How many of us have heard—perhaps even used—some of these common responses to the Gospel?
- “That might be true for you, but not me.”
- “That’s your opinion, but are you saying people of other religions are wrong?”
- “Whatever helps you live a good life, that’s what matters.”
All these clichés that permeate our conversations are products of postmodern thinking, which says that “truth” is entirely a matter of perception. In other words, there is no objective “reality” outside of you and I. We are all free to mold our own realities and identities. The greatest sin, thus it follows, is to encroach upon another person’s viewpoint by even kindly insinuating that they are categorically “wrong.”
Such a climate makes evangelism difficult. How can Christians point to Jesus, who is “the truth” (John 14:6), in a society where the only “truth” is that which an individual happens to feel will help them through life?
Though we call this sort of radical subjectivism “postmodern,” it has always existed in one form or another. Thankfully for us, Jesus himself gave us a model of how to converse winsomely with such thinking. After all, nothing is new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
So we proceed to answer the question: when Jesus heard the oft-recited objection “That’s true for you, Jesus, but not for me,” how did he respond? For that, we refer to John 8.
1. “It’s not my word against yours; God has spoken too.”
In John’s gospel, after Jesus makes the radical claim that he is the “light” through which we perceive reality, the Jewish leaders push back: “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true” (8:13).
Granted, this isn’t quite the flavor of skepticism we hear today, which denies the very existence of “truth.” But there is a striking similarity in that the Pharisees are essentially telling Jesus that his claims can’t be true because they are simply one man’s word. One man’s private claims—which cannot be empirically verified by others—cannot be true for us all, they claim.
Rather than produce the sort of “evidence” the people were clamoring for, however—a miracle or some such—Jesus appeals to another authority: God. “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going” (John 8:14).
In effect, Jesus is saying, “True, you can’t verify it—but that does not equal a positive argument against what I’m saying about myself.”
This is refreshing for those who have been cornered by argumentative postmoderns with the line, “Everything you’re saying about Jesus is just your opinion of what you read in a book; you can’t prove it.” Jesus is indirectly authorizing us to lovingly remind our hearers, “Even if I’m the only person saying these things, that doesn’t make the Gospel untrue.” And indeed it doesn’t.
Then, a few verses later, Jesus appeals to their own epistemological standard (that is, a standard of what constitutes “knowledge”). “In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me” (John 8:17-18).
In other words, “Actually, I am not the only one making these claims. God the Father agrees with me.”
Of course, the knee-jerk skeptical response would be, “How am I to know that God has also made these claims about you?” Why doesn’t John record the Pharisees interjecting in such a manner? Perhaps they did, and John left it out. Or perhaps they did not make such an interjection because they understood the Father’s “witness” to mean Jesus’ miracles. Either way, there is a teachable point for us here too.
We too can appeal to the “witness” of the Father in our evangelism. That the skeptical unbeliever does not believe that God bears witness about Jesus, or that God exists at all, is actually irrelevant. In Jesus’ argumentation, his point was to show that he was not alone in making his Gospel claims. Likewise, whenever we testify of Christ, we are not alone; the Triune God himself stands in full agreement, regardless of whether or not our listener can perceive it.
And of course, part of that heavenly witness is perceptible by all. The “heavens declare the glory of God,” (Psalm 19:1) rendering the God-denier “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). More specifically, God presently testifies to the truth of Christ through the church itself, by testimonies of hearts changed, sins repented, diseases healed, races reconciled, acts of compassion performed, and persecutions endured joyfully.
We are not alone in any evangelistic situation. Christians shouldn’t hesitate to tell unbelievers, “God agrees with this Gospel message I’m sharing, and is proclaiming it to you as well.” In all actuality, we are the agent of God’s testimony.
2. “God will hold you accountable even if you don’t believe in him.”
As the conversation continued, Jesus warned the Pharisees, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).
Note that the word “he” is not present in the Greek, so this verse could be translated as, “unless you believe that I am you will die in your sins” (emphasis added). The reference to the divine name “I Am” was surely not lost on the ancient Jews (see Exodus 3:14). Jesus was implicitly claiming divinity.
