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Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Finding clarity and charity in the midst of tension.


It is extremely rare that something happens in little old Wheaton, Illinois, and becomes news all over the world. But in December, that happened. And now, almost daily, what happens in Wheaton is being published in the Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Guardian in the U.K. From The Atlantic to Al Jazeera, everyone's got an opinion, and it seems like everyone's upset.

For those of you who have been spared the social media tsunami, here's what happened. On December 10, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, professor of political science at Wheaton College, posted on her Facebook page that during Advent, to show solidarity with Muslims, she would wear the hijab, the headscarf worn by some women within conservative Islam. She was doing this, she wrote, because "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because … we worship the same God."

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Think about it: when my Muslim optician goes to Jummah prayers on Friday, and I come to church on Sunday, are we worshiping the same God? That question started a contentious debate, with Christian voices weighing in: "Yes, we do worship the same God," or "No, we don't—not even close," or "It's all semantics." How would you answer?

If you're like most Christians, you may be confused. Or uncertain. LifeWay Research released a study showing that Americans overall are evenly split: 46 percent believe that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, while 47 percent disagree.

Even if you have no connection whatever with Wheaton, I think you need to know whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This goes to the heart of each faith. So as a Christian, you need to know.

You and I also need to know simply as people who live in today's world. Christianity and Islam together are followed by more than half the people in the world, so many news stories don't make any sense unless you understand these two religions. And, close to home, we all have neighbors and coworkers who are Islamic, and for us to interact with respect, we need to understand their beliefs clearly.

I have two goals for this message. The first is "grow in clarity." I call upon myself, and I call upon the Christian community in Wheaton and the United States, to become absolutely clear on this question: "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" As a teacher of the Bible and Christian faith, I'd be derelict in my duty if I didn't try to make this clear. In fact, I'm glad I had to study for this sermon, because I needed to sharpen my own thinking on this.

My second goal is that we would all grow in charity. Were you wrecked—as I was—four months ago, when the body of a three-year-old boy named Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach in Turkey? He was fleeing, with his family, from the war and chaos in Syria. There he lay, face down in the sand, as though he was taking a nap. That image wrecked me, because he looked just like my son did when he was three and napping. But little Aylan will never wake up.

There are four million refugees from Syria alone, fleeing civil war and bombing and the Islamic State. They are suffering profoundly. How do we grow in charity for them? And right here in Wheaton, what used to be the Assembly of God church is now the Islamic Center. We need to grow in charity toward our literal neighbors.

We also need to grow in charity toward other Christians. The situation in Wheaton is an emotional and divisive one for the Christian community there. It's separating professors, staff, students, and alums. There have been sit-ins, petitions on Change.org, and outrageous comments on all sides.

As I speak today, I know that many of you have been living with this situation. So there will be some anxiety, some discomfort, and for a few, a raw nerve. As a pastor, I'm very sensitive to that, and I'll do the best I can to tread gently. But as a pastor, I have to speak up, to seek peace and pursue it, to bind up any wounds in our church and our Christian community. So wherever you're coming from, I hope you will hear me out.

Growing in clarity: 'Who is Jesus?'

This morning, I want to help us get clear about one question and one question only: "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" An ideal starting place to answer that question is to answer the question: "Who is Jesus?"

Today's Bible text about the visit of the Magi does this well. Matthew is telling us something profound about who Jesus is. He was raised as a monotheistic Jew, and he's writing to monotheistic Jews, and he's showing them and us three signs that set Jesus far apart from any other person: any other teacher, sage, or prophet. And he doesn't want us to miss it, so he shows us these three signs, in ascending order.

(Read Matthew 2:1-23)

An unusual star

The wise men or Magi are scholars, probably from what we would call Iraq, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. They are astronomers, so they're good at reading the night skies, and they see this star rise over Judea. It may have been a comet, or a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. But it was bright, and unusual.

The Magi probably had learned this prophecy in Numbers 24 from Jewish exiles: "A star will rise from Jacob … a ruler will rise in Jacob." They put it all together and figure out that a king of the Jewish people must have just been born, and they travel hundreds of miles to see him.

Now, if you know your Hebrew Scriptures, as Matthew's readers did, you know that nobody gets an astronomical sign at their birth like this. Not Moses, not David, not Elijah. Matthew is saying, "Jesus is different from, and higher than, any of the greatest sages and prophets."

Scripture after Scripture after Scripture fulfilled

Matthew shows us that—at three different times—words spoken 700 years before Jesus was born spell out the exact place names in his early life with astonishing levels of accuracy. Micah prophesied that he would be born in a town called Bethlehem. Hosea prophesied that he would spend time in Egypt. We can derive from a prophecy in Isaiah that he would live in Nazareth.

What are the odds that the writer Dante, living 700 years ago, would have predicted that I would be born in Philadelphia, move to Maryland, and then live in Illinois? Preposterous. And yet Jesus fulfills not just three Scriptures like this, but 350 of these.

