We have heard it said, "life is a journey." Coming to faith in Jesus is often a journey of many steps....for all peoples. Some of us have a long way to travel. Here are two stories worlds apart.
The story is told of a Muslim woman who came to follow Jesus after years of Bible study. Today as a follower of Jesus, and a highly gifted evangelist, it is reported that she often says, “my people have always had God (Allah), the problem is they have been without a savior! Now Alhamdulilah (“praise be to God”), through Jesus my people and I have eternal life, and we know more fully the God we have always cried out to.”
Another story. I grew up on Long Island in a spiritually dysfunctional home. My mother, a devout Roman Catholic, would drag my siblings and I to church religiously. It seemed there was always a Saints Day requiring we attend mass. Weekly Confession behind the curtain was part of the ritual. My father, an agnostic, would often bash the catholic church at the family dinner table. Dad only went to church at our 1st communions, confirmations, weddings and family funerals.
At the age of eighteen, and spiritually confused, I rejected religion and became an atheist. I had a mental construct about God before I rejected that concept. God was cruel (what kind of God would require a young teenage boy to go to confession every Saturday and be appeased by seven “Our Fathers" and five “Hail Mary’s”). God was watching my every move ready to strike me down for my youthful indiscretions. Who needed such a god, if one even existed?
I didn’t want any part of God so I turned away from my concept about God to no God. Jesus was a myth, not unlike the tales of Paul Bunyon or Johnny Appleseed. Ancient man needed some hope to hold on to and somewhere along history created this idea about an all-powerful deity. But there was no evidence for God that I could find at the time. The universe was all there was.
My wife, Debbie, grew up in a traditional Methodist home. Her family went to church together every Sunday. God was real, beliefs about Jesus were taught, and I even visited her church from time to time. I found it dry and boring but since I wanted to be with my then girlfriend I occasionally went along. I had some concept of God as distant but to be worshipped, if that was what you were taught. Jesus was the incarnate (at Christmas), crucified and resurrected (at Easter) “savior of the world” but I had no idea what that meant.
In September 1984, prior to getting married, we were at a weekend convention. On Sunday morning we were encouraged to attend a “non-denominational worship service,” whatever that was. Over 10,000 people packed a stadium to listen to a “Gospel message.” I had never heard one before. The preacher was informing us that if we didn’t know Jesus we had a better get an “asbestos suit” because it was going to get hot where we were heading. He instructed us to come forward and we could be “saved” by getting our “fire insurance.” I went forward.
There is more to my personal testimony over the next 12 years but suffice it say Jesus remained a distant idea. It was not until January 23rd, 1997, at the age of 36, that I came to faith in Christ, surrendering my life to his Lordship. That evening I cried out to God, “God, if you’re real you need to change things!”
My point here is that I had a changing, developing, often confused concept of God throughout my life prior to my “coming to Christ.” Because I lived in a western culture my concept of God was informed by a Christianized worldview. But it wasn’t until that evening, alone and broken in my car, that I cried out for God to reveal himself to me that he finally did. I learned much about God over the next year as I devoured the Bible, reading from cover to cover a few times. That cemented my faith.
There are not multiple Gods who changed with my understanding. My rejection or wrong ideas about God didn’t change who God is. My “born-again” experience on that cold evening in the January 1997 did begin to change how I understood God. I had an experience with the living God, a new revelation birthed in my heart, as the work of the Holy Spirit. And, then it all began to make sense. I still needed to learn, to grow, to study, to pray for God to reveal even more of himself to me.
One day Jesus sat down at Jacobs well and a Samaritan woman was there. A fascinating conversation ensued. The Samaritans were a despised Abrahamic people. Jesus tells this woman, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22). Jesus revealed himself to this woman and explained who he was in relation to what little she understood about God.
Salvation is not a work of mental assent, trying to figure out who God is. Salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) revealing who God is for us through Christ (John 1:18) that changes everything (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are all given a natural revelation through the creation that tells us something about God (Romans 1:19). Our concept of God gets distorted and twisted by sin and demonic influence but that concept is there, in every human heart (Romans 2:15), so that we are without excuse (Romans 1:20).
Notice what Jesus does not say to the Samaritan women. He does not say, “You Samaritans are worshiping another god” or “You Samaritans are worshiping a false god.” Or worse, “You Samaritans are worshipping Satan.” Rather he simply says, “You don’t understand God yet so I will tell you about him…He’s me!” Until we are "saved," until Christ is revealed, God makes little sense. But that doesn't change who God is.
We need to embrace the idea, for the sake of the Great Commission, that others, like Muslims, actually do have a concept about the one true God. It may be a wrong idea or an incomplete idea. They do not worship in "spirit and truth" for they cannot worship what they do not know "more fully." It's our task to tell them the Good News so that they do know.
The significant point, found in the ministry of Jesus and the Apostle Paul (Acts 17), is that people do worship God in ignorance__ until Christ is revealed. Our responsibility in Christ is to make known the God who is there.
The Gospel is God, the Father desiring to have a relationship with us, revealed in Christ, the Son, who has made a way to understand his plan and purposes through the Holy Spirit. Jesus is revealed in the Bible so we can find him there and the Holy Spirit opens our minds to understand the Word of God.
There is much debate over whether Allah and God are the same but we're asking the wrong question. First, Arabic Christians and Jews prior to the dawn of Islam used the word “Allah” to refer to the deity. So let’s not debate semantics. Second, there are various opinions (for an extensive treatment go here) on this questions among experts so the answer is not a simple “yes or no.” The better answer may be “Yes, but…” which then leads other questions.
The better question for Christ followers is how do we bring the Gospel to those to whom Christ has not yet been revealed? For there is only one God for all, in all, over all, in whom we live, move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
We need to move beyond the debate of “God vs Allah” into the fullness of Christ revealed. We need to cry out to God for the salvation of all so that many more may know that Jesus is Lord and begin Living Sent Today.