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Wikileaks and Judgement

I feel that many of the disclosures that we have been receiving through Wikileaks were better left unearthed. Diplomats should have the freedom to air their opinions and express their hunches, before crucial decisions are made, without these going public. However, this is an instructive foretaste of a terrifying disclosure which will take place some day! Whoever thought that money stashed in secret accounts Swiss banks would be made public? The Bible says, “For God
will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:1).

As we see rampant corruption and injustice in society, with some suffering because of it and others thriving, we should be angry. Yesterday my wife and I visited a friend and had to park our car in a lonely spot. When we came back the side mirrors and small lights had been stolen. I was angry. But I realised that this was probably done by a person addicted to drugs, with almost no control over his behaviour. I knew that I should be much more angry about responsible, influential people who were destroying the moral fabric of nations through their corruption and abuse of power. But we do not need to be bitter. Actually we should pity these unjust and corrupt people–for they face the terrifying prospect of God’s righteous judgement.

In the Bible judgement remains one of the major motivations for a life of honesty and integrity. It is amazing how often the Bible presents it as a motivation for our decisions. The price of integrity is worth paying. The shame of disclosure at the judgement is greater than any shame known to humans. Let us encourage each other with those thoughts so that we will not bow down to contemporary trends. Let us also seek creative ways to confront our nations with the reality of judgement.

What is Gospel for CT Wonderful News

Wonderful News

The life of the saved satisfies humanity’s deepest yearnings.

The gospel is the wonderful news that the supreme and holy God who created the universe loves the world and has a plan for it.

When humanity, God’s highest creation, rebelled against him, the world was subjected to frustration and humans merited eternal damnation. But God expressed his love by sustaining Creation without letting it be destroyed and by providing a way of salvation for humans.

God sent his Son Jesus to be our substitute through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. By bearing the punishment due to us, he opened the way for salvation, which is received by trusting in him.

The saved enter into a love relationship with God through the Holy Spirit and are given the strength to be the holy and loving people God made us to be. They also enter Christ’s body, the church, which mirrors the unity of the Trinity and which participates in fulfilling God’s plan for the world: bringing salvation to humans and upholding God’s values in the world. This life of the saved is completely fulfilling, satisfying humanity’s deepest yearnings.

This plan will be consummated when Christ returns and the wicked are punished, while the righteous inherit the new heaven and the new earth.

Ajith Fernando is Youth for Christ’s national director in Sri Lanka.

Next: A Mystery Revealed: Cheryl Bridges Johns

 

Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

 

We Have What They Are Looking for

June 2011

Ajith Fernando

For over 25 years my wife and I have been labouring to get people to understand the meaning of the Christian life so that, receiving God’s grace and love, they could be holy, loving and joyful people. This has been a huge challenge. For some reason God has sent our way many deeply scarred people for whom the Christian ethic of holy-love seems to be distant and impractical. I think this has been the most absorbing theological challenge I have had in the past 15 years or so: Can all that the Bible says about holiness, love and joy really be experienced and practiced? And this battle has been a primary background for what I have taught and written in recent years.

We have seen a lot of failure. Some did not avail themselves in faith of the great truths of the faith–that God loves them; that God is totally trustworthy; that he will turn every experience, whether good or bad, into something good for them; and that he will give the power to help them overcome sin. So they were not willing to surrender the idols that keep them from experiencing the full blessings of grace. Examples of such idols are the feeling that they have been permanently hurt by somebody; that they are unfortunate individuals, that they must not trust anyone, even God; that they must run their own lives and submit to no one; that they must take revenge for the hurts they experienced; and that they cannot give up a sinful habit or relationship.

But along the way we have also seen some who have surrendered to God and let God heal their wounds. They have grown into joyous and loving Christians. I am convinced, on the authority of the Bible and on the evidence from experience, that it is possible for people to live truly Christian lives. And, from the Bible and experience, I am also convinced that this is what people are looking for most in life, though they may not recognise it and may act as if they are not in the least interested in it. Because we were made in the image of God, the only way a human being can find real fulfilment is by following God’s way.

So I am committed to pressing for the Christian way of life at all times, even though many may think it is impossible to practice and irrelevant to their lives. I do so as a fellow pilgrim, as I too have personally battled with issues of disobedience which have challenged my relationship with and joy in the Lord.

Strangely, I have been finding that sometimes non-Christians attending my meetings or listening to CDs of talks or reading my books have been attracted to the material presented about the Christian life. My book The Call to Joy and Pain was specifically written for Christians in ministry. A friend, who was a devout Muslim, was so excited by this book that she pushed it among her Muslim friends–one of whom is a respected thought-influencer in the Sri Lankan media world. A soldier, who is not a Christian, listened to a talk I had given on anger, and then got his whole family to listen to it, because he felt they all needed the message.

I once conducted a seminar for pastors on “the sexual life of the pastor.” The commander of an army camp next to the church where the seminar was held (a devout Buddhist), heard about the seminar, came for it, and later asked to speak to me. We spent a long time talking about numerous things including the challenge he faced trying to rein in his troops so that they do not behave immorally. He got me to talk to his wife on the phone and also said that I must take this message to the Buddhist youth in the area from which he hails.

At a time of moral and emotional confusion in the world, concerned people are desperately looking for ways to stem the moral slide which is rapidly destroying the joy, sanity and wholesomeness of our people. They are looking for more acceptable definitions of things the world has redefined; like sex, marriage, pleasure and joy.

The Christian approach to life is the sanest, surest and most fulfilling way there is for one to live. After all, it is the message of the Creator to his highest creation—the human being. If so, surely the Creator’s way to fulfilment should be the only way to satisfy the deepest aspirations of the human soul. Gospel truth should agree with our deepest instincts. Indeed those instincts have not escaped the taint and pollution of sin. But the Holy Spirit can use our witness to help resurface those buried instincts so that people see that the gospel is what they need. When a Brahmin heard for the first time that God had come down and died for the sin of the world, he said, “If that isn’t true, it ought to be true.”

When we present the Christian life in a way that non-Christians can understand, people could realise that this is what they are longing for. Communicating the Christian ethic could be one of the greatest contributions we make in restoring sanity to the life of our nations. It could also be a means of commending the gospel to people who would not otherwise be interested in it. Demonstrating the Christian approach to living, by word and deed, could have much evangelistic value today.

The Uniqueness of Christ

April 2003 Bible Trail Conference for Youth of Singapore YFC

TALK ONE

Affirming the uniqueness of Christ is one of the most urgent needs in the church today. Pluralism is the dominant approach to religion in most countries of the world. And pluralism does not respond well to any one who says that their way is supreme and the only way to salvation. In many countries when we claim that Christ is unique people are saying that we are like the old colonial rulers who justified their actions of ruling and exploiting others on the grounds that the western culture was superior to theirs. Then the so-called fundamentalists of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam see our practice of evangelism with conversion in view as a direct threat to their plans for their nations. Even in the church many Christians are denying or getting embarrassed by this truth. It seems that the whole world is hostile to our belief in the uniqueness of Christ.

However, I believe that those who have come to this conference would agree with my statement that the Bible unmistakably states that Jesus is the only way to salvation. I will cite just three texts that state this to show how clear the Bible is in affirming this belief: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). John 14:6 gives us a comprehensive case for the uniqueness of Christ. As the Way he is unique because it is only through him and his work that we can find salvation. As the Truth he is unique because he alone is absolute truth. While other ideologies may have many truths, Jesus is absolute truth. As the Life he opens the way for us to experience life to the full. This is what God made us for, and it is the only completely fulfilling life.

Yet this belief is under fire today. In this talk I hope to respond to some of the challenges that have come to our belief in the uniqueness of Christ.

 

A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO TRUTH

As I said most of the countries of the world have a pluralistic attitude to truth. This is the approach that says that there is no such thing as absolute truth. By absolute truth we mean truth that is so perfect and complete that all people everywhere need to submit to it. Instead they say that truth is personal or subjective. That is, it has to do with ones experience. Truth is discovered through experience and not necessarily disclosed without error by a supreme God. This has been the approach to truth for centuries in Asian religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. But recently it has become popular in the West too. The West is said to have entered the post-modern era. In the modern era there was a lot of emphasis on having our lives and activities fashioned by objective truth, that is truth outside of our selves. Examples of objective things that fashioned our lives are social rules, scientific laws, the Bible and God. Today western people are saying that this bondage to objective truth has made machines out of people so that their personal freedom and experience was neglected. Now the emphasis is on subjective truth, truth that is personal to my experience. “You have your truth, and I have my truth. And my truth is as valid as your truth.” We can see how people with such an approach to truth would object to the Christian claim that Jesus is the absolute truth for the whole world and that he is therefore the only way to salvation.

Jesus of course knew that many people would object to his claim that he is the only way to God, the truth and the life. So in that same chapter he gives us evidence to back this claim. He says in the next verse: “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). This is a claim to be equal with God himself. Right from the first chapter of the Gospel of John we find the truth proclaimed that Jesus is the great God who created the universe. If Jesus is the Creator of the universe then we can understand that he can claim to be the absolute Lord of the Universe. And if he were God and the absolute Lord of the universe, he would surely be the source of absolute truth.

But many would object to his claim that he is equal to God. Jesus anticipated this and gave evidence to back this claim too. In verse 10 he said that his words show that he is equal with God: “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” We know of course that Jesus made many claims in his teaching that proclaimed his absolute lordship and deity. But some would reject these claims! Jesus anticipated this too, and he said in verse 11, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves” (NRSV). Here he is saying that if we can’t believe his words we should look at his actions. What we see is that he was a good man who made some amazing claims and backed those claims with his spotless life and miracles. As has often been said, a person who made such claims should be a liar, a lunatic, some one who was totally deluded or mistaken about himself, or he should really be what he claimed to be. When we look at his life, we cannot say that he was a liar or a lunatic or a deluded person. His life forces us to take his words seriously, and his words proclaim him as the absolutely unique Lord of the universe!

If the Bible states the uniqueness of Christ so clearly, how can people reject this belief today? Let me share with you two common approaches to this.

Some say that what the Gospels record as Jesus’ words are not necessarily what he actually said. Instead what we have is what the early church believed about Jesus. This is said to be particularly true of the statements in the Gospel of John, which has a lot of theology. These people say that the fact that it has so much theology shows that the writer is not interested in history. By doing this they are able to dismiss these statements about the uniqueness of Christ claiming that Jesus did not in fact make these statements. However, when we read the Gospels we see that the writers of the Gospels were very eager to write what really happened in the life of Jesus, and not merely what the church believed about him. Luke’s Gospel starts with these words:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke certainly took pains to write what Christ really said and did. Interestingly, out of the four Gospels, John is the one that has the most details of geography, time and social and political conditions. He was interested in historical details, and where possible these details have been verified as being correct. Whole books have been written on this topic. Let me just say here that the writers wrote as if they were writing history. They wrote in an era when people’s memory powers were much better than ours because of the system of education they adopted. They wrote a relatively short time after the events, about events and teaching that they considered to be of vital importance. A lot of people would have known what Jesus did say. If Jesus did not in fact say the things that the Gospels say that he said, wouldn’t we expect other Christians to contest the validity of the statements? After all, the early Christians were very committed to truthfulness and honesty. After all, Jesus’ ministry was done in public and many people heard his statements. The most reasonable conclusion is that what they wrote is an accurate account of what Jesus said and did. And these Gospels have this perfect man claiming to be absolute Lord and doing miracles to back this claim. We would be wise to accept the words of this great man.

Another way to side-step the strong claims about Jesus in the Bible is to state that he was not addressing the issue of whether other religions could be ways to salvation when he said that he is the only way to salvation. Those who hold this view say that statements like John 14:6 teach that for Christians Jesus is the only way to salvation. They say that he is not addressing the issue of how those from other religious backgrounds can be saved. Let me just state that this is to go completely against the clear meaning of these passages in their context. The apostles believed without a doubt that the only way that anyone anywhere can be saved is through faith in Jesus. That popular passage on the way to salvation through Christ, John 3:16, says, “God so loved the world.” His Great Commission includes a call to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). In Acts 1:8 Jesus says that we are to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” When they thought about salvation through Christ they thought about the whole world.

This second argument we looked at is similar to another claim that many people are making today. They say that the doctrine of the absolute uniqueness of Christ became popular in the West where Christianity was the only religion for centuries. Now, however, as Christians in the west encounter people of other faiths who have come to their countries, they are forced to replace this doctrine with a pluralistic approach. Indeed Christianity may have been the only religion in the West for a long time, but it certainly was not the only religion in the first century when this doctrine was first formulated. Apart from the Jews, the other peoples in the Roman Empire in the first century were very pluralistic. But out of that context came the doctrine of Christ’s absolute uniqueness. And how about our societies in Asia? Within three houses of the home where I grew up in Colombo we had a Buddhist temple, a Buddhist family, a Hindu family, a Sunni Muslim family and a Shihite Muslim family. And we were friendly with all these people. Yet we were faced with the unmistakable teaching in the Bible that Jesus is the only way to salvation. So we accepted it because we believed in the words of Jesus.

