The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is one of the most difficult concepts for the human mind to comprehend. It is particularly difficult to understand exactly how the Holy Spirit works in the process of evangelism. Sincere and studious believers often disagree on exactly how much of the results in evangelism can be attributed to the evangelist, how much to the seeker, and how much to the Holy Spirit. In addition, people struggle with the scope of what the Holy Spirit does. While we may never arrive at a complete understanding, knowing that the Holy Spirit is involved can give us some reassurance that the work is not all up to us.
Born of the Spirit
Jesus told Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Clearly, the Holy Spirit is a central element in the process of being born again. Jesus described the Spirit’s work as being as mysterious and powerful as the wind (3:8).
The early church had that conviction. Clearly the efforts of the early church in the book of Acts were undergirded by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is mentioned at least 55 times in the book of Acts. Without Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit, there would have been no church at all, not to mention the gifts of the Holy Spirit that edify the church.
How is the Holy Spirit involved in evangelism and conversion? We could begin with something obvious. The Holy Spirit conceived Jesus, our redeemer. When the angel told Mary she would give birth to the Messiah, she was confused since she was a virgin. The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Without Jesus there is no need for evangelism. Without the redeeming work of Jesus, there is no good news at all.
The Word and the Spirit
Something else we depend on is the convicting work of the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit inspired the Bible, and its message is our message. Peter said, “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). We are not inventing a message ourselves; we are sharing a revealed message.
We can find in the Scriptures that the Holy Spirit gives us help in knowing what to say in a challenging situation. Jesus told his disciples not to worry about what to say before the authorities; the Holy Spirit would assist them in knowing what to say. He told them, “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11). While this is a promise to the apostles for a specific situation not directly connected to evangelism, it would not be a stretch to conclude that all those who bear the gospel could depend on something like this in their time of need.
Led by the Spirit
The Holy Spirit providentially brings people together. We see this in Acts 8:26-40. An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26). Not long after that, we note that “The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’ Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked” (Acts 8:29, 30).
The Holy Spirit convicted Philip to go to a particular place and talk to a particular person. Philip had already been led to share the gospel with some Samaritans. He would become so associated with helping people find Christ that he would be called Philip the Evangelist. Right after Philip led the Eunuch to Christ and baptized him, Luke tells us, “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39). Here we take note that the Spirit led Philip to another place to continue his evangelistic labors.
Helped by the Spirit
The Holy Spirt prepares the hearer. In the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch, we see a man who already believed in God and was interested in the Bible. He owned a personal copy of a Bible book, which would have been extraordinary at that time. He was even reading it and was fascinated by the possibility of a messiah without really knowing him. All he knew was what he had read in the book of Isaiah about a suffering servant. He may well have felt like an outsider and wondered if it was possible for him to be fully accepted by God. This man was ready for Philip’s message and Philip was eager to share.
The Holy Spirit gives us boldness. In Acts chapter four, we find that Peter and John had been arrested for preaching about Jesus and doing miracles in his name. The religious leaders threatened them and let them go with a solemn warning to stop preaching and teaching about Jesus. Peter and John then met with the church community and prayed about what to do. Luke records, “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31). It has always taken boldness to be a carrier of the message of Jesus. The early Christians pursued evangelism even in the face of death. Some still do. Even though it is not likely to be a threat to us, it still requires boldness to talk to people about their pilgrimage, which is quite personal.
When Jesus promised that the disciples would receive the Holy Spirit, it was in connection with his great commission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). I do not know of any way to take the gospel to the entire world without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. It must have seemed daunting to the disciples and they did not yet know how big the world was. Still, they went in the promise and power of the Holy Spirit. We will need the Spirit no less.
I do not know how to tell you how to be certain the Holy Spirit is prompting you to say a particular thing to a particular person. There is no standard formula here. Often these kinds of convictions are recognized in retrospect. What I can say is that anytime you have an urging to share the gospel, you should share the gospel. It does not matter whether the prompting comes from the Holy Spirit or your own heart, you should act on it. No matter the motivation, when you share the gospel, the Holy Spirit is your partner.
J. Michael Shannon is professor of congregational ministry for Johnson University and program director of their Indiana and Kentucky projects. He has held preaching ministries and church planting ministries in Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, and Kentucky and taught at Cincinnati Christian University for over 20 years. Mike is the author or co-author of seven books for ministers and the Bible study book, Lighten Up.