A Muslim & A Christian discuss belief

From my earliest days as a Christian, when I began to follow Christ out of a personal commitment (due to God’s regenerative work upon my heart and mind), I have enjoyed learning about the doctrines of Christianity. My study of Christian doctrines was and is accompanied by (and largely facilitated by) learning the history of doctrinal development and expression.

Bible-believing Christians have always believed the same foundational things (though great differences have existed in regard to secondary and tertiary doctrines), but they have articulated them in different ways and argued for them against different opponents over time. Whatever else might come from the exchange of ideas, one would be hard-pressed to argue that healthy and thoughtful debate doesn’t benefit everyone in search for genuine truth.

I am a convictional, Bible-believing Christian. I mean to say that I am a kind of 21stcentury fundamentalist. I believe in the virgin birth of Christ, His divinity, His physical death and resurrection, and the exclusive nature of His offering of grace to guilty sinners. These beliefs (among others) compel me to engage those who believe differently with thoughtful arguments and patient dialogue. I do not want to merely build a bunker and survive with like-minded separatists.

To that end, I recently had a conversation with Zahir, a self-proclaimed Ahmadiyya Muslim. His views do not represent the beliefs of all Muslims, just as mine do not represent all Christians. But the exchange was (I think) an honest and helpful dialogue about important beliefs, which form the overall worldviews we each possess.

What follows is part of the phone exchange between me and Zahir. I don’t know Zahir outside of our 3-hour interaction as transcribed below, but I pray that our dialogue might continue and that God might use it to benefit us both. I am making this a public post in order that the exchange might benefit others as well.

Note: Admittedly, the transcript below is from my (Marc) perspective, but I checked each of my recordings of Zahir’s answers with him to ensure an accurate record of his thoughts.

What religion do you associate yourself with?

Zahir: Zahir is an Ahmadiyya Muslim (a brand of Sunni Islam), which is possibly the newest sect of 73 different sects of Islam. Ahmadiyya Muslims understand themselves to be going back to the original sources and teachings (though, of course, Sunni and Shia Muslims disagree). Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was the self-proclaimed Messiah in modern times, and his teaching is carried forward by the Ahmadiyya Muslims by the phrase, “Love for all, hate for none.”

Marc: I am a Christian, but I should clarify that label. I understand myself to be in line with historical Christianity that would trace its lineage from the earliest days of the first century – to the teachings and practices of the prophets and Apostles. While there have been many misapplications of Christian belief and practice, I generally find my Christian heritage coming down from those Middle Eastern and Hellenistic Christians who subscribed to the Apostle’s Creed (circa 200 C.E.) and the Church Councils of Nicaea (325 C.E.) and Constantinople (381 C.E.).

From there, I would claim the side of the West at the schism of 1054 C.E., though I do not necessarily endorse the battles or wars that were fought in the name of Christendom. These roots are deep and nourishing for me, but I most easily associate myself with the Protestant church tradition, which began in the 1500s. The Reformers (such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli) understood themselves to be going back to the sources (namely the Bible) for Christian belief and practice. Of the many Protestant denominations, which share this basic heritage, I gladly join with the Southern Baptists (founded in 1845 in the USA, but now has adherents in many countries).

When and how did you become an adherent to that religion?

Zahir: Zahir was born and raised as an Ahmadiyya Muslim, but at an early age Zahir was encouraged to explore spirituality and religious texts (including the Bible and the Quran). Zahir’s father was a very spiritual man, and he was a leader in the home and the community. Through personal study and experiences, Zahir has come to believe a sort of amalgamation of religious teachings, but he claims to be a true Ahmadiyya Muslim.

Marc: My father left my mother when I was young, but my mother taught me some of the basic beliefs of Christianity. She is joined with a different branch of the Protestant churches, the Assemblies of God, but I did not decide to follow Jesus Christ for myself (become a true convert to Christianity) until I was away from home at 19 years old. I was alone in my college dorm room, reading the Bible, when I believed the gospel (the story about Jesus) and trusted in Jesus Christ as my God and Savior.

What would you say are the top 2-3 benefits you get from participating in your religion?

Zahir: One: Zahir claims a direct connection with the creator, without intermediary, including guidance and direction. God is more of a reality to Zahir than his own parents. Dreams of prophets have played a major role in Zahir’s religious experience. Two: Zahir has a relationship with God’s creation. He feels closer to creation and other humans, a connectedness through his religious beliefs.

