We desperately need a “gospel for the Muslim.” Now, to be clear, to say that we seek a “gospel for the Muslim” does not mean that there are a variety of gospels. But just as Paul talked about Peter’s commission of the “gospel for the Jew” and his own commission of the “gospel for the Gentile” (Gal 2:7), so also do we need a gospel presentation that is tailored to the questions Muslims are asking. There is one gospel by which both Muslim and non-Muslim must be saved, but it must at times be expressed differently so that each can more readily grasp it.
Three words describe the current Western approach to the gospel: formula, forgiveness, and death. We present the gospel as a formula, a series of propositions about God, which addresses our need for forgiveness from guilt, and which summarizes the means of attaining that forgiveness, the death of Jesus.
While such a presentation accurately reflects aspects of the gospel, a more effective strategy among Muslims might focus on three “new words:” story, cleansing, and victory.
Instead of presenting the truth of the gospel propositionally as a formula, we ought simply to let the story of Scripture unfold. Muslims rarely come to faith in Christ through apologetic arguments and dogmatic proof-texting, but they often come to faith in Christ by studying the major stories of the Bible and encountering the gospel there.
Instead of presenting the work of Christ in terms of forgiveness, we can emphasize the cleansing power of the gospel. Muslims understand the need for purification; they undergo a process of ritual cleansing, called wudu, every time they pray. Such a cleansing is only external, but Christ offers wudu for the soul.
Instead of presenting the death of Christ merely as a point of weakness, we should point to the victory inherent in Christ’s work on the cross. Every time Muslims pray, they say that God is the “most powerful” and the “most merciful.” Is not the cross the greatest demonstration of those two attributes? What greater demonstration of power is there than a God who overcame sin and death? God’s greatness is actually shown in His humility. As Gregory of Nazianzus said, “The strength of a flame is shown by its ability to burn downward.” And what greater demonstration of mercy is there than in Christ’s death and resurrection? The God of the universe conquered sin and death in order to redeem us for Himself, through no merit of our own.
The Bible, from cover to cover, is the story of a victorious God who cleanses us so that we might live with Him.
Muslims Misconceptions about Christians:
Many obstacles stand in the way of Muslims coming to faith in Jesus—theological differences, the danger of conversion, and the sheer fact that most Muslims have simply never heard the gospel. Some of the more surprising obstacles, however, arise in the misconceptions that Muslims have about Christians. During the two years I spent serving in a conservative Muslim country, I repeatedly encountered variations of two common misconceptions: 1. Christianity is morally corrupt. 2. “The West” and “The Church” are synonymous. Being familiar with these two misconceptions can help as we engage Muslims for the gospel.
1. Christianity is morally corrupt.
MTV was huge in the part of the world I lived. Western music videos frequently featured rap stars or scantily clad women wearing crosses. My Muslim friends assumed, naturally enough, that these were Christians and that their behavior was typical of Christians. Upon telling people I was a Christian, I often received the response, “Oh, you are a Christian—like Bill Clinton!” This was during the peak of Clinton’s impeachment, so the comparison was meant to conjure up images of either adultery or perjury . . . or both. Not a savory comparison.
I was once even asked by one of my friends, a Muslim college student, if I would throw her a “Christian” birthday party. When I asked what she meant, she replied that she wanted a party with a lot of booze and racy dancing, just like she had seen on television. Misunderstandings like hers, sadly, are the norm and not the exception.
While this misconception continues to irk me, I find it helpful to know that it exists. Most Muslims assume that Christians are unabashedly immoral. Of course, we can—and should—respond to this misconception by allowing our lives to refute it, by showing that Christians do not encourage flagrant debauchery. In the end, though, it is beneficial simply to keep this misconception in mind as we minister among Muslims.
2. “The West” and “The Church” are synonymous.
