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Girl-Bible clutch-NO-RINGEvangelicals love a good story. We’re all about “sharing our testimonies” and “telling our stories” and recounting our “spiritual journey.”

This emphasis on personal experience is one of evangelicalism’s strengths. We understand conversion as more than mere assent to Christianity’s teaching and more than mere observance of rites and rituals associated with the church. It’s no wonder that sharing our stories is a main aspect of evangelical identity and evangelistic activity.

But there’s a subtle danger lurking here. Because of our emphasis on conversion stories and testimonies, we can unintentionally make people think that evangelism is the same thing as sharing your experience.

We interpret The Great Commission’s “Go make disciples” as “Go tell your story.” They are not the same thing.

Here’s why…

Jesus and the Great Commission

When most of us think of the “Great Commission,” we start with the word “go.” The gist of Christ’s command is that we are to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching, right?

But Matthew’s version of the Commissioning scene doesn’t start with “go.” The commission itself is sandwiched between two statements related to Jesus Christ: the first concerns His authority, and the second concerns His empowering presence.

The flow of the passage goes like this:

  • All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus.
  • Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…
  • Jesus promises to always be with His people.

Luke’s commissioning scene gets at this same truth in a different way. For Luke, the focus is on the gospel going out in Jesus’ name.

  • The Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms point to Jesus, whose death and resurrection fulfills Old Testament prophecy.
  • Witnesses will proclaim a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins.
  • This message is proclaimed “in Jesus’ name” to all nations.

For Luke, the name of Jesus is the source of authority. In Acts, this element is not emphasized in the commissioning scene itself, but in the rest of the narrative, where the theme of Jesus’ name carrying power and authority becomes a major point of the story.

3 Elements of Genuine Christian Witness

Both Luke and Matthew infuse their commissioning scenes with christological truth. So, how did the apostles, under the authority of Jesus, witness to the truth? Notice three elements:

  1. The events at the heart of the gospel are at the heart of their proclamation. The sermons in Acts reveal how the apostles walked their hearers through the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
  2. They are witnesses to the character of Jesus in the way they pattern their ministry after his miracles and show his compassion to those in need.
  3. They are witnesses to their own Christian experience. The Apostle Paul, for example, recounts his conversion experience on two occasions in Acts (22:6‒21 and 26:12‒23).

What About Now?

So what does this mean for us today?

  1. The events of the gospel – Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – must be at the heart of our proclamation.
  2. What we do should also witness to Christ as we follow His example.
  3. Our conversion experiences should back up our gospel proclamation.

If we get these out of sync, we hinder our effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission.

For example, some Christians may focus so much on the second aspect (what we do) that they fail to verbally proclaim the gospel (what Christ has done).

Another example: some Christians focus so much on the third aspect (our conversion experience) that they fail to properly proclaim Christ’s life and work.

Let’s look at this second danger a little more closely.

Christ’s Work in History vs. Christ’s Work in Your Life

The meaning of the word “witnesses” in Luke 24 and Acts 1, as well as throughout the narrative of Acts, refers to those who witnessed the work of the Lord and spoke of it to others. The witness of the disciples was centered on Christ’s life and work, most clearly seen in his death and resurrection.

So, let’s take note: the focus of apostolic preaching in Acts is not on the conversion experiences of the disciples, but on the work of Christ that makes conversion necessary. For this reason, we should ensure that our testimony of Christ’s work focuses primarily on what Christ did in history, not merely what Christ has done in our life.

The Place for Personal Testimony

That said, there is a place for personal conversion testimonies. After all, Paul appealed to his experience when testifying to his uniqueness as an apostle. The Samaritan woman ran into town and told of her conversation with Jesus. The man born blind, after being healed by Jesus, went and told everyone what had happened to him.

Don’t hear me saying that we should stop giving personal testimonies! They are powerful.

We should work, however, to make sure these testimonies undergird and support the clear gospel message and don’t somehow replace it. What Jesus has done for me should always be connected to what Jesus has done, period.

What Happens When Personal Testimony Takes Over

Focusing primarily on our own experiences with Christ can unintentionally downplay the importance of the historic events upon which the Christian faith stands or falls.

An evangelist who speaks only of his personal experience with Jesus may be surprised to encounter others who speak just as genuinely of their personal experiences in Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism. The initial desire to speak of what one has experienced personally may run into the rocks of multiculturalism, leading to a neutered presentation of the gospel that loses its basis in historical reality.

The role of personal experience in testifying to the work of Christ should be seen as a further evidence of the power of the gospel. It is not the gospel itself, but it testifies to its power.

To sum up: gospel presentations that include personal testimonies should take care to emphasize the gospel itself (the news of Christ’s death and resurrection), not merely our personal experiences of life transformation. A change of heart is a further demonstration of the gospel and should be used in personal evangelism, as long as the focus remains on Christ’s objective work on the cross.


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11 thoughts on “The Great Commission Means Sharing Christ’s Story, Not Yours”

  1. Spot on! The same kind of conflict exists in relation to worship in misreading Hebrews 13:15, when we begin by quoting, “We bring the sacrifice of praise…” rather than the beginning of the verse; “Through Jesus, then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise….” Makes all the difference! Thank you for your post.

