Are Personal Testimonies the Same as the Gospel?
The Lord's work in our lives is a marvelous thing, and should be shared whenever possible (and far more than most of us do, myself included!). However, the gospel is not the Lord's work in our lives. The gospel comes into our lives and changes them, but the gospel is the message of God's grace in Christ Jesus overcoming our sin and the power of hell. The gospel is a message, a truth to proclaim, while our testimonies are a story. Gospel=message, Personal Testimony=story. It is helpful, and necessary, to see the distinction between the two. In sharing the gospel, we proclaim a timeless message that applies to all people everywhere and that confronts and challenges sinners to repent and believe. In sharing our testimony, we share the story of how God has worked in our lives that (hopefully) presents the application of the gospel to our lives and that discloses our personal theological history. The two are similar but fundamentally different.
As many theologians have pointed out, postmodern culture is perfectly suited to stories, and is thus quite happy to hear our personal Christian testimonies with nary a hint of disfavor or malice. This creates a challenge for we who seek to reach postmoderns. We can share our testimony with them, and they can smile at us (relieved that we did not preach some hellfire-and-brimstone message), and we can smile at them (exhilarated that we shared our faith with an unbeliever), and thus we can fail to share the gospel. The gospel is not a personal story, a religious fable encapsulated in dogmatic formulae. The gospel is the power of God, and it necessarily involves direct, crunching, uncomfortable collision with the fallen wills of men. When you share the gospel, you have not failed if someone reacts to you in a hostile or unfriendly manner, if they shut off conversation, if they switch topics, if they curse you, if they blithely walk past you. Unless you shared it an unkind or tactless way (which is not the problem of most of us weak-kneed witnesses), you did things exactly right. You are getting exactly the response you should have gotten. The gospel is an offense to those who are perishing. It is the stench of death to them--and not the stench of our own flesh, but the stench of theirs. They know, however imperfectly, that they are in deep trouble because of their sin, and they can almost smell the judgment that awaits.
Not so with our personal testimonies. Those can glide off a postmodern back as easy as a duck in water. There is no judgment, no conviction, no stench of death in a personal story. There may be hints of these things, yes, but the gospel is far more offensive to unsaved ears than is a personal testimony. Do not make the terrible mistake of thinking that the gospel's offensiveness restricts us from sharing it. We should be sensitive in sharing the gospel, but when you read the New Testament, there is sensitivity, yes, but there is also a whole lot of boldness. There's alot of going around and preaching clearly and living boldly and forfeiting one's privilege, status, and life as a result. I'm not one to call for Christians to be killed purposefully (a tough question), but I am one to admit that I am not nearly as bold as New Testament Christians were, and I am naturally tempted to share my inoffensive, largely nonconfrontational personal testimony far more than I am to share the offensive, soul-shaking gospel. Oftentimes I do this because I am afraid of negative results that gospel-sharing will bring--awkwardness, a stunted friendship, a loss of popularity. In such cases, I am seeking to remove the inherent offensiveness of the gospel. In such actions, so far from aiding my evangelism, I am actually removing its power and force.
Perhaps you are like me. Perhaps you can see that what we need is not less boldness, but greater confidence in the gospel of grace. Share your testimony, yes. That's great to do. But then share the gospel. By the results that often accompany such actions, you'll be able to answer for yourself whether personal testimonies are the same as the gospel.