Marc: Christians may answer this question quite differently if asked, but I believe the top benefits of Christian believers are as follows: (1) gracious favor from God; (2) knowledge of the nature and character of God; and (3) intimacy with God. Christians know, like everyone else, that we are not as morally good as we should be. Christians also know that God is holy and that He will judge all disobedience and immorality.

In the Bible, we learn that God has demonstrated grace towards guilty people by sending His Son (Jesus Christ) to live obediently, die as a substitutionary sacrifice for the guilt of those who would trust Him, and conquer death so that those who trust Him could hope to do the same. Christians know that God should judge them for being guilty, but the Bible teaches us that God offers gracious favor to those who will hear His words and believe and obey.

Once a person believes the gospel (the story about Jesus, as I expressed above), he or she is then a Christian. The Christian who reads the Bible can learn much about who God is and what He is like. As the Christian learns about God, he or she also learns much about himself or herself. The exploration of what and who God is provides both intellectual and emotional stimulation beyond compare.

Moreover, the Christian who studies and applies the Bible’s teaching to everyday life will discover that God Himself becomes known. It is hard to explain here, but the Christian who seeks God in the Bible and lives according to God’s precepts in life somehow comes to know an intimate relationship with God Himself. The Bible teaches that this is the doing of God’s Spirit who comes to live with and in those who believe and follow God’s words.

What does your religion teach about other religions? Are other religions valuable? Are they bad?

Zahir: “There is not a place or people on earth to whom a messenger has not come.” Muhammad is the latest in a long line of prophets, and Zahir believes that even Socrates and Buddha are valuable prophets. Therefore, all religions have value, but some of the modern forms are corrupted. God created all religions for diversity, not for infighting.

Marc: Here again, you will likely get many different answers from different Christians. I will answer by saying that the Bible teaches that God cares very much about how humans live, how humans worship, and what humans think about God. The Bible teaches that God has revealed Himself in nature and in the special revelation of the Bible itself. In nature, we may learn much about God, and this includes deductive and experiential reasoning within ourselves.

Therefore, various religions may have some (even many) things in common, because what can be known about God in nature is plain to all who observe it. However, any approach to living, worshiping, or thinking about God that is contrary to or aberrant from what the Bible teaches about such things is not good. The Bible teaches that all humans deserve dignity, respect, and even love; therefore, religious tolerance is perfectly in keeping with Christian belief and practice. But any religious system that would seek to dissuade someone from the clear teaching of the Bible is not to be followed.

What does your religion teach about the afterlife?

Zahir: When a soul is freed from the shell of the human body, it is like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The soul/spirit endures an intermediate stage before the final judgment, and all souls (good or bad) get a taste of a lesser paradise or lesser hell. This state lasts for an undefined period of time that does not necessarily have a direct correlation with the time experienced on earth. All people will have the opportunity to turn to God during this intermediate state. Hell is not eternal, but a place of cleansing, making one ready to enter paradise. Eventually, all people will be in paradise… “even Satan himself.”

Belief in God and doing good are the only necessary prerequisites to entering paradise. Intentionality is the only important matter for judgment so God will judge people according to the light or understanding they had on earth. Zahir seemed to believe that very few people would fit into the category of intentionally wicked people who had any form of judgment to come in the afterlife.

Marc: The Bible teaches that all humans will eventually face God and be judged for all that they thought, spoke, and did in this world. Those who live wicked lives, disobeying God’s laws, will be judged as guilty and suffer the penalty of God’s eternal wrath. Of course, as I said above, Christians know that all humans are guilty of disobeying God’s law, but the hope of the Christian is the gracious favor of God. As I said, Jesus Christ lived a perfectly obedient life, He died under God’s judgment (not because He was guilty, but as a substitute for all who would trust and follow Him), and He conquered death in order to demonstrate that He could do the same for those who believe or trust in Him.

The promise of God is that all those who believe or trust in Jesus will pass from judgment to peace and life everlasting. Despite their guilt, those who believe will avoid God’s judgment because it has already been poured out on Jesus Christ in their place. Therefore, in the afterlife, Christians will enjoy a new creation without the presence of wickedness or evil, in which God Himself will abide with humanity in gracious blessing and peace forever.

What does your religion teach about your purpose in the world or your responsibility to other people?

