by Kim Tok Wong
About three years ago, a university lecturer invited me to share the gospel with about a dozen research scholars from China. What was the result of those ten weekly sessions? Zero. Zilch. Nothing.
DISCOVERIES IN MINISTRY
About three years ago, a university lecturer invited me to share the gospel with about a dozen research scholars from China. I tried using apologetics—humanity’s search for origins, science (what little I knew about it) and the Bible, the historicity of Jesus, the trustworthiness of the Bible. I closed with key passages from John’s gospel. After each session was question and answer time. I felt the men were genuinely seeking.
What was the result of those ten weekly sessions? Zero. Zilch. Nothing. But it prompted me to think that I was missing something. Somehow we were not connecting.
Months later the same lecturer introduced a co-laborer and me to a few other students. This time, we met them individually. Our modus operandi was to introduce them to the knowledge of God using a modified version of the Knowing God series developed by Warren and Ruth Myers. Then, depending on their readiness, we covered major parts of a gospel or used the Navpress study series, Studies in Christian Living.
The result? During eighteen months our little network saw more than forty decisions for Christ—including our lecturer friend. We were amazed at the fruit. At one stage, people received Christ every week. What was the secret?
Initially I thought the key was the “right method,” along with prayer and a lot of faith. These definitely were important. But we came to believe we stumbled upon something else that explained the fruitfulness. As we related to each person, we tried to learn their backgrounds to understand them better. We were unprepared for what we heard. It took months before we could understand the import of their stories and discern patterns. What follows are some samplings we collected over the period.
Case #1. JH had never heard of the gospel before, but whenever she faced a crisis, such as a major exam, she prayed to God. She told us that she had always had a sense that God existed, so when she heard the gospel she immediately recognized God as the one to whom she had prayed. We were amazed that a God-denying educational system and culture could not eradicate the awareness of the true and living God
Case #2. SM was a “nibbler” who seemed to take in Bible truths a bit at a time. He wanted to stop, but agreed to meet one last time. The following week, he was transformed when, during his study preparation, he came across Hosea 11:3-4. God’s loving patience, even for those like him who ignored their Creator, genuinely touched SM. When we gingerly talked about eternal judgment, he responded positively, saying that he knew hell existed. Puzzled, my colleague and I asked how he concluded that when he had never read the Bible before. In high school, he studied European literature, including Dante’s Inferno with a canticle about hell, which deeply impressed him. Our friend gladly put his faith in Christ. Even without contact with the Bible or the gospel, God had sown seeds of biblical truth into this man.
Case #3. As an undergraduate, an English teacher from the US had given WC a Bible. He had just come to Singapore when he dreamt that a glorious being appeared to him. He awoke and pondered life’s meaning. When asked who he thought that glorious being was, he replied, “Jesus.” We appealed to him several times to accept Christ but he wasn’t ready.
Case #4. KJ was very bright, but as a child he idled his time away. One day a voice told him, “Wake up and don’t waste your life.” He studied hard and did well academically. Unfortunately, soon after entering college, his father, a farmer, died. Penniless, he faced the prospect of giving up his education when oddly, he received a letter promising financial help from a benefactor he never knew. Thus he completed college with marks high enough to secure a highly competitive scholarship to do research in Singapore. His wife later came to Singapore seeking work. Beyond their wildest dreams and against major obstacles (like limited English), she got a job in a prestigious cancer research institute in her first interview.
Coincidentally, the person who interviewed her had even studied at their alma mater. KJ was intrigued by such providence and design in his life, but he has yet to conclude that it was the hand of God.
From such conversations, we saw a pattern: Somewhere, somehow in their lives in China, God was preparing them for this opportune time when they could hear the gospel and come to faith. Even in cases where they had no “spiritual” or supernatural experiences, they could identify significant moments, such as fearing death at a certain time or wondering what was beyond this world, which opened their eyes to eternal realities. When I searched the Scriptures for biblical precedents, I came to a new understanding of the primary work that God the Father is doing in all our lives in drawing us to him.
