Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Neighbour love and Evangelism

It is not uncommon to hear the idea that the greatest act of love is to tell someone the gospel (I heard it today). Now, I have to confess that I'm really not too sure about this one. I wonder whether the statement is confusing a few different things. I stress that I emphatically believe sharing the gospel is the most important thing we can do. I am simply disputing whether it is necessarily the most loving thing we can do. It is crucial to distinguish between these two things.

Let me try a thought experiment. Joe is a very good friend of mine and he is terribly in debt, so that he will soon go bankrupt and everything of his will be repossessed. I am incredibly wealthy and easily have the capacity to bail him out with no real effect or hassle for myself. Now, if I were to bail him out that, would that be a demonstration of incredible love?

1. It is certainly the thing he most desperately needs and it is certainly the most appropriate and necessary response to his situation.

2. It is a kind and good thing to do.

3. But I think it's hard to argue that it is an act of incredible love. Meeting someone's pressing need is an act of love, but this pacticular action would not be very self-sacrificial. It would not cost me anything. In fact, bailing him out would seem a rather obvious thing that many people would do, given such wealth.

4. Simply bailing him out may not actually be loving at all, as I may have ulterior motives such as manipulating Joe or wanting to look good.

The point is, one would expect the "most loving thing we can do" to involve a high level of self-sacrifice or selflessness. But evangelism may well not involve much sacrifice on my part at all. It may actually be very easy to do. Christian love, though, focuses upon self-sacrifice: after all, the model is the sacrifice of Jesus himself. The example of his love is not his teaching ministry, but his death. He does not demonstrate his love in his telling us the way of salvation, but in his dying for us - "greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Now, of course, evangelism may well be done out of great love and with great cost (as many martyrs awesomely demonstrate), BUT EVANGELISM IS NOT THE SAME AS LOVE. This is demonstrably true in that one can share the gospel without any love whatsoever (Philippians 1:15-18). Evangelism can be done religiously and godlessly. In fact, 1 John 3:16-20 tells us that without certain demonstrations of practical love, then evangelism is useless and hypocritical. The great danger in equating evangelism with "most loving thing I can do" is that I think I will have fulfilled the 2nd commandment by simply telling someone the gospel. Given the above, I can't see how that can be true. If, as a Christian, I love someone I will always tell them the gospel, as that is the most important thing. But love will demonstrate itself in many and varied ways that may call fo rmuch greater personal cost than sharing the gospel.

So, let me suggest that love is not the same as evangelism, rather its role is to motivate it and shape it, as it is every area of the Christian life. Love will demonstrate itself in lots of concrete ways, but will always involve a self-sacrificial lifestyle modelled on the Lord Jesus.