So the Bible confronts us with the awesome truth of the uniqueness of Christ. Now I have a concern for the evangelical movement in this regard. Much of the way in which we attract people to Christ today is through the experience Christ offers to them. Often people become Christians by experiencing Christ’s power over the things they fear in life. This is certainly valid, and the book of Acts shows that it was the way many people were attracted to Christ. This method of attracting people to the gospel is very relevant in this post-modern generation where people have given a new emphasis to experience. We can use that emphasis to show people that it is Jesus alone who opens the door to a truly meaningful experience. That is an aspect of the uniqueness of Christ, and it is implied in his statement that he is the life. However, in the book of Acts, though it was experience that attracted people to Christ, the message that was preached focussed primarily on the truth of the gospel. The major theme of the speeches in the book of Acts is the nature and work of God and of Christ.

I fear that today, in addition to our actions, our preaching is also focussing primarily on experience, so that people think of Christianity primarily in terms of the experiences they have had rather than the supremacy of Christ and his work. Other religions can also provide people with exciting experiences. And Christians do go through dark times when their experiences are not what they want them to be. So this is a shaky ground to build ones faith on. Other religions may offer some exciting experiences, but they do not have the person and work of Christ. And that is the heart of Christianity. When Christians focus almost entirely on experience they could end up giving up their belief in the uniqueness of Christianity, because they have neglected vital features that show the radical difference between Christianity and other faiths. In fact some of these so-called converts would be tempted to try another faith when they are going though a difficult experience.

After many years of evangelistic ministry with non-Christians I have come to the conclusion that most people come to Christ because they believe he can meet their needs, but they remain as strong Christians because they have come to believe that the gospel is the truth—absolute truth. Therefore we should focus on the truth of the gospel in our preaching. Otherwise we could open the door for Evangelicals discarding of the uniqueness of Christ.

If Christ is unique, how should we respond to non-Christians? The rest of this paper will deal with that issue.

 

DISTRESS AND RESPECT

The very first verse in the passage describing Paul’s ministry in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) shows Paul with what could be described as “a spirit provoked.” Luke wrote, “He was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (17:16). The idols and the temples that housed them were beautiful works of art, reflecting the heights of Greek cultural achievement. But Paul was more impressed by the wrongness of idolatry than by the beauty of the idols. So he was “greatly distressed.”

The Greek word paroxuneØ translated “greatly distressed” is a very strong word from which we get the English word paroxysm, which is another word for fit or convulsion. It is often translated “provoked” (NASB). G. Campbell Morgan described the situation well: “In the midst of the beauty and the glory and the art and the philosophy and the history of Athens, proud and wonderful Athens, this man was in a rage, was provoked.” Paul was reflecting here the same attitude to idols that his Scriptures, the Old Testament, reflected. It is the normal inward reaction of those whose hearts beat to the pulse of God. The chief aim in life of such persons is the glory of God. Idols are an affront to God’s glory, so they are provoked by them. Actually Paul was similarly provoked by the unbelief of the Jews who, even though they did not worship idols, missed out on God’s salvation because they rejected their Messiah. He expresses this vividly in Romans 9:2-3: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race.”

A similar reaction is recorded in the diaries of Henry Martyn, who was a missionary to India and Persia (Iran). Shortly after his arrival in Calcutta he wrote in his diary, “Let me burn out for thee.” He once viewed a worship ceremony at a Hindu temple. He saw the worshipers prostrating themselves before the images and striking the ground with their foreheads. He did not view this with an attitude of academic interest as a typical foreigner would. Neither was he impressed by the devotion of these Hindus, as many Christians today are prone to be. Martyn wrote, “This excited more horror in me than I can well express.” His reaction to this horror is most significant. He said, “I thought that if I had words I would preach to the multitudes all day if I lost my life for it.”

Paul’s reaction to his distress was similar. But unlike Henry Martyn, he “had words,” for Paul knew Greek, the language of Athens. Luke recorded, “So he reasoned in the synagogue … as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (17:17).

While the first verse in this section described “a spirit provoked,” the rest of the passage describes “a spirit restrained.” As we observe the ministry of Paul in Athens, we see that even though the idols provoked him, he did not show his provocation outwardly. Even when he mentions in his speech that he “walked around and observed [their] objects of worship” (17:23), he did not mention the provocation this observation aroused within him.  Instead, he said that he concluded from the observation that “in every way [they] are very religious” (17:22). His speech was a controlled, carefully reasoned defence of Christianity (vv. 22-31).

In this Paul differed greatly from the prophets of the Old Testament. When the prophets observed idols, they too, like Paul, were provoked. But they reacted to this provocation by thundering angrily against idolatry. This was due to the difference between the audiences of Paul and the prophets. The prophets were speaking to wayward Jews who had received God’s special revelation and so knew that idolatry was wrong. They needed to be upbraided for disobedience to God’s revelation that they already knew about.

The Athenians, on the other hand, had no such revelation. They needed to be convinced of the futility of idolatry and the advisability of handing their lives over to God, the Father of Jesus Christ. If Paul had thundered angrily against idolatry he would have lost his audience. The sophisticated Athenians would have viewed Paul as an eccentric fanatic and disregarded his message. So Paul used the method of reasoning carefully against idolatry and in support of the Christian view of God.

Both Paul’s and the prophets’ aim was repentance from idolatry (see 17:30). Both were provoked by idols. The prophets saw fit to express this provocation with righteous anger. Paul saw fit to restrain his anger and express himself with reasoned arguments.

So here we see a twofold attitude of Paul to other religions. On the one hand there is a firm belief in the wrongness of life apart from Christ. On the other hand there is a respect for all individuals because they are intelligent human beings endowed by God with the privilege and responsibility of choosing to accept or reject the gospel. This caused Paul to reason with them about the truth of God. This combination of a strong conviction about truth and a respect for the individual forms one of the foundational principles in formulating our attitude to people of other faiths.

 

DIALOGUE

The Greek word translated “reasoned” (dialegomai) to describe Paul’s initial reaction to being provoked in Athens occurs 10 times in Acts 17-24 to refer to Paul’s ministry. From it, of course, comes the English word dialogue, but there has been a lot of discussion and no unanimity among scholars about the meaning of this term. A lot of scholarly opinion has been presented on this issue. It seems that Paul spoke as if he was giving a speech and that there was opportunity for discussion, for questions and objections to be raised. A recent detailed study of Paul’s preaching by D. W. Kemmler concludes that there was formal and continuous discourse but with dialogue included along the way.

Whether or not the word dialegomai implied discussions, the record of Paul’s evangelistic activity in Acts (see e.g. 17:2, 3) shows that the viewpoints of the hearers were given due weight in Paul’s evangelistic preaching. Yet we can see that dialegomai is not used in Acts in the philosophical sense in which it is used in classical Greek. G. Schrenk, in the famous Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, explains, “In the sphere of revelation there is no question of reaching an idea through dialectic” which is what the classical use of dialegomai implied. In that use people would try to arrive at the truth through discussion. God has spoken, and we are called to proclaim that message by expounding it. But in our proclamation we will face objections and questions, which need to be carefully answered, so that we could persuade people of the validity of the Christian gospel. This is discussed under the topic of persuasion below.

The philosophical idea of dialegomai in classical Greek (reaching an idea through dialectic), as opposed to the understanding in Acts, is closer to the way many view evangelistic proclamation today. It fits in with the pluralistic philosophy that has swept through much of contemporary society. Pluralist writers are calling for apologetics to be replaced by dialogue. But the dialogue they speak about is a meeting of minds where no one wants to cause another to change religions. Rather, each one seeks to enrich the other without working with conversion in view. John Stott represents a more biblical approach when he says, “Although there is an important place for ‘dialogue’ with men of other faiths…, there is also need for ‘encounter’ with them, and even for ‘confrontation,’ in which we seek both to disclose the inadequacies and falsities of non-Christian religion and to demonstrate the adequacy and truth of, absoluteness and finality of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Receiving feed back as to what our hearers are thinking, through questions, observations or objections is a necessary part of evangelism, especially when witnessing to non-Christians. It enables us to find out how they have understood what we have communicated. After giving an evangelistic message on John 3:16 at a Youth for Christ meeting I spoke to a Buddhist youth who had been in the audience. He told me that his religion says the same thing as I had said. And I had thought my message should have shown him clearly the difference between Christianity and Buddhism! He had sent my Christian terms through the Buddhist way of thinking in his mind and emerged with a Buddhist message from my talk!

I should add that commitment to proclamation does not preclude commitment to listening to others. When people describe their views we must give them full attention. Sometimes, in a witnessing situation, we may listen more than talk. And sometimes the reason for that is that we do not want to rudely interrupt that person’s description of his or her views. We are servants, and therefore it should not bother us if they dominate a conversation. Of course, love for this person would cause us to look for every opportunity to share the liberating news of Jesus. Part of our listening may involve reading what non-Christian writers have to say about their religion, rather than only reading apologetic material written by Christians.

Having described dialogue as it takes place in evangelism, I will add that there is another type of dialogue that often takes place between Christians and those of other faiths that should not be classed under the term evangelism but nevertheless could be a valid activity. It is a natural expression of what Jesus meant when he said of his disciples, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it…. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:16, 18). Though we are not of the world we go into the world and participate in its activities. Jesus, for example, ate with tax collectors and sinners, and earned the criticism: “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners’” (Matt. 11:19). We meet with people who are different to us but among whom we live, and we talk and socialise with them. Among the things we talk about is religion.

So we may have discussions where people of different religions participate and share each other’s views. When I was in my late teens and early twenties I did this regularly with a group of students in our neighbourhood. We met in a Muslim home on Saturday nights and the majority of those who met were Muslims. There was one atheist, a disciple of Bertrand Russell, and another somewhat nominal Christian. We discussed many things including politics, sport, world affairs, philosophy and religion. I always went there as a witness of Christ and often talked about my faith. I yearned for the salvation of these people, and they knew that (Only the nominal Christian came to faith in Christ). But our meetings could not strictly be called evangelistic events. What I learned from those meetings has been very important in my own pilgrimage.

Evangelicals have generally shied away from this type of dialogue as many of a liberal persuasion have substituted such dialogue for evangelism. But this is not evangelism at all. It is an exercise in community living and learning just like discussions that take place on marketing, management, sport, politics or technology. This could be conducted in a formal setting or an informal setting. Of course, in our heart of hearts we would long for the conversion of these people. But sometimes the rules of the discussion may prevent us from using persuasion in the way we understand it as being usually practised in evangelism. Such personal discussion could be a means to understanding other faiths in a much richer way than other means, such as reading books, provide. Such understanding will, of course, help our proclamation greatly and also could open them to being receptive to the Christian message.

 

PERSUASION

We have already implied that part of our task of witness is seeking to persuade people of the truth of the gospel. The verb “to persuade” (peithö) is used seven times in Acts to describe Paul’s evangelism. In 2 Corinthians 5:11 Paul himself said, “we try to persuade men.” This use of peithö has been defined as “to convince someone to believe something and to act on the basis of what is recommended.” Such confidence in our message derives from the conviction that we are bearers of the definitive revelation from God to the human race. If the Creator and Lord of the universe has given a final message to the human race and we know it, then we must do everything in our power and within our principles to bring people to appropriate that message into their lives. Evangelism, then, aims at a response, a response that is so comprehensive that it could be called a conversion.

Part of the task of persuasion is that of showing where the people are wrong in their beliefs. Paul does this in his description of God to the Athenians. He said that God “does not live in temples built by hands” (v. 24b). This statement is a “bold denial of the validity of the famous temples clustered round him.” Paul’s next statement also denied the validity of the Athenian religious practices: “He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (17:25).  The Athenians had been trying to supply the needs of God through their offerings. But actually it is he who supplies all their needs. After describing more about God Paul shows how it is impossible to represent him by an idol: “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill” (17:29). Paul even describes idolatry as ignorance in the next verse and calls the people to repent of this way of life: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (17:30).

Paul was not afraid to clash with the thinking of his audience. If Paul was to bring the Athenians to accept the good news of the gospel, he first had to demolish those beliefs that cannot coexist with the gospel. In another context Paul said, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Paul had earlier found points of contact with the Athenians. He did so later too. He was not afraid to agree with his audience when he could, for his sharing of the gospel was not a competitive argument he was having with them. His aim was to direct his audience to accept the truth. He affirmed whatever glimmerings of truth they already had. But he knew that when he presented truth, he also had to show that the things that clash with the truth were untrue.

 

THE CHARGE OF INTOLERANCE

Today, however, when persuasion is used in proclaiming the gospel, we are accused of being disrespectful and intolerant. This is strange because persuasion is used daily in many spheres of life. Advertisers seek to persuade us to buy certain products and politicians seek to persuade us to accept their policies and vote for them. Yet when it comes to religion this approach to communication is considered inappropriate. Mahatma Gandhi once told his friend, the missionary E. Stanley Jones, “Don’t attempt to propagate your faith; just live it. Be like the rose, which, without a word, silently exudes its perfume and attracts the attention of the people.” Jones responded by reminding Mr. Gandhi that he was the greatest propagandist of all, seeking to propagate his views on independence and freedom to Britain and the whole world.

