Presenting the Gospel to Muslims
Is there a magic formula for calling Muslims to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? What has been written and said by many experts in the last twenty years claims that there is. Many attempts have been made to formulate a quick and easy method to convince (or even entice) Muslims to turn to "Christianity." They have all failed.
We must admit that there have been few well-equipped and qualified missionary attempts to establish Christ's church among Muslims. Even today, most of the expatriate missionary endeavors in the Muslim world are not consciously grounded on biblical principles. In fact, one cannot but wonder whether the majority of that missionary force would be qualified to evangelize (let alone disciple) people in the lands from which they come. As Reformed people, we should not have expected a different result.
The purpose of this article is not to refute any arguments or present an analysis of the missionary scene among Muslims. That will not help the average people in our churches, who are mainly interested in praying for the Lord's work among Muslims and witnessing as much as they can to Muslim neighbors, friends, colleagues, and others with whom they come in contact.
Most of the excitement over the "new" findings and methods claimed for successful evangelization among Muslims has evaporated. So, what is the alternative? Is there any hope for successfully presenting the gospel to Muslims? Our answers must be biblical and Christ-centered. Our hope must be rooted in Christ's sovereign rule over all events and powers for the calling, saving, and completing of his people from all nations and tribes. We must be confident in the gospel as truly "the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16). We must express faithfulness and loyalty to the integrity of the infallible Word of God. Yes, this is not only difficult, but also very costly. Yet it is the only wise and faithful way. It is also the only fruit-bearing, comforting, and joyful way. This article is written in the light of these realities and on the basis of these convictions.
A Reformed Approach to Islam
First, we must put into practice what we claim to believe. As Reformed Christians, we believe in God's sovereignty. So, we must immediately cast out the prevalent myth that Islam is unbeatable and that Muslims are some kind of special breed of people difficult to reach for Christ. If the Lord is in control of all things, then the rise and advance of Islam must not be viewed as a defeat for him.
If "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28), then that includes Islam. It is Christ who determines the agenda for world events, not Islam or any other ideology or power. In that light, we give heed to this apostolic exhortation: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58). In all our ministries, we must keep these truths in mind.
As we seek to win Muslims for Christ, we ought to humbly and joyfully praise the Lord that he transcends all the physical and mental faculties of man. His revealed Word captivates all our being and inspires us to confidently receive all its teachings and humbly submit all our thoughts to its Author.
We serve a victorious Christ. In his incarnation, earthly life and ministry, sufferings, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement, he not only took our place and represented us as the Second Adam, but also manifested all of the love, wisdom, holiness, and righteousness of God, even as he hung on the cross. Ours is not a weak, helpless, or pathetic Christ, which the Muslim mind despises and rejects outright.
Being Reformed also means that we are concerned about reaching entire households and incorporating them into biblically established churches. It also means that we are not enslaved to or bound by any man-made cultures or traditions. We are to be ever ready to examine and readjust our lives and practices in accordance with the Scriptures.
Yes, there are many things we must learn about Islam and how to challenge its beliefs and practices with the gospel of God's liberating grace and power in Christ Jesus. That requires diligence, commitment, and hard work. Yet, even that cannot be done properly unless we put into practice our conviction that God is absolutely sovereign.
Second, we must have biblical motivations. We must be motivated by neither fear nor resentment. Often one gets the impression that evangelicals are in a rush to do something about Islam before it takes over the world. Khomeini's revolution in Iran brought a sudden awareness of imminent danger and speedy evangelical attempts to counter it with quick-fix outreach solutions. Every time another mosque is established in a Western nation, fear and alarm grip many Christian hearts. Yet, we forget those holy and worthy motives presented to us in the Scriptures generally and in Christ's earthly ministry in particular: compassion for the lost, service to the undeserving, sacrificial giving, spending and being spent, hating sin and loving sinners, etc.
A few years ago, a seasoned Jordanian brother made an interesting observation about many Christian workers with whom he came in contact. He said, "As soon as they realized that I came from a Muslim family, they began to look at me and treat me differently. They wanted to write my story in their newsletters and reports. They wanted to take many pictures of me. They literally competed for my company and attention. As soon as they had all they could get out of me, they lost interest in me. I am no more a celebrity. All their excitement and interest is gone."
All our missionary endeavors should be motivated by zeal for the honor and glory of Christ and by the love that Christ has for the perishing. By God's grace, we should suppress our natural tendency to be interested in personal success. Once we do that and rid ourselves of the paranoia associated with the terms Muslim and Islam, working with Muslims becomes much less burdensome.
The Biblical World-and-Life View
Third, we must hold to the biblical world-and-life view. Islam's world-and-life view is completely different. It is of this world. Even its view of the hereafter is temporal and materialistic in nature. Christ asserted that his kingdom is not of this world.
The unity of the Allah (God) of the Koran is a mathematical oneness. His qualities are much like those of man, except greater and bigger. The unity and nature of our triune God is never pictured to us in Scripture by comparison to his creatures. "To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him?" (Isa. 40:18).
The Islamic views of good and evil, of sin and holiness, of power and warfare, of success and advancement, and of salvation and reward are also of this world. The biblical views are completely different. The space allowed for this article does not permit even brief treatments of these and other contrasts.
It is important to remember, however, that Christ's kingdom here on earth is not material or political in nature, but spiritual. The battle is not with flesh and blood; it is spiritualand so are the weapons (Eph. 6:10-20). The church is not called to engage other forces on earth for world domination. The gospel agenda is not that of Western democratization, pluralism, or freedoms. The New Testament church did not have or need those things to survive or flourish. Freedoms of speech, press, and religion do not and will not flourish in Muslim societies.
