Rules of Engagement: “How” to Practice Christian Tolerance

Over the last few weeks I’ve really been chewing on tolerance – what it is, and how to practice it as a gospel-centered Christian. Last week we looked at the question, “Is Evangelism Intolerant?

1 Peter 3:15 says this, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

The center of evangelism is this: honoring Christ. Honoring him by telling others what he has done to give them hope and salvation. Honoring him by receiving his grace and responding to the call to live a life of honoring Christ with what we think, what we say, what we feel, and how we treat others. Faith brings new life and new hope.

With this foundation for evangelism in mind, I want to offer a few “Rules of Engagement” for how Christians can evangelize while demonstrating tolerance (“respect despite disagreement“).

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Is Evangelism Intolerant?

I’ve been thinking about tolerance quite a bit over the last few weeks. Last week I attempted to provide a clear definition of What Tolerance Is (and Isn’t). My hope was to simply clarify what tolerance is without getting into what it looks like for the Christian to be tolerant in an unChristian world. I believe tolerance is a good thing and we need more of it.

In a tolerant world, would Christians still evangelize and send missionaries? Is evangelism inherently intolerant?

Some people believe evangelism is inherently anti-tolerant. Here are a few reasons I answer, “No, evangelism is not inherently intolerant.”

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What Tolerance Is (and Isn’t)

One of the things that is so great about America is our diversity. Like the states who form the United States of America, the American people have different cultural backgrounds but come together united. That can cause some problems, because we so easily slip into a mentality that says, “Different = Wrong.” How do we learn to get along and respect others who are so different from us?

Tolerance… it’s practically the religion of today. Unfortunately, what often gets called “tolerance” is anything but. It’s become a word that gets thrown around but never defined.

What Tolerance Is Not
Tolerance doesn’t overlook differences. It’s not tolerant to tell people, “You think you disagree, but you really don’t.” Telling Christians and Muslims and Buddhists they all believe the same thing and worship the same God isn’t tolerance, it’s disrespecting their religious beliefs.

When tolerance becomes intolerant of differences, we are not practicing tolerance… we’re practicing uniformity. Doing that is like cutting down all the trees so they get the same amount of sunlight.


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It’s Not My Gift

This is the second message in our series “Think About It: Christian Cliches… what’s this even mean?” Last week’s cliche was “Let Go, Let God.” 

Imagine for a moment that all the church leaders came to you for advice, seeking your vast wisdom on the question, “What should the church be doing in the world?” What would you say?

You’d probably encourage the church to talk about God, to pray for people, to help the needy. What else would be on your list… and honestly ask yourself, “Am I doing those things?”

It’s so much easier (and comfortable!) to tell others what they’re supposed to be doing. When it’s our turn to be the doer… it becomes far more risky. When it’s our turn to start evangelizing or sacrificing our time and our stuff in order to serve those in need, that’s when we’re tempted to cry out, “That’s not my gift!” Too often, that’s nothing phrase is an excuse to avoid doing something risky and difficult.

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What is the Gospel?

Do you know the gospel? Ok, great! Let’s hear it. Right now, in under a minute. What if you had three minutes to explain the gospel to someone in a way that was understandable, biblical, and compelling? Could you do that?

Christians talk about the gospel a lot, but I think most of us are unprepared to actually share the gospel with people. Hopefully I’m wrong, but I’d be surprised. Here are three things that I am absolutely convinced need to be in any presentation of the gospel (whether you’re talking with a friend or preaching from a pulpit).

1. Sin & Judgment
Without talking about sin, there’s simply no need for a savior. If I’m fine and can handle life on my own by being better than the next guy, then I don’t really need God.

But if sin is real and judgment is coming, then sin is a big deal. We shouldn’t talk about judgment in a way that we are the ones doing the judging, but simply to ask the question, “What if there is a God and you’re called to stand before him to answer for your sin? What would you have to say for yourself?” Because, as much as we may argue against Christ, I think most people know that they’re more sinful than they would admit.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” Romans 3:23-24

The reality is we will all need to answer before God. The bad news is that we’re all guilty; the good news is Jesus came to declare us innocent.

2. Jesus’s Death and Resurrection
If Jesus is the doorway through which we enter, the cross and the empty tomb are the hinges. Much to my frustration, I have heard many “gospel presentations” at large evangelistic youth events where the cross and resurrection have been either completely absent or so briefly mentioned they merely got a head-nod.

Read through the book of Acts and see how the Apostles preached the gospel. They always emphasized the Person of Christ (who Jesus is) and the Work of Christ (what he did: especially on the cross and through the resurrection).

The gospel is not shared by merely asking, “Do you want to be a child of God” or “Do you want to be forgiven?” Those are great questions, and they may pave the road towards sharing the good news about who Jesus is and what he did, but they are not the gospel.

