Christian proclamation in general (which includes, at the very least, preaching and evangelism) is often seriously misunderstood. This is the case because what the very act entails is often not adequately grasped. It is our suggestion here that Christian proclamation (or kerygma) is a theological, or, to put it more controversially, prophetic act. After surveying some reasons why this is the case, we will offer further implications this has for evangelism in particular.
To being with, we think it is helpful to tease out what we mean by theological act. The word theology, of which theological is the adjectival form, is the combination of two Greek words: ‘theos’ and ‘logos’; thus, theology, at base, means words about God. Here, we are meaning it in a rather full sense; that is to say, by theological act, what we are attempting to convey is that Christian proclamation is a speech-act on the part of God through the person speaking. So, this act is not, at base, mere words about God, but rather, words from God hence the description of this act as a prophetic act.
Now, applying the designation ‘prophetic’ may seem, at best, unwarranted by some, and, at worst, grossly mistaken, but, we believe there are various theological strands that do indeed warrant such a designation.
The crucial text for this understanding is 2 Cor 5:17-21 where Paul writes:
… if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Paul stresses in this passage that we believers have been entrusted with “the ministry of reconciliation.” What is this reconciliation? It is that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them,” and it is this message which we are to speak. He further elaborates what this message is in v. 21: “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Christ, God the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ, in sum, substituted himself for us so that by our union with Christ (“in him”), “we might become the righteousness of God.”
This message, this ministry of reconciliation leads Paul to say, furthermore, that we are “ambassadors for Christ.” That is, God is “making his appeal through us” who are participating in God’s reconciling work. Notice the prophetic dimension of this ministry: God is making his appeal through us. Paul switches to the first person after making this statement. “We implore you on behalf of Christ.” This first person language combined with on behalf of Christ is clearly prophetic in orientation: God is speaking through us a message of reconciliation to those who are as of yet not reconciled to God and, making this even clearer, we can rightful describe this act as one of an ambassador.
An ambassador (Gk πρεσβεύω) is someone who stands as a representative for someone else (BDAG, p. 861; cf. LSJ, p. 1462; L&N 37.88). So, by describing those who are given the ministry of reconciliation as ambassadors, what Paul is sayings is that we are, in effect, standing in the place as his representatives as we participate in the ministry and deliver the message of reconciliation. Thus, there is a third person and first person element to such a message. Third person in the sense that we can say, “God says,” but first person in the sense that we can, in God’s stead, say, “We implore … you.” If this isn’t a prophetic act, it is hard to imagine what it could be. It is unlikely that anyone would suggest that were a prophet to emerge in our post-Enlightenment day, the person him/herself would disappear as they speak forth the message they have been given by God. Rather, the prophet is truly there, in flesh and blood, and truly human, yet, this same prophet is speaking on behalf of someone who has given the prophet the authority to do so.
Before we belabor the point, we would point the reader to one more Pauline passage to substantiate our contention. Paul writes in 1 Cor 3:9, “We are God’s fellow workers,” that is, we work alongside God. Earlier in the same passage he writes, “Servants through whom you believed” (v. 5). In sum, it is through these servants that the message of reconciliation was received by faith (“you believed”).
Turning now in a more dogmatic direction, we can note further reasons why Christian proclamation is a theologico-prophetic act. First, those who have placed their faith in Christ are united to Christ; in other words, we are an extension of Christ, or, in biblical terms, we are his body (Eph 4); that is, Christ is speaking through us, offering himself for the salvation of the hearer.
Second, those united to Christ are united by the Holy Spirit (John 3; Rom 8); therefore, when we participate in God’s reconciling ministry, we are empowered to speak by the power of the Holy Spirit. This becomes abundantly clear when we realize that it is the same Spirit that lives in us that raised Christ from the dead and who also breathed forth the Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21), but, more to the point, the main aim of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Son and make known those things pertaining to the person and work of the Son (John 16-17). Thus, when we proclaim the very message of reconciliation, the Spirit is ever so near and intertwined, as it were, with this word for it is by this word that the Son is most glorified; as it is stated in Rev 19:10: “… the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” In sum, to testify of Christ is the height and true aim of prophecy and, as such, faithful Christian proclamation can be nothing less than prophesy.
Third, it’s because of the love of the Father that the only begotten Son of God was sent to redeem the world (John 3:16), and, we, as ambassadors for Christ, go forth knowing that this love of the Father, which has been revealed perfectly by the work of his Son, for fallen human beings at enmity with him is what undergirds our being sent, just as it did the Son of the Father to whom we are united. In other words, Christian proclamation, as prophetic act, has a Triune shape with each person of the Trinity helping us to see the different nuances of this act.
Having presented, in brief manner, our case for Christian proclamation as theologico-prophetic act, we will offer at this point some ways this can inform evangelism.
We must recognize that as we desire to share the good news of the reconciliation accomplished between God and man by Christ that we are in fact sharing in the same desire which moved God himself to (speaking humanly) plan and execute the redemption of the world. Moreover, God in Christ and by the Holy Spirit is speaking through us. An ambassador does not have to be concerned about the message he is delivering nor does the message rest on the insights, wisdom, or what have you of the messenger, for the message does not rest on the authority of the one who stands as representative, rather, this authority is found in the one who sends, namely, God. Thus, this message is of divine authority. Taking this two things together—the love and authority of God—which undergird the proclamation of this message, we represent God have nothing to fear, but rather, can, indeed must, offer this message freely with love knowing that “perfect love casts out all fear.”
It is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who is appealing to the disinherited image-bearer, the person consumed with dissolution of a most pernicious variety, and who is speaking through us to them. Hence, we can speak both in the third person, “the Father loves you, see, his Son,” and, we speak in humble, hushed, urgent, pleading tones of the first person: “I know the Lord loves you, he loves me, for look: his Son.” This is prophetic not random, not unplanned. For us to speak the very message which reflects the love of the Father, brings glory to the Son, and shows the heinousness of our sin and the deep, unfathomable love of God in Christ is to speak of something of cataclysmic and cosmic import—it is to speak of the collapse of this history and the beginning of a new one that will not fail; it is to speak of the predestined and undefeatable plan of God to redeem a people for himself and to place every enemy of God underneath his feet; it is to speak of a work which transcends the servile, pale notions of chance, randomness or fate, replacing them with the steadfast intentions of the Triune Lord. Unless we grasp that evangelism, and Christian proclamation in general, is finally, from beginning to end, rooted, driven by and deeply embedded in the plan of God, then we lose sight of the fact that we are without question sent to represent one who is indeed speaking, calling, and inviting shattered human beings made to bear his image.