I don’t think Christian people set out to write books on evangelism based on unbiblical principles. But it happens. It happens because there are wrong ideas about the critical components of evangelism. Usually, these wrong ideas are based on marketing principles or on human understandings about how to argue someone into the kingdom. It has more to do with results and effect, which is the realm of the Holy Spirit, rather than faithfulness in proclaiming the truth, which is our job description. If we don’t have biblical evangelism nailed down, we tend spend much time doing things we call evangelism, but may not be evangelism at all.
For example, a housewife meeting with a friend over coffee may be evangelizing, while a brilliant Christian apologist speaking to thousands in a church sanctuary may not be. Few see it this way, but that’s because we have false understandings of what evangelism is. Defending the faith is a fine thing to do, but it is easy to give apologetics for Christianity without explaining the gospel—and we cannot evangelize without the gospel.
We need to know what we’re talking about when we say “evangelism,” “conversion,” or even “gospel.” Those words raise different definitions in people’s minds and often come with question marks. If Christians don’t understand these basic concepts, we will quickly spin out of biblical orbit. So, we define evangelism in a biblical way to help align our evangelistic practice with the Scriptures. Here’s a definition that has served me well for many years:
Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.
Sort of dinky, huh? I bet most people would expect much more from such an important theological word. But this definition, small as it is, offers a far better balance in which to weigh our evangelistic practice than looking at how many people have responded to an appeal.
Here is how the Amplified Bible might have expanded my definition:
Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).
Notice the definition doesn’t require an immediate outward response. Walking an aisle, raising a hand, or even praying a prayer may tell us that evangelism has happened, but such actions are not what evangelism is. Notice, too, that if any of the four components (Teaching, Gospel, Aim, or Persuade) are missing, we are probably doing something other than evangelism. Let’s look at two of these: teaching and aim. We’ll spend time on gospel and persuade in the next post.
Many of us think of preaching when we think of evangelism, as we should. I, for one, want any sermon I give to contain the gospel. Certainly Paul did his share of evangelistic preaching. But often when Paul describes his ministry, he says it is a teaching ministry (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). J. I. Packer, in his survey of Paul’s evangelistic practice, says that Paul’s method of evangelism was primarily a teaching method.1
This is good news for those of us who don’t get to preach every Sunday. Not all of us can be preachers, but we can all teach the gospel as opportunity comes. I often wonder whether more people come to faith over lunch when someone asks, “What did you think about the sermon today?” than during the sermon itself. Great things happen when we can teach the gospel.
An “aim to persuade” also reminds us that people need more than a data transfer. Some who think of evangelism as only teaching do a good job of explaining, expanding, and answering questions, as we all should. All Christians should apply themselves to think through reasons for the hope we have in Christ, reasons that sweep aside the objections and questions. But as we set out the facts of the gospel, remembering evangelism’s aim helps us to be compassionate, understanding, and loving (1 Pet. 3:15).
Having an aim helps us keep perspective on what we’re doing. It steers us toward an end. Our aim helps us remember that much is at stake: to see people moved from darkness to light, from bondage to freedom. Aiming for something bigger helps us know which fights to pick and which to avoid.
Mack Stiles lives in Dubai with his wife Leeann. He serves as an elder of Redeemer Church of Dubai and as the General Secretary of the IFES (parachurch) movement in the United Arab Emirates. He is also the author of a number of books on evangelism, including Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel (IVP, 2010).
Editor's note: This article is a lightly adapted excerpt from Mack's most recent book from the Building Healthy Churches series: Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (Crossway, 2013). It's the first of three excerpts. (The second, "Defintions: Gospel and Persuade," can be found here. The third, "The Problem with Evangelistic Programs," can be found here.)
Editor's note: We asked several pastors to tell us a few practical ways they encourage evangelism and discipleship in the life of their particular local church. Answers are below.
Let's start with basics. If pastors want to develop a culture of personal evangelism and discipleship in the church, they should be practicing it themselves. Yes, pastors do evangelize and make disciples through their preaching. But they also need to be meeting with people one-to-one or in small groups. Being engaged in personal ministry sets an example for others in the church and it keeps disciple-making in the forefront of the pastor's own thinking and experience. And with so many things in ministry that can dry out a pastor's soul, pastors will be refreshed as they see the Word working in the lives of real individuals. Pastors can't and shouldn't disciple the entire congregation single-handedly. But adding a weekly small group Bible study and a regular one-to-one meeting or two or three to his schedule can have a remarkable impact on the congregation, and on his own ministry.
Jeramie Rinne is the senior pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts.
Encouraging Evangelism: When I came to Castleview Baptist Church over six years ago their evangelistic instincts were almost entirely programmatic (preschool for the community, sports league with our property, annual VBS and “Fall Festival,” etc.). In order to encourage our people to be personally evangelistic (and eventually realize the corporate aspect of evangelism), we have worked hard to do three things:
(1) Recover the awesomeness of the gospel. This meant taking it off the shelf of Christian life past and realizing why we are still amazed by our justification, particularly how it provides motivation and confidence in our ongoing sanctification. This thawed out people’s hearts.
(2) Elevate the value of and personal responsibility for personal relationships. The gospel freed people to love others, forgive others, serve others, learn from others, and be hospitable with others. It started within the church and eventually moved to doing so with non-Christians all around us.
