For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God (Acts 20:27).
If you search “verses on evangelism” on the web, you will get about 573,000 results.
While I have not checked every one, I suspect that the first verse on evangelism in the Bible is not on anyone’s top ten list and that is unfortunate because it is probably the most important.
The First Call to Evangelism
Near the end of the sixth day of creation, God comes to Adam and Eve in the garden and tells them why they were created—he gives them their job description. God tells them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). This first call to evangelism is spoken by God himself to our original parents calling them to fill every corner of the earth with images that would reflect the glory of God.
But there is more than just filling the earth with God’s images. The images are then to go on to subdue the earth.
Wayne Grudem suggests the Hebrew word kabash, which is translated “subdue” in Genesis 1:28, means to make the earth useful for human beings’ benefit and enjoyment. In other words, these images are to go and make it possible to increase flourishing in God’s creation.
Unfortunately, as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, sin came into the created world and humanity was plunged into darkness, rendering us incapable of fulfilling our original purpose of filling and subduing the earth (Genesis 3).
But all was not lost, God’s redemptive plan eclipsed our depravity with a transformational promise (John 3:16) that provides a path for us to restore our broken relationship with our creator through his son.
Jesus’ call to follow him is a redemptive return to a lost and forfeited calling: a call to fill the world with God’s redeemed images who, through their obedience, subdue the earth and (in the process) reflect the glory of God.
A Redeemed Mandate
The good news of the gospel is that because of the work of Christ on our behalf, we can now do the work we were made to do, finding purpose and significance in all we have been called to do in Christ. Tim Keller writes in his book Every Good Endeavor that, as believers,
…we are continuing God’s work of forming, filling, and subduing. Whenever we bring order out of chaos, whenever we draw out creative potential, whenever we elaborate and “unfold” creation beyond where it was when we found it, we are following God’s pattern of creative cultural development.
The prophet Habakkuk describes what this will look like in the future when this work is complete,
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14).
He is describing a time when the earth is filled with God’s redeemed images doing what they were made to do. We cannot separate the filling from the subduing; they work together. As Keller states above, it is cultural development writ large to the glory of God.
In the church today, we have separated the two commands to “fill” and “subdue.” We have redefined evangelism (filling the earth) as sending converts to heaven. This my-salvation-is-a-bus-ticket-to-heaven mentality completely misses God’s original plan.
In the Great Commission passages (Matt. 28:18), Jesus is just restating the Genesis 1 mandate in light of his life, death, and resurrection. The goal is, as it has always been, to fill the earth with redeemed images, disciples, followers of Jesus who know him, represent him, work toward establishing his kingdom, and, in the process, reflect his glory. God’s original plan has not changed.
One of the problems of our current Christian culture is that we have embraced the spiritual/secular divide. This divide is a distorted worldview, a false dichotomy, which suggests that some of the things we do are spiritual (and therefore more valuable to God) and the rest are secular. This perspective says the secular is not necessarily bad, it’s just unimportant to God.
Today, many Christians put “evangelism” into the spiritual category and most of our “subdue” work into the secular category. This type of compartmentalization is completely unbiblical.
When the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, “…whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), he is saying that everything is spiritual.
One of my favorite quotes regarding this spiritual/secular divide is from a sermon preached in 1874 by the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon:
To a man who lives unto God nothing is secular, everything is sacred. He puts on his workday garment and it is a vestment to him. He sits down to his meal and it is a sacrament. He goes forth to his labor, and therein exercises the office of the priesthood. His breath is incense and his life a sacrifice. He sleeps on the bosom of God, and lives and moves in the divine presence. To draw a hard and fast line and say, “This is sacred and this is secular,” is, to my mind, diametrically opposed to the teaching of Christ and the spirit of the gospel.
Putting “Subduing” Back Where It Belongs
We must stop separating our call “to fill” and “to subdue” in this manner. We must see that our evangelism (filling the earth) must take place in the context of our subduing work. Everything we do needs to fall in these two categories and it is all spiritual work done to the glory of God.
The Apostle Peter tells us, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Where does this happen? While we are doing our subduing work. We reflect God’s glory when we do what we were created to do. We cannot do one without the other. They are both an integral part of our witness. Our lives are to be lived out to serve the common good and to glorify God through all we do and say.
As Nancy Pearcey writes in her book Total Truth:
The promise of Christianity is the joy and power of an integrated life, transformed on every level by the Holy Spirit, so that our whole being participates in the great drama of God’s plan of redemption.