Man in the Dock: Courtroom Evangelism in a Day of Idolatry
Christian observers of the notorious Jesus Seminar are alternately amazed and appalled when they learn of New Testament “scholars” using colored beads to vote on the authenticity of the words of Christ.
At one level this kind of attack on God’s Word does not surprise us, since we know from Scripture that fallen man always seeks to suppress His truth. And yet we still find ourselves provoked, wondering how we should respond to proud, intelligent, confident, sinful humanity putting God “in the dock”—sitting in judgment on the Judge of all? Must we become New Testament scholars, scientists or philosophers? Or is there a simpler, more effective way to reply?
Without minimizing the importance of specialized Christian scholarship, I want to suggest that there is. Indeed, my thesis here is that God’s plan is to turn the tables on His accusers by putting man in the dock— and to do so through ordinary believers like you and me!
A Subpoena from the Great King
Not having special gifts in the area of evangelism, I am always grateful to discover biblical tools that might enhance my meager abilities in this area. Thus, it was with real enthusiasm that I began to notice a recurring theme in Scripture—I call it the courtroom motif—and to see its implications for evangelism and apologetics. Let me introduce this theme with some words from Isaiah, Jesus Christ, and Paul.
The Prophecies of Isaiah: In Isaiah’s predictions of the coming kingdom, God speaks of a day when He will put man in the dock. “Be silent before me, you islands. Let the nations renew their strength. Let them come forward and speak; let us meet together at the place of judgment” (Isaiah 41:1). In that day the Great King will issue a subpoena, commanding all nations to meet Him in court!
And what will be the charge? ” ‘Present your case,’ says the Lord. ‘Set forth your arguments,’ says Jacob’s King. ‘Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen . . . so that we may know that (they) are gods’ ” (Isaiah 41:21-24). The charge is idolatry: God will show men the foolishness and culpability of worshiping anything other than Him.
When will this trial take place? “And now the Lord says, ‘It is too small a thing for You to be My Servant . . . I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” The trial will occur when the Servant of the Lord appears, through whom God’s light will at last reach the nations. In that day, “Kings will see You and rise up, princes will see and bow down.” In other words, the Servant will somehow cause men to repent of their idolatry and turn in faith to the true God, the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 49:1-7).
The Teachings of Jesus: As Christians, we confess with the apostles that Jesus Christ is the promised Servant of the Lord (Matt. 12:18-21). Not surprisingly, then, we find that He had much to teach about how God and He Himself will put man in the dock.
It begins with the Great Commission. God will use His New Testament people, the Church, to carry the fullness of His truth to all nations. This includes all that Christ taught and commanded, especially the biblical truths of creation, probation, fall, and redemption through faith in the divine person and all-sufficient work of Jesus Christ.
Very importantly, God will also use His “witnesses”—supernatural evidences by which He confirms to men the deity of Christ and the truth of His teaching (John 5:30-47). Since these “witnesses of God” constitute the heart of biblical apologetics, we will discuss them later in some detail.
Finally, God will use His Holy Spirit. As the Church goes into the world, preaching the truth of Christ and citing the witnesses of God, the Holy Spirit will convict sinners. “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:5-11). Thus, the Spirit puts sinful man in the dock, charging him with a rebellious, self-serving idolatry, and urging him to turn to God in Christ for pardon and new life.
Note carefully from Jesus’ teaching that the final verdict in this trial rests upon the sinner (John 3:18-21). The Spirit-convicted man who clings to his idols shows that he “hates the light,” and therefore condemns himself. The man who “comes to the light” shows that he hates his idols and his sin, and therefore finds salvation and eternal life.
The Example of Paul: In the evangelism of Paul we have both the fulfillment of Isaiah’s predictions and the implementation of Christ’s teaching. A look at his sermon to the Athenians illustrates much about how God puts pagan man in the dock throughout the entire Church era (Acts 17:16-34).
Note first that Paul was deeply vexed by the Athenian’s idolatry—not only because it was contrary to general revelation, ugly, destructive and demonic, but especially because “now” God was no longer willing to “wink” at it (v. 30).
