May 26, 2019
According to Mirriam-Webster’s dictionary, to proselytize is to induce someone to convert to one’s faith. Similarly, Oxford Dictionary defines it as, to convert or attempt to convert someone from one religion, belief or opinion to another. And so, a proselyte is a person who has changed from one opinion, religious belief or sect to another; he or she is a convert.
For some reason though, through the years, the word has gained a bad rap. Say the word proselytize, and it produces negative thoughts. For example, Wikipedia says of proselytism, “The term is generally understood as pejorative.” Google the word, and you will find such articles as:
- It’s time to put a stop to religious proselytizing on campus
- Is there a link between religious proselytizing and hate crimes?
- There is no right to religious proselytizing in the U.S. military
- Christian proselytizing as a form of oppression
But the negative thoughts about proselytizing don’t just resonate with unbelievers tired of Christians. A recent Barna survey, from February of this year, revealed some startling results among Christians. When asked, “Is it wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith?” the answers varied by age group:
Elders (age 73+) – 20% agreed
Boomers (ages 54-72) – 19% agreed
Gen-Xers (ages 35-53) – 27% agreed – about one in four
Millennials (ages 20-34) – 47% agreed – about half – one in two believe, by definition, proselytizing is wrong.
The results of the survey have taken the evangelical world by storm – while it’s easy to jump on Millennials, how can 1 in 5 Christian seniors and boomers, 1 in 4 Gen-Xers and half of Millennials believe that proselytizing, converting people to the Christian faith, is wrong?
I suppose there are a number of reasons. First, as I’ve mentioned, the word itself carries negative connotations, and like many other beliefs and practices, the church has been heavily influenced by the culture around us. If we seek to proselytize, we are bigots, arrogant, judgmental, intolerant, etc. I even read some articles that spoke negatively of so-called American Christian Privilege. And no one wants to be defined that way. Barna said in the article, about these results, “Sharing the gospel today is made harder than at any time in recent memory by an overall cultural resistance to conversations that highlight people’s differences.” Don’t miss what he is saying – by proselytizing, we are admitting there is a difference in our beliefs. Don’t highlight differences – that’s arrogant, that’s oppressive. Let’s focus upon what we agree.
By the way, we have allowed the culture around us to redefine terms to fit the narrative, like proselytize, making them negative when they are in fact neutral. Or we have allowed a redefinition of terms altogether. Take the words tolerantand intolerantfor example. The word tolerantmeans to hold an objection against another practice or belief, but allow others to hold that practice or belief. Today, however, our culture demands that we have no objections, and if we do, we are intolerant.
Let me give you an example – if we say we hold an objection to homosexuality – because the Bible clearly does – then we are labeled intolerant, racist, bigots, judgmental, homophobic. None of which is necessarily true. But in order to be tolerant, by the new definition, I must not only accept other beliefs and practices, but affirm them. To be clear, that is not tolerance. That guts the meaning of the word. But, because we hold objections, we are labeled intolerant. And again, no one wants to be intolerant.
That was a bit of an aside – but it fits. You see, no one wants to be called intolerant, and so we have allowed culture to redefine the term and label us as intolerant – so what do we do now? Well, by proselytizing, we are called arrogant and judgmental – and we don’t want to be that, so we now oppose the practice. Of converting others from their religion to ours. Even the World Council of Churches along with the Catholic Church issued a statement together in 2010 largely condemning proselytizing. So what is one to do? Do we simply join the mainstream of culture and think it wrong? Many apparently have.
And so, it’s made me wonder. I suppose proselytizing is okay if it seeks to convert or convince someone of your beliefs if he or she has no belief system. It’s okay to proselytize if the person has no religion – but if they are Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or even in another form of Christianity – they are off limits. So for example, all those missionaries are wrong. All those reformers of the 16thCentury, were wrong.