Most Westerners have grown up with a notion of the “separation of church and state,” and it is jarring for us to learn that Muslims rarely make such a distinction. Islam is, in its very nature, a political entity as well as a religious one, complete with its own social law codes. There is no parallel Muslim concept of the “separation of mosque and state.” So when Muslims look at Western nations like the USA, Germany, France, or the UK, they see “Christian countries.” Our presidents are assumed to be Christian leaders, and our political policies are assumed to be reflective of church policy. What the US does, the Church does. I was once asked, for instance, why “the Church” bombed Iraq.
This may be difficult for many of us, but we need to learn to put our patriotism aside. We only have enough bandwidth to represent a certain number of issues, and it is simply not worth it to sacrifice a gospel platform for the sake of defending American political decisions. I was recently told by a Turkish Muslim that “all of the problems in the world are caused by America.” Do I agree with him? No. But is this where I want to stand my ground? No. For the sake of the gospel, our patriotism must die when we serve in Muslim countries.
How Muslims Come to Faith in Christ
Muslims worldwide who come to faith in Christ consistently identify one of three factors leading to their conversion (or a combination of these three).
1. A copy of the Bible is placed in their hands.
When I first arrived in Southeast Asia, a “win” for me was a Muslim converting to Christianity. This got to be a little disheartening after a while, and wasn’t providing me with as many “W”s as I would have liked. So I down-graded, and sharing the Four Spiritual Laws became my new “W.” Defining things this way helped me feel more successful, but it did not lead to greater fruitfulness.
Rather than defining your “W” as conversion or sharing the message, make your “W” getting Muslims to study the Bible with you.
A friend of mine, “Danny,” found this out after spending nearly two years debating with a Muslim friend, “Solomon.” Through the course of their friendship, Solomon told Danny that his arguments had not convinced him to be a Christian, but to be a better Muslim! Exasperated, Danny asked Solomon to read through the book of John, and Solomon obliged.
As Solomon read through the gospel, the words pierced his heart in a way that none of Danny’s arguments had. He read and re-read the Gospel of John, and soon came to faith in Jesus. What inspired this change was his exposure to the Word of God.
The Word of God is powerful. Let the Holy Spirit use the Bible to do the work of winning hearts to Christ. As Charles Spurgeon said, the Bible is like a caged lion. We do not need to defend it; we simply need to let its power loose.
2. They see the love in a Christian community.
The Muslim community, or ummah, is close-knit, but it is built on shame and reciprocity. Those who leave the ummah face ostracism, persecution, or even death. Christians can offer an alternative community, one founded on grace, acceptance, and forgiveness. Most Muslims have never seen this, even in their own families.
It saddens me to think of the thousands of Muslims who come to the United States for university education. Most of these Muslim students will never step foot in an American home. They would go if invited, but few ever receive an invitation. This is a tragedy.
I recently had a debate with a Muslim scholar, and afterwards he was telling me about another debate he had recently with a religion professor from Duke. “I do not like the guy from Duke,” he said. When I asked why, he answered:
“I am more of a ‘Christian’ than he is. I believe more of the Bible than he does. Every time something was brought up from the Bible, he would apologetically explain it away. Your Christian world has two choices: the Duke professor, who doesn’t believe but is charitable, or the angry, hateful conservative. Many Christians won’t go toward liberalism, so they feel they have no choice but hatefulness. What they need is you. You believe every word of the Bible, but you have a generous spirit toward Muslims.”
3. They are visited with a supernatural dream or vision.
I am naturally skeptical of supernatural dreams and visions. But I have seen too many Muslims come to faith as a result of dreams and visions to deny that it is a work of God. For whatever reason, God often uses supernatural dreams to push Muslims to investigate Jesus, to find a Christian, or to read the Bible.
This should humble us and remind us that the power for salvation comes from God alone. When we do not know what else to do, we ought to pray. Pray for your Muslim friends. Pray with them as well. Then stand back and give God a chance to work.
J.D. Greear and his beautiful wife Veronica live in Raleigh and are raising four ridiculously cute kids: Kharis, Alethia, Ryah and Adon. He is the lead pastor of the Summit Church and author of Breaking the Islam Code and Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary. Twitter: @jdgreear
For more resources on teaching and preaching the gospel, check-out Tony Merida’s new book Proclaiming Jesus.