God, which encompasses the gospel and salvation, but involves more than both. Broadly speaking, the kingdom of God is God’s reign over His entire creation. More narrowly defined, it is God’s rule over the hearts of His subjects.

You are right in observing that temptations, worries and perseverance happen later on in life. But real saving faith is a “both-and“, not an “either/or”. It starts at the moment of confessing genuine faith, and is a process that continues and “endures to the end”:

  • Mt 24:13 But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.
  • Mk 13:13 You will be hated by all because of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.

The fact that it starts upon confession of genuine faith is observed elsewhere, e.g.:

  • Lk 19:9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.
  • Lk 23:43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

The Lord did not tell Zaccheus or the thief on the cross to wait and see whether they would persevere; He told them “today”.

2) In that case when people accept the gospel verbally, why do we congratulate them with Jn 1:12; 6:47 and declare that they are now born-again babies?

For Jesus it’s not a problem because He knew men’s thoughts and what’s in their hearts:

  • Mt 9:4 And Jesus knowing their thoughts
  • Lk 9:47 But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, …
  • Jn 2:25 … for He Himself knew what was in man.

But while God knows and the people themselves may know:

  • 1 Jn 5:13 These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

we’re human and don’t really know men’s hearts:

  • Jer 17:9 The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?

So we’re jumping the gun a bit when we congratulate them, as we really don’t know for sure that their faith is genuine. We compensate by asking clarification and diagnostic questions, as done in Evangelism Explosion, for example. By observing all the “signs” we can have a certain degree of confidence, but never 100% sure.

(To be continued)

Leading Seniors to Christ

seniors 2

Last Sunday we received an urgent call from a former church member C. (name changed), asking whether we could visit her parents before her mom goes for surgery next week. They are in their mid to late 70’s, with health issues.

The mom had been a staunch Taoist, even pledging herself to be a disciple of Zhang Daoling, the first Celestial Master (張天師) in second century BC. However, when she had a near fatal illness nearly 10 years ago, she professed faith in Christ, but hesitatingly, as her husband was not a believer. He had been a businessman in Hong Kong (HK), but does not believe in any religion. Both retired and emigrated to Canada to live with their daughter in 1997, when HK was repatriated to China.

Two weeks earlier the church caring team had visited them to share the gospel, inviting them to trust in Christ alone for their salvation. The mom said she already believed in Jesus, but will follow her husband’s decision as head of the household, as many older Chinese wives are accustomed to do. The dad said he also believes in Jesus, otherwise why would he follow his daughter to church every Sunday? But he cannot trust in Jesus alone, since previously he followed Master Zhang and could not be disloyal. The team explained that Christianity is exclusive and that he could not put his faith in both, but he wouldn’t budge, as disloyalty is a grave sin with dire consequences. That’s when someone suggested C. contact us.

Prior to our appointment the team explained to us how their meeting went, so we were aware of the impasse. What the team said was correct, but there is a better way to present the truth to avoid the deadlock. After inquiring about their health to establish rapport, we transitioned to the gospel. We agreed with him that loyalty is important. Just as in a marriage the partners need to be faithful to each other and not leave room for a third-party, so in matters of faith one should commit wholeheartedly and not have divided loyalties. However, important as that is, there is an even more important issue to be resolved first. And that most important thing is to determine who the one true God is, and commit to Him alone and no one else.

We explained to him that in time past many Chinese did not know any better as they had not heard the gospel. They followed blindly the beliefs of ancestors without questioning, and were conned by demonic deception such as healing from a sickness or winning a fortune. Little did they realize that these are like sugar-coated poison, because the cost is to forfeit their soul (Mt 16:26; Mk 8:36; Lk 9:25). So the priority is to find out who the true God is, and then commit to follow Him only. He was a businessman and understood right away Satan’s tricks to lure people to follow him, so we invited them to settle their commitment once for all, which they accepted. After further clarification questions we asked them to pray to tell Jesus their commitment to trust Him alone. All were glad as we welcome them into God’s family. Hallelujah!

The gospel never changes, but how you present it can vary with the need. Always be ready to share with anyone, any place, anywhere. You’ll be glad you did, just as there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Lk 15:10).

Six Degrees of Separation

6 deg of separation 4

It’s a small world after all. Three years ago we went on a leadership course, and met a Vancouver couple (A&B)* whose work is missionary care within a denominational mission agency. We kept in touch, and recently when they came to Toronto to conduct a training workshop we had breakfast together to catch up. It turned out we had more things in common than we realized.

The first connection was when Ellen started learning Spanish two years ago and looked for a tutor. My brother’s wife said her brother has a niece from Guatemala who is visiting him in Toronto. She speaks Spanish fluently and could give Ellen some pointers. We met, and it “happened” that this niece is a Christian who attends the church where A&B used to pastor in Guatemala City! That’s four steps from us to them, had we not known each other directly.

The second link was through one of our engineering classmates C in university. C and his wife D have two children. Their younger son E initially also studied engineering, but did not enjoy it. Interestingly, he went on a short-term mission to, of all places, Guatemala City, where he met A&B. C&D were concerned about E’s safety, and wrote A&B to look after him. E liked missions so much that he returned to Canada to attend bible college, and after graduation moved his family to Guatemala to start a bed and breakfast place for ministry. C&D visited them to show support and became friends with A&B too. That’s three steps from us to our missionary friends.

The last connection was through Ellen’s sister’s (F) husband (G). F&G went on a reunion with his extended family to Hawaii. However, in the middle of the celebrations G’s brother’s (H) wife (J) was struck with meningitis, and had to fly back to Calgary for treatment. H&J are dedicated members within their denomination, and active in promoting missions in Chinese churches. That’s where they got to work with A&B. When J recovered sufficiently, H threw a thanksgiving dinner and invited all their friends and church brothers and sisters, including A&B. That is again three steps from us to A&B.

My first thought was it’s a small world after all! True, our sample may be skewed by the fact that we are Chinese Christians involved in missions, but still you can’t help but wonder our circles are so limited and intersect with each other. Don’t do anything foolish, or else it will spread to who knows where, even without email, FB or WhatsApp!

6 deg of separation 2

The second thing that comes to mind is “six degrees of separation“, the theory that everyone everywhere can be connected to any other person by way of friend introducing friend, in six steps or less. Our example took only 3 or 4 steps, but even if it were a complete stranger in a foreign land, the theory is that you can be connected to him/her in a maximum of six steps.

Mathematically this seems possible. In a random network of n nodes, with each node having k acquaintances, the average distance between two nodes is ln n/ln k (ln = natural logarithm). Assuming the world’s population to be 7 billion people (n), and that each person knows an average of 50 people (k), then the average number of steps to link one person to any other person is:
ln 7,000,000,000/ln 50 = 22.67/3.91 = 5.79, rounded to 6.
Obviously, the larger k is, the lesser the number of steps.
If you solve for k in ln 7,000,000,000/ln k = 6, the largest integral value for k is 44. In other words, if each person connect with at least 44 acquaintances, then anyone can be introduced to anyone else in a maximum of 6 steps.

This has interesting implications for evangelism and missions. We tend to think of reaching the world for Christ as “too big” a task and would require a very long time. But let’s assume the message to be delivered is the gospel. If I find the right contacts with the right connections, then I can share the good news with anyone in the world, including the top Muslim cleric, or the Dalai Lama, within six links. This assumes that those who received the message are ready and willing to pass it on, and that some will have to cross geographic, linguistic, cultural and/or class barriers. But what this tells us is that it is not an impossible task, and that we can share Christ with anyone anywhere in the world, so that they can make an intelligent choice whether to follow Him.

*Names changed for privacy purposes.