(3) Encourage and publicly promote people’s pursuit of this who were seated all around us on a Sunday. This helped people take encouragement from each other’s practices, even if they appeared unfruitful.
Encouraging discipleship: When I came to Castleview Baptist Church, few people talked about “discipleship" and even some elders asked what it meant or looked like. I worried less about vocabulary and more about practices.
- It started with asking my leadership to identify one person they could meet with on a regular basis to “do good to spiritually,” a person who would say they were better in their walk with Christ for having spent that time with them. I would later teach the elders a series three different times on what discipleship is and why we want to do it.
- I then prayed about and went after nine guys to meet with me every week for a year a half in order to read theology and talk about its implications for our lives. After we finished, they were encouraged to do the same for others. (We now have about 70+ people who have all read through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology together in groups).
- I began to go around meeting with older saints and asking them to reach out to younger saints in the church. When they told me they were not the best examples in the past or didn’t know “enough,” I assured them that was okay, that they could humbly admit this as a part of their growth together.
- My wife wrote a booklet on how women could disciple other women since we often heard the feedback: “we don’t know what to do.” As the book was not really gender specific, we gave it to anyone and everyone.
- Every year, I identify a group of guys that I meet with for a year and invest in. When that year is up, I tell them to go do the same for others.
- We give out a ton of books and tell people to find someone to read and talk about it with.
- On our membership application, there is a section that asks, “Have you ever discipled another Christian? If so, tell us about it.” and “Have you ever been discipled by another Christian? If so, tell us about it.” We do this to start the conversation about discipleship from the very beginning. (By the way, most people say “no” to both questions.)
Eric Bancroft is the senior pastor of Castleview Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
- Be a model of personal evangelism and discipleship.
- Prioritize the church's corporate prayer time with requests from people involved in evangelism and discipleship.
- Preach in a way that shows how every passage points to Jesus Christ, who now sends us to make disciples of all nations.
- In membership class, emphasize that if people join, they are not just joining a family of believers, but a family of believers with a God-given Great Commission.
- In teaching others how to disciple people, regularly remind disciplers of the importance of multiplication.
- For those interested in discipleship, make it clear up front that everything they are learning is not intended to stay with them, but for them to give to others.
- Pray, pray, and pray for God to stir up His people to have His heart for the nations.
Kevin Hsu is the pastor of Urban Grace Church in Oakland, California.
I think the greatest thing a pastor can do to encourage his congregation to do evangelism and discipleship is to personally do evangelism and discipleship. A pastor ought to model what he preaches, boldly sharing the gospel with those in his neighborhood, and engaging in regular discipling relationships with those in the church. It's also helpful when a pastor shares his experiences, but not in an exclusively "pastor as hero" or "pastor as zero" way. Pastors get to hear lots of stories about evangelism and discipleship happening among the people in their congregation, and it helps to share those stories as well.
Dave Furman is the senior pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai, which has members from over 50 countries.
This is a hard question to answer not because it is hard to understand but because it is hard to do. The answer is quite simple: the pastor encourages evangelism and discipleship by prayer, teaching, and example:
1. Prayer. I seek to pray regularly that my congregation will share their faith regularly and disciple one another willingly. (Gulp!)
2. Teaching. If the gospel is both the way into Christ's kingdom and how I live in Christ's kingdom then I must preach the gospel every week. If I teach the gospel clearly then people will be drawn to Christ and taught how to follow him at the same time. I try to work hard at preaching in such a way that expects believers to be doing this as well as responding to the gospel itself. Our Sunday evening services have the explicit aim of training believers in prayer, evangelism, and discipleship. (Preaching is not a spectator sport.)
3. Example. I do not have time to do everything but I must model the importance of this ministry. Therefore, throughout my ministry I have always tried to meet up 1-on-1 with one non-Christian in order to read the Bible with evangelistically and another guy in order to disciple. (I'm convicted as I write this because I realize that I'm only doing one of those currently. Nevertheless, I have managed to do it most of the time.) To model does not mean to perfectly illustrate but it does mean that no one in my church is going to get on with it if I don't.
John Smuts is the pastor of Rayners Lane Baptist Church in the NW London, UK.
We press our people on evangelism and discipleship in every single sermon, every single week. We want to give applications in those two areas because every single text that we preach has implications for discipleship and evangelism. Every text contains something every Christian should believe and do, and every text points to the reality that non-Christians need a Savior.
We encourage every person to be regularly praying for and building a relationship with at least one non-believer, and to be consistent in inviting them to participate in the life of the church through our community groups and Sunday morning worship. We provide "invite cards" which are business cards with service times and a map and our website on one side, and on the other side it says, "Meet me at New Life" and has space for their name and phone number. Our people hand these out at the coffee shop, leave them (along with generous tips, I hope) at restaurants, and give them to new friends.
Finally, a good principle is that you get more of what you celebrate as a church. So we regularly post stories on our website and social media about people who are actively engaged in the work of discipleship and evangelism, and we make baptisms a big deal each time we do them. We want to celebrate discipleship and evangelism efforts—faithfulness—not necessarily "success." So some of the stories don't end with someone receiving Christ or growing in Christ. Sometimes we simply celebrate faithfulness.
Allen Duty is the preaching pastor at New Life Baptist Church in College Station, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @AllenDuty.
