Toward a Christlike Engagement with Muslims regarding God’s Love
As Christians and Muslims we both intend to refer to the one and only God, and we both speak about this God’s love. But how we understand God’s nature and the nature of his love are different, and the consequences are significant. . . . How do we bear faithful witness to the love of God in Christ to our Muslim friends?
The experience and witness of followers of Jesus is that God has revealed himself to be Father, Son, and Spirit. He is one God, as Islam confesses, but he exists in the mystery of his own divine life as three unique persons. This understanding of God is not merely the result of Christian reason or philosophy but rather a necessary conclusion derived from God’s self-revelation in redemptive history. For Christian theology, this is the theological foundation—everything else starts here.1 This is the God who exists, the one who has spoken in his Word and by his Spirit, who has both created the world and reconciled us to himself. God, as he is in himself—in his own divine life as Father, Son, and Spirit—is indeed a great mystery. Yet it is one that perfectly meets our needs; through this mystery we come to know the true depths of God’s love in Christ.
He is one God, as Islam confesses, but he exists in the mystery of his own divine life as three unique persons.
Understand the Dimensions of Islam
In thinking about the relationship between the Muslim conception of God and his love and the Christian understanding, we have seen that there are both similarities and differences. As we have seen, it can be argued that Muslims from an historical perspective are referring to the same God as Christians do. When Muhammad came on the scene, he identified the God he wanted to call the tribes of Arabia to worship as the God of the people of the Book, the God of the Jews and Christians. He was speaking of the same God and calling on the Arab tribes to worship that God alone (not idols, nor the tribal gods).
In part the theology is the same: God is one, and he is Creator and judge—omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. But the monistic interior life of Allah is a different conception than the communal and relational life of the triune one; a God who is imagined as radically transcendent is theologically different from the God who in the person of the Son became incarnate. These are huge theological differences, with significant implications for how we understand divine love.2
There is not only a historical and theological perspective on the question of God’s identity; there is also a relational question: are Muslims in the same relationship with God as Christians? Again there can be a partial yes here, but there must also be a significant no. We must be cautious here. There are some questions we should best leave with God himself. As Muslims say, “God knows best” (Q 6:57–58). But what does the New Testament reveal about how God relates to those outside of Christ? As followers of Jesus, we confess that salvation is in him alone. But God does relate to the non-Christians, wooing them to himself by his Spirit, convicting them of sin, righteousness, and judgment. He does cause his common grace to fall on the just and the unjust—because he is the God of the whole creation.
Yet Muslims do not personally acknowledge God as Father, nor have they entered by faith into the new covenant that Jesus instituted by his sacrifice, nor are they indwelt by that Holy Spirit given to those who confess Jesus as Lord, the Spirit who regenerates and sanctifies. In these respects they are not related to God. They recognize him as sovereign and judge, but not as Savior. And this is where we can, and must, bring our Muslim friends the good news, the glad tidings of how they can fully enter into a saving relationship with God and experience his perfect love. This leads us to a fourth and final perspective about the relationship of Muslims to God.
Bear Faithful and Christlike Witness to the Gospel
This is the missional question. Does God love Muslims? Here the answer is a resounding yes. The Father manifests his infinite love for all people in the redemptive work of Christ, in the ministry of the Spirit, and then in the mission of the church.3 But we must ask ourselves; do we love our Muslim neighbors and friends? The answer ought to be an unqualified, self-sacrificing yes. Samuel Zwemer was an exemplary missionary of the last century who sought to reflect faithfully God’s love for Muslims. He wrote, “After forty years experience, I am convinced that the nearest way to the Muslim heart is the way of the love of God, the way of the cross.”4
In this light, the question as to whether the Father of Jesus is the God of the Muslim takes on a powerful missional dimension. God’s love calls us to reflect his missional heart by giving our lives, as he gave his in Christ, in self-sacrificing love for our Muslim friends, that they, too, might be reconciled to God and enjoy the riches of his love.5 This means that we must enter into the lives and experiences of Muslims everywhere—we should do this, even as the Son of God came and dwelt among us in our human condition.
Attend Each Other's Faith with Care
We also need to enter into the theological world of Islam. We must seek to understand accurately, sympathetically, and intimately the thought world of Islam, especially on the doctrine of God. In this way we can “blow our horn” more skillfully and so bear witness to the distinctive blessings of the gospel. From a more informed vantage point, we can see both the strengths and weaknesses of the Muslim understanding of God and begin to show in a loving, respectful way the beauty and wonder of God’s love in Christ.
By understanding the Islamic story, with its aspirations and problems, we can situate ourselves inside their hearts and minds in a way that enables us to point to what alone can satisfy. Then we can reveal how their best spiritual aspirations (e.g., to submit to God and love him), as well as their limitations (e.g., the human proneness to wander into sin, the human inability to reach a God who is so transcendent), are answered marvelously in the love of God in Christ.6
This article is adapted from The Love of God by Daniel J. Ebert.
1. On God’s love in the work of Father, Son, and Spirit with relevance for Islam, see John Gilchrist, The Love of God in the Qur’an and the Bible, published by Jesus to the Muslims, 1989, www.answering-islam.org/Gilchrist /love.html.
2. See Cragg, “Islamic Theology,” for some helpful suggestions for engaging Muslims about these differences.
3. David Bosch put it this way: “Mission has its origin in the heart of God. God is the fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission. It is impossible to penetrate deeper still; there is mission because God loves people.” David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011), 384.
4. Samuel Zwemer, The Cross and the Crescent (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1941), 246.
5. For a collection of fascinating biographical essays by men and women who have given their lives to the study of Islam, see Christian W. Troll and C. T. R. Hewer, Christian Lives Given to the Study of Islam (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).
6. This strategy is argued and illustrated by Curtis Chang in Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000).