Evangelism lessons from the Savior: Account of the rich young man: Part 2

Always be prepared to . . . ask a question

James F. Borgwardt 

Witnessing to strangers doesn’t come naturally for many Christians, myself included. But like anything else, it becomes easier with practice.  

The essential elements for every Christian witness is God’s law and gospel. But how do we get from a cordial “Hi” to the message of sin and grace? My favorite tool is a question. 

Actually, there are three specific types of questions that help move conversations in the direction I want. The first question turns the dialogue spiritual. The second helps to assess and clarify the non-Christian’s views. And the last draws us to our destination: to the cross of Christ.  

All of them help keep the conversation cordial and non-threatening when they are used with people like Joe. 

The first question 

Joe sat in the next seat on our flight to Chicago and struck up the conversation. His story of leading multiple successful business ventures in the city matched his style and appearance. My story as a pastor didn’t share much in common, except that I have a brother serving a congregation on the north side of Chicago. That was my segue to Question 1: “Do you have a church home?” 

He didn’t. It wasn’t long before he shared his view of religions: “All of them teach basically the same thing. How can Christians insist that they’re the only ones going to heaven?”  

The second question 

Would you have given a quick answer? Jesus wouldn’t. At least he didn’t when the rich young man in Matthew 19 asked him a question about eternal life. Jesus responded instead with a question of his own. Answering a question with another question was common for Jesus. He often extended conversations with questions and not answers.  

This is another evangelism lesson we can learn from Jesus’ dialogue in Matthew 19. When someone comes to you with a question about the Christian faith, don’t always be so quick with an answer. Try a question instead.  

“A man came up to Jesus and asked, ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’ 

‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ Jesus replied” (Matthew 19:16,17). 

Jesus fielded questions from a variety of people with a variety of motives. Some raised question to trap him.  Others were hurting souls who approached him in desperate need. They pleaded for mercy from the only one they believed could help them. 

The rich, young ruler fit neither of these extremes. His question was both serious and seriously misguided. He respected Jesus as a great teacher. He approached him with a genuine desire to receive new insight into his godly living. He loved the law of God and convinced himself that he had kept it. Yet he felt that he was missing something—something that would finally give him the peace with God that he craved. He figured that the renowned rabbi from Nazareth could prescribe the elusive, extraordinary work that needed to be done. He was ready to carry it out and thereby earn the assurance that life everlasting was indeed his reward. 

This young man came to the right man for the wrong reasons. And Jesus could have told him as much. But a question was the more effective tool.  

The same is often true in our witnessing. 

Granted, Jesus was far better at this than we could be. He knew the perfect response to a question long before it was asked. Not being God, we can’t do that. 

But questions do serve us well in these crucial conversations. They help us assess the person and their situation. They buy us time as we think how to best lead this soul to the cross.  

More than that, asking questions helps us in similar ways to how it helped Jesus in his ministry. Questions display that we’re genuinely interested in the person with whom we’re speaking. And questions lead that person to do some important self-reflection. They are a polite, non-confrontational tool to help the other person re-examine their assumptions. 

When Jesus replied with “Why do you ask me about what is good?” the man had to start digging into the assumptions that were buried beneath his question. 

We want people to do the same thing. This is where Question 2 comes in handy. It’s the question, “What makes you say that?”* 

In my conversation with Joe, I responded to his claim that all religions basically teach the same thing with, “What makes you say that? In what way are they similar?” 

Like the man in Matthew 19, Joe held the natural opinion that good works gain the reward of eternal life. He didn’t understand grace. Outside of Christ, no one can. 

The third question 

At the time, I responded with a C. S. Lewis illustration of how the one word that separates Christianity from all other religions is grace. And that opened into a law and gospel witness. 

But thinking back on it, I could have asked Joe a third question that’s become my favorite. Sometimes it’s the only one needed. It’s direct and polite at the same time. Question 3a is, “What you do believe about Jesus?”  

Try it. And after asking the question, just listen. The response could be a hundred different kinds of wrong, but fight the urge to correct the person. People appreciate that you don’t want to argue. By listening you’ll earn the right to speak. When they’re done, ask permission to do so with Question 3b, “May I share with you what I believe about Jesus?” Then share the good news of God’s eternal love for all people in Jesus. And the Holy Spirit will bless it as he sees fit. 

Someone may be thinking, That’s all fine and good. But the apostle Peter commanded a different approach: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). He told us to be prepared to give an answer, not a question. 

Yes, we need to be prepared to give answers too! Read 1 Peter chapter 3 in its entirety. People will ask us about our eternal hope when they see us respond to evil with love and grace. They’ll want to know why. They’ll cut right to the point. And so we respond. 

Paul, Silas, and the jailor (Acts 16) lived out the exact scenario that Peter outlined. When the Philippian jailor fell trembling before them and asked a question of desperation and hope, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” it was clear to the evangelists that this man was in a far different—and far better—spot than the man in Matthew 19. He was ready for the gospel. 

So Paul and Silas replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30,31).  

God grant that we’re all prepared with questions and answers pointing to Jesus. 

James Borgwardt is pastor at Redeemer, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.  

This is the second article in a three-part series on evangelism lessons from the account of the rich young man in Matthew chapter 19. 

*Thanks to Christian apologist Gregory Koukl for these insights.



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Author: James F. Borgwardt
Volume 105, Number 12
Issue: December 2018

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