Bishop Stephen Neill has talked about “the awful and necessary intolerance of truth.” We are always respectful of people. We never treat them as inferior to us. But when we know that Jesus is the Truth and that other ways will not lead to salvation, we must be intolerant of the untruth that has led them astray though we will always be respectful of the person who holds this view. So our perception of the truth will cause us to want to persuade them about the truth. But our respect for them will influence the way we present our message.

I want to highlight three disrespectful ways of persuasion that we must avoid. The first is cultural imperialism when we thrust our culture on people and make them reject the many good things in their culture. Instead we will seek to understand them and their cultures and appreciate the good points there. In Sri Lanka people often associated Christianity with Western culture because there was a time that when people became Christians they automatically adopted the Western culture and gave up some of the Sri Lankan cultural practices. This was unnecessary and has now become a big hindrance to our evangelism. Christians in the West consider some of the family-life-related practices of their non-Christian neighbours from the East, like greater dependence of children upon their parents, as unwise. Actually there may be a lot that the Western Christians can learn from their non-Christian neighbours about family living. The cultural history of Asia, for example, permitted some beautiful features of family life to be retained, which the West lost owing to its heavy emphasis on efficiency, productivity and individual initiative in the modern era. This may be why many post-modern people are looking eastwards in their reaction to the unhealthy features of Western society in the modern era.

But, while we affirm all that is good in the cultures of people, we will always seek to lead them to the point repenting of their unbelief and of believing in Christ because we know that unbelief is rebellion against God. And that is a deadly serious thing.

The second disrespectful way of persuasion is imposition. Imposition takes place when authority and power are used to force people to follow the Christian religion. This took place in Europe when the Roman Catholic Church set up the inquisition in the thirteenth century to combat heresy. It takes place when employers or parents use their authority to force people to become Christians. It took place sometimes in colonial times when missionaries came along with the European conquerors and, by making Christianity the official religion of the colonies, compelled many to accept it for the sake of survival and progress in society. We should be ashamed of these things.

The third disrespectful way of persuasion is manipulation. This takes place when we use things alien to the heart of the gospel to induce others to accept Christianity. Sometimes Christians give people material incentives, such as the promise of a job or of aid, which are used like bribes to induce them to become Christians. Manipulation can take place when people’s emotions are roused so that they accept Christianity in a way that doesn’t involve the proper use of the mind. An example is when an emotionally charged evangelistic message is concluded with a highly emotional story and immediately after that an invitation to discipleship is given. Some may respond more because of their emotional state than because they have thought through the implications of the message. Manipulation also takes place in the cults where “mind bending” or brain washing takes place through the use of mental pressure on people so that they are unable to make an intelligent and free choice about what is being thrust upon them.

Biblical persuasion is actually an expression of our respect for people. The supreme Lord of Creation, God himself, does not forcefully thrust his truth upon people but invites them to reason together with him (Isa. 1:8). Similarly we, as his servants, must respect their freedom of choice and give them an opportunity to make an informed response to the message of Jesus.

 

THE CHARGE OF ARROGANCE

Another common charge made against us when we affirm the uniqueness of Christ and work towards a response to the gospel is that we are being arrogant. Several years ago the British journalist G. K. Chesterton observed that the focus of humility was getting misplaced. He said that humility no longer concerned self-opinion, where it ought to be. Rather it now pertained to truth, where it ought not to be. Whereas earlier humility was judged on the basis of ones opinion of oneself, now it is being judged on the basis of ones understanding of truth. Those who claimed to have the truth are regarded as being arrogant. So we are accused of arrogance for claiming that Christ is absolutely unique.

We must remember that the uniqueness of Christ is not a claim that we are making about Christ, it is a fact that Christ is confronting us with. He presents himself unmistakably as absolutely unique. It is up to us to accept that or reject it. I submit to you that the real arrogance is rejecting what the Lord of the universe says about himself. Who are we to take issue with Jesus and reject what he says when it does not fit in with our understanding? Is it not arrogance for us fallible humans to say that our understanding of Jesus must replace his understanding of himself? I suppose when non-Christians accuse us of arrogance that is understandable. But I find it very difficult to understand how Christians can accuse those who believe in the absolute uniqueness of Christianity of being arrogant.

Yet this charge is being made against us, and we need to respond to it. The first thing to say here is that the very nature of the gospel makes it impossible for a true Christian to be arrogant. Paul specifically says that the way we are saved leaves us with no grounds for boasting (Eph. 2:8-9). Christians are those who have accepted their utter inability to save themselves, and who are amazed by the fact that God has had mercy on them. Such amazement causes us to turn our attention away from ourselves and be filled with gratitude to God for his grace. Those with that type of focus cannot be arrogant. But they are so filled with excitement over the gospel that they are urgent in their desire to share it with others.

My teacher Dr. J. T Seamands loved to tell about a clubfooted boy in England. He lived in a small town with his widowed mother. Because of his deformity he could not walk properly.  A businessman, who was a friend of the family, visited them one day and told them of a doctor in London who was having great success in operating on young people with club feet. “If you will give me permission,” said the friend, “I will take your son to London and see what this doctor can do for him.  I will take care of all the expenses.” The mother gratefully accepted the offer. The boy was taken to London. The operation was a success. The businessman kept the mother informed of her son’s progress. Finally she got a telegram saying that the businessman and her son would be returning by train. The mother could hardly believe her eyes as she saw the son walking up to her. He leaped into her arms and started to say, “Mother, I will…” but that is as far as he got. The mother stopped him and said, “Son, don’t say a word. Just run up and down the platform and let Mother see how you can do it.”

He ran up and down once or twice and then went to his mother and began to say something.  But again she cut him short and had him run up and down the platform. Finally, the mother was satisfied and the son was able to say what he wanted to say. “Mother, I will never be satisfied until you meet the doctor in London. He’s the most wonderful man in the world.” Is this arrogance? No, it is joyous enthusiasm.

And it is the same with us. After we know what we know and have experienced what we have experienced, we must share the message of the gospel. When Peter and John were commanded not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they replied, “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). After stating that he was eager to preach the gospel in Rome (Rom. 1:15), Paul went on to give his reason for such urgency: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16 NASB).

So, on the one hand, we have a boldness to proclaim the message because we know that Christ is the only way to salvation. On the other hand, we do this with great humility because we know that we do not deserve salvation at all. This combination of boldness and humility is difficult for many people to understand, because in many religions salvation is a very hard thing to achieve as it is attained through ones own efforts. Once Gandhi was asked what he thought of the missionary E. Stanley Jones. His response was, “He is a good man, but he is too proud of his religion.” When Jones was told this he said that Gandhi was right, according to his own convictions. To Gandhi, salvation was the result of hard work. Earning salvation is as hard as trying to empty an ocean of water with one’s hands. If those who believe that salvation is earned through their own efforts are sure that they are saved, then they could be proud of their achievement. But the Christians cannot be proud like this because we know that salvation is a work of God’s grace and not of our achievement.

We must try to explain this to our critics. But they would find this very difficult to understand. I am convinced, however, that they would be impressed by a holy and humble life. The Bible is clear that those who proclaim the lordship of Jesus are nevertheless servants of the people they proclaim this message to. Paul told the Corinthians, “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). He also said, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor. 9:19). Our model is Jesus who himself “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). I believe that this principle of servanthood has a lot of applications to evangelistic ministry today.

Recently there has been a welcome rediscovery of the truth that when we are preaching the gospel we are engaging in spiritual warfare. This is good, but sometimes when faced with opposition by human forces we are finding Christians acting with the same attitude that they would if they were fighting demonic forces. They may be attacking people when they should be loving them. The great Indian evangelist Sadhu Sundar Singh was once proclaiming the gospel on the banks of the Ganges at a place called Rishi Kesh. Several Hindu Sadhus and other devotees were in his audience. One of them lifted up a handful of sand and threw it in his eyes. Others in the audience, however, were enraged by the act and handed the man to a policeman while Sundar Singh was washing the sand from his eyes. When he returned and found that the man had been handed over to the police, he begged for his release and, having secured it, proceeded with his preaching. The man, Vijayanada, was so surprised that he fell at Sundar Singh’s feet, begging his forgiveness and declaring his desire to know more about what he was saying. Later this man joined Sundar Singh on his travels. Such responses to enemies will really be a challenge to those who consider us as being arrogant because we preach a unique gospel.

Sometime when we are insensitive to the feelings and wishes of non-Christians we can give them the idea that we are arrogant and intolerant. Sometimes Christians, convinced that the sovereign Lord of the universe has given them authority to worship him freely, may shout so loud while praying that they disturb their neighbours. This has become a major problem in many poorer parts of the world where church buildings are not air-conditioned and the sound goes out to the neighbourhood. Unnecessary opposition to the gospel has resulted. The belief in the absolute uniqueness of Christ and the priority of his program on earth should not cause us to be insensitive to others. Jesus said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). This certainly applies to our relationships with non-Christians.

So, in this age when both pluralists and fundamentalists are attacking our belief that Christ is unique, there is a great need for us to live like servants of the people. If people see us as true servants of both enemies and friends, our opponents would find it difficult to attack us. They may even be challenged to think positively about the truth of the gospel. The Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were murdered in India in 1999 when a mob of Hindu militants set fire to the vehicle in which they were sleeping. But most Hindus in India were greatly embarrassed by this murder and decried it. This was surely fuelled by the fact that the Staines’ were servants of the people working sacrificially among lepers. To add to that there were the amazing expressions of Christ-like forgiveness by Mrs. Staines which further commended them to sincere people.

What if large numbers of Christians adopt a lifestyle of loving servanthood? At first they may laugh at us and even exploit us. But soon they may be forced to take note of the power of this testimony, and the door may be opened to many accepting the message of a unique Christ, which they now resent. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

 

Uniqueness of Christ, Amsterdam 2000

Talk given at the Amsterdam 2000 Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in July 2000

THE EVANGELIST PROCLAIMS THAT JESUS CHRIST IS THE ONLY WAY

AND CALLS FOR A RESPONSE OF FAITH

Ajith Fernando

Affirming the uniqueness of Christ is one of the most urgent needs in the church today. Pluralism is the dominant approach to religion in most countries of the world. And pluralism does not respond well to any one who says that their way is supreme and the only way to salvation. In many countries when we claim that Christ is unique people are saying that we are like the old colonial rulers who justified their actions of ruling and exploiting others on the grounds that the western culture was superior to theirs. Then the so-called fundamentalists of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam see our practice of evangelism with conversion in view as a direct threat to their plans for their nations. Even in the church many Christians are denying or getting embarrassed by this truth. It seems that the whole world is hostile to our belief in the uniqueness of Christ.

However, I believe that those who have come to this conference would agree with my statement that the Bible unmistakably states that Jesus is the only way to salvation. I will cite just three texts that state this to show how clear the Bible is in affirming this belief: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). John 14:6 gives us a comprehensive case for the uniqueness of Christ. As the Way he is unique because it is only through him and his work that we can find salvation. As the Truth he is unique because he alone is absolute truth. While other ideologies may have many truths, Jesus is absolute truth. As the Life he opens the way for us to experience life to the full. This is what God made us for, and it is the only completely fulfilling life.

Yet this belief is under fire today. In this talk I hope to respond to some of the challenges that have come to our belief in the uniqueness of Christ.

 

A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO TRUTH

As I said most of the countries of the world have a pluralistic attitude to truth. This is the approach that says that there is no such thing as absolute truth. By absolute truth we mean truth that is so perfect and complete that all people everywhere need to submit to it. Instead they say that truth is personal or subjective. That is, it has to do with ones experience. Truth is discovered through experience and not necessarily disclosed without error by a supreme God. This has been the approach to truth for centuries in Asian religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. But recently it has become popular in the West too. The West is said to have entered the post-modern era. In the modern era there was a lot of emphasis on having our lives and activities fashioned by objective truth, that is truth outside of our selves. Examples of objective things that fashioned our lives are social rules, scientific laws, the Bible and God. Today western people are saying that this bondage to objective truth has made machines out of people so that their personal freedom and experience was neglected. Now the emphasis is on subjective truth, truth that is personal to my experience. “You have your truth, and I have my truth. And my truth is as valid as your truth.” We can see how people with such an approach to truth would object to the Christian claim that Jesus is the absolute truth for the whole world and that he is therefore the only way to salvation.

Jesus of course knew that many people would object to his claim that he is the only way to God, the truth and the life. So in that same chapter he gives us evidence to back this claim. He says in the next verse: “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). This is a claim to be equal with God himself. Right from the first chapter of the Gospel of John we find the truth proclaimed that Jesus is the great God who created the universe. If Jesus is the Creator of the universe then we can understand that he can claim to be the absolute Lord of the Universe. And if he were God and the absolute Lord of the universe, he would surely be the source of absolute truth.

