Is the individual Christian the ‘watchman on the walls’?

Almost every time I talk about personal evangelism, and describe the need to be tactful, respectful and wait for the opportunities that God gives us, rather than just downloading on people uninvited, I'll have a question that goes something like:

But knowing what we know about heaven and hell, isn't it better to tell them the gospel, and risk the possibly of them getting offended, than not at all?  They may not get another chance to hear!

The spirit of this question is very much present in Ezekiel 3 and 33: that the watchman on the walls who fails to warn people of the coming judgment will have blood on their own hands... whereas the watchman who sounds the warning will be innocent of their blood if they fail to listen to the warning. It seems that the apostle Paul is also echoing these words in Acts 20 to describe his own ministry and implicitly passing them on to the Ephesian elders too.

A common example is: 'I picked up a hitchhiker: I may never see them ever again. This is my one chance to preach the gospel to them and possibly their one chance to hear it — what do I have to lose?'

It's right to speak up because of the gospel's urgency and importance 

Most of the time when I get this question I take it as a helpful corrective, and so affirm it. The gospel is the power of salvation, it does need to be told to everyone because Christ could come back any minute. If we believe that, we should want to tell people whenever we can.

Inded urgency and moral seriousness create different social standards. A sympathetic witness will allow someone more leeway in being urgent and confronting, if they appreciate that the person feels moved by conscience. It is true that some people are arrested and challenged by this kind of other-worldly moral and spiritual seriousness. Because the gospel is not just a discussion of preferred shoe brands, it should not be discussed in the same measured and civil tones, necessarily.

I agree, there is something good and right about the conviction and compassion and desire to preach Christ. If there's nothing of that impulse, perhaps we aren't seeing the world as God does? Isn't something better than nothing? Can we stand silently by?

An individual Christian may then push beyond what is comfortable and normal and polite to get a hearing for the gospel.  That's awesome. But that is different to implying or commanding that if we are not pushing the envelope we are not being faithful, not believing the gospel enough, or worse still, have blood on our hands. 

The different between a watchman and a citizen

It is worth remembering that Ezekiel (and the apostle Paul and the Ephesian elders) have a leadereship role in their communities. It is their responsibility before God and function in their community to lead, teach and warn. If they in their role stay silent, they truly are guilty of neglect. They are appointed and stationed as watchmen on the walls.

But the average Jew in Ezekiel's day, or the average Christian today, is not appointed and stationed in quite that same way. Although we belong to the community entrusted with the message of the gospel this doesn't mean we all have the same functional and moral role in its proclamation.

There is a difference of responsibility here, and also a difference of role. A preacher/teacher/leader has a role and function, and a certain cultural 'permission' or expectation to proclaim and warn. We may not like their message, but at least we acknowledge that it is their role to speak directly about it. As a result, a preacher/teacher/leader also has a platform to speak from in their own religious circles, often has the invitation to speak in other cirlces, might reasonably request the permission to speak in other circles or even create entirely new contexts in which to speak.

As I've already said above, an individual Christian may do a little bit of all these things. And depending on their spiritual gifts the urgency and importance of the gospel will motivate a whole bunch of Christians to take on something of a lowercase p 'preacher' or lowercase c 'chaplain' role. That's awesome. Which is why there is something that resonates in the appeal for us all to be like watchmen on the walls. We should see the world from God's point of view, so that this is stirred up in us. 

But that is different to implying or commanding that if we are not pushing the envelope of creating these kinds of 'teaching' platforms, we are not being faithful, not believing the gospel enough, or worse still, have blood on our hands. For it remains the case that your average Christian is not appointed the particular role of watchman in quite the same way.

We all must have a deep and earnest desire and prayer for the lost to be saved. By the power of the Spirit we must not be ashamed of Christ but identify with him (and his preachers) before the world. We must generously and relationally and organisationally support missionary work at home and overseas. We must live in a way that adorns the gospel and takes every oppotunity to give a reason for the hope that we have. Within this context, extending invitations for people to find out more, giving them books to read and so on, are all expressions of a general responsibility that is not quite the same as the 'watchman on the walls'.

So while it might well be good and right to ask for permission to share the gospel with a hitchhiker — 'I know this is a strange thing to bring up, but I'm a Christian, and I wonder if you've ever had someone explain the Christian message to you before?' could be a way to broach the subject — it is not a moral imperative for every Christian.

The ways the gospel is heralded to a population

We often preach evangelistic responsiblity, and conceive of evangelistic responsibility, very individualistically. Each of us individually has to convert people. Each of us individually has to make sure each other person individually has heard the gospel from an individual.

But is that a full account of how the the gospel is spread? Is that even the primary way the gospel is heard? Does the 'blood stay on my hands' until I personally say to you personally that you need to repent and believe? Until someone has had that conversation have they not been 'warned'?

