Four Quick Tips on Conversing with Muslims

ChristianityIslam    Many times, when fellow Christians hear of my apologetic and evangelistic focus on Muslims, they are simply aghast. “I wouldn’t even know how to talk to a Muslim!” they say. “Weren’t you scared?” ask others. “How did you know what to say?” Well, I don’t always know. But I’ve talked to Muslims in Egypt and Turkey, and I’ve had lengthy conversations – some spanning years – with Muslims from Oman, England, Pakistan, and elsewhere, and I’ve never been scared, and I can hopefully shed some light on how to approach these difficult conversations.

  1. Approach them prayerfully.

If prayers for Muslims are not a part of your regular prayer life, they should be. As I pointed out in a previous blog, these wonderful people are beautiful creations of God, and God has already told us that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and come to a knowledge of God. We are also clearly instructed by Jesus Himself to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us – this may apply to Muslims, or atheists, or almost any other unbeliever. How many of you have made ISIS a topic of regular prayer (for their salvation, not their destruction)? You are clearly commanded to in Matthew 5:44. The first step to any successful engagement with Muslims is to make them a regular part of your prayer life, and this may include your own attitude as well, so that your heart is “in the right place” to converse with Muslims.

  1. Approach them respectfully.

Muslims, and unfortunately many others in our society, are quite used to being disrespected and “talked down to” by Christians, especially those who are trying to evangelize. Muslims are not just backwater Mongols who led the Ottoman Empire to conquer a third of Europe in the 16th Century – they are prominent members of American society today, from doctors and lawyers to educators, business owners, even Nobel prizewinners in physics (Abdu Salam) and molecular biology/chemistry (Aziz Sancar). This is actually a good rule of thumb for all engagements in life, as you never know when you may be talking to a Muslim (or a Nobel prizewinner). I have a friend who is a devout Muslim, but rides a Harley and looks the part! Not all Arabs or middle-easterners are Muslims, and not all Muslims are middle-eastern or Arab, so approach each conversation with great respect for the person and the religion. You don’t have to agree with it, but my all means don’t disrespect it.   If you do, your conversation will be over before it starts.

  1. Approach them fearlessly.

This may come as a “shocker” to some. Let me say it again, very clearly – I am not afraid of Muslims, and you shouldn’t be either. When I left for Cairo to continue my Middle Eastern focus for my last Master’s Degree, many of my Christian friends strongly cautioned me not to talk to any Muslims (probably not possible in Cairo), and certainly not to advertise or talk about Christianity. Others assumed that every Muslim in the world is just wandering around looking for Christians to behead. This is ridiculous and ignorant. Though the numbers vary depending on which study you read, militant/jihadist Muslims constitute between 5 – 15 percent of all Muslims, and they are largely concentrated in certain areas overseas (Syria, eastern Sinai, parts of Saudi Arabia). In other words, there is about a 95% chance that any Muslim you encounter wants the exact same things that you want – to go to work, perform well, feed their family, and essentially live their life in peace. There is absolutely no reason to fear them, and no reason to be afraid of talking to them about nearly any topic. Others believe that all Muslims live by the mantra “convert or die,” which is more misinformation and ignorance. This is a good segue into our last point…

  1. Approach them deliberately.

What do I mean by “deliberately?” I mean that in order to engage in meaningful and productive conversations with Muslims, especially on the topic of religion, you must learn about them, study them, and truly work to understand them. By doing so, you are respecting them (point #2), you will quell many of your fears about them (point #3), and you will not make key errors that could derail the conversation. If you believe that all Muslims want to convert you or kill you, or that all Arabs are Muslim, or that all Muslims hate Christians, these false impressions will dramatically affect how you approach any conversation with Muslims. You must be deliberate – intentional – about how you approach them, and about with whom you converse. If your friend is a devout Muslim and you start the conversation with whether or not Muhammed is a real prophet, your conversation won’t get far. If your friend is a Sunni and you start trying to convince him that the twelfth or “hidden” Imam isn’t really coming back, you’ve just exposed your ignorance (this belief in a “hidden” Imam is exclusive to a subsect of Shi’a). Educate yourself about the basics of Islam – two great resources are “Understanding Islam” by Thomas Lippman or “Islam: A Primer” by John Sabini. When a Muslim you’re conversing with realizes – and it won’t take long – that you’ve made the effort to understand their religion and just want to talk, you’ll be amazed at the doors that will open.

