The reason we must evangelize, with both creative yet charitable strategies, is because of the biblical concepts of being “in Christ” and “abiding in Christ.”
Our Lord told his disciples that, after his death and resurrection, “In that day you will know that I am in the Father, you in me and I in you” (Jn 14:20).
He desires that every person be in Him, “in Christ,” and this is what drives our need to share the gospel to every person in our lives: “Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).
A person normally becomes in Christ through baptism and faith, but sometimes only by faith, if a person has not been told about the necessity of baptism. As Saint Paul wrote, “… for in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ haveput on Christ” (Gal 3:26,27).
This baptismal entrance into Christ changes us: “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).
Through this baptismal entrance into Christ, we are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13), “having the eyes of [our] hearts enlightened” (Eph 1:18).
ABIDING IN CHRIST
But being in Christ is just the beginning, for Jesus told His followers that we must abide (remain, continue) in Him: “Abide in me, and I in you” (Jn 15:4).
How do we abide (remain, continue) in Christ? Essentially, this is what most of the New Testament is about, but simply we abide in Him through living out the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love, which is essentially what is meant by “believing.” As Jesus warned, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned”(Mk 16:15,16). Baptism brings a person into Christ, but believing is how that person abides in Him and by grace is saved.
This being said, the world can essentially be divided into four groups of people who need to be evangelized, but evangelized differently.
Those who are neither in Christ through baptism/faith, norabiding in Christ through living by grace in faith, hope, and love.
For these, we are called by our Lord to “[g]o therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). We don’t stand in judgement of anyone, for the Church teaches that God in His mercy can save anyone through Christ and His Church, even if they know neither; rather, we are called to speak the truth of Christ to them in love (cf, Eph 4:25).
(I was of this group until I was baptized as a Lutheran at age 7.)
Those who have been baptized into Christ, but are not abiding in Him.
These are fallen away or nominal Christians, for whom the Church has called for a New Evangelization. Many of these nominal Christians presume that once having been baptized into Christ, or once having “accepted Christ as their personal savior,” they are now guaranteed of salvation, regardless of how they “abide.” Yes, Saint Paul did say that the gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism is “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph 1:14), but this does not mean that this initial entrance into Christ guarantees that we will remain in Christ throughout our lives. As the author of Hebrews warned: “For it is impossible [not: humanly, for nothing is impossible for God] to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened [i.e., baptized into Christ], who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (Heb 6:4-6).
This is why Christ warned His followers that being in Him was not enough: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in Me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15:4-6).
Nominal or fallen away baptized Christians of all people need to be evangelized, for they may be the hardest to reach; they may have squandered the greatest gift they have been given, and may be held more accountable for this rejection than even those who had never been evangelized.
(I was of this group until age 21 when, through the reading of Scripture and the witness of an Evangelical Congregationalist pastor, the dormant graces of my baptism awakened into a life changing faith in Christ.)
Those who have not been or have been baptized, but do abide in Him, though imperfectly through separation from His Church and her Sacraments.
These are those baptized or un-baptized Christians who are not fully united in the Church. By their baptism and faith, they are indeed members of the Mystical Body of Christ, but imperfectly, and, therefore, need to be evangelized “for the sake of their salvation.” This is not a matter of having a name on a membership roll, but rather a matter of abiding fully in Christ. The only place in Scripture where Jesus explains clearly how we abide in Him is in his bold introduction of the Eucharist in John 6:
“So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:53-56).
In the very passages where He warned his followers to abide in Him, He also warned that apart from Him, we can do nothing (Jn 15:5), and the most sure way we are united with Him is through the Sacraments, particularly through the communion of His Eucharistic body and blood.
For these fellow Christian brothers and sisters, the Church has called Catholic Christians to reach out in love, in a unique form of evangelism called dialogue. Recognizing the many things that unite us, we stand, not above, but beside them in love and service, united in prayer and suffering, sharing with them the fullness of the truth that we have mercifully received as a gift of grace.
(I was in this group for the next twenty years, mostly in Protestant ministry, until by God’s grace my wife and I discovered the beauty of the fullness of the faith and were received into the Church.)
But I said there were four groups of people who need to be evangelized, and that fourth group is US!
As Saint Paul himself admitted, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us” (Phil 3:12-17).
Abiding in Christ is a lifelong quest, of working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), in imitation of Saint Paul as he sought to imitate Christ. For this, we must never fall into the danger of presumption, for as Saint Paul also warned, “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:12,13).
As the Church warns us: “Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but ‘in body’ not ‘in heart’” (Lumen Gentium 14; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 838)
Consequently, we each one of us are always in need of further evangelism, further awakening, further submitting to the love of Christ, for it is only then that we are able to be vessels of grace for the evangelization of others.
(Well, this is where I am now, and I’ve a long way to go! Lord, help us all to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1)).