He begins by addressing the spiritual tension that he knows exists in all non-Christians: an innate knowledge of God (seen in the Athenian altars), frustrated by ignorance and alienation from Him (seen in their altar to The Unknown God) (vv. 22-23).
Paul would heal the tension by announcing the truth. Observe, however, that he does not rush in to preach the Gospel, but lays a proper foundation, bringing to light the nature of God, His works, and His purpose for the nations. He says, in essence, that God is an infinite, personal being, who created and sustains the universe (but is distinct from it); that He made from one man (Adam) all nations, situating them in their respective homelands; and that His purpose is to test them, to see if they will love Him enough to “grope for Him” (vv. 24-28). 1
Paul is bold to accuse them, for much of this they knew all along, yet turned instead to idols (v. 29). But there is hope, for they also acted in ignorance, so that God “winked” at it—until “now” (v. 30). For now He has sent His Son, His people, and His completed revelation into the world. Now, therefore, ignorance is no excuse, and God ” . . . commands all men everywhere to repent.” They must turn from their idols to Him, and to the One whom He has appointed to judge the world in righteousness (v. 31).
Paul concludes and confirms his message by citing the most powerful of the witnesses of God, the resurrection of Christ (v. 31). Very significantly, this caught the imagination of some in his audience, who desired ” . . . to hear (him) again on this matter” (v. 32).
Thus did Paul put the Athenians in the dock. And, as his Master predicted, some turned away, mocking, while others joined him and believed.2
The Witnesses of God
Before considering the implications of all this for contemporary evangelism, let us look first at the crucial matter of “the witnesses of God” to His Son.
As mentioned above, it was our Lord Himself who taught us to use these in our evangelism. In essence, they are God-given, supernatural evidences by which the Spirit is pleased to convict sinners of the deity of Christ, the truth of His teaching, and the culpable idolatry of all who reject Him. In other words, they are designed to put man decisively in the dock.
It behooves us, then, to understand just who and what these witnesses are. Here, in my opinion, are seven of the most important.
The Father (John 5:32, 8:18): In a sense, He is really the only witness, since He is the source of all the rest. But here I have in mind something unique: the visible presence and audible testimony of the Father at Christ’s baptism and transfiguration, when He Himself publicly affirmed the deity and authority of His Son (Matt. 3:17; 17:1-5; 2 Pet. 1:16-18). As the passage in 2 Peter makes clear, these extraordinary events were definitely intended by God to confirm the Gospel. Therefore, in sharing Christ let us not forget to call the powerful witness of the Father to the stand.
The Son (John 8:14-19): Under the Mosaic Law, a sinful man’s testimony concerning himself was not valid. But that did not stop Jesus. “Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going.” Being assured of His divine nature, mission, and sinlessness, He did not hesitate to contribute His own testimony in the courtroom of God—the great “I AM’S” of Jesus Christ (John 6:35; 8:12, 58; 10:7,11; 11:25; 15:1).
Interestingly, our non-Christian friends will usually grant a respectful hearing to these radical claims. Even if they do not yet believe in His deity, they sense His profound wisdom and integrity, and will therefore listen hard when we remind them that He said, “I am the Son of God” (John 10:36).
The Holy Spirit: Here I refer to the secret testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all who hear the Gospel. As our non-Christian friend learns of Christ, the Spirit begins to bear witness to his heart, urging him to consider His life and teachings. (John. 15: 26) This testimony may be resisted (Acts 7:51), or even rejected (Acts 13:46); but once having heard it, a man is eternally accountable for his response (John 3:18-19; 12:48). Therefore, we may confidently urge our non-Christian friends to listen and respond honestly to all that the Spirit of truth is telling them about Christ.
The Holy Scriptures: Jesus told the Jews, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (John. 5:39; Luke 24:25-27). Here is a great miracle. For The Book is really a collection of books, 66 of them, written by over 40 authors over the course of some 1500 years. The miracle is that each one contributes to a single, unfolding story of redemption, and testifies to the person and work of the Redeemer.