Conversations with Muslims don’t have to be tense or standoffish, nor will they inevitably devolve into violence or disagreement. If you prepare for these conversations prayerfully, respectfully, fearlessly, and deliberately, you’ll find most Muslims to be kind, engaging, respectful in return, and willing to answer nearly any question you ask. And if you’re still not sure where to start or still have questions, just comment on the blog – I hope these past few blogs have helped your understanding, and I’ll answer any other questions that come up in my final blog next week.

The Doctrine of God: Tawhid versus Trinity

Allah    This topic has absolutely ignited the media in recent months. For whatever reason, this question – whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God – has been all over my Facebook feed, and just in the past few weeks has been posted by Ravi Zecharias, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, and Answering Islam, among others…and not always with the same answer.

Without question, there are many similarities. Both Muslims and Christians (and Jews) trace their lineage back through Abraham (Muslims through Ishmael, Christians and Jews through Isaac), and all three maintain a largely Old Testament-based view of monotheism. If a Muslim and a Christian were to list the attributes of God, the lists would look remarkably similar – a “spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful, personal creator God” would accurately describe both. However, similar descriptions cannot mask clear and critical differences. While my perspective may not agree with all these other bloggers, at the very least I hope to clarify the Christian concept (the Godhead or Trinity) as well as the Muslim concept (called tawhid), both of which are frequently misunderstood by Christians.

  1. The Christian Concept: The Godhead.

Most Christians likely (hopefully) have a basic understanding of the Biblical concept of God. He is manifest in three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – each a separate person, but all sharing one essence (Godhood). The three are equal in status and power, but distinct in personhood. This has frequently been mischaracterized as polytheism or as an outright contradiction, though this usually does little more than expose a misunderstanding of the theology behind the belief. Some have tried to construct analogies to understand the Trinity (an egg, water, even my role as a father/husband/son/brother/etc), but all of these analogies fall short or commit a logical or theological fallacy. When it comes to really trying to understand the idea of “three in one,” I side with Martin Luther, who said, “Show me a worm that can comprehend a man, and I’ll show you a man who can comprehend the triune God.”  Though this may border on the incomprehensible, it is without a doubt Biblical. The word “trinity” doesn’t appear in Christian doctrine until the middle of the third century,[1] it is clearly taught through five basic points in the Bible:

  1. There is one God (Isaiah 43:10, 44:6, 8, 45:5, 14, 18, 21, 22, 46:9, 47:8, John 17:3, 1 Cor. 8:5-6, Gal. 4:8-9).
  2. God the Father is God (Deut 6:4 and throughout the Old Testament, as well as John 6:27; 20:17; 1 Cor 8:6; Gal 1:1; Eph 4:6; Phil 2:11; 1 Pet 1:2).
  3. Jesus Christ is God (John 8:12-59; Mark 2:3-7, Col 2:9; John 1:1-4; Acts 5:31; Col 3:13; Ps 130:4; Jer 31:34).
  4. The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4, 9; 1 Cor 2:10-11; Romans 8:9-11).
  5. These three are equal, co-eternal, and distinct (Eph 3:15; John 5:18; 1 Cor 2:10).

Understood this way, it is clear that the actual word “trinity” doesn’t have to appear in Scripture, the concept is clearly taught. There are book-length treatments of this topic (especially good is James R. White’s The Forgotten Trinity), but this will have to suffice for now, and it is sufficient to point out the differences.

  1. The Muslim Concept: Tawhid.

In Islam, the doctrine of Allah is called tawhid. It is the central and defining doctrine of all Islam, and declares absolute monotheism, the unity and uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe.[2] More than just a religious belief, this doctrine has been central to Islamic reformers and activists as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic, and world order. Muslims are fiercely monotheistic, insofar as anything that even approaches equating something to Allah is one of the most severe sins in Islam (known as shirk). This strict monotheism is the root of all other beliefs, and the root of all values in the Muslim worldview. All values in Muslim religion derive from devoting one’s heart to Allah, and it is through this singly and wholeheartedly devoted love that a Muslim comes to divorce him/herself from the ways and things of this world.  This level of devotion is actually something that many Christians could learn from, and all Christians should respect.

Despite the differences within Islam and the sectarianism discussed in the prior blog, on this topic Muslims are almost completely united. Tawhid has been a rallying cry of Islam for centuries, uniting the Muslims throughout their history under the banner of various leaders from Ibn Taymiyya (14th Century) to Abd Al-Wahhab (18th Century) to the present day. No matter how diverse Muslims history has been, they have always re-united around the central doctrine of the oneness of Allah, the tawhid.