Preach to the non-Christians in your weekly gathering. Answer the questions they have of the Christian faith in general and of your selected text in particular. Graciously show them the futility of their worldview, and direct them to the Savior. This, of course, presupposes that we pastors talk with and listen to non-Christians regularly. We need to learn their hopes and fears, wrestle with their criticisms, and address the gospel to their situation. All of this better equips the people in our churches to engage in evangelism themselves.
Beyond that, we need to keep before our people that we are not disciples unless we are making disciples. That's the logic of the Great Commission, and we mustn't escape it. We aren't following Christ if we're not actively helping others follow Christ. Given that reality, we encourage evangelism and discipleship by regularly challenging our self-deceived notion that discipleship is little more than piety and publicly confessing our sinful lack of love for others.
Matthew Hoskinson is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in the City of New York and director of member care and mobilization for Frontline Missions. Like Jim Gaffigan, he lives in Manhattan with his wife and five children.
The obvious thing here is to model discipleship. Have a couple guys you are investing in and from time to time expose those relationships in a manner that isn’t arrogant, but instructive.
Additionally, it helps to routinely put different faces up in front of the body in corporate services, Community Groups, etc. and to then provide them feedback. This does at least two things:
1. It teaches the congregation that others are being invested in.
2. It helps the person be built up.
Lastly, tell the stories of redemption in the life of the church. Whether that happens in smaller settings over meals, Community Groups, or in corporate services, try and expose people to what is happening in discipleship around the church and celebrate it.
Nathan Knight is the pastor of Restoration Church in Washington, DC.
I've only been pastoring four months now, but here are some of the practical things I’ve tried to implement so far:
1. Model discipleship to others so that members think it’s a normal part of the Christian life.
2. Provide opportunities for people to build friendships first (this seems important in a culture where discipleship is slow, e.g. where I am in the UK).
3. Do a small group Bible Study on discipleship. We have just worked through “Building One Another” in the 9Marks Bible study series.
Jonathan Worsley is the pastor of Kew Baptist Church in the United Kingdom.
While the college campus provides an amazing opportunity for evangelism, it can also be challenging to bridge the gap between a local church and the campus.
College campuses often feel like “a city within a city.” They have their own culture, their own schedules, their own (narrow) demographic. When many people are at home brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed, college students may be thinking it’s time to order a pizza and start working on a ten-page research paper. When I started out in campus ministry at age 22, I blended in with the students on campus. Now, at 36, I stand out in a college dorm. For these and many other reasons, there is a gap to bridge.
Still, we want churches to have an impact on campus, and for the campus to be present in the local church. But how?
The short answer is, churches should seek to establish a dynamic of ministry that cycles between church to campus. As the church impacts the college campus, the campus is enfolded into the life of the local church, and then that church equips those students to walk with God and labor for the gospel back on campus. Here is how that looks in picture form:
The critical first step is from the church to the campus. We must send laborers to campus to preach the gospel. At the very least this means equipping college students who are members of your church. This also might include using church staff (college pastors, paid interns, etc.), lay leaders, or a faithful parachurch ministry (but never as a replacement for equipping a church’s students). The goal is to reach the campus with the gospel by sending laborers to focused ministry there. Rather than simply trying to attract college students with in-house programming, churches should focus on reaching campuses by sending laborers to campus.
The second step is to integrate whatever happens on the campus back into the local church. As churches spread the gospel and students come to Christ, they should then be enfolded into that local church where they’re taught the importance of baptism, church membership, and communion. They should be discipled as members of the local church.
Then the cycle repeats itself: as students are plugged into the life of the church, they are equipped to return to the campus to serve and make an impact. All of the ministry that is “kicked up” is then enfolded back into the local church.
WHAT CAMPUS MINISTRIES OFTEN END UP BEING
In my experience, college ministries struggle to develop a dynamic that cycles back and forth between church and campus. The two get separated, and college ministry works as an isolated sub-culture. Let me give you two examples
Disconnected From the Church: Missing the Mark
Far too often theologically reliable campus ministries—parachurch, denominational ,or even a church-based ones—spread the gospel and do good things, but they are not integrated into the life of the local church. They have a thriving ministry on campus, a variety of small groups, and opportunities for training, but the students themselves don’t meaningfully connect to local churches. Maybe they are not involved in churches at all, maybe they church hop, or maybe they just see church as a place to go on Sunday morning.
These types of campus ministries end up establishing a dynamic that functions in isolation from the church. They have good intentions, but leave out a critical aspect of following Jesus: living inside the structure and accountability of a local congregation and its leaders. They do good things, but they’re not setting those students up for a lifetime of following Jesus. Rather than partnering with local churches, these ministries end up as accidental substitutes for the local church in the lives of Christian students.
Disconnected From the Campus: Missing an Opportunity
On the other side of the coin, there are churches that have students present, maybe even as members. These students may participate in ministry activities and programs in the church. The problem is, they aren’t really integrated on campus; they aren’t seeking to focus ministry there.
As a disclaimer, I don’t believe all college students must direct their personal ministries on campus. However, if most college students in your church don’t seek a personal ministry on campus, I think you and they are missing an incredible opportunity. College students who are members of your church are the most positioned members of your church to spread the gospel on campus. This type of ministry might do good work by enfolding students from the campus into the life of the local church, but it misses the mark insofar as it doesn’t seek to disciple and equip them to intentionally impact their campus.
