The Gospel and Testimonies
Geoffrey J. Paxton
Soon after my conversion to Christ I found myself part of a small evangelical church group. They placed enormous stress on having a testimony for Christ and giving that testimony in public meeting. And the testimony was always expected to be what the Lord had done or was doing "in my life." Such a testimony was a sure sign of "being right with the Lord and having a close walk with Him." Some older members had assumed the responsibility of asking such questions as, "What is the Lord now doing in your life?" or, "What fresh word has the Lord given you this past week?"
This mentality was not confined to my particular group. It is widespread in evangelical circles. Giving a testimony to what the Lord has done and is doing in the life of the believer is virtually a sacred element in evangelical piety.
The program at the evangelical Bible college of which I was principal is an example of this. It had been the established practice for students to gather for early morning chapel. The former principal would sit up front in a slightly elevated position and look over the silent student body. His eyes would move from person to person until he raised his hand and nominated a particular student. The student would then stand and relate, not some truth quarried from sound exegesis of the biblical text, but some word the Lord had given that very morning in that student's quiet time. Some relished the opportunity. Others sat in fear and trembling. Still others were obviously defiant. But relating a "fresh word from the Lord" was definitely a mark of live spirituality.
It matters little whether the occasion is a chapel meeting, Pentecostal revival meeting, Christian businessmen's breakfast or large-scale evangelistic gathering—testimony is a major element in the piety of evangelicalism.
Such testimonies are given in good faith and with the intention of bringing honor to Christ. But do they really honor Christ, and do they build up the believer? Is it possible that such testimonies neither honor Christ nor strengthen believers? Do they have a seriously counterproductive influence on the church? Raising these questions will be dimly viewed by many evangelicals. But the full and final authority of Scripture and the honor of the Lord of Scripture require such questions.
The Bible Does Not Support Such Testimonies.
There is a true biblical testimony. But the biblical testimony is always to the historical facts of the gospel, whereas the evangelical's testimony is almost always to what the Lord has done or is doing "in my life." In the Bible, testimony is to the historical; in evangelical piety it is usually to the existential and experiential. In the Bible it is to outside-of-me realities; in evangelical piety it is predominantly to inside-of-me phenomena. In the Bible, testimony is to Christ clothed in His gospel; in evangelicalism testimony is to Christ clothed in the evangelical's humanity.
Perhaps the nearest thing in the Bible to an evangelical-type testimony appears in 2 Corinthians 12. Here Paul says he will go on to tell of visions and revelations granted by the Lord (vs. 1). But rather than supporting evangelical-type testimonies, this passage should forever convince us that we should not indulge in them. Paul says, "It does no good" (vs. 1). And then he says he was very foolish to do it (vs. 11). The Corinthians themselves were the ones at fault. They forced Paul's hand (vs. 11). They were carnal, more than a little mesmerized by visions, revelations and "special words from the Lord."
The accent of the biblical testimony is the mighty work of God in King Jesus, the Lord of Lords, who became flesh for us and for our salvation. The focus is on gospel events and not on the internal or existential effects or fruit of the gospel. The biblical spotlight is on historical verities and not on experiential ambiguities.
Evangelical-Type Testimonies Harm Christianity.
1. Evangelical-type testimonies reduce Christianity to whatever offers a marvelous experience. On one side is the guru, on the other the dubious high of the charismatic or some other religious concoction. This is a far cry from the power of God in the gospel.
2. Evangelical-type testimonies severely restrict the sphere of application of Christianity. They miss the healthy, happy pagan. The "healthy, happy pagan" is not only the overtly godless man. Included are respectable persons who sincerely attribute their happy existence to the Maker or some other vague overseer. The healthy, happy pagan may also include the devotee who has experienced great and marvelous things through his religion. He may see Christianity as only one more legitimate way to unity with the Infinite.
3. Evangelical-type testimonies do not engender or strengthen faith. Paul says, "Faith is awakened by the message, and the message that awakens it comes through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17, NEB). The gospel creates faith, and the gospel strengthens faith. Faith itself does not create faith, and faith itself does not strengthen faith. Evangelical-type testimonies present the effect instead of the cause, the fruit instead of the root. True, evangelicals may be emotionally charged by such testimonies. But this is not the same as being strengthened in faith. If it is to be biblical, evangelical testimony should have its eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom faith depends from start to finish (Heb. 12:2, 3).
Evangelical-Type Testimonies Offer the Good Instead of the Best.
When our testimony is fixed on Jesus clothed in His gospel, we will offer both the Christian and non-Christian the best. The follower of the guru may match the wonderful feeling in the believer. But the follower of the guru cannot match the sublime condescension of God-in-the-flesh for human sin.
Our sinister attachment to the effects of the gospel terribly disparages the objective work of God. Dr. Buchanan understood this when he said:
There is, perhaps, no more subtle or plausible error, on the subject of Justification, than that which makes it to rest on the indwelling presence, and the gracious work, of the Holy Spirit in the heart. It is a singularly refined form of opposition to the doctrine of Justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ, for it merely substitutes the work of one divine Person for that of another; and it is plausible, because it seems to do homage to the doctrine of Grace, by ascribing to the presence and operation of the Holy Spirit the production of faith, and all the effects which are ascribed to it, whether these belong to our Justification or to our Sanctification. It is the more difficult to expose and refute error, when it presents itself in this apparently spiritual form, than when it comes before us in its grosser and more common shape, as a doctrine of justification by works, because it involves some great truths which are held as firmly by those who advocate, as by those who abjure, the Protestant doctrine of Justification.... Nothing can be more unscriptural in itself, or more pernicious to the souls of men, than the substitution of the gracious work of the Spirit in us, for the vicarious work of Christ for us, as the ground of our pardon and acceptance with God.1
What Dr. Buchanan here says of justification may be appropriately applied to the focus of evangelical testimony. Insofar as such testimony focuses on the leading of the Lord, it focuses on a good thing. But the good thing becomes a pernicious evil in the hands of the enemy insofar as it does not focus on the best thing for mankind.
Evangelical-Type Testimonies Invest the Word "Saint" with a Roman Catholic Meaning.
Roman Catholicism creates a class of super-Christians called "saints." Evangelical-type testimonies likewise produce a super-Christian class. Certain Christians are marked as those who "have a marvelous testimony."
"Ordinary" Christians may be assured that they should not feel inferior to such evangelical superstars. But the inevitable result of evangelical-type testimonies is that these Christians feel that an inferior work has taken place in them. They may even begin to lust after such an experience and crave to give such a testimony themselves. Even worse, they may be led to believe they can indeed have such an experience and give such a testimony if only they reach the level of commitment the superstar has reached. This is the evangelical counterpart to the Roman Catholic veneration of the saints.
Evangelical-Type Testimonies Belittle the Gospel.
Biblical testimonies focus on the gospel—the doing and dying of the God-Man for us. But evangelical testimonies focus on what God is doing in the believer's life-the work of God the Spirit (presumably) in the heart of the believer. There is an implicit belittling of the cross. Such testimonies often take Bible texts which focus on the gospel and invest them with a meaning related to the inside of the believer. For example, they will quote Galatians 2:20: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me." Then such testimonies imply that there is a higher stage of Christian existence than "mere" faith in the gospel.2 But in this text Paul is actually saying that the power of Christian existence is faith in the Jesus "who loved me, and gave Himself for me"—that is, the historical, objective, gospel Jesus.
One of the most tragic elements of modern evangelicalism is the belittling of the gospel in the interest of what J. Sidlow Baxter has called "God's deeper work in us." In the New Testament the cross is the apex of all human history. But like a child, evangelicals have become infatuated with their own spiritual navels. We may well ponder whether this infatuation comes dangerously close to trampling the Son of God underfoot. We should dare to ask ourselves whether our traditions constitute a formidable barrier to the gospel work of God in the world.
Evangelical-Type Testimonies Place a Heavy Burden on Believers.
In evangelical-type testimonies what Christ has gloriously achieved for the believer as a gift is transferred to the believer as a task. Such evangelical legalism is crushing. It leads many Christians to a life of pretense. No Christian is what he should be. And few Christians are on the inside what they are on the outside. This approach to witness plunges other Christians into terrible guilt and sense of failure. It has a debilitating effect on their psycho-physical makeup and has turned many from the way of discipleship.
A legalistic "gospel" leads to a legalistic witness and to either a pretentious and smug self-righteousness or to an enervating, life-sapping, joy-destroying existence. Only the liberating gospel can resolve this terrible dilemma.
Evangelical-Type Testimonies Lessen Enthusiasm for Evangelism.
For all the contemporary emphasis on evangelism, many Christians are reluctant to participate in the evangelistic task. A life of pretense in the interest of being a good witness will gnaw at us like a cancerous growth. On the other hand, if we are smugly self-righteous, with little or no appreciation for original sin, most sane, healthy pagans will not be fooled and our so-called witness will likewise be ineffective. Could it be that our zeal for evangelism or lack thereof is directly connected with our understanding of the gospel and what it demands of us concerning evangelism?
Much of our modern preoccupation with evangelism only expresses our propensity to deal with symptoms rather than with the real problem. The time has come to stop treating symptoms and go to the heart of the disease. It lies in our understanding of the message of Christianity and of what Christian testimony really is. Only when we rectify things at this point will we remove the evangelical lethargy concerning evangelism.
What the church needs is a clearer grasp of the liberating and zeal-producing gospel. Those who receive the gospel will be like Peter and John. Their response will be, "We cannot but speak..." (Acts 4:20).
The True Biblical Testimony
Let us note some characteristics of testimonies that honor Christ and build up the believer.
1. True biblical testimony is to the historical facts of the gospel. The Bible itself is a testimony to the mighty invasion of this world by God Himself in Christ. St. John opens his First Epistle with these words:
It was there from the beginning; we have heard It; we have seen It with our own eyes; we looked upon It, and felt It with our own hands; and it is of this we tell. Our theme is the Word of Life. This Life was made visible; we have seen It and bear our testimony; we here declare to you the Eternal Life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we declare to you, so that you and we together may share in a common Life, that Life which we share with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. And we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete.—1 John 1:1-4.
The focus of this passage is typical of the entire Bible. If we testify to the historical verities of the gospel, our testimonies will stand in this tradition.
2. True biblical testimony is testimony that highlights the universal applicability of Christianity. The gospel will be seen to be relevant to prince and peasant, to the professor and the unlearned, to the unhappy and even to the happy and contented man of this world. But when we equate the essence of Christianity with a particular class or feeling, we limit the application of the gospel.
In testifying to the doing and dying of the God-Man for a sinful and dying world, we are offering the best that can be offered to this world. Only the saving power of God in the gospel can match the horrible dilemma of all men.
3. True biblical testimony gives a true picture of the believer. Gospel testimonies will show that we are sinners forgiven through the matchless mercy of God. Evangelical-type testimony tragically neglects the somber and sobering truth of original sin. The Christian emerges as a type of superstar, a hero who has linked arms with God. But the apostle John wrote, "If we claim to be sinless, we are self-deceived and strangers to the truth" (1 John 1:8, NEB). The Bible and good theology have always claimed that our best deeds are polluted through and through. Even at our most heavenly point we are more earthly and devilish than we would believe.
The emphasis on being a forgiven sinner prohibits a thoughtless glorying in our sin or an unrelenting pessimism over it.
4. True biblical testimony gives the experience of the believer its proper place. After stating the biblical nature of testimony—testimony to the doing and dying of the God-Man for us—we are often asked, "Is there no place for talking about our own experience?" There is a place for speaking about the Christian's experience. But under no circumstances should we major on our experience, whether good or bad. Nor should it be the focus of our testimony or our preaching.
5. True biblical testimony is a great leveler in the church. In its concentration on the doing and dying of the God-Man, true biblical testimony is a testimony that every saint can give. True testimony will exhibit the power of God to unregenerate existence outside the church and to unregenerate elements within it.
To discard the traditional evangelical-type testimony will be a sign of repentance within the evangelical church. This will bring great honor and glory to God and will help and encourage His children. According to our understanding of the gospel, so will our testimony be.
1 James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), pp.387.88.
2 V. Raymond Edman, They Found the Secret (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973).