The Christ-centered unity of the Scriptures is obvious in the Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Revelation. But it is subtly and powerfully present in the Old Testament as well, where Christ is hidden away under hundreds of amazing types and prophecies. It is vital, then, that we take time to master not only the panoply of New Testament witnesses, but some favorite Old Testament types and prophecies as well. For, as the apostle taught, ” . . . the mystery of Christ (must) be made known (i.e. confirmed) to the nations by means of the prophetic Scriptures” (Romans 16:26; 2 Peter 1:16-21). 3, 4
The Works of Christ: These are the miraculous signs wrought by God through Christ in order to confirm His message. Jesus Himself taught us boldly to proclaim His works, saying, “The works which the Father has given Me to finish—the very works that I do—bear witness of Me that the Father has sent Me” (John. 5:36; 10:25; 14:11).
Christ’s works bear witness to His words, and His words bear witness to His divine person and work (John 15:22-24). Thus, His incomparable power to heal, deliver from evil spirits, raise the dead, miraculously feed multitudes, and command the elements all point, not only to His deity, but to the final “restoration of all things” which He Himself will accomplish at His return (Phil. 3: 20-21). This is good news for poor sinners, who know in their hearts that miracles are indeed possible, and that they themselves need one. Let us therefore speak freely of the works of Christ to needy men (John. 20:31).
The Resurrection of Christ: Our Lord not only predicted this unprecedented event on several occasions, but singled it out as the preeminent sign validating His claims (Matt. 12:38f; John. 2:18-21). Christ’s resurrection was foreshadowed in Old Testament history (Heb. 11:17-19); predicted by the Old Testament prophets (Psalms 2, 16; Isaiah 53); witnessed by hundreds of believers (Acts 10:40-41; 1 Cor. 15:6); and became the capstone of the apostolic preaching of the Gospel (Acts 1:22; 2:31; 4:2, 33; 17:18; 1 Cor. 15:1f).
Through the resurrection God testifies many things, but above all that Jesus Christ is His divine Son (Romans 1:4), and that He died as an effective sacrifice for sins not His own (Acts 2:24; Romans 4:25). No other religious leader—no other human being—has ever risen from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven, there to appear in the presence of God for us! Let us therefore accord to Christ’s resurrection the place of honor among the witnesses of God!
The Church: “You shall be witnesses to Me,” said Jesus to His disciples (Acts 1:8), and from the days of the apostles onward such has been the case. This witness is mixed and imperfect—sometimes painfully so—but supernatural nonetheless. It includes the words of Christians, who relate to others what they themselves have seen of Christ. But it also includes their lives, miraculously transformed by Christ to believe, confess, change, love, sacrificially serve, endure, and even die for Christ’s sake. The Church is a heavenly people, sojourning through history towards a heavenly kingdom. And as God spotlights her to a watching world, she suddenly is seen bearing witness to a powerful heavenly King (2 Cor. 2:14-16).
Here, then, are some of the amazing witnesses that God has graciously given to His people and His world. They are manifold, harmonious, and heavenly through and through. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the courtroom of God, they supply a ringing testimony to the truth of Christ—one that puts man squarely in the dock!
Courtroom Evangelism in a Day of Idolatry
The “courtroom evangelism” predicted by Isaiah, taught by Christ and exemplified by Paul is an abiding mandate and trust for the Church. Let us conclude, then, by considering some of its implications for modern evangelism.
First, it teaches us to see that the world is still given over to idols. Idolatry is simply allegiance to any false image of the truth, usually as a means of exalting man and suppressing the knowledge of God. Therefore, today’s evolutionary naturalists, pantheists, and relativists—the very ones who like to put God in the dock—are all idolaters, as surely as yesterday’s polytheists who bowed before blocks of wood and stone.
Second, it means that our vexation over modern idolatry reflects something quite significant: the fact that God is no longer willing to overlook it! Indeed, now that Christ has come, He is eager to equip and send His people out into the marketplace of this world, so that through us He might turn the tables on His accusers, expose their idolatry, and bring them safely to His Son (Acts 26:16-18).
