by Leonardo Neitzel
There is no such thing as “private Christianity.” From its first to its last book, Holy Scripture presents God’s people witnessing His greatness and mercy to those around them, both in public and private. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, He and His disciples had one goal: to reach out and to care for people, physically and spiritually.
Each congregation, as well as each of us individually, is called to be Christ’s channel of mercy to those around us—especially to those close to us. The martyrs of the Early Church have left us a legacy of public and private witness, and Christians throughout the ages have faithfully followed in their steps—in the steps of Jesus and His Church—as they lived lives of witness, pointing others to the way of salvation. This is “the first and highest work of love,” as Martin Luther testifies.
Each congregation, as well as each of us individually, is called to be Christ’s channel of mercy to those around us—especially to those close to us. This is “the first and highest work of love,” as Martin Luther testifies.
So where do we come in? In what way are we called to witness to Christ publicly? And where does He want us to share the Gospel in personal relationships? How are we called to enact this “work of love”?
Diagnosing the Problem
In a sermon on the John 20:19-23, Martin Luther paraphrases Jesus’ words in this way: “I sent you into the world as my Father has sent me; namely, that every Christian should instruct and teach his neighbour, that he may also come to Christ…. All Christians are commanded to profess their faith publicly and also to lead others to believe.”
The Church of Christ is always in danger of forsaking her first love, as she faces temptations from within and without. The devil, the world, and sin are counter-forces battering constantly against God’s Word and His Church, pushing us away from Christ and His Word, from spiritual growth, from the fellowship of believers, and the regular use of the sacraments. These forces try to deter us from love and care for others and from Christian witness in the world.
The symptoms are all around us. On a congregational level, it is easy for pastors and other church leaders to become so involved in administrative concerns that little time and energy remains for (or one may easily lose sight of) the reason Christ established His Church: to make disciples of all nations through Gospel witness and outreach emphasis.
This is not to say that good care and administration of God’s house are unimportant. They are. But when priorities become inverted, or when the administration becomes a end in itself, then we have a serious problem.
So too, we see problems on the level of individual believers. Christians fail to spend regular time in Bible study, in the fellowship of believers, and in regular use of the means of grace. Sometimes we exclude ourselves from the blessings of the Church and instead try live an isolated and individual Christian life. We have plenty of excuses. We are always busy, giving in to the demands and pressures of society around us. We give our personal enjoyment the highest priority, and push aside or disregard all together the Source of true and eternal joy.
Affected by our internal and external influences we become complacent to our spiritual life, and we fail to give a faithful witness to our families and circle of friends. It is true that family and friends are often the most challenging arenas for witnessing about Jesus, but He doesn’t say that it is impossible or not required. Nor does He say that it won’t bring about blessings and produce fruits for the salvation of our loves ones.
Walter Brueggemann, author of Biblical Perspective on Evangelism, puts the problem this way:
The present crisis of evangelism is in a great measure because the community of the church has not persuaded our own young of the power or validity of the Gospel. I suspect that has happened because adults have been inarticulate within the family of faith about our faith. I imagine that a reason for inarticulateness is that the scandal of faith has become increasingly unpalatable for adults who crave easy accommodation between faith and culture. In the context of such an easy accommodation, the Christian faith is trimmed of all its radicalness, until there is very little about which to be articulate, and that very little has most often been boiled down to privatized legalism.
Roy Fairchild, author of Christians in Families – An Inquiry into the Nature and Mission of the Christian Family, adds the following:
Most churchmen and churchwomen see little or no relationship between their faith, their families, and their work outside the home. Some are very careful to keep faith and life in separate compartments. To others, it has just never occurred that there is a connection. It seldom occurs to them to think or speak of their job and their faith ‘in the same breath’.
The demands of our society have greatly interfered with and influenced negatively our Christian witness to families and circle of friends. We have become self-satisfied with ourselves and insensitive to the real needs of others. But the Holy Spirit, working through God’s Word, wants to reclaim in us a love for those who walk in darkness, and a passion to lead them to Christ.
The Holy Spirit, working through God’s Word, wants to reclaim in us a love for those who walk in darkness, and a passion to lead them to Christ.
Telling the next generation (Ps. 78)
As we learn and grow in our understanding of the why of witnessing the Gospel of Jesus to others, we also gain knowledge and skills for the how. The why grows out of our relationship with Jesus and His Word; we learn the how through on-the-job training. As we focus on practicing sharing the Gospel, we find new opportunities to share the Gospel appear.
The desire to share the Gospel with others is itself a gift from Christ, and He provides us with the skills, strength and encouragement we need to proclaim His Word. Through Him, we can be “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have” (1 Peter 3:15).
When we turn to Scripture, we find numerous examples of people sharing their faith—and we see numerous examples of how that witness resulted in great blessings for others, as people are instructed in God’s Word, confess their faith in Christ, join local congregations, and are baptized. For personal devotion, you may wish to meditate on the following examples: Luke 5:27-32; John 1:43-51; John 4:4-30; and Acts 8:26-40.
In a sermon on the Gospel of Mark 7:31-37, C.F.W. Walther states:
The Christian church is a great missionary house. Each Christian in it is a missionary sent out by God into his own circle to convert others to Christ, invite them to the heavenly wedding, call them to the kingdom of God, and enlist soldiers everywhere to the eternal treasure and the army of Christ. God does not give his spiritual gifts only to pastors and teachers. Lay people, who do not stand in the public office, often have very glorious gifts, a wonderful knowledge of Christian doctrine, a superior gift of understanding and explaining the Scriptures, a wonderful gift of examining teachers and opposing the erring, the wonderful gift of guiding, comforting, admonishing, praying and the like.
Each Christian in it is a missionary sent out by God into his own circle to convert others to Christ, invite them to the heavenly wedding, call them to the kingdom of God, and enlist soldiers everywhere to the eternal treasure and the army of Christ.
You too are called to share Christ in your circle of family and friends. But as we carry out this work of love in telling this and the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of our Lord, it is important to keep in mind some basic Christian principles:
- Share the Gospel of Jesus with love. Love as Jesus loved you;
- Seize opportunities with discernment and understanding;
- Be open to the Spirit’s guidance in each and every situation;
- Be a good and open listener, rather than a loquacious babbler;
- Be non-judgemental of the other person;
- Speak the truth, and in doing it, do it in love;
- Exercise patience as the farmer does: He sows the seed, cultivates, and waits patiently for the Lord’s providence in providing the growth and harvest;
- Pray for the sowing of the seed of God’s Word and for the person receiving it.
- Keep the servant’s spirit as the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
As we focus on sharing Jesus with family and friends, let us also keep in mind the miracle of grace at work as souls are brought to Jesus. Jesus rejoiced over each sinner who heeded His call and followed Him, and Scripture tells us there is joy in heaven for even one sinner who repents. So too, there is joy in our heart for every opportunity given to us to share the love of Jesus with others. And the Lord comforts us that our work is valuable: “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30), the Scriptures say. And again: “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:30).
God grant us this wisdom and His strength as we embark on this highest work of love—sharing Christ with our neighbour.
Rev. Dr. Leonardo Neitzel is Lutheran Church–Canada’s Executive for Missions and Social Ministry.