But many would object to his claim that he is equal to God. Jesus anticipated this and gave evidence to back this claim too. In verse 10 he said that his words show that he is equal with God: “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” We know of course that Jesus made many claims in his teaching that proclaimed his absolute lordship and deity. But some would reject these claims! Jesus anticipated this too, and he said in verse 11, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves” (NRSV). Here he is saying that if we can’t believe his words we should look at his actions. What we see is that he was a good man who made some amazing claims and backed those claims with his spotless life and miracles. As has often been said, a person who made such claims should be a liar, a lunatic, some one who was totally deluded or mistaken about himself, or he should really be what he claimed to be. When we look at his life, we cannot say that he was a liar or a lunatic or a deluded person. His life forces us to take his words seriously, and his words proclaim him as the absolutely unique Lord of the universe!

If the Bible states the uniqueness of Christ so clearly, how can people reject this belief today? Let me share with you two common approaches to this.

Some say that what the Gospels record as Jesus’ words are not necessarily what he actually said. Instead what we have is what the early church believed about Jesus. This is said to be particularly true of the statements in the Gospel of John, which has a lot of theology. These people say that the fact that it has so much theology shows that the writer is not interested in history. By doing this they are able to dismiss these statements about the uniqueness of Christ claiming that Jesus did not in fact make these statements. However, when we read the Gospels we see that the writers of the Gospels were very eager to write what really happened in the life of Jesus, and not merely what the church believed about him. Luke’s Gospel starts with these words:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke certainly took pains to write what Christ really said and did. Interestingly, out of the four Gospels, John is the one that has the most details of geography, time and social and political conditions. He was interested in historical details, and where possible these details have been verified as being correct. Whole books have been written on this topic. Let me just say here that the writers wrote as if they were writing history. They wrote in an era when people’s memory powers were much better than ours because of the system of education they adopted. They wrote a relatively short time after the events, about events and teaching that they considered to be of vital importance. A lot of people would have known what Jesus did say. If Jesus did not in fact say the things that the Gospels say that he said, wouldn’t we expect other Christians to contest the validity of the statements? After all, the early Christians were very committed to truthfulness and honesty. After all, Jesus ministry was done in public and many people heard his statements. The most reasonable conclusion is that what they wrote is an accurate account of what Jesus said and did. And these Gospels have this perfect man claiming to be absolute Lord and doing miracles to back this claim. We would be wise to accept the words of this great man.

Another way to sidestep the strong claims about Jesus in the Bible is to state that he was not addressing the issue of whether other religions could be ways to salvation when he said that he is the only way to salvation. Those who hold this view say that statements like John 14:6 teach that for Christians Jesus is the only way to salvation. They say that he is not addressing the issue of how those from other religious backgrounds can be saved. Let me just state that this is to go completely against the clear meaning of these passages in their context. The apostles believed without a doubt that the only way that anyone anywhere can be saved is through faith in Jesus. That popular passage on the way to salvation through Christ, John 3:16, says, “God so loved the world.” His Great Commission includes a call to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). In Acts 1:8 Jesus says that we are to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” When they thought about salvation through Christ they thought about the whole world.

This second argument we looked at is similar to another claim that many people are making today. They say that the doctrine of the absolute uniqueness of Christ became popular in the West where Christianity was the only religion for centuries. Now, however, as Christians in the west encounter people of other faiths who have come to their countries, they are forced to replace this doctrine with a pluralistic approach. Indeed Christianity may have been the only religion in the West for a long time, but it certainly was not the only religion in the first century when this doctrine was first formulated. Apart from the Jews, the other peoples in the Roman Empire in the first century were very pluralistic. But out of that context came the doctrine of Christ’s absolute uniqueness. And how about our societies in Asia? Within three houses of the home where I grew up in Colombo we had a Buddhist temple, a Buddhist family, a Hindu family, a Sunni Muslim family and a Shihite Muslim family. And we were friendly with all these people. Yet we were faced with the unmistakable teaching in the Bible that Jesus is the only way to salvation. So we accepted it because we believed in the words of Jesus.

So the Bible confronts us with the awesome truth of the uniqueness of Christ. Now I have a concern for the evangelical movement in this regard. Much of the way in which we attract people to Christ today is through the experience Christ offers to them. Often people become Christians by experiencing Christ’s power over the things they fear in life. This is certainly valid, and the book of Acts shows that it was the way many people were attracted to Christ. This method of attracting people to the gospel is very relevant in this post-modern generation where people have given a new emphasis to experience. We can use that emphasis to show people that it is Jesus alone who opens the door to a truly meaningful experience. That is an aspect of the uniqueness of Christ, and it is implied in his statement that he is the life. However, in the book of Acts, though it was experience that attracted people to Christ, the message that was preached focussed primarily on the truth of the gospel. The major theme of the speeches in the book of Acts is the nature and work of God and of Christ.

I fear that today, in addition to our actions, our preaching is also focussing primarily on experience, so that people think of Christianity primarily in terms of the experiences they have had rather than the supremacy of Christ and his work. Other religions can also provide people with exciting experiences. And Christians do go through dark times when their experiences are not what they want them to be. So this is a shaky ground to build ones faith on. Other religions may offer some exciting experiences, but they do not have the person and work of Christ. And that is the heart of Christianity. When Christians focus almost entirely on experience they could end up giving up their belief in the uniqueness of Christianity, because they have neglected vital features that show the radical difference between Christianity and other faiths. In fact some of these so-called converts would be tempted to try another faith when they are going though a difficult experience. After many years of evangelistic ministry with non-Christians I have come to the conclusion that most people come to Christ because they believe he can meet their needs, but they remain as strong Christians because they have come to the conclusion that the gospel is the truth—absolute truth. Therefore we should focus on the truth of the gospel in our preaching. Otherwise we could open the door for Evangelicals discarding of the uniqueness of Christ.

 

OUR GOAL IS PERSUASION

Now if we truly believe that Christ is the only way to salvation and that people are lost without him, it would produce great urgency within us. We would say with Paul, “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). This conviction has motivated heroic commitment to the cause of the gospel in the history of the church. Hudson Taylor, that great missionary to China, once said, “I would have never thought of going to China had I not believed that the Chinese were lost and needed Christ.”

As we proclaim the gospel we would seek to persuade people to accept its message. If they are lost without Christ, and if the only way for them to be saved is to turn from their old paths and trust in Christ, then we will work with their minds until they make a decision to trust in Christ. This action is described in several ways in the New Testament. The word “persuade” (peithö) is used at least 8 times in Acts to refer to the evangelism of the early Christians. They reasoned with people until their minds were changed and they left their old ways to follow Christ. Therefore the evangelists in Acts always called people to respond personally to the message. Of the seven evangelistic messages described in Acts only the one in Lystra does not refer to a response to the message (Acts 14:15-17). But this was a message that Paul could not finish because Jews from two nearby cities came and disrupted the meeting (14:19). Of the other six messages, in four we see the apostles either warning the people (13:40-43) or calling people to respond to the message with responses like repentance, faith and baptism (2:28-40; 3:19-26; 17:30). In two the people respond even before the call is given (8:36; 10:44). Biblical evangelism, then, boldly proclaims Christ and urges people to commit themselves to him.

 

THE CHARGE OF INTOLERANCE

Today, however, when persuasion is used in proclaiming the gospel, we are accused of being disrespectful and intolerant. This is strange because persuasion is used daily in many spheres of life. Advertisers seek to persuade us to buy certain products and politicians seek to persuade us to accept their policies and vote for them. Yet when it comes to religion this approach to communication is considered inappropriate. Mahatma Gandhi once told his friend, the missionary E. Stanley Jones, “Don’t attempt to propagate your faith; just live it. Be like the rose, which, without a word, silently exudes its perfume and attracts the attention of the people.” Jones responded by reminding Mr. Gandhi that he was the greatest propagandist of all, seeking to propagate his views on independence and freedom to Britain and the whole world.

Bishop Stephen Neill has talked about “the awful and necessary intolerance of truth.” We are always respectful of people. We never treat them as inferior to us. But when we know that Jesus is the Truth and that other ways will not lead to salvation, we must be intolerant of the untruth that has led them astray though we will always be respectful of the person who holds this view. So our perception of the truth will cause us to want to persuade them about the truth. But our respect for them will influence the way we present our message.

I want to highlight three disrespectful ways of persuasion that we must avoid. The first is cultural imperialism when we thrust our culture on them and make them reject the many good things in their culture. Instead we will seek to understand them and their cultures and appreciate the good points there. But, while we affirm all that is good in them, we will always seek to lead them to the point repenting of their unbelief and of believing in Christ because we know that unbelief is rebellion against God. And that is a deadly serious thing.

The second disrespectful way of persuasion is imposition. Imposition takes place when authority and power are used to force people to follow the Christian religion. This took place in Europe when the Roman Catholic Church set up the inquisition in the thirteenth century to combat heresy. It takes place when employers or parents use their authority to force people to become Christians. It took place sometimes in colonial times when missionaries came along with the European conquerors and, by making Christianity the official religion of the colonies, compelled many to accept it for the sake of survival and progress in society. We should be ashamed of these things.

The third disrespectful way of persuasion is manipulation. This takes place when we use things alien to the heart of the gospel to induce others to accept Christianity. Sometimes Christians give people material incentives, such as the promise of a job or of aid, which are used like bribes to induce them to become Christians. Manipulation can take place when people’s emotions are roused so that they accept Christianity in a way that doesn’t involve the proper use of the mind. An example is when an emotionally charged evangelistic message is concluded with a highly emotional story and immediately after that an invitation to discipleship is given. Some may respond more because of their emotional state than because they have thought through the implications of the message. Manipulation also takes place in the cults where “mind bending” or brain washing takes place through the use of mental pressure on people so that they are unable to make an intelligent and free choice about what is being thrust upon them.

Biblical persuasion is actually an expression of our respect for people. The supreme Lord of Creation, God himself, does not forcefully thrust his truth upon people but invites them to reason together with him (Isa. 1:8). Similarly we, as his servants, must respect their freedom of choice and give them an opportunity to make an informed response to the message of Jesus.

 

THE CHARGE OF ARROGANCE

Another common charge made against us when we affirm the uniqueness of Christ and work towards a response to the gospel is that we are being arrogant. Several years ago the British journalist G. K. Chesterton observed that the focus of humility was getting misplaced. He said that humility no longer concerned self-opinion, where it ought to be. Rather it now pertained to truth, where it ought not to be. Whereas earlier humility was judged on the basis of ones opinion of oneself, now it is being judged on the basis of ones understanding of truth. Those who claimed to have the truth are regarded as being arrogant. So we are accused of arrogance for claiming that Christ is absolutely unique. But we must remember that the uniqueness of Christ is not a claim that we are making about Christ, it is a fact that Christ is confronting us with. He presents himself unmistakably as absolutely unique. It is up to us to accept that or reject it. I submit to you that the real arrogance is rejecting what the Lord of the universe says about himself. Who are we to take issue with Jesus and reject what he says when it does not fit in with our understanding? Is it not arrogance for us fallible humans to say that our understanding of Jesus must replace his understanding of himself?

Yet this charge is being made against us, and we need to respond to it. The first thing to say here is that the very nature of the gospel makes it impossible for a true Christian to be arrogant. Paul specifically says that the way we are saved leaves us with no grounds for boasting (Eph. 2:8-9). Christians are those who have accepted their utter inability to save themselves, and who are amazed by the fact that God has had mercy on them. Such amazement causes us to turn our attention away from ourselves and be filled with gratitude to God for his grace. Those with that type of focus cannot be arrogant. But they are so filled with excitement over the gospel that they are urgent in their desire to share it with others.

Many years ago there was a poor boy in England whose father was dead and who walked with a severe limp because of the club-footed deformity. At that time a surgeon in London had just recently perfected an operation that could correct this deformity. A rich friend arranged for him to go to London and have this operation. The operation was successful, and one day the mother got a telegram to say that the son was coming home on a certain train. She eagerly went to the station, and when the boy got off the train he came up to his mother and tried to say something: “Mother, I….” But the mother stopped him, saying, “Son, don’t say a word. Just walk up and down the platform, so that mother will see you walking like any other child.” He did this, came back to his mother and tried to speak again. Again the mother said, “Son, just one more time, let me see you walking.” When he did this, the mother was satisfied, and he could say what he had wanted to say. “Mother,” he said, “I will never be satisfied until you meet that doctor in London, he’s the most wonderful man in the world.” Is this arrogance? No, it is joyous enthusiasm.

And it is the same with us. After we know what we know and have experienced what we have experienced, we must share the message of the gospel. When Peter and John were commanded not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they replied, “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). After stating that he was eager to preach the gospel in Rome (Rom. 1:15), Paul went on to give his reason for such urgency: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16 NAS).

So, on the one hand, we have a boldness to proclaim the message because we know that Christ is the only way to salvation. On the other hand, we do this with great humility because we know that we do not deserve salvation at all. This combination of boldness and humility is difficult for many people to understand, because in many religions salvation is a very hard thing to achieve as it is attained through ones own efforts. Once Gandhi was asked what he thought of the missionary E. Stanley Jones. His response was, “He is a good man, but he is too proud of his religion.” When Jones was told this he said that Gandhi was right, according to his own convictions.  To Gandhi, salvation was the result of hard work.  Earning salvation is as hard as trying to empty an ocean of water with one’s hands.  If those who believe that salvation is earned through their own efforts are sure that they are saved, then they could be proud of their achievement. But the Christians cannot be proud like this because we know that salvation is a work of God’s grace and not of our achievement.

