“It’s easy for you Americans to play religious: You are rich, and you have plenty of time, so you can afford to entertain yourselves with your religion.”
The time was the early 90’s, somewhere in Eastern Europe. We were street-evangelizing, and I was translating for an American missionary. The voice came from the crowd that had gathered to listen to our calls for repentance. I was thrilled – usually, when you have someone who asks a legitimate question, they are eager to learn more, and they accept Christ when they have the answers to their concerns and questions. I expected the missionary to ask the obvious counter-question, “Why do you think America is rich?,” and then proceed explaining how the faith in Christ changes the culture and creates the foundation for that liberty, justice and prosperity that the people in Eastern Europe wanted to attain after the fall of Communism. The question came as a golden opportunity to tell the crowd even more about the superiority of the Christian faith.
The missionary simply said: “Oh, riches and poverty have no importance whatsoever. The important thing is to save your soul.”
I was disappointed. The man in the crowd never got an answer, and we wasted the opportunity.
American missionaries often have a very mystic, almost Gnostic idea of salvation. Salvation must be that “spiritual,” non-material reality that has nothing to do with people’s lives here and now. The desire for salvation must lack any motive whatsoever that can be associated with this present life, otherwise the missionary considers it less than authentic. A person who comes to Christ for salvation of his soul must be completely free from other motives, because, like the missionary above said, these other motives “have no importance whatsoever.” Salvation must remain the pure “spiritual” reality that is untainted by the real world considerations or goals. True, sometimes the missionary would accept certain personal pains and misfortunes as a valid tool to lead a person to Christ. But social issues, cultural issues, long-term goals and aspirations about life, thought, knowledge, economy, education, politics, etc., must be left aside when a person makes their decision to follow Christ.
Accordingly, missionaries seldom or never use practical historical examples of the impact of Christianity on cultures. We seldom hear missionaries preaching on the true Christian origin of the Western civilization, and we certainly never hear missionaries giving America as an example of what comprehensive, practical Christianity can create in the real world. Of course, they can’t do that; in their Gnostic view if a man submits to Christ because Christianity exhibits superior fruits here in this life, that man must not be sincere in his faith.
This view of evangelism and motives misses one very important lesson from the Bible: Namely, that both Jews and Gentiles were encouraged to come to God because of what He has done, in history, on earth. The practical consequences of God’s plan and the practical implications of His Law were to be used as an evangelistic tool to teach the nations (Deut. 4:5-8). In the New Testament, the promises of “inheriting the earth” (Matt. 6:5) and “rest” (Matt. 11:28-29) are legitimate tools to lead people to salvific faith in Christ. Jesus doesn’t stop at promising only heavenly rewards, He certainly declares that the rewards for our obedience to God will manifest themselves in this life also (Luke 18:30). And in 1 Cor. 7:12-16 Paul encourages believing husbands and wives to remain with their unbelieving spouses hoping that their practical example will produce salvation. Practical – and even material – motives play a very important part in the evangelistic effort, and the Bible constantly encourages us to use the practical impact of Christianity on individual and cultural level to spread the Gospel.
The Law of Liberty
Freedom – or liberty – is by far the most important of those practical tools for evangelism that the Bible gives us. In fact quite often in the Bible the very salvation is defined as freedom. We mentioned above the words of Moses in Deut. 4:5-8 that the nations will come to God because of His just laws. But then he reminded them of that first day when God spoke to Israel from the Mount Sinai and gave them His Law. And the first words of the Law God gave them were about the freedom He gave them from oppression and slavery:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Ex. 20:2).
In fact, this was the very Preamble to the whole Law, and it certainly was the chief characteristic of the law, that whoever believes in God, will have a law that gives freedom. It is the same law which James discusses in his epistle (James 2) and encourages the believers to “speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of liberty” (v. 12). Jesus Himself says in John 8:32 that abiding in His Word will make people free, and then He promises that whoever the Son sets free is free indeed.
In the context of the Old Testament, salvation for the Jews didn’t have simply the religious spiritual meaning of “going to heaven.” Salvation was first and foremost “deliverance,” being set free, and the Jews were expected to celebrate their “salvation” from Egypt. Both root words used to denote “salvation” in the Hebrew Old Testament – yasha and shava – had the meaning of “free, to set free, to be free.” God was completely consistent in His dealings with Israel by using the sanctions of liberty and slavery; when the Israelites disobeyed Him, they lost their salvation and went into captivity; when they were obedient, they were saved and therefore free. And when He tried to bring them back to Himself, His promise always was: “Repent, and I will deliver you from your oppressors.”
In addition to it, the Law of God gave more liberties to the people under it than any other law anywhere else. It certainly was very “lax” toward foreign slaves who fled to Israel to gain freedom. The return of those slaves to their pagan masters was considered a heavy crime, and was forbidden by the Law. A fugitive slave was promised his freedom as long he decided to stay in Israel, under the protection of the Law of God (Deut. 23:15-16).
It is often argued by theologians and pastors that the freedom which salvation brings is strictly spiritual, freedom from sin. Paul didn’t argue for the liberation of all slaves, they contend, and he admonished slaves to not “worry” about being slaves (1 Cor. 7:21). But this is a very limited and dualistic view of freedom. While it is true that true liberty starts with freedom from sin, as Jesus argues in John 8, Paul also encourages slaves to use opportunities to become free, and he forbids free Christians from going into bondage. Paul didn’t start a revolution for the liberation of slaves but by his words he certainly laid the foundation for the disappearance of slavery in the future. The Law of God – the same Law that Jesus said came to fulfill – certainly had many provisions for freedom, both from slavery and from unjust government oppression. And it is that Law that Paul talks about when he says in 1 Tim. 1:8-11 that “. . . the Law is for . . . the kidnappers [i.e. slave dealers]. . .” And he adds, “According to the glorious Gospel with which I have been entrusted.”