So, the first reason proselytizing is wrong is because it demonstrates arrogance and intolerance –we need to not only accept others beliefs, but affirm them. Which leads to a second reason there may be a growing number, even among professing Christians, who oppose the practice of proselytizing. You see, there are three positions you can take on the Christian faith as compared to other religions – as it relates to their ability to save you – to get you to heaven, if you will. Every religion has its brand of how to please God, and attain the afterlife. So, within Christianity, you can hold one of three positions:
The first is called pluralism. Pluralism very simply teaches that all religions contain truth, no matter how seemingly contradictory, and therefore, all religions lead to heaven. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist – believe something sincerely, and practice it, and you’ll make it. The idea is we all worship God – he or she just goes by different names in different religions. (prayer – interfaith gathering) You can see, if you hold that idea, than proselytizing is not only offensive, it’s unnecessary. Everyone will make it. And further, you understand, pluralism is only one step away from universalism – that is, because God is love, eventually everyone will make it to heaven. By the way, there are growing numbers of professing Christians within the church who hold this position. I won’t take the time to refute it, but to be clear, it is against the teachings of the Bible and the Christian faith.
The second position is called inclusivism, which is kind of interesting. One step removed from pluralism, it goes like this: believe something, practice your religion, and inasmuch as you practice those ethics similar to the Christian faith, you’ll get to heaven by the Christian faith. In other words, Jesus died for your sins, and you’ll make it to heaven because He did – even if you don’t know it. Because some of your practices were in line with Christianity. You’ll get there, and Jesus will meet you and say, you are included because you practiced ignorantly the tenants of the Christian faith. You were generous, you were kind, you took care of the poor and needy, etc. Welcome. In other words, Jesus’ work on the cross saves people, even if those people don’t know the gospel and don’t confess Him as Lord. C. S. Lewis held this position. In his famous book, Mere Christianity, he wrote:
“There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points.”
The point being, this Buddhist will make it. Is that true? Is it true that while not accepting the Christian doctrine about Christ, that they can still belong to Christ without knowing it? Lewis and inclusivism say yes. But again, is it true? If it is, then it is no wonder more and more are rejecting proselytizing – it is, according to this position, unnecessary.
Which leads to the third position – one which I strongly hold, and I strongly believe the Bible teaches: it’s called exclusivism. And right away, the very name makes it sound arrogant, entitled, intolerant, privileged. Perhaps we should come up with another name – or perhaps, we should just accept what the Bible clearly says. Exclusivism teaches that explicit faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of humanity through His work on the cross is absolutely and indispensably necessary for salvation. In other words, the only way to forgiveness, reconciliation to God, and to heaven is through repentance and confession of Jesus and His work. The exclusive way to God is through Christ.
Therefore, if that is true, and again, I strongly believe it is, then proselytizing is necessary. It’s not a bad thing, it is in fact a good thing. Typically, we call it evangelism, and it is a responsibility of every Christian. It’s why, for example, we believe in missions. It’s why we send missionaries around the world to share the gospel and plant churches of Jesus Christ. It’s why we are part of the Christian & Missionary Alliance – because their passion is to take the gospel to the ends of the world. To make disciples and plant churches. It’s why we set aside May each year as Great Commission month – to intentionally give more than we do typically and monthly – to the fund which supports almost 700 CMA missionaries in over 60 countries of the world. And by the way, they go to what are called Unreached People Groups – because proselytizing – converting from other religions – whatever it is, is absolutely necessary.
Because other religions, despite what a growing number of even professing Christian believers hold will not work. But perhaps a better word, because proselytizing is so offensive, is again, evangelism. It is sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with people – regardless of who they are or what they currently believe, because we love them and want them to know what we know – the forgiveness of sin, reconciliation to God, and a future home in heaven at the coming of Christ is our only, exclusive, blessed and sure hope.
Consider what comedian and magician Penn Jillette, a well-known nonbeliever, explained how he responded to someone sharing a Bible with him, “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell … and you think, ‘Well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward’… how much do you have to hate somebody not to proselytize?”
Well, with all that as introduction to my sermon, Evangelism Includes Proselytism. Why then do we evangelize? Let me give the following reasons:
- First, because we were commanded to do so. I know we understand that, but did you know in another survey among professing Christians, only one in three could identify the Great Commission.