  1. Key Differences

On the surface, this sounds remarkably similar to the Christian theology of God, but when we turn to the center of Christian faith – Christ Himself – the differences emerge irreconcilable. Muslims deny that God had a son, and deny that Christ is divine, and would never consider Allah a “father” in the sense that Christians speak of their God. They deny both the deity of Christ and His resurrection, going so far as to consider these beliefs blasphemy (Qur’an 5:17, 5:73, 5:75). If Christians were to speak only of God the Father, the divine Yahweh of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and describe His actions and His attributes, Muslims would likely agree with nearly every word. When we advance to the New Testament and the deity of Christ and the resurrection, arguably the two most central doctrines of the Christian faith, we must part ways with the tawhid of Islam and embrace the Trinity of the Bible. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? If we are willing to deny the deity of Christ and the resurrection, then yes — but we cannot. To claim Christianity is to affirm doctrines expressly denied by Islam, and therefore we cannot worship the same God. So how do we engage Muslims in conversation, and what common ground can we find for friendship and evangelism? That’s what we’ll discuss in the next blog.

[1] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 122.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England 2003.

Islam: Three Key Points for Christians

Islam1Happy New Year! In my last blog, I promised several follow-on blogs with regard to Islam, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long. Among other things, 2016 marks my 20th year as a Christian and my 11th year studying Islam. That experience has made me the frequent target of many questions, and uncomfortably frequent hostility (and not from Muslims).  As Muslim presence in America grows, and as events like those in Paris and San Bernadino dominate the headlines, it is more important than ever for Christians to understand Islam and work to reach this critical mission field.  In this series of blogs, I hope to bring readers to a better understanding of Islam, equipping them to engage in well-reasoned and informed conversation with both Muslims and fellow Christians.  To start, let’s look at three key points that may drive subsequent discussions:

  1. Islam is not monolithic. Broad generalizations, especially hasty or inaccurate ones, are unhelpful (even harmful) in understanding Islam. My Facebook feed is filled with memes and posts from friends around the world, many of them making this error. “Islam is not a religion of peace.” “Islam is evil.” “Islam is ________ .”   Fill in the blank however you like, I can assure you the sentence will be a gross mischaracterization, perhaps an outright falsehood. Like Christianity, Islam is not monolithic, and much like Christianity, Islam is plagued by sectarian strife and disagreement. Most Christians are familiar with at least the Shi’a and the Sunni, the two largest sects within Islam. The Shi’a and Sunni have been in conflict since the 7th century, and today their differences encompass a wide range of both political and religious beliefs. The Sunni comprise more than 85% of all Muslims, and are separated into four Islamic “schools of thought” or jurisprudence (the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i). The Shi’a, a small minority within Islam, share many of the same practices and beliefs as the Sunni, but also differ in key areas of authority, practice, succession, and worship. Beyond these two primary sects, Islam also encompasses the Sufi, Wahhabi, Druze, Alawi, Abadi, Ahmadi, and a number of other “denominations.”

There are peaceful Muslims, and there are violent Christians. There are large subsets of Islam that are horribly violent, and there are large subsets of Islam that practice almost total pacifism. When discussing Islam, or when talking to Muslims, Christians should never make the mistake of thinking all Muslims believe the same things, act the same way, or feel the same way about those who disagree.

  1. Every Muslim is a precious child of God in dire need of salvation. Yes, this includes every member of ISIS, and every ruthless killer who has beheaded, burned, crushed, and tortured Christians (and many fellow Muslims). I am frequently shocked by the responses I receive from other Christians when confronted with this challenging topic – unbelievably, these response have ranged from “a good Muslim is a dead Muslim” to “kill them all.” No doubt these responses are highly emotional and reactionary, but I can’t help but think that they also couldn’t be more unbiblical. 1 Timothy 2 tells us that God “desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” – all men, including Muslims, lost souls that God wants. In Acts 19, Paul pleads with the idolaters worshiping false gods in Lystra, saying “…turn from these [false gods] to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them.” Paul is beaten and stoned, dragged outside the city, and left for dead. In verse 20, we read that Paul got up and went back into the city, then continued to preach. Think about that for a minute. Beaten, stoned, and left for dead, he thinks, “But there are still unsaved people in the city…” Similarly, we all know well that Jesus prayed for the savage guards who flogged Him and crucified Him. And our response to Muslims, engaged in comparative acts in today’s age, is “kill them all”? No, as Christians one of the most important things we can realize, which should guide every thought and action with regard to Muslims, is that each and every one – from Hilmi, the rug dealer I befriended in Istanbul to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS – is a precious child of God, in desperate need of the saving grace of Christ and our help to guide them to it. The Gospel Coalition recently wrote a blog about this approach, encouraging us to treat Muslims with dignity and respect, to find common ground with them, and to look for opportunities to show love and compassion to them. I couldn’t agree more.
  1. Understanding is key. Many Christians I encounter would rather hate Muslims than understand them. Others prefer parroting (repeating what they’ve heard someone else say) or emoting (saying what they feel rather than what they think), instead of doing the difficult work of understanding how Muslims think and what they believe. I’ve spent more than a decade trying to understand Islam, and I’m just scratching the surface – so please don’t think you can read a blog, see a meme on Facebook, or watch a special on Discovery, and understand Islam.