We must try to explain this to our critics. But they would find this very difficult to understand. I am convinced, however, that they would be impressed by a holy and humble life. The Bible is clear that those who proclaim the Lordship of Jesus are nevertheless servants of the people they proclaim this message to. Paul told the Corinthians, “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). He also said, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor. 9:19). Our model is Jesus who himself “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). I believe that this principle of servanthood has a lot of applications to the ministries of evangelists today.

Recently there has been a welcome rediscovery of the truth that when we are preaching the gospel we are engaging in spiritual warfare. This is good, but sometimes when faced with opposition by human forces we are finding Christians acting with the same attitude that they would if they were fighting demonic forces. They may be attacking people when they should be loving them. The great Indian evangelist Sadhu Sundar Singh was once proclaiming the gospel on the banks of the Ganges at a place called Rishi Kesh. Several Hindu Sadhus and other devotees were in his audience. One of them lifted up a handful of sand and threw it in his eyes. Others in the audience, however, were enraged by the act and handed the man to a policeman while Sundar Singh was washing the sand from his eyes. When he returned and found that the man had been handed over to the police, he begged for his release and, having secured it, proceeded with his preaching. The man, Vijayanada, was so surprised that he fell at Sundar Singh’s feet, begging his forgiveness and declaring his desire to know more about what he was saying. Later this man joined Sundar Singh on his travels. Such responses to enemies will really be a challenge to those who consider us as being arrogant because we preach a unique gospel.

Sometime when we are insensitive to the feelings and wishes of non-Christians we can give them the idea that we are arrogant and intolerant. Sometimes Christians, convinced that the sovereign Lord of the universe has given them authority to worship him freely, may shout so loud while praying that they disturb their neighbors. This has become a major problem in many poorer parts of the world where church buildings are not air-conditioned and the sound goes out to the neighborhood. Unnecessary opposition to the gospel has resulted. The belief in the absolute uniqueness of Christ and the priority of his program on earth should not cause us to be insensitive to others. Jesus said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). This certainly applies to our relationships with non-Christians.

So, in this age when both pluralists and fundamentalists are attacking our belief that Christ is unique, there is a great need for us to live like servants of the people. If people see us as true servants of both enemies and friends, our opponents would find it difficult to attack us. They may even be challenged to think positively about the truth of the gospel. When the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were murdered in India last year, most Hindus were greatly embarrassed. This was surely fuelled by the fact that the Staines’ were servants of the people working sacrificially among lepers. To add to that there were the amazing expressions of Christ-like forgiveness by Mrs. Staines which further commended them to sincere people.

What if large numbers of Christians adopt a lifestyle of loving servanthood? At first they may laugh at us and exploit us. But soon they may be forced to take note of the power of this testimony, and the door may be opened to many accepting the message of a unique Christ, which they now resent. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). All this is very relevant to a discussion on the uniqueness of Christ because one of the features of this uniqueness is the difference Christ makes in the lives of those who follow him.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion let me go back to something I said earlier. The uniqueness of Christ is not simply a belief that some Christians hold to. It is an inescapable fact that Christ confronts us with. If we accept this fact, then we will need to go and proclaim it to all we can for it is their only hope for salvation. And if we need to change our lifestyle and undergo suffering in order to do that effectively we will welcome that because the task is so urgent. Let us be faithful to this task.

Two Strands in the Bible

Ajith Fernando
National Director, Youth for Christ/Sri Lanka
The primary aim in descriptions of the end-times in the Bible is to help us live faithfully in the present. The Bible presents various strands of end-time events couched in figurative language which are sometimes difficult to harmonize—resulting in numerous debates about the end times. There are two such strands which I want to discuss here. While we may not be able to harmonize them fully, both place before us some implications for action which we must take seriously.
The first is the strand which describes the earth being destroyed (2 Pet. 2:10-13) and our final home being in “other-worldly” mansions (John 14:1-6). Associated with this strand are those texts which teach that those who do not repent of their sin and those who are not born again will not enter the kingdom of God (John 3:1-21; 1 Cor. 6:9-11). These passages propel us to the work of evangelism which seeks to bring people to repentance, to receiving eternal salvation and to yielding to Christ’s lordship. The Bible entertains the hope of a great turning of large masses of people to Christ’s salvation at the end of time (Rom. 11:25-32).
The second strand talks about the creation as being redeemed in the end. It is represented by texts which describe the creation groaning, as in the pains of childbirth, as it awaits its redemption (Rom. 8:18-23); those which describe all of creation being brought into a unity under Christ (Eph. 1:9-10; Col. 1:20); and those which talk of the day when all of the animal kingdom lives in harmony (Isa. 11:6-8)—especially those presenting humans living in perfect harmony under God (Isa. 2:3-5). In case we think that this is talking about a situation where the world will get better until all humanity is saved, our optimism is moderated by the fact that the context of both the passages in Isaiah just cited is that of judgment.
I have been greatly encouraged by the statement: “The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into [the New Jerusalem]” (Rev. 21:26). Something beautiful from Sri Lanka is going to be taken into the eternal kingdom. Sri Lanka is rapidly deteriorating owing to corruption, violence, and the ravages of an ethnic conflict. Life here is very frustrating and sometimes dangerous. Yet I am excited by the prospect of Sri Lanka contributing something glorious to the eternal kingdom. I am encouraged to stay on here and do my part in preparing that contribution. The prospect of a redeemed creation causes us to be committed to doing all we can to make this earth a better place.
Jesus said that God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the grass of the fields (Matt. 6:26-30). So when we care for the environment we are doing God’s work. The original call for humans to care for the creation (1:28) was not cancelled when we sinned, for it is repeated in the Psalms (8:6-8). However, in the passage just cited from Matthew, Jesus also said that humans are of greater value than plants and animals and that God is committed to feeding and clothing them. This shows us the importance of meeting the material needs of humans (social concern). Elsewhere Jesus said that it doesn’t profit a person to gain the whole world—that is, have all his or her material needs meant—but lose his own soul (Matt. 16:26). This shows how important evangelism is.
Does the argumentation above suggest that those doing social concern are more important than those committed to environmental concerns; and that those doing evangelism are more important than those doing social concern? The Bible does not teach such a hierarchy of service functions. But we can say that, while it is very important to be involved in protecting the environment and meeting human needs, we must guard against the natural tendency to neglect evangelism. Such a warning is especially relevant today because evangelism is frowned upon by many in our pluralistic society.

The Main Features of the Message We Proclaim to the Lost

Prepared by Ajith Fernando, Youth for Christ, Sri Lanka

Revised 2008/2009

 

THE GOSPEL FEATURE MEETING NEEDS
1 The gospel is the good news of God’s action for the restoration of his whole creation, especially humanity Hopelessness, cynicism
2 There is a Supreme God who created the world and everything in it and there is evidence for existence of such a supreme God. Meaninglessness. Atheistic naturalism.
3. God’s nature is best described as holy-love. Need for a God whom we can respect and with whom we can be intimate.
4 The power of the supreme God who created everything supersedes that of the competing forces at work in this world, which are under the control of Satan. Fear of evil forces, misfortune, bad luck and sickness
5 God has spoken to us in nature, in history, through Scripture and supremely in Jesus Christ. This revelation shows the way to salvation and to living. Need for firm foundation and direction for life
6 God created all humans into one race and in his image as the summit of his creation. Racism, inequality and prejudice.

Human need for dignity

7 He gave them the task of looking after this world. How to relate to the world around us
8 The world is in a mess because humans rebelled against God.

· Sin resulted in humans being alienated from God and from the blessings he wishes to give. Thus humans are in need of salvation.

· The consequences of the fall include suffering, pain, frustration and judgement.

Human depravity. The problems of pain, meaninglessness and suffering
9 God did not give up on humanity. He worked in this world, especially through Abraham and his offspring, to show humanity his ways. He did so by redeeming the nation of Israel and intervening in its history and by revealing his word through specially chosen vessels such as the prophets. This revelation constitutes the Old Testament. In the OT we see that God instituted sacrificial system which showed that atonement for sin takes place through substitution. The meaning of cosmic history.

The need to know the ways of our Creator. How is sin dealt with.

10 Jesus, God’s son, is God’s answer to the human predicament. And it is revealed in

· His matchless life,

· His teaching which is both excitingly relevant and deeply profound,

· His ministry which attests to his Lordship and reveals his nature,

· His character and

· His person as both God and man.

These make him the ideal mediator between God and humans and the ideal Lord to follow.

The need for a leader who can be trusted, who is good and capable, who inspires total commitment; who can identify with us.

The need for a sure word from God in a pluralistic age (possible because Jesus is God).

The need for a mediator between God and humans

11 The Work of Jesus provided a way for the salvation of the world.

· His eternal sacrifice began with his incarnation and life.

· On the cross, God took upon himself in the person of his Son, the punishment that our sin deserves.

· His death was also a revelation of God’s nature as holy-love and triumphant defeat of the forces of evil.

· His resurrection sealed his victory, unleashed his power and became the firstfruits of our own resurrection.

· His ascension to the right hand of the Father made him King and Intercessor.

· By sending his Spirit to the world, he continues his work in our daily lives and is with us always.

· His victorious rule and the growth of the kingdom is the process through which evil will be defeated and the total righteous rule of God will be established.

· He will come again to wrap up history and to judge the world.

· He will establish the New Heaven and the New Earth—the eternal abode of the blessed.

Guilt and punishment. Bondage to sin. Disappointment over people who did not pay the price of love.

Fear of defeat by evil forces.

The need to experience the divine.

The power of evil and injustice.

Loneliness.

Hopelessness and uncertainty about the destiny of the world. Upright lives seem to be not worth living.

Fear of death

12 Salvation is a gift of God which was won for us through the work of Christ and which cannot be earned by our efforts. The hopelessness of human efforts at salvation.

Arrogance over personal success in spiritual life

13 We receive salvation by responding to the call of God and to the gospel by

· believing Jesus and his gospel,

· turning from sin,

· receiving forgiveness

· yielding to Christ’s lordship

Need for freedom from guilt.

Need to follow an ideal leader

14 Repentance and yielding to Christ’s lordship implies a radical change to a life of holiness, which is enabled by the Holy Spirit who guides and empowers us to live according to God’s ethic in a way that fulfils our essential humanity. Need for a change of life and to overcome the restlessness of violating ethical norms basic to humanity
15 Those who were alienated from God are reconciled to him and become his children through salvation.

· This opens the door to an intimate relationship with God where we experience his love and find fulfilment and joy.

· Deepening this relationship is one of life’s most fulfilling preoccupations.

Need for identity.

Need for love, joy, satisfaction.

The thirst for God in humanity.

Need for a worthy ambition to committing oneself to.

Spirituality

16 Upon receiving salvation, we become a part of the body of Christ.

· This is a new humanity where earthly distinctions are broken.

· Baptism is a sign of our incorporation to this body

· Here we find the fulfilment of the human need for community and commitment.

Ethnic, class and caste prejudice.

Need to belong to and be committed to a body of people and to a worthwhile cause

17 We join in God’s agenda for the universe by representing him on earth.

· Our involvement in society brings God close to those who are far from him.

· Our lives witness to the values of the kingdom.

· Our evangelism takes the gospel to others.

· Our service meets the needs of humans.

· Our action seeks to restore justice on earth.

· Our responsibility protects the environment.

· God gives gifts and the enabling of the Holy Spirit, which makes it possible for each of us to have a unique role in fulfilling God’s agenda.

· This life of mission fulfils the deep human yearning for significance—we follow the greatest leader and are involved in the greatest cause.

 

Need to be committed to a worthwhile cause and to be useful in life—the need for significance. Social, economic, psychological needs in society.

Injustice.

The environment.

 

 

 

NOTES

  • It is a marvel to see how every aspect of human need is met in the answer to the human dilemma—the gospel—given by the Creator of human nature.
  • Different features of the gospel attract different people at different times in their lives.
  • Therefore conversion is triggered by different features of the gospel in different people.
  • At its heart, salvation is a gift of God’s grace mediated through faith in Jesus Christ and in what he has done for us. That is the basic step through which one is born again, receiving eternal life (John 3:3-17; 5:24) and becoming a child of God (John 1:12; 5:24).
  • Some features will be understood only after the person has responded to Christ in faith.
  • Some features are more basic than others are, and we must try to ensure that we communicate these before calling people to respond to Christ in faith. This is especially true of the person and work of Christ. Paul said, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
  • There is an urgent need to complete, early in the life of the convert, the teaching of all the features of the good news—what Paul called “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
  • The “Chronological Approach” (beginning with Genesis) is a good way to ensure that the major features of the gospel have been communicated in a sequence that makes it understandable.
  • The many features of Christian responsibility in point 11 can result in evangelism—working with people until they are persuaded to receive God’s salvation—being relegated to a relatively unimportant position in the agenda of the church. However, the awful reality of the eternal lostness of people without Christ makes evangelism an urgent priority. Like Paul, we live with “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [our hearts]” (Rom 9:2) over lost people.
  • As some features of this gospel are so alien to the worldviews of many people, we need to work hard to understand those worldviews and see how we can communicate the message effectively.
  • We must ensure that we communicate this gospel in a way that is—
  1. Accurate,
  2. Persuasive,
  3. Understandable,
  4. Relevant,
  5. Attractive,
  6. Memorable,
  7. Practical,
  8. Comprehensive and
  9. Under the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

 

 

Spirituality: Christian and Non-christian

April 2003 Bible Trail Conference for Youth of Singapore YFC

TALK TWO

The West today is highly enamoured by Eastern spirituality. Thousands of Westerners are coming to the East in search of spiritual realities that they feel the West forsook in its quest for technological advancement. What we are seeing today is the culmination of a process that started in the West about 150 years ago. There was a new interest in studying the religions and cultures of what we today call the Third World. Earlier Christians had viewed these cultures as savage and backward. But as these Westerners began to study these cultures they began to see a richness they had not realised was there.

