By Andy Constable
This week I was privileged to attend the Acts29WE conference in London. Mez is going to write a report on what he learned from the main sessions, but I thought I would share one of the seminars that I attended on ‘engaging with Muslims’. It was taken by J.D. Greear who spent 2 years planting a church in Indonesia (a place that is 99% Islamic) and now has a church in America but continues to engage Muslims where he lives. The seminar was informative, insightful and J.D.’s burden for the Islamic world really was there for all to see.
The talk was split into five parts. Firstly, why this issues matters. Secondly, reviewing some of the primary obstacles to Muslims coming to faith in Christ. Thirdly, contextualising the gospel. Fourthly, how Muslims come to faith and, finally, the challenge and the hope of this mission field. I will go through each point and bring out the main themes.
I. Why does engaging with Muslims matter?
J.D. began by sharing with us that there are 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. They make up 50% of the 6600 unreached people groups, meaning 1 out of every 3 unbelievers is Muslim! This is, therefore, a global issue and needs to be thought about by Christians. If we are concerned by the state of people’s souls then, by necessity, the Muslims should be on our heart as there are so many. He also said that there has been a major revival in every age since Christ came (Romans, Catholics, Buddhists, Communists) but there is yet to be one amongst the Islamic people. J.D. said that he wanted to be there when God does something great amongst this people group and he believes firmly that God is going to sweep across the Islamic world.
II. Primary obstacles to Muslims coming to faith in Christ
J.D. explained to us some of the primary obstacles to Muslims coming to faith in Christ. This he split into three areas – doctrinal confusion, misconceptions about Christians and costliness.
1. Doctrinal confusion
There are three major areas of doctrinal confusion:
A. Muslims think that Christians worship three gods because of our belief in the Trinity. The Koran is very clear that there is only one God and Allah teaches them to worship only him. The whole concept of the Trinity therefore baffles the Muslim. The way to overcome this obstacle is by insisting that we only worship one God and to show horror that they would think we worship 3. We believe in one God in three persons. This needs to be explained with great nuance. J.D. said a great example of how to explain the Trinity to a Muslim is to use an example given by Bishop Timothy 1st to a Muslim Caliph in the first recorded apologetic between a Christian and a Muslim. Timothy said that the Father is like the mind that conceives a thought, the Word (Jesus) the expression of the thought, and the Spirit the voice that carries the voice along. All three are separate in person but essentially one. J.D. said that this was a particularly good analogy for Muslims because they are already familiar with the title “Word” for Jesus as the Koran calls Jesus just that.
B. Muslims have a deep respect for the Bible and count the Law, the Prophets and the New Testament as part of their holy books. However, it is widely thought amongst Muslims that the Bible has been corrupted and that it has changed over the years. We can challenge this misconception on 2 fronts. Firstly, we can prove historically that the New Testament Mohammad pointed Muslims toward is essentially the same one we use today. Secondly, we can point to the many places in scripture where God has promised to keep his word (Psalm 119:89: Isaiah 55:11; Matt 5:18). A Muslim again has a deep respect for God’s word and so would respect this.
C. Muslims contest the doctrine of penal substitution and see it as immoral and illogical. The Koran states that it is impossible for a person to bear the sins of another. They also think that God does not need a sacrifice to be able to forgive sins. They say that Allah’s mercy is able to forgive any sin without the need of a sacrifice. The whole notion of a vicarious atonement makes no sense within the Muslim worldview. J.D. said that we need to spend time thinking through why penal substitution is logical but also find other ways to explain why Jesus had to die.
2. Misconceptions about Christianity
A lot of Muslims simply have a warped view of Christianity. They look at television programmes and see rappers with crosses all over them, or Madonna and any host of pop stars and they immediately think that Christianity is corrupt. J.D. told a funny story about a girl who came to him in Indonesia and asked him if he could throw her a Christian party. J.D. replied: ‘what do you mean?’ and she said “well Muslim parties are boring, we all just sit in a room together, but I want a Christian party where you listen to gangster rap and grind up against each other.”