JESUS’ TEACHING ON THE FATHERS’ PRIOR WORK
John 6 is a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. When he revealed himself as the bread of life, many could not accept his teaching and simply left. To those who desired the bread of life, he taught that the Father drew them through three different processes:
1. The Father gives people. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).
Jesus acknowledged that the Father gives. In other words, anyone who comes to Christ is a gift from the Father to Jesus. God forbid that we would ever think that the fruit of evangelism is “ours.” Of course, when asked, we would all be theologically correct and affirm that God is the one truly at work. But deep down, we feel a primary influence in someone’s salvation. The fruits of evangelism are neither trophies nor ours to give to Jesus. It is a common habit to credit human instruments. Jesus commented in John 6:32 that it was not Moses who gave them manna but the Father.
2. The Father draws people. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
Jesus knew that it was the Father who is actively drawing people, even teaching them (6:45), and when they listen to the Father speaking, they will come to Jesus.
“Draw” is an interesting verb. In Greek it’s helkuo, meaning to draw in or drag along, as in pulling in a net. The meaning includes the idea of force being used as in Acts 16:19. It was very difficult for Paul to kick against the thorns when Jesus appeared to him. Leon Morris (1971) in his commentary on the gospel of John notes that not one New Testament example of helkuo includes an instance of successful resistance. The Septuagint uses helkuo when translating Jeremiah 31:3 from the Hebrew. The meaning of helkuo might also include an inner compulsion from God. Vine says that the metaphorical use of helkuo signifies drawing by inward power and divine impulse (1940).
The Father uses many ways to draw people into the kingdom. It might be by the drawing power of the cross (in John 12:32 which uses the word helkuo). The Father could open the seeker’s heart as he did Lydia’s (Acts 16:14). Or again, believers could be salt and light. God may use any means at his disposal to draw people to him. He has used the life of our lecturer friend to draw many through her excellent teaching skills, selfless serving in students’ lives and the opportunities she opens by assigning students to write their views of life, purpose and other topics that help her discern truth-seekers.
My wife, Dolly, and I were regularly studying the Bible with four new believers in the university cafeteria. One week, a girl, WW, just showed up. At the end of the session, WW prayed to receive Christ. We assumed that a girl she knew who attended the group had invited her, but WW admitted she had been watching us for weeks and was drawn by the group’s laughter, animated discussions, munching homemade cookies and the fun that all were having. When WW learned it was a Bible discussion, she invited herself. Something about Christian fellowship attracted her.
3. The Father enables people. Jesus went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him” (John 6:65).
It would seem that all kinds of obstacles hinder a person from coming to faith. Yet the Father enables people to overcome these obstacles. Jews and Greeks each had their peculiar stumbling blocks (1 Cor. 1:22-24). Unless the Father enables faith, the stumbling blocks will not become building blocks for faith.
The word “enable” is translated from the Greek didomi. It is related to the root meaning of “to give.” The Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance states that didomi can have many different specific meanings, depending on context, including “to give,” “to grant,” “to make” and “to enable” among possible meanings. In the context of John 6, the “enabling” could be related to “equipping” people with faith to believe.
C.S. Lewis was a rationalist whose stumbling block was philosophy and reason. Yet that same superior mind and logic came to accept the possibility of the supernatural and, along with the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien’s use of mythology, came to embrace the historicity of Christ. When he became a Christian, he said of himself, “I give up. I admit that God is God” (Wellman 1997, 100). Writing to a friend, he described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (100). God had obviously enabled or equipped C.S. Lewis to come to the point of faith.
“He Has Not Left Himself without Testimoney” (Acts 14:17)
These truths indicate that God has always worked far ahead of the one who seeks to evangelize someone or some group. Such might be like Abraham trying to evangelize Melchizedek but not realizing that the latter had prior revelation from God.
