A quote from a 1914 book by L. R. Scarborough [Recruits for World Conquest] intrigued me for many years. I used it in my notes on evangelism to demonstrate how various individuals approached evangelism in recent 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.”
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 issue in seminary in the early 1980s, and had placed evangelism above discipleship as it concerns the Great Commission. So, Scarborough’s comment gave me warning not to overstate my case for evangelism.
While teaching on follow-up and discipleship in April of this year, I was struck with an insight in answer to this question. It came to me that Ezekiel 3 provides the answer to the enigma. Ezekiel 3:15-21 (see passage in box) both affirms the statement of Scarborough, and brings harmony to our common area of interest—evangelism.
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.” We find the same command: “to warn.” We find the same responsibility: “to warn.” And we find the same judgment: “bloodguilty” for failing to warn either one, as well as 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 age-old question, which must have been 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 a 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, 50-50 if you will, then many of our churches need to ratchet up their evangelism programs quite a bit—especially in light of the multitudes of unsaved people in the world. If both are equally important in church planting, the ramifications are pretty intense as to how we teach and practice urgent evangelism in church planting. If evangelism and discipleship are equally important, what does that mean for seminary education? Should there be an equal number of classes in soul-winning as in soul-building? The implications are serious and ought to be pondered at all levels.
Furthermore, what are the implications of Ezekiel 3 on the application of Matthew’s Great Commission? Let’s consider several points. First, 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). Second, 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—definitely the end-game of a Gospel conversation. Third, 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. But fourth, 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 who do not take warning in Ezekiel 3:20, will not be saved by their good works: “his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered.” Yes, good works do not save anyone (Rom. 3:19-20). But what does save the righteous is found in verse 21—it is taking 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” (Mark 2:17; cf. Matt. 9:12-13; Luke 5:31-32).
Ezekiel 3 is a very potent passage indeed!
Lastly, our church planting brothers are not incorrect with 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 four 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 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 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 in obeying and teaching obedience to the Great Commission, and may it also bring us to new levels of unity in our teaching in the areas of 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, administer,and work so that they can keep up with each other! (Thomas P. Johnston, Ph.D., is associate professor of evangelism at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City and for the past six years has served as president of the Southern Baptist Professors of Evangelism Fellowship, 2004-2010.)