START WITH A FEW PEOPLE, NOT A FEW PROGRAMS
Many college ministries are challenged to develop this cyclical dynamic. Rather than asking “How do we attract college students to our church?” we should ask, “How does our church impact the campus with the gospel?”
Far too often, college ministries gathers lots students for big meetings and programs. But what the campus needs most is not more programs, but people who will spread the gospel to unbelieving students, who will reach out to the Christian students around them and help enfold them into the church and disciple them.
The question now becomes . . . “How?”
Start with a few people. Whether it’s a few students, a few lay leaders, or even some church staff or interns, begin by brainstorming how your church can evangelize and disciple on campus. If targeted commitment from a handful of people isn’t yet a possibility, here are several practical things to do in the meantime.
- Regularly pray for the gospel to go forth on local campuses at your church’s weekly gathering.
- Consider hiring interns (recent college graduates would be ideal) to focus on evangelism on campus. These interns could raise partial or full support.
- Teach the importance of church membership to college students and encourage them to join early in their college years. Help students see that four years is plenty of time to commit to a local church and that this shouldn’t be viewed as an “in between” time.
- Rather than having age-based education hours (traditional Sunday School), integrate the college students with the adult classes.
- Focus more on training and discipling students than on cool, attractive programs. Train students to use evangelistic tools like “Two Ways to Live,” “Christianity Explored,” and “One to One Bible Reading.”
- Help position students for impact on campus. Rather than living in an off-campus apartment, encourage them to live in a freshman dorm or somewhere they can build lots of relationships.
- Encourage members of your church to invite students into their homes and for students to invite members on campus.
Dave Russell lives in Washington, DC where he serves as the Director for Campus Outreach DC and an Assistant Pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. After 15 years of serving in college ministry, Dave is transitioning to plant a church in Charlotte, NC that will launch in 2015.
As soon as I finished reading Big God I did two things. First, I prayed, and thanked the Lord for his perfect and powerful control over all time and existence. Second, I hopped on Amazon planning to buy every other book by Orlando Saer that I could get my hands on. (As it turns out, my shopping spree didn’t cost too
much, because he only has one other book in print right now). Big God was that good..
Stepping into one of the most complex and potentially confusing areas on the Christian life, Saer, the senior pastor of Christ Church Southampton, wrote Big God to help others think better (read: more biblically) about “the way God works in the world, and particularly the way his work co-exists with ours” (11). Seemingly undaunted by the enormity of such a task, and armed with wit, wisdom, engaging stories, and practical proposals, Saer sets forth a three-fold path for this process.
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Last year, Michael Milton resigned as chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary due to a serious but treatable illness. Though I have not been directly impacted by his ministry prior to reading this book, I’ve rejoiced to see others’ accounts of his faithfulness in a variety of demanding roles. I am confident that all who work and write for 9Marks give thanks to God for how he uses individuals like Dr. Milton to advance gospel work in a variety of churches, institutions, and denominations. I pray that God would glorify himself as Dr. Milton suffers well, and ultimately grant him many more years of fruitful labor.
Milton writes in his letter explaining his resignation, “[T]he winter this year has killed off the busily growing weeds of distraction to reveal a grim woundedness in my body which is crying out in no uncertain terms: there will be a time of resting afresh before running again.” This is the sort of pastoral warmth and wisdom the reader will likewise find in his book Finding a Vision for Your Church: Assembly Required.
Though its topic is rather different from the anguish of a health-related resignation, you will find in it an unreserved and pervasive commitment to the glory and purposes of God, advanced through the means God has ordained—first and foremost, his Word. Milton wants his readers to grasp what are the vital priorities of pastoral ministry and to embrace them enthusiastically. He presses towards an ambitious “vision for personal, corporate, and global transformation” (17), and an expectation that our omnipotent God will exceed those ambitions.
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In today’s Christian world, there seem to be two streams of thought regarding denominations. There’s the card-carrying “denominationalist,” for whom it seems the scope of Christianity is coextensive with his own denomination, and for whom a conversion from, for example, Methodist to Southern Baptist is on par with a conversion from Islam or Mormonism. On the other hand, there’s the “mere Christian,” for whom denominations represent the worst of Satan’s ploys, undermining the very unity which Christ purchased by his blood, and who count it a sin to list anything more specific than “Christian” under Facebook’s “Religious Views” heading. I'm exaggerating slightly, but you catch my drift.
Why We Belong offers a middle path. The authors promote a high esteem for the real unity between all Christians everywhere, represented in this volume by the “evangelical” banner. And they also demonstrate high esteem for deep and serious denominational commitments. Are these two commitments laudable yet incompatible? Or the way of wisdom in our present world?
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Whether accompanied by wincing or waxing nostalgic, those Americans who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s tend to have colorful memories of the period. The era’s anti-establishment ethos expressed itself in the sexual revolution, hippies, war protests, communes, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Many teens and young adults embraced the style of the counterculture: long hair and beards, love beads, far out music, tie-die shirts and tasseled leather. And, for some of them, Jesus.
In God’s Forever Family, Larry Eskridge offers a comprehensive history of the movement initiated by those called “Jesus Freaks” or “Jesus People.” He argues that while the movement itself was short-lived—lasting roughly a decade beginning in 1967—it has had a substantial impact on American religious culture, particularly evangelicalism.