Three areas are really essential to a thorough understanding of Islam – history, culture, and (by combining those two) context. Muslim theology has adapted to cultural change from the start, and even adapted as Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina in the seventh century. If you don’t know why Mohammed moved the early Muslims to Medina, or the history of the rise of the Ottoman empire, it will be very difficult to accurately understand Islam. Similarly, Islam for Muslims is more than just a religion – like the early Jews under the theocracy, Islam defines not just their religious beliefs but also their legal, political, and economic systems. If you only look at Islam as a religious worldview, you’ll miss an enormous and critical part of what it means to be a Muslim. Islam simply cannot be understood in isolation from its historical and cultural context.

In future blogs, we’ll look at how to engage Muslims in conversation, some key differences between the Muslim and Christian concepts of God, and perhaps even tackle some of the bigger issues like violence and jihad. Let me know what you’d like to hear about, any and all questions welcome!

Thoughts on Islam and the Middle East

Turkey   I recently returned from two weeks in Muslim countries in the Middle East, part of my Master’s Degree in National Security Studies, where I’m focusing on the Middle East. I spent about a week in Turkey and a week in Egypt, learning about their culture, religion, economy, politics, and many other aspects of the region. These two weeks — combined with the last eight years of study on Islam — have really opened my eyes to this religion, and I’ve since received many questions about the trip and about Islam. I’ll spend the next several blogs sharing my thoughts and observations about the trip, and answering some of your questions. Is Islam inherently violent?  Are Muslims on a mission to kill all unbelievers?  What is jihad?  Is the Islamic State (IS) acting in accordance with what the Qur’an teaches?  Who decides what “true Islam” is?  This is timely, as I know many are concerned about the recent actions of IS and other militant groups. I’ll do my best to address those concerns, but first a few thoughts on the trip…and maybe a few cool photos as well!  Yep, that’s me…on a camel…at the pyramids…
Pyramids
 1.  I never felt unsafe. I traveled extensively, both on foot and in vehicles, through Ankara, Istanbul, Luxor, and Cairo, and felt no less safe than I would doing the same thing in San Antonio, Charleston, or Montgomery. We were smart about it — normally traveling in groups, and never alone — and when on official business, we had a private security detail. However, this was largely precautionary, and in retrospect I’m not sure it was even necessary. In Istanbul, a friend and I walked several miles from the Hagia Sophia back to our hotel — through the Grand Bazaar, the Sultan Ahmet spice market, along the Bosporous, into the underground and up the hill, through the pedestrian district and back to the hotel. It was dark, most of the shops were closed, and we never felt threatened. Several other members of our group went for runs along the Nile, and all was well. Years ago I made a poor hotel choice in Shreveport, Louisiana…and two years ago I got lost on the South side of Capitol Hill in DC…and I felt far more threatened in those two days than I ever did in thirteen days in the Middle East. This is not to say that everywhere is safe — I certainly wouldn’t spend a lot of time in the Sinai, or on the Eastern Turkish border with Iran or Syria — but the fact remains that never felt unsafe during my two weeks there. That comes from an American Christian in the military, placing me in three demographic groups that are all relatively unpopular in the region at the moment.
2.   The people are simply beautiful. The country, the city, the people, all of it was beautiful. In the a Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I met an artist named Nick who creates the most incredible artwork, where his only canvas is a plant leaf. Using a cat hair brush sometime Mike and Nick, The Grand Bazaar, Istanbulonly a few hairs thick, Nick scribes Muslim, Christian, and Jewish verses surrounded by the most beautiful artwork you can imagine (watch one of the videos at the link — it’s truly breathtaking). After spending more than an hour listening to him passionately describe his art and how he does it, I asked how he learned to do it or where he saw it done. He simply replied “No one taught me.  I know of no one else who does this. My talent is only from God.”  This generated further discussion, where we shared our faith with each other and I learned that he was an Armenian Christian who fled persecution and had been living in Istanbul since 1968. Simply amazing.
Coptic Prelate, Cairo   In Cairo, we met with the Coptic Prelate (the bishop over all Coptic Christians in Cairo). This amazing, articulate, intelligent man patiently answered our questions, then tearfully asked for our prayers for the families of the 21 Coptic Christians who had recently been murdered in Egypt. As we left, the Bishop said a blessing over me, gave me a replica of the icon of Mary and Jesus that hangs in his church, and even let me choose a small piece of chocolate from the dish on his desk.  He knew the way to reach my heart, no doubt!
3.  Islam is quite misunderstood in the West.  I’ll address this point in much greater detail in future posts.  I was one who thought, after 8 years of study, that I was developing a respectable understanding of Islam — until I spend two weeks in their cities, their culture, talking with members of their religion, visiting the mosques, and hearing their language.  I have much to learn — we all do.  I spent an afternoon at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which was the Sultan’s palace for about 400 years of the Ottoman Empire.  Beyond its undeniable beauty, I saw an order from the Sultan to have the palace walls torn down and rebuilt so that the local Christian church — the Church of St. Irene — would fall under the protection of the Sultan.  I listened to a former Turkish Ambassador to the UN (a Muslim) speak passionately and tearfully about the 21 Christians who were killed in Egypt a few weeks before our trip.  He was followed by a retired Egyptian 2-star General, now running for public office (also a Muslim) who wants to work toward a community where Christians, Muslims, and Jews can all live in harmony.  As I mentioned previously, I’ll delve more deeply into this topic in future posts, but for now it’s important to understand that any impression that all Muslims want to kill all unbelievers, or that Christians can’t go to Muslim countries without getting beheaded, or other crazy ideas — these are all gross misunderstandings.
In all, it was a wonderful and educational trip.  I’ll share more thoughts, and answer your questions on Islam, in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned!

