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Evangelism lessons from the Savior: Account of the rich young man: Part 3

A time and place for sad reflection

James F. Borgwardt 

Jedidiah Davidson lived an extraordinary life. He was acclaimed as a scholar and songwriter, statesman and orator, a king of international commerce. He lectured expertly on so many topics that people traveled from great distances just to hear him speak. 

Yet, at the end of his life, the successes that astounded others no longer satisfied him. His world-renowned achievements had become hollow trinkets of a restless life apart from God.  

I sat down to listen to him the other day. He introduced himself simply as Teacher. This was King David’s son Jedidiah, better known as Solomon. Reading his contemplative book of Ecclesiastes didn’t take long. His hard-won wisdom was no memoir. His message is unsettling, even jarring: Life under the sun—apart from God—is ultimately meaningless.  

Why would Solomon devote 12 chapters of Scripture in order to make his readers uncomfortable? Because he wanted people to contemplate the serious reality of life here without God. 

In our love for others’ souls, we sometimes need to help them ponder the same reality. That will make them uncomfortable. 

Solomon did so through writing wisdom literature. Jesus did so in conversations. 

“One greater than Solomon is here” 

What Solomon did in 12 chapters, Jesus masterfully accomplished in a few verses. 

The young man entered the conversation with Jesus, expecting the Teacher to point him to the one piece missing from his carefully constructed life. Jesus intended to blow it up. Lovingly. 

“Just then 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. ‘There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments’ ” (Matthew 19:16,17). 

The young man’s opening question exposed two fallacies in his thinking. He underestimated who Jesus was in merely calling him “Teacher,” and he overestimated himself in assuming he was one special work away from making his good life complete.   

Jesus wanted him to do some deep thinking and question his assumptions. Then he answered the question with the Ten Commandments. The man clearly needed the affliction of the law rather than the comfort of the gospel.  

But notice a second purpose for Jesus’ answer: Jesus first found common ground on Mt. Sinai with this Jewish man. The commandments drew the man deeper into a genuine conversation. 

“ ‘Which ones?’ he inquired. 

“Jesus replied, ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (vv 18-19). 

The man wanted specifics. Jesus chose to list the love-your-neighbor commandments because they are easy to keep in a superficial way. They were probably the man’s favorites. More common ground. Many people today genuinely feel the same way. “I’m a faithful spouse. I put in an honest day’s work. I’m not a gossip-monger.” Check. Check. Check. 

“ ‘All these I have kept,’ the young man said. ‘What do I still lack?’ 

Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’ ” (vv. 20,21). 

The man was betting his eternity on superficial keeping of the commandments! Jesus challenged him: If he truly loved his neighbor as he claimed, he would use his wealth to help them in their need. And if he loved God more than wealth, he’d be willing to part with all of it.  

The One who is good did a good thing for this man. Jesus dropped both tablets of the Law on him to break the hold that money had on his heart.  

“When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (v. 22). 

We hope the man soon came to the same conclusion as Solomon: “Whoever loves money never has enough; . . . As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them?”(Ecclesiastes 5:10,11).  

It’s been said, “Your world will wobble when it orbits the wrong sun.” That’s true for any unbeliever. But coming to that realization may take some time for serious reflection.  

Our work as evangelists includes leading people to wrestle with views of the world that are wrong. They need to recognize the futile end to their faulty reasoning. 

Solomon says this is a good thing“Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:3). Sadness wasn’t the end goal for Solomon or Jesus, of course. Bringing people to contrition prepares them for the gospel. As Solomon’s father wrote, “A broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). 

How do we do this? When we don’t have the wisdom of either Solomon or Jesus, how can we possibly go about the same task that they did so well? 

A time for everything 

In an age of instant this and that, we need to remember that witnessing is sometimes a matter of timing. Here too we can take a page from both Jesus and Solomon.  Ecclesiastes chapter 3 begins “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens . . .” 

  • “A time to tear down and a time to build”(v.3). The worldview of unbelievers must be torn down before their lives can be built on the foundation of grace in Christ. Allow them to do most of the demolition themselves. But you can get the project started by asking a good clarification question, such as “How did you come to that conclusion?” 
  • “A time to be silent and a time to speak” (v. 7). Though we love to tell the story of God’s grace in Christ, you may hold it back for a season. Let them wrestle with themselves rather than with you. Jesus didn’t run after the sad young man. And Solomon leaves the reader with an unsettled feeling.  
  • “[God] has also set eternity in the human heart” (v. 11). God has set a conscience in there too. All people have an innate understanding that there is more than this life under the sun, but they may need to think on it more deeply. That sleeping conscience might just need a little nudge from you. 

But unless the situation calls for it, don’t feel the need to drop both tablets of the Law on their heads. One Christian apologist said: It’s enough to put a stone in their shoe.  

Plant a thought that challenges their worldview. Then pray for them as they go on their restless way, searching for truth and satisfaction. “There is a time to search and a time to give up” (v. 6). 

And when they give up, they’ll hear Jesus calling them, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened . . . and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28,29). 


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


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


 

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Author: James F. Borgwardt
Volume 106, Number 1
Issue: January 2019

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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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

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Evangelism lessons from the Savior: Account of the rich young man: Part 1

The man who walked away 

James F. Borgwardt 

Imagine this scenario. You’ve been planning to invite your neighbor Dave to an upcoming service at your church. He’s gone through some dark times recently, and you know it’s time that you finally work up the nerve to ask him. It’s a Saturday morning, and you see that he’s out working in his yard. 

