I have never liked sharing my personal testimony and, with a few exceptions, I have often found it difficult to enjoy the experience when other people share theirs. One thing that people will notice about my writing is that I tend to lean towards the deep theological issues and put some study of apologetics into most of what I produce. I try to catch myself and present myself from doing that all of the time, but it usually finds its way in there. But recently I was yet again confronted with something that I, unfortunately and I believe sinfully, often forget: the significance of personal testimonies. I was participating in a small group with my church and we decided to do something different than the typical discussion of that week’s sermon or go around and get life-updates on everyone. We decided to each share a short version of our personal testimonies.
Up to this point, with the exception of three times, I have only ever shared my testimony when I was requested to by a brother or sister in Christ (I shared it voluntarily with my two best friends and once for this website). This is a bad thing. I find it difficult to put much weight on someone’s personal testimony since it is by nature subjective. I prefer to deal in facts and allow the evidence to carry my thoughts and emotions to the best conclusion, which is the reason for my focus on apologetics. Testimonies are subjective experiences, while theological truth and other disciplines give us objective facts. Whenever someone tries to use a subjective experience, which can be influenced by emotion or some other fleeting thing, as a reason why I should do or believe something, I usually pass it over. However, I would have to be a fool, indeed a fool with a very loose grip on reality, to deny the transforming power of the gospel that a personal testimony has the potential to demonstrate.
An Undeniable Reality
The reason it would be foolish to ascribe little worth to testimonies is because they give us an example of what God can do in the life of a terribly broken sinner. Now, that seems obvious. But I know that from my perspective and the perspective of other’s that I have read and listened to that we can place too much emphasis on studying the theology or the getting all of the arguments right. We may end up knowing a lot and the knowledge may not be entirely wasted, but if the focus is making our point or just knowing the information, we’ve missed something. We missed the part about letting a passion for God’s glory and the greatness of His gospel be the motivating force behind our actions. The knowledge that was supposed to bring us closer to God and the facts that we can articulate with such technical precision become stumbling blocks to others and blind spots to us. We could apply this to personal testimonies as well: people can work against themselves and God’s mission by making their sinful lifestyle the main focus instead of God’s redeeming and sanctifying work. This has just been a line of reasoning for why it’s bad to focus on knowledge at the expense of loving others and to the exclusion of God’s glory. I write this because I am known to do this. Now let me get to the point I’ve been building up to, which is how personal testimonies give an undeniable witness of God’s power to the lost soul and the doubting Christian alike.
The important word here for my purposes in this article is undeniable. Whenever I give an apologetic for why someone should believe Christianity; whenever I expound a philosophical argument; every time I point to science and demonstrate that it in fact gives evidence of a wonderful Creator instead of an impersonal process; when I (and when you) do these things we are offering points that can be argued against. They can think of another philosophical argument that seems to void mine of any value. They can take their perspective of science, however wrong it truly is, and use it to allow themselves to keep believing and defending their worldview. But if you present someone with a self-centered, depressed, angry and broken person in a deep ocean they are certain to drown in without intervention, and show them how they are now a person characterized by hope and peace – there is no point of argument that can be made against this.
At this point every Christian reading this should be making connections. Every person who has been saved was once a person who was drowning, with no way of escape. The only hope was if someone came and rescued you and brought you to safety. Nobody can do anything about their sinful condition except God through His Son Jesus Christ. Every person who has been graciously pursued and saved by God through Christ can testify to the fact that they were once without hope in a broken world and that they now have hope.
A New Creation
The glory of a personal testimony isn’t necessarily that those in a terrible life circumstance have been pulled out of it by God’s grace, or that they used to have an addiction to drugs and they have been set free from it in Christ. I want to draw attention to me saying that the glory of a personal testimony isn’t necessarily about those things. To be sure, often something along those lines is present, and it is a great cause for giving glory to God. But many times after a person is saved they remain in the circumstances they found themselves in before their salvation. Sometimes people still struggle with temptation to the sins they were enslaved to before they were saved. No, these things are not what make a personal testimony powerful. It’s what these things grow out of that give a testimony its worth.
