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From Mecca to Calvary: The Testimony of Thabiti Anyabwile

04 May

Interview with Thabiti Anyabwile – on his book “The Gospel for Muslims”

 By Matt Svoboda

From the Bible belt, to Islam, to following Jesus, to going into the ministry, and now he has a nationwide stage. Thabiti Anyabwile is a gospel-centered pastor who has preached at the last several Together for the Gospel conferences.  He served under Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC before becoming the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands.  I can’t forget to mention that he doesn’t even like the beach!  He has written a few other books, all of which I have read, and I have been greatly blessed by his preaching and writing ministry.

Thabiti Anyabwile has written a book that I have not read, but have ordered it and am very much looking forward to reading. The Gospel for Muslims appears to be a great book for helping Christians to share Christ with confidence to Muslims. I am grateful that Thabiti agreed to do this interview.  Admittedly, I have not really studied Islam or how to share the gospel with Muslims.  This interview and book will be as beneficial for me as anyone. Enjoy the interview below and you can buy the book at the link above:

1) Could you summarize your testimony of how you converted from Islam to Christianity? What were a couple of “milestones” in your process of conversion?

I grew up in small town North Carolina, smack in the middle of the Bible belt.  My family was nominally Christian, attending church at Easter, Christmas, and few times during the year.  The first turning point came for me when I was arrested after my sophomore year in high school.  I’d never been in trouble before; so I did what my big brothers sometimes did when they got in trouble—I went to church.  But sadly, I didn’t have ears to hear the gospel, and I don’t think the gospel was always preached clearly.

So, I went off to college an angry young man.  There, I began friendships with a number of Muslim men.  By my sophomore year in college, I became a practicing Muslim, zealous for Islam.  I practiced Islam through the rest of undergraduate school and a short time after.  The next turning point came near the end of undergraduate school.  During Ramadan, the Muslim month of prayer and fasting, while reading the Qur’an, I was suddenly aware that the Qur’an admitted too much about Jesus on the one hand (virgin birth, miracles, prophet, gospels are signs from God, etc.) but denied too much on the other hand (not the Son of God, not crucified, etc.).  After a year of trying to find satisfactory answers, I finally concluded that the inconsistencies couldn’t be explained.  Islam was false.

About the same time, a casual conversation with co-workers exposed a nagging problem I’d had all along.  We were discussing various people from world history who we respected.  And a co-worker look at the group and said she couldn’t think of anyone more righteous than me.  After my protests, she continued to insist and to list off the reasons why she thought that.  In that conversation I could see that the righteousness she described was all external behaviors.  But inside, I knew my heart was corrupt and sinful, full of unrighteousness.  I knew I didn’t have the kind of righteousness that would satisfy a holy God.

Rather than turn to Christ, I went further in despair.  Around that time, my wife and I found out we were pregnant with what would have been our first child.  We lost the child three months into the pregnancy.  The Lord dealt us a kind blow.  He humbled us.  And in that period of humbling, we heard the preaching of the gospel with faith for the first time.  The preacher, expounding Exodus 32, explained the sinfulness of sin, and I was deeply convicted.  And the preacher held out Jesus Christ, the only Savior, who not only took God’s wrath against sin but also supplied the perfect righteousness we need to satisfy a holy God.  In God’s amazing kindness, my wife and I both came to faith in the Lord that morning.

2) What is the main reason that you wanted to write this book “The Gospel for Muslims?”

I’m often asked by people who know my testimony, “How can we share the gospel with Muslims?”  When they ask this, they’re really asking, “Is there any special knowledge I need or technique that will be effective in evangelizing Muslims?”  But when you think about it, that’s the wrong question.  The question suggests that we lack confidence in the gospel itself to change the hardest hearts or to save our Muslim neighbors.  So, I wrote the book to remind Christians that “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first but also to the Gentile,” including the Muslim.  What we need is fresh confidence in Christ and the news of His salvation through His death, burial, resurrection, and coming.  If we know the gospel, we know everything we need to know to see our Muslim friends, coworkers, and neighbors saved from the coming wrath of God, and saved to love and enjoy the Savior forever.

