Introducing Islam (4)
Malcolm Steer, Kingston upon Thames, England
In the previous three articles we have considered some of the differences between Islam and the gospel, some of the mis-understandings concerning the Christian message and some of the objections raised by Muslims against the gospel.
In this final article we want to concentrate in a positive way on how we can share the gospel with someone from a Muslim background. What are the unique aspects of the gospel message that particularly relate to a Muslim seeker? Of course, as Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, this means that a Muslim will have the same spiritual needs as anyone else. In fact, this encourages us to persevere in evangelism, even amongst those who strongly oppose the message. One has only to read the testimonies of firmly convinced Muslims who eventually became followers of Christ to realize that this is the case. But there are some very specific ways in which the gospel message relates to Muslims.
1. Knowledge of God: explaining the concept of revelation and how the one true God reveals Himself through Christ
Many Muslims are sincerely seeking after God. The God of Islam is often perceived as being so great and powerful that he becomes remote and impersonal. Religion is simply a tightly defined legalistic system rather than a relationship of love between God as Creator and human beings as the created. Many Muslims try to satisfy the desire for personal religious experience through mysticism, known in Islam as Sufism. We can share how the one personal God who loves us and who desires a relationship with human beings has revealed Himself to us in a personal way through Christ, so that we might come to know Him as our heavenly Father. It is here, therefore, that we should share about the uniqueness of Christ and emphasize the fact that we not only believe that God reveals His will but that He reveals Himself, ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’, John 14. 9.
For this reason, testimonies such as I dared to call Him Father, written by Bilquis Sheikh, originally published in 1978 and which is still available in English and numerous other languages, have helped many to realize that it is possible to call God ‘Father’ and to know Him in this way.
2. Forgiveness of sins: explaining the concept of atonement and how the one true God forgives us through Christ’s sacrifice
Both Islam and Christianity call on people to repent, but such a call depends on the concept of sin, that is, on what one is called to repent from. Muslims believe they are sinners because of some evil that they have committed, and not because of original sin or the nature of their hearts. Therefore, in Islam the call is to repent from infringements of the ritual and moral code and to seek to wipe out small sins by good deeds.
We need to explain carefully the biblical concept of sin and show that the forgiveness we need is more than the cancellation of bad debts in a great book of accounts. It is of the utmost importance to explain to Muslims that, like everybody else, they are rebels against God, because of their very thoughts, speech and life. Everyone, therefore, needs forgiveness in order that a right relationship between God and the individual can be established for sin separates us from God. But how thankful we are that on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice, and only on this basis, we can experience true forgiveness and be brought into fellowship with God. In actual fact many a Muslim is plagued by guilt feelings over wrongs committed and is sincerely seeking for assurance of forgiveness. But the importance and relevance of Christ’s work will only be understood and appreciated when the true character of God and the reality and character of sin are understood correctly.
3. Assurance of salvation: distinguishing between law and grace as the basis of acceptance before God
Both Islam and Christianity teach that God forgives sin, but the basis of forgiveness is different. In Islam, salvation rests upon one’s own shoulders and obedience to the law, while in Christianity it rests purely and solely upon the grace of God. Islam tells a person what they must do to earn salvation; the gospel tells a person what God has done to give them salvation. In Islam there is therefore no assurance of salvation, for in this world Muslims cannot know for certain whether God has destined them for paradise or hell. As a response, it would be appropriate to say that, although we do not consider ourselves to deserve God’s forgiveness, yet on the basis of the cross, God offers us salvation to be received as a gift by faith and to emphasize that good works are important in Christian living, but that our salvation is not dependent upon these works.
Some years ago, the testimony of an Indian Muslim convert was printed in English where this need of assurance was emphasized in the title of the booklet. It is called In Search of Assurance and it has been translated into other languages. The author was well versed in the Qur’an, and Islamic doctrine, but he shows how that during the period when he was a firm believer in Islam he never had the certainty that God had accepted him.
4. Change of heart: distinguishing between outward reform and inward change.
In many Islamic countries a determined effort is under way, by the Islamic leaders, to bring their society more in line with the principles, laws and regulations of Islam. Sometimes such actions bring the religious hierarchy into conflict with certain sections of the population, which react and rebel against a new Islamic fundamentalism that seems so negative and restrictive.
This illustrates the teaching of Christ in Mark chapter 7 verses 14 to 23, where we learn that what defiles human beings is a corrupt heart, which cannot be changed by mere outward reform. People are unable to make a new character for themselves. They cannot make an evil desire become good or change a love for sin into a love for righteousness. We can share, therefore, that only new life and power from God can change a person and give that person the capacity to live a life of righteousness in obedience to the will of God.
It is for this reason that in evangelism among Muslims, I have used the encounter of Christ with the two on the Emmaus road, as found in Luke chapter 24, probably more than any other passage of scripture in order to explain the gospel:
Firstly, it shows how these two people, like many others in that day, were disillusioned and upset in view of the fact that the One they had been following had been crucified. They felt there should have been a political victory that would have brought them freedom from their oppressors, v. 21. Why was there no sign of ‘regime change’? Many today are still convinced that force is the only way to bring about reform and change, and within the Muslim world such a conviction is prevalent. Christ’s response is, of course, to explain that His death was no accident and that it was all in accordance with the Old Testament prophecies. But it is only later on that day that He explains why it had to happen.
Secondly, verses 44-47 are some of the most important and relevant verses in the scriptures for Muslims. For it is here that, Christ shows that our primary need is for forgiveness of sins. If only those two on the Emmaus road had realized that contrary to their mistaken views, Jesus was well aware of oppression and injustice, but knowing that the root cause of oppression was the condition of the human heart and separa-tion from God, He had come to deal with this barrier of sin. Therefore, the basic need is not to change the political and social systems of this world but to change the human heart.
Thirdly, Christ clearly shows that this message is for all time and for everyone. Islam has a convenient way of dismissing the relevance of Christ today by saying that He came only for the Jews of that day. How thankful we are that in verse 47, the Lord Jesus does not say, ‘the people of Israel’ even though it includes them, but, ‘all nations’. Today, the need for forgiveness of sins and inner change remains, and the risen, living Christ, who sends us to reach the world, is still in the business of changing people’s lives.
In conclusion, therefore, we need to emphasize what is unique about the gospel of Christ in order that the world of Islam will recognize that Christ is still today the Way, the Truth and the Life and that, ‘Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved’, Acts 4. 12.