Volume 39 - Issue 1

Do the Work of an Evangelist

By D. A. Carson


One of the odd things about the English language is how many words it has. For example, English has about three times as many words as French. That doesn’t mean that the working vocabulary of the average English speaker is larger than the working vocabulary of the average French speaker, of course.

“Do the work of an evangelist.” (2 Tim 4:5)

One of the odd things about the English language is how many words it has. For example, English has about three times as many words as French. That doesn’t mean that the working vocabulary of the average English speaker is larger than the working vocabulary of the average French speaker, of course. Most competent speakers of any language use only a small part of the total vocabulary of the language in which they are speaking. Nevertheless the difference in size of the total vocabulary is curious. The primary reason for the difference in vocabulary size between English and French lies in the different ways in which the two languages were formed. In keeping with other romance languages, French has depended on Greek and Latin for much of its word formation (though of course it has “borrowed” plenty of words from other languages). By contrast, English arose out of not only Greek and Latin, but Anglo-Saxon, with side input from Norse and Celtic languages.

The result is that English has many synonyms that have sprung up from separate linguistic heritages. These synonyms rarely share exactly the same semantic range; usage introduces distortions. The subject is deep, we say; it is very profound. In this context, it is difficult to discern a substantive semantic difference between deep and profound. On the other hand, we happily affirm that the well in the farmyard is deep; we would not say it is profound. Why not? Simply because we do not use profound in that way. By contrast, a French speaker will have no difficulty averring that both the subject and the well are “profond,” and will render both English deep and English profound by the French “profond.” If a scholar were trying to translate a French document into English, however, and came across the French word “profond,” he or she would have to think carefully about whether to choose deep or profound.

This is a rather roundabout way of reflecting on the fact that both translational and theological pitfalls lurk in the underbrush when moving from one language to another. In modern English, we distinguish expiation and propitiation. The former is the sacrificial act by which sin is canceled: the object of the action is the sin. The latter is the sacrificial act by which God is made propitious: the object of the action is God. Granted who the God of the Bible is, it is difficult to see how you can have one without the other: the same sacrifice that cancels sin by the sacrifice that God has ordained also turns aside his own the judicial wrath. Nevertheless it is useful to distinguish between the two notions. French has only one word, “expiation,” and it can convey both the cancellation of sin and the setting aside of the wrath of God, depending on the context. Competent French speakers simply do not have a word equivalent to the English propitiation. That is not to say that French theologians know nothing about the concept of propitiation, of course, for the concept depends on much, much more than the meaning of a single word. But it is to say that they do not have one word that univocally means what English-speakers mean by propitiation. And that in turn means that the history of debate about what the cross achieves differs significantly in French and English scholarship.

Sometimes the fact that English uses two words where the French (and the Greek!) have only one can trip us up and focus our gaze in a slightly misleading direction. For the purposes of this editorial, one of the most telling examples is one so close to us we sometimes fail to see it. English has two words, “gospel” and “evangel,” where the Greek has only one, εὐαγγέλιον. Themelios is sponsored by an organization called “The Gospel Coalition.” What signals would be hoisted if, instead, we called ourselves “The Evangel Coalition”? We may say, “Evangelicals believe the gospel,” which does not sound entirely tautologous, but to say it as a first-century Greek speaker must, “Evangelicals believe the evangel,” would be passing strange. And then, of course, if we start to reflect on all the related words now used in English—evangelicalism, evangelism, evangelical, evangelist, evangel, evangelization, evangelize, evangelically, evangelicism—we observe that some of them have no Greek counterpart. Interestingly enough, the more-or-less synonymous gospel does not boast the array of cognates that evangel does. Most of us would not translate 2 Tim 4:5, “Do the work of a gospeller” or “Do the work of a gospelist.” To make matters more complicated yet, one or two of the Greek cognates of εὐαγγέλιον are sometimes rendered into English in ways that, on the surface, seem less than direct. For instance, one might have expected εὐαγγελίζομαι to be rendered “to evangelize,” but in most English Bibles, it is more likely to be rendered by “to preach the gospel” or “to preach the good news” or the like, equivalent to τὸ εὐαγγέλιον κηρύσσω. If this were another sort of editorial, it would be worth exploring why this is the case.

Which brings us to the text at the top of this note. Paul tells Timothy, “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). That word “evangelist” (εὐαγγελιστής) is found only three times in the NT—once to designate Philip (Acts 21:8), once in a list of ministries (Eph 4:11), and here. I suspect that most of us read 2 Tim 4:5, “Do the work of an evangelist,” along some such lines as the following. Paul tells Timothy, in effect, that even when he is rightly involved in preaching, teaching, instructing, correcting, even when he is known for keeping his head in all situations and learning to endure hardship, he must not forget to do the work of an evangelist. Certainly it is easy for pastors in busy ministries to be so caught up in church-related service that they have few or no non-Christian friends. They may never share their faith and unpack the gospel to unbelievers from one month to the next. Seeing the danger, Paul commands Timothy to do the work of an evangelist—that is, preach the gospel to outsiders, share the gospel to outsiders, aiming to win converts. Make a priority of evangelism. Herald the gospel to outsiders, whether one-on-one, in small groups, or in larger contexts—this is what evangelism is, and this is what an evangelist does. In the midst of diverse and demanding ministry, do not forget to engage in evangelism.