3) What are some common misconceptions that Christians have about Muslims?

There are many.  We sometimes think that every Muslim is a terrorist.  Television images and our own fear have a lot to do with that.  But the chances are overwhelming that our Muslim friend or neighbor is not a terrorist.  They’re people with the same concerns, ambitions, and needs as our non-Muslim neighbors.

Also, many people tend to think that every Muslim has memorized the Qur’an by three years old and is able to give extended and sophisticated explanations of their faith.  But in reality, most Muslims don’t know the Qur’an very well at all.  And Islam itself is not one thing all over the world.  Arab Islam differs significantly from Islam in Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world) and North Africa and North America.  You’re more likely to meet a nominal Muslim, much like my nominal Christian family back in NC, than you are to meet a Muslim with the entire Qur’an committed to memory.

But perhaps the biggest myth is that Muslims do not convert.  That simply is not true.  Many, many Muslims are saved by God’s sovereign grace through faith in Christ all the time!  They pay significant costs—losing family, friends and sometimes jobs.  But this is exactly what Jesus tells His followers to expect, and it’s worth it.  As those who already believe, we should expect that the same gospel that saved us will save our Muslim friends.  And we should be ready to help them pay the costs of following our Lord.

4) What are the key passages in Scripture that you use when sharing the gospel with Muslims?  Is there a certain “method” that you use?

I don’t use a certain method in evangelism.  Rather, I concentrate on explaining the gospel clearly, making distinctions in terms so that things like “repentance” and “faith” are seen to be distinct from those things in Islam.  Also, I want to make sure that distinctively Christian realities—like the Trinity, the crucifixion and resurrection, the necessity of turning from sin, abandoning our righteousness, and trusting Jesus alone to save us—are driven home.  I want to make sure my Muslim friend knows that these are personal issues, not just abstract theological issues.  His sin is real.  He has personally offended the holy God of all creation.  His rejection of Jesus means He is abiding in His sin and in God’s wrath.  And unless he repents and trusts Christ, he will suffer eternal judgment.

In my experience, most Muslims are eager to either hear what we think about Jesus, or to try and disprove the gospel.  To do that, they often turn to the gospels themselves.  That puts us on home turf, familiar ground.  Normally, I start where they start and I make sure to read the five verses before and after the verse they usually misquote.  It’s amazing how often the gospel is right there in the context!  So, simply modeling good Bible reading and explaining what’s there tends to “work” as an evangelistic approach.  The Spirit blesses the word.

5) Along with reading your book, how can Christians get trained in order to better share the gospel with Muslims?

There are many good books out there on evangelism.  Continue to read books that encourage in a biblical approach to evangelism.  I’d recommend Mark Dever’s The Gospel and Personal Evangelism and Mack Stiles’ Marks of the Messenger and Speaking of Jesus (which has a video training resource as well).  Those would be wonderful works to study.  Also, reading good books on the gospel itself, including: Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel?, and John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied.

But there’s really no training like actually sharing your faith.  Don’t worry about “having all the answers.”  In the process of sharing and being questioned, God gives us grace and teaches us things we won’t likely learn any other way.  Consider Philemon 6: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.”  Isn’t it awesome of God to tie our evangelism together with granting us “a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ”?  The Lord simultaneously reaches the sinner and rewards the evangelist!

6) Are there any “pitfalls” that Christians often fall into when sharing the gospel with Muslims?

There are several, most of them connected with the misconceptions we have of Muslims.  We sometimes give in to the fear of man.  We sometimes find ourselves playing Bible “ping pong,” lobbing verses back and forth in an effort to win an argument.  Sometimes we try to make unpleasant aspects of the gospel more appealing by leaving them out or softening them.  Or, we’re lured into accepting the claims and premises of Islam as though they were true.  All of these can be pitfalls.

7) What are some “things to avoid” when sharing the gospel with Muslims?

I don’t think it’s helpful to get into discussions of politics, to attack the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad, or to be disrespectful.  When we’re fearful, feeling under-prepared, and lose sight of the fact that we’re trying to win people to the truth that is in Christ, our flesh exerts enormous control and we tend to do things we’d probably be better off avoiding.