Dreams and Visions

dreamingI have a dream…well, I had a dream…but what does it mean? In the past two weeks, I’ve received precisely the same question from two different friends. Both believe that God has appeared to them and spoken to them in a dream, and both wanted to know if it was God or something else or if they were to attribute special significance to the event. Since then, my Facebook wall has exploded with similar questions and a few mildly heated discussions on the topic. As you’ve come to expect, with this topic and all others, here at CTC we will seek to be Biblical first in all things. As my alma mater frequently emblazoned on their entry marquee, “Think Biblically…about everything.” So, what does the Bible say on this topic? And while we’re at it, why do anything halfway? So, I looked up every single instance in the Bible of God appearing to people in dreams, and this is what I found.

  1. Unless you are a prophet or an apostle, this is highly unusual. From the Fall through Revelation, God communicates to people in dreams many times, but in most cases it is to an apostle or prophet. He appears to Abraham (Genesis 15:1), Jacob (Genesis 28 and 31), Joseph (Genesis 37), Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Gideon (Judges 7), Solomon (1 Kings 3), Daniel (Daniel 2 and 4), Peter (Acts 10), Paul (Acts 16 and 18, 1 Corinthians 12), and John (Revelation). In fact, it appears from Scripture that this is one of the primary means, if not the primary means, that God communicates with His prophets and apostles. Here’s the key – the primary way God communicates with His prophets and apostles is through dreams and visions, but the primary way God communicates with His people is through prophets and apostles. For us, that means through their writings in His Word (the issue of whether there are prophets or apostles around today is something for another blog). So, unless you are a prophet or an apostle – a bold claim with fatal consequences if you’re incorrect – you should not expect God to communicate with you in a dream, rather you should be in the habit of looking for His communication to you through His Word.

Now, there are a few exceptions (Abimelech in Genesis 20, Laban in Genesis 31, Pharaoh in Genesis 40, the Midianite armies in Judges 7, Zecharias in Luke 1, Joseph in Matthew 2, and Cornelius in Luke 10). But these are all highly unique circumstances, and are certainly not of the sort that we normally hear today where God appears in a dream to help make some decision (which house to buy, how many kids to have, or whatever — I don’t see any Biblical reason to believe that God answers these sorts of questions though dreams, but that is a completely separate blog.) In fact, after the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), with the exception of Revelation there is not another instance of God appearing in a dream. It appears, Biblically, that once His communication to the prophets and apostles was complete, His appearance in dreams ceased. [Note – if it wasn’t God that appeared to you, beware. If it was Aunt Sally or your grandmother or some dear departed friend, we are dangerously close to the demonic realms here. I cannot find a single example of this in Scripture – every appearance in a dream is God, Jesus, or an angel. Anything else, in my view, is likely demonic and reason to exercise extreme caution.]

