I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20.24)
Both Walt and I were reared in evangelically skewed traditions, his more so than mine. (Q: What sect gets the most grief from pundits and comedians for passing out literature door-to-door? A: The one he grew up in.) As kids, we were dragged out for regular “witnessing” excursions. Walt’s weekly forays happened on Saturday mornings, prime cartoon time for kids, explaining why our DVD collection is stocked to the gills with old “Flinstones” and “Jetsons” episodes. My church set aside one Saturday afternoon each month for similar activities. Being the pastor’s son made attendance compulsory, ruling out a lot of things I’d rather have done. Both of us resented being forced to “witness.” Now that we’re older, we laugh at the corkscrew logic in asking total strangers to stop what they’re doing so we could try to convert them. Witnessing in this paradigm disregarded others’ time and beliefs. On one hand, it didn’t reflect Christ’s gentle hospitality. On the other, impinging on people who believed in Jesus (just not “our way”) surely struck them as silly—selling ice to Eskimos, as they say.
There is no doubt we are called to witness. The Great Commission, Jesus’s final charge to His followers, comes down to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28.19) And in His salutary remarks before ascending into Heaven, He explicitly states the Holy Spirit enables our witness: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8) Yet neither of these statements—nor, for that matter, anything Jesus says about spreading the Gospel—implies witnessing should be reduced to one-on-one marketing campaigns or neighborhood canvasses. If only it were that easy, we’d gladly soak swollen knuckles after a hard day of door-knocking! There’s more to making disciples and being witnesses than pounding the pavement to distribute magazines or invite people to church. Witnessing is less about telling than showing. That re-centers our focus from what we say to who we are.
While anonymous evangelism sometimes proves successful, compared to exemplary witness, its effectiveness is markedly lower. Speaking as a stranger to strangers removes credibility from the equation. They don’t know if we live by our lines; we don’t know if what we say resonates. Thankfully, though, it’s also fairly harmless. At worst, it creates awkward situations. Witnessing by example, in contrast, often puts us in unpredictable circumstances—in places where actively portraying Christ’s principles subverts popular opinion, among people who read non-conformity as an overt threat. To obey Christ’s commission to enter and live in the world as His witnesses means we won’t avoid this. Nor should we try.
In Acts 20, we see Paul doing just as Jesus commanded: traveling far and wide, making disciples. Being a public figure whose reputation precedes him, he's well known by Christians, their antagonists, and many non-believers. The Apostle's itinerary is grueling. He darts about the Aegean by boat, docking in a new port nearly every day. He plans to travel inland to Ephesus, but it’s soon apparent he’s spread too thin. Hoping to return to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost, he asks the Ephesians to meet him in Miletus, a coastal village. During his talk with them, Paul offers a most revealing comment about witnessing. He says he’s “compelled by the Spirit” (v22) to go to Jerusalem, uncertain what may happen there. All he knows is the Holy Spirit warns him he faces prison and hardships wherever he goes. This doesn’t deter him, though. His sole objective is to “finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” (v24)
Lives We Lead
Paul’s ministry is extraordinary—unparalleled then and now. His task is not. It’s the same task Christ gives everyone who follows Him. He calls each of us to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. That’s how disciples make disciples. And our effectiveness rests completely how well we witness the miracle of grace in our own lives. In Paul’s case, the spark that sets his witness ablaze is his turnabout on the Damascus Road. His supernatural encounter with the Risen Christ irrevocably changes and redirects his life. Yet his testimony of the event meets with much skepticism, even causing some to question Paul’s apostolic bona fides. Intense awareness of God’s grace constantly fuels his witness. The flame never flickers. That establishes his credentials and accounts for his success. Paul cops to his weaknesses, admitting faults in almost every letter he writes. With outsized ego chief among them, it’s safely said his motives surpass polite self-deprecation. Paul can’t stop pointing out his shortcomings because He’s awestruck by grace.
Conversion experiences are important. But since they’re given to us specifically for us, it’s highly possible they’ll be viewed with reservation when we share them. Our word isn’t reliable. That’s why Jesus calls us to be His witnesses. We testify to His grace with open lives that passionately embrace God’s acceptance and mercy for everyone who believes. The Casting Crowns song posted here last Friday summarizes it beautifully: “It’s not because of who I am. It’s because of what You’ve done. It’s not because of what I’ve done. It’s because of Who You are.” Once that becomes the music of our souls, what it means will emerge in our attitudes and actions. Paul is right. Jerusalem is full of religious types to doubt our conversion. There will always be someone who challenges our faith. We can’t tell them any different, because we needn’t tell them anything. The gospel of grace isn’t imparted in what we say. It’s witnessed in lives we lead. The Lord Jesus entrusts each of us with this. We must complete the task.
Our witness isn’t in words; it’s in lives that reveal the grace God gives.