by Mans Ramstad
Ramstad offers a biblical description of six ways God
works among people prior to their conversion.
The longer I live overseas the more aware I am of the depth and complexity of the religious and cultural past of the people I have come to serve. As I share the gospel and disciple people to spiritual maturity, I am aware of the impact of their cultural and religious past. How are we to view someone’s religious past? This question is relevant to most Christians seeking to bring the gospel to a people or nation relatively unaffected by the gospel.
I suggest there are three common ways to view someone’s religious past. I will argue that God has revealed himself to humanity generally through nature and salvifically through scripture, and that a person’s religious impulses are an erroneous response to an awareness of the true God.
Approach 1: It’s pagan and of no value. Historically, many missionaries ignored or rejected the religious past of the people they came to serve. Of this approach, Kwame Bediako has written that the temptation was to treat anything pre-Christian as either harmful or at best valueless, and to consider the convert from paganism as “a sort of tabula rasa, on which a wholly new religious psychology was somehow to be imprinted” (Hastings 1967, 60). But treating their religious past as in complete opposition to their newfound faith can result in people living life at two levels—half Christian and half in keeping with their cultural background.
Any convert to Christ has been transformed from darkness to light (Col. 1:13-14). There is no salvation apart from Christ, and all experience prior to Christ is tainted by sin. However, the events, inclinations, and aspirations of that person do not exist in complete darkness, but are occurring under the illumination and the Lordship of our sovereign God, and the conviction and compulsion of the Holy Spirit. God is working in, through, and in spite of the many aspects of a person’s life to reveal himself to that person.
Approach 2: It’s God’s work and should be integrated into the gospel. This approach embraces each person’s religious experience as equally valid, and includes many paths to God. This approach is known as pluralism and has been advocated by people such as John Hick and Paul Knitter. Historically, it has been more damaging to the cause of Christ than the first approach, and often results in syncretism.
Both approaches are unacceptable to Bible-believing Christians. A third way of understanding pre-Christian experience is needed.
Approach 3: Pre-Christian experience is partly the work of God, and partly the result of sin. This experience is real and legitimate, and is to be respected and taken seriously when the gospel is presented. The premise of this position is that one’s religious past is part of God’s work in his or her life as he or she has perceived him in general revelation.
His or her pre-Christian experience is to be understood through the lens of true Christianity. Of course, these religious concepts are not themselves true Christianity, for religion without Christ always leads to idolatry. The final arbiter for discerning the basis of one’s religious concepts is the Bible itself, for God would never reveal something through general revelation that would contradict what he has revealed to us in special revelation through his word.
How to understand the religious past of the people we are seeking to minister to is a major mission challenge. I would suggest that we can take general revelation as God’s starting point of our work among them. As we engage them with special revelation (news of the incarnate Christ), we can use terms and concepts known to them as a result of millennia of struggling with general revelation, a struggle which Paul called a “groping after God” (Acts 17:27, NASB used here and throughout).
Those aspects of their experience that are based in sin are not to be embraced, but neither are they to be ignored. They are to be taken seriously in that it is that very sin for which Christ died. Helping them understand the way sin has corrupted them and stained their culture (and will keep them from God) is part of the process of introducing the gospel.
With the Bible as our authority and the Apostle Paul our example, we can engage local people according to their indigenous religious concepts. The classic illustration of this approach is found in Acts 17, Paul’s sermon to the Greeks on Mars Hill in Athens.
This approach requires a big view of God, for we are trusting him to have accomplished special purposes through general revelation and to guide these unsaved “gropers” to the saving truth of the gospel. General revelation can be considered a kind of “preparation for Christianity” (Bediako 1983, 85). Lesslie Newbigin has written, “Even though conversion involves a radical discontinuity, yet there is often the strong conviction afterwards that it was the living and true God who was dealing with them in the days of their pre-Christian wrestlings” (McDermott 2000, 92).
Below is a biblical description of six ways God works among people prior to their conversion.
1. The sovereignty of God. God is sovereign over all events and history. It behooves us to look for imprints of his work in each civilization so that we might praise him, and that we might point out these evidences of his work to participants of that culture.
Acts 17:26-28 tells us that God has determined our geographical locations on earth: “He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the place of their habitation.” Why has he done this? “That they should seek Him and find Him.” The result is the creation of nations and regions by God “that they might know Him.” In Ephesians 3:14 we learn that every family on earth derives its name from God.
