Our Our Testimonies Are Not Sermons
Our stories, be they ever so inspiring or worthy of emulation, should never be equated with proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Gospel Jesus Christ commissioned to be proclaimed.
hristian “testimonies” too frequently supplant the sermon as the “message” during the public gathering of the Church. This is problematic for a few reasons, the first being that it does not constitute the content of preaching commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ.
In many enclaves of Christianity, “testimonies” are a big deal; sometimes equivalent to the Gospel itself. In such communities, the minister will occasionally forego sermonizing for a member to give their “testimony.” The thinking being that sharing one’s relatable testimony approximates gospel proclamation, since the objective remains the same, namely that through the employment of a narrative the speaker may move their audience toward a desired action or outcome. Testimonies are utilized not merely to entertain but to persuade, resulting in some decision or doing.
A testimony, for those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, is usually a time when one stands up in front of other people in church or a revival meeting and publicly testifies to what God has done for him or her. It is a sort of spiritual autobiography and it is this sort of thing that is considered the same as a means of divine grace, a verbal sacrament. The pattern goes something like this:
I was miserable. I was lost and tormented by guilt for the way I had been living, especially in my bondage to _______ (fill in the blank). I had tried everything, and nothing seemed to work. Then I found Jesus, asked him to come into my life, and since then my life has been full and awesome, and now I have an amazing testimony. Would you like what I have too? Then pray this prayer and invite Jesus into your life.
It is not surprising that such an experience might happen to a person, especially during a downturn in the economy or troubled relationships or an addiction. The New Testament and Christian history seem to justify this custom with stories of tormented people, from the jailer in Acts 16 to Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, whose lives were transformed by a new relationship with Christ Jesus.
Notwithstanding, readers of the New Testament and most of Church history until our present narcissistic age simply do not find Peter or Paul or the author of Hebrews or, indeed, the Church Fathers and Martyrs or the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer saying things like, “Look at us! We were living train-wreck lives and Jesus turned our bad fortunes upside down.” Instead of testifying to how they were living their best lives now, they testified to the objective and external work of God in Christ Jesus. The subjective dimension always stood ancillary to the divine work of redemption. Their lives were spoken about in terms of the consequences of what Jesus did, does, and will do. That was the message Christians were called to share and proclaim as the Gospel: His story, not their story. This held true everywhere, except in gnostic enclaves.
Instead of testifying to how they were living their best lives now, they testified to the objective and external work of God in Christ Jesus.
Our stories, be they ever so inspiring or worthy of emulation, should never be equated with proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Gospel Jesus Christ commissioned to be proclaimed. What is more, no model of self-referential testimony, much less the one articulated above, should be marshaled as the pattern for everyone. One would be hard pressed to find more than just a couple of examples of the, “I was miserable—then I found Jesus,” type of conversion experience in the Gospels. Yes, there was the blind man of John 9, but he always deflected the attention from himself to Jesus. He testified to the person and work of Jesus. Likewise, with the demon-possessed man of the Gerasene in Luke 8, once healed he, “Proclaimed the great things Jesus had done for him.” Even the infamous woman at the well in John 4 returned to her city not to testify to a changed life but rather to proclaim the arrival of God’s Messiah.
There are people of vastly different conditions called by God in the Bible — including the rich. Abraham, an affluent desert sheikh, and Moses, a prince in the Egyptian monarchy, were not exactly coupon clippers pinching pennies. Peter and Andrew, James and John were moderately successful entrepreneurs. Zacchaeus was a prosperous government employee. Matthew managed a flourishing customs office. Paul was a two-time doctoral laureate, rapidly ascending the ecclesiastical ladder. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were key players in Israel’s wealth-laden intelligentsia. There were plenty of poor, too. Jesus had compassion on them all as the “lost.” The Bible thus indicates there is no one kind of person called to faith. The truth may be that the, “I was miserable—then I found Jesus,” model may be more emblematic of certain segments of our modern compensation culture of victimization, but it simply is not the stereotypical way of relating to God in the Bible. It is far more dynamic than that. Those with means were not to be despised but evangelized with the Gospel about Christ, not testimonies of personal transformation.
Testimonies have problems of relatability as well. Personally speaking, during my sojourn in evangelicalism, my life story never seemed as interesting as most of the people who I heard tell theirs during church. I have been a constant sinner, but not a spectacular sinner or one of notoriety. My past contains several transgressions and actions for which I have repented and hold a sense of shame, but I can boast of no juicy, dark episodes.
Nor was I ever assailed by serious doubts, depressions, or agonizing struggles of faith. The existential angst which many people go through in late adolescence or early adulthood seemed to elude me. Baptized as an infant and catechized in grammar school, my childhood was cherry. Likewise, my teenage years were altogether memorable and my life with Melinda and our four children has been delightful. None of this makes for a very exciting testimony. I am a son of the Church and my children inherited the Kingdom of God on account of Christ, who bestowed faith on them in a font of water. It is not exactly a tear-jerking story or the stuff of goosebumps. Such testimonies I was hearing were indeed interesting, but they lacked both divine authority and omitted placarding the object of faith before sinners one and all — Christ and Him crucified.
