What you win them with is what you win them to: The Problem with Evangelism and giving testimonials today

I have a problem, not that anyone can help with this because I can’t change the past and make my Christian testimony more like many of the people I performed missionary work with years ago. It was as though I couldn’t become part of an elite class of Christians who by their very conversion superseded many of us who didn’t have such a dramatic or diametric opposite lifestyle before they converted to Christianity.

You see I came to know Christ as my Lord and saviour at the age of 14. Christ revealed Himself to me in a fairly rational non-dramatic way through what I would call a reflective process. What happened is that God used many things in my past life as a child to draw me into His grace and give me the gift of faith to believe that Christ substituted Himself as a propitiation or satisfaction for the sins of all believers who were formally under the condemnation of God’s wrath.

In this sense, Christ died so that our sins could be forgiven by His sacrificial death on the cross. Christ substituted Himself as an act of love and forgiveness so we are then able to enter into fellowship with God and enter His presence in prayer and worship. Also, we are given His spirit so that we may not sin but if we do sin we have a mediator who intercedes on our behalf. One could describe this as being found guilty of a crime in a court of law by a judge who after finding us guilty then proceeds to pay the penalty for that crime himself or substitutes himself in our place for that crime setting us free from the consequences of that crime.

This isn’t a perfect example but I hope you get the picture. Our actions in this life do not mitigate the earthly consequences of sin however in the spiritual sense, the eternal consequences from God’s perspective are satisfied. I am not attempting to write a doctrinal thesis regarding justification, sanctification or atonement. What I am attempting to do is change the focus from us as the recipients of God’s grace to God as the object or focus of our salvation through Jesus Christ and the grace He offers us.

Testimonies

There is not enough room here to recount the testimonies of the great men and women of faith throughout history that God has transformed by the act of regeneration. More importantly, we see this recorded in the bible how God takes people who are selfish sinners and transforms them for His own purposes into great leaders of the nation of Israel who by extension also reveal God’s redemptive plan of salvation for His elect people. All of the great people of faith both in the bible and more recent history have one thing in common that the Bible emphasises which is our inherent character flaws.

These character flaws are contrasted with the person of Jesus who committed no sin who is in actual fact God incarnate or the living image of God presented to us in the form of a perfect man sent to die of his own free will for the sins of the world. What you may notice is that I keep putting the emphasis back on God through Jesus Christ, what he has done, and the way He transforms us. We do this rather than going into all the detail about how awful we are or were by listing all the gory details of how bad we were before God called us to repentance in Him; It is enough to know we are sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy.

It is also important to point out that it is God’s Spirit that causes us to repent it isn’t an act of self-actualisation or of our will. Unless God first reveals our sin nature to us we are incapable of repenting. I do realise that there is a lot of debate and discussion about the order in which salvation or regeneration occurs and I might discuss this some other time; once more the relevant point is what God has done not what I did or can do.

The present state of Evangelism

This leads me back to what is the focal point of my discussion or problem with how many today present the gospel message in our postmodern society. To be honest, postmodernism isn’t even the issue in this discussion the issue is how many Christians today give their testimony.

Personal testimony is important; however how much detail of our past lives before Christ is important to the listener? Let’s be honest we all have a past, we all share in the common state that is called sin and we all know we have skeletons in our closets; we all have dark dirty little secrets that we would rather no one else knows about.

An associate of mine who is an atheist pointed something out in a discussion about apologetics and the kind of testimonies that Christians often use as ways to persuade their potential converts to repent. We want people to identify or understand why we convert but from an atheists perspective the method isn’t evidential, it’s primarily anecdotal or argued from personal experience; they aren’t impressed or even very interested in this approach at all.

My own past experience of sitting through missionary conferences when it came to testimony time was like sitting through a competition where converts would get up on stage to share the most intimate details of their past lives. Sometimes it would be that they were raging abusive alcoholics. Other times they were bikers, drug addicts, drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, gang members, white-collar criminals; the list is endless but my point here is that there was a certain one up man ship of who had the biggest sins. Witnessing isn’t a competition to get notches in your belt and testimonials are not public confessionals

My own testimony is nothing like this I was a 14-year-old kid who had lived in an isolated mental bubble or fantasy world through most of my childhood. At the time no one knew what Asperger Syndrome was. I was simply seen as a rather odd child with an apparent mild learning disability who spent most of his time wandering around the bush with his dog… So what? After my conversion at 14, I still flirted with the world and experimented with things I shouldn’t have… Again, so what! My experience of the world regardless of my differences and shortcomings are no different from the failings or temptations of anyone else who has lived, lives now, or will live in the future.