Zahir: Our primary reason for existence is to recognize God, to meet God, and to unify with God – represent God in the world. The person must overcome individualistic thinking, taking on the “color of the Holy Spirit.” Every person must treat creation with love and respect, looking for beauty and good in the world. Everyone and everything in creation is to be treated as an extension of God Himself. The protection of personal religious freedom and practice is paramount, and Zahir repeatedly affirmed the value of all beliefs from all religions.

Marc: The Bible teaches that Christians must show love for all people, especially for other Christians. The Christian is responsible to live in community and fellowship with other Christians, learning to follow God more faithfully and to love one another more honestly and meaningfully (such as sharing material resources, depending on one another in times of difficulty, and distributing the various responsibilities of life among one another).

The Christian is also responsible to meet the needs of those in his or her broader community (Christian and non-Christian alike) as he or she is able. In many ways, the Christian is to show love for neighbor (such as teaching, maintaining social order, developing healthcare resources and efforts, cultivating food, manufacturing clothing and shelter, and a host of other things) by living as a productive member of society for the benefit of all people. Additionally, the Christian is to show love for neighbor by helping those with some deficiency of a human good (such as food, water, clothing, shelter, companionship, education, social capital and/or the ability to maintain any of these).

Some Concluding Thoughts

I have always enjoyed thoughtful dialogue with those with whom I disagree. Zahir and I discussed more than the questions above, and the topics ranged from biblical textual criticism to the Trinity and substitutionary atonement to personal sinful desire. Zahir was a pleasant and thoughtful dialogue partner, but he and I obviously disagreed at some major points of theology, Christology, soteriology, and hamartiology.

Distinct Christian Prayer

Many people pray, and not just Christians. It seems that prayer, talking to someone or something greater than ourselves, is natural to humanity. Christian prayer, however, is quite peculiar and unnatural. While Christians offer petitions of hope and desire, the same as non-Christians, Christians pray with a distinctive approach and goal.

The Christian knows that his or her only basis for acceptance before God is the person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, his or her approach to God is as heavenly Father by way of adoption through Christ. Such an approach is by sheer grace and divine mercy.

The Christian also understands that God’s will is wiser and truer than his or her own desires. He or she knows that God is always working towards better ends, as a good heavenly Father. Therefore, his or her goal in prayer is not so much to get something from God but to align himself or herself to the will of God being worked out in the world.

May God not only teach us to pray but may He also create within us an unnatural desire to pray as fervent and sincere Christians.

Christ wants you to die!

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

While most people in our western culture have not had to consider what it might feel like to persecuted unto death, every Christian everywhere must resolve to die for the sake of knowing and possessing Christ. I hope you’ll take the time to re-read and consider that sentence.

The unmistakable call of Christ is to die. The thought of such a thing is so repugnant to us that we are naturally inclined to do anything to avoid it. I mean… who wants to die? However, in this paradoxical call, Christ beckons sinners to lose something lesser in order to gain something greater.

The life lived apart from Christ is death unto death. Sinners reap the bitter fruit of their wickedness in this life and in the life to come. But, the life given over to Christ is life unto life. The sinner who dies with Christ shall be raised with Him, and the one who lives on mission with Christ shall reap the savory rewards of a life well lived.

Whether it is long or short, may we live worthwhile lives for Christ.

Christian, Be Baptized!

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37-38).

What is biblical baptism? This question has been answered with great similarity since the time of the early Christian Church. And yet, there have also been distinctive ways in which some have given an answer. While the mode or method of baptism does not have to separate Christian brothers and sisters, it is still a very important subject of consideration.

First, we know that Jesus Christ commands all His disciples (or followers) to be baptized (Matt. 28:19). Second, we know that the Apostles taught and commanded the same (Acts 2:38). Third, we know that a Christian becomes a Christian by a miraculous act of God, whereby God imparts new life (or spiritual life) to the previously darkened sinner (Eph. 2:4; Jn. 3:3). Fourth, we know that new life in Christ is demonstrated by a pattern of obedience to Christ (James 2:14-26).

Therefore, we know that every believer ought to be baptized as a sign and beginning of new life in Christ.

The Christian is one who has been joined to Christ and joined those who have been united to Christ before him/her. In believer’s baptism, all Christians testify to their common faith, their spiritual unity, and their purposeful commitment to follow Christ together.

May God create new life abundantly in our day, and may many come to glorify God because of the distinctive way in which Christians live to honor God and others above themsleves.

Living Like We Believe

“And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:28–29).

Everyone believes something.