But the way he argues here is intriguing. He warns an unbelieving audience of the impending judgment for their unbelief. They will die in their sins—that is, utterly perish into eternal judgment.
This is striking to postmodern ears. Whether influenced by social convention or worldly thought, many of us are content to leave our evangelistic conversations with the polite remark, “You are entitled to believe whatever you would like to believe,” or, “Let’s agree to disagree.” And certainly there are times—more often than not, to be sure—when such candor is appropriate. We are not called to be spiteful.
But at the same time, we should not let our hearers conflate our good manners with a tacit approval of their unbelief.
To give an illustration, imagine it’s Thanksgiving at your parents’ house. Your unbelieving uncle is visiting, and you’ve had a burning conviction to share the Gospel with him all day. After dinner, the family members retire to their respective corners, and you make your move. You and your uncle begin the familiar joust—you share Scripture from Romans, he laughs it off with some comment about all religions being human constructs, and on the dance goes.
Your mother calls the family in for a round of pumpkin pie. Your uncle remarks, “Well, no one can really know for sure, now can they. After all, you can’t prove there’s a God, and I can’t prove there isn’t. We’ll just have to wonder.”
Convention would dictate an agreeable response: “Sure, I suppose no one knows.” But such a response would actually feed in to his false assumption that knowledge is only what is empirically demonstrable. That would undermine the truth of Scripture, that God has already made himself clearly knowable by all reasonable standards (Romans 1:19-20). Inside, you know that even your uncle’s polite closing remarks betrays what you feel inside to be the core of all logic and reason—the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7).
So instead, you reply, “Well, I care about you, uncle, and I can’t let you plead ignorance. Scripture doesn’t give us that option. We are accountable to make a decision based on the available knowledge in Scripture.” That may not be so smooth a segue into pie, but it does reveal your heart’s intent.
Neither did Jesus give the benefit of the doubt when the hardened skeptics of his day pled ignorance. Instead, he calmly leveled with them: “You may not be convinced, but God expect you to believe what I’m saying. If you do not accept my testimony, it will result in condemnation from God.”
We quench the Holy Spirit when we grant the presuppositions of skeptics. The lost person does not need to unquestioningly accept Scripture as inerrant or Jesus as Lord for us to warn them of the reality of God’s judgment. God uses such pleading to awaken deadened consciences, especially when empiricism has become one’s idol.
3. “What I am saying is from God, not me.”
Jesus continues to appeal to God’s authority, but the Pharisees don’t make the connection. Jesus then makes it plain: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:28-29).
What humility and strength—the Son of God, with no need to vindicate himself, entrusts his entire reputation to the Father! There is much for us to learn. For if the divine Son can appeal to God’s authority, is not the same authority available to us when we speak the Gospel?
Here is a simple case where we can’t let the anticipated response from a skeptic prevent us from saying what we, by the assurance of the Holy Spirit, know to be true. When we speak the Gospel message, we are not simply peddling a human philosophy; rather, as Paul wrote, “in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:17).
We are simply not alone, however alone we may feel. The Spirit of Jesus is present with us speaking through us. We speak as ambassadors. May we not clam up for fear of damaging our reputation when in fact we stand on the ethos of God himself.
And amazingly, John tells us that “as he was saying these things, many believed in him” (8:30). God was magnified, and the Spirit was pleased to turn many hearts to Jesus.
4. “Rebellion in your heart, not a lack of evidence, is your problem.”
Now, after people began to respond in belief, Jesus shifted his focus to the moral nature of belief and unbelief. To illustrate, consider verses 31-38:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
This passage betrays a massive chasm between today’s understanding of human nature as Jesus’ own. To the Western humanist or postmodern, “sin,” if it can even be said to exist at all, is something external to me—poor decisions, infractions of human law, etc. My moral failures or successes have no bearing on my ability to think. I am a neutral third party weighing the evidence for or against God.