  1. You can’t trump Scripture with your experience. Yes, I borrowed this from Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason, but it’s a great point that is entirely valid in this discussion. No matter how many times I have this discussion with people, it always seems to come back to this: I tell them what the Bible teaches, and they tell me about the dream they had. I know these dreams can be powerful and compelling, but you cannot “overrule” what Scripture teaches with your personal experience. If there is any inconsistency or question about what the dream has revealed, reject it.
  1. God can do what He wants. With point #1 above firmly supported by Scripture, we also know that God can do whatever He desires that is consistent with His nature, and there are multiple examples in the post-apostolic age of God appearing in dreams to both believers and unbelievers. He obviously used a vision to reach Paul, and many have heard the amazing story of Nabeel Qureshi (he told the story to Christianity Today here, if you haven’t), who is representative of many Muslims who have reportedly been converted to Christianity through visions and dreams. However, several points are critically important here.
    1. God will not reveal anything in a dream that is inconsistent with Scripture. God cannot lie, and He is perfectly consistent. If anything in the dream challenges the clear teaching of Scripture – such as a dream telling you to divorce your wife or any dream advocating or supporting sin – you can rest assured the dream does not have God as its source.
    2. God will probably not reveal anything in a dream that He has already revealed in Scripture. God is a good Father. When my daughter asks me a question I’ve already answered – usually multiple times – I quell my frustration and simply ask her to remember the answer I gave the last time she asked. When I asked my mother – a professional linguist – the meaning of a word, you know the answer I received. Yep…”Look it up!” Returning to another great point by Koukl, this actually leaves us with relatively little for God to “reveal” in a dream. If it’s contrary to Scripture, it’s unbiblical. If it’s contained within Scripture, it’s unnecessary.

Biblically, unless you are a prophet or an apostle, you should not expect God to appear to you in dreams, nor should you seek answers in your dreams. So, what do you do if you think God has appeared to you in a dream? First, test it (1 Thess 5). Is what the dream revealed entirely consistent with Scripture? If so, hold onto it…if not, then reject it. Similarly, if you are following a teacher who claims to be receiving revelations from God through dreams or visions, be extraordinarily careful, as this is rare.  Test every statement in light of Scripture.  Second, share it. Talk to other mature Christians, and have them help you understand it. Finally, obey it. If God truly has given you guidance in a dream, then it becomes an obligatory command upon the believer. You do not have the option to obey or not, such a revelation would carry weight equal to His revelation in Scripture.

So, does God appear to us in dreams today? I think He does, but I think it is highly unusual, largely unnecessary, and often misused. That’s all for now…go back to sleep.

What’s the Best Argument for Christianity?

debateA few weeks ago, I engaged in a lengthy discussion with SM, an atheist, who repeatedly asked this question. He simply wanted to know what my best argument for Christianity was, and he’d be happy to defeat it. Well, I didn’t take the bait – simply because that’s not how the discussion process works, but more importantly because the answer to his question is a bit more complex than he had hoped. In short, there is no single “best argument” for Christianity. Two points and three suggestions for your consideration:

  1. The “best argument” is dependent upon the objection. In other words, an argument I find completely compelling – even convincing – may be entirely unmoving to another. If I reject Christianity because I don’t believe God exists, there are good arguments to use in those situations. I might start with the cosmological argument, moving on to teleological and moral, and try to make some progress. Based on this objection (atheism), the best argument is probably cosmological. Alternatively, if someone rejects Christianity because they don’t believe the Bible is authentic, there are good arguments to address this objection. I might use a historiographical approach, or discuss manuscript evidence or even archaeological and historical evidences. Another great challenge might be from someone who was mistreated by Christians, or encountered hypocritical Christians, and therefore concluded that Christianity is false. Evidential arguments will likely be of marginal use in this circumstance – this would require a more pastoral approach, revealing Christ’s true teaching and what Christian behavior truly looks like.

There simply is no single “best argument” for Christianity. This is the art of apologetics – tailoring the argument to match the objection. If someone offers an emotional objection and I launch into an exposition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, I will likely make little progress. Similarly, if someone has an objection based on evidence or the lack thereof, offering a testimony about how Jesus makes you feel will likely be received as simply your subjective experience, and largely uncompelling.