Common knowledge versus secret knowledge

Well, I couldn’t compete with these former low lives that God had so dramatically transformed. More to the point I knew a lot of people in my church group who never had lives like this either. Many of my church friends had grown up in Christian families never drank or smoked, never did drugs, were virgins when they married and well, were really boring!

At the same token, my boring church friends never had to go through all that other garbage to find faith in Christ. I am not saying they didn’t have character flaws. Some of them came across as a little self-righteous as a direct result of not having gone through all the stuff that others had. On the other side, those who had metaphorically been to hell and back would look down their noses at us and call us naïve because we had lived sheltered lives. The point here is that we lacked that special or secret knowledge of the world and how bad it really is.

On the surface, it really does appear to separate the rest of us from the elite. They think that because we didn’t live the way they did it or see the things they did we don’t know what that is like. Don’t be fooled by this attitude; I beg to differ from it! At the end of the day we all know what sin is, we all struggle with temptation and whatever it is that one has done or is tempted to do it is common to all of us and we all feel the same guilt that is what the bible says.

 

Our knowledge of the world whether it is experiential or intellectual doesn’t negate our understanding of the world. The Bible in many places tells us what the world is like. It tells us what the human heart is like and most importantly it tells us to avoid getting caught up in the things of the world. The bible specifically states that we are to live in the world but not to be of the world. Nowhere in the bible are we told to isolate ourselves from the world like the Amish do or the medieval monks did. Look how far they have gone away from the true meaning of Jesus specific instruction to be light to the world. What Jesus says here is a compelling argument where He says not to hide your light from the world. Don’t withdraw and don’t cover up but don’t become so like the world that you are of the world.

There are some fringe groups that argue that we should withdraw from the world that we should dress differently. They argue that we should only wear our hair a certain way or only listen to certain types of music avoid modern medicine or not have a television in their house. Those things are personal choices but at the end of the day they have nothing to do with real Christianity; they have nothing to do with what it means to sanctify ourselves before the Lord. Very often those who make these types of things a priority are the most sanctimonious, self-righteous and Pharisaic people you could ever meet. They are almost identical to the elite reformed sinners I mentioned earlier. They also think they have one over everyone else that they are a cut above the rest; no they are not, they are as bad as everyone else.

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Assumed knowledge shared experience and the need to repent

When we share the Gospel or our testimony we often talk about sin and repentance there is nothing wrong with this. Those of us who are born again should have come to know Christ as Lord and Saviour through conviction of sin and the realisation that we are to repent. This is central to Gospel and what God uses to convict us of our own sin.

Conversely, if you were asked to pray a prayer to receive Christ and you were not told of your need to repent of your former life. If you were told that all you have to do is ask Jesus into your life and nothing else and there is no evidence of conviction of sin and change; if there is no evidence of sanctification then you need to ask yourself if your faith is real. The bible doesn’t say simply pray a little prayer and you’re in the Jesus club it says believe and repent it says to call out to the Lord for your salvation. If you have been led to believe that all you need to do is pray a little prayer and nothing else then you’ve been sold a lie. This is commonly called cheap grace or no Lordship salvation; the correct term is antinomianism or no law for further discussion on antinomianism and its roots follow the links provided https://www.theopedia.com/antinomianism http://www.dictionary.com/browse/antinomianism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antinomianism

There are many teachers and groups within the Christian church today who argue all you need to do is ask Jesus into your life and you’ll go to heaven. They argue that because the bible only mentions repentance 38 times in 36 verses it is not an essential element of salvation. 35 of those verses and 37 of those references are specific commands to repent. They argue that the how to repent described in the Old Testament is under the covenant of works. While where it is described in the New Testament is under the Covenant of Grace.

I guess we can assume from this that many in Christendom have swallowed John Nelson Darby’s dispensational view. Many do so without ever having looked at the man himself or his roots and asked the question why so many have swallowed a view that is barely 200 hundred years old and is not mentioned in scripture. The theological gymnastics and proof-texting one has to perform to provide an argument for Dispensationalism is almost mind-boggling. The man was a cult leader of a branch that calls itself Christian.  Plymouth Brethren is exclusive in that they don’t believe anyone outside their group is saved and they are seriously controlling and secretive. Dispensationalism is the root of many other biblical errors including no Lordship salvation.

Once more I am not trying to argue that my own for my own objections being proof that the other side is wrong my point is many of us share a common knowledge of this view within the church. Outside the church, many of the terms and descriptions we use to describe our relationship with God and how others can enter into that relationship experience are not common knowledge.

