Monthly Archives: April 2012

“If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater” (1 John 5:9, NASB). In writing these words, the apostle John was obviously elevating the testimony of God about His Son, Jesus Christ, above that of man. There is no higher testimony than God’s.

Nevertheless, this does not seem to be the view of many today. It is beginning to look as if man’s testimony is being regarded as greater than God’s.

One of the sweeping trends in Christendom today is the use of the personal testimony. Like other Christian neo-traditions, such as the sinner’s prayer and friendship evangelism, personal testimonies have become so ingrained in Christian practice that they have practically been canonized. They are now assumed to be valid rather than scrutinized carefully with the only perfect measuring rod we have: the Bible.

In fact, the personal testimony has become so integral a part of Christian practice today that sometimes it is actually given a formula of sorts. Some churches give detailed instructions on how to write a testimony, in much the same way a writing teacher might instruct students how to craft an essay. This might follow a particular structure, beginning with a description of one’s life before salvation, followed by an account of how one came to faith in Christ, and concluding with a description of one’s life after salvation.

Writing and sharing a personal testimony are not necessarily wrong. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with telling others the great things that God has done in your life. What is wrong, though, is believing that a story about us is just as important as—or greater than—the story about Christ. The question is not whether personal testimonies are wrong; they are not. The real issue is that in many places the testimony of man seems to be elevated to a place that is equal to the gospel and the Word of God not only in importance but also in power. If that is true, we need to ask ourselves: Are we not drifting away from the Word of God?

Although many would never say that they regard their personal testimonies as equal to the gospel in importance, the great emphasis on it and time spent preparing them say otherwise. Why not spend all that time preparing a systematic explanation of the gospel message, talking about God, man and sin, Jesus Christ, faith, and repentance? Why not invest time in studying the precious truths and doctrines of the gospel message so that they can be articulated clearly and responsibly? Building a strong understanding of the truths of the gospel should be our chief preparation for evangelism since those truths must be conveyed clearly and accurately for genuine saving faith to occur. If we downplay these truths or neglect them in favor of presenting our personal stories, are we not drifting away from the Word of God?

Reasons Given for Testimonies

One reason people sometimes give for placing so much weight on a personal testimony is that it can make the gospel relevant. It is thought that if we present our own personal story of how we came to faith in Christ, people can better relate to the gospel. Notice how this explanation subtly attributes quite a bit of spiritual power to the personal testimony. For those who give this explanation, the testimony is not merely a story about oneself but also a potent catalyst for creating a spiritual connection between the hearer and the gospel message. In other words, it is seen as an effective conduit that brings the truth of the gospel home to the hearer, a support to the gospel message that leads the hearer to believe it.
Is this view biblical? Hardly. It is the Holy Spirit who makes the gospel relevant, not we, and He does so by convicting hearers of sin, not through our personal testimonies but in conjunction with the preached message of the gospel, which is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12, NASB). Are our personal testimonies really “living and active”? If we begin to think that they are, are we not drifting away from the Word of God?

Sadly, it seems to be so. One site I visited actually instructs people to use a maximum of two Bible verses in their testimonies. Why such a strict limit? Could it be that the Bible is held in such low regard that, instead of being the main course, so to speak, it has become a mere seasoning to sprinkle on? Another site actually said the following:

Skeptics may debate the validity of Scripture or argue the existence of God, but no one can deny your personal experiences with him. When you tell your story of how God has worked a miracle in your life, or how he has blessed you, transformed you, lifted and encouraged you, perhaps even broken and healed you, no one can argue or debate it. You go beyond the realm of knowledge into the realm of relationship with God. (http://christianity.about.com/od/testimonies/a/howtotestimony.htm)

This explanation is quite alarming. Notice how it makes Scripture inferior to human words by pointing out that Scripture itself can be resisted and debated but your own testimony—mere uninspired words—cannot. The author of this quoted explanation clearly thinks that a personal testimony carries more power than the inspired Word of God. But why? The answer lies in the last sentence cited above: “You go beyond the realm of knowledge into the realm of relationship with God.” The author sees relationship and personal experience as having more authority than biblical truth. This is appalling because it makes Scripture inferior to our words, thus putting the cart before the horse. A relationship with God cannot happen without knowledge of the gospel message. That is indisputable, for Scripture plainly says, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14, NASB). Nevertheless, this elevation of personal experience and relationship over the authority of biblical truth is not uncommon in our culture. Are we not drifting away from the Word of God when we begin to think this way?

