Book Review: Jesus the Evangelist by Richard D. Phillips

Phillips, Richard D. Jesus the Evangelist: Learning to Share the Gospel from the Book of John. Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Pub, 2007.  Jacketed Hardcover, xii, 195 pages. $19.00

(Review copy courtesy of Reformation Trust.)

Jesus the Evangelist.jpgLinks to purchase: Amazon (hardcover) (Kindle – free for Kindle and in ePub format for July 2014)  WTS Books

ISBNs: 1567690882  / 9781567690880

Excerpts:
Book Info Sheet
Table of Contents and Sample Chapter

Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister at Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C., and he also serves on the board of directors for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He has written numerous books including What’s So Great About the Doctrines of Grace? (Ligonier, 2008), The Reformed Expository Commentary: Zechariah (P&R, 2007), Holding Hands, Holding Hearts (P&R, 2006), The Reformed Expository Commentary: Hebrews (P&R, 2006), and What Is the Lord’s Supper? (P&R, 2005).

A book on evangelism could focus on the ways a particular person from church history approached evangelism. Or it could focus on a particular method without necessarily invoking a particular person. Or it could do what this book does. Jesus the Evangelist names the One who is possibly the most overlooked evangelist of all time, but was also the only perfect evangelist. The book strikes gold as it begins to mine riches from the One who is the heart of the gospel message.

Jesus the Evangelist is aimed at two audiences, both of whom represent ironic extremes. First is the Christian who understands the gospel and isn’t terribly interested in sharing it. Then is the zealot with a poor grasp of the gospel, but a great desire to share it. Phillips purposes to motivate theologically minded individuals to evangelize and instruct those zealous for evangelism who need to better understanding the gospel.

Jesus the Evangelist is divided into three parts. The first, on biblical principles of evangelism, covers much of John 1, delving into “The Witness of John the Baptist and the Calling of the First Disciples.” Phillips makes this application for Christians from the witness of John the Baptist: “This is our pattern of witness: We are to live as lights in the world to create opportunities for witness; we are to refuse to focus attention on ourselves; and then we are to be the voices that present the Word, Jesus Christ” (p. 24).

The book also provides a helpful foundation for Christian to understand themselves in relation to Christ. After referencing John the Baptist’s declaration that he was unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandal (John 1:26b-27), Phillips writes,

    Rabbinic writings indicate that disciples were required to perform all kinds of menial services for their rabbis, but not this! Not untying the strap of a sandal! But John said that not only was it not beneath him to perform such a menial task for Jesus, it was above him! So great is the glory of Christ!
    Do you feel this way? Do you count it an awesome privilege to serve Jesus in any way possible? Instead of begrudging your Christian duties and especially any actual sacrifice you are called to make, are you overwhelmed at the privilege of simply serving a glorious Lord like Him? If you are not, your witness will lack power. But if you convey to people what a thrill it is to know and serve the Lord Jesus, your witness will be that much more effective. (p. 26)

Part two deals with the theology of the gospel, highlighting “Jesus’ Witness to Nicodemus.”  He looks to John 3 for principles of sharing the gospel “with the ‘better kind’ of people, that is, with people who enjoy wide admiration and thus may never have considered their need for a Savior” (p. 60). Phillips highlights the new birth as a necessity, as a supernatural work of God, and as a change that is revealed by its effects. He focuses on the importance and centrality of the cross. He also speaks of the teaching of John 3:16-18 in regard to salvation and condemnation by quoting Leon Morris:

    It is not the purpose of the shining of the sun to cast shadows. But … shadows are inevitable. The shadows are, so to speak, the other side of the sunshine. So it is with condemnation and the coming of the Son of God. He did not come in order that people be condemned. But there are great moral issues involved, and those who refuse salvation thus condemn themselves. (pp. 101-102)

In other words, Christ did not come to condemn but to save. Yet by refusing His salvation, those who reject Him can only blame themselves for their condemnation.

