Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with a clear opportunity to present the gospel, but said nothing? You knew you should say something, but your tongue was suddenly frozen.
Fear presents one of the greatest threats to a vibrant, evangelistic ministry. No doubt every one of us remembers a moment when we missed an opportunity to speak the truth of the gospel because of fear. Perhaps our fear of evangelistic conversations grows from overestimating the courage of those whom the Lord has used to bless the church in the work of missions.
We imagine that men such as Charles Spurgeon or David Livingstone never trembled at the thought of speaking the good news. We tell ourselves, “Clearly, Christ called and sent them as evangelists, but I lack that gift.”
Indeed, the Lord has set apart certain men as evangelists (Eph. 4:11), and therefore we call some ministers to serve as evangelists in order to plant new churches.
Yet that doesn’t mean that only such men are called to share the gospel. The Lord calls every believer “always” to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
But that certainly doesn’t mean that Spirit-gifted evangelists have no fear. Maybe it would help to consider how the Lord bolstered the apostle Paul in the midst of fear and trembling. Yes, even Paul struggled with fear, but the Lord gave strong encouragement to the apostle to put fear away and go on speaking.
Paul describes himself as ministering in Corinth “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). The apostle had reasons to tremble. Due to Jewish opposition, he was forced to shake off his garments and leave the synagogue behind, taking the gospel to the Gentiles. Refusing to give in quietly, his opponents brought charges against Paul before the tribunal. They were nothing if not persistent in their resistance to the gospel.
“Fear and much trembling” is a very human response to such opposition, and Paul struggled under the weight of it. So the Lord addressed the apostle in a unique manner, speaking to him in a night vision (Acts 18:9–10).
The Lord’s Answer to Fear
First, the Lord begins with a gentle rebuke: “Do not be afraid.” These familiar words call to mind the many times in biblical history when the Lord comforted his children with the same refrain. For example: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isa. 43:1). The Lord tells his servants to put fear away, because fear stands contrary to our position as his prized possession. Calvin also notes that “nothing is more contrary to the pure and free preaching of the gospel than the straits of a faint heart” (Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 2, p. 187).
Second, the Lord gives a stirring mandate: “Go on speaking and do not be silent.” Aren’t you encouraged to know that the apostle needed this kind of instruction? This is the same man who wrote letters to congregations and ministers urging them to be ready to preach the word in season and out of season (2 Tim. 4:2).
Yet he needed the same instruction. So the Lord urges Paul to put away the fear that produces silence. Rather, he is to speak the gospel consistently and boldly.
Third, the Lord offers three strong promises:
- “I am with you.” Here the Lord reiterates another common biblical promise. The Lord made the same promise to Joshua as he led the people into the Promised Land, saying, “I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Josh. 1:5). The people of God carried that promise with them as the Lord extended his kingdom throughout the land of Canaan. The Lord makes the same promise to his church today as he extends his kingdom to the ends of the earth: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” God guarantees his presence with the church in the Great Commission and at Pentecost (Matt. 28:20; John 14:15-18; Acts 1:8).
- “No one will attack you to harm you.” Notice what he doesn’t promise. He doesn’t say, “No one will attack you.” Rather, “No one will attack you to harm you.” They might attack, but I will preserve you. The Lord fulfilled that promise to Paul in Corinth. His opponents attacked him, dragging him before the tribunal. Yet the Lord delivered the apostle from harm. The proconsul refused to judge the apostle and released him to go on speaking the good news. The Lord never promises his church freedom from opposition, but he certainly promises preservation. Although some believers have died for their service to the gospel (including Paul), the Lord always cares for his people. Nothing, neither tribulation nor death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:35–39).
- “I have many in this city who are my people.” Paul’s night vision closes with the truth of God’s sovereignty. Many people in Corinth already belong to the Lord, although neither they nor Paul know it yet. The Lord utilizes the truth of his sovereignty to bolster the witness of the apostle. Isn’t that wonderful, and perhaps surprising? Many people argue that sovereignty and predestination discourage evangelism, but in this passage the Lord places sovereignty at the foundation of effective evangelism.
Sovereignty and Evangelism
J. I. Packer picks up on the connection between God’s sovereignty and vigorous evangelism:
So far from making evangelism pointless, the sovereignty of God in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility—indeed, the certainty—that evangelism will be fruitful. Apart from it, there is not even a possibility of evangelism being fruitful. Were it not for the sovereign grace of God, evangelism would be the most futile and useless enterprise that the world has ever seen, and there would be no more complete waste of time under the sun than to preach the Christian gospel. (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, p. 106)
As members of a denomination that celebrates the sovereign power of God in salvation, we should be greatly encouraged by this. This biblical truth— that God chose his people in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) — serves as a rallying cry to the church. We serve a God who is powerful to save, and he sends us out as witnesses. What a glorious privilege! Yet a question remains. We celebrate the sovereign power of God in salvation, but how are we responding to that truth?
Are we zealous in the work of evangelism? Are we tireless in speaking the gospel, so that those who belong to God might be found and gathered? Are we confident that the sheep will follow the voice of Christ wherever he is heard? If so, are we speaking boldly as instruments of the Lord?
There remains much work to be done in the gathering of the elect into the church of Jesus Christ. The Lord sends us as his emissaries in that mission, and he sends us with words of encouragement. He offers a gentle rebuke: do not be afraid. He gives a stirring mandate: go on speaking and do not be silent. He offers three strong promises: I am with you; no one will attack you to harm you; I have many in this city (and these cities) who are my people.
We may not have the evangelistic gifts of the apostle Paul, or even those of Spurgeon or Livingstone. Yet the Lord gives us the same assurances of his continuing presence and his sovereign power in salvation. Armed with these certain promises, let us go on speaking the plain truth of the gospel with boldness. May the Lord use us as instruments in his advancing kingdom and produce in us a zeal to plant new churches throughout North America toward that end.