The First and Great Commandment:
How does a Christian ever communicate the Trinity to Muslims? If you use an illustration to explain it, you may be sorely disappointed. One of the favourite representations of the Trinity is water which, though one in substance, can be threefold in its form – steam, water or ice depending on its temperature. If you use this symbolic image for the Trinity, a wise Muslim will retort: “So, when God is steaming hot, he is the Father; when he is at room temperature, he is the Son; and when he is ice cold, he is the Holy Spirit.” Don’t blame the Muslim, you’ve invited this sort of ridicule.
The Trinity is not a concept of God, nor can it be illustrated. It is the revelation of God at the depth of his divine being, and the common denominator is love. All Muslims will accept the suggestion that human beings are the servants of God, called to obey his commandments and do his will. But there is another dimension here which only believing Christians can know, and it is summed up in this text:
What does the Lord require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Deuteronomy 10:12
The new dimension is summed up in just three words, to love him, and as we contemplate these words, we realise that our service to God is not just to be a conformity to duties, such as fixed times of prayer and a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage, but a much deeper devotion of the heart towards the God who loves us from the depth of his own being. Even in Old Testament times he spoke of “my eyes and my heart” (1 Kings 9:3) and in the New Testament we see this love fully expressed in Jesus Christ. Here, more than in any other witness source, we have our best opportunity to reveal to Muslims who our God and Father really is.
This is the essential difference between Christianity and Islam. The Muslims strive all their lives, through good works and conformity to Islamic religious prescriptions, to gain the favour of God; yet we begin with that favour impressed upon us and are called to a lifetime of service to others with no regard for our own well-being. For we know his banner over us is love (Song of Solomon 2:4) and that nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:39).
You have no finer point for witnessing to Muslims of the glory of the Christian faith, our knowledge of God at the depth of his love for us, than you have here. Muslims are trained to follow the precepts of their religion, believing God will accept them provided they do this in spite of their sins and personal coldness of their hearts towards him. Yet we know that a true devotion consists of a much deeper commitment which is summed up in these words:
And this is love, that we follow his commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that you follow love. 2 John 6
As the Bible puts it so beautifully, we love, because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We know that our sins are forgiven in Christ, that we have already become children of God, that we have received the Spirit of God, that we know God personally, and that we are the sons and daughters of his kingdom. Why? Because we know the Triune God.
In Old Testament times God revealed himself purely as El-Shaddai, God Almighty. He also revealed his name, Yahweh, the God who is, apart from whom there is no god. But in the New Testament we have a much fuller revelation of God at the depth of his being, a triune God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who (as we shall see) is God for us, God with us, and God in us. Never mind theological differences with Muslims, here you have the best opportunity to express to Muslims who God really is and how he desires to enter into a deep personal relationship with them.
The Love of God in the Qur’an:
Firstly, let us look at how the Qur’an sees the love of God. The book contains many exhortations to true believers to love God with the assurance that Allah approves of those who are devoted to him. A typical text expressing this equation reads:
Say, if you love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. Surah 3:31
Significantly one does not find, in this text nor in any other in the Qur’an, the command to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind. The reason is that these texts in the Qur’an are only an exhortation to obedience to Allah’s commands, and Allah’s “love” is really no more than a gesture of approval of the faithful worshipper. The basic object of this love, accordingly, is the acquittal and approval of God for the believer. A few issues here are important in our witness to Muslims:
1: No knowledge of forgiveness ans acquittal:
The Muslim’s devotion is all directed towards one goal – gaining the approval of God when his life is over. He ends where we rejoice to begin! The Qur’an leaves the issue of God’s forgiveness undecided. While it teaches that he is al-Ghaffur, “the Forgiver,” it never assures the Muslim of his total forgiveness for his sins. That remains to be seen in eternity. The Muslim can strive for Allah’s forgiveness but he can never know it. He therefore strives towards one goal, his ultimate acquittal on the Day of Judgment which he hopes to attain through his good works and religious devotions. In such circumstances he cannot love God from the depth of his heart. He cannot express such love without some prospect of acquittal and acceptance with God foremost in his soul and mind.
2: No expression of God’s love for mankind:
The Qur’an says very little substantially about God’s love for mankind. Invariably this is defined as no more than an approval of those who do good. This verse is a typical example of the overall teaching of the Qur’an about God’s love for mankind:
Spend your wealth for the cause of Allah, and be not cast by your own hands to ruin; and do good. Lo! Allah loves the beneficent. Surah 2:195
So Allah’s love for mankind is very little different to man’s love for him. The Muslim primarily seeks approval, and the God of Islam gives that approval to those who are faithful to him. In every case where the expression “love” occurs it can be translated “approves of” rather than “loves” without any change in the meaning of the expression. The knowledge and realisation of this approval will also only be known at the Last Day. This is virtually all that the Qur’an teaches about Allah’s love for the human race.