Bishop Stephen Neill, who was a famous British missionary to India, described it like this: “As these ‘treasures of darkness’ penetrated the consciousness of educated men and women, something like a gasp of astonishment arose. Surprise was followed by appreciation, and even admiration.” Neill goes on to say how the Hindu writings began to be compared with the Christian Scriptures. Pope John XXIII instituted the famous Vatican II Council of the Roman Catholic Church which further reflected on this issue. One of the official documents resulting from this Council is entitled Lumen Gentium, the light of the Gentiles and, while affirming a strong theology of mission, it also affirms the richness of other religious traditions.

Today as Christians meet people of other faiths, and see admirable features in these people, they wonder how they can square what they see with their belief in the uniqueness of Christianity. We will tackle this issue in three steps. First we will see what we can learn from Paul’s practice of quoting favourably from non-Christian authors. Then we will look at how we can account for what clearly seem to be truthful and noble aspects in other faiths. Then we will contrast Christian spirituality with non-Christian spirituality bearing in mind our belief in the uniqueness of Christ.

 

MEETING THEM AT THEIR HIGHEST

In his speech to the Athenians, Paul quoted with approval from one or possibly two non-Christian poets (Acts 17:28). This tells us something about his attitude to these faiths. The first thing we need to point out is that, even though Paul quoted two non-Christian philosophers, nowhere are we told that he accepted the whole religious system of their philosophies. Yet he saw “glimmerings of the truth” in these systems that could be used to buttress his case for Christianity. His audience was familiar with these writers and accepted them as their own teachers. In this case Paul saw that he could use something they had said in the process of developing his case for the Christian gospel. We, too, as F. F. Bruce points out, “may quote appropriate words from a well-known writer or speaker without committing ourselves to their total context or background of thought.”

By affirming what is good in the Greek philosophers, Paul gave us another important principle about the Christian’s attitude toward other faiths. In Stephen Neill’s words, “We must endeavour to meet them at their highest.” Neill contrasts this with the approach of the witness who cheaply scores points off the other faiths “by comparing the best he knows in his own faith with their weaknesses.” There are those who try to present a case for Christianity by appealing to the failures of non-Christians. Christianity is presented as the answer to the awful behaviour of non-Christians.

In 1983 there was an outbreak of violence in Sri Lanka in which many from the Buddhist majority had a hand. Some Christians were quick to use this as evidence for the bankruptcy of Buddhism. But as we began to get a clearer picture of what had happened, news began to emerge that Christians too had been involved in the violence. Their involvement was not as prominent as that of the Buddhists because the Christians are a small minority in Sri Lanka. Besides, if we use this line of argumentation, all the Buddhist has to do is to point to situations such as Nazi Germany. We may not identify the Nazis as Christians.  But since they were church members, the non-Christians did. These so-called Christians definitely became instruments of wickedness.

The “savagery” of the non-Christian world was used in the past to motivate Christians to missionary involvement. Today the non-Christians are using the same argument to appeal for missionary involvement in the so-called Christian West. The Buddhists believe that the moral restraint of Buddhism is the answer to the immorality found in the West. The Hindus believe the devotion of Hinduism is the answer to the materialism found in the West. The Muslims believe that the brotherhood of Islam is the answer to the racial prejudice found in the West.

We do not argue for the validity of Christianity by pointing to the wickedness that other religions have caused. We argue for it by pointing to the ravages of sin. It is sin that has caused the miserable state of the human race and not primarily the religion of these sinners. Sin is found in Christian and non-Christian environments. Those born into a Christian background need to be saved from sin as much as those born into a non-Christian background.

All this shows how careful we must be about attacking other religions. We must show people how their faith is ineffective and will not save. Paul did this regarding idolatry in Athens. We too need to show the ineffectiveness of the ways people use in their quest for salvation, such as materialism, idolatry, other gods, and self-effort. But we also see that Paul did not regard his gospel preaching as a competitive debate that he must win by putting down his opposition by every possible means. Paul’s desire was to proclaim the truth. If there was truth to be found anywhere in these other faiths, he was not afraid to affirm it. But Paul showed, as he did in Athens, that the highest truths in these religions did not go far enough.  Paul knew that the truth residing in other faiths would not bring eternal salvation. For this, Christ is the only way.

It is because we believe in the supremacy of Christ that we are not afraid to affirm what is good in other faiths. Christ is in a class by himself.  The founders of the other religions were men who explored the meaning of the divine. Christ was divinity incarnate. He said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). He also said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). We have come to the Father through Christ and tasted life and truth. We know that nothing in this world can compare with that. Our security in him takes away our defensiveness so that we are not afraid to affirm what is good in the followers of other ways.

But, because we know that Christ is the only way to salvation, we do all we can to bring those following other ways to Christ. We are not surprised to find that Paul proceeded to present a different gospel from that of the Greek philosophers he quoted. When Paul came to the resurrection of Christ he lost most of his audience. But Paul would not compromise truth in order to keep his hearers agreeing with him.

 

SOURCES OF TRUTH IN OTHER RELIGIONS

I have said that there are truths in other religions. This brings us to the question of the source of these truths. Can they be described as God’s revelation in the same way that the Bible is, as many Christians are trying to do today? The Scriptures teach that there are three sources of truth available to man apart from the Scriptures.

God’s Original Revelation.  The first source is God’s original revelation to Adam, the first human. Paul said that from “one man he made every nation of men” (Acts 17:26; see also Romans 5:12-21). This implies that Adam was the father of the whole human race. The Scriptures teach that God had a warm personal relationship with Adam. This could only have been possible if God had revealed key truths about his nature to Adam.

Yet with the Fall, human nature was corrupted and untruths entered his mind. Paul wrote: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). So human religion deteriorated. Yet that original revelation given to Adam was not entirely lost by the human race. In humans there remained what has been called reminiscent knowledge. In this reminiscent knowledge there is found truth about God.

The idea of the deterioration or devolution of religion is not accepted today in many circles. Many people prefer to explain the history of religions in terms of evolution rather than devolution. The evolutionary theory claims that religion is the attempt of humans to answer certain questions and challenges they face. From the earliest times humans needed to explain how the world, with all its complexity, came into being. People felt insecure because of their inability to control nature, so they began to look for someone bigger than themselves to whom they could go for protection and blessing.  They needed to attribute the misfortunes they faced to some source. Gradually humanity “created” ghosts, spirits, demons, and gods to answer its questions. There were gods for different functions and protecting different localities. So polytheism emerged.

As societies advanced, the evolutionary theory holds, humans realised that having a supreme ruler for a large area was politically more effective than having many local chiefs.  So monarchies emerged. This idea of the supreme ruler was extended to the religious sphere, yielding the belief in a supreme god. The climax of this process was monotheism, the belief in one supreme god.

The Bible affirms the very opposite of the evolutionary view. The Bible states that the first man had a monotheistic belief in the supreme God that was corrupted after the Fall, resulting in polytheism and animism (spirit worship). Carl F. H. Henry regards the evolutionary explanation of religious history as typical of the mood of this age. He says, “In every age philosophers have sought some one explanatory principle by which to encompass and explain all things.” He points out that “in modern times that principles has been the category of evolution.” So the development of religion is also explained in terms of evolution.

Anthropological studies carried out in the last century however have given convincing evidence for the biblical view, which sees the present religious diversity in terms of the deterioration of an original revelation. Don Richardson has made these insights from anthropology available from a non-technical viewpoint in his book Eternity in Their Hearts.  He shows how the idea of a supreme, good God was discovered in thousands of so-called primitive cultures that have been studied in this century.

Richardson relates how these discoveries were embarrassing to many anthropologists because they went against current opinions about the history of religions. They had expected “unadvanced” thoughts about the divine. The so-called advanced concept of a supreme God was a most unexpected discovery because these primitive cultures were not considered to have evolved to the point of developing such an idea. Richardson reports that “probably 90 percent or more of the folk religions of this planet contain clear acknowledgement of the existence of one Supreme God.”

When missionaries go out and proclaim the gospel to these cultures, their hearers often automatically identify the Christian God with their supreme God, a fact that has simplified the Bible translator’s task. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin notes that “in almost all cases where the Bible has been translated into languages of the non-Christian peoples of the world, the New Testament word Theos [Greek for ‘God’] has been rendered by the name given by the non-Christian peoples to the One whom they worship as Supreme Being.” Newbigin cites the great Bible translations consultant, Eugene Nida, who has pointed out that where translators tried to evade the issue by simply transliterating the Greek or Hebrew word, the converts would explain this foreign word in the text of their Bibles by using the indigenous name for God.

Here then is the first source of truth in non-Christian systems—God’s original revelation. Though this revelation has been corrupted because of sin, some truth still remains, and that truth may be affirmed and used as a stepping-stone in communicating the gospel.

 

The Image of God in Humanity. The second source of truth available, apart from the Scriptures, is in the very nature of the human being. We are religious beings. The Dutch theologian, J. H. Bavinck, points out that “this is not to say that every man has this religious trait to the same extent.” Some are more religious than others are, but if we look at the human race as a whole, we must agree with Bavinck that “it cannot be denied that religiousness is proper to man.” Bavinck says, “Even when a man turns his back upon the religious traditions in which he has been brought up and calls himself an atheist, he still remains in the grasp of his religious predisposition.  He can never wholly rid himself of it.”

Religions such as Buddhism deny the necessity of relating to any supernatural being.  But most of the adherents of such religions cannot generally be made to stick to a rigid non-theism. Mahayana Buddhism is the largest branch of Buddhism. It is practised in countries such as Japan, China, Korea, and Tibet. The Mahayana (greater vehicle) Buddhists worship the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas who are being who are said to have delayed becoming Buddhas and going to Nirvana so that they can serve others. They address their prayers to them as they would to gods.

Theravada (the doctrine of the elders) Buddhism is practised in countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. It prides itself in being closer to the teachings of the Buddha and the early Buddhist (Pali) scriptures. Yet Buddhists belonging to this branch have also included the divine factor into the practice of their religion. Many Buddhists of Sri Lanka have literally deified the Buddha, a practice he would have opposed. These Buddhists often talk about the gods who protect them and often resort to assistance from the gods or spirits in times of trouble.

Communism sought to eradicate religion with its strong rationalistic and materialistic emphases. But prior to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and even today religion was thriving in these countries in spite of discrimination and persecution that religious adherents had to face. The phenomenal growth of the church in Communist China is one of the most fascinating stories in religious history. When I was a student in the West in the mid-1970s people were talking a lot about secular humanism. Now there is little talk about that. The post-modern era has dawned, and its reaction against the ultra-rationalism of the modern era has resulted in religion and spirituality coming back into popularity. Unfortunately many have turned to New Age Pantheism (everything is divine) to give expression to their religious bent.

The incurable religiosity of the human race is a vestige of the image of God in humanity (see Genesis 1:26-27). This image was tarnished as a result of the Fall so that no part of us has escaped the taint and pollution of sin. But all humans still have some of the God-implanted characteristics and abilities originally invested in them. These traits manifest themselves in ways that are both good and bad, which is why humans thirst after the divine.  Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men.” That refers to the vestige of the image of God. But it goes on to say that men “cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” That is a result of the fall. This knowledge that humans have about God because of their natural inclination toward the religious has been called intuitional knowledge of God by theologians.

So we find that humans can think reasonably. They have a sense of the reality of the divine that expresses itself in religiousness. They have a sense of truth, of beauty, and of goodness. They have the potential for creativity. They have a sense of .the eternal, which makes them want to transcend their limits of time and space. These are qualities with the potential of being used in the service of truth for the benefit of humanity.  But they may also be used in ways that are dangerous to man. So we find accomplished art, literature, and music that are good and we also find accomplished art, literature, and music that are evil.  We have beautiful ancient buildings regarded as wonders of the world that were built using slaves in a most inhuman way.