  1. Jesus never offered us a “best argument”. He tailored His argument to the objection and to the audience. He never changed the message, but He regularly tailored His arguments and His evidence to the audience and to the objection. When confronted with objections from the Jewish sects – Pharisees and Sadducees – Jesus countered their objections using references from the Torah (Matthew 9, 12, 16, 19, 21, elsewhere). When confronting objections from Roman pagans and other gentiles, appealing to the Jewish prophecies would have carried little weight, as this audience didn’t know these prophecies, and if they had would probably not have recognized them as authoritative. In these situations, Jesus (and Paul, as in Acts 14) used miracles or other devices to demonstrate authority rather than an appeal to Scripture. When confronted with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, Jesus again doesn’t refer to fulfilled prophecy, He simply uses love and forgiveness to share His gospel message (Samaritans shared some Jewish beliefs but not all, and a Samaritan woman would probably not have been familiar with the Jewish prophecies).

This same method of tailoring His argument to His audience follows Him wherever he goes. In Matthew 4, while Jesus is in the fishing village of Galilee, He uses fishing analogies – “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men.” When in the “grainfields” (Matthew 12, probably the agricultural area between Jerusalem and Galilee), He uses agricultural analogies – the mustard seed, sowing and reaping, and others. Had Jesus spoken to the fishermen about the mustard seed or about sowing and reaping, or if He had challenged the shepherds to become fishers of men, His message may have been lost or misunderstood. As Christian ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) and ministers of the gospel, we should do no less. We should follow this Christ-like model – to communicate the message of Jesus, but to do so in a manner sensitive to the audience and tailored to the objections or resistance we are likely to encounter. Never, anywhere in Scripture, do we see Jesus or any of the apostles using a formulaic regimen to share the gospel.

Here is the challenge to clear-thinking Christians: I know of no course where you can learn this. I can’t think of a book that walks you through this process. No, this comes from experience, trial and error, and getting out there and working to share the gospel and overcome objections to it. It is difficult, and there is no “easy out” or panacea that will always work. However, I can offer a few pointers.

  1. Listen.  When talking to someone who has rejected Christ, simply listen. They will eventually share with you their reason for doing so, and usually not immediately. It might take some carefully and prayerfully asked questions, and it might take more than one discussion. If in the first five minutes you start preaching the Roman roads to someone who has rejected Christianity because they don’t think the a Bible is authentic, you’re actually disrespecting them and telling them, quite clearly, that you aren’t listening. Listen first. Question gently and artfully. The other person will almost always, eventually, reveal their reason for rejecting the gospel.  Then, it’s up to you to use the next two recommendations to bring the person back around to the Gospel.
  2. Study.  If you think all you need to do is share your personal testimony, you’ve got a big surprise waiting. If you think all atheists are idiots, you’re in for another surprise. If you think all you need to do is live a “good life,” and people will convert to Christianity just by watching you, then you don’t know Scripture and aren’t following the Biblical model. You need to study. You need to study Scripture, examining how Jesus and Paul and Peter spread the gospel. You need to study – brace for it – theology. You don’t have to enroll in seminary or a Master’s program, but you need to know what you believe, why you believe it, and be able to answer basic objections to the gospel. This is nothing other than the clear command of Scripture in 1 Peter 3:15 – 17.
  3. Practice.  I know it’s difficult. I know it sounds intimidating. I know you’re scared. Unfortunately, the ability to articulate and defend the gospel message is not a gift given to some, it is a command given to all. And the best way to do this – I’d suggest the only way – is through practice. You’ll mess it up, so do I. You’ll face objections you can’t answer, so do I. Some of your study and some of the objections might challenge your preconceived notions – even challenge your faith. Me too. It’s okay, God is with you and will carry you through, and your faith will be stronger on the other side.

The fact is that many within the evangelical community have been misled into a false model of what evangelism looks like. They think what will happen is they’ll meet someone who’s never heard of Jesus, walk them down the Roman roads, pray the sinner’s prayer, add another notch on their belt and move on to the next poor unsaved soul. In reality, especially here in America, you are far more likely to run into someone who has already heard the gospel, and has rejected it for some reason or another. You’ll have to listen, question, understand their objections and reasons for rejection, and be prepared with well-reasoned answers to guide them to the truth. Are you ready?

What Love Isn’t

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In the last several weeks, I have been sharply critical of several popular pastors and speakers. I’ll save my concerns about Beth Moore, Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, and others for another blog – what I want to think clearly about this time is the most common objection I received to this criticism. In short, numerous people admonished me that I shouldn’t be so critical, that I should “just love them,” or that as Christians, we shouldn’t judge other Christians, we are called to simply love them. What this has exposed to me is what I think is a disappointingly unbiblical perspective on Christian love.

