Reaching those in religion

INTRODUCTION. Encouragement for ambassadors for Christ who encounter people devoted to a religion. Thoughts on how to evangelize unbelievers in religions. Also, the power of the gospel.

Martin was a Vietnamese man who also worked at SGI. I had recently made his acquaintance and had invited him to lunch. As we were returning to work, I had asked Martin, “What would you say is the most important experience is your life?” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know. What’s yours?” Eager for the opportunity, I told Martin how I had met Jesus Christ and had become a follower of Jesus when I was thirty-one years old.

“So, Martin, what do you think about that?”

He paused for a second and then pointed to the jade green statue of the Buddha that hung from his rearview mirror. “Roy, I’m a Buddhist. My grandfather was a Buddhist, my father is a Buddhist. I’m a Buddhist.” Thus I encountered the immovable object of “religion.”

RELIGION ENCOUNTERED AND DEFINED

It can be frustrating to the witness, the ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) who has stepped out in obedience and begun to tell the gospel to someone only to encounter the stone wall of religion. Religion comes in many guises, but these various religious guises have a common trait.

A religion is a formal spiritual system which is given to the adherent at birth, and which becomes part of a person’s self-identity.

Let’s consider this definition for a second.

That a religion is “formal” means that it has a structure and is recognized as a system of thought or behavior by the adherents. So, poker players do not make up a religion because poker playing does not constitute a formal system, but Islam is structured as a formal religion.

Another distinguishing aspect of a religion is a “spiritual” component. Broadly speaking, the “spiritual” component of a religion is that part that provides a counterfeit or substitute for the one true and living God. Buddhism is “spiritual,” but atheistic. Hinduism offers millions of false gods. Islam presents the false god of Allah.

A religion is given to the follower at physical birth. Strictly speaking, of course, the newborn infant is not a Catholic or a Hindu, but the newborn infant raised in a Catholic or Hindu family will certainly take on that family’s religion. If asked, a Catholic or a Hindu will tell you they have been in their religion since birth. That a person has been in this “formal spiritual system” since birth is a distinguishing mark of someone in a religion.

Finally, this “formal spiritual system” is an integral part of the person’s self-identity. Now, by itself, the characteristic of “self-identity” could be religious or not religious. Those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ certainly self-identify as believers, as Christians. But the self-identity of those in a religion is of a different flavor.

RELIGIOUS SELF-IDENTITY

The adherent of a religion certainly identifies strongly as a member of that religion, but that identification is not by choice, but is by obligation. The person identifies with that religion because they must. Their religion is believed to be unchangeable, and so it is unchallengeable. The person entrenched in a religion has probably never thought deeply about their religion and has never considered any alternative to their religion. In fact, many of those who follow a religion are not aware that an alternative even exists. It has never occurred to them to question their religion. Their religion is “right” because it is the only thing they have ever known.

When one follows a religion, the religion is simply a fact of their existence, like the color of their eyes and like the color of their skin. And, like the color of eyes and skin, it cannot change. What the religion believes or does in its practice is irrelevant to the adherent. By that I mean that the beliefs or practices do not need to “make sense” with experience or with logic or even with any religious book. As the falcon flies because that is part of its essential “falcon-ness,” so the religionist does what he does without question simply because he is of that religion, and that’s what those in that religion do.

So, my friend Martin was born a Buddhist, and he will live as a Buddhist as long as he lives, and then he will die as a Buddhist. That’s just how it is with religion.

Unless . . .

That’s just how it is, unless there is a message that is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). The situation is hopeless for those trapped in the grip of religion unless there is some means available to set these people free (John 8:36; Galatians 5:1).

ONE GOSPEL CONVERSATION AWAY

And the good news is that the person who is trapped in his religion, even the one who is zealous for his religion may be one gospel conversation away from true freedom and salvation. The Bible declares that if someone will preach the gospel, then anyone may hear and believe and then call upon the name of the Lord (Romans 10:14-15) and be saved.

Before he was converted to Christ, the apostle Paul was as zealous a Jew as ever lived (Galatians 1:13-14), who persecuted the church and threw believers in prison (1 Tim. 1:13-15; Acts 8:1-3). He was born a Hebrew of Hebrew parents and had every pedigree of a religious Jew (Philippians 3:5-6). I suspect no one was praying for unsaved Paul, except perhaps that he would drop dead or go away. Then this zealous Jew was converted by the Lord Jesus Himself (Acts 9:4-6) and was sent out as an apostle to proclaim the gospel of salvation.

Thus, the Bible makes clear that the gospel is more powerful than the stone wall of any religion. Religion is one of Satan’s tools for creating confusion and for generating zeal in the wrong direction, but the gospel is “mighty before God for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Cor. 10:4) and we can be confident that the gospel will do its work.