You’ve rehearsed different ways the conversation might go. Something like: “Dave, do you have any plans for Christmas Eve? If not, we’d love for you to join us for candlelight worship at Redeemer. It’s one of our favorite services of the year. It’s a beautiful service that tells how God brought light into this dark world when Jesus was born. I think you’d enjoy it.” 

You say a quick prayer and walk over to your neighbor. The conversation begins with some natural small talk before you transition into the invitation.  

Dave pauses. He hadn’t expected this from you. When he does speak, his disjointed thoughts meander back to his experience in the church he last attended as a teenager. 

He didn’t have many fond memories. You acknowledge that your church isn’t perfect, either, but the messages you hear and the friendships you’ve found there have been a great blessing.  

He politely ends the conversation by stating that he’s not very religious and then adds that he needs to finish some work before the football game starts. Before you can reply, he walks away. 

Witnessing goals 

Was that a failed witness?  

I suppose that depends on how you understand your witnessing goals. If the goal for your witness is to bring an unbeliever to saving faith in Christ, then get ready for endless failure. You’ll never accomplish your goal. Ever. You cannot change a person’s heart. That task is reserved for someone far more powerful—God the Holy Spirit. 

If the goal for your dialogue is to prove the truth of the Bible, you may win some arguments. But the poor soul that you embarrassed with your superior debating skills may still turn away. You could win the argument and lose a soul.  

Jesus never send us into the world with the words, “You will be my lawyers.” Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).  

When you have another opportunity to witness, make sure you are clear that your goal is not to convert anyone. It’s not even to convince anyone. It’s simply to converse with them—to talk with them about your gracious God.  

And if someone walks away from you, don’t get down. It wasn’t a failure. After all, people walked away from Jesus too. And Jesus was not a failure. 

Two examples from Jesus 

People responded in all sorts of ways to the Savior’s witness. Sure, some came to saving faith that very day, like the Samaritan woman at the well, the tax collector, Zacchaeus; and even the criminal on the cross. 

But not everyone was converted on the spot. Consider Nicodemus in John chapter 3.  

In this profound nighttime conversation, the Pharisee was the first to hear the beautiful gospel summary of John 3:16. How did he respond to Jesus? We don’t know. John doesn’t record the man’s reaction. John simply leaves Nicodemus in the darkness as the gospel account moves forward.  

But if we’re patient and keep reading, we see clear evidence of saving faith many months later. When the beaten body of Jesus hung from the cross outside of Jerusalem, Nicodemus must have watched the events all unfold. No doubt he recalled Jesus’ words from that private conversation: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14,15).  

John reveals Nicodemus as the believer who stepped out of the shadows, lowered Jesus’ lifeless body to the ground, and helped lay him in the tomb. I love how John tells us the rest of the story with Nicodemus.  

In Matthew 19, there was another man who, like Nicodemus, enjoyed a life of privilege in Jewish society. And like Nicodemus, Jesus lovingly engaged him in a conversation about eternal life. But unlike Nicodemus’ story, we only hear of this man’s initial conversation with Jesus. Without a name given, he is often referred to by Matthew’s description as the rich young man.  

The account of Jesus’ conversation with this man teaches us lessons in evangelism that we’ll study the next couple of months. For now, we’ll begin with the ending. Jesus’ last words to him were an invitation: “ ‘Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad” (Matthew 19:21,22). 

The man walked away.  

We don’t hear about him again. He walked away and may well have stayed away. Jesus told us in a dozen different ways that this will happen for many people who will listen to our witness of Christ and will ultimately reject him and remain lost. 

The rest of the story 

Yet there will be plenty of others who may walk away at first, but—like Nicodemus—will have a “rest of the story.” 

Allow me to share one of those stories.  

J.T. was a man who had some Christian background from childhood, but he hadn’t been to worship in many years. In his young adult life, he even developed a strong aversion to preachers and the church. He once told his wife he wouldn’t give them the time of day. Yet, on a sweltering night in Georgia in July, he answered a knock at the door. The young pastor on the doorstep had just been ordained the week before and was meeting the neighbors in his early efforts to establish a new Lutheran church. 

When something like this happened in the past, J.T. would quickly close the door and walk away. That’s what his wife, Paige, expected him to do on this occasion. Instead, he listened. More than that, he invited the stranger inside. A few months later, J.T. and Paige finished our mission congregation’s first adult instruction class and Paige was baptized. 

Paige and I both found out why J.T. was willing to listen to me that night. During his last military deployment in Europe, he had hit a noticeable rough patch. A caring chaplain approached him and sat down with him. That Christian man shared compassion and God’s Word with J.T. at a time he needed both. Afterward, J.T. told himself that the next time he came across a preacher he would handle it differently. He would listen to the next pastor who wanted to speak with him. The next evangelist just happened to be me. 

Only God knows where he may put us in a line of witnesses on someone else’s path So be ready with your witness. And be ready for some to walk away. If it happened to Jesus, it’ll happen to you. But also pray another Christian down the road will witness again.  

Not all who walk away will stay away.  


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


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


 

SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

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Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: James F. Borgwardt
Volume 105, Number 11
Issue: November 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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