I want to thank J.D. Greear and Thabiti Anyabwile for being here with us today. Desiring God desires to host this conversation in part because both of these guys have recently written books on reaching out, reaching the gospel to Muslim peoples. I just want to hold them up. They’re both in the bookstore.
Here is Thabiti’s book called The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence. This is especially a very helpful book. If you’re the kind of person that a Muslim neighbor just moved in next door, you’ve never talked to a Muslim in your life, and it scares the daylights out of you, this would be a very good help for you.
And then J.D. wrote this book, Breaking the Islam Code: Understanding the Soul Questions of Every Muslim. And it goes a little more in-depth into thinking about what Muslims are thinking and the questions they’re asking. It also is a great help for just being able to better communicate the gospel to Muslims.
Also, Thabiti brought this DVD, Who Is God and How Are We Saved? It’s a dialogue that he did in Dubai. Is that right? With Bassam Zawadi, who’s a Muslim man. I just watched this last week, and I thought it was great — a great example of how you can talk about very contentious issues and do it with love and respect. It is very clear that Thabiti thought Bassam was wrong, and it was very clear that Bassam thought he was wrong, but it was very respectful. And so it’s a good example for us and also might be helpful for you if you have Muslim friends who are asking you hard questions about the Bible or about the Trinity, different things like that.
So to begin, I’d like just for people to be able to have a little bit of an opportunity to hear from you guys in relation to your experience with Islam. And so Thabiti, would you begin by just sharing briefly your testimony, and specifically what led you to become Muslim and what led you out of Islam?
Thabiti Anyabwile: Thank you, and thank you all for being here and engaging in this conversation. It’s a joy to have this time with you and to think further about these issues. I’ll try to do this really briefly. And if you want to hear the long story, you can find the testimony online. If you go to Capitol Hill Baptist Church, they gave me the privilege of sharing my testimony at length one Sunday evening. It’s online there, and you can find it there.
But the short snippets were, I grew up in the Bible belt, grew up in North Carolina in a nominally Christian home, in a nominally Christian culture setting, and did not understand the gospel, did not know who Christ was, and I wasn’t following the Lord. My sin was flowering, and I was delighting in my sin through high school, and that led me to get into problems in a couple of different areas.
I went off to college, and these men on campus were coming on campus pretty frequently attending student events and speaking sometimes at those events and talking a lot about the importance of family, and of marriage, and of community, and of righteousness, and uprightness, and cleanness. Long story short, they were Muslim men. As a young African American, this was probably the first collection of African American men that I saw who seemed to me to be strong men. I hadn’t seen that in many ways in my own home, some ways I hadn’t, many ways I hadn’t. I hadn’t seen that in the little church that we attended from time to time. And so I was drawn like a moth to flame to these men, began to study with them. Long story short, converted to Islam as a sophomore in college. I started practicing Muslim through the rest of undergraduate school.
It was one year doing Ramadan that I was up early preparing for the fast and reading the Quran when I had what I can only describe as a kind of settling awareness, this sort of settling realization that what I was reading could not be true. That on the one hand, the Quran was admitting too much, and on the other hand, denying too much. So just rushing into my conscience were all the passages where the virgin birth is being taught, for example. And yet every Muslim would deny that Christ is uniquely the Son of God, or the passages where the prophet in contention with Jews and Muslims say, “Bring me your books and I will show you the truth out of your books.” And where the Quran was affirming the books of Moses and the Psalms of David and the angel, the gospels. And yet every Muslim that I knew would say that the Scriptures were either misunderstood or twisted or some such thing.
So I was left with this crisis of how could I be a self-consistent Muslim reading this Quran, seeing even the prophet affirm those earlier revelations as revelation and at the same time deny what they undeniably taught about this Messiah, about Christ? And so long story short, threw my hands up, walked away from Islam because I didn’t believe Christianity was real, had any power. I didn’t have any consideration for Christianity, had been really an enemy of the cross as a Muslim.
And so for a year was on my best days agnostic really. And on my worst days, atheistic in my tendency until my wife and I experienced a hard providence of the Lord, ultimately a kind providence. We lost our first child three months into the pregnancy, and the Lord made us really small. He humbled us deeply. I was sitting at home following that, watching television, flipping through the channels mindlessly and landed on this television preacher who was preaching at that time systematically through Timothy. And the only way I can describe that is that the word of God had life. I thought as I listened to him preach the word, verse by verse, who rewrote the Bible? When did that editorial board convene because now this thing makes sense?