A POSSIBLE STRATEGY FOR REACHING THOSE IN RELIGION

Like you, I do not have a “silver bullet” for winning anyone to Christ, let alone a perfect strategy for reaching those in religions, but I have thought about it some and suggest this as a possible approach. Since evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel to the unsaved, any strategy should lead to a gospel presentation as quickly as possible. The challenge is that the one who is trapped in a religion is predisposed against Christ and the gospel. But the evangelist and the religionist do have something vital in common. They both face death. So, once the witness has discovered that the other person is in a religion, he might say, “That is very interesting. I am a follower of Jesus, so obviously I do not share your religion. But there is something we both have in common, and that is that, as human beings, we both face death. What is your religion’s answer for death? How does your religion help you deal with death?” From here you would bring up Jesus Christ and how He has conquered death, which would hopefully lead to a discussion about the gospel.

SDG                 rmb                 5/5/2022                     #526

Reprove them severely (Titus 1:12-13)

Clearly, Paul had given Titus a hopeless assignment, or at least it appeared that way.

For this reason, I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you. – Titus 1:5

In the best of circumstances this would have been a challenging task, to appoint qualified elders in every city as Paul instructed him, but Titus was not going to the best of circumstances. Far from it. Paul left Titus in Crete, and the Cretans had a well-deserved reputation for being an ornery and belligerent lot.

One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. – Titus 1:12-13

Even the Cretans themselves acknowledge that they are pretty incorrigible, almost as if their gross behavior is a badge of honor. Thus, Titus’ task appears hopeless. For how can “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” ever become “above reproach” (Titus 1:7) so that they can serve as elders? How can these Cretans, who are by nature vile sinners, become just, devout, self-controlled overseers of a local assembly of the church of the living God?

How, indeed! But this shows Paul’s and Titus’ confidence in the power of the gospel. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).” The apostle believed in the power of the gospel not only to save from condemnation, but also to transform into righteousness. Through the power of the gospel, slaves of sin are changed into slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:18).

HOW DO YOU DISCIPLE A CRETAN?

But we now need to consider the practical challenges of discipling Cretans. Paul knew the nature of the men of Crete (Titus 1:12-13), and he also knew the qualifications of men who could serve as elders in the church (1:6-9), and, for most of the men on Crete, there was a large chasm between their character and the character of the biblical elder. How was Titus to help these men become elder material?

Paul’s instructions to Titus are direct and unambiguous:

For this reason, reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith. – Titus 1:13

Because “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons,” the training program for the Cretan who would grow in grace, who would walk in a manner worthy of the gospel, and who would be sound in the faith is simple. The disciple maker must reprove the Cretan severely. This sounds harsh to our American ears, but these are the divinely inspired instructions of an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith.” Sin is driven out of hardened sinners by severe reproof, not by gentle pleading or by appealing to reason. Before the gospel came, the Cretans had long indulged in degrading and disgraceful sin (Ephesians 5:12; 1 Peter 4:3), and now that they were in Christ, it was time for them to be reproved severely. If they would be sound in the faith, and if the church in Crete would display the holiness that the church is called to display (Ephesians 5:27; Hebrews 12:15; Leviticus 11:44, 45; 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15, 16), then their sin needed to be exposed and they needed to be reproved so that they would abandon their evil practices and would embrace obedience to the truth. The Cretan disciple repeated the sequence of reproof-confession-correction-repentance over and over again until holy obedience began to replace open rebellion. Prior to Christ, the life of the Cretan was like an open sewer, but through severe and loving reproof and the power of the Holy Spirit, the moral sewer slowly runs as a clear flowing stream.

But for the Cretan, the key to sanctification is severe reproof, loving reproof that calls sin, “sin,” and insists that the one who names the name of Jesus must walk as He Himself walked (2 Timothy 2:19; 1 John 2:6).

“For this reason, reprove them severely.”

MODERN DAY CRETANS

The reason that I spent so much time talking about Cretans is that these types of believers are near to my heart. You see, when I came to Christ at 31 years old, I had long indulged in sin and my life was a moral sewer. Essentially, I was a Cretan and the best thing that could have happened for my sanctification and for my growth in Christ would have been for a brave man to come alongside me and begin to reprove me severely so that I would be sound in the faith. In God’s providence, that did not happen and, as a result, my sanctification suffered.

Because of our increasingly wicked society, many of those who come to Christ, especially men who come to Christ, come to Christ as Cretans. The days are evil, the sins of the flesh are available at an alarmingly early age and, without the power of the Holy Spirit to restrain them, many give themselves over to the desires of the flesh. Without knowing it, they become Cretans, and when they come to Christ, they need to be reproved severely. Sin has firmly established its residency in their flesh and the way to drive sin out is through severe reproof. The discipler sees sinful habits and reproves severely, and the disciple actively repents, and those who were formerly demoniacs are found seated at Jesus’ feet and are useful to the Master. In all this, God is glorified.

For those who would make disciples in our Cretan-creating world, learn to reprove lovingly but severely the ones you are helping to grow.  

For those who realize they are Cretans and who need help in displaying the holiness which believers are called to display, seek out one who would be willing to reprove you severely so that you may drive the sin out.

SDG                 rmb                 6/2/2021                     #412