Doubtless that is excellent counsel—but is this exactly what Paul is saying? Several factors must be raised.

(1) For some Christians, “the gospel” (equivalently, “the evangel”) is something you preach only to unconverted people. The gospel merely tips people into the kingdom; transformation and sanctification are sustained by discipleship. Once people become Christians, then the work of life transformation begins, often buttressed by various discipleship seminars: “Biblical Leadership,” “Learning to Pray,” “What to Do with Your Money,” “Christian Marriage,” and so forth—none of which falls under “gospel,” but only under post-gospel discipleship. In recent years, however, many preachers and theologians have convincingly argued that “gospel”/“evangel” is the larger category under which both evangelism and discipleship fall. In the NT, gospel is not everything—it is not law, for instance—but it is a very big thing, precisely because it is the unimaginably great news about what God is doing in and through King Jesus, especially in and through his cross and resurrection. A careful reading of Scripture shows how often Christian conduct is grounded in the gospel itself. For instance, the gospel is to be obeyed (e.g., 2 Thess 1:8); certain behavior conforms to the gospel, while other behavior does not (1 Tim 1:10–11). Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25)—transparently, this is a gospel appeal. In short, in the NT the gospel is preached both to unbelievers and to believers. It calls unbelievers to repentance and faith; it calls believers to ongoing faith and conformity to Jesus.

In other words, gospel ministry includes but is not restricted to what we commonly call evangelistic ministry (note the two words, gospel and evangelistic, making the discussion confusing). Gospel ministry is ministry that is faithful to the gospel, that announces the gospel and applies the gospel and encourages people to believe the gospel and thus live out the gospel. If this is so, then why should “Do the work of a gospeller” mean something more restricted, like “Do that part of gospel work that addresses unbelievers (i.e., that to which we sometimes restrict “gospel ministry,” calling it “evangelism”)?

(2) The context of 2 Tim 4:5 suggests that it is this large view of gospel ministry that is in view. After Paul’s passionate command to Timothy to preach the word, spelling out what it means (4:2), he warns that a time will come when people will not want to listen but will prefer teachers “who say what their itching ears want to hear” (4:3). “But you,” Paul tells Timothy, “keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (4:5). This does not sound like a list of discretely defined chunks of ministry, as if Paul were saying, “Study hard for your preaching, visit the elderly, catechize the young, provide good counsel, do the work of an evangelist”—add them all together, and you will be a well-rounded minister. Rather, the list Paul provides focuses not on discrete ministries but on global stances throughout Timothy’s ministry: “keep your head in all circumstances” is not a discrete thing to do, something to be added, for instance, to “endure hardship.” No, all of the entries on this list are comprehensive. In this context, then, “do the work of an evangelist” simply means “do gospel work”—and that summarizes all of the instructions in the preceding lines. That’s what ministers do. They “discharge all the duties of [their] ministry”: they do gospel work. Doubtless that includes what we mean by evangelism. In that sense, “do gospel work” includes doing the work of an evangelist. But in this context it is doubtful that Paul is narrowing the field.

(3) Of course, a word might become more restrictive in its pragmatic use in a particular context. When Philip is designated “the evangelist” (Acts 21:8), does this mean “evangelist” in the modern sense? Perhaps. Luke might be remembering Philip’s ministry to the Ethiopian eunuch, in which he was certainly preaching the gospel to an unbeliever. Interestingly enough, however, this passage designates him as “one of the Seven” (Acts 21:8; cf. ch. 6). The work of the Seven was not Bible teaching and evangelism, though transparently some of them, including Philip, did engage in such word-ministry. It is difficult to tell if Luke thinks of him as an evangelist in the modern sense—a specialist in outreach. He may simply have exercised gospel ministry.

The use of εὐαγγελιστής in Eph 4:11 is a bit different. There the location of the word in a series of expressions all related to word-ministries suggests that what is in view is the kind of gospel ministry that we associate with “evangelism.”

(4) Though the argument is not worth much, we should note that there is inscriptional evidence of εὐαγγελιστής used in a pagan setting to refer to certain kinds of pagan priests, without any thought that such priests were trying to win converts.

In sum: Owing to the way in which two different English word-groups—gospel and evangel—are used to render one Greek word-group (εὐαγγέλιον and cognates), it is possible we have sometimes read into our English texts over-specifications that may not be there in the original. In its context in 2 Tim 4:5, a case can be made that εὐαγγελιστής is a prime example. “Do the work of an evangelist” may well be an exhortation to engage in evangel ministry, in gospel ministry, which includes what we today mean by evangelism but should not be restricted to it.

D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and cofounder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.

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