3: The Allah of Islam has no heart:
According to Islamic tradition Allah has ninety-nine names. They are all Biblical enough (an equivalent for every one can be found in the Bible), yet they are not part of his essential being. According to Islam they are all no more than attributes of Allah and that he can express or withhold them at will. They are not essential to his being. Allah can choose to be faithful, loving, forgiving, accepting and so on. He can just as readily and justifiably choose to be unforgiving, rejecting, displeased and disapproving. It all depends on his own judgment. No man has any claim on him. He can express his attributes at will. No one can accuse him of unfairness for he does what he pleases.
Allah has neither heart nor soul. The great Muslim scholar al-Ghazzali brought this out very clearly in his book al-Maqsad al-Husna (The Beautiful Names). He went out of his way to assert that the title al-Waddud, “the Loving One,” means far less than the title may seem to indicate. Although some of the ninety-nine names of Allah appear regularly in the Qur’an (such as ar-Rahmaan, “the Compassionate” and al-Aziz, “the Mighty”), this one only appears twice and without significance to the text preceding it (Surahs 11:90, 85:14). Al-Ghazzali explains the love of Allah as consisting solely of objective acts of kindness and expressions of approval.
He denied that Allah feels any love for mankind in his heart, stating that he remains above the feeling of love. Quite what that means he does not say, nor does he explain how any being can be a better person by being devoid of heartfelt affection towards other beings, but his interpretation of Allah as the Loving One is quite clear. He added that love and mercy are desired in respect of their objects only for the sake of their fruit and benefit and not because of empathy or feeling.
This explains why the Qur’an omits the Biblical command to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds. Why should we if he doesn’t feel the same way towards us in return? Essentially there is nothing in the Allah of Islam that can awaken the response of dedicated affection from mankind in return.
We have to go back to the Bible to discover this very God, the Triune God who allows us to come behind the inner curtain and experience the fulness of his love for us as revealed in the Father who loves us, the Son who died for us, and the Holy Spirit who activates the love of God in our hearts.
God the Father: God for us!
I have already dealt with this subject in Facing the Muslim Challenge (pages 83-86) but it is essential to this book and will cover it again, though from a different perspective. There is no better way of making the God of the Bible attractive to Muslims than the revelation of his love for us in the New Testament knowledge of his Triune being.
We shall begin with the Father. “The Father himself loves you,” Jesus told his disciples (John 16:27), and this love is expressed in the form human beings know best, from a parent to a child. If God is our Father, then we are his children, and the relationship we share with him immediately becomes far deeper than anything any other religion can project. According to Islam a believer can never be greater than a servant of God (Surah 19:93), but children have an authority and closeness to their Father that no servant can hope to attain. It is summed up in these words of Jesus:
“What do you think Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from others?” And when he said “From others,” Jesus said to him, “then the sons are free.”Matthew 17:25-26
Because the Christian believer is a child of God, he is already a lawful member of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19). He does not have to earn his place there, nor can he ever be dismissed from God’s kingdom. The children of God are free to enjoy all that their heavenly Father calls his own. They are his heirs along with the supreme heir to the Father’s throne, Jesus Christ. A point made to me by a Muslim once, and my reply to it, brings this out very clearly and you should use it in your witness to Muslims.
The Muslim said to me, “You Christians reduce the glory of God, you call him your Father and therefore make him out to be little more than yourselves.” He continued: “Your Lord’s Prayer opens with just two words, Our Father, which shows just how little you honour him.” He then quoted the first verses of the Qur’an:
All praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Master of the Day of Reckoning. Surah 1:2-4
“See how we glorify Allah,” he proclaimed, “see how great is our praise to him! How different to your simple introduction, Our Father.” I replied that he had quite rightly discerned one aspect of Christian belief about God, but had completely missed another. “You are quite right when you say our God is not much higher than we are, that the gap between us is very small” I continued, “but you’re missing the point. It’s not down at our level that the gap is narrow, it’s up at his!” I finished by saying that we never made God our Father at any time, rather he made us his children when his own Son died and rose again for our salvation and redemption. We have been raised right up to his level and are declared to be little lower than himself (Psalm 8:4-6).
There is no other religion in the world that relates to God even remotely as close as ours does. We are his heirs! You will know the saying, “Like father, like son,” and nowhere is this more true than in the person of Jesus Christ who is the exact image of the living God (Colossians 1:15). Yet we too have become the sons and daughters of God and are not just his servants but are constantly being renewed and conformed to his likeness. Another well known expression also applies here: “One day my son this will all be yours.” Once again this is perfectly true of the heavenly Father’s commitment to his own Son, but because we share in the inheritance of Jesus, his kingdom will one day also be ours as well. It is his good pleasure to give it to us (Luke 12:32). We are not religious people, reciting scriptural texts, performing pilgrimages, going through ritualistic practices, conforming to a pattern of life as Muslims are. We are a redeemed people of God, we have been set free from dead works and pointless repetitive ceremonies. We know God personally, we have entered into his very presence, we have an assured hope, and we can bask in the knowledge of his absolute love for us. We do not hope for forgiveness, we have it.
Bilquis Sheikh titled her testimony of conversion to Christ I Dared to Call Him Father. It is because of this intensely close relationship that we know that God is for us, he has predetermined our destiny. Knowing God as Father is one of the finest ways you can convey the love of God and our experience of his glory to Muslims. Ours is not a concept of God, it is a living knowledge of his eternal being. We do not simply believe in God, he believes in us!
