Whole person evangelism: Caring for body, mind and soulWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
This side of the Great Commission, followers of Jesus understand that to follow our Lord means to make him known. We have the pleasure and privilege of being his representatives, declaring his kingdom and sharing his grace with a broken world.
How best to do that, however, remains a matter of debate among believers. There are those who feel an urgent need to inject a Gospel message into every conversation where possible, focusing primarily on saving souls, but with relatively little regard for the person’s physical, mental and emotional needs. Others believe it’s enough to follow Christ’s example by caring for people with practical acts of kindness and love, in hopes of attracting them to Jesus without words.
Both approaches contain an element of truth, but are also deficient, looking only at part of the picture. They miss the broader implications of the Gospel, the wider scope of the redemption that God is working out through his Son.
The Creation Mandate
Long before the Great Commission, God created humanity, men and women, in his own image. This did not mean they were spirits encased in bodies that didn’t matter, living in a physical world that didn’t matter. Their whole person – body, mind and soul – was perfectly integrated and reflected God’s glory. They were the capstone of his good and beautiful created order, both physical and spiritual.
God gave our first parents a commission of their own, known as the Creation or Cultural Mandate, which extends to all of their descendants. They were to be his representatives, exercising wise authority over his creation, caring for it and harnessing it for benefit and for beauty, to his glory. God values everything in his creation and we are to do likewise.
As God’s image bearers, humans were created for relationship with God and with each other. The three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, have existed forever in perfect loving unity, and human beings were designed to reflect that. We were made to love and to be loved. Everything we do – from planting crops to building cities to healing bodies to teaching about God – is to be done in the context of appropriate loving relationship.
God’s care for a broken world
Just as the whole person was created to reflect the image of God, so the whole person was broken by the fall of humanity. Every human faculty – body, spirit, intellect, will, emotion, relationship – became corrupted by sin. This wasn’t just brokenness but rebellion against God and thus also moral guilt before him. As a result, suffering, cruelty, disease and death entered the world and distorted the original goodness of creation.
The fallen nature of humanity led to a variety of ancient beliefs that saw the spiritual world as pure and perfect while the physical world was irredeemably defiled. The goal of life was to free the soul from the corrupting influence of the body, to live in some heightened state or an incorporeal afterlife.
This dualistic view, in which the spiritual is good and the physical is evil, was developed in the thinking of Plato and other Greek philosophers and became the framework for the early Gnostic heresies. Sadly, it has also influenced how some Christians understand the world and how they approach evangelism.
However, the view from Scripture is far different. The entire creation, physical as well as spiritual, has been tainted by the fall. Nevertheless, God continues to care for this broken creation with its broken humanity. He doesn’t whisk souls out of an evil world, but instead calls people to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Throughout the Old Testament, God frames his promises of blessing in physical terms – food and drink, music and laughter, healed bodies and healed relationships.
The Word made flesh, full of grace and truth
From the beginning, God purposed to redeem and restore his whole creation, a plan that was initiated and will be consummated through the incarnation of his Son. The physical world mattered to God so much that he entered it by becoming a human being. This wasn’t a pretense or illusion, as some strains of Gnosticism claimed. The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, was born of a woman as Jesus of Nazareth, with a real human body and human mind that needed to learn and grow, all the while remaining fully God. He experienced every temptation we do, and yet never sinned.
Jesus began his public ministry by declaring that the Kingdom of God had arrived and commanded people to repent and believe the good news. He taught about God in synagogues and public spaces and attracted disciples – not just the Twelve, but a larger group of men and women – to be in relationship with him and learn from him. He attended weddings and dinner parties, and welcomed those whom society rejected or dismissed: the sick, the poor, the social pariahs, foreigners, women. He fed them, healed their bodies and minds, forgave their sins, gave their souls hope, raised them from the dead.
At the cross, Jesus fulfilled the purpose for which he’d been sent and which God had planned since before Creation. The sinless Son of God bore the sins of the world and purchased redemption – not just for the souls of those who believe in him, but for their bodies as well, and for the creation itself. To demonstrate that the mission was accomplished, he then rose from the dead on the third day.