Our faith needs to be placed in Jesus Christ, for he alone is the giver of good news (which is what the word “gospel” means… “good news”). The gospel is the message of what Jesus did: he died as our substitute on the cross, taking upon himself the judgment that we deserve, and we claim his resurrection victory as our own by faith. Because of Jesus we have been reconciled, redeemed, and reunited with God. The rift that was torn between God and humanity has been restored. The wrath of God, which we earned because of our sinful rebellion against his sovereign reign, has been quenched by the cross. The sting of death has been defeated and given the death-sentence because of the resurrection.

The message of the gospel completely hinges upon who Jesus is (the Son of God) and what he did (took away the sin of the world through his death and resurrection). If you do not focus on Jesus you simply are not talking about the gospel.

3. Repentance
The only appropriate response to the gospel is repentance. When we recognize our sin, we see our need for a savior. When we believe in Jesus and place our faith in what he has done for us, we proclaim that our eternal destiny is completely dependent on him. If those two things are true of us, we need to understand repentance. Again, we look at the Apostles’ preaching to see the necessity of repentance,

I… declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Acts 26:20

Technically, to “repent” means “to change your mind,” or “to turn around.” I like to explain it as doing an about-face. For more about repentance you can go here.

There are two main steps to repentance:

  1. Confessing that you are a sinner. Not just in a general sense, but to actually name your sins before God. “God, I’m proud. I want people to think I’m important and impressive and I tend to care more about their opinion than I care about your opinion.” Naming your sins before God doesn’t surprise him. Confession weakens your sin by staring it straight in the eye instead of playing pretend that you don’t have issues. If you can’t confess your sin, you cannot repent.
  2. Professing that God is better than your sin… and living like it. If you confess your pride but continue to live in it, then have you really admitted that it was wrong or did you simply pay lip-service to what you think was the “right thing” to pray? Confession leads to profession… saying that the joy of following God is greater than the happiness offered by sin. Simply put, this second step of repentance is “living it!” So you want to stop sinning? Great. Will you live differently?

Without repentance, faith is hollow and empty. We can claim to be Christians, and we can say that we believe in Jesus, but we are saying by our lives that we want eternal life with God but we want our independence right now.

Reminder: Jesus Wants to Make You New
If you are sharing the gospel with someone, be sure they realize that Jesus wants to make them new. New hope. New faith. New destiny. New freedom. New life.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17

Forgiveness is “free” in the sense that we can’t earn it and we certainly don’t deserve it. Becoming a Christian will cost you something. Obviously, we don’t give up all our sinful habits in the moment we give ourselves to Jesus. The Christian life is a lifelong habit of repentance because we’re always finding something new to confess and because we routinely slip into our old habits of believing that sin can bring more joy than Jesus.

I love to remind people that Jesus wants to make them new. Not new in a way that is completely different from the old; but new in a way that is more complete than what was there before.

A Final Encouragement: Remember the Holy Spirit
Remember that you are not alone. God cares more about the lost than you do, the Holy Spirit is actively working in that persons life. Salvation is never the result of human effort, it is always the work of God. He will use you to accomplish that work, but do not go about it in a way that puts the results in your own hands. If the person believes, then praise God for his faithfulness! If the person still doubts, then pray that God would continue to work in his or her life in such a way that they would come to see the joy and hope and newness of life that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

Three Things We Need to Know

Here are three things I think are very biblical and healthy for every Christian to know.  I also think they’re very useful for us to keep in mind for the sake of evangelism and sharing the Gospel with others.

1. Know Who God Is

  • God is Holy and Sovereign (Isaiah 6:1-5).  He is infinitely bigger than you could ever imagine.
  • God is the Creator (Gen. 1).  He made everything that exists… including you.  Not only did he make you, but he made you in his own image!  Whether you recognize it or not, you belong to God.
  • God is the Judge (Rev. 20:11-15).  It doesn’t take much more than a bit of honest humility to see that there’s something seriously broken in the world and in our own soul.  We will give account.
  • God is Love (1 John 4:7-10).  (which gets us to the next thing we need to know…)
    (obviously, there’s more that could be said here about who God is and what He’s like… you can go HERE for a fantastic chart that will help you explore this further)

2. Know What God Has Done

  • God never gave up on us (Gen. 3:15; Isaiah 53).  Even from the moment of humanity’s first sin he has always left a message of hope for us.  He sent prophets to tell us there would be a day when we would be freed the judgment we deserve and reconciled to God.
  • God did the unthinkable – He became one of us (John 1:14).  Think about it, God the Son (the second Person of the Trinity) really, historically, physically became a baby boy who ate, slept, and did other “things” babies do…
  • God died in order that you might live (John 3:16-17).  Yes, I wrote it that way on purpose – for that is who Jesus is.  He took your punishment, your judgment, your wrath, your sin upon himself so that you could be set free.  That’s love!
  • God has adopted you (Eph. 1:4-5).  Christian, He has made you his child by faith.  May it never be lost on you that the God described by #1 above chose to adopt you – not because you were worth it, but because of His grace and mercy and love.  (If this idea of God choosing you sounds repulsive, maybe this could help clarify what we do and do not mean by it?)
  • God has saved you (Rom. 8:1).  This is probably the simplest way to put it.

