One particular Sunday morning numerous testimonies were shared during our corporate worship service. After hearing these testimonies I concluded it would be wise to discuss it that evening during our family worship/devotions. As part of that discussion I read the following to my family, which sheds further light on the testimony, and some of the possible problems that can accompany them: “‘Look At How Jesus Worked For Me!’ (A Reflection on Testimony and Gospel Preaching)”
When giving a testimony, it is important to remember that the person’s experience may be true, and, in fact, we assume to be true or we would not allow them to share as if it were true before God’s people. We do not want to be an accomplice to duplicity or hypocrisy before God or others. But even though it may be true, one’s interpretation (understanding and articulation) of that experience may not be accurate. That is why we need a divine interpretation of an experience so we can understand aright, from God’s perspective, our experience. Experiences are not self-interpreting.
I often refer to the women who found the tomb empty on “the first day of the week,” i.e.. Sunday (Matt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16:1-8; Lk. 24:1-12; Jn. 20:1-18). Their experience was real. The tomb was truly empty. But their interpretation was wrong. Based on their experience they concluded someone stole the body: right and real experience/phenomenon; wrong interpretation. What was necessary? A divine interpretation. The angels rightly interpreted their experience by informing them Jesus had been raised.
In these settings and situations, it is important that we help individual’s to know how to think about, understand and interpret their experiences of being born again (cf. 2 Cor. 5:16-17 where Paul clearly states that prior to being a new creation in Christ, he understood Christ “according to the flesh,” i.e., he thought he was a messianic pretender, certainly not the Son of God. It was only after being born anew did he understand, know and worship Jesus Christ as the God-man.) It carries greater weight because they are now in a situation in which they are publicly communicating this with others. So their personal testimony becomes a teaching which says to those listening what they think about the theology of conversion and the Christian life. I am often deeply saddened by much of what is shared. But in a sense, this is due to “no fault of their own,” but those who are teachers and mentors, as they need to instruct them.
In addition to providing some guidance to those who give testimonies, as noted in my previous post, my practice as I had the privilege of baptizing others also reflected the importance of the gospel and a person’s testimony. It was not a matter of one or the other, but both/and.
How is it I apply testimonies to baptism? When I lead a baptism service, I include both a personal testimony and a recitation of the major questions of the Apostles’ Creed and other aspects of doctrine to ensure the major truths of the Christian faith are articulated and affirmed. This explains the “script” I use when leading baptismal services. I articulate some aspect of doctrinal truth and ask the person being baptized if they affirm those truths.
My concern is that when we only include a personal testimony it is often not clear that the gospel has truly been understood or embraced. And if it truly has and the person has truly experienced the new birth, it is not communicated clearly. Some of that can be expected, and yet some of that ought to be taught. What the person then shares is what is heard by others, and those who hear then conclude that this is what the Christian faith is, or how one becomes a Christian. At the conclusion of some testimonies it is difficult to discern whether the person experienced true salvation through believing and receiving the gospel of Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:12-13) and was granted new birth through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 3:1-10; Tit. 3:4-8), or the person has engaged in a moral improvement plan.
In my pastoral practice, it provides the important and necessary place for the personal testimony, but it also anchors that testimony in the faith once for all entrusted to the saints. I want people present to know what that faith is, as articulated through the doctrinal statements asked in question form which the candidate affirms, and that this faith transforms individual lives, as articulated in the personal testimony.