Part three examines Jesus’ practice of evangelism, demonstrated in His witness to the Samaritan woman in John 4. The author sets Nicodemus side by side with the woman to show some key differences and similarities. “Nicodemus was a man at the top of life,” whereas the woman was at the bottom. “There can be little doubt that John placed these two figures side by side to show that the gospel is for everyone … the glory of the gospel is that anyone—regardless of gender, race, education, wealth, or social position—maybe saved through faith in Jesus Christ” (pp. 108-109).

John 4 demonstrates Jesus’ care for the lost, His disregard of ungodly social and religious barriers, and His connecting with people. Jesus purposely went through Samaria to meet with this woman, and Jesus the Evangelist urges Christians to step out of their comfortable subculture to go to others who need the gospel.

In addition to loving and genuinely connecting with others, Phillips urges Christians to deal with sin seriously in evangelism.  He writes the following to highlight the seriousness of sin:

        If you commit just three sins per day—if you are irreverent, dishonest, malicious, lustful, or covetous just three times in a day—and the great majority of us break God’s law in thought or deed at least that many times in a [sic] hour!— you will commit more than a thousand sins per year. If you live for seventy-five years, as many of us will, when you die you will arrive in God’s court with seventy-five thousand sins to be dealt with. How would a human judge respond to a criminal with seventy-five thousand violations of the civil law? Surely he would impose the maximum penalty!  God hates sin more than any human judge, and He has decreed that the “wages of sin is death” (

Rom. 6:23

      ). How important it is, then, that we find a way to deal with our sin before appearing before God’s judgment. (p. 138)

Jesus the Evangelist urges us to seek to turn questions, evasions, and objections back to Jesus—to the Savior of sinners.

Each of the book’s thirteen chapters concludes with discussion questions. It concludes with an appendix on “The Sovereignty of God in Evangelism,” which argues that both divine sovereignty and human responsibility are biblical teachings and therefore not incompatible. He counters the common objection that belief in God’s sovereignty undermines evangelism, listing several ways this doctrine should impact evangelism. Our evangelism should be biblical and prayerful.  God’s Word and God’s Spirit using that Word are both necessary for conversions. Our evangelism should be personal, zealous, and creative. Finally, we should never lose heart in evangelism.

Jesus the Evangelist gives an excellent exposition and application of key passages in the Gospel of John. The book strikes gold, but it leaves many veins untapped as well. Other works could follow up on this book by exploring Jesus’ discourses to the multitudes, particularly His “I am” sayings. John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus (revised and expanded in 2009) is an example of a wider approach and would complement Phillips’s work beautifully.

While focusing on the verbal witness of John the Baptist and Jesus, the author does not demean methods such as addressing strangers, passing out tracts, or preaching in the open air. He says, “Instead of picking and choosing … we can best profit by considering all of these approaches and making use of them as God gives us opportunity” (p. 46).  However, Phillips disapproves of the “altar call,” characterizing it as “unbiblical” and “deceitful manipulation” (p. 180) that violates the dishonesty condemned in 2 Corinthians 4:2. He especially targets evangelists who strategically manipulate by planting people to raise hands or respond by walking forward, in order to incite others to do so. Phillips argues persuasively.  Furthermore, the altar call is fraught with danger and a dubious pedigree. But I think he may be unfair to those who use a post-sermon public invitation, but carefully clarify that walking the aisle is not salvific or commanded by God.

The book does not sugarcoat responses to those who neglect evangelism. Phillips blames laziness and self-centeredness for ineffective evangelism:

    We are not willing to cross the street to meet people. We do not care enough for the eternal destiny of friends, family members, and co-workers to risk the social hazard of talking about the Lord. (p. 111)

He also reminds us that evangelism is hard work:

    If we care for others’ salvation, we will expend ourselves in ministry to them … if we do not find ourselves sometimes needing a rest from our labors—then we are not likely to accomplish much in Christian ministry. (p. 111)

The discussion questions make this an ideal book for intense personal or group study. It could easily be adapted for use in Sunday school or other teaching scenarios, and would also be a useful complement to commentaries on the book of John.

To be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ. Furthermore, Phillips points out, “To be a Christian is to be called as an evangelist.”  Jesus the Evangelist is an excellent resource to help Christians become more like their Master by being faithful to spread His good news.

This review was originally posted at sharperiron.org.

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