Third, it invites us to follow the lead of Paul, who depicted life in a religiously diverse culture as a test. Thus, we can explain to our non-Christian friend that God permits competing religions and philosophies in order to test our love of the truth. Will we use our freedom to “grope” in this present darkness for the God we all know is there? 4
Fourth, it means that evangelism should center on the promulgation of Christ’s world-view and the confirmation of it by the witnesses of God. One approach to this is to explain that God loves us and desires us to pass His test.5 Therefore, He has sent His Son into the world to bring us His truth, and confirmed it by means of a mighty host of supernatural “witnesses.” If we are willing to examine the teachings and listen to the witnesses, we will soon see that He is the One sent to heal, not only our ignorance of God, but also—at great personal cost—our deeply-felt alienation from Him.
Finally, it means that we must not shrink from challenging the dominant idols of our own day (e.g. evolutionism, naturalism, pantheism, relativism, non-trinitarian theism, etc.). Needless to say, this will open doors for some interesting discussions! But in those discussions we should remember always to anchor ourselves to the marvelously attested, authoritative word of Christ, graciously pointing out that this word exposes all other ways as error and idolatry. Ought we not, then, to turn from our idols, in order to enjoy the forgiveness, truth, and life that God now offers us in His Son?
Courtroom evangelism is, of course, no panacea. Scripture and experience both teach us ever to respect the twin mysteries of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, both of which preclude “sure-fire” methods. Nevertheless, we may be sure that this simple approach is, under God’s sovereign hand, powerfully effective for putting man in the dock, thereby delivering His people from their idols and binding them gladly to His beloved Son.
- Because cosmic evolutionism (whether naturalistic or pantheistic) is the dominant idol of our era, it is vital to follow Paul’s lead, declaring as a prelude to the Gospel the foundational biblical truths of a recent, good creation, the probation of the first Adam, and the entrance of sin, suffering, and death into the world through Adam’s fall. We can buttress this prelude (and our faith) with helpful scientific evidences supporting the biblical account of origins (See, e.g., Jonathan Sarfati, Refuting Evolution, and Don Batten, ed., The New Answers Book, both Green Forest, AR: Master Books). But we should always remember that our final court of appeal is the testimony of Christ and Scripture, confirmed by the witnesses of God, and impressed on hearts by the Spirit of truth (See, e.g., Mark 10:6; Romans 5: 12; 8:20-23).
- Unless Luke abridged his account, Paul’s sermon gives only a sketch of the biblical world-view, shedding no light on the fall and only a little on the Gospel. Nevertheless, he brought the gist of God’s truth, sufficient to challenge Athenian idolatry and awaken their curiosity for more.
- Some exciting OT types of Christ are God’s clothing of sinful Adam and Eve (Gen. 3); Noah’s ark (Gen. 6-9); Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22); the Passover (Ex. 11-12); the Day of Atonement (Lev.16); the bronze serpent (Num. 21); water from the stricken rock (Ex. 17); and Rahab’s scarlet thread (Josh. 2). A core of Messianic prophecies should be mastered as well, e.g., the incarnation of the Messiah (Isaiah 9:6; Micah 5: 2); His atoning death (Isaiah 53); His resurrection (Psalm 16); His ascension and heavenly reign (Psalm 2); His deity and heavenly priesthood (Psalm 110), etc.
- Attacks on the integrity of the New Testament are nearly always based on unfounded presuppositions about the impossibility of miracles, the dishonesty of the NT writers, and/or the legendary evolution of the Gospel traditions. New Testament scholars have capably addressed these issues (See, e.g., Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998). But again, we should remember that God is well able to use the panoply of His witnesses to convict men not only of the truth of Christ, but of the trustworthiness of Scripture as well.
- I have found that most people readily accept the Scriptural idea that life is a test (John 3:19; Acts 17: 27; 2 Thess. 2:10). By evangelizing from within this paradigm, we put upon our non-Christian friend an obligation, not to believe (which only God can grant), but to seek the truth and examine the evidence (which only man can do). This strikes me as a gentle and respectful way of putting man in the dock, one that seems to secure a better hearing for the Gospel.
Note: This article was first published in the Journal of the Christian Research Institute. The ideas presented here are developed in considerably greater depth in Dean’s most recent book, The Test.