  2. Ben Miller says:

    Good article… so necessary to put personal testimony in its rightful place as subservient to the gospel message of the person and work of Christ!

    As a side note, a great treatment of the five great commission passages is Marvin Newell’s “Commissioned,” available on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Commissioned-Marvin-Newell/dp/1889638897/ref=sr_1_fkmr2_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404828684&sr=8-1-fkmr2&keywords=commissioned+marv+newell . I don’t think too many Christians understand just how concerned Jesus was with preparing his disciples for the mission they were about to encounter. He was so concerned that he gave it to them at five different times in five different places, incrementally building upon the other so that they would get a good picture of the scope and the central task of this mission. This book does a great job drawing that out.

  3. Rick Owen says:

    Love this. Thanks!

  4. Great article, Trevin! Thank you!

  5. Bob Jackson says:

    What an important truth!

    I would be interested in others thoughts about this question:
    Does this mean that every presentation should follow the outline above?
    Or is it appropriate to think that those whose strength is personal testimony may present it, while others focus more on What Christ did in history?

    Particularly in today’s fragmented and content-rich media world, is it fair to compare this to Romans 12:4-8 which refers to all of us coming together as the body of Christ – each with our individual gifts?

  6. @JAMatthew says:

    A great article by Trevin Wax but I fear that to passer-byes his title may undercut some efforts to lead the church to be able to articulate a personal witness as a part of a gospel presentation (where of course, the Gospel is primary to the presentation) as we lead college students in the US and house churches in India, I believe we should follow the example of the Women at the well (John 4) and the man delivered of the legion of demons (Mark 5). Christians should immediately respond to Gods grace, share your story, and share God’s story/creation to Christ. http://www.tntechbcm.com/story

  7. Nicholas Charalambous says:

    I think you nail an important point. As a storyteller for a large church, I’ve had the privilege of working on many projects involving personal testimonies — in video and text — and we work hard to make sure that they contain compelling personal experience AND a clear articulation of the gospel. I think, from a practical standpoint, that it would be exceptionally challenging to define exactly when an individual’s story meets the bar that you set. And I’m skeptical that what typical Christians consider a clear “gospel proclamation” would steer clear of Christianese or Christian theology that might prove to be a barrier to non-believers. It’s even harder to coach or guide ordinary people to strike more of that right “balance” without sliding into an inauthentic “preachy” style. Overall, powerful, gospel-saturated personal testimonies grow naturally OUT of a church culture — especially preaching — that is centered on Jesus and his work as it applies to our ordinary lives and experiences. I would welcome you to check out any one of the stories we’ve worked on, and would welcome loving critique: http://newspring.cc/stories.

  8. @JAMatthew says:

    Nicholas,
    I just watched Hykeng’s story. Incredible! Great job capturing his story and Gods story creatively! I hope it is ok if I show this to our campus.
    -JA

  9. Nicholas Charalambous says:

    You bet! NewSpring likes to share our all resources freely with the big “C” church. You take a look at everything available here: http://newspring.cc/resources/series/newspring

  10. Shirley says:

    Thank you for this reminder……

  11. Fred Craig says:

    This is a reply to an individual who sent me the referenced article. I hope it helps.

    I also would like to thank you for the article you sent along. I most heartily agree that we must be careful to not let our story be of greater importance the Christ’s story.

    You said you were looking for scripture to support the need to share our personal testimonies. I would like to suggest Acts 1:8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. The testimony of any witness is only valid when he or she is relating to something they personally experienced. [(The meaning of the word “witnesses” in Luke 24 and Acts 1, as well as throughout the narrative of Acts, refers to those who witnessed the work of the Lord and spoke of it to others.) from the article you sent me.] Thus John’s testimony in 1 John 1:1-4 is valid because he actually did see and hear Jesus both before the crucifixion and after the resurrection. That is not and cannot be my testimony for I did not personally witness Christ during His earthly ministry and I was not there for either His death or resurrection.

    The only testimony I can share as a valid witness is what Christ has done and is doing in my heart and life today. As a vital part of that testimony I include the work that Jesus accomplished during his life, ministry, death and resurrection. Thus I can still be Christ’s witness to the world in which I currently live even as those first disciples were to the world in which they lived.

    When working with non-believers, it does not take long to realize that there is a large and rapidly growing portion of our society that sees Jesus as nothing more than just a man in history. To them, the Bible is nothing more than a work of fiction written by men to control other men. As such, they see Christ and the Bible as totally irrelevant to their life. This is what they have been taught in school and has been reinforced in the news and media.

    QUESTION: When was the last time you gave serious consideration to something you saw as totally irrelevant to your life? Why should the non-believer?

    As they see the peace, contentment, love, forgiveness and hope of Christ being displayed in our lives and they ask how or why we can be that way; this provides an opportunity to share with them our personal testimony of what Christ has done and is doing for us based upon what He did in the past. In addition we can assure them that Jesus can and will do the same for them if they the will humble themselves before God, confess, repent and believe. It is in this way that the believers of today continue to be Christ’s witnesses “unto the uttermost part of the earth.”

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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