“Be careful how you live. You might be the only Bible some people will ever read.”
In our zeal for gospel preaching, sometimes we forget the part of it that involves the lived out, practical proof that it is real to us.
Though I am not an advocate of “Preach the gospel by all means and use words if necessary,” (questionably attributed to Francis of Assisi), I still agree that works generally precede words.
As he brought the book of Colossians to a close, Paul offered some wisdom on the fly to the Colossians about their relationships with the unsaved.
“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:5-6).
From an apostle who had preached all over the Mediterranean world, I would expect a trove of evangelistic advice. I’ve read dozens of books on evangelism, and exercised that gift quite a bit in my younger years. But I never ran across such a compacted bit of counsel on gospel preaching as what Paul wrote here. To be honest, for a guy like me, who likes strategies and “how-to’s” it seems no help at all.
Here’s what to do with outsiders: walk in wisdom.
What? Like, how? There’s too many possible permutations, too many situations, countries, cultures, and sheer historical eras to provide specific instructions.
Therefore, Paul’s admonition unto wisdom means he literally trusted that if asked, God would show us what to do in every situation. A wise walk is at least half the gospel to those on the outside, especially referring to those we know and will encounter repeatedly over time. Their assumption (which is reasonable), is that if there is any influence upon us that can affect our behavior, that can overcome addictions common to mankind, that can cause us to rise above our stubborn fixation on self and show kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, then it must be supernatural. Like Nebuchadnezzar said of Daniel in a fit of pagan inspiration, “the spirit of the holy gods is in you!” (Dan. 4:9)—a theologically imprecise sentiment to be sure, but you get the point.
Nor will any person feel inclined to receive our words when we have wronged them in some way. Without wisdom, there is only foolishness, an ill-advised way of doing everything, handling everything—bad reactions, snarky remarks, provocative behavior, revenge seeking, vindictiveness, a dark spirit of unforgiveness, filthy jokes, sexual innuendo and outright advances, plus any number of other things judged “non-Christian” which become stumbling blocks to belief. Only God knows if the unsaved are using these as excuses for their unbelief. We leave that judgment to Him. In the meantime, we must see to our own walk and words.
No doubt we have Proverbs, and at a deeper, more intense level, Ecclesiastes, to provide written wisdom instruction. But Paul doesn’t quote anything from these books for the Colossians. He trusts that Christ is our wisdom, the very heartbeat of redemption who will let us know the how and when of kind words and compassionate deeds. He is the living compass unto righteous behavior and mighty words of grace.
I remember seeing a letter written to a church by a woman who had lived an apparently hard life. As a single parent, she had gotten into a financial bind with her children, and having gotten sick, could not work or pay rent. Though she did not ask for assistance, or contact the church in any way, it reached out to her with a large enough sum of money to cover her expenses.
She responded with a multi-page letter, which looked as though she had written it in one long stream of emotion. Judging from the thoughts and language expressed, she had not been a woman of faith, and probably had not darkened the doorway of a church since childhood. And yet the sentiments of gratitude she expressed seemed to indicate the church’s act of grace had broken down certain of her heart level barriers to God. Although I don’t know if she later visited that faith community, I’m fairly certain that she will never refer to the church as “Just a bunch of hypocrites.”
She will probably find it even harder to dismiss the Lord of glory as a hollow superstition.
1. My opening quote comes from William J. Toms.