In Acts we recall cases of prepared hearts, such as Lydia, Cornelius, the Ethiopian eunuch and the Athenians who worshiped the unknown god. Instead of taking these as the norm and believing in God’s prior work in people, we tend to treat them as exceptions.
In Job 33:14-30, Elihu, who had more wisdom than the three comforters of Job, figured out some things well ahead of us. He lists ways God speaks to people: through dreams, visions, words of warning, pain and suffering, and angelic mediators. He uses all these means “to turn back his soul from the pit” (v. 30).
My perspectives on how God communicates with man have radically changed. I no longer believe that God only speaks through his written Word. The change in perspective would have occurred earlier had I been more discerning about my father-in-law. We had tried many times to witness to my wife’s parents. My father-in-law, a dedicated idol-worshiper, always seemed open but each time he said, “I can’t believe.” To let us know he was not avoiding the issue or being stubborn, he shared how he had even seen a vision of Jesus in a dream: a glorious being, who in his mind was Jesus, had shown him two doors or gateways, one black and the other golden. Jesus pointed out the golden gate and asked him to enter. Since then, he was convinced Jesus was true. That event could have been a wonderful bridge to lead him to Christ, yet something hindered him from believing. Years later, God’s direct intervention in the family converted him in a manner beyond the scope of this article. I tell this story to show that God was already speaking to him, which we didn’t know until he told us.
Thus decades ago, I encountered ways that God speaks to some people but have been unable to accept it into my worldview until now. When you witness to your friends or relatives, try asking them to talk about their spiritual experiences. Don’t be surprised by their responses.
Whether it is dreams, crises faced, blessings received, Christian friends, problems encountered, reading the Bible, visitations by angels or some other manner, God uses these ways to speak to people, preparing them to acknowledge Jesus as Savior. When we meet them, they may be more aware of God than we realize.
“He Has Also Set Eternity in the Hearts of Men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
I previously understood Ecclesiastes 3:11 to mean that God had given man an eternal soul. That may well be. From interactions with our Chinese friends, however, I have additional understanding of how God may have set eternity in our hearts. In our conversations, we often detect a set of questions, not always spoken. Perhaps some may have difficulty framing the questions, such as, “Where do I come from?” “Where will I go after death?” A third is usually verbalized: “What is the purpose of life?”
One passage we introduce to our Chinese seekers is Acts 17:24-30. Invariably, they stop at these verses and seek further understanding of God as their creator and benefactor. The focal point of their attention is Acts 17:26. An almost audible “ah-hah” resonates in their hearts as they grasp their identity as someone God has created. Now they have a satisfying answer to the question “Where do I come from?” In addition, the Adamic ancestry of humanity makes great sense to them, despite being taught Darwinism in school. After all, if Chinese respect and worship ancestors, wouldn’t they like to know their first ancestor?
ZX has been a believer about three months at this point of writing. Recently I was helping him to prepare his testimony, a brief version for his upcoming baptism and a more comprehensive one for sharing Christ with his friends. He talked about his earlier years when he used to think about life after death. According to his Marxist education, he would then become nothing. Then he said that finally he stopped thinking about the issue because he could not imagine being forever non-existent. You needed to be there to hear the pain of that struggle and to see the pain on his face at the horrible thought of being non-existent after death.
At a farewell party for ZJ, who was going back permanently to China, I asked him what thoughts he might have had of God before he became a Christian. His answer was not surprising. As a little boy, he enjoyed the rural scenery and reflected as he looked at the endless rolling hills. He often thought of what lay far beyond the horizon and what worlds existed beyond this life. Those imponderables were answered when he arrived in Singapore. Within a month of our meeting, he readily put his faith in Christ.
I can well identify. As a child, one of my duties was massaging my grandmother’s tired muscles at the end of the day. Massaging is not an intellectual activity so after a while my mind would wander. I used to look up into the pitch black sky with the starry hosts and wonder about eternal realities. What lay beyond the skies? Who created all this? Where would I go after I die? Thus began a quiet quest for life’s meaning. The answers came when I heard about Jesus as a teenager.