Like so much youth culture in that day, the Jesus People began in California, particularly in San Francisco. The “Summer of Love” in 1967 brought tens of thousands of young people to the Bay Area, with promises of peace, unity, and happiness. But in an environment of easy sex and drugs, many of these seekers and runaways instead found disillusionment, addiction, homelessness, and sexual predators.
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“Should I tell my wife?”
Daniel leaned back with no interest in the meal before him. He’d looked at racy pictures again and the weight of conviction was inescapable. He had confessed his sin to God and to me, but should he confess it to her?
What would you tell Daniel?
Because every couple is different, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Some couples are totally transparent with each other, while others find it best to allow accountability to be handled by trusted friends. Regardless of where you land on the spectrum, it is important for husbands and wives to develop a plan to help each other fight sexual temptation.
What follows are seven principles to help you and your spouse wade through this sensitive area together.
1. Help each other make it to heaven.
“Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 3:13
My chief calling as a husband is to help my wife love Jesus more. My wife has the same responsibility toward me. In fact, I would suggest that the most weighty and wonderful responsibilities in marriage is to help our spouse make it to heaven. One of the ways to make this happen is by doing whatever we can to help them fight off temptation, including sexual temptation (Heb. 12:1-2; James 5:19-20). We are to be each other’s greatest allies in the journey toward the heavenly city (Rev. 21-22).
Satan will oppose your efforts with all he’s got, but you must not lose sight of this fact: your greatest responsibility as a couple is to help each other home by leaning upon the strength of your Savior. Let the mantra of our marriages be the same as the psalmist, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together” (Psalm 34:3). This will be painful at times, but it is eternally worth it.
2. Cultivate an atmosphere of intimate trust.
“The heart of her husband trusts in her...” Proverbs 31:11
After God brought Adam and Eve together in the first marriage, we are told, “the man and his wife were both naked and unashamed” (Gen. 2:25). They had nothing to cover up in those days. There were no deleted search histories in Eden. There were no shameful compromises or weeping wounds from unfaithfulness.
Intimacy and trust are still possible outside of Eden, but they don’t happen by accident. They must be cultivated. As 1 John 1:7 promises, “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another...” There is no better way to deepen trust in marriage than walking honestly and openly together.
Do you hide things from your spouse?
I believe there should be no secrets in marriage. Surprises? Yes. Secrets? No.
Wisdom and discernment is certainly needed on this point. For instance, it is unwise to share every thought that comes in your head or every conflict you have at work or the details of other people’s lives that have been shared with you. We aren’t talking about those kinds of issues. This is a challenge to not intentionally hide sins from your spouse. Death and deceit breed in the darkness. A husband and wife should always be honest with each other about the condition of their souls.
If our goal is to build trust, it probably seems counter-productive to reveal trust-breaking sins. But the fact is, nothing builds trust like seeing your spouse trying to delight in God more than anything else. Honesty and humble transparency, over time, produce intimate trust in your marriage. Walk in the light together.
3. Consider the Basics of Accountability.
“Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another...” James 5:16
At some level, husband and wives should be each other’s accountability partners. Confessing sin to each other should be a normal part of your life together. Because each couple is different, you need to have a conversation about what this will look like in your own marriage.
Here are a few basic ideas:
Talk. If you’ve never had a conversation with your spouse about your struggles with sexual sin, you should have one. Your spouse needs to know to whom they are married. I strongly encourage you to allow your pastor to help you think through how to have this difficult initial discussion.
Plan. Husbands and wives should work together to make an accountability plan (see #4 below). Because your body is not your own (Gen. 2:24; 1 Cor. 7:4) they have the right and responsibility to talk through this with you. Husbands should lead by taking the initiative in this discussion (Eph. 5:22-25) and wives should give husbands the much-needed help they require (Gen. 2:18). Regardless of which spouse is struggling, you need to help each other. Again, it may be wise to involve a pastor or other mature Christian friends in this process.
Ask. Part of the plan should be that your spouse reserves the right to ask you at any time how you are doing in your fight against temptation—and expect to get an honest answer from you.
I would also suggest that you should always have at least one other person, of the same sex, to whom you are accountable, not just about sexual sin. Sin thrives in the darkness. Making regular and honest confession to another believer is one of your best defenses against sin’s power. To learn more about confessing sin to others read this.
4. Agree on Your Approach to Accountability.
I have spoken to dozens of people about this subject and every couple does things differently. What follows are two categories on the opposite ends of the accountability spectrum.
Some couples are very open about sexual temptations. Some couples agree it is best to tell each other when they feel tempted, if they find someone else attractive, if they compromise at all on the internet, if they give into self-gratification, and just about everything else. Couples who take this approach say that complete transparency helps both of them to stay honest and vigilant in the battle against sin.
If you lean toward this option,
- Make sure your motives are good. Sometimes seeing the pain that our sin inflicts on the ones we love can be a deterrent to sin, but don’t use your spouse just to unload your guilt and make you feel better.
- Don’t expect your spouse to respond well to your sin. Your confession may devastate them. Don’t get all self-righteous because you’re being vulnerable. You’ve sinned against them. Don’t get defensive when they ask questions. Nothing ruins a confession like making excuses. Give them a chance to grieve, process, and go to God. Give them permission to talk to a trusted friend about what has happened if they need to.
