The Power of a Personal Testimony
By Bob Wilkin
At a recent conference during a question and answer session a man said that he was born again one year before he believed in heaven and life after death. He said he believed Jesus forgave his sins in this life, so he is now convinced he was born again at that time even though he believed that when you died, you ceased to exist.
I have heard lots of testimonies over my 34 years of ministry. While that one is quite unusual, I have heard many others that are also not accurate reflections of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is my contention that if your testimony does not accurately portray the message of John 3:16, then you should change your testimony. I realize that people get attached to their testimonies: “But that’s what happened to me!” Yet if your testimony is inconsistent with Scripture, then what happened to you at that time was not your new birth. It may have been a work of God in your life in which He gave you more insights into His Word. However, until your testimony clearly reflects the gospel Jesus preached, you haven’t yet explained what you believed to be born again.
Here are some of the confusing conditions of eternal salvation that I’ve heard and read over the last 34 years:
- I gave my life to Christ.
- I turned from my sins.
- I received Christ as my Lord and Savior.
- I yielded my life to the Lord Jesus Christ.
- I invited Jesus into my heart.
- I went under the water and came up a new man.
- I made Jesus Lord of my life.
- I decided to follow Jesus.
- I committed my life to Christ.
- I put Jesus on the throne of my life.
- I got on my knees and cried out to God.
- I repented of my sins and turned to Christ.
- I walked the aisle and publicly confessed Christ.
I’ve recently heard several pastor friends who are DTS graduates say that they don’t question the testimonies of people. If someone says they are born again, they accept the profession. If that claim is backed up by a confusing testimony, they accept that too. Evidently their view is that people can grow into clarity on the gospel, being saved by believing some form of works salvation, and then later coming to believe in everlasting life by faith alone in Christ alone.
While I too respect the convictions and experiences of other people, I do not accept those convictions as true unless they correspond with Scripture. People cannot be born again unless they clearly understand and believe that simply by believing in Jesus they have an irrevocable salvation (or life, or relationship with God). As long as someone believes that he must do good works to make it to heaven, he doesn’t believe the message that Jesus preached to Nicodemus and the woman at the well in John 3 and 4.
If I evangelize someone and they say that they should get into heaven because of their commitment to Christ, I explain John 3:16 or 5:24 or 6:47 to them. Since they don’t believe the saving message right now, they are either an unbeliever, or a believer who has since become confused and has forgotten the saving message.
Therefore, if I speak with a church person and they give me a false condition of eternal life in their testimony, I evangelize them. I don’t assume they are born again simply because they attend church regularly or had a life-changing experience many years ago.
Testimonies also pop up with confusing consequences, such as:
- I believed that Jesus forgave my sins and I was born again, but it wasn’t until a year later that I believed in heaven and life after death.
- I am an accounting major and I invited Jesus into my heart to help me with all the stresses I’m under.
- I came to Jesus and He delivered me from my drug addiction.
- Jesus has saved me from depression and guilt.
- When I gave my life to Jesus, He took away all my bad habits.
- I haven’t sinned at all since I committed my life to Jesus.
When someone reports a consequence that isn’t everlasting life or the equivalent (justification that can’t be lost, eternal salvation, etc.), then I evangelize them. They don’t grasp what Jesus promises—irrevocable life. Of course, as you can see in the above examples of false consequences, only one of them cites believing in Jesus as the condition, and even then the consequence isn’t believing in Jesus for everlasting life. Often people give both a wrong condition and a wrong consequence in their testimonies.
Testimonies Have Power, But Are They Powerfully Good or Bad?
If we uncritically accept testimonies that report a flawed condition or a flawed consequence as factual, without submitting them to the lens of Scripture, then whatever people say is placed on par with Scripture. If someone says he was born again before he believed in life after death, then belief in life after death is not required. Who knows all the bizarre doctrines that will result if our doctrine of salvation comes from the experiences of people and not from Scripture?
A bad testimony powerfully conveys false doctrine. Even well-grounded people can be led astray by someone they respect giving a confusing testimony.
In 1985 one of the classes I taught at Woodcrest Bible College was on evangelism. One of the assignments I gave was to write up how you became a Christian.
One young man wrote a very confusing semi-Lordship testimony. At one point he wrote something like, “Then I gave my life to Christ and became a Christian.” I wrote him a note, indicating that this isn’t how a person is born again and asked him to rewrite the confusing portion.
I got back an equally confusing piece. This time he said something like, “Then I received Jesus as my Lord and Savior and I was born again.” While the words were different, the message was still wrong and confusing.
Thinking we had some communication problem, I called him into my office to talk. “Why did you keep writing about giving your life to Christ and receiving Him as Lord and Savior?” I asked.
“Because,” he replied, “that’s what happened.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, until this class I thought a person was born again by giving their life to Christ,” he lamented. “It wasn’t until this semester that I came to believe that a person is born again simply by believing in Jesus.”
“So when do you think you were born again?” I asked.
“Are you saying I was born again this semester in class?”
“You tell me. When did you first believe that by faith in Jesus you had everlasting life?”
“Oh, I get it. That was this semester.”
He rewrote his testimony and then it was clear. Of course, this changed his testimony. It messed up the story he’d been giving for ten years. But so what? His old story was wrong and misleading. No one is born again by committing his life to Christ. No one is regenerated until he believes in Jesus for everlasting life.
A Clear Testimony Is a Powerfully Good One
In this postmodern age, people love personal stories. Testimonies are a way to convey truth to people. But a testimony is only as good as what it testifies to. Inaccurate testimony is bad in a court of law and it’s bad in Christianity as well.
If your testimony doesn’t match up with Scripture, then you need to change your testimony. It’s that simple. As I told the young college student that day, your testimony needs to accurately reflect how you came to believe in Jesus for everlasting life.
Experience is not the judge of Scripture. The opposite is true. The Bible judges our experience.
It is a tragedy when people use their experiences to determine what the saving message is. They often come up with a message that contradicts Scripture.
The Lord Jesus promised, “He who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). I came to believe this message as a senior in college. However, that wasn’t my original testimony. That’s my new testimony. That’s my accurate testimony.
My former testimony was that when I was sixteen, alone one night in my room at home, I invited Jesus into my life, fully yielding myself to Him. I believed that if I lived a sinless life from that point forward, I’d make it to heaven. One sin, however, and I’d lose my “salvation” and could never get it back.
But I changed my testimony after I came to faith in Christ for eternal life at age twenty. During those four intervening years I was scared that if I died, I would go to hell. (I had a hard time convincing myself I hadn’t sinned in years!) It wasn’t until a Campus Crusade staff member shared the message of life with me that I believed that simply by faith in Jesus I had life that could never be lost. I came to realize that the feeling I had when I was sixteen was not my new birth. Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been the new birth because I didn’t understand and believe the message of John 3:16 until four years later.
Maybe like me, you have two testimonies, one bad (i.e., wrong), and one good (i.e., right). I trust that the one you share with people is the one that accurately portrays the message of life that our Lord Jesus preached.