It was the Spirit of the Lord drawing me by the word of the Lord. And a few months later, we found out this church was in Washington D.C. We visited family there, attended the church. I’ll never forget he preached a sermon from Exodus 32. It was law and gospel, and I fell deeply under conviction in the preaching of the Scripture. It was the first time I heard Christ preached wherein the justice and the holiness of God were reconciled with the mercy and the love of God, all our attributes that are affirmed in Islam but cannot be reconciled apart from the sacrifice of Christ and in the preaching of the gospel in God’s kindness. My wife and I both came to faith in the Lord that morning, and the Lord’s been gracious to let us live for him ever since.
Thanks. J.D., would you share a little bit about your experiences in the Muslim world?
J.D. Greear: Quite simply, it began in college when God overwhelmed my heart with the realization and knowledge that 1.8 billion people had never heard the name of Jesus, and that about two-thirds of those were in the Muslim world. I had gone to college with every intent of going into law, and I just felt God radically reorient my life. So when I graduated from college, I went and spent two years overseas in Southeast Asia, where I lived in a very fundamentalist Muslim area. While I was there, I began to deeply love Muslims. I had gone to Southeast Asia to live in this Muslim area, and before I’d gone, I armed myself with every possible apologetic resource. I’ve read everything Norman Geisler or Abdul Salib had ever written, and I was ready to talk history, Bible, and all that kind of stuff. I just found that the things I was saying, while not untrue and don’t not need to be known, they just weren’t effective.
So, it was a deep sole desire to share Christ with my friends there that began this process. One of my mentors, a man that’s still very close to me, in the midst of a situation over there spoke something to me that just really arrested my heart. He said, “Over the last two thousand years, Christianity has seen victory over every major enemy that has tried to oppose it.” By enemy, I mean people that have tried to keep the gospel out. He said the Roman Empire tried to resist the spread of the gospel, and it crumbled, and the gospel flourished. Then you had the Roman Catholic Church that, in some ways, tried to squelch the preaching of the gospel, and we saw the Reformation. In more recent years, you’ve seen the communist block begin to crumble, and you’ve seen the gospel flourish.
He said, “Islam is the one great bastion against the gospel that we’ve never really seen a breakthrough in.” He said, “Based on how I understand the end of the world, there’s no way that the world can end without a scene, a breakthrough of the gospel that really takes place in the Muslim world.”
I knew right then standing on the shores of the Indian Ocean there in Southeast Asia that that’s what I wanted to be involved in. I wanted to be a little bit like that woodpecker, tapping away at the telephone pole when lightning strikes it and splits it in two. When you’re kind of like, “Wow, was I a part of that? It had nothing to do with me.” I knew that based on how we understand things, God is going to move. There will be people of every tribe and tongue, and that includes a lot of the people in the very fiercest Muslim lands, and I wanted to be a part of that.
So, I came back and did my PhD work in Islamic soteriology, which means the Islamic understanding of salvation or lack thereof. The early churches, the way they talked about salvation, tried to show that there were better bridges between the way the church fathers talked about knowing God and the way that Muslims think than there were between the way a lot of Western Christians did. That led to a lot of study, continued friendships, many trips to Muslim areas, dialogues, debates with Muslims in the Raleigh-Durham area, and a lot of friendships. It’s something that I hope I’ll be involved with for the rest of my life until that lightning comes.
Amen. I’m wondering, it seems like within America especially and even in other places, there’s lots of fear towards Muslims, and lots of talk about how Muslims are trying to come in and take over, creating a kind of fear in us. Why is it that you think Christians especially, even evangelicals, have seemed to be so afraid of Muslims?
J.D. Greear: I think there are a lot of misconceptions that are more created by the media. I think that the scope of this question, it probably wouldn’t be helpful to get into the political ramifications of Islam. Many people will argue that the things that people do violently in the name of Islam are because of what Islam teaches, and others will try to say, “No, it’s despite what Islam teaches.” I definitely think there’s a correct opinion about that and not. But with that Muslim that you’re dealing with, quite often, this is somebody who is seeking to live peaceably, somebody that’s made in the image of God just like you are. While they have very different backgrounds, the fact that they’re created in the image of God like you and me means they have a lot of the same questions, needs, hurts that you and I face.
