Learning Evangelism from Jesus. By Jerram Barrs. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009. 283 pages. Softcover, $17.99.
Jerram Barrs’ Learning Evangelism from Jesus examines Jesus’ practice of evangelism. In sixteen chapters, Barrs introduces the subject and explains seventeen narratives from the Gospels in which Jesus encounters people who need entrance into the Kingdom of God. The book includes a study guide, limited endnotes, a general index, and a Scripture index. Outreach Magazine has awarded Learning Evangelism from Jesus its “Book of the Year” award. Barrs predicates his work on the worthy assumption that Jesus Christ qualifies as the greatest evangelist and that Jesus’ example must regulate the practice of evangelism today. For evangelism professors who embrace biblical authority, this is a welcome relief to the anxiety created by works that overemphasize cultural, anthropological, and existential considerations as the starting place for evangelism. Christians and churches have much they can learn from Jesus about evangelism, and Barrs’ accessible work attempts to provide this help.
Significant points commend Barrs’ work. First, the content will enlighten the reader with keen insight. For example, Barrs moves beyond C.H. Dodd’s rigid method of the interpretation of parables and notes that Christians have seen Christ in his parables. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Barrs notes that the merciful service of the Good Samaritan resembles Luke’s portrait of Jesus. In this way he moves beyond a strictly social service understanding of the parable and uses the parable to point to the redemptive gospel of Christ (66). Those concerned with the current resurgence of alternatives to the gospel, such as social justice, will find help in Barrs’ interpretation. Under Barrs’ handling of the text, the parable of the Good Samaritan offers another way to communicate the gospel. This reviewer welcomes such help.
Barrs’ handling of Jesus witness to Nicodemus ranks among the best this reviewer has read. Barrs explains that Jesus exposes Nicodemus’ need for the new birth by revealing Nicodemus’ ignorance of it. According to Barrs, Jesus exposed Nicodemus’ ignorance by alluding to Old Testament passages Nicodemus should have mastered (Ps 87 for “new birth,” Ezek 37 for “wind,” Dan 7 for “Son of Man,” Num 21 for the “serpent in the wilderness”). Jesus attempted to drive Nicodemus back into Scripture to learn of his need and the possibility of new birth.
Second, Barrs’ ability to extract principles of evangelistic work from Jesus’ evangelistic practices deserves commendation. For example, Barrs makes the good point that many people need to experience the humbling effect of the Law before hearing the joyous news of Christ’s death and God’s gracious offer of salvation (65). Only in the context of guilt before God’s Law does the cross and God’s offer of grace make sense. The Law, then, serves as a theological “Kindergarten” of sorts in which unbelievers learn the first principles of the gospel. Without mastering the lessons of the theological kindergarten, unbelievers have not readied themselves for the higher grades of gospel instruction (140, 143).
Third, Barrs provides considerable attention to the need to evangelize the morally upright. In one place he labels such persons the “older brother” of the prodigal son (127). He explains how the prodigal’s father welcomed not only the rebellious son, but also extended grace to the older brother. Similarly, he encourages witnesses to insist upon the “older brother’s” need for grace as they find their exaggerated sense of righteousness inadequate before God. While he does not use these terms, Barrs’ has equipped readers to evangelize not only those who fit the profile of Romans 1:18–32, but also those who fit the profile of Romans 2:1–25. Imagine the impact of this recommendation in churches where devotees have not heard a gospel sermon in decades.
Fourth, Barrs explains the usefulness of stories in witnessing. A book that expounds narratives of Jesus’ evangelism should do this, and Barrs does it well (127–29). Barrs’ explanation of the use of stories in evangelism can benefit readers at many points especially because Barrs does not overstate Jesus’ use of stories, nor does he dismiss the use of propositional truth.
Finally, Barrs makes sparing but appropriate use of his personal witnessing encounters to illustrate the book’s content. While anecdotes should usually not find their way into an academic work, sparing use of appropriately chosen personal stories can assist the reader with biblical studies such as Barrs’ in that they bridge the world of the text with the world of the interpreter. While the secondhand anecdotes he chose to use from the 1960s do not help much (29–30, 143), his personal ones do (214, 216).
While Barrs deserves commendation, readers need to be aware that his work contains some weaknesses. Some of these weaknesses muffle his strengths, and these weaknesses center on hermeneutics. First, Barrs practices anachronism. He reads into Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well current and popular psychological theories of vulnerability and “sparks of true humanity” (42, 95). He makes major points from such notions, too. Second, Barrs, at times, does not define significant words as carefully as readers need. One such word is “condemn,” which Barrs uses in relation to unbelievers, and depending on how Barrs defines it (readers do not know), one might agree or disagree. Witnesses living in a mindlessly tolerant culture could have used his counsel on this. Third, Barrs chides active witnesses for their eagerness to introduce people to the Lord. When commenting on Nicodemus’ flattery of Jesus (John 3:1–2), He supposes, “Wouldn’t we have jumped in quickly with an account of how to be saved and then urged his inquirer to follow us in a prayer of commitment?” (54). The passage that follows (John 3:3–36) describes just how Jesus “jumped in quickly with an account of how to be saved,” (v.3–15), a biblical description on how to respond to the gospel and why (v.16–17), and the dangers that await those who reject (v.18–21, 36). In chiding eager witnesses, Barrs comes too close to chiding Jesus, who called unbelievers to an immediate decision (Mark 1:15; 8:34–38). Barrs makes this same mistake in other places (70, 73–74). Barrs’ hermeneutical mistakes appear in other places as well (60, 63, 76, 78, 119), some of them as serious as the ones described above (89, 109). Finally, Barrs probably should have considered not only Jesus’ example of evangelism but also his teaching on evangelism. Such attention could have mitigated the other difficulties with this work.
Readers can benefit from Barrs’ work if they practice good biblical hermeneutics when reading it. The benefits he offers are real and weighty. Readers will gain insight into Jesus’ theology of salvation and approach to sharing it in personal evangelism. Read Barrs’ work and read other good works on Jesus and evangelism (especially Robert Coleman’s The Master’s Way of Evangelism, Delos Miles’ How Jesus Won Persons , and L.R. Scarborough’s How Jesus Won Men). Readers should read, however, with discernment in the mind and a Bible in hand.
See also Crossway’s description.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary