The truth that is in Jesus

Ok, so we’ve noted the danger of fiting Jesus into a pre-fab system of truth. We don’t want to do that.  But Missy has asked the $64 000 question.  It’s basically this: What do we do when speaking to a non-Christian – isn’t it desirable at least sometimes to bring Christ to them according to their preferred programme?? 

I’m not going to be able to answer this very well.  But I’m just going to give some thoughts as they occur and then I’d love if others chimed in with how they go about this.

My first thought is this:  If we’re doing evangelism then we are necessarily relating Christ to non-Christian thought-forms.  Even if all we do is read out the sermon on the mount it will be heard from within a pre-existing mindset.  What’s more it will be heard as remarkably similar, if not completely continuous, with human philosophies.  Think about it.  We all live in a universe made by, through and for Christ and which proclaims Him in every detail. Everyone is working with the same conceptual raw materials and can do no other than come up with some re-arrangement of Christian truth.  When the pure stuff is brought to bear on discussion people will say ‘Yeah, yeah.  That’s just like X.’

But is it?  And is it ever true to say to a person ‘You know it is just like X.  And I’ll add Y and Z to your X and we’ll build towards saving knowledge of Christ.’

Well let’s think about the nature of truth.  Paul says we find truth in Christ – hidden in Him in fact (Eph 4:21; Col 2:3).  Jesus says He is truth (John 14:6) and even goes so far as to say that God’s word (which He also calls ‘truth’) when not related to Him, leaves people in terrifying ignorance.  (John 5:39f; 17:17). 

Truth is relative.  It stands in strict relation to Christ the Truth (good name for a blog I reckon).  His subjectivity is the one objectivity.  What is there outside of Him in Whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden?  Rearrangements of Christian reality yes – but because of that re-arrangement they are rendered blasphemous falsehoods.  The true test of a proposition is not its conformity to an abstract notion of reality or reason or scientific law.  The true test is its relatedness to Jesus.

It is simply not the case that discrete parcels of truth lie around the universe largely intact.  It is even less true that sinful humanity has some capacity (or inclination!) to assess these propositions, divorced as they are from Christ.  It’s outright Pelagian heresy to imagine that such ‘discrete propositions’ and such ‘objectively assessed’ truth will lead a person to Christ.  Christ leads us into the truth.  Study of abstract truth does not lead us to Christ.

Now, what about non-Christian philosophies?  Can a Christian take a sentence from Homer (either Simpson or the poet!) on their lips and use it to testify to Christ?  Of course!  But in doing so they have vindicated Christ not Homer.  They have not given testimony to the rightness of that proposition in its own context.  They have commandeered it and pressed it into Christ’s service – the service it should have always rendered.  This is precisely the language of 2 Corinthians 10:5 – taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.

In this verse Paul paints the picture of these renegade ‘thoughts’ that have gone AWOL from Christ.  We arrest them and press them back into the Lord’s service.  But what we don’t do is grant these thoughts a civilian existence, as though they’ll do the Lord’s service no matter what uniform they’re wearing.  No.  Either they’re in obedience to Christ (explicitly wearing the uniform) or they’re a pretension setting itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:5).

Ok, but now we’re back to the inescapable problem.  Here is a non-Christian with all their presupposed notions of truth that can only lead them to error.  Now here comes Christ the Truth.  And we’ve already conceded that the non-Christian cannot but hear Christ according to their presupposed notions.  So what do we do?

Well here’s one tempting response.  Simply oppose everything they say.  They buy into post-modernism – we counter with modernism.  They’re comfortable with irrational claims – we respond with rationalism.  They say ‘truth is relative’ – we insist ‘truth is absolute.’  They indulge in immorality – we preach morality.  Well you may well get a discussion going.  But have you brought them to Christ?  Or to the 1950s? 

Tim Keller ministers among the groovy lefties of Manhattan.  What’s his approach?  Traditional religious values?  No, as he likes to say the bible is not left wing or right wing – it’s from above.  Whatever we say into these debates must make that clear.

Another thought.  Jesus did not come onto the world stage addressing ‘universal human concerns’.  He wasn’t born into the Areopagus as the Ultimate Philosopher.   He did not open with: ‘We all know the truth about relationships, money, power etc.  I’ve come to bring you the ultimate experience of these.’  No.  He comes specifically and almost exclusively onto the Jewish scene, addressing Jewish hopes and concerns.  He comes as Messiah into a very specific, encultered setting which He had been meticulously preparing for Himself for centuries.  A people had been formed, a law had been given, a land, kings, prophets, priests, the Scriptures.  And the understanding, ideals, hopes and problems of this people are actually quite strange to the natural ear.

They worried about ceremonial cleanness and atoning sacrifice; about land and exile; about Sabbath and the throne of David.  They were a particular people with particular patriarchs and a particular God called Yahweh who was (and is), among other things, their tribal deity.  They were concerned about His particular promises – His covenant – and their particular fulfilment.  The Jesus-shaped hole at the heart of Israel was a very peculiar shape indeed – at least to modern sensibilities.  It is, in many ways, very different to what contemporary evangelists consider as the Jesus-shaped hole of today’s ‘enquirer’. 

And so when the LORD incarnate comes as His own Prophet, He does a couple of peculiar things that we modern evangelists don’t really do.  First He comes in fulfilment of the Scriptures.  All the Gospel writers do this but Matthew especially introduces Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament.  Here is the One at the centre of this history and this people and these hopes.  Do we present Jesus like that? 

The other peculiar thing Jesus does is to begin by saying ‘Repent and believe the gospel.’  That’s not His punchline – that’s His opener.  ‘Repent and believe the gospel’ He commands.  And then He unpacks the life of the kingdom.  On those terms He speaks of relationships, money, power etc.  First the beatitudes – the gatehouse to the kingdom – then a description of this kingdom life.

What would evangelism look like that followed this pattern?  Something like this I think: “You’ve been speaking to me about love / freedom / fear / power / addiction / sexuality / abortion / capital punishment / healthcare / education / the state / animal rights / whatever.  Jesus has a lot to say on those issues but I’m going to have to back up from our discussion and give you a bird’s eye view.  Let me give you the bible’s view on X in three minutes.”  If your friend isn’t willing to do this then they’re not willing to have a serious discussion anyway.  Present your biblical theology of the issue with Jesus at the centre.  Now Jesus is your non-negotiable.  He is the vantage point from which you address the subject.  He is not in question – everything else is.  Even use language like “For the sake of argument, work with me on this.  I’m describing Christ’s universe – He made all things, He came into the world to reconcile them etc etc…  Doesn’t that explain perfectly what we find when it comes to X?’

What you don’t want to do is say ‘X is absolutely true.  Now please investigate Jesus and I hope you find that He fits the criteria already established by X.’  I find Karl Barth’s warning on this particularly salient:

The great danger of apologetics is “the domesticating of revelation… the process of making the Gospel respectable. When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it and peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it inoccuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control.” (II/1, p141)

More Barth quotes here.

Anyway I’ve got a few more things to say but I’ve rambled on too long.  Maybe a worked example or two would help.  Perhaps that’s what I’ll blog next.

But I’ll leave it there for now.  What do you think?

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Posted on by Glen in apologetics, evangelism, theological method

About Glen

I'm a preacher in Eastbourne, married to Emma.

20 Responses to The truth that is in Jesus

  1. The Orange Mailman

    Glen and Missy-

    It’s a very interesting subject covering something that we do without even thinking about it. It’s like the famous painting of the last supper from the perspective of an Italian. It looked nothing like what the last supper would have looked like because it was from the point of view of a completely different culture.

    Now I realize you are coming at this from a different angle than what I’m going to present, but there is a correlation eventually. I went to a presentation at a local Christian university with three speakers. Scot McKnight who blogs at Jesus Creed, Dr. David Turner, and Dr. Ruth Tucker all spoke. The subject was “What is the gospel?” Dr. Ruth Tucker gave a talk on contextualization versus confrontation.

    She opened with missionaries’ efforts overseas a couple centuries ago. She spoke of how they made the mistake of trying to convert Eastern cultures to Western thinking before presenting them with the gospel. In these missionaries’ minds, these foreigners had to become Western in their thinking in order to understand the message they had to offer.

    But then she turned her attention to confrontation pointing out the materialism rampant here in the United States. (England probably doesn’t struggle with that, do they?) She equated materialism with a form of idolatry having harsh words for the word-faith movement and the likes of Joel Osteen. She called for the need to confront our generation with their sinfulness in our presentation of the gospel.

    She also had some words for the emergent movement saying that they haven’t just changed the methods of reaching people, they’ve changed the message. The gospel message should confront people with their sinfulness. Our lives should be filled with humility to point people to the fact that God will destroy all sinfulness.

    So in my mind, Glen’s post is right on. Yes, all things testify to Christ the Truth, but do they leave part of the truth out? There is a wonderful Creator, but there is also a Holy God who has no choice but to demonstrate wrath against sin. We have to be careful in our contextualization of the gospel to not change the message, and not shy away from the fact that the gospel message confronts mankind. It creates a conflict. Jesus’ messages did not leave room for neutral ground. He made you decide. And like the old “Rush” song, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

    Does this make a difference on my route as I deliver the mail? Most of the time, no. I occasionally get the chance to talk about God, but I’m usually just trying to get a couple words in before I move to the next stop.

    Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

    P.S. Christ the Truth would be a great name for a blog. Too bad it’s already taken. But how about another phrase from up there like “Jesus is your non-negotiable.”

  2. Dev

    Heya Glen

    good to see you back
    yea totally agree that when people see they are ‘sick’ – then we bring in the true Physician to their specific condition and nothing less or more

    but what if they don’t see that they need a Saviour?
    the Puritans then used to then ‘lash with the law’
    or just shake off the feet and go find someone else who needs it… ?

  3. Pete Myers

    Glen,

    I think I totally agree with you.

    At least if I think I hear you outlining Kuyperian/Van Tillian presuppositional apologetics, then I definitely and most certainly do agree with you.

    I wonder, then, if we could put it simply like this, there’s two things you do in evangelism:

    1) Demonstrate the complete failure of the non-Christian’s worldview to make sense of the world…
    2) Then demonstrate how Christ makes perfect sense of the world.

    (Though one minor quibble – Being a postmillenialist, I think that a Christ-centred worldview affects everything… and has implications for everything – including, therefore, politics.)

  4. glenscriv

    Hi Orange,
    You know I never twigged that you are an actual mailman! (The clue’s in the name really!!). I’ll pray for you ‘getting a couple of words in’ on your rounds. Words are powerful things!

    That sounds like a fascinating presentation you were at. What was the university?

    Glen

  5. glenscriv

    Hi Dev,

    Preaching the law definitely has it’s place. It’s a major part of portraying Jesus as the Jewish Messiah – ie the Saviour of this people who were given and who broke this law. Unless we understand Jesus as Saviour then we misunderstand Him, therefore sin has a big part to play in gospel presentations.

    I’m sure I’ll post on preaching law-gospel at some point so I won’t try to say everything. But two points occur to me linked to the current post:

    1) We’ve seen how whatever we say ‘before’ we speak of Christ sets the parameters for who we allow Christ to be. Let’s make sure we’re not setting up a lopsided paradigm into which we fit Jesus. The danger is that we say BC = law so the good thing about Jesus is that He solves the law thing. But there was more than law to the OT. There was covenant too. But if Jesus is only portrayed as the Fulfilment of the law and not also and much more the undergirding covenant in which God desires to draw near to us then we are left at the end of our gospel presentation with ‘Phew, Jesus has saved me from the curse of the law… now what!’ But Christ comes in the flesh as the fulfilment of the divine covenant – to draw us near, to give us the blessings promised to Abraham etc (Gal 3 gives the balance really well – Jesus not only takes away the curse but brings us the blessings). I wonder whether straight law-gospel preaching is one reason why evangelicals tend to have a decent grasp of propitiation but not adoption. Just a thought.

    2) Definitely conviction of sin is intergral to evangelism. But let’s make sure we don’t depend on some abstract ‘conscience ‘ that we’re trying to arouse. If it’s revelation (ie if it’s news from the bible) then preach it. But if it’s trying to tap into a natural sense of guilt or abstrat moral failure (easy to do), I don’t think that’s Spirit-given conviction.

    A couple of thoughts anyway

    Glen

  6. glenscriv

    Hi Pete,
    I certainly have appreciated the insights of Van Til and presuppositional apologetics – taking total depravity seriously, the noetic effects of sin, the impossibility of neutrality etc.

    So in seeking to uphold those kinds of convictions I’d probably want to resist seeing evangelism as a two-stage process. I don’t know if that’s what you had in mind with 1) ‘Then’ 2) (perhaps you see them as basically one thing, in which case we are in agreement). But I don’t think I’d phrase it as two discrete stages. I wouldn’t know how to do 1) without assuming 2) if you see what I mean. If Christ is the Truth, then to assess the falsehood of the non-Christian world-view I’m going to have to do it from the vantage point of Christ.

    That kind of thing.

    Glen

  7. Pete Myers

    Glen,

    Hmmm… sort of see what you mean.

    I guess there’s different ways of talking about something.

    So, in one sense, they happen at the same time and are the same thing. In another sense they’re not.

    So, I’m fine saying this to a Muslim: “But the Qu’ran says that even Muhammed has to ask for forgiveness 3 times, so you’re claim that he is the ultimate example to follow doesn’t square up does it? At least on those 3 occasions, he isn’t. Whereas… Jesus never asked for forgiveness, because he was perfect… which stacks up perfectly with his claims to be God, and to die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin.”

    Obviously I’m not saying that’s “the gospel in a nutshell”, but it’s a demonstration of that “stepping into” the Islamic worldview, in order to demonstrate that it falls down on it’s own terms, and then “stepping back” into the Christian worldview to positively assert it’s merits.

    So that sort of happens on two levels. If I just asserted the stuff about Christ against the claim my Muslim friend made about Muhammed, then Christ would not shine forth as brightly, because the blackness of what he’s being compared to would not have been revealed.

    That is as opposed to what we so often do, and step into the non-Christian worldview and try and argue to Jesus positively *from* there! Which is not right, I don’t think, and from what I could tell is what you are logically rejecting in your posts?

    Yours in Christ
    Pete

  8. glenscriv

    Pete. Nice. I’m all for compare and contrast but that is necessarily looking at 1) and 2) together.

    You say: “That is as opposed to what we so often do, and step into the non-Christian worldview and try and argue to Jesus positively *from* there! Which is not right, I don’t think, and from what I could tell is what you are logically rejecting in your posts?”

    Yes indeed. It’s not like there are naturally known criteria for what makes Jesus Lord. The cross stands in stark opposition to that idea. For the Muslim the cross is the natural and obvious proof He’s not Lord (His incarnation another!). Yet for us, informed by the Spirit’s testimony to the Son, it’s the proof He is Lord! cf 1 Cor 2 – which I believe are some of your favourite verses!

  9. Dev

    yup don’t worry.. only Christ is preached or talked about here =)

    probably not law-gospel preaching, but again a deficiency of sin – as in its not just wrong doing, but total slavery, and angelic dominion etc..
    then it means you are now a slave to Christ, so your first question should be, “now what shall I do for you Lord?”

  10. The Orange Mailman

    Hey Glen-

    That’s okay. It took me awhile to figure out that you’re a minister. It was Cornerstone University and I believe you can still listen online to the four talks that were given.

    http://grts.cornerstone.edu/resources/tpoints/fa06

    Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  11. Missy

    Glen, I have been down from any heavy blogging due to a cruel virus. I just got my PC back. :D

    I am reading through this and find it full of good things – post and comments. I just wanted to say before I dig in and respond with what I am sure will be childish questions, that I am truly grateful to you for considering my question!

  12. Tim V-B

    Keller describes an interesting way of thinking about this question. He wants preachers to ask “what are the stories that people are living?” and “how do they find a happy ending only in Jesus?”

    1 Corinthians 1 explains. Jews looked for signs of power and Greeks looked for wisdom. Jesus BOTH destroys their view of power / wisdom AND is the true power / wisdom of God. Could you go to Corinth and say, “Hey, you like Wisdom. Jesus is the best Wisdom”? Yes and no. You are showing Corinthians that their search for wisdom will be foolish until they go to Christ, but he will subvert their entire notion of wisdom.

    Maybe in an area where people long for homes, working hard to pay the mortgage and endlessly doing DIY to get the perfect house, a way of connecting might be to say that the only true Home you will find is Jesus, but that he built his House by being homeless and abandoned on the cross.