At the end of the day, they’re not fundamentally different kinds of people. They’re people, fallen people, and people that are estranged from God, whether they’re at the University of Berkeley or whether they grew up in Saudi Arabia. I think there’s just this categorization of them as something that would probably be more shaped by perceptions in the media than just befriending them. I think the greatest thing that you can do is just get to know one, listen to them, befriend them, and you’ll find that the gospel that you have experienced is probably much more readily applicable to them than you probably thought that it was.
Thabiti Anyabwile: I think that’s right. I think fear just flourishes where ignorance flourishes. I think fear flourishes where love is lacking. And so I think there’s a lot of ignorance, a lot of misunderstanding driven by lots of media, lots of misperception, lots of misinformation that causes us to back away, to step away, and to fail to love. J.D. hit it so well.
One of the fundamental things I think we have to think about and recognize and work out in our approach to Muslims is the fact that we are indeed close cousins. We’re made in the image of God, we’re all descended from Adam, we’ve inherited his sin, and we have therefore the same needs in the gospel.
If I had to put my finger on perhaps one other thing that fuels some of the fear response, I think it’s comfort and love for comfort. So the idea of engaging Muslims, talking with Muslims, entering into conversations, and I don’t know, J.D., this has been your experience. I’ve never had a hard time talking with a Muslim about these kinds of things. They’re eager and engaging.
J.D. Greear: Much more easily than I do most Westerners.
Thabiti Anyabwile: That’s exactly right. Yeah, that’s exactly right. And so that love of comfort and convenience, I think, just is a seabed for fear, and selfishness, and lack of love.
Now, I’m willing to bet that there are people here who, if you’re honest with yourself, are actually afraid when you see someone walking down the street, maybe covered or someone you know is Muslim, or maybe if you’re getting onto an airplane and you see someone who’s obviously a Muslim. I wonder if you could just speak a little bit to what you would say to that person if he came up to you after this and said, “Yeah, I’ve got a neighbor and I do kind of fear him.”
How would you help him or her step out? Then also, I imagine when you said that they’re really easy to talk to in regards to spiritual things that some people were like, “Really? How so?” How could you encourage all these people here to overcome fear and maybe to take some first steps in actually getting to know a Muslim friend or coworker?
Thabiti Anyabwile: I think one of the things is to close the gap of otherness in our perception of Muslims. And what I mean by that is we tend to look at folks not like us, and there’s a kind of calculus that happens in our head. We go, “Not like us, therefore nothing in common, therefore dangerous, therefore to be feared and avoided.” And this is where I think a good theological anthropology, a good doctrine of man helps us. Because if we understand our Bibles well, we look at others and we go, “Like us, made in the image of God. Like us, therefore lots in common. Like us, therefore lots in common and safety and opportunity for joy and mutual fellowship in commonality.” So part of it is just flipping the calculus that works at the speed of thought in our head as we look at people.
And then beyond that, I think it’s in terms of the conversations and having conversations, start with the same things you would do with other people whom you think you want a friendship with. You see people, you come to know of people, you say, “Hey, I’d like to meet that guy, or I’d like to meet that lady.” And what do you do? You go up, you introduce yourself. You don’t jump right into Jesus. You probably say, “Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you’re from,” those kinds of things. It’s really quite mundane. It’s really quite normal. So just do the same things you would do with other people that you don’t necessarily feel that instinctive fear of. Conquer that fear in your own thinking. Do the normal things to build a relationship.
In terms of how it is easy to get to Jesus? In my experience talking with Muslim men, for example, as soon as they find out you’re a Christian, they’re just adamant to talk about Jesus, and to talk about the Bible. And usually to try and convince you of why Islam is right and Christianity is wrong, or usually some genuine curiosity. Realize that many of the people who are coming here from Muslim countries are coming into a context that they’ve never enjoyed before. They’ve never enjoyed the kind of freedom where their curiosity and questions can be explored without fear of reprisal. That’s a great blessing and a great advantage. I just want to encourage us to seize that, and it comes to us pretty readily if we’re open.
Thanks. Thabiti in your book you write this: “As a Christian, you already know everything you need to know to effectively share the good news of Jesus Christ with Muslim people.” What do you mean by that?
Thabiti Anyabwile: I mean the gospel. If you’re a Christian, that means you have understood the gospel, believed the gospel, and given yourself over to Christ by his sovereign grace in faith. So articulating the facts of the gospel, explaining the demands of the gospel in repentance and faith, and discussing the atonement, the crucifixion, those are the things you need to know. There are other things that are very helpful. There are other things to learn about cultures and things of that sort.
