Words such as gospel, Great Commission, evangelism and mission are popular these days. Influential blogs, books and conferences alike utilize these terms and their cognates (e.g., gospel-centered, missional, etc.) in their titles and themes.
With as much excitement and encouragement as this trend brings, believers must guard against the temptation of talking about the gospel to those who know it best without taking the gospel to those who need to hear it most.
Whatever meaning believers ascribe to being “gospel-centered” should incorporate an understanding that our conversations with unbelievers should center on the gospel as much as, if not more than, our conversations with believers.
To ensure we do so, believers should employ a standard measure by which we test ourselves – a gospel Shibboleth, so to speak.
The concept of a Shibboleth is derived from Judges 12:1-6, which recounts how men from the tribe of Ephraim stridently confronted Jephthah over his defeat of the Ammonites. A fight ensued between the men of Ephraim and the Gileadites who were led by Jephthah. Jephthah and his army prevailed, positioning themselves at the fords of the Jordan River that led to Ephraim. Fugitives of the defeated tribe of Ephraim came to the fords in order to return home. The Gileadites asked, “Are you from Ephraim?” If they replied, “No,” the Gileadites instructed them to say “Shibboleth,” testing whether or not they were fugitives. When men from Ephraim said, “Sibboleth,” because they could not pronounce the word correctly, they failed the test and were executed.
The intentional and consistent practice of personal evangelism serves as the Shibboleth by which we should evaluate our gospel verbiage.
The true test of our gospel-centeredness isn’t that we merely talk about the gospel among sympathetic groups of believers; rather, it encompasses our telling the gospel to apathetic, even skeptical, unbelieving audiences.
Whereas the men of Ephraim had trouble with pronunciation, our trouble tends to lie with proclamation (or, rather, the lack thereof).
The gospel enterprise is not hindered by our inability to pronounce words like gospel, evangelism and Great Commission (we can and do articulate them quite well); however, the work of the gospel will be hindered if we fail to proclaim intentionally and consistently the Word of the Cross to those who have yet to receive its message.
The men of Ephraim were victimized when they failed the Gileadites’ test. In contrast, those of us who fail the test of the gospel Shibboleth at one time or another will not become victims. Instead, the victims of our failure to evangelize are the souls of unbelieving men, women, boys and girls on a trajectory toward hell. For this reason, we must evaluate whether we spend most of our time talking about the gospel with believers or telling the gospel to unbelievers.
Utilizing evangelism as a believer’s gospel Shibboleth isn’t a new concept; it is simply a new way of saying it.
On August 22, 1903, Henry Crocker published a poem in a Chicago Baptist newspaper. In it, he conveyed through the term “watchword” the same idea as a gospel Shibboleth. His challenge to his readers in the 20th century rings true for believers in the 21st century:
Give us a watchword for the hour,
A thrilling word, a word of power;
A battle-cry, a flaming breath,
That calls to conquest or to death.
A word to rouse the church from rest,
To heed her Master’s high behest;
The call is given: Ye hosts arise,
Our watchword is Evangelize!
The glad evangel now proclaim,
Through all the earth, in Jesus’ name;
This word is ringing through the skies,
To dying men, a fallen race,
Make known the gift of gospel grace;
The world that now in darkness lies,
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Matt Queen is associate professor of evangelism and associate dean for doctoral programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Roy Fish School of Evangelism & Missions. He holds the school’s L.R. Scarborough Chair of Evangelism – “The Chair of Fire”.)