The Concreteness of Freedom
Missionaries and evangelists to cultures which never had any Christian influence, or which have lost it, frequently encounter a major problem. They find that when they preach “salvation,” their local listeners are often confused as to the meaning of it. Others simply can not see the need of “salvation.” “Salvation” as a term has no concrete meaning in cultures that never had any idea of hell to start with. It remains a vague religious notion; and it has no concrete meaning which can convey to them the dire need of their situation. Unless a person is already deeply touched by the message of the Gospel, they have no idea of their need for salvation, and they have nothing to compare it to. Very many cultures like the Roman Empire or modern India have ideas of “salvation” that are fundamentally pagan and anti-Christian; using the same term by missionaries creates confusion at best, and dangerous local heresies at worst. When a missionary approaches a person and tells them of the salvation they can have in Jesus Christ, the typical response is, “What do I need salvation from?” In most cultures around the world the word “salvation” has lost – or never had – its original concrete meaning of deliverance from slavery. Especially in Europe, with its deep suspicion of any religious terminology, preaching “salvation” automatically relegates a missionary to the list of socially irrelevant activists in the culture.
In contrast to this, preaching the original meaning of “salvation” – freedom, liberty, deliverance – gives the message of the Gospel the concrete form that makes it possible to be conveyed to a hostile culture. The need for freedom is much clearer to the listeners, and it is much nearer to their hearts. An unbeliever doesn’t need any special training in Biblical terminology to know they are not free and they need freedom.
Any person anywhere knows they are not free. Even if they do not realize it intellectually, the very reality they live in makes them aware of their slavery. An entrepreneur in Europe who has to wait for hours in front a bureaucrat’s office to get permission for business knows deep in his heart he isn’t free. A parent who has no say in the education of their children in the government schools knows for sure that this is a form of slavery imposed on him from above. Every time a person files a tax form they know it is a symbol of their captivity to the government. A woman in Saudi Arabia who is not allowed to give testimony in court even to save her own life knows she is a slave. Even better knowledge of her own slavery has a woman in Afghanistan whose husband cut off her nose for disobeying him. A couple in China that see their new born daughter taken away by the authorities to die under the “one child policy” know very well there is a better world where parents have the freedom to enjoy raising their children without fear of government policies. An untouchable man in India who can’t find any other job except the lowest dirty jobs knows very well he is enslaved to his culture. Every person has an ingrained feeling of when their freedom is violated. We don’t have to teach them they are slaves; they know it very well.
Slavery has very concrete reality; unbelievers know what it is long before they know they need salvation, or even before they know what true freedom is. Therefore liberty, when preached and defended to those people, also has very concrete reality. Even when there is no rational definition of freedom, there is always a certain intuitive feeling that freedom is preferable to slavery.
Liberty as a Tool of Evangelism
Therefore, an evangelist’s message must start with what his listeners already know very well: They are slaves and they need liberty. He must not limit his definition of liberty to a religious one, or to simply the eternal state of the souls in heaven. The Gospel gives very clear promises for comprehensive liberty for Christians, starting with the individual soul of man, and going all the way to liberty for his culture and society. A missionary must use all the examples of slavery in a society to explain the cultural effects of sin. Every instance of violation of the freedom of individuals and institutions must be exposed in the missionary’s preaching; in fact, every instance of slavery is a sign of demonic domination on a particular aspect of society. The best way to expose the idols in the culture is to point to the slavery they produce. And the missionary must keep repeating what his listeners already know: “You are slaves.”
And then, he must continue: “You are slaves because you are separated from Christ. Only those in Christ are truly free. And that freedom is what I am here to preach.” This is the message that most people will stop to hear. It is a relevant message for their lives because they know they are slaves and they hate it. And it is a theologically correct message because God continually uses the slavery of unrepentant men to bring them to repentance.
But he shouldn’t stop there. If he has gained their attention by pointing to their visible slavery as the result of their inner sinfulness, he should also have a theology that promises them deliverance from slavery – including visible slavery – as a result of their repentance and conversion. If people come to the missionary to hear his message because they know they are slaves, he better be able to tell them how Christianity can deliver them from their slavery. Whether it is slavery to the welfare state, or slavery to the caste system, or slavery to the shariah law, a Christian missionary must have a comprehensive message that proclaims liberty throughout the land. If he doesn’t, he will only destroy the very hopes he has created.
And indeed, there are so many missionaries whose churches and missions eventually failed because they never gave the comprehensive solution to the hopes they have raised. If you preach liberty, you better preach comprehensive liberty and how to achieve it, otherwise you will lose your listeners.
What is even better today, twenty centuries since Christ gave us His Great Commission, is that we have a civilization that unmistakably exhibits the fruits of Christianity. Whatever the religion or the worldview of a man is, millions of people around the world prefer to live in the West where there is much more freedom than in their own cultures. It is the Christian foundation that created the West, and it is the liberty that Christianity produced that attracts immigrants from other nations. Any missionary who doesn’t understand this fact, has a twisted view of Christianity.
But more important than understanding the cultural impact of Christianity on the West is using it as an evangelistic tool when going to non-Western cultures. Every American missionary must unapologetically declare to his listeners the cultural superiority of Christianity, and give America as the best – although admittedly not perfect – modern example. Yes, America is prosperous and free and just more than any other nation. But freedom, prosperity and justice did not appeared by random chance in America; there was a reason for them, and it was the Christian faith of the Founders of the United States.
Therefore, a missionary must declare, if his listeners covet the liberty Americans have, they must start with the Christian faith that founded America. Promising liberty under the Law of God is the only message that will be relevant message in this world. Any other message that promises “salvation” in its limited, mystic sense, is doomed to fail.