- If you’ve agreed to a plan, honor it. If you’ve sinned in a way your spouse would expect you to tell them, follow through with being honest. It will be tempting to find a way out and rationalize a million excuses why you don’t need to tell them (I won’t do it again, I don’t want to hurt them, and so on).
- Be willing to switch your plan if it seems wise. Insecurities can flourish in unexpected and unnecessary ways in these conversations. I have godly friends who have tried going with the “total transparency” option and found it to be way too much for their spouses to handle. There is no shame in making changes to the plan if necessary.
- If your spouse confesses sin to you, you will be tempted to be most worried about how the sin affects you. It is normal to be hurt by sin, but ask God to help you be even more concerned about the way your spouse has strayed from him. None of us can do this perfectly, but plead with God to keep your heart postured in that direction.
Some couples don’t talk about this area in detail unless a certain level of sin occurs. Some couples agree it is best for their spouse to confess struggles with lust to a mutually trusted Christian friend, not to them. They humbly realize they would be too hurt by their spouse’s straying heart or that they feel the struggle is too foreign to them to be able to know how to help them.
If you lean toward this option,
- Have an agreed-upon type of sin at which you agree to talk to your spouse. Purity is a heart issue (Matt. 5:28, 15:19), but it is fine for couples to set agreed-upon conversational mile markers. This may be habitually looking at porn, giving in to masturbation, or crossing certain lines with someone of the opposite sex. Pray for God to give you wisdom in this discussion.
- Don’t use this approach as a deceptive cover for your sin. Romans 13:14 says “make no provision for the flesh to gratify its lusts.” The well-trusted accountability partner should know what these mile markers are and be willing to inform the spouse if sin were to ever get out of control.
- Don’t avoid the discussion just because it hurts. As one wife said to me, “out of love for him, I would want to be a part of the solution, but it would be really difficult.” That’s a good perspective. Growing in holiness and helping others to do the same is hard and painful work. It is humble to know your limitations, but it is also humble to accept your responsibilities. Pray for God to give you wisdom to know the balance.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this subject. Some spouses will be able to hear about your struggle, be hurt by it, but recover in the grace of God. Others will be devastated by the fact that you’d even be tempted, even if you didn’t yield to the temptation. We need to live with our spouses in an understanding way and be willing to humbly and graciously build a plan together (1 Pet. 3:7).
5. Ask Each Other Important Questions
As you begin this process together, here are a few questions to help you begin the conversation.
- How are we helping each other love God more? How can we do this better?
- How can I help you fight against temptation? Who else can help you?
- Do you fear talking to me about these things? How can we make our marriage a safe place to have these talks?
- Do you have any sins in your life that no one knows about?
For many of us, having this kind of conversation can be terrifying. Some of us don’t want to know what our spouse is struggling with, and some of us don’t want our spouse to know what we’re struggling with. But because God’s glory and the salvation of souls are at stake (Heb. 3:12-14), we must be willing to have tough conversations.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I talked through this article with a couple of close friends. God used that discussion to help them pray and discuss how they could better serve each other in this area. They said the conversation was difficult at times, but in the end God used it to draw them closer than they had been before.
If you want to do this, but don’t know how, I’d encourage you to share this article with your pastor or another mature Christian couple and ask them to help you begin this journey together.
6. Go Make Love
“Do not deprive one another...come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you...” 1 Corinthians 7:5
Much could be said here, but believe this: making love should be a priority in your marriage. God has given sexual intimacy for many reasons, one of which is to help each other fight against sexual sin. Husbands and wives need to be committed to regularly engaging in sexual intimacy.
Some of you may be tempted to feel like a mere outlet for your spouse’s physical desries. Guard your heart from this distortion. As my wife told a friend, “As a wife, you have the great responsibility of protecting your marriage by serving your husband through sex. It’s one of God’s divinely ordained means to help his heart not be as easily tempted by lust. Sex is sometimes a sweet dying to self.” The same truth goes for husbands. Serve your wife through sexual intimacy, through non-sexual affection, and through regular, intentional, attentive conversations. God can use that to help guard her heart from wandering.
For some of you, this encouragement to make love to your spouse brings up a slew of painful emotions. Maybe you have been sinned against gravely by your spouse and the thought of giving yourself to them intimately is almost inconceivable. Maybe you’re facing physiological problems that hinder you from being able to make love. Maybe it’s one of countless other reasons that make sex with your spouse difficult.
If you and your spouse are one of the many who feel this way, please don’t give up. Prayerfully plan and begin working through these issues with your pastor, a gospel-centered counselor, or capable doctor. Be patient with each other in this process and trust that the Lord is able to do more than you can imagine (Eph. 3:20-21).
7. Keep the Gospel Central in Your Marriage.
Husbands and wives sin against each other every day. This is part of marriage in a fallen world. But there is something unique about sexual sin that seems to hurt in a distinctly deep way. And even if they haven’t sinned but are being tempted to do so, the sting of knowing that your beloved’s heart is being tempted to stray can be painful.
So if your spouse comes to you with the weight of sinning against you and the Lord on their back, it will be difficult, but remember that Galatians 6:2 says we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Lead them to the cross where they, and you, will both be refreshed and restored by the Lord who daily bears our burdens (Ps. 55:22, 68:19). Plead with the Lord to cover your pain with his grace and you do all you can to cover your spouse’s shame with the truths of the gospel.