But when it comes right down to the question of, “How is my Muslim neighbor or friend going to become a Christian and enter into eternal life?” There’s only one answer to that. It’s the gospel. It’s explaining the gospel. As people who have already come to know it and given ourselves over to it, well, right down at the nub of it, we know what we need to know to see that friend become a Christian. What we need is confidence in it, joy in it, and trust in it.
The gospel. That’s good. Even what you said at the end about confidence, joy, and trust and what that says in regards to application is that every one of us needs to go out here and study and know the gospel more and more and more.
Thabiti Anyabwile: It’s just one word on that. As I’ve been thinking about today and having conversations, just to encourage you, one of the verses as a younger Christian suffering from fear of man and not wanting to share the gospel. I mean if there’s anything that conjures fear of man is the word evangelism. One of the things that just really encourages me from God’s word is Philemon 6. And there in Philemon, Paul writes to him and says, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith.” Then he gives the reason why. This is good. “So that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 1:6).
In God’s economy, the act of sharing the faith actually pushes us deeper into the riches of Christ. So God has wired evangelism in such a way that when you’re in those conversations and you’re asked things you don’t know, and you have to go back and look up, or you have to think through some things more carefully or explain it more clearly, in God’s kindness, we discover more of the riches of Christ, more of the good things we have in Christ. So there’s a reward that God attaches to evangelistic faithfulness. I just want to encourage us to hunger for that and to expect that and know that the Lord is with us in evangelism.
J.D., in your book you wrote: “I often found that the way I was sharing the gospel was not only objectionable to my Muslim friends but also irrelevant.” Now, how can sharing the gospel be irrelevant?
J.D. Greear: Did I say that? I hope that you’ll hear what I’m about to say as a compliment to and not in any way a contradiction of what the beauty just said. And I don’t mean that rhetorically, I mean genuinely, I hope that you hear this. Because at the end of the day, it is not our understanding that really changes people’s hearts. I do think we do need to become students of people, but when we learn how they think. But everybody in here that preaches knows that it’s never the sermons I feel like that are the best, that bring the most fruit. I’ll get done with a sermon that I think is just awesome and nothing. And then there’s other times I’ll preach and at the end of it I’ll feel like, “Man, I don’t know if I’m saved after that sermon,” that God will just use that in somebody’s heart.
You step out in boldness in God and confidence and let God do what he can’t do. So please understand that, all right, that this is not in contradiction to. But what I meant by that in context is that a lot of times when I was sharing the gospel with them, I hate to use this cliche. But I was answering questions that they weren’t quite asking. I was formulating the gospel in an overly rationalistic way, trying to explain things about the death of Christ that they either weren’t asking or just flat out would deny from the Quran. It’s not that those things should not be talked about, and it’s not that the things I wasn’t saying weren’t true and very important, just that the ways that they were approaching God, I was coming at it in some ways that did not quite gel with them.
There’s a couple of different words in the book. I actually give you three different words that characterize many Western presentations of the gospel. Let me hit a couple of them and then I’ll show you how those are the opposite for Muslims.
For a lot of Westerners when we share the gospel, I would use the word formula, meaning that we’re used to speaking in syllogisms like the four spiritual laws, the four steps that you have to get to salvation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but we’re kind of laying out a case for why Christ is the answer to the problem that was there. Well, in contrast to that, I would say that Muslims, a better word for sharing the gospel with them is the word story rather than formula. And by story I don’t mean weird narrative, kind of mystical explanations. What I mean is that many Muslims are very curious about the prophets, and you are not going to be able to convince them of the truth of Christ’s death on the cross in a seven-minute conversation that you’re used to having on the plane with a stranger.
What you’ve got to do is begin to get into these stories of the prophets that they have heard of. They’ve heard of Adam, and Noah, and Moses, and David, and Solomon, and begin to show them how all the prophets had one message. And that was a message not of works righteousness, but a message that God would save, that God would be his own salvation, that God would provide for us a Savior. And as you begin to study the stories of those prophets, you begin to see things begin to come alive in them. Because as they’re going through the Old Testament, much of the way that Jesus must have done with his apostles, Christ comes alive in the Old Testament.
You want to know what it is that convinces a Muslim to turn his back on his community per se and come after Christ. It’s the beauty of Christ. And the way that you show the beauty of Christ is in the pages of Scripture as we see God unfolded, that is what converts the human heart is seeing the person of Jesus unfolded in Scripture. You find that in the stories of Scripture. As you’re laying those out, those propositions begin to come forward more naturally. And so story rather than formula.