This may come as a surprise to you, or it may come as a silly and obvious thing to say. Either way, the statement is probably not immediately remarkable. If, however, we consider that the way we live reveals what we truly believe, then the statement may become more thought-provoking.

The Bible tells us what we may already know to be true about this subject. The choices a person makes are always based on what he or she really believes. We may claim a certain set of beliefs, but our lives will either give evidence for or against our belief claims. Believing Jesus will manifest itself in a person’s way of life, and so too will disbelief and rebellion.

Jesus is the Savior of sinners, and He is the one through whom God will judge the whole world. Those who truly believe these things, and trust in Jesus to rescue them from judgment, will live in light of these realities.

In other words, genuine belief always produces transformed living.

May God grant us grace to believe Him and the conviction to live as we say we believe.

Joy

“Though you have not seen [Christ], you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8–9).

What is Joy?

Well, I think a good way to answer this question is to contrast joy with happiness. Happiness is conditional, but one may possess joy in any circumstance. Happiness comes and goes, depending on our experiences, our feelings, and a host of other things. Joy, on the other hand, is based on an unchanging reality.

Because the basis for joy does not change, it is not subject to any of the things upon which happiness depends.

But, what is the unchanging, fixed, transcendent basis for joy?

Ah, the answer to this question is a core feature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So many truth statements formulate and are derived from the message of the Gospel. Those truth statements construct an indestructible foundation for joy, which is Christ-centered and not self-centered.

God has justified guilty sinners through the work of Christ. God has adopted unworthy rebels as sons. God has brought spiritual and eternal life to all those in Christ. Union with Christ is an intimate relationship enjoyed by all those who love and trust Him.

These truths and many more form the basis for steadfast Christian joy.

Therefore, we may have joy in every circumstance because Christ has demonstrated God’s love and grace for us. We may rest in that reality now, and we await the fullness of that reality in the glorious new creation.

We who love and trust in Christ may find indestructible joy in union with the God who loves us so and gives Himself freely to us.

2 Questions for Christians, After the Election

Well, the most frustrating, vexing, and exhausting election of my lifetime is over. After the inauguration of our new president, things have not seemed to get particularly less chaotic. While there are both good and bad things to observe among American life today, I’d like to offer a couple of questions that Christians would do well to ask.

 

The questions Christians must ask themselves today are, “What has Christ promised?” and “What am I supposed to do?”

1. What has Christ promised?

Jesus Christ promised that bad times would come (Jn. 15:20; Rom. 8:18; 1 Pet. 4:13). You may or may not know it, but the experience of difficulty is to be expected in the Christian life. While no one in their right mind welcomes adversity and suffering, we should not be surprised when the unwelcome guest arrives on our doorstep.

Jesus Christ promised that He would be with His followers (Matt. 28:18-20; Jn. 15:7). Christians may go through any number of valleys, but they never travel them alone. Christ is always with His people, and He is a faithful friend like no other. The divine King of glory knows well how to keep that which He has taken as His own.

Jesus Christ promised that He would build and glorify His Church (Matt. 16:18; Rom. 8:28-32; Jude 24). Christians are to remain faithful in the task to which Christ has called them, but Christ Himself is responsible for producing the results. The marvelous reality is that Christ cannot not be successful, and Christians may rest assured that the Gospel is still the power of God unto salvation.

 

2. What is a Christian to do?

Christians are to uphold truth (1 Cor. 15:58; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Tim. 6:11). The most difficult task that Christians will set out to do is to live according to an absolute standard of truth and morality. This will anger those who disagree, and it will enrage those who want to live immorally. And yet, upholding truth in personal practice and public proclamation is exactly what every Christian must do.

Christians are to proclaim the Gospel (2 Cor. 5:20; 2 Tim. 4:2). The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only message that actually carries with it the power of God to make dead sinners live. God has decided to include Christians in His endeavor to make His glorious Gospel known to all the world, and there is no greater calling. The joy and privilege of Christianity is that those who are transformed by the Gospel are also commissioned to proclaim it.

Christians are to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). Making disciples includes proclaiming the Gospel, but it goes further. Disciple-making is the lifelong process of growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Every Christian is a disciple, learning to follow Christ; and every Christian must also be a disciple-maker, teaching others what it looks like to follow Christ as well.

Today, Christ’s promises have not changed, nor has the Christian task.

Let us throw off our false hope in any lesser thing, and let us affix our eyes today upon the victorious Lamb upon the throne. Christ is King, His Church shall prevail, and we shall one day see the glorious end to which He has been moving all things.