Remind each other that the Jesus who spoke severely about sexual sin (Matt. 5:28-30) is the same Jesus who died for those sins and rose victorious over them (Rom. 4:25). He is patient with sinners of all sorts, and promises forgiveness for all who turn from their sin and follow after him (Acts 3:19; 1 John 1:8-9). He promises to intercede for us and provide grace in our time of need (Heb. 4:14-16) while also providing power to help us war against our unrelenting foe (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:17).
Moments like these are where the gospel feels most real and most needed. They are also when the power of the gospel can most transform your marriage. God will help you forgive and work through the process of restoration. So don’t lose heart with each other, or with yourself. God’s grace is sufficient, even for what you and your spouse face.
Help each other to heaven. Talk about these things. Cultivate intimate trust. Make a plan. Make love. Cast yourselves upon the grace of God. And do this all with your hope fixed on the glory that is to be revealed. We will be home with Jesus soon, so help each other toward that Day.
For Further Consideration
- Heath Lambert’s excellent book Finally Free (ch. 5) discusses how spouses should talk about sexual sin.
- Remember that temptation is not sin. This article by Kevin DeYoung may be helpful to read together.
- Dr. Russell Moore answers a man who asks if should confess an affair that happened years ago.
- Considering marrying someone who struggles with porn? Read Heath Lambert’s article and listen to John Piper’s advice first.
- John Piper also addresses whether your spouse’s struggle with porn is worthy of divorce.
- What should you do if your spouse confesses that they have committed adultery or is living a secret life of sin? A good article by John MacArthur helps you think through forgiveness, but you must involve the elders of your church in this discussion.
Author’s Note: Thank you to my wife, Zach Schlegel, Jason Seville, Shai Linne, Brian Davis, and the many other brothers and sisters who helped me think through this important topic.
Garrett Kell is the senior pastor of Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
Joel Beeke, president and professor of systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Paul Smalley, his teaching assistant, came together to write Prepared by Grace, For Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ.
The primary question they seek to answer from the writings of the Puritans is: “What is the ordinary way in which God leads sinners to Christ?” The answer at which they arrive is the preparatory work of the Spirit of God. The Puritans used this word “preparation” in many contexts. For this book, Beeke and Smalley specifically refer to the Puritan’s understanding of preparation for saving faith in Christ (3).
The Puritans believed that without the work of the Spirit, no one can confess that Jesus is Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). And while “the Spirit could sweep aside such obstacles and bring the sinner immediately to faith…that is not the Spirit’s usual or ordinary way, for He created the mind and conscience of man and generally prefers to work through those faculties…So, the Spirit works to prepare the lost sinner’s soul for grace” (9). This is the essence of the Puritan doctrine of preparation.
This doctrine is not without its controversies. Some modern scholars have sought to argue that the Puritan doctrine of preparation is not a Reformed doctrine at all, and that this doctrine attempts to usurp the gospel of grace.
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Biblical theology is a way of reading the Bible. It is a hermeneutic. It assumes that Scripture’s many authors and many books are telling one story by one divine author—about Christ.
Sound slightly academic? It is, but…
The discipline of biblical theology is essential to guarding and guiding your church. It guards churches against false stories and wrong paths. It guides the church toward better preaching, better practices, better paths.
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY AS CHURCH GUARD
Think, for instance, of theological liberalism. It recasts the narrative of salvation as God’s work to overcome, say, economic injustice or the self-centered political conscience. Such redemptive storylines may not be all wrong, but they remind me of how one of my daughters will narrate a fight with her sister. She will speak truth, but she will also omit details, redistribute emphases, make tenuous interpretive connections. So it is with the narratives of liberalism and the Bible’s gospel storyline.
And so it is with Roman Catholicism, where the priests and sacraments play a mediatorial role that smacks heavily of the old covenant.
Or with the prosperity gospel, which also imports elements of the old covenant into the new, only it’s talk of blessing.
Other groups don’t bring the redemptive past into the present, they bring the redemptive future into the now. Once upon a time it was the perfectionist Anabaptists who thought they could bring heaven to earth right quick. The progressive liberals tried this a century ago. Now it is those who are hopped-up on transforming culture that offer subtle re-narrations.
The list is long, whether we are thinking of “Christian” cults like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, or movements within churches such as the social gospel, liberation theology, American messianism, or some forms of fundamentalist separatism. Some better, some worse.
The point is, imbalanced (or false) gospels and imbalanced (or false) churches are built either on narratively-mindless “proof texts” or on whole stories gone awry. Either they wrongly connect the Bible’s major covenants; or they have too much continuity or too much discontinuity; or they fail to distinguish type from antitype; or they under-realize or over-realize their eschatology. Maybe they promise heaven on earth now; maybe they disembody the spiritual life now.
In each case, bad or imbalanced biblical theologies proclaim a bad or imbalanced gospel, and such gospels build bad or imbalanced churches.
Meanwhile, good biblical theology guards the gospel and guards a church. “A robust biblical theology tends to safeguard Christians against the most egregious reductionisms,” says D. A. Carson.