Members of animistic or folk religions expect an explanation for the meaning of their prior religious experience. Radical discontinuity with their prior experience is unnecessary. Kim Tok Wong, who works among Chinese people in Singapore, has written, “Evangelism is not just sharing Bible truths in a vacuum. It is also seeing events, aspirations, and circumstances of people in light of God’s providential design and intervention” (Wong 2005, 85).
2. General revelation. Psalm 19:1-2 extols God’s revealing something of himself to humanity through his creation: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and the expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” Romans 1:18-25 tells us that people know much about God by observing the things he has made: “That which is known about God is evident within them, for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made.” This experience with the real God is the foundation for their religious inclinations.
Not all theologians are convinced of the role of general revelation in redemption. Karl Barth was an opponent of natural theology. His deepest worry about natural theology was what kind of god it “proved.” Barth was concerned that belief in natural theology would move one too far from the incarnate Christ. But his concerns were based on his experience in Nazi Germany, among people familiar with Christian theology, and did not adequately engage the issue from the perspective of missions (Hauerwas 2001, 167-170).
Barth did concede “that nature does objectively offer a proof of God, the problem was that man overlooks or misunderstands these proofs.” Barth’s rejection of natural theology was premised on his disbelief in the outcome of such revelation, not on its existence. If he had engaged the issue in the context of animism or folk cultures, he may have been more sympathetic to the role of natural theology in the process of redemption. As Thomas Forsyth Torrance has argued, natural theology is dependent on revelation or self-disclosure from God for its validity (Torrance 1982, 107).
3. Judicial sentiment. God’s general revelation and his having placed “eternity in the hearts” of all people has instilled in every culture a sense of appropriateness, and a need to enforce a certain “rightness” in society. Failure to adhere to these standards creates a sense of guilt or accountability. What is the source of this moral need?
According to Romans 2:12-16, Gentiles who know nothing of the Mosaic Law still obey a “law written in the heart.” God has written this law on all human hearts as a moral compass for society and as a revelation of himself to all people as the lawgiver. This law gives people knowledge of sin. This may in part explain the existence of religion in all cultures. It may also have been the impetus for the Athenian altar to the god whom they perceived, but did not know (Acts 17:23).
Taoism is one of the main religious influences in Chinese thinking, and the only religion indigenous to China. Taoism teaches there is a way (the Tao) the world should be and humans should understand this way in order to live in harmony. This worldview suggests the sense of accountability to a personal, moral administrator of justice. Taoist impulses continue to call Chinese people to understand “the Way.” I believe the true God is the source of this Way, but without awareness of Christ, who is the Way incarnate, they will grope in vain.
All people have some knowledge of God and are inclined to grope after him (Acts 17:27). Without verbal proclamation of the gospel, and without knowledge of this God having incarnated himself in Christ, this knowledge cannot save. But it is a part of the worldview and religious understanding that people possess.
Lutheran theologian George Murphy refers to nature (general revelation) as God’s back and to scripture as God’s mouth. He concludes, “In Christ (the incarnation) we see God’s face.” This summarizes the way God’s revelation functions with increasing intensity and clarity from general revelation, to special revelation (God’s word), to the incarnation of the Son of God among us. Only in Christ does God’s revelation become clear and able to save.
4. Common grace. Although the nations went their own way, God did not leave himself without a witness among them. Even though this witness was not verbal (no special grace), he continued to give them a witness of common grace in that he sent “rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, hearts having been satisfied with food and gladness” (Acts 14:14-17).
Matthew 5:45 tells us that God causes the sun and rain to bless both the righteous and the unrighteous. Do people perceive these blessings as gifts? Whom do they recognize as the giver? (Danaher 2000, 99-114). I believe these gifts are the source of many religious aspirations, even though these aspirations come short of Christ.
The majority of the people I meet in the country where I work are not knowingly lost and wandering in darkness. Most experience “hearts having been satisfied with good and gladness” as a regular part of their lives. The source of these good things in life demands explanation when introducing them to the gospel, and arguing that in Christ all things will be made new.
Arguing from a Chinese perspective, Wong has written, “Common grace may be a little underrated when we have so ‘christianized’ God to the extent that he only blesses us. We don’t imagine him very involved in the rest of mankind” (Wong 2005, 84). Wong’s argument is that embracing Christ is not invalidating the joys in life prior to Christ, but illuminating and explaining these joys fully. Suddenly the source of these blessings and common graces shared by all humanity can be identified, worshiped, and praised!
