Many Christians today think that those believers in Scripture who preached evangelistically or who evangelized sinners in other ways did so with messages or testimonies that varied substantially from occasion to occasion. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear believers today say that sometimes the disciples preached that people should repent and other times they preached that people should believe.
This view of biblical evangelism stems from an approach to the evangelistic accounts in Scripture that I believe does not account for all the biblical data. To see why this is the case, consider the following analysis of the gospel ministries of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul.
The Gospel Ministry of John the Baptist
The Gospels consistently present John the Baptist as preaching repentance to sinners (Matt. 3:2, 8; Luke 3:3, 8). Noting this data, many have concluded that John only preached that people should repent and that he did not tell people to believe.
In the book of Acts, however, Luke makes clear (through a widely overlooked statement by the apostle Paul) that this is an incorrect assessment of the evangelistic ministry of John:
Act 19:4 Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.
This Pauline summary statement about the gospel ministry of John the Baptist shows us that it was a ministry of preaching to sinners that they should both repent and believe. It also teaches us that we should not take brief statements about evangelistic ministry (such as Matt. 3:2 and Luke 3:3) and draw definitive conclusions about what content that ministry did not include.1
The Gospel Ministry of Jesus
A key statement in the Gospel of Mark shows that the gospel ministry of Jesus included the same dual emphasis that was in the evangelism of John the Baptist:
Mar 1:14 Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,
15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.
Notice that this statement is not just about Jesus’ preaching in one location on one specific evangelistic occasion—it is an inspired summary statement of certain key elements of His gospel preaching throughout His gospel ministry in Galilee. Both John the Baptist and Jesus, therefore, preached to sinners that they should both repent and believe.
The Gospel Ministry of Paul
A summary statement of Pauline evangelistic ministry over an extended period (“from the first day that I came into Asia” [Acts 20:18]; cf. “by the space of three years” [Acts 20:31]) reveals that his gospel ministry included similar testimony to both repentance and faith:
Act 20:20 And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house,
21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
For three years, Paul told both Jews and Greeks everywhere he went in Asia that they had to repent toward God and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Like John the Baptist and Jesus, Paul’s gospel ministry thus had the same dual emphasis of preaching to sinners that they should both repent and believe.
From the Gospels and Acts, we have seen that John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul all evangelized sinners by telling them both to repent and to believe. Because we have seen that summary statements about the gospel ministries of all three of these leading evangelists in Scripture explicitly mention this dual emphasis, we should adjust our views of biblical evangelism to reflect properly this key biblical data.
Moreover, the lack of explicit testimony to both elements in many evangelistic accounts in Scripture does not show that the disciples often preached only one of these elements but not the other. Rather, we should allow the above-discussed comparison of Acts 19:4 with the other evangelistic accounts of John’s ministry to teach us that the lack of an explicit record of testimony to a key evangelistic element in a particular evangelistic account does not provide valid evidence that such testimony was lacking on that occasion.
Whenever our circumstances allow us to do so, we should preach both repentance and faith to the people that we evangelize. Doing so, our gospel ministries will best reflect all the biblical data about the evangelistic ministries of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul!
1 A close comparison of two statements in Acts 9:20-22 with Acts 26:20 fully confirms this interpretation. Luke writes that Paul’s evangelistic ministry began in Damascus and provides two brief summary statements about that ministry:
Act 9:20 And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.
Act 9:22 But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ.
Neither of these reports about Pauline evangelism in Damascus mentions that he told people there to repent. In Acts 26, however, Luke records that Paul testified to King Agrippa about his entire evangelistic ministry by giving him this key summary statement:
Act 26:20 But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.
Based on Paul’s own testimony, we can be certain that he preached repentance in Damascus—even though Acts 9 does not record that he did.