God the Son: God with us.
Jesus Christ was not just the final messenger of God, he is also God’s final message to mankind! John’s Gospel more than any of the other three, focuses on the unique revelation of the Triune God in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. John concentrates on teachings of Jesus about God as Father, himself as his Son, and the Holy Spirit. He knew that Jesus had come to open the door, to make God known, and to express his very presence with us on earth.
The Word was in the beginning. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1,14). “God has visited his people!” the Jews declared as Jesus walked among them (Luke 7:16). Indeed he had. Jesus among us was God with us. The most famous verse in the New Testament defines just what this means. One little word, which I shall emphasise, brings this out very emphatically:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
Here you have, once again, the heart of the Christian Gospel, the essential basis of all our witness to Muslims. The Qur’an has very little to say about the love of God other than to use the word as an expression of approval, and it is little wonder when it denies the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for our sins. It has denied the greatest manifestation of God’s love that could ever have been given to mankind. As Jesus said:
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
This is the greatest and most abiding form of love, love that is as strong as death (Song of Solomon 8:6) and cannot be overcome by it. Such love was revealed at its fullest extent when Jesus willingly laid down his life:
When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of the world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. John 13:1
So we see the love of the Father for us in being willing to make us children and the love of the Son by laying down his life so that we might receive the full forgiveness of our sins and so become the sons and daughters of God. Let us see, in closing, how God applies this love to us by the Holy Spirit who enters into our very own beings.
God the Spirit: God in us.
This is where we actually experience the love of God towards us. This is where it becomes real to us. In a nutshell the following passage defines this principle:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:4-6
This is, perhaps, the most remarkable evidence of God’s love towards us. Christians actually know God, his Spirit lives within them. This activates a personal awareness of the love of God in Christ towards us and makes us experience a living relationship with God. Ultimately the difference between those who are approved by God and those who are not is not just a matter of conviction and belief. It is a difference of mega proportions. God actually dwells in believers as opposed to unbelievers who are contaminated by their sins. It is not a certificate of assurance that we have informing us that our sins are forgiven. We are united to God. His Spirit dwells in the depths of our being. We are joined to God in a relationship that can never be broken.
Much the same is taught in the following verse where the presence of the indwelling Spirit makes us conscious of our relationship with God:
When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:15-17
The issues between Muslims and Christians do not focus on the identity of God. Our message to the Muslims is not that they worship a false god and that they must now come and worship the true God. Not at all. It’s a question of the depth of the revelation of God’s love towards us. In Christ we have gained an access to God which brings us into the very depth of his divine presence and here we discover the Triune nature of God and its essential basis – his everlasting love for us.
When we witness to Muslims we are calling them away from the mechanics of lip service to God. We are encouraging them to abandon the repetitive rituals they slavishly follow day after day, such as the monotonous salaat which is little more than an exercise of physical devotions, mundanely performed with the same endless routines. We are encouraging them to come into a living relationship with God where they can experience his forgiveness and divine presence in their hearts, challenging them daily to forsake all sinfulness, opportunism, selfishness and deceit; so that they may become like God in his perfect purity and righteousness and be prepared for a kingdom of perfect holiness.
Our message to the Muslims is this: we have come to know God, we have been forgiven by God, we have been adopted as the eternal children of God, we have received the Spirit of God, we are heirs of the kingdom of God. This is what the Gospel really is, not a presentation of correct beliefs or a formula to draw near to God, but a deep call to a living knowledge of God and the assurance of a place in his eternal kingdom when it will be revealed at the end of time. The Holy Spirit within us is the “guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14).
This is why Christians can afford to be humble rather than arrogant. This is why we can be satisfied with our worship without having to prove anything to ourselves. The seal of God is upon us. We have nothing to prove. We are God’s children now. We have the deep assurance of his love towards us. This is not something we one day hope will work our way. The indwelling Spirit has given us the definite knowledge that we are God’s children now and that our place in his eternal kingdom is an absolute certainty. We do not hope for God’s approval on the Day of Judgment, we know that that day will be the moment of our glorification as we are joined with Jesus Christ to reign over his kingdom for all eternity. This certainty is beautifully emphasised in these two texts:
Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. Romans 5:5So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. Ephesians 2:19-22
Muslims often think the Trinity is a self-evident fallacy, the great weakness of the Christian faith. On the contrary it is our greatest strength. It reveals the depth of God’s love towards us and our opportunity to know him personally. The Father opens the door for us to draw closer to God than the adherents of any other religion could ever have imagined, the Son through his redeeming death and resurrection has made it possible for us to be forgiven of all our sins right now, and the Spirit has entered our hearts to join us even now to God in an absolute oneness of being.
The Muslim hopes to be forgiven on the Day of Judgment and directs all his devotion and service towards this end; the Christian knows he is forgiven and lives out his life in heartfelt service to God, seeking no favours for himself but the welfare of others. We begin where Muslims hope to end!