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Testimonies (Part 2)

Greg Strand – April 16, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

Testimonies (Part 1)

Greg Strand – April 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Evangelicals value highly personal testimonies. There is good reason for that: the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms lives.

Paul, in one of the most powerful descriptions of the impact of gospel proclamation is found in the letter written to the Thessalonians. The gospel is proclaimed, in other words, the gospel is word-centered. Since it is “good news,” it must be proclaimed. But, as the Holy Spirit applies the completed work of Christ, encapsulated in “the gospel,” it enlivens and empowers the recipients of it.

Paul writes, “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). This gospel-proclamation resulting in gospel transformation is described in a powerful way: “they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:9-10). What we read of the Thessalonians is that not only do they proclaim to others, i.e., they testify, the same gospel they received, others also testify of the transformative effects of the gospel in their lives.

As important as testimonies are, they must not be divorced from the gospel. That is, there is an objective truth to the “faith once for all entrusted to the saints” that is foundational to one’s receiving and believing it that results in regeneration in one’s life. Testimonies consist of both: the objective truth of the gospel received which results in a subjective, experiential transformation in one’s life. Often when sharing testimonies the subjective implications are communicated without acknowledging the truth of the gospel. It can then be heard as moral improvement. It also excludes what it is that makes Christianity unique and distinct from all other religions, that which is of first importance to Christianity: Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-5).

So when sharing testimonies, there are a few things to keep in mind. This is important not only for those of us sharing a personal testimony, but also for those who help others share their testimonies, especially during a church service or prior to a baptism. Not only do we hear the person’s story of God’s work in his/her life, but what they communicate also teaches those who hear something about what we believe about the gospel and regeneration.

As noted above, testimonies are shared during corporate services, often associated with baptism, and we also, because we are a believers’ church movement, are concerned to hear testimonies of potential members since the major requirement is that one be born again, converted, regenerated, a believer, a Christian.

To aid in that process, here is something I wrote for our EFCA membership manual: “Testimony – Sharing the Story of God’s Gospel Applied In My Life.”

 

There are various ways this can be done.

  1. Personal/experiential: The man who was born blind was healed by Jesus. When initially asked by those who knew he had been blind, he responded, “The man called Jesus made mud and anointed by eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed and received my sight” (Jn. 9:11; cf. v. 15). When the former blind man was asked by the Jews again, he replied simply about his testimony and followed it with an evangelistic question: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. . . . Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples?” (Jn. 9:25, 27).
  2. Doctrinal/Theological – Eternal Plan of God: Paul clearly goes all the way back to the plan of God before the creation of anything or anyone. In his great introduction to the saints at Ephesus, he writes that God “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:3-14, cf. esp. v. 4).
  3. Doctrinal/Theological – Eternal Plan of God with a Response. In response to the preaching of the gospel Luke records the following: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:48-49). God’s eternal plan with its focus on Christ must be heard and responded to. The objective truth of the gospel must be subjectively received.

In sum, it is imperative that wherever one starts, it must be stated that there is an objective truth to the gospel, it is God’s gospel, and that truth must be received by grace through faith. If we focus on God’s eternal plan, we must remember the necessity of receiving God’s gospel in one’s life that led to the spiritual transformation. If we begin with one’s personal experience, we must remember that must be divinely interpreted. We not only want to share what God has done in our lives personally, but we also want to teach people through our testimony the biblical truth of true conversion. If there are some present who have not heard or responded to God’s gospel, after hearing your testimony they should know the gospel and be challenged to believe the gospel.