Even in the most "democratized" and "liberalized" Muslim nations, like Turkey and Indonesia, the Lord has not deemed it good for the church to have those Western freedoms. Yet, the Lord calls on us to establish and expand his church in Muslim lands. Oppression in Iran and the Sudan has not crushed the church. On the contrary, the church in both countries is growing under the most difficult circumstances. The lack of Western values and freedoms in countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, and Algeria has not succeeded in blocking the establishing of the church.
Small, yet vibrant groups of believers exist in such countries as a result of the proclamation of the gospel. They are learning to reject the Muslim world-and-life view and replace it with the life-transforming biblical one. Church buildings and pluralism are not necessary for the existence of the church. They are not possible in most Muslim societies. We must accept that and leave the matter in the Lord's hands.
While campaigning against Muslim governments on behalf of the oppressed church in their lands might sound like a good and honorable cause, it has most often brought about further difficulties, sufferings, and even martyrdom in several lands.
Biblical Means and Methods
Fourth, we must use biblical means and methods. In 1 Cor. 1:26-30, we read these important words: "For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from Godand righteousness and sanctification and redemption."
These words ought to remind us that God does not desire or need gimmicks or quick-fix formulas in the proclamation of the gospel or the establishing of the church. It is sufficient to proclaim Christ as the wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption provided by God to sinful and condemned man. We need neither compromising dialogues with Muslim thinkers nor offensive debates with Muslim opponents. Rather, we must "speak the truth" to Muslims "in love."
Much has been said for and against the concept of contextualization, as a means of effective outreach among Muslims. However, the matter remains simple. No one has any right to alter or relativize the message. Yet, we are called upon to contextualize (or adapt) ourselves, and our words are to be as clear and understandable as possible. Paul wanted to become all things to all people, so that he might be able to persuade them of their need for repentance and faith. Yet, he not only insisted on preaching the unadulterated gospel, but also sought to establish sound churches led by qualified officers.
Paul did not waver on the unity and purity of the church, the preeminence of preaching, the faithful administration of the sacraments, or the proper exercise of discipline. He did not fear opposition nor cease to expose false teaching. Like his Lord, he treated the sheep with the tender, loving care of a true shepherd and the wolves with the valiant boldness of a lion. He had no time for the division of the Body of Christ on the basis of ethnic or linguistic groupings with different theologies or religious practices to suit their respective religious backgrounds.
I have never met a Muslim convert who disagreed with that Pauline approach. I have never met a Muslim convert who wanted mosquelike worship or desired to combine his new faith in Christ with the religious practices of his former religion, such as facing Mecca in prayer or fasting during the month of Ramadan. Like all other true believers in Christ, Muslim converts want to believe and live the Word of God in its entirety. They want to be with you and with me in a biblically based congregation.
The Cost of Following Jesus
Fifth, we must pay the costs. It costs to preach the gospel. It costs to make disciples of the nations. We are never promised ease and comfort in the Christian life or ministry. The ministry of the Word, to whichever group of people it is directed, demands sacrifice and self-giving. It requires sacrificing ambitions, pride, time, energies, and even comfortable and easygoing living. It requires much patience and long-suffering, prayerful efforts. Working with Muslims demands all of this and more, especially in the area of preparation.
In May 1995, I met a Korean young man. He had just been commissioned by a missionary agency to go to an Arabian Gulf state as a missionary. He was so happy to inform me that he was not a member of any specific church. He said, "I love them all and I decided not to love only one church." Since being converted from Buddhism three years before, he had read the New Testament and the book of Psalms several times and parts of the Old Testament.
When I asked him what training he had received for missionary work among Muslims, he said that he had attended two conferences on the subject. He expected to learn enough Arabic within a year to be able to conduct a Bible study in Arabic. He was planning to evangelize, disciple people, train leaders, and organize an underground church.
I am sure that you will agree that this fellow was not fit for the job. Yet, he is not an exception. Many of the so-called missionaries that one meets would not even be qualified to conduct a Bible study in their native lands.
Working with Muslims often requires much patience. In 1982, I visited with a young Muslim from Syria. He had become interested in the gospel through a Christian who went to his school. This led him to listen to Christian radio broadcasts. But it was not until 1994 that he was baptized and received by a local church.
It also costs to believe in Christ and follow him. "For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake" (Phil. 1:29-30). "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). "Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim 3:12). Christian suffering is one of the most neglected aspects of the Christian faith today. Too often, quick and easy success is expected in evangelization and missions.
One of the main dangers facing the church in the Muslim world is the longing for the easy life available in the West. Even in relatively comfortable and less oppressive countries like Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, most trained or gifted church workers are eager to immigrate to the West. An Iranian pastor recently told me that one of his main concerns is to keep his people away from those who are always ready to help them get away from the pressures of living for Christ in Iran. Like him, I plead with the Lord's people everywhere to pray for the increase and preserving of qualified spiritual leaders for the churches in the Muslim world.
God's work must be done in God's way, according to his Word and in the power of his Spirit. Islam will no doubt collapse. There are already important signs of that. The Lord is both almighty and most wise. Our ways and thoughts are not his. In his own time, he will provide his people with the necessary relief from their sufferings. We must, however, spare no effort in faithfully, sacrificially, wisely, confidently, and patiently calling Muslims to repentance and faith in the only Savior in whose name alone there is salvation.
Mr. Atallah is an OP missionary to the Middle East, based in Cyprus. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 1996.