Also, it’s important to avoid serving pork products (or having them in your home) if you’re inviting a Muslim friend or neighbor over.  Avoid immodest clothing and cross-gender conversations.  Many Muslims associate Christianity with the decadence and moral decay of the West.  We want to avoid those associations.

Try your best to avoid assumptions, like: they’d never be interested in attending my church.  Actually, your Muslim neighbor or friend may find themselves with freedoms and interests that they couldn’t pursue in other countries.  Don’t assume they’re not interested in the faith and the church.

8) What are some good ways Christians can lovingly engage Muslims in their community?

Love Muslims the way you’d love anyone.  They’re people made in God’s image, and they experience the same burdens, needs, ambitions, and cares as everyone else.  So, in general, simply move toward them in intentional love.  As we pay attention to them, opportunities for specific acts of kindness and love will emerge.

But some general things also come to mind.  Volunteer in an English-as-Second-Language class or group.  Invite them to your home for a meal or to watch a game.  Most internationals will live in the United States without ever entering an American home.  Practice hospitality.  Also, if you both have children, ask them how they and the kids are adjusting to the culture and ways of the U.S.  Invite your Muslim neighbor and their children to participate in a ball game or some other activity you share with your children.  Be something of a cultural broker, empathizing with their struggles and helping them negotiate life in your community.

9) Any final thoughts or advice that you would like to share with Christians who would like to better engage Muslims with the gospel?

Let the gospel do the work!  Be confident in the power of God encased in the gospel.  Get out there are share the good news and trust the Spirit to use you for the glory of Christ!

More About Thabiti Anyabwile: He is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. In his own words, “I love the Lord because He first loved me. I love His people because He has given me a new heart. I have received God’s favor in the form of my wife, Kristie. And together we know His blessing through three children. I was once a Muslim, and by God’s grace I have been saved through faith in Jesus Christ. By God’s unfathomable grace I am a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in which I hope to serve Him until He returns or calls me home!”

He earned his B. A. and M. S. degrees in psychology from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. Before moving to minister in the Caribbean, he served with Dr. Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is married to Kristie and they have three children: Afiya, Eden, and Titus. As a native of Lexington, North Carolina, he has an affinity for Western-NC-BBQ. Thabiti writes regularly at Pure Church as part of The Gospel Coalition blog crew. He has also authored several books, The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence (Thabiti converted to Christianity from Islam); Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons; Ephesians: God’s Big Plan for Christ’s New People; May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes; What Is A Healthy Church Member?; The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity; The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African American Pastors. He has also contributing chapters to the following books: For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper; Holy, Holy, Holy: Proclaiming the Perfections of God; Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology; Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity; and John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology.

The Interview above took place on About the Author: Thabiti Anyabwile is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. In his own words, “I love the Lord because He first loved me. I love His people because He has given me a new heart. I have received God’s favor in the form of my wife, Kristie. And together we know His blessing through three children. I was once a Muslim, and by God’s grace I have been saved through faith in Jesus Christ. By God’s unfathomable grace I am a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in which I hope to serve Him until He returns or calls me home!”

He earned his B. A. and M. S. degrees in psychology from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. Before moving to minister in the Caribbean, he served with Dr. Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is married to Kristie and they have three children: Afiya, Eden, and Titus. As a native of Lexington, North Carolina, he has an affinity for Western-NC-BBQ. Thabiti writes regularly at Pure Church as part of The Gospel Coalition blog crew. He has also authored several books, The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence (Thabiti converted to Christianity from Islam); Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons; Ephesians: God’s Big Plan for Christ’s New People; May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes; What Is A Healthy Church Member?; The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity; The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African American Pastors. He has also contributing chapters to the following books: For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper; Holy, Holy, Holy: Proclaiming the Perfections of God; Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology; Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity; and John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology.

The interview above took place on May 7, 2010 and can be found on SBC Voices: http://sbcvoices.com/interview-thabiti-anyabwile-the-gospel-for-muslims/

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