Book Review: Marks of the Messenger, by J. Mack Stiles
It’s popular in reformed circles to be unhappy with most evangelism books.
While there are some remarkable exceptions, such as J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God and Mark Dever’s The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, this sentiment I’m afraid is validated by the method-centered approach of many, if not most, popular books on evangelism. Despite their concerns about pragmatism, however, pastors still read books on evangelism because their consciences are pricked by their own lack of evangelistic fervor.
Marks of the Messenger by J. Mack Stiles, general secretary for the Fellowship of Christian UAE Students in the United Arab Emirates, is a welcome guide not only for speaking the message, but also for the messenger’s life. Stiles insists that we have paid too little attention to the life of the evangelist, producing a sub-biblical gospel message and witness. Thus each chapter of the book covers a different aspect of the heart, life, or mind of the evangelist that somehow affects his message.
GETTING THE GOSPEL RIGHT
Stiles spends the first handful of chapters making sure we get the gospel right. The tendency of many Christians in evangelism is pragmatism: being results-driven at the expense of gospel faithfulness. When we are motivated by “what works,” we tend to manipulate the gospel, accommodating it to our hearers’ tastes to make it more palatable: “we begin to subtract the need for turning from sin and unbelief,” which is “one of the most clearly articulated parts of the gospel from the mouth of Jesus and his apostles” (31). That’s why Stiles says that the first step in evangelism is to make sure we understand the gospel of Jesus Christ and not add to it or subtract from it.
Another way we can get the gospel wrong is by assuming the gospel. Stiles has some difficult words for certain branches of evangelicalism in which the gospel has become synonymous with the surrounding culture (or cultural Christianity). When we assume the gospel we can forget to speak the gospel and confuse it with moral and cultural norms (46). When we assume the gospel, it’s only a matter of time before we lose the gospel.
LIVING AND SPEAKING IN LIGHT OF THE GOSPEL
The majority of the rest of the book is spent on living and speaking in light of the gospel. With the use of helpful illustrations, Stiles maintains that the life of the evangelist must be in step with the gospel. This should be evident in how we think about and act upon the needs of our society. Borrowing from J.I. Packer, Stiles argues that it is the nature of gospel love to relieve need, including physical needs. Yet Stiles is careful not to confuse meeting physical needs with sharing the gospel. He writes, “Caring for others represents the gospel, it upholds the gospel, it points to the gospel, it’s an application of the gospel, but it is not the gospel, and it is not equal to the gospel” (69).
What keeps many from evangelizing the lost is a lack of boldness, or as Stiles puts it, an overwhelming fear of man. Stiles doesn’t give any fanciful advice about overcoming fear. He simply tells us to pray. He leads us to the prayers of Paul where we not only learn about his “bold heart,” but his fear of the Lord and consuming desire to see the gospel spread.
TWO CORRECTIVES AND A MANIFESTO
Stiles has two important correctives for areas where many Christians have let popular culture inform our understanding instead of the Bible: the church and the love of God. These chapters are not too different from what you will find in D. A. Carson’s The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God and in much 9Marks material. Still, it’s helpful to think about these issues in light of the challenges of evangelism.
Stiles ends his book with a manifesto. It’s a basic summary of the previous nine chapters, with a practical guide to getting started in practicing evangelism. Stiles’ take on evangelism is simple and very straightforward and he is sincere about the joy that comes with it.
STILES PACKS A PUNCH
The strength of Marks of the Messenger is that it addresses the fitness of the evangelist, whereas most evangelism books assume or neglect the topic. And Stiles is effective: he packs a strong punch into a small book. His arguments are persuasive and his stories are compelling. It’s a handy book for young Christians and the most seasoned of pastors.
Some may fear that the book’s emphasis will develop into an unhealthy introspection that will neglect evangelism, rather than encourage it, but there should be no such fear. Rather, readers will be emboldened by the gospel that saves. Stiles reminds us that we may not have the power of persuasion, but if we are faithful to the biblical message, we have the power of God.
John Starke is an editor at The Gospel Coalition and managing editor of TGC Reviews, the book review site of The Gospel Coalition.