The Resurrection was scandalous to the Jews and nonsense to the Greeks. Some factions of Judaism did believe in a resurrection at the end of time, while others did not, but in either case, resurrection in the present world was unthinkable. For the Greeks, steeped in their dualistic philosophy of body and spirit, the whole point was to be free from the limitations and corruptions of the body. Who would want it back?
Nevertheless, Jesus did rise from the dead with a physical yet glorified body, the precursor of a new creation. Far from escaping the physical world, he has forever bound himself to a body that still bears the scars of his wounds, mementos of his loving act to save his people from their sins. Rather than discarding our bodies, he will raise and perfect them to be like his own, so that we can fully enjoy his presence for all eternity. God is redeeming whole people, body, mind and soul, and our evangelistic efforts need to reflect that.
Before returning to heaven, Jesus commissioned his followers to teach everything he had taught them, to testify to his resurrection and to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name. That’s a verbal message with specific content, and no amount of wordless evangelism can substitute for it. As the Apostle Paul wrote, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
At the same time, that verbal message cannot and must not be divorced from practical acts of kindness and compassion – providing for the poor, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, seeking justice for the oppressed. God commanded it in the Old Testament, Jesus modelled it in the New, and the Church practiced it from its earliest days. Caring for people in the context of appropriate loving relationship is integral to genuine evangelism and may, in fact, draw them to be open to the Gospel message.
Planting, watering and trusting God
The Book of Acts records the birth and growth of the Church through its first few decades as the Gospel spread from Jerusalem into Palestine and across the Greco-Roman world. What’s remarkable about these evangelistic accounts is their diversity. The core message remained consistent, but it was framed in a variety of ways, sensitive to the personal, cultural and religious context of the hearers. Some conversions were quick and dramatic, others the result of extended periods of teaching.
All of these efforts, however, were fuelled by prayer and relied on guidance from the Holy Spirit. In some instances, God arranged specific appointments, leading Peter to Cornelius and Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch. When Paul was at Corinth, the Lord encouraged him to stay the course because God had many people in that city. On another occasion, the Holy Spirit kept Paul and his team from going into various regions of Asia Minor, leading them instead into Macedonia and Greece.
The apostles and evangelists understood that the power and responsibility to save people rested with God, and God alone. They were merely to be faithful emissaries of the good news, leaving the results to their Sovereign Lord. As Paul later explained to the church at Corinth, when it comes to spiritual formation, one person plants and another waters, but God is the one who makes things grow.
The principle remains the same today. On certain occasions, it may be necessary to speak up promptly and forcefully. But most of the time, evangelism is more like planting seeds and watering a garden. We build relationships and friendships with people, earning their trust. We address their needs and listen to their stories with compassion and respect. We pray for them and we care for their whole person, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. And at the right moments, as the Holy Spirit leads, we share the good news about Jesus with them, trusting our Sovereign God to accomplish his perfect will in their lives.
All things made new
Near the end of the Book of Revelation, God declares that he is making all things new. He offers tantalizing glimpses of this renewed creation, which he calls the New Heavens and the New Earth. The New Jerusalem will be in it, a beautiful shining city of transparent gold, with a river of crystal-clear water flowing through it and a variety of fruit trees lining its boulevards. God himself will be directly present with his people, wiping away all of their tears so that suffering, sorrow and death will no longer be remembered.
Life in this new creation is variously described as a wedding feast, a banquet of delicious food and fine wine, and a palatial estate with many rooms, prepared by Jesus for each of his followers. In our glorified bodies, free of sin and pain and decay, we will be with the Lord forever, sharing his love and that of our redeemed brothers and sisters through all eternity.
From beginning to end, God created and redeemed us as whole people, body, mind and soul. It makes little sense, then, for our evangelistic efforts to focus only on the soul and downplay the mind and body. If we’re to follow the teaching and example of our Lord, we will care for all three. We’ll share the good news of the grace and hope we have in Jesus, but we’ll also demonstrate it via practical acts of kindness and love in the context of genuine relationships. By engaging in whole person evangelism, we can fulfill the entire scope of the Great Commission in spirit and in truth.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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