The look on a child’s face who has just pulled on someone’s hair or stolen a pretzel from a classmate or lied about stuffing toys in a closet instead of carefully putting each where it belongs is a telltale sign of our common humanity. Children instinctively know from an early age what right and wrong behavior is. Extrapolate this innate knowledge a few years further, and there is similar evidence that humans of all ages are perfectly aware of how their overt and closeted beliefs and behaviors each fall into two categories: right and wrong. Biblically this concept is also known as righteousness and unrighteousness. We seem to understand ourselves as either being right with God, the universe, and everything created or terribly wrong with all of the above. We all share the common and fundamental knowledge that we must embrace our humanity as a blessing and a curse because we begin life with a basic knowledge of the truth about God but quickly fall away from that knowledge into human foolishness.
Paul explains the blessing and curse of being human in the first chapter of Romans. He writes that “since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (1:21, italics mine). He writes further that “although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and…. exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (,25). Gradually, for those hardened to, fallen from, or unexposed to the sacrifice of Jesus, salvation from sin, promise of new life, and discipline of following Jesus, the truth with which they began life – the truth about God and His laws – is replaced by compromise against God and against their soul. So we are all without excuse.
It is this common humanity with which the would-be evangelist is confronted. We grapple with people’s stubborn resistance to truth. This is the truth which people already know even when that truth is buried beneath years of mind-warping sin. The job, then, of the evangelist is to utilize two main tools: conviction and compassion.
The Apostle Paul, evangelist to the Gentiles, provides an excellent demonstration of the type of conviction of which I speak. The historian Luke records in the book of Acts a time when Paul walked into
With adept perception, Paul compliments the Athenians on their interest in religious elements and subjects. He acknowledges that he and the Athenians share a common knowledge and interest in all things divine. Yet, for all of their statues and philosophies, they do not know the true God. He points out how they make themselves busy worshipping something they do not know. Then, fully inspired by and filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul brings home the punch line. He promises a revelation of the full-truth that will illuminate all the tainted half-truths of which they were already painfully aware. He describes the one, true God with the following:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring. (Romans 17:24-28, italics mine)
Paul convicts them of their historic opportunity to reach out for God, no longer allowing the Athenians to lay claim to ignorance or confusion with his concise description of God’s intentional design and placement of each human being on the earth. Paul’s idea echoes a much earlier writing by an ancient Hebrew poet who wrote, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end….God does it so that men will revere him” (Ecclesiastes 3:11b,14b). Truly, no person is without excuse before God. God’s spiritual presence in this earth is always working to confront and convict people everywhere of that deep something they already know about God and his laws. Paul left the Athenians with one alternative to their groping for God: repentance. He finishes his speech by saying, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts ). A few notable members of the Areopagus decided in that moment to repent and believe.
The Holy Spirit’s conviction comes from such an otherworldly place, a pure and heavenly place, that un-believers (ie: people who once believed; I reject the notion of the non-believer, since this implies absolutely no knowledge of God and his laws) cannot help but alter their behavior around the in-dwelt believer. It is one thing to have convictions about sharing the gospel, but it is quite another thing to be so powerfully in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit that the Spirit of God walks into all of life’s situations with you and performs the work of loosing and convicting the hearts of the lost for you. I experience this phenomenon of conviction most often in the workplace. When I worked as a barista at a coffee shop in my hometown, my co-workers would often carry on hushed conversations in the back room. The hushed tones and trembling excitement in their voices always signaled to me that they were talking about one of three things: sex, drugs, or cussing someone out. I would purposefully walk to the back room just to see ‘what-up,’ and immediately those conversations would halt. Out of curiosity, I began asking my co-workers why they would stop their conversations around me. I relay their unanimous response to illustrate the power of Holy Spirit’s conviction. Their unanimous response was always something like, “You are too pure. I know I won’t offend you, but I don’t want to corrupt you.” My response was usually something like, “Oh yeah, what makes you think I am pure or that your conversation could corrupt me?” Again, people innately know right from wrong, even if they claim that wrong is right. This was clear around my co-workers. The righteous presence of the Holy Spirit in me was enough to convict their hearts of their sin. It was not so much that I was “pure” or even somehow better at being human than them. They were simply reminded by me everyday that all was not right with their state of common humanity. They knew the truth but did not live by it. So how does the convicting work of evangelism move people towards repentance and belief?
The prophet Isaiah filled his book with acute descriptions of the Israelites’ failings in their relationship with God. They of all people understood the plight of knowing God’s truth and being seemingly incapable of living by it. Amidst this atmosphere of foolish living, Isaiah prophesied to them a great hope and promise from God. He wrote that if they turn from their selfish and worldly habits to a true compassion for all people, that their “righteousness will go before [them], and the glory of the LORD will be [their] rear guard” (Isaiah 58:8b). Essentially, the going before and behind of the Lord’s righteousness and glory works like the Holy Spirit conviction of the New Testament, but Isaiah also described in detail what their compassion should look like in the two preceding verses. He wrote the following as a direct oracle from God:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share our food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6,7)
This is the compassion of evangelism. When people are convicted of their own tragic displacement within God’s good order, they do not go looking for a good beating. The conviction of the Holy Spirit causes them to examine the loneliness of their hearts and souls. They realize how wrong they are. They become broken.
It may be that the Holy Spirit uses you to speak to them in their brokenness, but such speech must be compassionate and not harshly judgmental. The compassionate speaker identifies him/herself as having been commonly human too and compassionately offers the hope of being lifted up out of pain, hurt, and despair by a God that seeks people out of His love for them and who longs to end injustice, oppression, hunger, poverty, and the nakedness of His creations that strayed from Him.
However, the Holy Spirit may use you to perform compassionate acts in order to speak louder than words to hearts of the broken. This requires self-sacrifice and the discomfort of risking all of your heart and life to save a life. So you sell everything you have to move to a foreign location in order to teach English or open an unassuming coffee shop or an orphanage to be with broken people and offer them the hope that is found in Jesus Christ. Or you stay where you are at a job or school you love or hate in order to continue having short lunch-time conversations with your co-worker who is recently divorced and likes to tell you all the gory details. We offer our lives as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:2) as our only act of gratitude to the God who makes Himself known to all people through the most convicting and compassionate man to walk the earth, His son Jesus the Messiah. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on Him will not perish but acquire everlasting life” (I John 3:16).
The work of evangelism uses the tools of conviction and compassion to turn the broken back to the truth about life and God, to a lifestyle of glorifying and thanking God for sending his Son. These two tools issue from the Holy Spirit’s presence in the life of the evangelist. Such in-dwelling is my desire. Come Holy Spirit, come.