Jesus understands the human heart at a much deeper level, however. Sin is not just external law-breaking, but internal rebellion against God emanating from the heart. Sin enslaves the mind, the will, and the affections. The result is that our sinful nature predisposes us against the idea of a holy, omnipotent, divine Judge. Our minds, operating in a purely natural fashion, are not objective in regard to God but hostile (Romans 1:30, 8:7).
To know Jesus, then, is to be free to think clearly about God and ourselves.
5. “You don’t believe me because you aren’t God’s children.”
Naturally, though, the Jews were not eager to entertain the Lord’s diagnosis of their condition. Claiming Abrahamic descent, they denied that sin held such a grip on their thoughts and actions. But Jesus continued, insisting that we are all slaves to our nature—either of righteousness or sin. Someone whose nature is sin will, of course, resist the idea of a God who, albeit astonishingly merciful, requires humility and repentance. By contrast, someone who is “of God”—whom God is drawing, whose heart is being opened by God—will accept Jesus’ words. He explains: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (8:47).
Jesus is not recommending we preach like hyper-Calvinists, presuming to know who is elect and who is non-elect and withholding the Gospel from those we judge to be hopeless. Only God knows who is elect unto salvation (Deuteronomy 29:29); we only know who is elect or non-elect in retrospect based on who believes the Gospel and perseveres. Rather, Jesus is attributing the Jews’ resistance to something that was at one point true even of the elect: spiritual deadness.
It goes a bit like this: everyone, whether elect or non-elect, begins life in a state of spiritual death. God sovereignly intervenes, by the Spirit (John 3:8) working through the Word (1 Peter 1:23), in the hearts of some to make them alive to God, or born again. Such persons respond in repentance and faith when the Gospel is heard.
Until that change happens in a person’s heart, making them “of God,” they will not hear the words of Christ. But Jesus’ hearers, still being “children of… the devil” (John 8:44), were unable to believe and be saved. Jesus is making clear to them what is clear to any converted person: had God not intervened to open my heart to Jesus, I never would have responded in faith.
I once found myself across the table at Starbucks with a student in our high school ministry. He, at one point a self-identified agnostic, and I were working our way through Romans 1-3’s stunning indictment of humanity. After working our way through Paul’s exquisite proclamation of justification by faith in Christ, this young man remarked, “If the Gospel is this good, why doesn’t everyone believe it?” A valid question, I remarked, and explained the nature of sin—it blinds. It blinds to the beauty of God and the Gospel and keeps us drawn to unsatisfying substitutes.
By God’s grace, our church baptized this young man about a year later—not because I had argued him to the kingdom (impossible!), and not even decisively because of the love of his Christian friends who had first invited him to church (though that was a vital preparatory work in his heart showing him Christ’s love)—but simply because God has seen fit in his sovereign grace to lift the blinders of sin and reveal the irresistible glory of Jesus to him!
We would do well to show unbelievers the bottom of their unbelief—that is, that all unbelief is in essence an exchanging of the glory of God for the fleeting pleasures of idolatry and sin. Jesus made it plain: those who are of God will hear God. Only the Spirit of God can make someone “of God,” opening once-dead hearts to saving faith. May we make much in our witness of this incredible act of divine intervention.
A Final Note
To argue for the Gospel as Jesus did—exposing the grip of sin on our reasoning faculties and unapologetically appealing to God’s trustworthy character—is not an authorization for us to be belligerent, hostile, or otherwise ungracious.
Rather, in Jesus, we see not only God’s Son testifying to his eternal relationship with the Father, but the perfect example of a man exalting God and depending upon the Holy Spirit to turn the listeners’ hearts. We, following his example, should make it our aim to tactfully expose the false assumptions and sinful desires besetting our hearers, so that the Holy Spirit can convict of the sin of unbelief. We should always assume the Lordship of Christ as the foundation of all truth; we have no good reason to expect the Holy Spirit’s help when we make some other more agreeable grounds our starting point.
Jesus is Lord; there is no “if.” May we have the grace to give encouragement and evidence to the humble of heart and warning and rebuke to the prideful.