By David Bycroft
Smitty was arrogant, opinionated, selfish, and a regular at the local coffee shop. Three mornings a week, I would go there before my morning jog. I had known Smitty for years, but he recently had moved a block from our church building. His house was across the street from where we parked our church buses.
One morning, in front of the six or seven guys gathered for the morning coffee ritual, Smitty blurted out, “Preacher, I want you to move your buses because I can’t see the highway from my front porch.”
I returned with a challenge. “Smitty, I tell you what, you come to church and I’ll see to it that the buses get moved.” (I didn’t think I’d need to relocate the buses because Smitty was quite vocal about how he hated money-grabbing preachers and churches.) His only response was, “I’ll think about it.”
At about the same time one of our Sunday school teachers was trying to get Smitty to visit his class.
A week later, in front of the coffee shop gang, Smitty blurted out, “I thought you said you were going to move those buses, Preacher!” I reminded him of my proposal, and he said, “Well, would it be OK if I go to Adrian’s class?”
“You bet it will,” I said, though I still had little hope it would happen. But the next Sunday Smitty came to class, and the people there went out of their way to welcome and encourage him. And Smitty liked it!
After several weeks of Sunday school only, Adrian finally convinced Smitty to stay for worship. Smitty’s attitude began changing. Within a short time, he even started defending me at the coffee shop when someone would take a potshot at me.
Then Smitty learned he had cancer. It was the quick kind, and he was put in the hospital with only a few days to live. I went to visit him and knew it was time to share the gospel with him. He listened to every word about what Jesus had done for him, how the Lord was willing to forgive him and make him ready for eternity.
Smitty was not the kind of guy to make an instant decision, so I told him I would return at 7 that evening. During the next several hours, I had people pray and called a doctor who attended our church to see if we could use the hospital’s whirlpool tub for the baptism.
After it was all arranged, I went back to the hospital. “Well, are you ready to make your commitment to Christ?” I asked.
“Yes, I am!” Smitty replied.
I told him about the arrangement for the baptism. He looked at me in astonishment and asked why I couldn’t just sprinkle a little water on him there in the bed. I explained biblical immersion from Romans 6 and when I finished he said, “If that’s what I’ve got to do, let’s get it done!”
It took an hour or so to bury the old Smitty and bring up the new one, but his first words were, “Praise the Lord.” Two days later, he passed into eternity, and I was able to make his funeral a victory service.
Paul said Jesus gave him this mission: “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). This is the purpose of evangelism.
Evangelism for me has never been about numbers, but about souls and salvation. (On the other hand, those with a paranoia about numbers and growth need to reread Acts.)
Let’s think about how this change takes place in the life of a lost person. For some in our brotherhood, there seems to be a weakening in the biblical principles of how we lead a person from darkness to the light of Jesus and salvation.
The obvious, glaring issue is how we represent baptism to the person turning to Christ.
Jesus must always be the starting point for any conversation about salvation—not doctrines about what one must do to receive salvation. Someone has said we talk about what we are in love with. I would pray we are all in love with Jesus, not baptism.
In Acts 8, when Phillip addresses the Ethiopian, the Bible says, “Then Phillip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (v. 35). Why would we want to start anyplace else? “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).
In the first sermon ever preached in the New Testament, Peter talked about Jesus—his death and resurrection—before he introduces the subject of baptism (Acts 2:22–38). It may be time to evaluate how much “Jesus” is in your presentation.
I think we also tend to slight the doctrine of grace. Much of the evangelical world sees our view of salvation as a “works” salvation or “water regeneration” because we sometimes move directly from the gospel invitation to baptism without adequately conveying the truth that Jesus’ sacrifice cannot be earned or deserved (see Ephesians 2:8, 9).
Too many think if we emphasize grace and God’s free gift, people will coast and not produce works worthy of repentance. But Paul declares that the grace of God teaches us to deny ungodliness and develop people who are zealous of good works (see Titus 2:11-14). Let’s begin to place the proper value of grace in our testimony of salvation.
The next area we must discuss with seekers and new believers is discipleship. Jesus commanded us to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). A disciple is a learner or follower of someone. As Luke 6:40 points out, “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” A disciple is falling in love with Jesus and seeking a lifelong relationship with him. Without this desire, the potential convert cannot respond correctly to the invitation to Christ.
In my early years of evangelism, I seemed more interested in getting people wet than in helping them become disciples of Jesus. We have not been called to make decisions but to make disciples.
After a believer in Jesus chooses to be a disciple, he is ready to respond to the offer of grace. This is where we often get accused of promoting a works salvation. But this is only the response to the offer of the free gift. God doesn’t indiscriminately throw out redemption, but gives it to those who receive it on the basis of what he requires in Scripture.
When the crowd in Acts 2 heard the message and believed the message, they asked, “What shall we do?” (v. 37). They were not looking to earn their salvation, but were asking, “How do we respond, now that we believe Jesus is the Messiah?”
Peter’s words are extremely important in our understanding of how a believer and disciple responds to the offer of grace! Matthew 16:17-19 helps us understand where Peter’s words came from. He was divinely directed to say what he did. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment, off-the-cuff response.
“Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you’” (Acts 2:38). How difficult or confusing is that message? It sounds pretty simple to me.
But what is repentance? Some say it’s a prayer in which we admit our sinfulness and ask Jesus to forgive us. Most of the religious world believes this is the moment of salvation. I see nothing wrong with praying a prayer like that, but to constitute it as repentance and salvation goes beyond Scripture. True repentance is when a person decides to change his mind about who will be in charge of his life. It certainly includes sorrow for sinfulness, but that sorrow must include change (see 2 Corinthians 7:9-11).
When we explain repentance, people would be better prepared if we helped them see their need to turn away from doing wrong and turn to doing right.
So why is baptism joined with repentance? Repentance can also be understood as a death, a separation from sin (Romans 6). We die to the old life of selfishness. We choose a new direction that leads to being born again. So is it any wonder that Romans 6 pictures our baptism as death, burial, and resurrection?
The physical act of baptism connects me with what Jesus did to save me. He died, was buried, and rose again. The water itself does not save me; only the blood of Jesus can do that. But as 1 Peter 3:21 says, the act of baptism saves me because it is where I make my “appeal” to God for a good conscience. It is the response every repentant believer will make.
I hope this message of Jesus and his grace will be the message we preach. And when people choose to believe, we will be ready with the biblical truth of how God has asked them to respond. Because the ultimate purpose in evangelism is not church growth, but changed lives.
David Bycroft has served as evangelist with Tyro (Kansas) Christian Church for 38 years. During that time the church has grown from 40 to almost 1,000.