Zacchaeus was a tax collector. He was hated by the nationalists and the religious people of his day because he worked for a foreign and heathen government. Jesus was on the way through Jericho to Jerusalem for His last celebration of the Passover and His suffering, death, and resurrection for humanity. Jesus found Zacchaeus and went to his house in Jericho. While there, Jesus announced, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Zacchaeus was lost. Jesus found him. Jesus saved him. That is the work that Jesus calls His church to continue.
The lost are all around us. Your unbelieving neighbor is lost because his faith is in something or someone other than Jesus. Without faith in Jesus, he cannot possess the forgiveness of sins that only Jesus has earned. Therefore, he is eternally lost. The lost are all around us, but they are not always easy to find.
Consider a hiker lost in a huge forest with a cell phone. If you asked him, “Where are you?”—what good would that do? If he knew where he was, he wouldn’t be lost. All that hiker can do is explain the terrain around him. It requires someone with an intimate knowledge of the forest to identify where he is. That knowledgeable person can then go to the hiker and find him. Many of the spiritually lost are in the same situation. They don’t know where they are. They can only explain their “surroundings”—what they think and believe about themselves and life. That is where you come in. You can seek and find them. You can bring them Jesus.
Are you scared to talk to people about Jesus? Your answer to that question probably depends on who you thought I meant by “people.” You likely aren’t afraid to talk to the people at church about Jesus the Savior of sinners. The stranger on the street might cause you to have a different reaction. Maybe you are also afraid of speaking to a friend because you don’t want to risk the relationship. The purpose of this article is to help you think about the people that God has placed in your life and engage them in conversations that lead to a proclamation of the Gospel.
I propose that you are most comfortable sharing your faith with people with whom you are close and care for deeply. That closeness and care will have many factors. Three are location, relationship, and spirit. You are comfortable talking about Jesus with the members of your church because you are close to them in spirit. That is not the group upon which we will focus.
God has placed unbelievers in your life through locations and relationships. There are unbelievers in your town, workplace, friends, and family. The opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ is there. The need is there. How can you overcome your fear and speak to them about the forgiveness that Christ has earned? If my proposition is correct, drawing near to people will decrease your fear of talking to them about Jesus, though I acknowledge that you are still risking the relationship. Your deep love for them will counter that risk. Drawing close to someone isn’t as hard as you may initially think.
There are a couple of reasons why this is less difficult than it appears. First, most people like to talk about themselves and appreciate it when others show interest in them. The “lost hiker,” whether he knows he is lost or not, is willing to share the description of his surroundings. The second reason is that we normally draw closer to someone through questions and listening. Christians often express the fear of not knowing what to say when talking to others about Jesus. This part of the conversation is easy: ask questions and listen intently to the answers. The inquiries are to be earnest attempts to understand the individual. You are trying to find them in the forest of unbelief. Any shallow interest will be quickly detected and rejected.
To this end, Pastor Thompson’s article on worldviews (May-June 2021) is a beneficial tool for navigating the forest of unbelief. It provides some questions which can be asked to help you determine where the person is in the forest. It should be added that in this stage of the conversation (and the relationship), the purpose is to find where the person is and not necessarily to show him that he is lost. This process may take many conversations, not just one.
Once you have a pretty good idea of where the person is, what he thinks and believes, and you have demonstrated genuine interest in the individual, you can begin to transition the conversation to a Gospel proclamation of forgiveness in Christ. The book Prepared to Answer suggests some talking points for transitioning to the things of God.
God has given us two teachings that work together to convert the believer. God’s Law shows a person that he is eternally lost. God’s Gospel shows an individual what God has done to save him through Christ. Only the Gospel saves. The Law can only show that a person is lost. Therefore, the proclamation of the Gospel is the goal of the entire conversation.
With regards to the proclamation of the Law, context will determine the extent. The goal is to have people acknowledge their guilt before God. If you are talking to someone who is going through a tragedy, then likely very little Law is needed. That person is already aware of failings, weaknesses, and the need for divine intervention. Others are more hardened in their sins and need to hear a stronger proclamation of the Law. The “Way of the Master” evangelism material is particularly strong in leading a person to consider God’s Law.
We do have an ally inside the unbeliever. God has written His Law on everyone’s heart. The conscience is an internal response to God’s Law on the heart. When a person is hearing God’s Law, the conscience is speaking internally and agreeing with God’s Law even if the person may be denying it externally. Simple questions like, “Have you ever lied?”, “Have you ever stolen anything?”, and “Have you ever looked at another person with sexual lust?” quickly make a person aware of being guilty before God. Keep speaking the Law until the person acknowledges the need to be saved. Not everyone will express it verbally. It can be witnessed in a slumping of the shoulders or a tear in the corner of the eye.
Once they see themselves as lost sinners, it is time to focus their eyes on Jesus. Explain that Jesus fulfilled all of God’s commandments in their place. He took their guilt and suffered in payment for their sins. Because of Jesus, God has forgiven them. God loves them and never wants to be separated from them again.
Many people when hearing the Gospel will wonder if they can be sure that it is true. Jesus’ resurrection proves that it is! Dr. MacPherson’s article (March-April 2021) provides good information for you to share with those who question the truthfulness of the historic Christian faith. Christian doctrine is true. Jesus really did live, die, and rise again. He came to seek and to save the lost. His work continues through you. Engage unbelievers in conversations leading to the Gospel proclamation of forgiveness in Christ.
Rev. Timothy Hartwig is pastor at Peace Lutheran Church, North Mankato, Minnesota.