Balancing Evangelism and Discipleship

A quote from a 1914 book by L. R. Scarborough has intrigued me for many years. I have used it in my evangelism notes to demonstrate how various individuals approached the concept of evangelism in history. In this quote Scarborough discussed the interrelationship between evangelism and discipleship, or using the terminology of his day, soul-winning and soul-building:

“It is not wise to say that soul winning is the main thing or that soul building is the main thing. They are Siamese twins of God’s gospel, going hand in hand, and they ought to keep up with each other…. And this leads me to say that the main thing in the Kingdom of God is the evangelistic spirit, the martial note and conquest tread.” (L. R. Scarborough, Recruits for World Conquest [New York: Revell, 1914], 58.)

In this quote, Scarborough answered an unspoken question about the primacy of evangelism and/or discipleship by noting that both are of equal priority. One reason that this quote intrigued me was that I had wrestled with this same issue when attending seminary in the early 1980s. In my case I placed evangelism above discipleship as it concerns the Great Commission. So, Scarborough’s wise comment gave me warning not to overstate my case for evangelism!

While teaching on follow-up and discipleship several years ago, I was struck with some unexpected biblical insight in answer to this question. It struck me that Ezekiel 3 provides the answer to this age-old enigma. Ezekiel 3:15-21 both affirms the statement of Brother Scarborough, and brings harmony between those who emphasize evangelism and those who emphasize discipleship:

“Then I came to the captives at Tel Abib, who dwelt by the River Chebar; and I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days.

“Now it came to pass at the end of seven days that the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me:

“‘When I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, that same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Yet, if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul.

“‘Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you did not give him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the righteous man that the righteous should not sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live because he took warning; also you will have delivered your soul.’”

Since the late 1980s, I have used Ezekiel 3:16-19 to teach the urgency of evangelism. Likewise, in the past three or four years, I have required my Basic Evangelism students to memorize verses 18-19. But it had never crossed my mind that the interrelationship between the warning of the wicked and the warning of the righteous in Ezekiel 3 proved the validity of Scarborough’s quote.

What do I mean? The same command and the same terminology in verse 17, which precedes both the warning of the wicked and the righteous, applies both to warning of the wicked and the righteous in verses 18-21. So, we find

  • The same message: “a word from My mouth”;
  • The same command: “to warn”;
  • The same responsibility: “to warn”;
  • The same judgment: “bloodguilty” for failing to warn either one; and
  • The same “deliverance” for warning them [paralleling Paul’s thrice repeated repetition of “every man” in Col 1:28].

So in essence, Ezekiel 3:17-21 answers the age-old question (“Which is more important, evangelism or discipleship?”) with the answer: “Neither, they are both equally important”! So this application, if it is valid, renders the timeless question—which was clearly an issue in the time of Scarborough in 1914—a mute point. Neither side wins the debate!

Therefore there is no need for competition between our areas of ministry. Both evangelism and discipleship are equally important. Both church planting and evangelism have their place. It’s not an issue of either/or but both/and. Now isn’t that a freeing thought!

The ramifications of this thought may take a while to sink in. If both evangelism and discipleship are equally important in the ministry of the local church, then many of our churches need either to ratchet up their evangelism programs or to rethink the effectiveness of their discipleship methods! If both are equally important in church planting, the ramifications are pretty intense as to how we teach and practice urgent evangelism, as well as life-on-life discipleship. If evangelism and discipleship are equally important in Christ’s Great Commission, what then are the ramifications for seminary education? The implications are serious and ought to be pondered at all levels.

Furthermore, let’s apply Ezekiel 3 to Matthew’s Great Commission:

  1. Matthew 28 addresses both ministry to the wicked and to the righteous. While preaching or testifying is the main concept in the Great Commissions of Mark, Luke, and Acts, in Matthew 28 ministry to the wicked is included in the words “make/win disciples” to Jesus (cf. Matt 27:57).
  2. Our main spiritual responsibility is to warn lost people, seeking to win them to Christ, and to become His disciples. Notice that warning is more than just informing. It is informing about Christ with the purpose of winning, while warning them of the consequences of rejection. “Warning” is definitely the end-game of a Gospel conversation.
  3. If they refuse to take warning, and to become His disciples, then according to Ezekiel 3 our responsibility is complete. We have warned them. We have fulfilled our obligation to them.
  4. If they do take warning, and they do become disciples of Christ, then not only are we delivered, but they are made righteous by the blood of Christ, and our responsibility continues. We are then commanded to baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And once that command is fulfilled, we are commanded to teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded. And in these last two commands we find the glue between evangelism and the local church, baptism, as well as the purpose for the local church, teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded.

So in the words “Go and win disciples” we have our responsibility to warn the wicked. And in the words “baptizing them … and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” we have our responsibility to the righteous who take warning, to give them further warning.

Notice also that the so-called righteous ones who do not take warning in Ezek 3:20, will not be saved by their good works: “his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered.” Yes, for good works do not save anyone (Rom 3:19-20). But what does save the righteous is found in verse 21—that is, he takes warning. It seems like Jesus built on this idea when He said:

“When Jesus heard it, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’” (Mar 2:17; cf. Matt 9:12-13; Luke 5:31-32).

Ezekiel 3 is a very potent passage indeed!

Further, those emphasizing church planting are not incorrect in their interest in assessing the spiritual condition of others. Notice that in verse 15 the prophet Ezekiel “sits” for seven days in consternation, brooding or brewing. By the way, the Hebrew verb for “sit” (yashab) is found 4 times in this verse—Incredible repetition! Finally, at the end of seven days, verse 16 says that the word of the Lord came to the prophet. So the prophet waited one full week before God commanded him to warn all men. Therefore, while Ezekiel 3 clearly teaches urgent evangelism, it does not teach rash, judgmental, dismissive, or aloof evangelism. Rather it teaches urgent evangelism with God-given conviction, insight, and humility.

The power of this passage is amazing. While it so clearly teaches urgent evangelism, it also includes several other vital lessons. Clearly this passage motivated the Apostle Paul in his evangelism efforts (cf. Acts 18:6; 20:24-27). May this passage also motivate us to obey and teach obedience to the Great Commission, and may it also bring us to new levels of unity in our evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. So, L. R. Scarborough was right after all, soul-winning and soul-building are Siamese twins of God’s Gospel. Let’s teach, preach, administer, and work so that these Siamese twins can keep up with each other!

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