It is interesting that when we read the New Testament epistles, we don’t find any impassioned pleas (as we often do today) for the believers to “get out there and reach the world for Christ!” The early Christians and Christian leaders realized that God was working with great effort to redeem the world, and their job was to cooperate with Him as He led them. If anyone knew this, it was the apostle Paul, whom no one “led to the Lord.” Rather, he was converted by a direct act of God as he journeyed to Damascus. And throughout the book of Acts, we find the church expanding because Spirit-anointed and Spirit-led people cooperated with the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts, although often referred to as “The Acts of the Apostles,” should really be referred to as “The Acts of God.” In Luke’s introduction to Acts, he stated that his first account (the Gospel that bears his name) was a record of “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1, emphasis added). Luke obviously believed that the book of Acts was an account of what Jesus continued to do and teach. He worked through Spirit-anointed and Spirit-led servants who cooperated with Him.
If the early Christians were not encouraged to “get out there and witness to their neighbors and help win the world for Christ,” what was their responsibility in regard to building God’s kingdom? Those who were not specifically called and gifted to proclaim the gospel publicly (apostles and evangelists) were called to live obedient and holy lives, and to be ready to make a defense to anyone who reviled or questioned them. Peter wrote, for example,
But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame (1 Pet. 3:14-16).
Note that the Christians Peter wrote to were enduring persecution. Unless Christians are different than the world, however, the world (of course) won’t persecute them. This is one reason there is so little persecution of Christians in many places today—because the so-called Christians act no differently than anyone else. They aren’t really Christians at all, and so no one persecutes them. Yet many of these kinds of “Christians” are being exhorted on Sundays to “share their faith with their neighbors.” When they do witness to their neighbors, those neighbors are surprised to learn that they are (supposedly) born-again Christians. Worse, the “gospel” they share amounts to little more than telling their neighbors the “good news” that they are mistaken if they think that good works or obedience to God has anything to do with salvation. All that matters is that they just “accept Jesus as their personal Savior.”
Contrasted with that, the early Christians (whose Lord truly was Jesus) stood out like lights in darkness, and so they didn’t need to take classes on witnessing or get up the courage to tell their neighbors that they were followers of Christ. They had plenty of opportunities to share the gospel as they were questioned or reviled for their righteousness. They only needed to set apart Jesus as Lord in their hearts and be ready to make a defense, just as Peter said.
Perhaps the primary difference between modern Christians and the early Christians is this: Modern Christians tend to think that a Christian is characterized by what he knows and believes—we call it “doctrine,” and we thus focus on learning it. In contrast, the early Christians believed that a Christian was characterized by what he did—and thus they focused on obedience to Christ’s commandments. It is interesting to realize that practically no Christian for the first fourteen centuries owned a personal Bible, thus making it impossible for him to “read his Bible every day,” what has become one of the cardinal rules of a contemporary Christian responsibility. I am certainly not saying that modern Christians shouldn’t read their Bibles every day. I’m only saying that too many Christians have made studying the Bible more important than obeying it. We ultimately pride ourselves for having correct doctrine (as opposed to those members of the other 29,999 denominations who aren’t quite up to our level) yet still gossip, lie and lay up earthly treasures.
If we hope to soften people’s hearts so that they become more receptive to the gospel, we are more likely to do it by our deeds than our doctrines.