By Mark Horne
As Christians we all want to see non-Christians convert to faith in Christ by the grace of God. Even more, we probably want to be instrumental in such a conversion–for that would be a special blessing. But let’s be honest: we all hope that such an opportunity will be a peaceful encounter between us and someone who has never heard and/or understood the Gospel. We would like to see someone receive the Good News from us and immediately respond with joy, repenting and believing.
Well, it is fine for us to hope for a chance to share the Gospel without having to deal with conflict and confrontation, but that does not usually happen. No one has ever knocked on my door because an angel of heaven told him to come to my address and hear an important message from God. In real life people don’t often ask about the Gospel, and when they begin to get the gist of the message, they usually try to change the subject. The reason for this should be obvious; the good news of the Gospel is an offer of forgiveness–an offer which presupposes that all people are sinners against their Creator and deserving of His wrath.
Witnessing for Christ inevitably involves some level confrontation. While a Christian must do all he can to speak peacefully with unbelievers, trying to entirely evade the fact that there is a conflict involved will probably mute his message.
Defense & Offense
Confronted with the claims of the Gospel, people typically respond to our message by saying that it is not true or that it is an interesting hypothesis which MIGHT be true. It is at this second point that I personally am usually most tempted to compromise the claims of Christ. Perhaps you are too. Not wanting to give offense, we can easily be derailed from offering “a ready defense.” How does this happen?
In my experience, a person who is sharing the Gospel will almost invariably want to “prove” to the non-Christian that Christianity is true. “Let us reason together,” he might say to the unbeliever. “I don’t want you to accept the Gospel on ‘blind faith’.” And then he will go on to present arguments and evidences which he thinks, if his friend will consider them, will lead him to the conclusion that God exists.
While it is true that people should reason in order to believe the Gospel, and that our faith is not supposed to be blind, defending Christianity in this way involves a fatal compromise. It treats the person as if he is a “neutral” observer who has the right to evaluate the claims of Christ for himself and decide whether or not they are worthy of acceptance. This simply will not do. According to the Gospel, people are creatures who ought to submit to their Creator in ALL of their thinking, and are sinners who are ANYTHING but neutral regarding the true God.
A cursory study of Biblical terminology will reveal that “bearing witness” for Christ has judicial implications. We are bringing an accusation against the world. It is the creature and sinner who must be cleared before God’s judgment seat, not Jesus who stands awaiting the judgment of any mere man.
But does this mean that the Christian faith is irrational–that it is to be believed without evidence? Far from it. All people everywhere are already confronted with evidence that God exists. They may say that they are unsure of God’s existence, but in fact they are surrounded by God’s personal testimony. God never “left himself without witness” to anybody (Acts 14.17). Each person without exception is especially confronted with the revelation of the true God in his own person. God
made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“In him we live and move and have our being”
as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we are indeed his offspring.”
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. (Acts 17:26-29, ESV)
Every single fact in human experience undeniably shows forth the face of God. And all unbelievers without exception are suppressing this fact in this experience. They do this, not only by disbelieving the Bible, but by denying His general revelation (in nature and history) and coming up with rationalizations to justify themselves–rationalizations that we know as false philosophies and false religions—“the art and imagination of man.” Instead of admitting that God is personally present with them, they insist that reality is ultimately impersonal. The only “god” they will accept is a finite being in the same impersonal surroundings. Or else they insist that “God” is a word to cover over the ultimately impersonal nature of reality.
By arguing as if an unbeliever is legitimately ignorant of God, by treating him as a neutral seeker of truth, we can deny the real situation and undercut the Gospel. For, if a person can be legitimately ignorant of God, then he cannot be sinning against Him. The Gospel is unnecessary. A person has an excuse for unbelief. Indeed, we are implicitly agreeing that reality is not a personal revelation of God, but an impersonal environment.
But if God is self-evident, and if the Bible is recognizable as the voice of the true God, then the Gospel makes sense. The fact that seemingly sincere people deny that it is true also makes sense. The Bible explains that people practice self-deception. Sinners don’t ultimately need new evidence to be persuaded of God’s existence. That need may arise because, as part of the process of suppressing the truth, there is disinformation that has been from generation to generation. But ultimately, people need a new ethical orientation so that they will stop suppressing the evidence they have and “seek God.”
They need a new heart.
A More Excellent Way
Does all this mean we cannot argue with unbelievers in any constructive way? Not at all! It only means we have to argue in a way that does not compromise the Gospel. We must argue in a way that does not undermine the universally evident truth of God’s existence and the sinful disposition of people to deny the His personal revelation in nature and history and in Scripture. Much more could be written about the various more specific ways we are tempted into such compromise, and the various ways we can avoid it. For the moment, consider a brief general explanation of how we might defend the Faith without compromising.
I’ve already mentioned that, as witnesses for Christ, we are in a courtroom situation. We are pressing charges against sinners who need to seek clemency before it is too late. As everyone knows from watching fictional courtroom dramas or even real court cases, the primary objective of a defense lawyer is to present a plausible reinterpretation of the prosecution’s evidence. Sometimes this involves some key piece of new evidence, but usually both parties have an agreement at the outset about the evidence at hand for the case. One’s conclusion mainly hinges on how one interprets the mutually-acknowledged evidence. This non-Christian reinterpretation results in untrue “worldviews”–the false philosophies and religions I mentioned above.
As witnesses for our Lord, we must attempt to show unbelievers that their supporting false beliefs are insufficient and incoherent. An impersonal world, after all, is ultimately unknowable. By showing that only the Christian teaching of God, creation, and human destiny makes any sense at all, we will press home to the non-Christian that he is evading the God Who has surrounded him with testimony to His own existence.
Ambassadors of Peace
As we do this, it is important we never be unnecessarily combative. A person raised in an unbelieving environment is different from someone who walked away from knowledge of a Gospel. We do need to account for the fact that many people are not self-consciously aware of where they are going or why when they walk away from God in daily life. The fact that all people are sinning in how they evade knowledge of God does not mean they are all self-conscious enemies. Depending on who we are talking to, we can function as helpful counselors rather than debate gladiators.
While we need to not support ultimate neutrality when we make our intellectual case for Christianity, we also need to not treat people as self-conscious rebels. The deep mystery of self-deception is that one is somehow both the deceiver and the deceived. In many cases the “deceiver” has been helped by years of deceptions from an unbelieving culture. So nothing in what I am saying above is intended to justify a hostile style of witnessing as necessary to faithfully defending the Gospel.