July 8, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
A probing question: When is the last time you mentioned something specific about your hope in the gospel to a friend, colleague, or neighbor who may not have that same hope? Not the passing phrase that sounds like homespun lore: “God works in mysterious ways,” or “Someone’s watching over me.” Rather, I’m talking about phrases that get to the heart of what motivates your humility, holiness, or helpfulness—that explain your hope and why you still have some.
It’s a subsidiary point to the Philippians, but within Paul’s recapitulation of recent history, he articulates a principle of what it means to know and follow Jesus: “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” His chains have served, not to weaken their faith, but to strengthen it. (Think William Wallace’s men as they watch his torture: rather than siphon their resolve to pursue Scotland’s freedom, his agony steeled it.) Paul’s imprisonment had the fortuitous consequence of emboldening the believers’ witness. They speak more effusively about the Lord, their hearts kindled by what they see their brother, Paul, willing to suffer for. Paul’s point is that the life of following Jesus includes an increasing interest in making Him known, irrespective of what it costs you.
There are many reasons we might stutter a bit when it comes to evangelism. For some it’s a matter of the tongue: we wouldn’t know what to say even if given the chance. We have some vague understanding of the contours of the gospel, but to put it into words would be a challenge. Peter has an answer for the tongue-tied: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Evangelism is a matter of preparation based on a desire to honor the One of whom you bear witness.
For others it’s a matter of the mind: We’re just not sure of some elements of our faith. If we have trouble believing some aspect of the gospel, how can we expect another to believe what we proclaim? Witness doesn’t require having an encyclopedic knowledge of scripture, but it does entail having a basic grasp and confidence in its essential message. We’re called to consider and answer whatever challenges that core message: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
But for many, our hesitancy in witness is a matter of the heart: We don’t prepare our tongues or sharpen our minds because we’ve made what it might cost us more valuable than the message we might speak. We’re motivated more by a person’s response or a potential backlash than what bearing witness might accomplish. To be sure, we’ve heard plenty examples of people sharing their faith without the requisite “gentleness and respect” Peter insists upon. We may have even been in the presence of those whose explanation of the gospel seems about as intelligible, relevant, and plausible as the proverbial huckster peddling his snake oil. But while we may take issue with those less winsome, honest expressions, we tend to use them as excuses not to speak, rather than as inducements to say it better. Jesus, in another setting, explained how, “out of the abundance of his heart the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). Our speech reflects our heart’s innermost beliefs, its deepest loves. If speech of him is absent from our lips entirely, we must examine our hearts for why that might be so.
Peter, Paul, and Jesus all have something to say to our motivation to be bold in witness. But remember that other motivation of which Mark spoke last Sunday [link to sermon]. Making the gospel known is not a matter of fulfilling a mandate, or recruiting people to a team, or pontificating on some philosophical system. It’s a message that points people home. If the gospel is true, the longing we all feel for resolution to what’s distorted in us and in the world finds its explanation and its answer in the gospel.
“Spiritual Formation” takes its cue from a phrase Paul uses in his letter to the church at Galatia: “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19). That of course includes having His character manifested in you. But it also means having His message so resident in you that when opportunity avails, it rises to the surface without flamboyance or fear.
So, which of the reasons mentioned above explains your hesitancy, if there be any? The good news is that the Lord doesn’t stand there, as it were, tapping His toe until you get it right. Rather, He labors to see Christ formed in us by making the love of Christ real to us. It’s that heart that then speaks well of Him.
“What do you make of Jesus?” It’s a harmless, respectful question you might pose as an entrée into a larger discussion with someone. It may also be the question you take with you into your prayer closet so that you might become “more bold to speak the word without fear.”