A Christian, therefore, may enjoy the music of the Indian musician Ravi Shankar or be challenged by the heroism of Mahatma Gandhi. Both these people are/were Hindus. We may learn from the literature of Greece. We could say that, because these are expressions of the image of God in humanity, the good features in these creations are derived in some sense from God. But we also know that those who created them do not know God, and this makes us unwilling to endorse the system of life to which they subscribe. As a youth I used to follow Hindu processions for hours, thrilled by the music I heard, but deeply troubled by what caused the musicians to play what they played.

 

The Plan of the Universe.  A third source of knowledge, outside the revelation of God in the Scriptures, is the plan of the universe. Looking at the universe, man is able to make inferences about the One who created it.  We may call this the inferential knowledge of God.  The Psalmist said, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Paul explained this knowledge of God more clearly: “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Rom. 1:19-20).

In his speeches Lystra and Athens, Paul said that the plan of creation is a testimony to God, creating in man a desire to know more about him (Acts 14:17; 17:26, 27). By observing the grandeur of creation, people may be led to acknowledge the greatness of the Creator. By observing the law of nature, people may arrive at a conviction about the importance of order for a secure life. This in turn will become a base for formulating the laws of a given society.

 

GENERAL REVELATION AND SPECIAL REVELATION

The three sources of truth outside the Bible are reminiscent knowledge, based on the original revelation of God; intuitional knowledge, which comes by the use of our natural instincts; and inferential knowledge, which comes by observing creation. In theology, this type of knowledge is described under the heading of general revelation. It is truth, derived from God and available to all people. It is distinguished from special revelation, which is truth communicated by God infallibly, in the form of language. This truth is recorded in the Bible. Whereas general revelation gives hints about the nature of reality, special revelation is a clear guide to all that is needed for salvation and for authentic living.

Psalm 19 describes those two sources of truth. Verses 1-6 describe general revelation. This revelation is not made through “speech or language” (v. 3). But “Their voice goes out into all the earth” (v. 4). Verses 7-11 describe special revelation. This description begins with the words, “The law of the Lord is perfect” (v. 7). It goes on to describe this revelation as “trustworthy” (v. 7), “right,” “radiant” (v. 8), “pure” and “altogether righteous” (v. 9). This passage also describes the amazingly complete influence it exerts on believers. We affirm that only the Bible can exert such infallible authority upon us. No other writing, Christian or non-Christian, is revelation in the sense that the Bible is.

Some recent works on the Christian attitude to other faiths have disputed the Christian claim to a unique revelation. Sri Lankan writer, Wesley Ariarajah says, “What we have in the Bible are not attempts to project objective truths, but a struggle to understand, to celebrate, to witness, and to relate.” To him the Bible is an expression of the faith and experiences of its writers. This is the typical approach to truth of religious pluralists, and we are going to encounter this more and more in the days to come. Ariarajah says that we must not make claims that the Bible presents “absolute and objective” truths based on our belief that it is a unique revelation given by God. Besides, he says, “most religions like Islam and Hinduism, are also based on the concept of revelation, and throughout history different persons have claimed to have various revelations from God.” It is not within the scope of this talk to defend our belief that the Scriptures are a unique revelation from God, containing objective and absolute truth.  This has been adequately done in numerous books on revelation that have appeared recently.

 

CHRISTIAN AND NON-CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY

The Resurgence of Spirituality. Having looked at the phenomenon of non-Christian religiousness and its sources, we are now in a position to come specifically to the issue of spirituality. All over the world we are seeing a resurgence of interest in spirituality. The East has always been very high on spirituality, with an important place given to the spiritual disciplines in each of the Eastern religions. At the start of this talk we said how from about 150 years ago there was a study of other cultures and a discovery of riches in them which began a new trend of appreciating these cultures. This trend began as we said at the start of this talk with the study of other cultures and the discovery of riches in them. But this has become a particularly significant feature of Postmodern Western society since the last quarter of the twentieth century. Postmoderns are revolting against what they see as the tyranny of the rationalism of the modern era. They claim that owing to the preoccupation with objective facts the individual with his or her feelings and drives were neglected. One of the things neglected was the spiritual side of the human being.

As I said earlier, twenty years ago there was a lot of talk about secular humanism which generally ignored or denied the spiritual aspect of the human being. Now this has given way to an attitude to life which gives a higher place to the spiritual. But the spirituality that has attracted the West is generally closer to New Age and Eastern Spirituality than Christian spirituality. So we see people taking a lot of interest in astrology, in magic and the occult, in psychic and spiritual “counsellors” and in eastern meditation. Meditation and belief in reincarnation have become common place even in the West. Many new versions of old films and television serials like Star Trek, Robin Hood and Sindbad the Sailor give evidence of such spirituality. I found it quite amusing to see the Muslim Sindbad who calls God “Allah” involved in many magical activities which are generally scorned by Muslims.

 

Defective Evangelical Spirituality. Unfortunately it could be that many expressions of evangelical Christianity in the West may have been defective in the area of spirituality. In many Evangelical traditions conversion was defined as intellectual assent to the message of the cross. After conversion the emphasis was on obedience to Christ so that sanctification was equated with obedience. There was little emphasis on the work of the Spirit in sanctification. The teaching on the assurance of salvation was almost entirely an appeal to the rational—the Bible says those who believe are saved, therefore if you have believed you are saved. There is little mention of the experience of Christ through the Holy Spirit, the transformed life and the witness of the Spirit as means of assurance. Any display of emotion in religion, or what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections,” was viewed with suspicion. So to many postmoderns Christianity was an expression of the dry rationalism of modernism they were revolting against. Happily this situation has changed in both the Charismatic and the other wings of the Evangelical church where there is a resurgence of interest in spirituality.

But when some are rejecting Christianity and looking for spirituality elsewhere they are finding non-Christian spirituality very attractive. As they look at certain forms of non-Christian spirituality they wonder whether those forms are superior to Christian spirituality?

 

The Dangers of Identifying Christianity with One Culture. The first point to make in response to the above situation is that the discovery of riches in other faiths is coming alongside a discovery of riches in other cultures. Some cultures may have preserved good features in God’s original revelation, which got obliterated in the West, owing to its pragmatism or to some other cultural features.

I remember one summer in the mid-seventies when I was a student in USA. I was struggling with what women wore (or maybe I should say, didn’t wear!). I met an American Hare Krishna follower in an airport gracefully dressed in a sari. I found it so refreshing! As far as wholesome appearance was concerned, she was so much more attractive than many of the Christian women I met at that time. Then there are the strong family-ties, the close community life, and the commitment to the contemplative life that is, for example, found in Asia.

People made in the image of God, are made with the capacity for spiritual experience. And living in a world fashioned by God they could achieve significant heights of moral and spiritual understanding and experience, without a Christian influence. Of course, many of these emphases are found in the Bible, but they may have been neglected in some forms of Western Christianity.

Therefore our claim for the uniqueness of Christ is not a claim for the uniqueness of Western culture. Some thought like this in earlier times. They saw mission as Christianising the heathen. But to many of them, Christianising actually meant Westernising. The new appreciation of riches in non-western cultures forces us to stop identifying the gospel with western culture. It also forces us to ask where the church in the West has been deficient in her understanding of the whole counsel of God.

 

Biblical Spirituality: A Personal Relationship with God. We further point out that the Bible has a fully developed and deeply meaningful understanding of spirituality. Much of it is given in the Old Testament, which was the Bible of the early church. Therefore it did not need to be re-emphasised in the New Testament. Because many Christians do not assign sufficient significance to the Old Testament, they may have not fully grasped this emphasis. Essentially, biblical spirituality is founded upon a personal relationship with God who is both loving and holy. Deepening this relationship gives life’s most fulfilling experience. David said, “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psa. 16:11). We believe that our relationship with God is most fulfilling because God is the Creator of human Spirituality and Jesus is God’s answer to human need. Jesus himself said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). We will now look at how the fact that God is both loving and holy influences biblical spirituality.

 

God is Loving. The heart of Christian spirituality is a love relationship with a personal God. This is very different to Eastern and New Age spirituality. The God of the Bible is separate from humanity, but has reached down to establish an interpersonal relationship with us—a relationship of love. New Age spirituality has a pantheistic understanding of God which understands everything as being God. God is not personal. You are God, and I am God. Our task is to become one with the divine. The official Hare Krishna magazine is entitled Back to Godhead. New Age analyst Theodore Roszak says that our goal is “to awaken the God who sleeps at the root of the human being.” Therefore these spiritualities have to do with experiences of the divine through spiritual disciplines. The aim is to be enlightened so that we may experience the oneness with the divine that actually forms our essential nature. We are not experiencing this oneness with the divine owing to the ignorance of our present way of living. So techniques are used to alter ordinary consciousness so that we can see true reality.

To many these spiritual disciplines are satisfying, because they give some fulfilment to the spiritual nature of humans. But they fall short of complete satisfaction. Humans are made to find fullest satisfaction through personal relationships of love. This is why love songs are so popular in music, which is the language of joy. The heart of Christian spirituality is just this—a love relationship with God.

Yet like in the marriage relationship, which is often used to describe our relationship with God, a personal relationship with God takes time to cultivate through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Many Christians are not doing this, and they are missing out on the beauty of Christian spirituality. The “one minute devotionals” that are available today in abundance are not helpful here, unless they become means by which an appetite for the spiritual life is kindled. One must soon graduate from them to lingering with God through the spiritual disciplines like prayer, praise, adoration, Bible reading, meditation and corporate worship. Christians who do not know the joys of lingering in the presence of God will be at a loss to know how to respond when people speak of serenity through New Age disciplines like Transcendental Meditation.

When those who have practised non-Christian spiritual disciplines come to Christ, they take to Christian spirituality with relish! Their skills in the art of the spiritual disciplines help them to cultivate a deeply satisfying spiritual life. The accountancy firm that does the annual audit of Youth for Christ sent a young man Satchithanandakumar, who was a devout Hindu, to check on our books. Someone in our office spoke to him about Christ and that led him to finally becoming a Christian. I had the privilege of meeting him weekly to help him in his spiritual growth. I found that he had cultivated a deep prayer life. Later, when he joined our staff, this prayer life became a key to his phenomenal success in leadership development. He prayed people through into leadership. If we were to ask him whether he would go back to Hinduism, he would decisively say, “Never!” The rewards of practising the Hindu spiritual disciplines could not be compared with the glory of a relationship with a loving God. But this background in the disciplines would have given him a “head start” in his spiritual pilgrimage as a Christian.

Sadhu Sundar Singh was a young Sikh in India who was skilled in Hindu and Sikh disciplines. But he was engaged in a quest for peace that was yet to be satisfied. He “attained a mastery of the Yoga technique and became oblivious of the external world for short spells.” Sundar Singh said that during these moments he experienced in some measure the peace and joy for which his soul craved. “But when he returned to consciousness, he was again plunged into the turmoil of unrest and discontent.” Others have told me of similar experiences. When Sundar Singh finally met Christ he became a “master” on the spiritual life. He also found that God establishes a relationship with him that does not end at the mountaintop, for God comes down to the valley with him. Sundar Singh once said, “Without Christ I was like a fish out of water. With Christ, I am in an ocean of love!”

Biblical Spirituality: God is Holy. Because God is holy, if we have a relationship with him, we too must become holy like him (1 Pet. 1:16). So Christian spirituality requires moral and ethical purity. The beauty of it is that just as justification is by grace through faith, so is sanctification by which we are made holy. On our own we do not have the strength to become holy, but as we repent of our sin and trust in him and obey him, he makes us holy. Therefore to many in the Protestant tradition the words spiritual and holy and saint are almost synonymous with moral and ethical purity. When we use the word saint we generally refer to a righteous and loving person, even though that is not its essential meaning. This is perhaps the great strength of Evangelical spirituality. Catholic and Orthodox spirituality emphasised the sacramental and mystic aspects of spirituality. Charismatic spirituality emphasised the power aspect of spirituality. But Evangelical spirituality emphasised the ethical and moral aspects of spirituality. There is truth in all three emphases.

There is no developed concept of a supreme God who is holy in pantheistic cultures. Therefore in pantheistic spirituality a concerted push for morality is often lacking. This is why despite the strong tradition of spirituality in Asia our countries are plagued by corruption today. The gods of Hinduism were morally neutral, and they are often seen to be doing things that we consider quite unholy. The emphasis in those spiritualities is not so much on holiness in the sense of moral purity, but on holiness in the sense of spiritual power—of power over the mind, over the body, over anxiety and circumstances. People go to astrologers and psychic readers to have some power over their circumstances. They do yogic exercises to have power over the mind and the body. We have seen that even in Christian circles when there is an emphasis on spiritual power, sometimes there is a tendency to neglect teaching on moral issues.

People from the West go to places like the Himalayan mountains in search of exotic spiritual experiences. They often have such experiences. But many of them are seen to behave in ways that are morally very impure, such as dabbling in drugs and promiscuous sex. Though there are exceptions, generally pantheistic spiritualities have not succeeded in producing just, morally upright and fair societies. Presently the societies in many countries in the West are fashioned according to a system of trust based on transcendent absolutes and of submission to a supreme God. Structures like the freedom of expression, democracy, and even the supermarket operate on these assumptions. I shudder to think what will happen as one by one these presuppositions are being jettisoned in the West and replaced by values derived from a pantheistic worldview.