The second thing I would say is most Christians think of salvation primarily in terms of forgiveness. That Christ, we owed a debt we could not pay. So he paid a debt he did not owe. Now that is crucial penal substitution, like theologians would call it is central to the understanding of what Christ did. But for Muslims, I would say a better word perhaps is the word cleansing. Cleansing which is still penal substitution. I was talking with some friends of mine that were Muslims and we were having a discussion. We went through there. I remember we’d been talking for about an hour and a half and I couldn’t seem to be able to show them why Christ had died.
They would quote verses from the Quran. They would say things like, “Why does your God have to kill somebody to forgive me?” If you did something against me, I wouldn’t say, “Hey, I’ll forgive you if you kill your cat.” I would just forgive you. Are we more merciful than God? There is an explanation for that and we need to be able to give it. But in the middle of trying to explain this to them, I remember the call to prayer rang out and several of them got up to go pray. And just something just dawned on me while they were doing that, this is not an original thought of me. I’ve never had an original thought in my life. But when they came back I said, “Why were you washing?” And they said, “Well, we washed to get the defilement off of us.”
And I said, “Okay, well tell what is the most defiled thing that you could touch?” Without hesitation they were like, “Pig. Most dirty thing you touch is pig.” I was like, “Really? It’s pig. That’s the dirt.” “Yeah, you got to watch seven times with sand and water.” They described this process. I was like, “So the dirtiest thing to God is a pig?” One of them said, “Well, no, actually the dirtiest thing to God is sin.” What’s the dirtiest sin? Shirk, which means blasphemy, assigning partners to God. I said, “Well, where does shirk take place?” And they said, “Shirk takes place in the heart.”
I said, “Well, how do you watch your heart before you go?” They were like, “Well, we don’t. We just repent and God forgives us.” I was like, “Well, you can’t just repent of touching the pig. You’ve got to repent of touching the pig and then you have to wash.” So why would that be true of the outer when in the inner or you would just say, repent and then your heart is clean.
Now, they didn’t all fall to their knees and get gloriously saved when I said that. But it connected with them and one of them just thought, he says, “I don’t know.” I don’t know and it’s a very real need. They remind themselves five times a day that they are not clean to stand before God. The idea of standing before God on judgment day is a terrifying thought to them. It’s hard to describe how terrifying it is. They have this image of walking across the scales to get to God with all their sin on their back. And if they have too much sin, they’ll fall off of this tightrope into hell. They are not looking forward to judgment day.
And when we begin to explain that the blood of Jesus is the cleansing, that because of what he did on the cross, he removes the offense and removes the guilt because he suffered in our place, that connects with them. And it helps them to see that the gospel does something for them that the works righteousness that Islam teaches can never do. And so when I began to explain the gospel in those terms, it found a resonance with them that I hadn’t when I was just thinking about speaking to other Westerners who grew up in North Carolina where I grew up.
“Great, thanks. What are some bridges that maybe you can give to us as we’re thinking about going home, talking with a Muslim friend or neighbor? Are there particularly good bridges that they maybe already think about? You’ve already mentioned the stories of the prophets. Are there others or even maybe theological common ground that we already share with them that can be helpful springboards towards discussing spiritual things?
J.D. Greear: I’d love to have you have to say this, Thabiti. Couple of things, is the oneness of God. Muslims have an extremely wrong view of how you see God. It is taught to them by Muslim clerics that you believe that God the Father had relations with God the mother and produced God the Son. If that’s the understanding of the Trinity, then you and I would be as equally horrified by that. I think reacting with the same incredulity, just that horror that, “No, that’s not it. We believe in the oneness of God that is taught from the Old Testament onward.” I think that’s a great place to begin with. We already brought up the stories of the prophets. I think related to that is the sanctity of the word of God. It’s common that Muslims will say that believers, they’ve corrupted their book.
Well, I just react back to them with the same kind of bewilderment. Because if you say to them, you say, “Well, the Quran’s been corrupted over time. It’s been changed.” They would say, “No, no, no. Allah protects his word. He promised he would.” Well, then it would bring up Psalm 119 where it says, “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89). React with the same. Hold them. “No, God protects his word. God would not allow even sinful human beings to corrupt that.”