Another problem is that Muslims think that Christianity and the West are synonymous. In their culture the whole concept of splitting religion and state is alien. Allah produces the law and the citizens obey it. All they see of the West is the wars that they wage against Muslims and so they think that the Christian God has told them to do this. So you have to put patriotism to the side and look to God’s Word.
3. The costliness of conversion
The apostate law is a living reality in Islamic cultures. If you turn to Christ then you will be at the least ostracised from your family and community and, at worst, killed. It costs you everything to follow Jesus. J.D. said that Islam is like being imprisoned. You can’t even change if you want because of social and cultural pressures.
III. Contextualizing the gospel
There are 2 areas that J.D. touched on here:
A. J.D. said that in the West when we share the gospel there are three words that we focus on – formula, forgiveness and death – and that we should look to replace these words to contextualise the gospel better. He said that in the West we like to have a logical, formulaic presentation of the gospel, whereas with the Muslim the use of story can be far more effective. Islamic culture is very similar to Jesus’ time and so the use of parables and stories works far more effectively. We also focus on the forgiveness found in Christ (which he said is of course right). However, due to their concept of Allah forgiving without substitution, it’s often better to talk about cleansing. He said that they make the connection far better. Finally, instead of focusing on the death of Jesus, we should focus on the resurrection of Christ. He said that we don’t, of course, shy away from the death of Christ. Rather we put the death of Christ in the context of the resurrection and the victory that God has over death. Muslims see Jesus dying on the cross as impossible for God to do and makes him look weak. We know that the resurrection shows God’s power over sin and death.
B. The second area that we need to focus on is the grace of God. J.D. said that Islam is the ultimate religion of works/righteousness. This is extremely oppressing and gives a person no assurance at all. It is widely reported that even Mohammad himself admitted to one of his closest general that he wasn’t sure if he would end up in paradise. If he was unsure, then where does that leave the average Muslim? The gospel is the complete opposite. We can have assurance of salvation not because of our good works, but because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. Religion leads you to question your salvation, but grace gives us assurance. We need to focus on the gospel!
IV. How Muslims come to faith in Christ?
J.D. said there were three ways that the Holy Spirit seems to use to bring people to Christ. The first is through the Word of God. Many Muslims want to study the Bible because it is one of their holy books, but they don’t have anyone to explain it to them. This can be a big way in for Christians and J.D. said that many of those who came to Christ in Indonesia came through reading Genesis. Secondly, Muslim’s to come to Christ after being exposed to Christian community. Much of Islamic culture is based on shame whereas the Christian community ought to be distinctly marked by grace. If Muslims can be exposed to Christian families then this can be a great way in. Thirdly, J.D. can tell many stories of people who have been visited by a supernatural dream or vision.
V. The challenge and the hope
The Islamic world seems like a very hostile place for the gospel. However J.D. reminded us that the power of God can break through any culture (Ro. 1:16ff). God promised Abraham that he would have children from every nation and so we await the day when the gospel breaks through in the Islamic world like wildfire. However, it will happen at the cost of the church. Whenever any major breakthrough in the church has happened, it has occurred through times of great persecution. J.D. reminded us from the Bible that it was ordinary people that took the message of the gospel through the Roman world and he thinks that this will be the same means that God uses to reach this culture.
This seminar by J.D. reminded me to pray about the Islamic world and to think about whether I am called to go there. For now I am to share the gospel with the Muslims on this estate (and we need to find ways at being better at doing this). But, we should be praying and interceding for the millions of Muslims who are perishing without the gospel. If you want to find out more on this subject then J.D. Greear has a book entitled, “Breaking the Islam Code” which will provide a fuller explanation of some of these issues. For now, we press on with a growing Muslim population in Niddrie and we are praying for opportunities to serve Christ by loving them and bringing the true gospel of hope and salvation into their lives.