We live in an age when Americans are particularly concerned with what goes on in the Muslim world and how the Muslim world affects life here. In the aftermath of 9/11 and in the midst of the War on Terror, we are more acutely aware of the implications deriving from a religion, in part, that foments hatred and mayhem. Most Muslims, especially those in the United States, are peace loving people. However, that reality does not negate the sobering reality that some Muslims simply want us dead and will engage in radical action to bring our death about. At the same time, for Christians, our commitment to Christ takes priority over our commitment to America and our greatest concern is not the threat that terrorists pose to us, but the threat that Hell poses to Muslims. Our burning desire is that they might be saved.
With that ultimate reality in mind, the question of how to witness to Muslims arises. Paul Bramsen, a missionary to Senegal and an expert on the evangelization of Muslims, was a guest of mine on "Calling for Truth." For two programs we discussed this very issue and tremendous insight was gleaned. The approach to Muslim witness is critical, but simple, and can be explained using one familiar verse and one profound concept. In short, Bramsen advises that we do not quote Jn. 3:16 to a Muslim unless we are prepared to explain it "beginning at Moses and all the prophets." Let me explain what Bramsen means.
When Muslims hear a verse like Jn. 3:16, they do not hear it the same way the average Christian or pagan American hears it. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." Muslims typically understand the individual phrases of this verse in a completely different way than we do. Six issues are critical here.
First, when saying, "For God," the Muslim thinks of the Allah of the Quran. To them, he is great but unknowable. He is merciful but unpredictable. He is the creator of the universe but he is a harsh master of his slaves. There is no concept of a God with whom we may have a personal relationship or a God who does not change His mind and cannot lie so that we might completely lean on Him for salvation. The concept of God as our loving Father does not exist in the Muslim mindset.
Second, the phrase "so loved the world" is meaningless in that Muslims have no concept of God's agape love for sinners. Unconditional, selfless, and sacrificial love for sinners does not exist in this religion of fear. Allah only loves those of his slaves who submit to him and the prophet out of duty in obedience. His love is contingent upon their submission. For the Christian, our joyful submission is contingent upon God's loving grace working in our lives. This concept is non-sense to the Muslim.
Third, a Muslim would respond rather bluntly to the phrase "that He gave His only begotten Son." His first utterance would be, "May Allah forgive you for this blasphemy! Allah does not beget! Nor would he become man! Why would Allah do such a thing?" The Muslim concept of God's greatness is very different from the reality of God's greatness. The true and living God is great because He is sovereign over all things, and, at the same time, He was willing to humble Himself to save guilty sinners in the person and work of Jesus Christ. His greatness is displayed in His condescension, a truth Muslims cannot readily swallow. They understand human beings to be basically good, though weak, and in need of guidance as opposed to redemption. The Quran teaches that while Jesus was a great prophet, He was not crucified. Allah would never allow a great prophet like Jesus to endure such a shameful death. Of course, it was that shameful death in our place that enables anyone to be saved. Muslims vividly illustrate Paul's affirmation that the preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18).
It is true that Christ died a shameful death. Isn't that the wonder and the beauty of the gospel though? Consider the fact that "He that justifies the wicked, and he that condemns the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD (Prov. 17:15)." If justifying the wicked and condemning the just is an abomination to the Lord, then how can Christ the just be condemned and how can we the wicked be justified? After all, Peter tells us just that: "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18)." The profundity, simplicity, and beauty of the answer is breathtakingly staggering. Through faith, the righteousness of Christ is credited to the account of the wicked sinner and the sin of the sinner is credited to the account of Christ. Thus, Christ is condemned for sin in that He was made sin (though He never sinned) and persons are justified by virtue of the imputed, perfect righteousness they now have (2 Cor. 5:21).
God solved His problem through the cross of Christ. What God did is not a display of something wicked that is an abomination to Him. In fact, God had to uphold His righteousness and put it on display. Through this incredible transaction, God "...[declared], I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." God is the One who justifies us and He is just in so doing by virtue of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us as our sin was imputed to Him.
Fourth, "that whosoever believes in Him" provokes a response from Muslims like this: "We believe in Jesus and all the prophets! Why don’t you believe the final Prophet?" Bramsen points out that one highly acclaimed Muslim Ph.D., concerning this part of Jn. 3:16, commented, "What happens to the people who were born and died before God decided to concoct this charade only 2000 years ago? It seems that the Christian God is a poor planner and a late thinker because it took him thousands if not millions of years to find a way of forgiving the sins of mankind." Of course Muslims do not understand that the prophets they claim to believe, those of the Old Testament, point to Christ. The Old Covenant with its types and shadows points to Christ. He was proclaimed in the garden from the beginning (Gen. 3:15), not added later through a concocted charade. Muslims do not see the connection between the Old Testament and Christ Himself.
Fifth, regarding "shall not perish," the Muslim would respond, "What arrogance! No one can know their fate. Only God knows." They simply hope that on judgment day that their good works will outweigh their bad works so that they might find themselves in Allah's favor. Part of the problem with their theology lies in the fact that Allah can change his mind and go back on his promises. The Muslim can never have any sense of assurance that he will be saved. The notion that God does not lie has no real meaning for them. This fact is one reason some are willing to take the extremist route. Muslims are promised that if they die in the service of Allah, they go straight to a sensual paradise. Other than that guarantee, Muslims have no real hope. They can't hope against hope even as Abraham did because He knew that God could not lie and that He was able to perform what He promised (Romans 4).
Sixth, when Muslims hear the phrase “but shall have eternal life,” again, they hope that they will enter a garden of sensual delights if they are worthy and Allah does not change his mind. They would even refer to Christians as "poor Bible-believers." They would say our Scriptures are utterly corrupted and that only the Quran is perfect and preserved.
Here we have outlined the problem. Muslims do not understand the concepts in Jn. 3:16 the way that we do. In part two of this article tomorrow, the simple but profound solution as to how to evangelize them in light of the foregoing will be given.
[Part Two Tomorrow]
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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