“God Did This So That Men Would Seek Him” ( Acts 17:27)
Following their realization that God created them (from Acts 17:26), many of our friends walk into another astounding discovery—that God has been good to them. From Acts 17:26b-27, they realize God’s divine sovereignty in guiding their lives to the present moment.
So here we were, two of us sitting in an air-conditioned cafeteria, Bibles open. It was nothing unusual for me, though I was thankful for air conditioning bringing respite from the ninety percent humidity outside. But for my friend, it represented a different universe. He was 1,500 miles away from home, enjoying a full scholarship, working in well-equipped laboratories and excited about life after his Ph.D. The situation was overwhelming, considering that not long ago, he was pessimistic about life and life’s opportunities, competing with hordes of other talented people for the scholarship he had won. To him the experience of people like KJ (case #4) is not odd. Many have expressed to us a sense of gratefulness, but who do they thank for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? “Why me?” some have asked. “When our friends read Acts 17:26-27 we have a chance to talk about God’s goodness and sovereignty in leading people to himself.
Common grace may be a little underrated when we have so “Christianized” God to the extent that he only blesses us. We don’t imagine him very involved in the rest of mankind. We forget that “the Lord is good to all” (Ps. 145:9). Paraphrasing the Apostle Paul, is God the God of Christians only? Is he not the God of Gentiles, too? Yes, he is.
Theocentric evangelism focuses on God’s prior work. It is not anthropo-centric (laborer-dependent). It is not about technique or methodology, though knowing some will help; neither is it about the skill of the laborer.
Theocentric evangelism, then, is sharing Christ with the conviction that God has already started working in the lives of individuals or groups long before we meet them. If practiced, this principle means that somewhere in the process of evangelism, I should discern how God had already intervened in the person’s life and carry on from there. One does not start with a blank slate.
I bounced ideas from this article off several colleagues who minister among the mainstream religions in Asia. Their response was very positive—the article struck a responsive chord among them. Some even responded with similar stories of God’s miraculous intervention in the lives of those they were reaching. I wish I could share some of their stories, but the stories are theirs to tell.
A PERSONAL POSTSCRIPT
Evangelism gains meaning as we seek to engage people and enter their lives as they allow us. For example, where before I would expect people to just listen to (and hopefully understand) my memorized gospel presentation, I now seek to listen much more. In the first moments of introduction, I silently pray to discern which life issues the Lord may be speaking about to the person in front of me. Through this, my aim is to connect with their unspoken questions: “What is the meaning of life?” or “Who is the mysterious power behind my life circumstances?” We have found that though people may be busy and can only grant a quick lunch hour with us, once we connect, we can converse for hours at a time. It is satisfying to engage people with the gospel in this way instead of being a gospel salesman, asking for thirty minutes to give my gospel spiel.
Evangelism is not just sharing Bible truths in a vacuum. It is also seeing events, aspirations and circumstances of people in light of God’s providential design and intervention. The gospel becomes relevant in the warp and woof of the fabric of life.
This discovery has profoundly impacted our little network of co-laborers. Evangelism has never before been so exciting. It is one thing to be excited about seeing fruit in evangelism. It is another to see how fruit has come about through God’s intervention.
A sense of anticipation and excitement prevails as we ponder what we will discover of God’s handiwork in the fabric of those lives we’ll meet. We marvel and stand in awe of the sovereign Lord at work in the lives of his creatures to draw them to himself.
Morris, Leon. 1991. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Vine, W.E. 1940. Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell.
Wellman, Sam. 1997. C. S. Lewis. Ohio: Barbour Publishing.
I invite feedback from readers on similar stories or encounters they may have had in their ministries. My e-mail address is .
Kim Tok Wong was formerly national director of a missionary organization in Singapore. He and his wife are currently seeking to reach international postgraduate students.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 78-85. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.