In Christian spirituality we enter into the experience of a personal relationship with the holy God through humble recognition of our sinfulness and inability to help ourselves. We first bow down before the supreme God in repentance. Once we enter into a relationship with God, we submit to his lordship and become subject to his will for our personal lives. The pantheistic approach is quite opposite to this. We can see how this approach fits in with the postmodern mood with its quest for self-actualisation. You don’t need to bow down before a supreme God who is an objective reality outside of yourself. You are God! An influential spiritual teacher in America, Swami Mukthananda has said, “Kneel to your own self. Honour and worship your own being. God dwells within you as You!” That sounds much better to people seeking to rule their lives than the words, “Kneel in humble submission and repent for your sin before the almighty God.”

So we shouldn’t be surprised by the growth of pantheistic spirituality today. It fits in with the aspirations of people in both the East and the West. People want something spiritual to answer the heart-cry that things like atheism, secular humanism and Communism could not satisfy. Pantheism provided an answer without violating the quest for a life without submission to objective realities like a supreme God, a strict moral code and an infallible Bible.

Yet no one can find full satisfaction without solving the sin question in his or her life. An American Methodist preacher of an earlier generation, Henry Clay Morrison, is reported to have said, “God did not fix me up so that I couldn’t sin. He fixed me up so that I couldn’t sin and enjoy it.” According to the psalmists the law of the Lord is not a burden that enslaves us, it is a delight that gives life. The objective truth of the Word is not an obstacle to freedom. Jesus said that the truth will make us free (John 8:32-36). The context of that affirmation shows that the freedom Jesus spoke about had much to do with living a life freed from enslavement to sin.

And what can we say about liberation from our own past actions? The law of karma, with its belief in repeated incarnations is being presented today as an alternative to the Christian emphasis on sin and judgement, grace and justification. But can one completely negate all their bad karma by their own efforts accumulated through several lives? Many honest people who are committed to this scheme would admit that this is a long and dreary climb along a path that does not carry much hope of liberation at the end. Although the adherents of this path have the satisfaction of doing something to save themselves, they will not experience the freedom of knowing that their wrong actions are behind them eternally and forgotten. The Christian gospel, on the other hand, speaks of “having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Heb. 10:22) through the perfect and sufficient sacrifice of Christ Jesus. Without such freedom from a guilty conscience there can be no permanently fulfilling experience of spirituality.

An Opportunity to the Church. So while the new interest in spirituality is a challenge to the church, it is also a great opportunity. Christian spirituality is one of the key aspects of the uniqueness of Christ. Therefore it could figure prominently in our evangelism. Sooner or later people will realise that the serenity which New Age and Eastern spiritualities provide does not fully satisfy. Though these have been described as holistic, only the Creator of human life can give humans a truly holistic spirituality. It is he who created every aspect of the human make-up and therefore only he could satisfy the yearnings of the whole human soul. This is why Jesus, who was God’s answer to the human dilemma, said, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

The above discussion would have shown us that the current interest in spirituality could be a stepping stone in the evangelisation of postmoderns and people of other faiths. Worship, the supreme expression of Christian spirituality, could therefore be an important means to evangelism today. We have found this to be so in our evangelism among youth. Vibrant Christian worship demonstrates to people that what they are yearning for is found in the Christian gospel.

So the current interest in spirituality is a challenge to the church to get its act together. We have the answer that the world is looking for. But have we ourselves experienced it? Do we know the glory of intimacy with the loving and holy God who is supreme above creation? Has this relationship transformed us into morally pure people? If we can answer these questions in the affirmative, we would truly be light to the darkness of the world in this era of so much moral and religious confusion.

 

Pop Songs and Salvation

January 2011

Ajith Fernando

Shortly before Moses died, God gave him a strange assignment. He was to write a song and “put it in [the] mouths” of the people (Deut. 31:19). That is, people are going to be singing this song regularly. The special thing about this song is that “it is going to live forgotten in the mouths of” the next generation (31:21). In other words, the song will become part of the cultural mainstream, the folklore, of the people. It is going to become a pop song.

 

God tells Moses that the people will forget God and become disobedient after they experience prosperity in the Promised Land (31:20). The message of the song is strongly condemning of disobedience and predicts God’s punishment of the disobedient (Deut. 32:3-43). But because it is a pop song sung by the general population, they will continue to sing it—even though they are singing something that strongly challenges their lifestyle.

 

Then punishment will come to the people; punishment that was predicted in the song they have been singing all along. God tells Moses, “And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness” (32:21). The song says sin will be punished. Now as they experience misery, they will realise that the words of the song, about which they did not think too much, are true! They will realise that, as the song says, they are being punished for their sinfulness. God will use the message of the song to bring them to repentance.

 

As I studied this, I thought of the hymns that the football crowds sing in Britain. I do not think most of them believe the words they sing; but they sing it because it has become part of their folklore. Then I thought of the Christmas carols that are broadcasted over Radio and TV during the Christmas season. I think that sometimes they are sung by rather ungodly people in ungodly attire! I realised that some day, when the listeners are conscious of a need for salvation, God could use these songs to speak to them.

 

One of the keys that God could use to make a nation receptive to the gospel is having gospel values becoming popular in the cultural mainstream. They may not accept the full message. But it comes in a way that is artistically so attractive that the people can’t help remembering it. My mind immediately goes to the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, which have become a popular film series. The Oscar winning films based on The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien have been even more popular. Both Lewis and Tolkien were Christians who communicated Christian values through their fantasy novels.

 

The gospel presents values which are very different to what most of our people accept today. When people think of religion, they usually think of a way of life achieved by their own effort. Christianity presents a gospel which is the way to life achieved not by us but by Christ and received by us through faith. How can their minds be oriented to understand such a radically different message? Brilliantly produced and artistically sophisticated television dramas and songs could be a vessel that God can use. Their production is so good that the media would like to broadcast it over their channels. Besides, because God is the creator of the humanness, when we communicate God’s thoughts to humans, something within they could resonate and say, “This is right! This is what I need.”

 

Here is a challenge to Christian artistes to aim to get their work into the cultural mainstream.

 

________________________

Written to celebrate the completion of two major projects on Deuteronomy (after eight-and-a-half years of labour) and also to celebrate the launch of the first Tamil/Sinhala television drama by YFC’s media division (in partnership with Back to the Bible Broadcast).

Easter: the Foundation of Christianity

Published in the Island Newspaper ON Easter Sunday 1999

 By Dr. Ajith Fernando

National Director, Youth for Christ

While Christmas is the most popular festival in the Christian calendar in Sri Lanka, historically Easter has been its most important festival. I suspect that the popularity of Christmas has had more to do with the desire of business people to profit from this festival than with the desire of devout people to practice Christianity! No one really knows on what day Jesus was born, so that we can safely say that what we call Christmas day is not the day of the birth of Christ. But we can say with certainty that Jesus rose from the dead on the day we now call Easter—the Sunday immediately after the popular Jewish festival called the Passover. And it is this event we celebrate each year in the festival we call Easter. Why is it the most important festival of Christianity?

 

The Proof of the Message

The importance of Easter is evidenced by the fact that, in the preaching of the first Christians in the Bible, the affirmation that Christ rose from the dead was presented as the proof of the validity of the Christian religion. My advisor for my post-graduate studies, Dr. Daniel Fuller, had written his doctoral dissertation at the University of Basel in Switzerland on the resurrection of Jesus. You can imagine my surprise when he said one day in class that if someone produced the bones of Jesus he would give up Christianity. To him Christianity stands or falls on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead.

Jesus made some amazing claims about himself—claims that his Jewish contemporaries regarded as blasphemy. He claimed to do things which, according to Jewish belief, only God could do—like forgive sins and give people eternal life. In several different ways he claimed to be equal with God. To the Jewish mind these were terrible things for a human being to say. They believed that people who spoke like this deserved to die. So they tried to stone him when he made these claims and they finally succeeded in having him killed.

It is interesting that, though the Jewish critics of Jesus understood the serious implications of the claims he was making, his disciples did not grasp them. I suppose, because they knew that he was a good person, they could not accept that he would say such outrageous blasphemies. So they must have interpreted these statements to mean something less offensive. Towards the end of his life Jesus expressed surprise that his disciples had been with him for so long and still did not understand who he really was. But the resurrection of Jesus changed all of this. After his death his disciples were so afraid that they went into hiding. But after they saw him risen from the dead they were irrepressible, proclaiming his message wherever they went despite severe opposition. In fact, most of them were killed for preaching this message, but their conviction about Jesus was so strong that they were willing to make the supreme sacrifice for it.

It is actually quite amazing that these Jews accepted Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. He had just been killed in the most ignoble way possible. Jesus had told his disciples several times that he came to this world to give his life to save the human race. When he told them that he was going to be killed in this shameful manner, they had protested strongly about it. The Jews at that time were expecting a redeemer (also known as Christ or Messiah). But they wanted this redeemer to come as a powerful king who would free them from the hated Roman rule. This is why the disciples were so discouraged and went into hiding after he died. It seemed such a huge defeat.

Only after he rose from the dead did these disciples realise the meaning of what Jesus had been telling them all along: that the primary reason for his coming to the world was to die for the human race. The resurrection was proof to them that, as he had told them, his death was going to redeem people from the affects of their wrong deeds. I’m sure the disciples knew that humans, given their natural weakness, could never adequately do things to cancel off all the guilt they had accumulated for their wrong deeds. But they could not accept that Jesus had to die in such a terrible way in order to help humans out of this mess.

After Jesus rose from the dead and they realised the reason why he had to die, their discouragement was turned to amazement over the great love of God for the human race. The apostle Paul described it like this: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us”. Now the death was no longer a problem, it was the proof that God loved us humans. And it was the fact that he rose from the dead that made them change their minds about this puzzle about why this person who was supposed to be God’s answer to the problems of the human race had to die. Speaking to the intellectuals in the city of Athens, the apostle Paul, after explaining the Christian approach to life, said that the proof of all this was the fact that Jesus rose from the dead.

The resurrection also convinced the first Jewish converts to Christianity in Jerusalem. When the disciples started proclaiming the message of Christ, they started in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus had been put to death. It was only a few days after his death and they had many enemies there. They had many friends and followers of Jesus in the northern district of Galilee, and that would have seemed a better place to commence their mission. In the first public talk given in Jerusalem the apostle Peter was very forthright in telling his audience, “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” After making this serious accusation he quickly passed on to the fact that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Three thousand people accepted Jesus as their Saviour and Lord that day. And the number of men alone swelled to five thousand in a few days. The evidence was just too great for these citizens of Jerusalem to reject.

 

The Rationale for Living

The resurrection also gives the rationale for the basic principle of Christian living that we call “the principle of the cross.” According to this principle death (or the cross) is the gateway to life. That is, if we are willing to suffer because of our convictions we will finally succeed just as Jesus succeeded through his death.

Martin Niemoeller was a courageous German pastor who spent several years in prison because he spoke out against the unhealthy influence Adolf Hitler’s regime was having on the church in Germany. He knew that in that bleak period of their history, the resurrection of Christ would be an encouragement to his people. On Easter morning, 28th March 1937, three months before he was arrested and imprisoned, he preached a sermon of encouragement to his people.

In his sermon Niemoeller spoke of the way in which evil had been manifested in those days and how people ridiculed the Christians. He said, “We may feel frightened about this newly wakened enmity of a whole world: and people do not forget to tell us how few visible guarantees we have for our belief that God will create the new world—or how few guarantees we have for the truth of our faith…. Does the Easter message… still hold good, they wonder?”

Niemoeller faced squarely the temptation to compromise under this pressure. He asked, “Is it not more honest, is it not more fitting to make peace with the old world [that is, Hitler’s regime], the pre-Easter world, which is after all showing itself very much stronger and more enduring than we thought or suspected?” Then he spoke of the folly of such thinking. “It is better for us not to trust what our eyes see, for that will pass away! And [Jesus] tells us, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed’”. And why is that so? Niemoeller says,

Throughout the centuries, the risen Christ has gone before his community, and today too he goes before us. His victory will be our victory also. And just as our fathers in the faith believed in him with that assurance which the risen Christ gave to his first disciples, so we too are sure and will continue to proclaim… what makes us glad deep down in our hearts, in the ups and downs amidst which we live…. I think what makes us glad with a great joy is this: “The Lord is risen; he is really and truly risen!”

Hitler, of course, who was reigning supreme at that time died in disgrace, and his name is associated with some of the most terrible depths of human degradation. Niemoeller, on the other hand, suffered pain and humiliation because of his principles. But today is regarded a great hero.

It is my hope that the message of Easter will give followers of Jesus the courage to pay the price required to be faithful to their principles. We know that our sacrifices will ultimately yield a great victory like it did for our Master Jesus. This is a powerful incentive to resist the tide of corruption, violence, revenge and prejudice that seems to have engulfed our country at this time. Many when tempted to bribe or lie say that they cannot avoid doing it if they are to survive in society. The message of Easter tells them that this is a very short-sighted approach. Evil does hold sway for a time, but justice will finally triumph.