What’s in a Testimony?

By Shawn Ferguson

There are many categories of witnesses. There are character witnesses, expert witnesses, eyewitnesses, and lay witnesses; there are material witnesses, historical witnesses, and even Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of course, it will immediately be recognized that a common thread runs through each of these categories: a witness of any stripe provides evidence for or against a particular proposition, and this evidence is known as testimony. A witness is one who provides testimony that can be used in assessing the truth or falsity of a particular proposition.

All of this may seem obvious, and in a way it is, but sometimes we must spell out an obvious truth so that we can carefully examine its ramifications. It is a peculiar fact that relatively uncontroversial propositions often entail others that prove extremely controversial. A witness provides testimony, and testimony is used as evidence; this much is relatively uncontroversial. Another uncontroversial truth within the Body of Christ is that all members of the Body are called to be witnesses. This is a mandate from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and it has been taken more or less seriously from the moment it was first issued (see Matthew 28: 16-20; Luke 24:44-53; Mark 16:15-18). Many Christians are passionate about sharing their testimony with unbelievers and agnostic sceptics alike, with the admirable hope that the Spirit will use this testimony to convert hearts and change lives. This has always been, and always will be, a core function of the Body.

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What has become controversial in the modern church is what exactly “giving one’s testimony” involves. Many within evangelical Christianity think that all we need do is share our narrative. We tell of how the power of the Gospel and all the truth it contains has completely changed our lives for the good by bringing us hope and salvation. We tell our interlocutors what the Gospel means to us, how it has met our felt needs, and encourage them to try it on for size themselves. Through this, it is said, God’s Spirit will move powerfully and take care of the rest. To do anything more is to attempt to take matters into one’s own hands, to minimize faith and maximize reason. This practice is seen as misguided at best, and sinful at worst. After all, it is taken as axiomatic that, “you cannot argue someone into the Kingdom of God.”

But can this be correct? Why should we accept the proposal that the Spirit is limited to personal testimony in converting hearts and minds? Is this claim justifiable?

The truth is that I have yet to hear even one good reason why this so. All of the evidence, both scriptural[i] and experiential[ii], points to the fact that the Spirit is not limited to our narratives. People are argued into the Kingdom (that is, the Spirit does use arguments as well as testimony to bring about salvation), and people do sometimes have genuine difficulties in believing the Gospel that must be answered intellectually.

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