I want to suggest that this an oversimplifcation and really a distortion of how human beings live and how God deals with us. We are aware of things much more widely than one to one converations: through word of mouth, observation and various media. I wonder if that's something of what 1Thessalonians 1 describes about how the 'word of God rang out'? Likewise in Acts we have little narrative comments about how the rumours of the gospel were spreading throughout the Roman world.

There is little explicit instruction or description of systematic, cold, inter-personal evangelism in the Bible. Acts describes the apostles going to (or creating) settings where they might speak, such as synagoges, public meeting halls and the Areopagus. We do hear about Paul going to the marketplace in Athens, but it is anachornistic to imagine this is similar to our standard 21st century city shopping mall. Post-radio societies don't have anything quite parallel to the town square of the 19th century village or the marketplace of the 1st century Roman city. There are plenty of hints and suggestions about all sorts of relational conversations in Acts and the apostolic letters, but nothing like a modern doorknocking campaign. I'm not against doorknocking campaigns, I'm just wanting to untangle them from some kind of scriptural imperative. They are a possible strategy for gospel proclamation, not a necessary one.

In that sense a person can know that there are people who believe in God, that some of them are called Christians, that they believe Jesus saves people and gives them peace with God — all without ever talking to a Christian one to one, or going to a Christian event. In fact they can even have access to the Christian scriptures in any number of ways. This is what the missionary societies mean when they talk about 'unreached people groups'. This doesn't mean we have done everything we could or should do to seek to reach people, but it does in one sense mean that the 'blood is off our hands'. If the watchman on the walls sounds the warning, the blood is off his hands even if he hasn't had a one on one conversation with every citizen!

The power of the gospel and God's providential work

A whole other can of worms is how God's providential work relates to his supernatural saving work. It is true that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ. But what makes someone listen? What gets them into a setting where they are invited to hear the message spoken? What motivates them to accept that invitation?

The miraculous work of regeneration comes by the Holy Spirit as he works through the word of God. And yet God works providentially behind the scenes in millions of ways to bring people to the point of hearing and receiving the word of God. Although the word of God is needed to bring eternal life, a complex of wordly motivations and circumstances, under God's sovereign hand, will suffice to bring someone into earshot of the gospel to begin with.

Why am I speaking?

And last of all, this brings us into a very important issue that relates not only to gospel preaching but to all sorts of moral conversations: do I speak to make myself feel better, to release myself of a burden or to benefit my hearers?

Especially when we are deeply concerned about a matter we can slip into the pattern of speaking up about it whenever we encounter it. If we have lost a relative to lung cancer caused by smoking, we stop smokers on the street; if we are passionate about vegetarianism we make comments about a colleague's ham sandwich; if we are a Christian we roll out a quick sermon on grandpa's death bed.

But why do we speak in these cases? Is it to persaude the other person? Possibly not. Possibly we don't even really think in those terms. We definitely don't stop to ask whether this circumstance, with this relationship and this manner will be persausive or offputting. Indeed they might have already heard our message from someone else, perhaps even some in a better position to communiate it. But our concern is not with them hearing, let alone accepting the message in that moment. Our concern is really with ourselves: we want to know that we've said something. 

Perhaps we remember the Ezekiel passage spoken above, where the LORD says that 'whether they listen or fail to listen'. So there is a sense in which it is right to speak the truth, to call out evil, to preach the gospel and to warn of the coming wrath no matter what the response. True. But once again we are somewhat begging the question: we are assuming that this passage is speaking to every person about every relationship in every circumstance. Is that an accurate representation of the passage? I think that is not explicitly the case. There is a sliding scale here.

It can be right to speak the truth no matter what the response... but all of us will draw some kind of limit on that, otherwise we would be talking about the gospel to everyone all the time all day long. Since we all eventually draw some limit on this indiscriminate speaking, it is at least legitimate that some might narrow the scope only to what the consider to be meaningful and effective contexts.

There are many people who hate smoking, but who walk past smokers, even their friends who smoke, and say nothing day after day. Why? Because although they have a great conviction and moral urgency, they recognise that there is little effective difference that their lecturing the person will actually make about them quitting smoking. So instead they volunteer for the Quitline, give to the Cancer Council, pray that the person might quit and offer to be a sponsor if someone makes a passing comment that 'these things are getting expensive' or 'I really should quit'.

In the same way, a Christian might well seek to explain the gospel to a hitchhiker. Or they might just be friendly and take the opportunity if it comes up, because they recognise that all things being equal, an awkward exchange in a stranger's car probably won't be the defining moment in someone's conversion. It might be, but then again something else might be too :-)

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