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On Testimonies And Total Depravity

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Yesterday I posted an article that was formed around my apparently uninteresting personal testimony. It seems I am not the only one who has been deluded into thinking that my testimony, which is one of God’s grace early in life rather than one of God saving me when I was an adult and deeply entrenched in my sinful ways, is boring. Stephen Dancer suggested that there was something missing from my article because I did not turn to an examination of what the Bible means by the word “testimony.” Although that was not the thrust of my article, he is quite right that I should have done that. He said “Unfortunately the propensity for evangelicals to brush up on them in order to witness or prepare for their baptism has distorted what it basically means for the Christian to bear testimony. The Christian’s testimony is very simple. Just look at 1 Cor 15:3-8. Only at the very end does Paul mention himself, and even then only briefly. The fact that the modern trend for bloated self absorbed testimony makes us feel inadequate simply obscures the basic testimony to Christ, which is common to all.” He is absolutely right. In my experience it is only the rare testimony that includes a clear presentation of the Gospel message. Being the lazy sort, I challenged him to write about it and he took me up on the challenge. And what’s more, he did a great job of it.

The first eleven verses of 1 Corinthians 15 contain Paul’s testimony. But look how his testimony begins. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” Until verse eight, he makes no mention of himself. Verses 8-11 explain how God has worked in his life. “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he [Jesus] appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”

Now we’ll turn to some excerpts from Stephen’s article:

One time we were talking about testimonies. It is always good to be able to say clearly how you came to Christ if there is ever the opportunity to tell someone. Ken was very wise. He said that it was important not to over-dramatise the story. You know the kind of thing, “I was hanging from the cliff by my finger-tips. At that moment I realised I needed to be saved and so I cried out to God, ‘Save me!’ Amazingly, God did! ” It was an important lesson…

…Why do I say this? Well, it seems clear to me that testimony has two aspects to it – the objective and the subjective. The objective aspect consists of the work of Christ. Paul testified to this clearly, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:3,4. It was the substance of the apostles teaching – you only need to read the Acts narrative to see this…

…Paul’s use of testimony seems to be a far cry from what we see today. The strong individualism of the surrounding culture affects us all, perhaps especially the young. It makes much of personal experience. True, this provides opportunity for Christians who have marvelous personal experiences of Christ to share. But it also can be a temptation to become self-absorbed. What seems to matters in ‘my testimony’ is the greatness of my problems before meeting Christ (‘poor you!’). But I decided to follow Jesus (‘good for you!’). Now my life is great and full of purpose. Is that really what it is all about? Substitute ‘Bhudda’ or ‘Krishna’ for ‘Christ’ in the above story and you have the testimony of many other people. No, this is not the testimony the Holy Spirit enables us to bear…

You can read the rest of Stephen’s article here.

I was particularly interested in Stephen’s assertion that testimony has both a subjective and an objective aspect – the objective consisting of Christ’s work and the subjective consisting of how the individual has since changed. It is the objective that is far more important, because, being objective, it can happen in other people’s lives. When Paul says “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” he is speaking of an objective truth that could take place in other people’s lives. Every Christian is saved by grace and Christ’s grace towards His people is never in vain.

If all we have is a message of Christ helping us break out of our bad habits and destructive lifestyles, we have not presented the objective truth that underlies the subjective change. To once again quote Stephen, “Christianity is not a recipe for self-help. Nor is giving your testimony an occasion for focussing on me. God save us from that! It is about a man whose life, death and resurrection are the only hope for the world. This is the only testimony that we have and by the power of the Holy Spirit we are enabled to share it.”

And now, returning to the article I wrote yesterday, objective truth is of critical importance because it is equally true of the person who was saved in childhood and the person who was saved on his deathbed after a lifetime of denying God. In either case we can say with Paul that only “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” There is no boring or unimportant testimony when it includes the work of Christ, whether in a child or an adult, for either work is a miracle performed by a loving, holy God in an undeserving sinner.

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