For two semesters as a college student in Chicago, I was a weekly helper at Moody Church’s afterschool program in Cabrini-Green, a public housing project. I witnessed children experience changed lives how every person needs change—for eternity. I saw one little boy in particular share the gospel with some of his peers with such genuine urgency that he has provided me a lasting impression of how evangelism is done well—that is, with an unwavering dedication to the truth.
One day at the program, I had an opportunity to speak with the girls I had come to know over our past weeks together, “You see, Jesus means so much to me. I want you to be able to know how good He is.”
I had their attention.
Continuing, I shared some assorted aspects of my testimony and concluded with something like, “Jesus loves the world so much that He gave His Son to save us, to die on the cross for us. To accept this gift of salvation, you can pray, ‘Jesus, I believe that I need you, and that you died on the cross to save me from my sin that separates me from You, and I want you to take control of my life.’”
One of the girls asked, “That’s it?”
Her nonchalant response undoubtedly communicated to me that this question was a commentary on the ease with which she believed she could simply repeat words for “salvation,” not relief that her burden of sin could wonderfully be removed solely on the basis of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection.
I wanted to share with these girls how much Jesus meant to me—that He is the best I have in this life and the one to come. In the end, they received from me emotions that, perhaps, inspired a desire for the goodness of Christ only for me to conclude with an incomplete, context-less prayer. Neither the concept of hell nor the necessity of repentance had entered our conversation. I shared my testimony and planted some seeds, perhaps, but I did not share the full gospel with them that day.
Too many—even one is too many—believe that to come to Jesus means some form of what I communicated to these girls: 1) Jesus loves me, 2) I give Him control of my life because I need Him, and 3) I gain a better life and future. This resembles the “Jesus Take the Wheel” lyrics that Carrie Underwood beautifully sings, “Jesus take the wheel/ Take it from my hands/ ’Cause I can't do this on my own/ I'm letting go/ So give me one more chance/ Save me from this road I'm on,” but not the full truth of the gospel.
Except through the doctrine of hell, how could these girls have known that sin is not merely the cause of regrettable circumstances in life or a proverbial distance from God, but is a gravely punishable offense?
Hell is the default destination for all people in this world, and the promised eventual destination for unbelievers (Rev. 20:13-15). It should invoke fear for its incredible level of suffering (Ezekiel 22:17-22). It is where God punishes those who have hated Him through even a single act of sin (Deut. 7:10, Jas. 2:10) in a conscious experience of His wrath (Job 21:20) without reprieve or hope of relief (Isa. 34:10) forever (Isa. 33:14). It is a way through which God will demonstrate His holy justice and receive praise (Rev. 16:5-6).
Only through a knowledge of hell could these girls have known that sin incurs a dire penalty. Far from proverbial, the wrath of God expressed in hell is the “distance” between mankind and God. So, the desperation that causes a need for Jesus’ kind of salvation is not exclusively circumstantial, as from a person saying, “I can’t do this on my own.” (After all, what about when he says, “I feel I can do this on my own?”) Desperation that leads to Christ’s salvation is over the dreadful burden of sin from the rightful wrath of God.
Jesus describes the cause for His just judgment in John 3:18-19, “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” John the Baptist summarizes in John 3:36, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
So, the person headed for conversion to Christianity sees relief for his burden in Christ and can hardly imagine it might be true, thinking, I can be saved from this burden of servitude to sin and self – from evil and darkness – under the wrath of God because a Substitute paid the penalty of hell instead of me?
What does Christ, the Substitute, say? “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).
An understanding of this repentance builds upon the foundational knowledge of hell. The repentant person not only wants to escape eternal punishment, but by learning of it and of his dear Substitute, he yearns to escape the hints of hell in how he lives. Wanting to be freed from servitude to sin and self, he turns from his former way of life.
Belief, then, turns him to a new, Christian way of life. Belief pivots toward Christ as the dear Substitute and, seeing Him as He is, seeks to be in the service of this new Master by confessing that His ways are the only good and legitimate ones. This makes His teachings earnestly desired and sought.
These, repentance and belief, are inextricable from each other, being—in one—the single act of Christian conversion.
Except through a knowledge of the necessity of repentance and the reality of hell, how could the girls with whom I conversed have known that the only truly Christian response to the good news that a Substitute bore God’s rightful wrath means not merely letting “Jesus take the wheel” of our circumstances, but leaving behind a former mindset about sin and assuming a completely new one about life?
Evangelism requires that we as Christians never allow how joyful we rightly feel about the reality of our present salvation to exclude the full facts of the gospel message. When we consider, really consider, the wrath of God and the necessity of repentance, our emotions serve us in a better way—to remind us that compassion for the hell-bound requires no less. For only an understanding of the complete truth of the good news produces in a person the right kind of, “that’s it?”
“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood,
much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God.”