As Christians, we know we’re called to share the gospel. But are we held accountable for sharing the gospel with every person we come into contact with? Greg and Amy respond, explaining relevant passages about Paul’s ministry. Listen to the entire #STRask podcast here.
Amy (reading question): Given Paul’s statement in Acts 20:26, are we held accountable for everyone who is lost that we come into contact with if we don’t share the gospel with them? Also, see 1 Corinthians 9:16.
Greg: Okay, Acts 20:26 says, “Therefore—” now, Paul is at Ephesus, he’s on his way back to Jerusalem, this is the end of his, I think, third missionary journey. He is saying goodbye to the elders at Ephesus because they will never see him again. He knows this. He’s going to Jerusalem where he is going to be bound, and bad things are going to happen to him, in a certain sense. And we know the rest of the story because we read the book of Acts, but he’s saying goodbye to the Ephesians. It’s a very emotional moment, and he says there that, “I testify to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.”
And so, this is a bit of a mysterious statement. On the one hand, there’s a sense in which Paul is not innocent of blood because he oversaw the execution of Stephen earlier in the book of Acts. So, what is he getting at here? Well, he is identifying the fact that he’s fulfilled a certain responsibility that he has. He says in another place, “Woe to me if I don’t preach the gospel.”
Okay, are these claims that are universalizable? I don’t think so. It’s not that we are not supposed to preach the gospel, but it’s clear that Paul had a very specific kind of calling, and I mean that quite literally. He was literally called by Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And then when he got his sight back in that occasion, if you remember the book of Acts, it was communicated to him the things that God was going to do through him and cause him to suffer for the kingdom’s sake. So, Paul had a very precise kind of calling on his life, and it was obligatory to him to fulfill that calling, which he did, and I think that’s his testimony here.
Notice that he says, “I am innocent of the blood of all men, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.” Now, he’s speaking to the Ephesian elders. He is not speaking about the whole world because he didn’t speak to the whole world. Okay. So, I think we have to be careful about universalizing this concept. I think he’s saying, “I am innocent because I fulfilled the task that I had with you, Ephesian elders,” or maybe a little bit broader to others that he’s preached to.
But I don’t think this implies that we are somehow guilty of the lack of faith that others have that we don’t preach to properly. If this were the case, every Christian would be guilty of other people’s blood, and if we’re guilty, why are they guilty, you know? It doesn’t indicate—when the judgment comes, they are judged according to their own deeds, and we are not judged, because of what Jesus was judged in our place. There may be a different kind of bema seat judgment where there’s awards giving, that that kind of thing, but I don’t take away from this text that teaching. And I think that would be a burdensome, debilitating kind of load to carry if we thought every person that we did not share Christ with, if they perish, that that blood is on our own head.
Amy: Well, we know that, like you said, we know that Paul did not tell every single person he met the gospel. I mean, that’s very unlikely. So, I think he’s fulfilling the ministry God has given him. And so, we’re all limited human beings, so we all do our limited role, and we fulfill that, and when we fulfill what God has called us to, then we’ve done our job.
Greg: Yeah, and you know, everybody can probably look at their life, even, you know, maybe Paul—I won’t speak for him right now—but we can all look at our lives and say we’ve worked really hard, but we could have done better, you know. There were opportunities that we missed, kind of thing.
Amy: And of course, like you said, we’re all called to tell people the gospel. It’s not like, I’m not saying that we’re not all called to that, but we are limited people.
Greg: In a broad sense, but that doesn’t mean that we have to communicate the gospel to every single person in every circumstance. That would be excessively tedious and, seems to me, would potentially cause more harm than good.
Amy: Even Paul said, there were times when he said, I’m going to the Gentiles now, and I won’t go to the Jews now. So, he was turning away from them and moving to other people.
Greg: One group and going to another group, right. And notice how he closes 2 Timothy, which is the last thing that he wrote. He said that I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. And those are general statements where he’s acknowledging that he did the things that he was obliged to do before God, and now he’s done. And he’s saying goodbye to Timothy. He’s passing the baton. I want to be able to say the same thing myself, but I don’t think I’m obliged to have witnessed to every person it was possible for me to witness to in order for me to be able to say I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.
Amy: Now, having said all that, I think it’s a good idea that we probably take this seriously and remind ourselves that we do have the gospel and there are people who don’t have the gospel. I think we could all probably feel the urgency of that a little bit more.
Greg: I think there certainly was that urgency in Paul’s life. There’s no question about that. And he had a particular desire. I mean, he’s expressing himself in very particular ways to the Ephesian church here of building that up. And in fact, he has a whole—his farewell is from verse 17 to the end of the chapter, verse 38. So, he has a lot to say about the way he comported himself among the Ephesians, and there’s a lot that we can take from that as well.