So the prophets, the oneness of God, the sanctity of the word, that’s some strong ground that you’ve got from that point to begin then to talk about Jesus, much the way that Thabiti in his story told you that he just began to put together some things in Islam and realized that it was leading him some places that Islam did not want him to go.
Thabiti Anyabwile: Selah. No, I think that’s right. I think there’s much common ground, and I think J.D.’s point earlier about communicating really, contextualizing, answering what people are asking, finding common ground, whether it’s theological categories, the attributes of God, for example, his holiness and so on and so forth, or whether it’s historical things and the prophets and so forth, is a really helpful and good point.
The one thing I would add to what’s being said here is I find it important really to move the conversation from abstract theological construct to personal application. So when we’re talking about sin, we’re not just trying to wrangle over a definition of sin. There are some differences there. At the end of the day, we need to press a knife, the point of sin into their hearts, into their conversation, personally. So we don’t want these things to rest lightly on the conscience. We want them to land with a thud, and the implications to be clear and resounding in that way.
Just in addition to what J.D. has said here, one of the things that’s important is clearly defining the terms. Sometimes pushing people to the irreconcilable kinds of contradictions, the irreconcilable truths, things that are held with one in the left hand, one the right hand, but cannot be reconciled without the cross, without Christ. So God’s forgiveness and his mercy with his justice. Every Muslim knows God is just, but God is also beneficent and merciful. Well, how is he those things with your sin? And you get the answer that J.D. was talking about earlier. “Well, I confess, I repent and he just forgives.”
Well either then God is not exercising his justice perfectly, so that is his mercy, his favor. Or God is not going to be merciful and is going to be just, and how do those two things hang together.
It was in terms of one of the turning points in my own life from Islam and eventually in God’s grace to faith in Christ was a water cooler conversation. I was at work with coworkers and we were having a conversation about people that we respected in history. And so we’re standing at this water cooler and literally there are five or six of us and people are talking about folks like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., just world changers. There is this coworker that I went to college with and she says, “There’s nobody I respect more than Thabiti.” I said, “Stop it, man.” She protested. She said, “No, no, no, no, no.” And she talked and she was giving her reasons and I was like, “Stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it. Stop it.”
As she talked about what she described as my righteousness, all I felt was corruption inside. Because yes, I knew I treated my wife well, I didn’t curse, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t do these things. And yet I knew I did not have the kind of righteousness that would please God. What we’re trying to do is to move people to the questions that need to be asked, just as he was talking about in the purification or the cleansing conversation, that they may not be asking. And the way we do that is we force a clearer definition and we bring it home personally and powerfully, graciously, lovingly by God’s Spirit.
Thabiti, you wrote that Christians don’t have to spend a lot of time attacking the Quran. And in fact at the end of this, in your closing when Bassam says he encourages everyone to read the Quran because it will do good for them, you readily admitted, “I’ve read the Quran and it did do good for me.” And then went on to say, “But that doesn’t help me be saved.” But so you say, “We don’t need to spend a lot of time attacking the Quran.” And J.D., you wrote that, “Drawing Muslims towards Jesus is our essential task, not drawing them away from Islam.”
So could either or both of you fill that out more. Specifically, do we not need to get our Muslim friends to first reject Islam, and the Quran, and Mohammed as a prophet first and then help them see Jesus as the Savior?
Thabiti Anyabwile: Sure. I just think that one of the things to understand about Islamic culture — and about your Muslim friend — is the deep reverence they have for the prophet. It’s reflected even in things like the mention of his name, followed by “peace be upon him,” a kind of benediction, a kind of blessing. Let me be clear — there’s a place for apologetics, there’s a place for explanation, there’s a place for defending, so on and so forth. But if you really look like your main strategy is to discredit the prophet or discredit Islam, you’re just not going to be having a fruitful conversation, even in my experience. So I like the way J.D. has put it. The task is to draw them to Christ, not so much away from Islam.
And your Muslim friend understands that being drawn to Christ is to be drawn from Islam. They are feeling the pressure of that in ways we really cannot fathom. In my opinion, the apologetics may do some preparatory work, open up space for asking some questions, defend the credibility of the Scriptures or things of that sort. But the fundamental work is indeed to have them see Christ in his glory and be drawn to Christ. And they will feel the implications of that in terms of what it means to leave Islam and to leave the community, and all the things that go with that.
