As I read books on missions and evangelism, I often feel that important, biblical distinctions are getting lost in the shuffle. The New Testament root which in its verbal infinitive form means to witness or testify is often and without explanation applied to the whole church and to the activity of the church’s evangelism or speaking of the gospel to the world. Let me hasten to say that I do believe that the whole church till the end of the age is called to the work of evangelism and missions. I just don’t think that the word used to describe our evangelism and missions in the New Testament is witnessing-testifying. Let me explain why.
Several forms of the root meaning witness or testify are used as follows in the NT:
19 witness or testimony (marturion)
76 bear witness or testify (martureo)
35 witnesser or testifier (martur)
130 uses of this root in the NT
As I have said, we commonly use this word of the activity and duty of Christians in general. When we speak the gospel we say that we are “witnessing” for Christ. Witnessing is speaking the truth of the gospel to sinners. While this may be a “natural” extension of the uses of this word in the New Testament, the root is never used this way in the NT. The reason for this is that the root denotes personal or eye-witness. Here is how the BAG defines the word for one who witnesses (martur):
witness—1. in a legal sense Mt 18:16; Mk 14:63; Ac 6:13; 7:58; Heb 10:28.—2. in a nonlegal sense, esp. in reference to attestation in response to noteworthy performance or communication Lk 11:48; Ac 1:8, 22; 26:16; Ro 1:9; 2 Cor 1:23; 1 Ti 6:12; Heb 12:1; 1 Pt 5:1; Rv 11:3.—3. of one whose witness or attestation ultimately leads to death (the background for the later technical usage ‘martyr’) Ac 22:20; Rv 1:5; 2:13; 3:14; 17:6. [pg 122]
A witness is (1) one who in trial is qualified to give testimony on the basis of personal or eye-witness. Or (3) it is one who is a witness by giving his life because of his testimony to Christ. Or (2) it is someone who can attest to the truth of some important event. This second category might seem to offer some support to the popular usage, but when the texts cited are examined, none of them actually do. In several of them, for instance, God is called to witness (Romans 1:9) or the reference is to the Apostles as witnesses (Acts 1:8, 22).
Witness is one of the names for the office of apostle of Christ in the New Testament. Acts 1:22 affirms: “… beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us– one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” Likewise Acts 10:41 asserts: “not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.” Cf. also Acts 1:8; 10:39.
All Christians cannot in the above sense bear witness to Christ. Only Apostles can! I suspect that this is why it is never used in the NT of the kind of speaking of the gospel incumbent on all Christians. We are not all eye-witnesses of the gospel. Our “testimony” is not the testimony of the gospel. The testimony is not what we say about the gospel. It is what the apostles say about the gospel. It is the gospel.
- Acts 4:33: And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all.
- 1 Corinthians 1:6: even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you
- 1 Timothy 2:6: who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.
- 2 Timothy 1:8: Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God
Our “testimony” is only our affirmation of “the testimony of the gospel.” True, every Christian has some experience of the gospel. To this experience he can bear personal testimony. (It is after all his experience.) But this is not what the NT ever means by this important word. Our experience is not the same as the gospel testimony.
“So,” I can hear someone demand of me, “if our duty is not to testify to the gospel, what is it? Are you saying that it is not the duty of Christians to tell the gospel to the world?” Well, great question! I do believe that it is every Christian’s duty to participate in the mission of the church to the world and as he has opportunity himself to speak the gospel to the world. There is, furthermore, a NT word which is used frequently of what every Christian—indeed every person who would be saved—must do with regard to speaking of the gospel to the world. It is the word confess (homologeo).
- Matthew 10:32: “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.”
- Luke 12:8: “And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God.”
- John 9:22: His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed Him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.
- Romans 10:9: that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved
- Romans 10:10: for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.
- 1 Timothy 6:12: Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
- 1 John 2:23: Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.
- 1 John 4:15: Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
It would be more biblical and less confusing of biblical categories if we began to call Christians to confess Christ before the world, rather than calling them to “testify” to Christ. Testifying to Christ is something which they can only do in a way that sits very loose to the meaning of this word in the NT. It would make for more clarity in a lot of books and preaching on missions if the New Testament distinction between testimony and confession was more carefully kept in mind.
One problem with simply taking the witness of Acts 1:8 and willy-nilly applying it to all Christians is that we lose the corporate character of the Great Commission. We cannot “bear witness” to the gospel as private or individual Christians. We can only participate in the mission of the church built on the apostolic witness. The Great Commission is given to the church built on the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Remembering this helps us to keep clear that the Great Commission is given to the church corporately. Every private Christian individually is not responsible to go into all the world, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to observe all that Christ commanded. The church is responsible to do that, and every Christian is required to have a heart for that mission of the church and to be a vital part of a church which is on that mission. The body of Christ is to take the gospel to all nations, and every Christian is to participate in that mission in accordance with who God has made him as a gifted member of the body of Christ.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.