3. Know Who God is Calling to You to Be

  • God is calling you to be secure (Rom. 8:37-39).  Life is unpredictable and can get turned upside-down in a moment.  Because of Who God Is and What God Has Done, you can stand secure on the unchanging God.
  • God is calling you to live by faith (James 2:18-26).  This might sound simple (and it is simple, in some ways), but it certainly isn’t easy.  You can’t live by faith if you never do anything beyond your ability.  Will you really trust God, or just talk about how trustworthy he is?
  • God is calling you to be a light (Matt. 5:14-16).  A candle doesn’t need to be taught how to give off light and heat, it just needs to be lit.  When you submit yourself to God, He will change you day by day.  The more you simply trust him and grow in your love for him, the more brightly you will burn.  (note: This isn’t something you accomplish by trying to do it, it’s a byproduct of savoring the realities of knowing #1 and #2 above).

The Drama of Redemption: Perfect Restoration

Think about your favorite story (book, movie, whatever…) and ask yourself why you really like it so much.  The stories we tell and fall in love with reflect the Story of the Bible.  This “Drama of Redemption” we’ve been looking at is the big story that all our stories are pointing towards:

  • We love stories that tell us where we came from (Creation)
  • We are drawn towards stories that make it painfully obvious that something has gone terribly wrong… we aren’t in paradise anymore (Fall)
  • We resonate with stories of redemption, where a character in the story is the one who fixes what has gone wrong (Redemption)
  • We dream of stories where paradise has been perfectly restored, everything that went wrong has been made right, and there’s no risk of losing paradise again (Restoration)

Tim Keller (a pastor & author) has said, “The way you live now is completely controlled by the way you think about your future. … The now is controlled by the then.”  This sounds confusing until you think about it this way – Imagine you have the guaranteed promise of love and wealth coming to you after graduating from High School so long as you finish with a B average.  Do you think that would change your study habits and whether or not you pay attention during class?!  What you believe will happen in the future greatly changes what you do today.

The Apostle John received a vision from God about the Perfect Restoration of all creation.  Here’s what he saw:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Here’s the big picture of what the Bible teaches about eternity:

  1. “Heaven” is a physical place, not a ghost-town.  You will have a body and walk on the ground.  I remember growing up always thinking that “Heaven” meant I would be a ghost who lives on the clouds.  Not so much…
  2. God has made all things new!  There’s continuity with this life, but since everything we know in this world has suffered from The Fall, in eternity they will be perfected.  That means my body will be perfect: No physical or mental or emotional disabilities, no more sickness or death.  Since we were created to be full of life, I believe we’ll be whatever “age” our body is most full of life, not whatever age we were when we died.  Cool, huh?
  3. No more curse, the “Fall” is GONE.  We will have perfect intimacy with God, with each other, and with all creation/nature.  The peace and love we all so desire will be perfectly fulfilled by our restored intimacy with God, our maker and savior and restorer.
  4. There is Eternal Life & Eternal Death.  So far, we’ve only talked about eternal life, but the Bible talks an awful lot of eternal death, too.  It’s not a popular stance (never has been!), but when we remember that sin is evil because of who it is directed against rather than because of the deed that was done, then we see why sin must be judged eternally.  Sin is an eternal offense against the Holy God.

Here are the next few verses of Revelation 21, continuing where v.5 left off:

Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:5-9)

One of the most amazing parts of this passage is verse 8, where God lists who will be sent to judgment.  I need to be constantly amazed that I have somehow escaped judgment, because I know that by the standards listed in v.8 I’m guilty and deserve hell.  In fact, v.8 could simply say “But as for the idolaters, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur…” and I’d be done with!  (Remember, and “idol” is anything that is loved and honored more than God is loved and honored.)

There are 4 ways eternity needs to shape today for Christians:

  1. We have hope in the middle of suffering.  Because we see the big picture, we don’t lose heart when the going gets tough.  Legitimate suffering and pain is never easy to live through, even for Christians… but we fight through it because we know that perfect restoration is coming.
  2. We take sin seriously.  We take our own sin seriously and we take other people’s sin seriously because God took sin so seriously that it cost him the life of his Son!  When we say that sin is “no big deal,” we’re saying that Jesus was stupid for suffering and dying on the cross!  Let’s not get rid of the word “Sin” by simply calling it “mistakes” or “bad things” or “offenses.”
  3. We take God’s love seriously.  God takes sin seriously, but His love is so great that there was nothing that would stop him from defeating it!  Celebrate the love of God that is most clearly seen through Christ on the cross… and tell your friends.  Do you love God so much that you really desire to see your friends receive the love of Christ?  God’s love is not just a good idea, it’s the very source of eternal life!
  4. We live today to the fullest, because today will carry into eternity.  What you do today matters.  Don’t take today for granted, tomorrow isn’t a guarantee.  Plus, who you are today will help determine who you are into eternity!  Do you realize that what you believe about the future controls what you do today?