Evangelism: Holiness and Evangelism


Smith Hopkins | April 15, 2019

What has holiness to do with evangelism?

In this series we are exploring the intersection of evangelism and the mission of the church at Oliver Creek by reflecting on sections of 1 Corinthians. The first part of our mission is to glorify God in holiness*.

*For the sake of this discussion, holiness is everything about God that sets him apart. Consider the Father: what makes him unique? Consider the Son: what characterizes his manner of life? Consider the Holy Spirit: what is his fruit? However you answered these three questions, that’s holiness. Based on this, I believe holiness entails both separation and pursuit.

In my experience, there is little connection in the modern church between evangelism and holiness. Conversations about evangelism don’t normally discuss holiness. Even reading numerous contemporary books on evangelism, I’ve seen no major sections devoted to holiness. To find a connection between evangelism and holiness we should look not to the modern but the ancient church.

In the earliest evangelism by Jesus and the early church, holiness and evangelism are inseparably connected. I want to look these connections in three ways before reflecting on these themes in 1 Corinthians 5-6.

  1. The connection of holiness and evangelism

  2. The challenge of unholiness for evangelism

  3. The challenge of holiness for evangelism

1. The connection of holiness and evangelism

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). As I shared in the last post, Christian evangelism is an encounter of one kingdom with the true kingdom of God in Christ. A gospel which does not call all of life into question is not the gospel of King Jesus. The only faithful response to this good news is repentance.

Repentance means turning, changing your mind to go in a new direction. It is a one-time turning and a constant process of realignment to the King. Lesslie Newbigin reflects on the evangelistic experience of Saul on the road to Damascus in Foolishness to the Greeks. He writes, “It is to show him that his most passionate and all-conquering conviction is wrong…that he is required to stop in his tracks, turn around, and renounce the whole direction of his life, to love what he had hated and to cherish what he had sought to destroy.”

Do you see how evangelism and holiness are intertwined? The gospel demands repentance, resulting in holiness, so real evangelism is inseparable from holiness.

This has implications for any church who wants to be evangelistic. All who announce the good news of King Jesus must also reflect it. Those who preach the cross must also be marked by it.

But what happens when the church is not holy? Can they still do evangelism?

2. The challenge of unholiness for evangelism

Evangelism results in holiness, yes, but it also requires holiness.

Unholiness was a major problem in the ancient church as they tried to evangelize the world. This was one of the first attacks against the Christian faith by religious people. For example, one of the first apologists for Christianity was Justin Martyr. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin engages the critique of ancient Jews against followers of Jesus who were very concerned with the appearance of holiness based in the Law of Moses. The most appalling obstacle to Trypho, a Jewish man, was the perception of unholiness. He said, “This is what we are most at a loss about: that you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations… and, further, resting your hopes on a man that was crucified, you yet expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey his commandments.”

In the words of John Stott, the church becomes “a stumbling block to evangelism when it betrays the Gospel.” Haven’t you seen this to be true? Consider how, in popular culture today, the reputation of the Christian church is closely associated with all kinds of unholiness, including sexual abuse, racial injustice, and hypocrisy. Is it any surprise when the culture stops responding to messengers tainted by such sin? When the church fails to be holy, the gospel witness suffers.

Without holiness there can be no evangelism. If the church is to evangelize to the kingdom of Jesus, the church must be differentiated from the kingdoms of the world. Evangelism requires a holy church.

3. The challenge of holiness for evangelism

We have seen that 1) evangelism results in holiness and 2) evangelism requires holiness. But what happens to evangelism when the church is holy? Holiness, too, can create obstacles to evangelism.

In his book Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green argues that the holiness standards of the early church were “an enormous obstacle to its progress.” The culture, he says, “was exceedingly depraved,” so the call to rigorous holiness by Christians was not always well received. As a result, Christians were slandered. Many Romans considered Christians to be atheists (they didn’t believe in the gods), incestuous (they said they married their brother or sister), and cannibals (they ate the flesh and drank the blood of Jesus). Green notes, “Whether or not the Christians merited these three charges of atheism, incest and cannibalism is beside the point. They were universally regarded as the sort of people who might be guilty of crimes like these. . . They were deemed to hate the whole world, on account of their secretiveness, cohesiveness and withdrawal from so much of social life because it was contaminated by idolatry.”

Take note, American Christians. The ancient church was considered abhorrent, judgmental, and “haters of mankind” because they were holy. The more Christians pulled away from the practices so common in their culture, the more they were vilified.

Practical holiness

Let’s get a little more practical. Picture two ends of a spectrum: exclusive and open. Both extremes have obvious obstacles. I think many churches find themselves caught in between. It seems to me like everyone wants the middle ground. “Balanced,” they say. We want to lower the obstacles to evangelism for the unchurched, so we lower the standards of holiness in the church. In an effort to not appear judgmental, churches soften their standard of holiness. In an effort to not appear too tolerant, churches maintain a few exclusive high-profile positions. It’s a compromise.

This compromise actually compromises the mission of the church.

My reasons why should be clear by this point, but let me repeat them anyway. By lowering the standards of holiness in the hope of evangelism, we actually cut off the evangelistic legs from under us. Remember, with no contradiction, there is no gospel. With no differentiation, there can be no repentance, and with no repentance, there is no evangelism. The church who compromises on holiness inevitably compromises on evangelism. The two are inseparable.

This is where the picture of practical holiness in the early letters really shines through. The church with a culture of evangelism embodies the gospel in the world. There is both separation and pursuit, reflecting the holiness of God himself. Christian holiness, however, does not force the church to choose between openness and exclusivity. Instead, the gospel centered church is both open to all and exclusive to Christ. Practical holiness looks like, as Peter says, doing good to the world as strangers in the world.

Holiness and Evangelism in 1 Corinthians 5-6

With all of this in mind, here is an excerpt from one of the earliest letters written to a Christian church (1 Cor 5-6). This section is filled with Paul’s reflections on holiness, on outsiders, and on the responsibility of the church to operate in the world in a way that is distinct from the world. A true culture of evangelism begins with holiness. Holiness, to Paul, is not a matter of separation from the world, but of internal discipline within the church. As Richard Hays notes in his commentary, “His concern is that the church must truly be a counterculture, rather than becoming indistinguishable from the world around it.”

As you read and make your own observations, keep these questions in mind:

  • Where do you see holiness in this passage? What seems to be the problem as it pertains to holiness? What’s the solution?

  • Where do you see evangelism in this passage? What seems to be the concern for outsiders? What about for those inside the community?

5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

6:1 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?

5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!

16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Next time: evangelism and worship in 1 Corinthians 14.

God bless,

Smith Hopkins

Smith Hopkins