If you missed earlier posts in this series, “Truth & Love: Communicating Gospel Truth In Speech & Action,” you can find them here: Truth & Love Series. Today’s post is from Jeremiah Montgomery, one of the pastors at Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Vandalia, OH. He is previously a foreign missionary in the OPC, and former OPC church planter in State College, PA. Here’s Jeremiah:
What does Jesus mean to you today?
I have now had the same experience on two different continents.
The first time was when I was living in central Pennsylvania. I was meeting for English practice with my friend ‘David’ from Iran. The conversation steered toward religious topics, and I presented an argument for which David had no refutation. His father had been jailed by the mullahs back home, and he had therefore developed a bad taste for religion. My argument may have been unanswerable – but he was unmoved. But then he asked me, “Why do you believe in God?”
In reply, I admitted that I had been raised in the church and taught to believe. But, I insisted, these factors were not the reason I still believed. I don’t remember my exact words, but I said something like this: “When I look at the world, seeing all the order wired into the universe, I simply cannot believe that it is random.” It was a simple answer, honestly given.
I still remember David’s response. My personal confession carried more force than all my abstract arguments, and he visibly leaned back in his seat. “That’s why I say I am an agnostic,” he said. In that moment, the veil of his heart had been shaken – not by philosophy, but by testimony.
The second time was when I was living in East Asia. For nearly a semester, ‘Richard’ had been attending my free English class based on the Bible and a modernized text of the Shorter Catechism. Toward the end of my time in his city, Richard invited me into his home for one-on-one Bible study. In class, Richard loved to play the skeptic: “How can I know this is true?” he would ask over and over regarding the same topics, no matter how many times he had been supplied with the answers.
But one day as I was meeting with him in his home, the question came as to why I believed the Bible. In answer, I said something like the following: “I was raised to believe in the Bible, but I have not had the amazing experiences that some people can report. Yet I could not walk away from the Bible. It would haunt me if I tried. The Bible simply makes sense of everything: of the world, of history, of sin, and of me.”
As with David, so I will never forget Richard’s response. Though for so long he had publicly professed agnosticism regarding the Bible and its truths, that afternoon in private he admitted to me something profound: for several months now, he had known that the Bible has power – which is why he had been avoiding reading it! Again, confession touched a part of him that instruction alone could not pierce.
Lest any reader get the wrong idea, let me say at this point that I am not opposed to formal apologetics or the use of reason in seeking to remove obstacles to faith. I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and I love discussing the foundations and consequences of ideas! As my congregants have heard me say many times, I believe that “under every hard question is a hidden assumption,” and that unearthing such assumptions can be one of the means God uses to defeat so-called “defeater beliefs” and break down resistance to the gospel message. I have often commended the works of Tim Keller in this vein, especially his Encounters with Jesus and The Reason for God.
So I am not saying that formal apologetics has no use. What I am saying is that there is a power in personal witness that, in my experience, has proven superior to abstract reasoning. With enough academic training, even an avowed pagan can tell you what Christians believe Jesus means for metaphysics or epistemology. But only a Christian can say to somebody, “This is what Jesus means to me.” There is an authenticity and immediacy to the latter that the former simply lacks. I think this is what my friends found so compelling.
I believe this is also what Peter means when he instructs believers in his well-known passage: “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you,” (1 Pet. 3:15). Yes, it’s true that the word translated here as ‘defense’ (Gk: apologia) seems to have a formal, even legal sense to it in the New Testament (cf. Acts 22:1, 25:16). However, in this case does not the context call for something deeper and more personal when Peter speaks of “a reason for the hope that is in you”?
Let me give another example. Growing up and as a young man, I frequently struggled with obsessive-compulsive tendencies – though I was never formally diagnosed. Then one day I came across a booklet about OCD that pointed me to the perfection of Jesus Christ. I no longer own the book, nor do I remember the exact quote, but the basic point was simple: “you don’t have to be perfect or make the world perfect, because Jesus is perfect for you – and someday he make all the world perfect, too.” It was a transformative insight: what had once been mostly abstract suddenly became very personal; my theology became my testimony.
The task of gospel communication essentially involves two components. The first of these involves making the gospel clear. Doing this does not mean we discard complex theological terms; it simply means we should always be careful to define them:
You must translate every bit of your Theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.
The second component of gospel communication is making the gospel connect. We cannot change any person’s heart, of course. But we must always strive to help them understand not just what the truth means, but also why it matters.
I suggest to my readers that both of these components can be brought together simply and powerfully through the use of personal testimony as I have described above. Let us not be content simply to speak of sin as a theological truth; let us pray to understand, and confess how, sin has poisoned us and damaged our lives. We need not ever be gratuitous; but let us never be content to remain abstract! Likewise, let us then pray to understand, strive to apply, and share how, Jesus Christ and his work have covered and changed these very sins.
What I am describing is not some contrived program or an embellished narrative. Rather, I am describing what perhaps we could simply call a “today testimony.” Whenever God gives you the relational capital and conversational opportunity to answer questions about why you believe, my encouragement to you is to steer clear of abstractions. Instead, answer one simple question: “What does Jesus mean to you today?” Right now, here in the present – amidst all your immediate failures, flaws, and selfish impulses – how does his performance and perfection giving you living hope?
 C.S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics” in God in the Dock (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 98.