Using the Word of God in Muslim Evangelism

Muslim evangelism is one of the toughest fields of Christian witness. During the last two centuries Christians have sought to win Muslims to Christ, only to find that it is extremely difficult to persuade the sons of Islam that Jesus Christ should be their Lord and Saviour. In recent times mission agencies and Christian evangelists have proposed numerous methods guaranteed to make Muslim evangelism work, namely, to bring about the desired results. Friendship evangelism, relational evangelism, contextualisation, felt-needs approaches – they’re all part of a catalogue of methodologies presented as the best way of effectively reaching Muslims for Christ. Planting churches among Muslims has become a subject of study, discussion and practical expression in many areas before any form of evangelism has even started. Results are the desired goal and, if possible, in sufficient numbers to establish Muslim convert churches.

Different methods of evangelism are one thing, promoting these in turn as the only ways Muslims can be reached is another. On the back cover of her book Waging Peace on Islam Christine Mallouhi says, "When Muslims are sceptical of our creed, confused by our message and wounded by our warfare, the most credible witness left is our lives. Muslims need to see Jesus, and the only way most of them will see him is in us." Bill and Jane, missionaries in an Islamic environment who are not further identified, state in Phil Parshall’s book The Last Great Frontier: "If the status quo is to change, a new way must be found whereby Muslims can come to Christ in the context of their own culture and community" (p.178).

The intense resistance of most Muslims to the Gospel has driven many Christians to find alternative ways of reaching them for Christ, ways that appear more likely to produce the desired results. In consequence a variety of different methods have been proposed, invariably coupled with dogmatic assertions, such as "this is the only way" or, alternatively, "we need a new way!" While the simple preaching of the Gospel has won over many millions of Hindus and other peoples to Christ, it seems to hit a brick wall with Muslims, hence the search for other methods apparently more guaranteed to bring about the desired end-result.

I recently listened to a Sunday morning sermon in my home church where the preacher stated very simply, "You cannot build the kingdom of God. Only God can. You can only reflect it through your witness and life." That, to me, puts it in a nutshell. As the Psalmist put it so straightforwardly:

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Psalm 127:1

The field of Muslim evangelism tries and tests Christians very severely at this point. Are they going to trust God to do his own renewing work in calling out the sons of Ishmael to faith in Jesus Christ, or are they going to force the issue by finding human ways of persuading Muslims to become believers, often through methodologies which seem to dilute the costs of true discipleship? The Apostle Paul was very conscious of the fact that only God, through his Spirit, can draw anyone to himself and so he said to the believers in Corinth:

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 1 Corinthians 3:6

Jesus Christ himself delivered a parable which makes the very same point. While surrounded by his twelve disciples and many others who listened favourably to his teachings, he said:

The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come. Mark 4:26-29

God alone can give the growth. God alone can build the house. The man who plants, waters and reaps knows not how the seed sprouts and grows. God alone knows. Muslim evangelism needs a return to the simple witness of the Gospel, a one-on-one sharing of the great truths of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, and this book seeks to provide Christian evangelists with precisely that. It is a handbook of Biblical means of sharing the Gospel with Muslims, hence its title. It shows you how to use the Word of God to effectively communicate the great truths of our faith to willing Muslim hearers. It guarantees no results, it shows only how to witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ from the pages of Scripture. It covers the whole Bible, from the creation of Adam to the second coming of Jesus. It leaves the results to God.

Over almost twenty years, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, I was privileged to be part of a special group of young Christians seeking to share the Gospel with Muslims in our province in South Africa, the Transvaal. The province no longer exists for the provincial maps of South Africa have dramatically changed in the past ten years, but the Transvaal was the northernmost province sandwiched between Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. About 50 000 Muslims lived within its borders and we visited them from home to home in every city and town, covering virtually every Muslim home in the province excepting Lenasia near Johannesburg, where the largest Muslim community lives, which we only partially evangelised.

There were results, but they are not the theme of this book. Using the Word of God effectively in reaching Muslims for Christ is the theme, and the contents of this book record various ways we learnt over the years of witnessing to Muslims from the pages of the Bible, God’s holy Word, and the supreme source which the Spirit uses to direct all mankind to the Gospel. Its value for this purpose is summed up in this verse:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12

We also learned, however, from the pages of Scripture itself, that the most constructive way of using the Bible in witnessing to Muslims is to base our witness on the points of belief that we share in common with them, and to build a Gospel message on these subjects of common ground. We will look at this in more detail.

