Boasting in the Cross Among Muslims

The crucifixion of Christ is nonsense to Muslims. The gospel is incomprehensible to them. It’s impossible to reach them ourselves. But despite our weakness, we have hope in God’s strength, the one who delights in making impossibilities reality.

Just ask the aging Sarah and Abraham as they beheld the impossible with the birth of Isaac. Listen in on the despair-turned-relief of the Israelites as Pharaoh’s army hemmed them in and God delivered them from certain peril. Jericho’s impenetrable walls fell without Joshua even lifting a finger at war. Ruth, from Israel’s archenemy Moab, became the link that secured the line of Judah for Israel’s future glory. Shepherd boy David took down the seasoned warrior Goliath.

Even when it seems our hope has come to a dead-end, God shows up. This is how the rich, plump camels like Zacchaeus squeeze through the eye of a needle and enter the kingdom. With man the impossibility stands, but with God all things are possible.

Laboring among Muslims has brought me over and over again to this humbling reality. It is not in my power to open their eyes to the peculiar glory of a shameful cross. “Christ crucified” runs contrary to the Islamic way. Grace confounds their instinct for justice. The cross confronts their estimation of honor.

“God chose the weakness of ‘Christ crucified’ to shame the strong. God chose the foolish cross to confound the wise. God purposefully designed the gospel to run contrary to all religious ideology, including Islam.”

The fact that salvation cannot be secured unless God secures it for sinners contradicts their assessment of humanity’s need. They believe salvation is on us to accomplish. “Do good and live,” they say. The Son of God coming as a man and suffering at the hands of evil men is illogical and indefensible given their presuppositions about the nature of God. These are violations of his holiness and his oneness, which are core beliefs in their theology. The cross is simply nonsense.

Nonsense by Design

I have pored over the local language, thinking if only I could make the gospel clearer to my Muslim friends in their heart language, they would get it. I have labored with a local believer to figure out a succinct way to communicate the whole gospel in a way that is culturally appropriate. If I just help them see the bad news clear enough, I’ve thought, the good news might get through. I have pleaded with my friends to reconsider their rejection of Christ.

In all of that work, I have discovered ways to make the gospel clearer. It’s helpful to show Muslims how the theme of animal sacrifice from Genesis 3 to John 1 points to a sacrificial Lamb paying the penalty of death to avert the wrath of God. They need to understand that the Messiah’s death on the cross was predicted through the prophets, not just a figment of the disciples’ imagination.

Even so, I keep coming back to this same conclusion. No matter how much I try to clearly communicate the cross to my Muslim friends, I can’t save them myself. The cross does not compute.

The words of Jesus ring true again and again. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44a CSB). And this, thankfully, is by design. God refuses to conform to sinners’ desires. He will not bargain with sinners or systems that demand submission to their demands.

This is the truth revealed through Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18–31. “For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (vv. 22–23 CSB). In Isaiah, God promised to destroy the wisdom of the wise (1 Cor. 1:19; Isa. 29:14). The cross brings his promise to reality, over and over again.

God chose the weakness of “Christ crucified” to shame the strong. God chose the foolish cross to confound the wise. God purposefully designed the gospel to run contrary to all religious ideology, including Islam.

Grace Makes the Impossible Possible

It should not surprise us, then, that it is hard for sinners to understand the gospel. But grace delights in catching sinners off guard. The cross confounds human wisdom and religious demand, bringing them to nothing. This is our story. God has chosen us, unlikely recipients of his grace, to glory in this shameful cross, to boast of its foolish wisdom, and to become nothing, so that in him we might find everything. This is so that “no man may boast in his presence” (1 Cor. 1:29 CSB). He confounds human expectation in order to crush the impulse of exaltation behind every religious system and in the heart of every man. What we deemed nonsense, grace made glory.

 “In hope, believe in the God who calls into being the faith which does not exist in their hearts.”

In light of these truths, here are three ways to engage Muslims this Easter season.

  1. Boast in the cross.
    It is not going to help your Muslim friend if you try to pressure him to believe something. Boasting in the cross ourselves means we will maintain a constant awareness that grace must intervene for either of you to understand and embrace the cross. “It is from him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became wisdom from God for us—our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, in order that, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’ (1 Cor. 1:30–31 CSB).”
  2. Pray, be patient, and pursue.
    If God alone can save sinners, then to God alone we must go. As we pray for our friends, let us also engage with them. Read Nabeel Qureshi’s story in Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus and read how David, his friend who shared Christ with him, never stopped clarifying the gospel while also not giving up on the relationship they shared. If you are going to work among Muslims, be ready for the patience-testing toil of fruitless labor, but don’t give despair room to grow in your heart. In hope, believe in the God who calls into being the faith which does not exist in their hearts. The gospel is about the irreconcilable becoming reconciled, enemies becoming friends. It is the impossible made possible.
  3. Open the Bible with your Muslim friends.
    Read the prophecies about how the Messiah would suffer and die. Charles Spurgeon once said, “The gospel has the singular faculty of creating a taste for itself.” This means all we have to do is bring it to the table so they can taste it. Don’t alter the message. Just let the cross be the cross, and let the resurrection be the resurrection. There is no need to soften its offense or add to its glory.

Muslim theology leaves no room for God-come-to-earth, much less God-on-a-cross. But for grace, neither did ours. Let’s watch expectantly as we labor because once again, grace could catch us all by surprise.

Greg Handley lives overseas seeking to plant churches among Muslim peoples in Central Asia.