5. The Lordship of Christ. Belief that we can engage people on their religious concepts is also premised on the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord over all and has been for all time: “For by Him all things were created … all things were created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things and in Him all things hold together" (Col. 1:16-17). He is Christ for the entire universe (for more on the pre-existent Christ and God incarnate, see John 1:1-4; Heb. 1:2-3, 2:14; Col. 1:15-19, 2:9; Phil. 2:6-7; 1 Tim. 2:5; and Eph. 1:10).
The cosmic Christ, who is the eternal logos, shows some light in every religion:
Through the basic fact of God’s general revelation, vouchsafed in nature and in all that is true (including, of course, the truth there is in other religions), and the equally fundamental fact of our common humanity, that the Spirit of God, or the cosmic Christ, brings home to men and women something of their need. (Anderson 1987, 236)
The Spirit of God reveals to us our need of God through many ways, including general revelation. Christ is not only Lord of his people worshiping him in the Church, he is also Lord of all creation. Our task is to help people lift their eyes up to that Lord and give him worship and praise. This is the main task of evangelism.
6. Special revelation. Special revelation also occurred in space and time, and is accessible to all people as an historical event. Hebrews 1:1-3 tells us that God spoke to people many ways through the prophets. Israel failed to listen, and often failed to be a blessing to other nations. However, God did bring his blessing through the Jews in the person of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:14).
In the fullness of time God came to be among us, born of a virgin, given to save the world. His coming broke down the dividing wall separating nations from one another, and themselves from Christ. Christ came to the world to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). Christ has been given to all nations, and came to break into all cultures that they might see him, touch him, and be saved by him (1 John 1:1-3). He was not a culture-bound savior, but broke into the entire cosmos as Savior and Lord.
Special revelation comes to us through the authoritative word of God, and is summed up in the incarnate Word—Jesus Christ. This is the turning point from general to special revelation, and the axis about which true Christian theology spins (Col. 1:19-20; Acts 17:30-31). It is the crux of the gospel, and the place to which we must lead the peoples of the world as we engage them in their religious concepts (Acts 4:12; John 14:6).
The triune God in all his unity is necessary for salvation to be accomplished among people (Torrance 1982). Christ’s work of atonement and the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination and conviction are necessary for general revelation to lead people to salvation. We need the entirety of the Trinity.
Chinese sages, such as Confucius, had access to God through general revelation, but they lacked the word of God, the Holy Spirit, and the Son of God. To be effective, revelation must be received in a living relationship with God. As we learn in 1 Corinthians 1:29-31, no flesh should glory in God’s presence (not Confucius or Laozi or Aristotle or Einstein), but he or she who glories should glory in the Lord. These people had much wisdom, but it came up short; for it is only in Christ where all wisdom is fulfilled.
The context in which we do cross-cultural evangelism is complex and presents us with the challenge of understanding other religions and the pre-Christian experience of those to whom we are ministering. We should enter these contexts with trust in God that he loves the people we have come to serve, and that he has been working among them.
We will experience God’s joy and will be surprised as we see his glory among them. We will also be blessed by participating in the process of helping people grope after God and finding him.
Anderson, Norman, ed. 1987. The World’s Religions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Bediako, Kwame. 1983. “Biblical Christologies in the Context of African Traditional Religions.” In Sharing Jesus in the Two Thirds World: Evangelical Christologies from the Contexts of Poverty, Powerlessness and Religious Pluralism. Eds. Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden, 82-121. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Danaher, James. 2000. “Is Communication from God Really Possible? A Conceptual Problem.” Science and Christian Belief 12(2):99-114.
Hastings, Adrian. 1967. Church and Mission in Modern Africa. London: Burns and Oates.
Hauerwas, Stanley. 2001. With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Brazos Press.
McDermott, Gerald R. 2000. Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? Jesus, Revelation and Religious Traditions. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Murphy, George. Personal email communication. December 13, 2002.
Torrance, Thomas Forsyth. 1982. Reality & Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Wong, Kim Tok. 2005. “Discovering God’s Prior Work in Bringing People to Himself.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 41(1):78-85.
Mans Ramstad (pseudonym) has twenty years of experience communicating the gospel cross-culturally in his country of service. He has written extensively in this area, and continues to study the process by which people come to know God from diverse backgrounds.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 320-326. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.