That means it’s a pastors job (i) to know good biblical theology and (ii) have some sense of the bad biblical theologies that impact people walking into his church. Today, many of those folk have been weaned on some version of the prosperity gospel. Can you explain why that milk is bad? (For help, see here and especially here.)
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY AS CHURCH GUIDE
But biblical theology is not just a guard, it’s a guide—a guide to good preaching, good outreach and engagement, good corporate worship, good church structures, and the healthy Christian life.
A Guide to Good Preaching
When you sit down to study a text and prepare a sermon, biblical theology keeps you from proof texting or telling an imbalanced story of redemption.
It places each text in the right canonical context, and helps you to see what your text has to do with the person and work of Christ. It wards off moralism so that one preaches Christian sermons. It rightly relates indicative and imperative, and faith and works. It teaches evangelistic exposition. It ensures that every sermon is part of the big story.
In short, pastor, you need biblical theology to do the most important thing in your job: preach and teach God’s Word. For more on this, see Jeramie Rinne’s “Biblical Theology and Gospel Proclamation.”
A Guide to Good Outreach and Engagement
Turning to think about a church’s outreach and engagement with the world outside, biblical theology rightly balances our expectations between expecting too much (over-realized eschatology) or demanding too little (cheap grace, easy-believism, belonging-before-believing, not preaching the imperative).
Good biblical theology will not promise our best life now (whether that means health and wealth, transforming the city, winning the favor of the elite, or retaking America). But nor does it shy away from engaging culture and seeking the good of the city in deed ministry for the sake of love and justice.
It makes word outreach (evangelism and missions) primary, but it does not falsely separate word and deed. These are inseparable for the church’s witness and mission, as the storyline from Adam to Abraham to Israel to David to Christ to church makes clear.
A Guide to Good Corporate Worship
Is David’s naked ark-of-the-covenant dance normative for church gatherings? No? How about the incense used by Old Testament priests, or the use of instruments and choirs, or “making sacrifices” for various holidays, or the reading and explaining of the biblical text? A right biblical theology helps to answer what to bring into the new covenant era and what to leave in the old.
Much depends, again, on how one puts together the covenants, one’s approach to continuity and discontinuity, and one’s understanding of Christ’s work of fulfillment. It also depends on one’s understanding of what Christ’s gathered church has been authorized to do.
All this may sound academic, pastor, but your practices depend upon some biblical theology. The question is, have you thought through which?
For more on this, see Bobby Jamieson’s article “Biblical Theology and Corporate Worship.”
A Guide to Good Church Structures
By the same token, the storyline of Scripture requires us to pay attention to matters of continuity and discontinuity for how we organize our churches. In terms of continuity, God’s people have always and an inside and an outside, which means we need to practice membership and discipline. In terms of discontinuity, the leaders of God’s people change dramatically from the old covenant to new. First, all of God’s people become priests. Second, God’s elders are undershepherds who feed the flock through the Word.
No doubt, the question of who can be a church member depends on biblical theology. Is membership just for believers, or believers and their children? It depends on the amount of continuity and discontinuity you see between circumcision and baptism.
A Guide to the Healthy Christian Life
Finally, it’s worth considering the significance of biblical theology for the healthy Christian life, and how that life connects to the local church.
In the story of the exodus, redemption was corporate. But in the New Testament, redemption is individual, right?
Well, it depends on how one understands the relationship between the old covenant and new, and what Christ accomplishes in the new. Might one not argue that the existence of a covenantal head requires a covenantal people (see Jer. 31:33; 1 Peter 2:10)? What’s more, Paul seems to argue that the dividing wall of partition between Jew and Gentile fell and that “one new man” was created in precisely the same moment that sinners were reconciled to God (Eph. 2:11-22; for more on the corporate aspects of conversion, see here).
If it’s true that salvation in the New Testament is directed toward a people every bit as much as in the Old, even if every individual’s experience of that salvation occurs at different times and not together as in the exodus, then it would seem that the Christian life is fundamentally corporate. And growth is corporate. And life in the faith is corporate. It was dad who adopted me, but he adopted me into a family, so that being his son or daughter means being their brother or sister.
Well, this corporate reality has countless implications for everything in a church’s teaching, fellowship, and culture. A primary goal for the existence of a local church—if this biblical theological account is correct—is simply to be a church. It’s to be this new family, new people, new nation, new culture, new body. So much of spiritual growth is not about what I do in my quiet times; it’s how I learn to take on the new identity as a family member.
On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine a biblical theology that overemphasizes the individual at the expense of the body (as some conservative theologies can do) or overemphasizes corporate and societal structures at the expense of individual culpability (as some liberal theologies do).
Furthermore, your understanding of that storyline helps you to know what to expect of your fellow members: how much righteousness, how much victory over sin, how much spiritual healing for the victim of injustice, how much restoration in broken relationships. The shape of the biblical storyline—as you understand it—will shape your approach to tragedy and evil and righteousness as you encounter it in your life and others.
In other words, a right biblical theology leads to an already/not yet vision of the Christian life. It’s easy to err toward too much “already” or too much “not yet.”
Bottom line: a right biblical theology offers a trustworthy guide to the Christian life, particularly as that life relates to the local church. And it guards the church against wrong emphases, wrong expectations, and a wrong evangel.
Jonathan Leeman, an elder of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and the editorial director of 9Marks, is the author of several books on the local church. You can follow him on Twitter.