Imagine you’re sitting with your bible study group and a fellow Christian starts sharing about his teenage son. He admits that he has difficulty getting his son to engage with God and the Bible. Therefore, he is concerned about his son’s walk with the Lord. You begin to offer some advice that entails showing the boy that Christianity is true; in other words, present him with some apologetics. Then another Christian in the group objects to the usage of apologetics by citing a passage of Scripture. What do you do?
This actually happened to me recently. My wife and I participate in a home fellowship group where, the other night, one of the members began sharing about his son. My heart went out to him so I gently offered this piece of advice: “If you want to have the best chance at getting your son engaged with Christianity, you have to show him why it’s true.” As I began to explain what that looks like practically, another member of the group vehemently disagreed: “You don’t need anything but the Gospel. The word of God never returns void!”
The first thing that came to my mind was: Sure it does! The word of God returns void quite often! Let me explain what I mean by that.
This oft-cited saying is taken from Isaiah 55:11:
“So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty [void], without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”
A very important question to consider when reading this passage is: What does God mean when He says “My word”?
We speak of God’s word today as being synonymous with Scripture; that is, God’s Word is the Bible. We get clear indications as such from passages like Mark 7:13 and John 10:35. However the “word” of God referred to in Isaiah 55:11 is not referring to the Bible (or even the Law). We know this by paying close attention to the context of the passage. The prophet is writing to Israel of a time where they will be free from their bondage in Babylon. As a matter of fact, Isaiah 55:11 is the terminus of a long train of thought beginning all the way back in Chapter 51. In 51:14 we see a clear promise that Israel will leave Babylon: “The exile will soon be set free, and will not die in the dungeon, nor will his bread be lacking.” Between this verse and 55:11 God makes several promises that Israel will be set free and return to their land. Even greater is the promise that a future Suffering Servant (52:13-15) will come to redeem Israel along with the promise that God’s “covenant of peace will not be shaken” (54:10). After all of these promises are laid out in the previous chapters God then says, “[My word] will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (55:11).
The context is clear: God’s “word” refers to the various promises that He makes to Israel. His statement here is specifically intended to assure Israel that His promises will come to pass.
The mistake that the Christian in my fellowship group made was to equivocate between the word of God which refers to God’s promises to Israel and the word of God which refers to the Bible in other passages. Look at what he said again: “You don’t need anything but the Gospel. The word of God never returns void!” In other words, all we need to do for unbelievers is to read (or quote or paraphrase) the Bible to them and something magical will happen. But we know that is this not the case. Not everyone who hears or reads the Bible becomes saved. As a matter of fact, a number of people who grow up in church, are familiar with its teaching, and read and memorize Scripture later fall away and become avowed atheists. So the word of God actually does return void if, by that verse, one means quoting the Bible to induce a salvific effect on everyone who hears it.
On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the Christian that challenged me. “The word of God never returns void” has been tossed around in Christian circles for so long that it is now used as a kind of a slogan. So I want to be clear that this post is not meant to point the finger at a particular person but, rather, at bad exegesis (of which I have also been guilty in the past). On the other hand, we are obligated by God to present ourselves approved “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). This means that we must follow in the footsteps of the Israelites and meditate on the Bible day and night (Joshua 1:8) so that we can “be competent [and] equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Therefore, there are two very important principles (that I’ve picked up from other mentors) to follow when it comes to reading the Bible: Always pay attention to a passage’s context and always seek to resolve Scripture with itself. We paid attention to the context of Isaiah 55:11; now let’s see what the Bible has to say about evangelism and incorporating apologetics.
Three passages in the New Testament give us a picture of what our evangelism should entail.
- We are to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
- We do so by “always being ready to make a defense [apologetic] to everyone who asks… to give an account for the hope that is in [us]…” (1 Peter 3:15);
- And by “making the most of [our] time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16).
Our goal is to “make disciples of all the nations… teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded…” (Matthew 28:19-20). Ultimately, then, we see that making a defense, always being ready, making the most of our time, and teaching others is so much more than simply giving your testimony or quoting Scripture. We are in the business of disciple-making. For those who are ready to hear it, that means sharing the Gospel. For others (like this teenage boy, I suspect) that means taking the time to explain why Christianity is true.