    There’s an article here which gives some more info:
    http://www.redeemer2.com/themovement/issues/2004/oct/deconstructing.html

    He argues for a sandwich:
    1. Explain the gospel vividly so that the person wants the gospel to be true.
    2. Dismantle plausibility structures
    3. Offer a fuller explanation of the gospel.

  13. glenscriv

    Hi Orange,

    “It took me awhile to figure out that you’re a minister.”

    I’m glad! ;-)

    And thanks too for the link I’ll definitely follow that up.

    Glen

  14. glenscriv

    Missy,
    Sorry about the virus. Note to self: technology does not sidestep the curse – it intensifies it!!

    Glad for you to be asking the questions which are anything but childish. (And anyway no-one can throw a brilliant theological curve ball like a six year old – so maybe childlikeness aint such a bad thing).

    Glen

  15. glenscriv

    Hi Tim,
    Thanks for the Keller stuff. I think he sometimes wants to answer your ‘Yes and No’ with a little more ‘Yes’ than I’m comfortable with but he’s always tremendously stimulating. 1 Cor 1&2 is IT!

    I like your ‘gospel to the DIY generation’.

  16. Pingback: A thousand posts in a thousand words « Christ the Truth

  17. Ephrem Hagos

    Presentation of the absolute CLAIM of Jesus by other way than the great PROOF of his immortality, promised in visions at his death on the cross (John 14: 6-21), is nothing but deception!

  18. Michael

    Very interesting post!
    Really enjoyed reading this and thinking about this.
    What would you say about 1 peter 3:15? If someone said can you give me some reasons why you think Christianity is true? Or do you just assume it is and work from there?

    And also you seem to be saying that giving intellectual reasons for belief, the reliability of teh Gospels, arguments for God’s existence etc don’t work because an unregenate mind has no framework to accept Christ?
    But that’s more of an argument against evangelism than anything else, surely! You are basically saying that we cannot believe without our minds being renewed, which I agree with (“no-one can you ‘Christ is Lord’ w.o the HS”), but the fact is that God can use anything to bring people to Him. Which is why he commands us to give reasons for the hope we have rather than just assuming it, as well as the fact that Paul and Peter in their debates proved Christ from the scriptures as well as using historical evidence, “You have seen Him yourselves” as evidence for the resurrection!

    And if squeezing Christ into an unbeliever’s framework is unbiblical why does Paul do exactly that in his sermon to the greeks where he proclaims that Christ is their ‘unknown God’? He doesn’t say, “your whole worldview is wrong”, instead he takes them from where they are, and guides them from what they already know, right?

  19. Glen

    Hey Michael,

    I’ve written quite a lot on those issues on the blog. Don’t really know where to begin.

    I certainly believe there are reasons to believe in Jesus. We just need to make sure we’re giving people the right reasons to believe. This is Paul’s great concern in 1 Cor 1-2

    See especially:

    1 Cor 2:4-5: My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

    As he’ll later say in the letter – there’s a way of building with wood, hay and stubble. It might look impressive but it has no lasting value. Paul proclaims Christ and Him crucified. It looks foolish to some – but for those convinced it is powerful to save.

    The reasons for the hope we have are many – Christ is risen, His Word is true, His Spirit is active.

    I think we read Acts 17 quite differently. I see Paul as completely mocking their “religiosity” (superstition, more like). They have even enshrined their ignorance and worshipped it. That’s the one thing they know – that they dont know God. So then, says Paul, let me declare to you what you do not know. And then Paul tells them a very alien story – About a God who creates the world, who populates it through one man and who will judge it through Another. That is nothing like their world view. In fact, earlier (when we imagine Paul was saying similar things) they thought he was a “babbler” talking of strange gods.

    But… some believed. This is the way with all evangelism. I’m quite into evangelism myself, so happy to talk about this some more.

    I see that you’re studying my subject by the way! There are many similarities between PPE and the Areopagus!! :)

  20. woldeyesus

    The truth that is in Jesus, a.k.a., “source of life” for mankind with ever shining “light” in the darkness, is practically defined on the cross in the “finished” vision of Jesus Christ as eternal life or the “God of the living” for taking many captives (John 1: 4-5; 6: 62-64; 19: 30-37; Eph. 4: 7-13)

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