The fact is, we are certainly to love each other, but it is not enough to just be loving. I can love my enemy until the cows come home, and he will still spend eternity in Hell if I don’t make the effort to share Jesus Christ with him. News flash to “feel good Christians”: the most loving person you know is still going to Hell if he/she reject the free offer of grace that Jesus provides. You simply cannot love your way into salvation, nor can you love others into salvation, this is nothing more than repackaged works-based salvation. It gets a lot of “likes” as a Facebook status and looks great on Pinterest, but it cannot save. Any of us could quickly flip to 1 Corinthians 13 to find what love is, and any of us could probably quote 1 John 4:8 to show that “God is love.” I don’t dispute this, and I know it’s the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36 – 40), I get all that…but I want to turn it around a bit and encourage Christians to think for a moment about what love isn’t.

  1. Love does not mean agreement.  I can disagree with someone, and still love them – anyone who is married can easily affirm this truth. I love my wife and daughter more than anyone on Earth, yet we disagree frequently. If a pastor – mine or one in the media – says something that I disagree with, and I express disagreement, that is not being unloving. I can disagree with my wife on her choice of hairstyle (not advisable), her preference for Illinois basketball, or anything else, and love her no less. In fact, some issues are so important that love requires – and the Bible commands – engagement and disagreement. Which brings us to…
  1. Love does not mean we don’t correct error.  If someone holds a belief that is clearly in error, in some cases we are required and commanded to correct the error. As Greg Koukl has famously stated, if a diabetic believes that eating ice cream will decrease their blood sugar, we must intervene and correct the error – potentially saving their life in the process. I cannot retreat to my subjectivist corner and simply conclude that they are entitled to their beliefs, and it’s not my business to correct them. The Bible is clear here as well. Shortly after one of the great verses on love, Paul tells us in Colossians, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” We are to admonish one another using the wisdom of the message of Christ in the Scriptures. “Admonish – to express disapproval or criticism, in a gentle and earnest manner.” We are actually being told to express disapproval for and criticize those among us who are acting or speaking contrary to the message of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. Ephesians follows closely, with a lengthy passage on Christian living. The well-known passage in 4:1 – 14 encourages us to be mature in the Lord, so that “…we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching…” This is a clear warning against false teachers, those whose “deceitful scheming” and “cunning and craftiness” risks misleading the body of Christ. Instead, we are to “speak the truth in love” (verse 15). I don’t see another way to read this verse other than as a command to correct those who are deceived by false teachers. We do so lovingly, of course (which is reinforced in verse 16), but we must guard against these false teachers. We simply cannot lean on love to avoid the requirement to correct error, which leads directly to…
  1. Love does not mean we endorse unbiblical behavior.  Especially from teachers! As young Timothy was under Paul’s charge, preparing to take over the church at Ephesus, Paul knew the Ephesians were already plagued by false teachers. Both of Paul’s letters to Timothy make this point repeatedly – in fact, the first point of the first letter is telling Timothy to “command certain people not to teach false doctrines” (1 Tim 1:3 – 4). These people want to be teachers, but they “…do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” The parallel here to the many false teachers present today could hardly be more obvious. Again, the relationship to love is reinforced – love that comes from a “…pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith,” from which these false teachers have departed. One could easily read 1 Tim 1:1 – 7 as saying that teaching false doctrines is a direct departure from Christian love, thus Christian’s loving response is to correct and rebuke the error. But it doesn’t stop there. After a list of the many false teachings Timothy will likely face in Ephesus, Paul tells Timothy, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 4:6). Again, exposing false teachings and holding these teachers accountable, ensuring Christians are following sound doctrine, is what it means to be a “good minister of Christ.” This wonderful chapter ends with Paul’s command to “Watch your life and your doctrine closely.” We could all benefit from such a command! What matters is not only how you behave, but what you believe. Paul’s second letter makes many similar commands, telling us that “Opponents [to the gospel] must be gently instructed,” and the well-known uses of Scripture in 3:16 which includes rebuking and correcting believers. Just prior to his death, Paul’s primary charge to Timothy was to “Preach the Word…correct, rebuke, and encourage, with great patience and careful instruction, for the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:2 – 3). Not to belabor the point, but Titus echoes these commands in every single chapter: “Encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9), “You must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), “These are the things you should teach, encourage and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15) and so on.

Almost every book of the New Testament stands on these two pillars of belief and behavior. We are to love, that is not in question. But part of loving is disagreement, part of loving is correcting error, and part of loving is rebuking unbiblical behavior and refuting false teachings. Arguably, it is both unbiblical and unloving not to follow these commands. So, if I question the teachings of a popular preacher or teacher, I am not being unloving. Quite the opposite. This applies to me as well – I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, and the most loving things my students could do is challenge me when they think I’m wrong, and hold me accountable to the Biblical standard. I expect nothing less, nor does Jesus Christ, nor should you.