Most of us know the Great Commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20. There, in some of His last words before returning to heaven, the last words of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said to His followers, to include us:
18And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
19“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
(ABF Mission Statement) Again, I know we know this, but Jesus commanded us to make disciples – make other followers of Jesus. It’s not called the Great Suggestion, but the Great Commission. Go make disciples. And we do that in our going – that is, wherever we go. Baptizing – that is, encouraging a public confession of repentance of sin and faith in Jesus. And then teaching – that is, discipling them to observe or obey all Jesus commanded – because that’s what Christ-followers or disciples do.
But I want to draw your attention to verse 19 – Go and make disciples of whom? Of all the nations – regardless of race, creed, religion, gender, color, age, etc. It could be translated, all the people groups. None are exempt. It doesn’t matter what they currently believe – they all need the gospel. Jesus said it this way in Luke’s writings. First, in Luke 24, we read:
45Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
46and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day,
47and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
48“You are witnesses of these things.”
And then in Acts 1:
8“but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
We are to spread the gospel to all – inviting them to believe with us. You see, proselytizing is not a bad word. It’s a good word, because we understand a truth clearly proclaimed in Scripture – there is no other way to God. There is no other way to find forgiveness and eternal life. Remember, when Peter preached the first message of the Christian church, it was during Pentecost, when observant Jews, followers of Judaism, had come to Jerusalem. You would think if anyone didn’t need to proselytized – that is, converted from one faith to another, it would be them, right? But we read 3000 were saved that day. And we remember, Jesus said to Nicodemus, a teacher of the Jews – unless you are born again, you will not see the kingdom of God. Further, we know in Romans 9, Paul said:
1I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit,
2that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.
3For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh,
4who are Israelites…
He said in Romans 10:
1Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.
2For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.
3For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.
4For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
My point is, even followers of the true God in Judaism need Jesus. Further, we know these verses, don’t we:
John 14:6 – 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
Jesus said, He was it. Later, that same night, in His prayer to the Father in John 17, He said, “3This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
The early disciples understood all this – they went everywhere, preaching the gospel. In Acts 4, for example, Peter said, “12And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”
Do you understand? The Scripture clearly declares that Jesus was the Son of God, sent by the Father to die as the atonement for sinners. And those, exclusively, who believe in Him, have eternal life. Paul would later write in Romans 10:
13for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.”
14How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?
15How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!”
So proselytize, or evangelize, we must, because there is no other way. You see, if you are a follower of Jesus, then you believe He was the Son of God, and came to die for sinners. And if you have accepted Him, trusted in Him, believed on Him, He has given you new life. And you cannot believe that another way will work. That is contrary to the Scripture. So, if it is true that Jesus is the only way, proclaim the good news we must.
- Which leads to the second thing I want to say – the Gospel is Good News. That’s what the word gospel means – good news. We have good news for people. Yes, of course it includes bad news first, that people are sinners in rebellion against God – but good news, He did something about sin. Because He loved us. We have good news to proclaim – don’t let the culture and the world tell you that proclaiming good news is negative thing. That proselytizing is a bad thing. That’s not true.
It’s good news that we cannot, we must keep to ourselves. God loves the world so much He sent His own Son, to die for the sins of people. And we have the privilege and joy of telling them. So that Revelation 5 comes to pass:
9And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
10You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”
11Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands,
12saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”
13And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”
14And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
Do you see – God has people from every nation under heaven on the earth, and we must share the gospel with them.
- Thirdly and finally, we must proselytize, we must evangelize, because the implications for those who don’t know Christ are eternal. Again, more and more, even professing believers in the church are denying the consequences for not embracing the gospel. They are adopting pluralism or inclusivism. They’re accepting universalism, that in the end, love wins, and everyone makes it.
And further, more and more are denying the eternal reality of hell. We’ve all heard Jesus talked more about hell than heaven. The Scripture clearly teaches hell is for those who do not believe the gospel. It is real and it is eternal conscious torment, forever. And to quote Jillette again – if that is true, how much do you have to hate someone to not proselytize. And I will quote Paul again, how can they believe if they do not hear? How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.
So bring it. There are people in your circles who need to hear. Share the gospel. Let’s together fulfill the Great Commission and make disciples.