Aside from that, the argument itself is simply invalid. People can certainly debate your personal account of salvation. One person once doubted my conversion story, asserting that I was probably going through a difficult period in my life at the time and so my mind was looking for an escape of some kind. Essentially, this person considered my conversion experience to be a natural coping mechanism of my mind rather than a supernatural act of God. He thought my “getting religion” was just a crutch that I used to make it through a difficult time. That very same objection could be reasonably leveled against any personal testimony.

Moreover, the very fact that it cannot be debated against might be grounds for some to dismiss it immediately. A person could argue, “Your experience is personal and subjective, so it is not a valid argument.” Finally, a relativist could have a field day with your testimony, saying, “Well, I’m glad you had such a wonderful experience. My experiences, however, are just as fine, and I’m happy with them.” Even Scripture records an instance in which a Christian’s personal testimony was rejected and argued against. After Paul gave his testimony before King Agrippa, Festus said to him, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad” (Acts 26:24b). Make no mistake about it: A personal testimony can be argued against even more than the Bible.

I can relate to what the author said in the above quote at least in this way: It is truly wonderful when someone does not debate the gospel but receives it without an argument. The way to that point, though, is not through a device of our own making but through preaching of the gospel that is accompanied by the Holy Spirit’s convicting work. When a person is being drawn by God to Christ, he or she will not argue and debate against Scripture. Quite to the contrary, he or she will gladly hear it and absorb it. Paul described the Thessalonians’ acceptance of his preaching in a similar way, saying, “[W]hen you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, NASB). When conversion happens, it is because God and His Word are working in that person’s heart. A personal story of one’s conversion can do nothing to help that. This is not surprising given the fact that “the testimony of God is greater” than the testimony of men (1 John 5:9, NASB).

Another reason sometimes given for the use of personal testimonies is that they can open the door to a gospel presentation by creating interest in the hearer. One has to wonder: If a person has no concern about his or her own spiritual condition, why would the story of yours be interesting? More important, if the story about Christ—the gospel—is not appealing to him or her, how can yours be? Is the story about the disciple somehow more appealing than the story about the Master? Are we not drifting from the Word of God when we begin to think this way?

Some do attempt to use the Bible as a defense for personal testimonies, but these attempts involve incorrect interpretations. One is Revelation 12:11a: “And they overcame him [Satan] because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony” (NASB). There is no indication in the text that the word testimony means what many today suppose: a personal account of how one came to Christ. If it did, then think of what the meaning of the text would be: that those people overcame Satan simply by telling their personal stories! That is absurd. The text refers to their testimony about Christ, not about themselves. The word in Greek is marturia, which means witness, martyr or testimony. The idea is that these people witnessed to the reality of Christ and were slain for it. They were not slain because they told their personal conversion stories; they were slain because they testified to who Christ is. The point is that they focused on Christ, not on themselves. This is made even clearer by the use of the word in other places in Revelation. For example, Rev. 1:2 states that John “testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (NASB). The language here is unmistakable: The idea behind the word is John’s declaration of his witness of Christ. It is a pointing away from oneself and toward Christ. This same idea is repeated in v. 9: “I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” In both cases, it is not the testimony of John but the testimony of Jesus. John talked about Christ, not about himself.

Another biblical passage often used to defend personal testimonies is Acts 26, in which Paul tells King Agrippa an account of his conversion. This, however, was a special circumstance: The apostle was on trial and was defending himself against his accusers. There is no evidence in the New Testament that Paul or any of the other apostles used personal testimonies on a regular basis.

Continued in Part 2.

About the Author



The author of this blog, Jeremy (Jehanne), is a Catholic who strives to think God's thoughts after Him and obey Christ's exhortation to take up the cross daily and follow Him on the way to Golgotha. He likes reading theology, evangelizing, and, of course, writing.