If sharing the gospel sounds like we’re saying, “Come to Jesus for a better life,” we’re doing it wrong.

In a day when religion is appreciated for its moral or therapeutic benefits, someone will hear us telling them about Jesus and presume we’re trying to sell them a version of personal, privatized spirituality. One good option among many. Even when that’s not what we say, that’s what people hear.

Just Share Your Testimony?

“Sharing your testimony” doesn’t avoid the problem; it sometimes makes the challenge more difficult.

I once heard someone recommend a method of evangelism that relied solely on the personal testimony. “No one can argue with your testimony!” he said.

Exactly. That’s why it’s insufficient.

If you talk to your neighbor about what Jesus means to you and how being a Christian has made your life better, how will you respond when your neighbor smiles and says, “I’m so glad Jesus has made your life better. Here’s a mindfulness app that’s given me peace . . .” or “I’ve been trying out some teachings of Buddhism”? You’ll be left in the backyard sputtering something about how following Jesus is better than going after Buddhism, but you’ve given away any objective ground to judge between competing spiritualities.

Resurrection at the Center

Evangelism is not delivering a message of personal, privatized spirituality; it’s declaring a public truth that has ramifications for all of life: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Yes, we can find similarities with other faiths, and from a sociological perspective, we see that various religions, alternative spiritualities, and wellness rituals may have salutary effects on a person’s well-being.

But the gospel is not good advice, a new ethic, or another option for spiritual improvement. It is news. Because of the resurrection, the gospel cannot be squeezed into the same category as other spiritualities.

We must not domesticate the gospel by making the explosive news of a crucified and risen Savior all about moral and ethical improvement, societal cohesion, or practical benefits for daily life. But often, interreligious dialogue gives the impression that Christianity is a moral plan for being kind to one’s neighbors, taking care of the planet, or bettering one’s spiritual side, with the sort of self-improvement or community building you’d expect from a public television infomercial.

In contrast, the resurrection of Jesus Christ must be the starting point for all Christian reflection. To shrink the good news into good advice diminishes our witness. Missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin put it this way:

“There can be no true evangelism except that which announces what is not only good news but true news. It is a very serious matter when the gospel is marketed primarily as a panacea for personal or public ills. We believe that it is indeed for the healing of the nations, but it cannot be this if it is not true.”

Where the Testimony Fits

Personal testimonies can be powerful. Paul appealed to his experience when testifying to his uniqueness as an apostle. The Samaritan woman ran into town and told of her conversation with Jesus. The man born blind, after being healed by Jesus, went and told everyone what had happened to him.

We should work, however, to make sure our testimonies undergird and support the public truth of the gospel and don’t replace it. What Jesus has done for me should always be connected to what Jesus has done, period.

This is a point made in Everything Sad Is Untrue, Daniel Nayeri’s remarkable memoir of being a refugee from Iran. Nayeri tries to explain the reasons for his mother’s conversion from Islam to Christianity, from being “such a fierce Muslim that she marched for the Revolution, who studied the Quran the way very few people do” to being a Christian. “Not just a regular one,” he says, “who keeps it in their pocket. She fell in love.”

When people ask him why his mom converted, he replies,

I don’t have an answer. . . .

How can you explain why you believe anything? So I just say what my mom says when people ask her. She looks them in the eye with the begging hope that they’ll hear her and she says, ‘Because it’s true.’

Why else would she believe it?

It’s true and it’s more valuable than seven million dollars in gold coins, and thousands of acres of Persian countryside, and ten years of education to get a medical degree, and all your family, and a home . . . and even maybe your life.

My mom wouldn’t have made the trade otherwise.

If you believe it’s true, that there is a God and He wants you to believe in Him and He sent His Son to die for you—then it has to take over your life. It has to be worth more than everything else, because heaven’s waiting on the other side. . . . 

There’s no middle. . . .

She had all that wealth, the love of all those people she helped in her clinic. They treated her like a queen. . . .

And she’s poor now.

People spit on her on buses. She’s a refugee in places people hate refugees. . . . And she’ll tell you—it’s worth it. Jesus is better. . . .

It’s true.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This whole story hinges on it.

He’s Real

“Come to Jesus and find fulfillment and freedom,” we say. Yes. But that fulfillment and freedom comes from real historical events. And the definitions of fulfillment and freedom are forever shaped by who God is and what he has done.

The role of personal experience in testifying to the work of Christ should be seen as further evidence of the power of the gospel. It is not the gospel itself, but it testifies to its power. That’s why, no matter how much happiness we’ve found in Christ, when asked in the final instance why we believe we must always and ever say, like Nayeri’s mother, “Because Jesus is better . . . and the gospel is true.”

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