“Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19). With these words, Jesus gave not only Peter and Andrew, but each of His future followers, the ultimate illustration of the truth that Christ-followers are to be Christ-proclaimers. As Thomas Boston would later put it: “The design and work of fishers is to catch fish. This is the work that preachers of the gospel have taken in hand, even to endeavour to bring souls to Christ.”
Fishing is not abstract or theoretical, but instead is a practical (albeit patience-stretching) exercise. A fisherman does not catch fish by thinking about fishing. His nets do not fill up simply because he has the right gear in his tackle box. Rather, to catch fish, the fisherman needs to drop his line and do some work.
So it is with evangelism. We do not fulfill our Lord’s Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) simply by thinking evangelistic thoughts, debating evangelistic methods, or even reading evangelism-centered books. Rather, we are “fishers of men” only when we actually fish for men!
This article will lay out four practical tips for “dropping our lines” into waters which are teeming with unconverted “fish”—men, women, and children who need to hear the saving gospel message.
Fishermen go to great lengths (and great expense) to attract fish to their hooks. They will find just the right spot, at just the right time of day, with just the right type of lure or bait (which will have just the right sparkle or odor designed to attract the type of fish being sought). Ultimately, it will be the setting of the hook and the spooling of the fisherman’s reel which will bring the fish into the boat, but the hook is typically adorned in such a way as to attract fish.
There is a clear parallel with the gospel and our charge from Christ to be evangelists. While we know from Scripture that it is the gospel which “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16), it nevertheless is our duty, as “man-fishers,” to adorn that gospel.
What this does not mean is either watering down the gospel (in a libertine manner) or adding to the gospel (in a legalistic manner). What this does mean is that we are to demonstrate the inherent beauty of the gospel by living a faithful and Christ-honoring life, recognizing that “we are a fragrance of Christ” both to “those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15).
As we interact with unbelievers, how do we “bait ‘em” through the adornment of the gospel? There are several ways to do so. First, we “bait ‘em” by demonstrating that we are normal human beings, just like they are. This means not being cold or robotic or scripted as we look for opportunities to launch into the gospel. Instead, it means being warm in demeanor (not stuffy or sour), and it means capably reading body language and non-verbal cues. It means interacting with the unbeliever in the same way we would interact with an old friend whom we have not seen for some time. Second, we “bait ‘em” by showing genuine interest in them, by asking insightful questions, listening intently to what they have to say, and not interrupting them (Prov 18:13). Third, we “bait ‘em” by connecting with them by noting common touchpoints (having children in the same age range, living in the same neighborhood, rooting for the same sports team, having the same alma mater, etc.)
Each of items listed above is a form of “bait” which the skillful evangelist can use to adorn the “hook” of the gospel. But as any good fisherman will tell you, if the only thing a man ever does is put bait on a hook, he has not actually gone fishing. Eventually, he will need to drop his hook in the water.
The purpose of our evangelistic encounters is not merely to have friendly conversations with people who stand on the precipice of hell. Rather, our purpose is to lead them to Christ. Our purpose is to win souls! Practically speaking, this means that after “baiting ‘em” with the strategies mentioned above, the conversation will eventually need to shift from the secular (common interests) to the spiritual (Christ). This phase represents the heart of the evangelistic task itself, as we “hook ‘em” with the gospel message.
The ways a soul-winner can “hook a fish” through evangelism are potentially limitless and are driven by the circumstances of each individual encounter and the evangelist’s preferred method of communicating gospel truth. For instance, in door-to-door evangelism (an unfortunately-declining practice in our day), an evangelist can spark a gospel conversation with a Roman Catholic by commenting on a picture of the Virgin Mary hung on a wall behind the person answering the door. Or in the workplace, when a co-worker shows himself or herself to be a well-rounded, thoughtful person, the evangelist can pay a well-timed compliment about their co-worker’s breadth of knowledge, which can be followed up with the question: “Are you also interested in spiritual things”? This is a perfect segue to sharing the gospel! Another way to “hook” the unbeliever with the gospel is to tie their common, everyday experiences to common motifs of Scripture (for instance, drawing a parallel between a beautiful sunset and the existence of the Creator, or pointing to the loss of a loved one or the sensation of physical pain as evidence of the Fall, or highlighting a restored relationship as tying in with the biblical theme of restoration to God through Christ). Of course, none of these methods constitutes the gospel message itself. Each of these examples is, instead, “pre-evangelism.” The pump is being primed. Or, to keep with the fishing analogy, the hook is being dangled.
To actually “hook ‘em,” it is necessary to share with the unbeliever the substance of the saving gospel message. This includes telling the person to whom we are witnessing that there is a God, who is their Creator, who is perfectly holy, and who requires perfect obedience to His law. This includes showing them who they are in the eyes of the God of the Bible, which includes telling them that they have broken God’s law, telling them that they will pay the eternal penalty for sin, and showing them that they cannot save themselves by their good works. This includes telling them that Christ came to earth as both God and sinless man, that the Lord Jesus demonstrated God’s love by dying on the cross to pay sin’s penalty, and that He rose from the grave and is alive today. And last, this includes urging the unbeliever to repent of all that dishonors God, and to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This message—the gospel message—is the only “hook” that will ever haul in a “fish” (Acts 4:12).
