Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Retooling the Gospel for a Muslim, J.D. Greear

The below are selections copied from J.D. Greear in a chapter for his forthcoming book called Breaking the Islamic Code: Explaining the Gospel to Muslims:

“Three key words define Western presentations of the Gospel. The first is formula. Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws, variations of which have been popular among Western Christian missionaries for years, outline four propositions about God. Each of these propositions, offered like premises in a syllogism, compose a “formula” for salvation.

The second word is forgiveness. The “formula” denotes man’s primary problem as guilt, and thus proscribes forgiveness as man’s primary need. The third word is death, for this the mean’s by which forgiveness is given. Jesus paid a debt He did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay.

This is an accurate and faithful reading of the Gospel. However, such a presentation is often met by Muslims with stiff resistance on all three accounts. The very idea that God is bound by or behaves according to “laws” or according to a formula is offensive. The logic of penal substitution that our forgiveness requires is also confusing, as Muslims reject that God requires something in order to forgive, or that Christ’s work now obligates God to forgive us. Finally, Muslims have difficulty seeing God as a victim who died in weakness.

For these reasons, approaches like the “four spiritual laws” have not proven to be the most effective way of sharing the Gospel with Muslims. Our Gospel presentation might be more effective if built around the words “cleansing,” “victory,” and “story.”

1. Cleansing

One of the most unusual things for Westerners living among Muslims is the Muslim’s focus on ceremonial cleanness. Many Muslim rituals center around the need for purification. There are a number of substances which are considered najis (filthy), and if a Muslim comes into contact with one of these he must cleanse himself. The list of these substances is numerous, and includes pus, blood, dogs, pigs, profuse sweat, menstrual cycles, and dung. Explicit instructions regulate daily activities so as to ensure that the Muslim remains free of impurity.

Cleansing from najis is called wudu. The details of wudu make up a sizable portion of any Islamic theology text, and are a common theme in the hadith.

For many Muslims, the wudu has an inner, spiritual connotation as well. Sufis talk repeatedly about “the wudu of the soul.” They depict forgiveness in terms of cleansing and describe the final state of the believer in Paradise as “shining from the final washing of wudu.” Even Sunni Muslims, who emphasize God’s lofty transcendence over His creation, believe that the greatest reward of heaven will be to stand face-to-face with Allah. In that presence, they believe, they must stand perfectly clean.

A pertinent problem for the Muslim, then, is how to achieve an inner purification sufficient to stand before Allah. The standard Muslim response when I asked about this was “doing repentance” and “performance of the prayers and fast.” Yet, that raises the question of how it is consistent to say that purification from najis (physical impurities) requires a vigorous washing process, while purification from inner impurities requires only repentance.

Jesus explained that what defiles a man is not something he contacts in the outside world, but something that comes from within his heart (Matt 15:18–20). If the physical defilement of dogs, swine, or excrement must be cleansed by sand and water, then to be cleansed from spiritual defilement such as blasphemy, hypocrisy, or adultery, much more must be required!

The Gospel teaches that the blood of Jesus is the cleansing agent able to remove the contaminants and corruption that separates men from God. The blood of the cross is wudu for the heart, able to cleanse it from najis and defilement. It releases the offender from the vestiges of the haram, and brings the believer face to face with God.

The Story of Diana:

Once I asked an Islamic friend to explain to me why she washed as she did. She explained it was to remove all the najis with which she had come into contact throughout the day. I asked her what she though was the most “najis” thing of all. Her answer, without hesitation, was “pork.” She explained that contact with pork required a vigorous, seven-fold scrubbing. I asked her if there was anything that might be filthier to God than pork. After a while, she said she supposed idolatry was the filthiest thing of all to God. I asked where idolatry took place. She said, “the heart.” I asked, “So, you cleanse the body vigorously, but how do you cleanse your heart?” She said, “We just repent of our sin, and that cleanses us.” I objected, “You can’t just repent of touching the pork, you must also wash. How is repentance able to cleanse the heart of idolatry but not the hands of pork, seeing that idolatry is filthier than pork?” She thought for a moment and then said, “That is a great question. I don’t know.” I continued, “Every time you talk to God you do so with a filthy heart. It’s kind of like your imam (religious leader) came over to eat at your house. You had cleaned up everything in the house to honor his coming. When it came time to serve dinner, you brought out the head of the pig. This is what you are doing when you pray.” My friend seemed to understand. I explained to her that we Christians believe that the blood of Jesus is the cleansing for the soul. Later on, through this understanding (as well as some other factors), she put her faith in Christ.

2. Victory

Muslims and Christians agree that each man will one day die, and that apart from God nothing has the power to live. God demonstrated that He alone is sufficiently powerful to overcome death, and He did so in the resurrection of Christ. As the Koran states, only Allah possesses the power of resurrection (22:5–6).

Christ’s work should therefore be presented as victory. The humiliation of the cross was part of the victory of the resurrection. In Christ’s death God destroyed the enemies of life and His purposes for His creation, purposes which were restored to men in the resurrection. Resurrection was the goal of Christ’s work, and thus the essence of salvation (Rom 7:24–25; Gal 2:20).

Unfortunately, the resurrection often plays little to no role in Western presentations of salvation. Western theologians often speak of the resurrection as if its primary purpose was simply to prove that Christ’s work on the cross to pay for sins had been successful! The resurrection is often added as an historical footnote, not a mighty act integral to accomplishing salvation.

The resurrection declares that God is the Victor, the sole possessor of life and conqueror of the grave. Presenting salvation in this way broadens the appeal of the gospel to Muslims, as it bases its appeal on something other than a justice system which Muslims are explicitly taught to reject.

3. Story

There is no substitute for getting a Muslim to read and study the Bible on their own. The Bible story itself is much more compelling that logical syllogisms that “prove” Jesus had to be the Savior. Why? First, Muslims do not accept that any condition could require God to do certain things be done in order to secure salvation. Merely presenting “better” rational arguments for why God acted as He did are not likely to change the Muslim reaction: God doesn’t belong in a syllogism. Furthermore, the Koran has armed Muslims with dogmatic propositions that bypass rational argumentation. “Storying” the Bible preaches the Gospel to Muslims while avoiding those obstacles.

Building a witness around these three elements, cleansing, victory, and story, will put the Gospel into a more intelligible form for Muslims. A missionary employing this approach need not think that he is abandoning the orthodox principles of the Gospel in doing so, as this approach has rich biblical and historical support. It may be different from how Western missionaries are accustomed to thinking about the Gospel, but preaching the Gospel in a manner the receiving audience can understand has been part of faithful biblical mission since the Apostles’ first missionary journeys.”

Read the whole thing (6 pages).

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