The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is a heavenly message. As such, it often takes a little while until earthly ears can actually understand it to the point of rejecting it for what it is. Many who reject the gospel reject it without having actually understood the message. Very often, and in spite of our best efforts, unbelievers initially hear another message of “do good in my way so that God will accept you.” When possible, acknowledging this dynamic means that we should labor to present the gospel multiple times to a given friend before we conclude that they have actually rejected the gospel.
Years ago, when I was here in Central Asia as a single, I spent the night in a friend’s college dormitory. Many of the students there were from a conservative village area and they spent the whole night trying to convert me to Islam. I graciously returned the favor, in turn spending the whole night trying to explain the gospel to them. Some hours into the night, I remember realizing that these students simply weren’t understanding what I was actually saying. They were processing everything I was sharing with them about faith and the forgiveness of sins through a works-righteousness framework. I had recently received some training on how to share the gospel with Muslims through a series of Old Testament sacrifice stories, culminating in the presentation of Jesus as the final sacrifice for our sins, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).” So I gave this approach a shot.
The ringleader of the students was a young man whose father was a mullah (an Islamic religious teacher) back in the village. I’ll never forget when this student turned to me early in the morning and announced, “I will never allow Jesus to be the sacrifice for my sins. I will be the sacrifice for my own sins!” While grieved by this young man’s self-righteousness and hardness of heart, I was at the same time encouraged. He got it. He understood that we were no longer in a discussion about “my rules are better than your rules,” but that I was presenting was a completely different system of salvation – salvation accomplished by faith in the sacrifice of the God-man. The shift from speaking in more abstract theological categories to speaking in more concrete categories (guilty and forgiven vs. accepted by a sacrifice) seemed to be part of the breakthrough in clarity in this situation.
It is vitally important that we share the gospel to the point where we can see that our friends are actually understanding what we are saying. I fear that rejection of the gospel stemming from misunderstanding is probably more common than we think. Differences, in language, culture, background, and just plain old fallenness usually keep people from being able to really hear us in our first gospel presentation. Even when someone rejects the gospel having clearly understood it, that does not always mean we move on. If I regularly speak of Jesus, and my friend is still open to hanging out with me, then this can mean that in some way my friend might be open to Jesus after all.