In the Old Testament, repentance is mentioned 12 times.  11 of those verses describe how to repent, why to repent and the consequences of not repenting. Most importantly it says who should repent.

The synoptic Gospels, Matthew Mark and Luke reference repentance 9 times. The book of Acts references repentance 5 times and the book of Revelation repentance 12 times over 10 verses. In total repentance is mentioned 26 times in 24 verses in the New Testament. It says also says who should repent and why. In a nutshell, the bible says all men everywhere should repent it is a command and it’s not optional.

 

My point here is that in Old Testament in Jesus day and the time of the Apostles everyone knew the meaning and practice of repentance that is was a requirement for entering into fellowship or a relationship with the Lord God. Everyone shared the same knowledge it was a common understanding.

 

So why take a shot at my buddies who went through hell to find God where some of us just mildly slipped into it without all the drama? Well, one thing they got right is the need to repent and they are telling their story of repentance. My point where I criticise how some do evangelism and give their testimony is that we often put wrong emphases on how we try to share our faith with others. We spend so much time trying to find common ground that we almost glorify our past at the expense of what Christ has done.

So, which is more important, me and my insignificant little existence or the magnificence of God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ? I wonder if from a Calvinist perspective if all the personal detail is even necessary. Sure it’s important to give some background or evidence of how God changed us but shouldn’t the focus be on the work of Christ?

When it comes to evangelism I think the example given to us from the book of Acts is important Peter preached a risen Christ and the need to repent Acts 2:14-41 they didn’t go on about what they were like as fishermen. They proclaimed Christ whom the very people they were talking to crucified. Even the apostle Paul, although he could brag about being the Pharisee of Pharisee’s, was pretty honest in that it meant nothing Philippians 3:4-7 when by comparison God makes Himself lower than the angels and humiliates Himself to the point of living a limited human life  for 33 years only to die on a criminals cross Philippians 2:5-11.  What I am trying to say is that we need to have the humility that Paul displayed that Christ modelled for us. From a human perspective, it all seemed pretty pointless even the disciples didn’t get it and went off and hid themselves in for fear of the Jews in apparent disillusion and defeat John 20:19a. Although after Jesus appeared to them their faith and confidence were restored John 20:19b.-22.

This is the singular most pivotal important point in history. It explains the past present and future as to why we are all here and the very purpose of life. What does it matter what you or I have done it pales in significance to what God has done; this was the point Paul was making Philippians 3:7-11.

So then, why do we spend so much time talking about all the bad stuff when there is so much good news that we can proclaim about Christ? Paul used his own testimony as a way of saying I am nothing Christ is everything Philippians 3:7.

I think it boils down to this. It can be easily shown that at a point in our very recent history our focus changed from what I can do to honour God to how God can serve me and give me what I want. From the time of the Renaissance through the Reformation period there was an emphasis on glorifying God through art, music and literature. The bible was placed in the hands of the common people, the modern method of science was born and the modern foundations of mathematics began to mature. It was probably the greatest Cultural Revolution in history that we moved so far along in the space of a few hundred years. Then from the time of the enlightenment, the focus changed to the freedom of mankind and how great man was. [i]

Now, depending on your denominational background when people give their testimony it can sound like a sales pitch or it can be Hell and Brim Fire. It can all about what Jesus did for me or how if you asked Jesus into your life everything will be just peachy keen. TV Evangelists sound like motivational self-improvement speakers. Christianity in this mode is health wealth and prosperity while at the other end of the scale it’s all doom gloom where preachers literally try and scare the hell out of everyone.

By comparison, Paul and the Apostles testimonies were not a sales pitch, they were not man centred and they never mentioned anything about asking Jesus into our hearts as some kind of assurance that our confession is real. Paul and the Apostles didn’t rave on about their pasts lives with intimate detail as many do today. The emphasis of the Apostles was clearly and solely on the work of Jesus Christ, who lived, died and was resurrected from the dead, not the other way around.

I don’t mean to be too critical of how each one witness to their family, their friends or neighbours. Neith am I trying to argue that there is only one way to evangelise. My whole argument is that what has priority me or Christ, His story or my story. the Biblical pattern appears very different from the way we appear to execute that in practice today.

It isn’t about being a great speaker who has reached the highest level of Toastmasters or some other oratory training method.  At the end of the day, it is the Holy Spirit that changes hearts and minds not how well-formed our script is.

 

 

 

 

[i] F.A. Schaeffer, The complete works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview Vol 1, A Christian view of Philosophy and Culture, 2nd Ed, Crossway Books, Westchester Illinois 1990, P. 6-10, 217-236

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