J.D. Greear: There is a sense in which conversion is a life change for anybody, but for a Muslim, you have to understand that this is a deep family community thing. Even if you could persuade them of the wrongness of Islam, I would say that’s not strong enough except for maybe a very select few to leave Islam because of how much it would cost. There has to be something — Matthew 13:44 — that is of greater value than the field that they currently own, that they would gladly sell that field to get that treasure. And the only treasure that would cause somebody to leave Islam is going to be the treasure that is found in Christ.
And so to say that you first destroy Islam and then present Christ, I would say the way that you draw somebody from Islam is by showing them the beauty of Christ and then letting their hearts awaken and yearning for him so that they say, “I gladly sold everything to go after him.”
There’s something about the gospel — it says, “The angels long to look into it.” The more that you see it, the more captivating it becomes. The primary difference in my opinion between what Islam teaches and what Christianity teaches, and what Jesus taught, Islam is like every religion in the world in that it teaches that it’s what you do and how well you perform, that you earn that before God and God rewards you with your righteousness. The gospel turned religion on its head. In many ways, it was the anti-religion because it wasn’t about what you do. It’s about what God had done for you.
And there’s something about learning that makes you just stand amazed. And as you see that begin to awaken, where they begin to understand what the glories of grace were, things that you really can’t understand, things where I’m not just explaining why my syllogism works better than their syllogism does, and my history is better than their history, but just showing them there’s something that has the echo of divinity in how I’m presenting this. That’s what woos their heart.
Now, I want to agree profoundly with what Thabiti also said. There’s a place for pointing out the inconsistency. Francis Schaeffer calls it the blowing the roof off where you just say, “Here are some issues.” But I’d say that the chief issue — 2 Corinthians 4 also — how does God take those who are blinded in this world? And how does he deliver them? By showing them the glory of Jesus Christ. And that’s what we have to do.
Thabiti Anyabwile: Can I add just one thing? Because I think there’s an implication in what we’ve been saying here in terms of the community. Something that I hunger for us to understand is that many Muslims, part of their critique of Christianity, is that the community of Christianity is weak. Part of the strength of Islam is it creates this universal brotherhood. I think there’s something in that critique for us to learn because many Muslims will be looking to leave a community and to come to what? If our view of the local church is shallow, and weak, and small, and if our experience and participation in the family of God, in the local church is inconsistent, and uncommitted, and unloving, I think we are failing in one of the things that actually makes Christ beautiful.
So Ephesians 3:10, “That through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” And so part of the witnessing tool, part of the thing that makes the gospel credible, and makes the gospel powerful and makes Christ beautiful is this people that’s created from every language nation and tribe who otherwise have nothing in common but this Jesus. And this love that we share, which Christ, John 13 says, is the badge of genuine discipleship. Absent that, the syllogism and the word and the preaching are actually weakened by that effect. And so I just want to exhort us also not only to be confident in the gospel but to be active in our churches and to love the people of God in a local place, in identifiable and almost tangible ways so that in that love, evidence is given of our discipleship, and Christ is seen as worth following.
J.D. Greear: Could I add twenty more seconds? Thabiti has inspired me.
When Muslims become believers, there are three things — sometimes all three — that are very commonly pointed to, and this is so consistent. You hear this on the field, and I think there’s some good documentation for it too. One is the word of God. They just read the word of God, the power of God’s word. I think a win for you in sharing Christ with a Muslim is don’t just count the win when they pray the sinner’s prayer. Count the win a long time before that when they’ve agreed just to study the Bible with you, and many of them are quite interested in doing that.
The second thing that they point to is the love that they saw in the Christian community, the Christian church. It was a love of a different kind than the ummah had, where it was a love that wasn’t built on honor and on conditional acceptance. It was unconditional love.
You know what the tragedy is? That most Muslim exchange students that come here to the United States, I read it was something like 80–85 percent of them or something, never step foot in an American’s home, much less a believer’s home. If you’re wondering how to start the conversation, just invite them over for dinner and let them begin to see what the inner workings of a church look like. That is assuming your church is healthy.
The third thing that they point to is a supernatural dream or vision, which is going to be a little unusual for some of us, but it’s a consistent thing that they point to—whether true or not, that’s a different discussion. But they point to those three things as what’s instrumental in bringing them to Christ.
Thanks. You already alluded to this text, J.D. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul says that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). His response to this blinding is to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.
Then in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says that the Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but that he will preach Christ crucified. And all of this is summed up in the next chapter, 1 Corinthians 2:2, where Paul says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” I’m wondering if you could briefly just share what Muslims believe about Jesus and his death, and then how best can we proclaim Christ as Lord and preach Christ crucified?