Unfortunately, not every unbeliever will take the “bait” of our adorned lives and immediately sink their teeth into the “hook” of the gospel. Not all evangelistic encounters we are privileged to participate in will lead to a person immediately falling on their knees in repentance and being ushered into the family of God. Rather, those who are dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1) dislike the hard edges of biblical truth. Unregenerate sinners do not like being told they are sinners, and in their flesh do not want to give up their lifestyle of sin. And the way they tend to express their displeasure with the gospel is in the form of various arguments and objections.
What this means for us, as “fishers of men,” is that we will sometimes need to “fight” the fish before they wriggle off the hook. We will need to “fight ‘em.” To “fight ‘em” does not mean we are to be obnoxious or argumentative or warlike in our presentation of the gospel. Rather, it simply means we need to be prepared to fight back – with God’s Word – against any mischaracterizations, objections, or otherwise incorrect assumptions the person we are sharing with has about the Christian faith.
For instance, if a person’s objection to Christianity is of the common “what about those who have never heard the gospel?” variety, the evangelist can emphasize the truths of Romans 3:23 (that “all have sinned”) and the truths of Romans 1:18-21 (that all have rejected the knowledge of God which has been revealed to them both through creation and their conscience) before unapologetically landing on the truth of John 14:6 that “no one” comes to the Father but through Jesus Christ.
Equally common is the objection that the Bible is an error-laden book written by mere men. The most basic way to fight back against such an objection is to ask the unbeliever to point to one such “error.” They likely will not be able to rattle off a so-called “problem passage” (let alone an “error” – since there are none). Having overcome such an “objection,” the skilled evangelist can then pivot and help the unbeliever see that over time, through its preservation and its perfect prophetic accuracy, the Bible has demonstrated that it is exactly what it claims to be – not the words of “mere men,” but instead the “word of God” (1 Thess 2:13).
Last, the man-fisher might face the “God knows my heart” objection. Indeed, God does know the heart of the unbeliever – as He does of all of mankind. And His commentary on the heart of man is not positive (Gen 6:5 (“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”); Jeremiah 17:9 (“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick”)). Helping the unbeliever see that their objection places them in direct opposition to a holy God will set up the opportunity to show them their need for a heart transplant (Ezek 36:26).
A fisherman’s day is not complete when he throws his bait in the water. Nor is his day complete when he eventually hooks and fights a fish while he has that fish on the line. Eventually, as we will see next, he needs to land the fish.
Delivering the gospel message to an unsaved person is one thing. Bringing the person to a commitment is quite another. Just as the fisherman eventually needs draw in the net, the evangelist needs to do the same. At some point, the unbeliever needs to make a decision about whether they are going to accept the gospel message they have heard and give their life to Christ, or instead whether they are going to reject the life-saving gospel message and face eternal torment in hell.
A simple way to draw in the net after sharing the gospel – and to “land ‘em” – is to ask this very basic question: “Based on what I have just shared with you, are you ready to repent of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
If they say “yes,” praise the Lord! Offer to pray with them and for them right there on the spot. Also, encourage them to pray, and as they do so to confess their sinfulness to God, to ask God for forgiveness of their sins through Christ, and to declare to Him that they are now committed to following Christ as their Lord and Savior. Recognizing that evangelism is simply one component of the Christian’s broader charge to make disciples (Matt 28:19-20), invite them to attend church with you that Sunday, and (if you do not have it already) offer to exchange contact information, so that you can continue to walk them through the next stages of discipleship.
If they say “no,” confirm with them once more that they know what they are saying “no” to (hope and eternal life), and that they understand that by rejecting Christ, they will receive the due penalty for their sins in hell. After doing so, not much more can be said. This is not the time to try to argue with them. We must not undermine our evangelistic witness by pushing too hard or aggressively in our gospel-sharing tactics. Nor is a “no” the time to lose heart and engage in self-blame. We need to remember it is God – not us – who is sovereign in salvation. Finally, a “no” means it is time to pray. Let the person know you will be praying for them, and in your personal prayer time, pray fervently for their salvation.
Whether he casts his line into the frigid deeps of Lake Superior or into the bathwater-temperature waters of the Gulf of Mexico, every fisherman has many stories to tell. And if he has had any success in catching fish, his stories will include some aspect of each of the four tips mentioned above: baiting, hooking, fighting, and ultimately landing the fish.
What will our story be, as evangelists? Are we, in fact, faithful “fishers of men”? May we, as Spirit-indwelt sons and daughters of the living God, have many stories to tell not only of the opportunities He gave us to win souls, but of the souls we actually won as, through our lips, the saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ was faithfully heralded and proclaimed.
 Thomas Boston, The Art of Man-Fishing (Louisville, KY: GLH Publishing, 2006 repr.).