Such testimonies I was hearing were indeed interesting, but they lacked both divine authority and omitted placarding the object of faith before sinners one and all — Christ and Him crucified.
I have got theological problems with the typical testimony motif, too. Aside from the fact, “what Jesus did in my life,” is not the same thing as the Gospel of God’s Kingdom come through Jesus’ death and resurrection, too often testimonies I have heard slip into a kind of religious self-righteousness. They have a distinctly, “Me, graduate school Christian—You, kindergarten Christian,” sound about them. They are filled with such shopworn clichés as, “Since I found Jesus…,” and, “When I decided to give my life to Christ….” Is this the Gospel? From what I know of the Bible, the story there is how none of us can boast of finding Jesus: He finds us. The important thing is not what I decide about God but the fact that, in Christ, God decided for me. Similarly, with action: God acted decisively for my redemption through the life, death, resurrection, ascension and self-giving of Jesus the Son. Now that is Gospel! That is what Jesus commissioned to be preached, namely the testimony of Him, about Him, to Him, and from Him.
Once, when Martin Luther heard a man bragging about how he had, “…accepted Jesus as Lord,” Luther (in his usual crusty manner) said, “Big deal! What are you patting yourself on the back for? If a rich man walks up to a beggar on the street and sets a sack of gold in his lap as a gift, think how absurd it would be for the poor man to go about bragging, ‘Look at me. I was wise and virtuous enough to accept a gift-sack of gold dumped in my lap.’” Luther had a good point. My inevitably halfhearted acceptance of Christ is always overshadowed by God’s prior, wholehearted provision for me, on account of His Son. That is Gospel. What is more, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. The former smacks of Arminian decisionism (marked by decision or willing toward Christ) which Scripture teaches is always subsequent to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit of God. Any decision or action on the recipient’s part is post facto. Luther memorably articulates this biblical truth in the Small Catechism’s Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed:
“I believe that I cannot of my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
I am also uncomfortable with the hints of selfishness I hear behind the, “I was miserable—then I found Jesus,” pattern. Christianity is not some kind of payoff. I do not see how I can come to God asking for the curing of all my headaches and heartaches, all my doubts and depressions, all my sadness and sorrows and then move from this essentially self-centered and self-serving religion to a faith centered upon the praise and service of God because His Son was nailed to a tree instead of me. In other words, I do not know how one moves from, “Jesus will give you an awesome testimony,” to, “Take up your cross and follow me,” and, “Those who would save their lives will lose it; and those who would lose their life will save it.” Put another way, the commercial spot, “Try Jesus,” does not line up well with, “They will persecute and kill you for my name’s sake,” and, “Those of you who will be greatest in my kingdom will be your slave.” I cannot see how one comes to this faith out of selfishness (“God make me unmiserable, make me happy, make me fulfilled”) and ends up with the kind of selflessness which I see in the life and teachings of Jesus, who gave Himself up for us. It simply is not the Gospel. It is not the commissioned proclamation from the King, be it ever so true here and there.
The commercial spot, “Try Jesus,” does not line up well with, “They will persecute and kill you for my name’s sake,” and, “Those of you who will be greatest in my kingdom will be your slave.”
I am troubled by the notion that Christianity is little more than the last hope of a pathetically miserable person who has tried all the faith products on the market and now, in utter desperation, decides to “try” the Jesus of Nazareth option as the last item on the shelf. Is this a particularly noble path to faith? It may be one way to get close to God, but I doubt whether it is the most desirable or honest way to witness to the Gospel of Christ. If nothing else, personal testimonies must not be confused with the Gospel and gospel preaching, especially when they are fueled with prejudice against the rich or against those who have obtained material successes, as is so fashionable and everywhere decried as “positions of privilege.”
Preachers cannot proclaim a faith which has good news only for those who are in search of deliverance from existential personal challenges, external dominance, or victimization. Gospel preaching must not lapse into quasi-Marxist categories. Good news for the poor, means first and foremost a poverty of righteousness over economic status. Christianity cannot be presented as that blissful reward which is won only at the end of a long, agonizing, tormented journey or struggle through the dark night of the subjugated or victimized soul. Jesus Christ saves sinners — the entire human race qualifies. There are none exempt, socio-economic status exempting no one.
This, then, is the testimony of pure preaching committed to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith (Romans 3:21-25a).”
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Rev. John J. Bombaro, Ph.D. (King’s College, University of London) is a missionary of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, serving as the Assistant Director of Theological Education at the Luther Academy, Rīga, Latvia.