J.D. Greear: If I knew you were going to ask that question, I would’ve just not said what I said earlier because I think this would be my answer to it, that Christ is preached in the word as we study his word. He’s preached by the beauty of the body, and then he just begins to do that thing that only God does, where he begins to reveal himself.
You ask specifically what Muslims believe about Jesus and his death. They believe he’s not God. They believe he’s a prophet that pointed to Muhammad. It’s a fascinating study when you go through and start to learn what were the circumstances for Muhammad revealing various of the different Quranic elements. In the first parts of his life, it was apparent that he thought the Christians were going to agree with him and recognize him as a prophet. As his life begins to progress, he learns that’s not true. And so the language begins to change.
So what you’ve got is all these statements about Jesus being a true prophet. And then as Christians begin to say, “No, no, that’s not what the Bible teaches about Christ. That’s not the message that all the prophets have taught.” That’s where Muhammad begins to turn. They believe that the death of Christ, they believe that it was something that was a trick that God played, that Jesus Christ was changed with somebody else on the cross because God would never allow one of his prophets to die in that kind of shame. And so they don’t understand why we would worship Jesus and why we would insist that the whole point was the cross.
Thankfully, those things are very evident, and you see the reasons for those as you begin to study the Bible. The supernatural dream or vision is something that obviously you can’t control that. I will tell you that of the Muslims I’ve seen come to Christ personally, four or six of them came through one.
I’m raised Southern Baptist. In fact, the first time one of them said it to me, he laid out this kind of vision that he’d had. I’d never met him before. He shows up on my doorstep. He’s 32 years old, he’s a Muslim, and he’s just like — let me tell you about this and how somebody’s appeared to him and told him to seek the gospel. He sought me out, and I’m like, “Man, I’m raised Southern Baptist, but you were so in luck. Dream interpretation is my spiritual gift. And let me explain to you what this means.”
I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know why God does certain things, and I certainly don’t set myself as the one who determines what’s true and what’s not. But I know that I’ve sat in front of more stories than I would have time to tell you. One guy when he came to me with his dream, he said, “So teach me now the gospel.” And for two hours, I walked him through. When he got to that part about Jesus dying on the cross, he said, “You mean that God the Creator? That was him? Not somebody else was him?” And I said, “Yeah.”
I never forget, he starts saying, “Allahu Akbar” which is what they say a lot of times in the midst of nationalistic fervor. God is the greatest. But he’s saying it because he’s seeing the beauty of the cross. That’s taking away his eyes off of just the pitiful response of works righteousness and self-salvation that Islam gives. It’s Christ. It’s Christ that saves people of every stripe, whatever religion they are. It’s the beauty of Christ that compels them.
Thabiti Anyabwile: Just two quick things. One of the things that the Quran, I think about eleven times refers to Jesus as the Messiah. It’s one of the other things that they believe about Christ, that Christ is the Messiah. They don’t necessarily have a biblical definition of the Messiah, so you can help them there. Yes, they will tell you he’s the Anointed One. The question obviously is, anointed for what? Matthew 1:21, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” He’s anointed in that he would be the Savior, prophet, not the Son. All the things that J.D. said.
In terms of helping our Muslim friends understand Christ more fully, I think one of the most effective things to do is just have your Bible open. Usually, we’ll go to a text, and they’ll take a text, maybe a verse, a half a verse, and begin to want to pull it out of context and make the argument that it doesn’t mean what it means.
And simply reading the four verses before it and the four verses after it usually has the entire explanation, the gospel, and all those things laid out. So I couldn’t agree more with J.D.’s earlier comment about it’s a win if we have them looking at the Bible with us and studying the Bible with us because the Bible is clear. We believe in the clarity of the Bible, and the beauty of Christ, as J.D.’s been talking about, shines forth most clearly in the Scripture where Christ is revealed most clearly.
Thanks. We’ve come to the end. So we need to finish up. I just want to say thanks to Thabiti and J.D. And if you guys would like to thank them as well.
J.D. is going to be at the Crossway booth thing, signing books. He doesn’t have very long before he has to catch a flight back home. But if you’d like to go over and meet him and get a copy of his book and get it signed, you can go out over there. With the way you guys ended there, I just want to end by reading this text from Romans 10, and then we’ll pray. So Paul writes, he says,
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:9–17)