Paul’s Examples from the Book of Acts

When Paul went into the Jewish synagogues scattered throughout Greece and Asia Minor, he was able to freely argue with all present, explaining and proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. When he arrived at Athens, however, and looked around the city, he found himself in a very different environment. The city was full of idols and its markets were frequented regularly by Epicurean, Stoic and other philosophers. He was no longer on his own turf. How did he evangelise people from a totally different nation, culture and religious heritage? When he stood on the great Areopagus and was challenged to present his message to the locals who regarded what he had already preached as a strange new teaching, he began:

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, "To an unknown god." What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. Acts 17:22-23

There are two important lessons to be learnt from this brief passage. Firstly, Paul made himself acquainted with the beliefs of the people he sought to evangelise. The best way of getting the impact of this principle is to accentuate certain words in his first sentence: "I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription." Paul took time to familiarise himself with the background of the people he wished to reach. He perceived, as he passed by he also observed, and as he did so he found an altar.

In Muslim evangelism the Christian must learn as much as he can about the beliefs and practices of those he desires to reach. It is essential to learn the Qur’an and important parts of the Hadith. Then he can communicate sensitively, effectively and intelligently with them.

The second point, which arises out of the first one, is the need to seek for common ground with Muslims in their beliefs, especially those which agree with our own beliefs and scriptural teachings. Throughout this book this is the basic principle applied to using the Bible in witnessing to Muslims. Where you can establish common ground, you can gain a better hearing and present the Gospel against the background of what Muslims already believe. Paul did this and you will find much power in witnessing when you do the same. "What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you," Paul declared.

A very fine example of how Jesus himself used this approach is found in his famous conversation with the woman of Samaria. She came every day from the town of Sychar to draw water from Jacob’s well which was some distance away from it. Like the other inhabitants she had no choice. Samaria is a semi-desert region and the well was the town’s lifeblood. When Jesus spoke to her of his own life-giving powers, he said:

Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst, the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." John 4:13-14

Jesus spoke right into the context of her immediate presence. She had to come every day to the well to draw water (this very routine testified to the well’s limited usefulness), but Jesus could place within her a well of limitless resources which would carry her through to eternal life. Here you can see how well the Gospel can be communicated when it is presented against the background of what the Muslim already believes and the various religious contexts in which you may find him.

There is also a third important lesson we can learn from Paul, this time in his arguments with the Jews in the local synagogues. He argued with them from the scriptures (Acts 17:2). He did not resort to illustrations, theological discourses or human reasoning, useful though these may be at times. He based his messages on the Word of God which, as we have already seen, is the best foundation for a positive witness. It is the sword of the Spirit, it is living and active, it penetrates the very depths of soul and spirit, and it is God’s best instrument for drawing unbelievers to the Gospel of his Son.

A word in closing at this point seems appropriate. Paul placed little, if any, emphasis on creation, culture or his hearer’s sensitivities. He worked from the power of his best source, the Word of God, with the Spirit of God as his witness to confirm his message, but he did this in the way the Bible itself does it. Our holy book, as Hebrews says, pierces to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow. Primarily the Christian witness is not an attempt to persuade people to believe in the truth of the Gospel, it is, first and foremost, a call to men and women everywhere to be reconciled to God in their inner beings through faith in Jesus Christ. The Word of God x-rays the human heart, it analyses our emotions, it challenges our indulgent distractions, it reshapes our hearts and minds, and it confronts the inner man.

Just as we had to confront our own sinfulness and repent of it to become true disciples of Jesus, so Muslims too must come to him in true repentance. It is not simply a shift of allegiance from Muhammad to Jesus. It is also a turning from darkness to light, from self-centredness to Christ-centredness, from spiritual death to eternal life. Ever since the fall of Adam the call of God has been to renewal, and a genuine Biblical witness will expose the Muslim heart as well as his mind and redirect him to a living hope in God’s perfect Saviour, his Son Jesus Christ.

This theme is also explored consistently in this book. I trust you will find many different ways of effectively witnessing to Muslims and of using the Word of God itself as your basic witness-source in the chapters that follow. With a love for Muslims and the power of God’s Word in your hands, you too can be God’s own messenger to bring many of them to salvation, the saving grace of God which we know is found in Jesus alone.

John Gilchrist

Benoni, South Africa
12th August 2003

Sharing the Gospel with Muslims [Table of Contents]
Materials by John Gilchrist
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