The cause for praise and marvel that a personal testimony gives us is the incredible miracle of God giving us a new heart and making us a new person. The circumstances and other specifics are like fruit that the tree produces, while the internal transformation God gives us is the root system that nourishes the tree from which everything grows.
So complete and perfect in scope is God’s work in regeneration that Scripture can speak of those in Christ as being an entirely new creation! “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). A person looks the same physically after being born again as they did before, but on the inside, each person who places their faith in Christ for salvation is completely different. They are new. They were dead and without any inclination to live for God, but are now alive and with His sanctifying Spirit (Ephesians 2:1-7; Colossians 2:12; Titus 3:3-7; see also John 6:44, 65). They were enemies of God, but are now reconciled to Him and adopted as beloved children and heirs (Romans 5:10, 8:17; John 1:12-13). They were under God’s wrath and heading straight for eternal damnation in hell, but are now completely and eternally declared justified by God because of Christ (John 3:36), for “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). They were poor but will now inherit the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:3). They were earning the wages of death, but are now producing the glorifying fruit of the Spirit that is the evidence of all the Father’s children (Romans 6:21-22; Galatians 5:22-23; John 15:8). They were filthy, but now washed and clothed with Christ’s righteousness: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my should shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10). And I could continue on and on!
Declare How Much God Has Done
Out of a heart of worship in response to these wonderful realities, we are called to go and proclaim the work of God. Jesus told a man whom He healed to “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). Don’t read too much into it, the point of application I’m drawing is simple: tell about what God has done. The Psalms give us this same picture of overflowing wonder that refuses to keep silent: “Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!” (Psalm 96:2-3). How can we keep something as amazing as God’s work in our lives to ourselves? How can we ever listen to another tell us of how Jesus saved them and not be filled with a spirit of worship, as I regretfully find myself doing?
A Danger to Avoid and the Greatest Argument for the Gospel
Just to be on the side of caution I want to add something. Being someone who doesn’t often share his testimony this isn’t a problem I personally face (I maybe should face it more) but I know exists, especially in a self-absorbed and emotionally driven culture such as the one we live in. I can’t say this clearly enough: your testimony isn’t about you. One danger that I have consistently seen is people sharing their testimony and making their sinful past or their good present the main focus. It’s like their testimony is a biography of their life with a short guest appearance of Jesus somewhere in it. The focus should always be Who Jesus is and what He has done for you through the gospel. Your entire existence is about Him, not you. If there is any portion of your testimony that drifts away from this, you need to rethink how to say it next time.
Now, as way of reminder, I am not encouraging people to let the good emotional feelings that come from hearing a personal story influence their actions. Emotions, however good and seemingly right, must never be first. Neither am I saying that we should favor personal testimonies more heavily than other methods of evangelism. But what I am saying is that God has chosen to work salvation and create us in such a way that personal testimonies have a special ability to reach people and put His saving and sanctifying work on display like few other things can.
One last thing I will say is the impact other Christians have had on my life. The people who are so deeply aware of how much God has done for them and seek to show God’s love for others are the people that I have found to have the greatest effect on my life. Of course I have learned and grown from the godly intellectuals I have listened to and known personally. But if I were to think back to the most influential moments – the moments that God worked in me and displayed His love and grace to me – they were mostly if not all through other people that sought to display Christ in how they related to others. It was not the people with complex arguments and grand theological concepts they could explain. It is people serving and loving Christ through their service and love to me and others that have proved to be the most influential. A life changed by the gospel and lived in sacrifice for Christ is, after all, the greatest apologetic anyone can offer to the lost world.
Personal testimonies have power. People can reject God’s power and grace and glory demonstrated in them. People can suppress it. People can despise it. People can hate that it is so. But they cannot deny it.