A former science professor at Westmont tried to calculate the odds that just eight of those 350 would be fulfilled. He said, "Take a silver dollar and mark it with a Sharpie. Then lay it on the ground in Texas. Lay another next to it, and another, and another, until you've covered the entire state with silver dollars. Then do that again, so it's two layers deep. And keep adding layers until it's two feet deep. Then blindfold someone and say, 'You can go anywhere in Texas and pick one silver dollar.'" The odds that person will pick the right one are the same odds that eight prophecies like this would be fulfilled by the same person.

Matthew is saying, "Jesus is unique. He's radically different from—and astonishingly higher than—any other religious figure of any time or place."

Jesus is worshiped

But Matthew's most astonishing sign is this. Jesus is worshiped. A human being worshiped. Matthew was a Jew raised on the Shema: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." And the Ten Commandments, which say, "You shall have no other gods besides me." The most horrifying thing to a Jew like Matthew is the worship of a human being. Any other time in Scripture that a creature other than God starts to be worshiped—say, an angel or an apostle—it is stopped immediately: "What are you doing? Get up!" But Matthew tells a story where the heroes bow down and worship this toddler named Jesus.

By these three signs, Matthew dismantles any attempt to make Jesus merely a prophet. Matthew is not giving us any wiggle room to say, "Jesus is impressive," or "Jesus is a great teacher, or a wise sage, or a prophet." He is saying that he is utterly unique, divine, and to be worshiped.

The incompatibility of Christianity and Islam

I could go to other places in the Bible that say Jesus "is God, and was with God from the beginning." It says he is "the image of the invisible God." It says that "through him, everything was made." It's right here that Christianity and Islam start to get pushed apart.

Muslims believe in Jesus—Isa—as a prophet, and that he was born of a virgin and is coming again. But they categorically deny Jesus is divine. The Qur'an—in Surah 5:72—is so opposed to this belief that it condemns Jesus-worshipers to hell.

Islam also disagrees with the Christian teaching that Jesus died for our sins. Most Muslims even deny Jesus was crucified. As the Islamic site Answering Christianity explains: "Jesus never died. He rested for 3 days in the cave … [h]e was healed and received medicine and massaging [from Mary Magdalene and others] during this time. And ultimately, he un-wound his winding sheets, and exited the cave in his original physical body alive. This is how he 'ROSE' from the so-called 'dead.'"

So Jesus is not divine, he didn't die for your sins, and he never rose from the dead. Now when you take out of Christianity the divinity of Jesus, his atoning sacrifice on the Cross, and his resurrection from the dead, it collapses in a heap. The Bible says clearly in Corinthians that without even one of those things—the Resurrection—we who believe in Jesus are the most pitiable people in the world.

But that's just getting started. Christians, with joy, call God "our Father." No Muslim can accept that. The Qur'an, in Surah 5:18, tells Muslims to rebuke Jews and Christians who say, "We are God's children and his beloved ones." "Say … [n]o. You are but mortals that (just like others) He has created."

Add in that in Islam, the Holy Spirit is not God, but a creature like the angels. So the only way you can say "Christians and Muslims worship the same God" is if you are willing to say God is not Father, Jesus is not God and never died for your sins and rose again, and the Holy Spirit is not God. And if you do that, you cannot affirm even one of the belief statements Christians make to be baptized. You can never become a Christian.

This is why Nabeel Qureshi, who grew up as a Muslim and now is a Christian, says, "[T]he Christian God, both in terms of what he is (Triune) and who he is (Father, Son, and Spirit) is not just different from the Muslim God; He is fundamentally incompatible. According to Islam, worshiping the Christian God is not just wrong; it sends you to Hell. They are not the same God." I think that's clear, but we can't stop there.

The 'only god in town' argument

We need to ask honestly, "Why is it, then, that several Christian theologians have said that Christians and Muslims do worship the same God?" They essentially make 3 arguments. I wish I had the time to present these more fully, but I will try to present them fairly (though briefly). I'll explain why I am not persuaded by these arguments, but I'll also point out what we can learn from them.

The first argument—the "only god in town" argument—says, "If there is only one god anywhere available, and you worship god, and I worship god, then we must ultimately be worshiping the same god." The problem with this argument is that it assumes there's some kind of generic god. But nobody worships a generic god. Everyone who worships a god worships a specific god, revealed through his or her authoritative sources of revelation. In Islam, that's the Qur'an and the Hadith. In Christianity, that's the Old and New Testaments. And as I've tried to show, those two gods, the ones that actually get worshiped, are radically different and unable to be reconciled.

Suppose that I say to you, "There is only one best college football team in the country." And you say, "I totally agree!" But then I find out you're thinking Alabama and I'm thinking Clemson. We are not saying the same thing at all. Because there is no generic "best team"—only specific teams with specific names.

But even though this argument fails to persuade me, here's what I think we can learn from it: we can honor the common intent of Muslim worshipers. We may not share the same beliefs, but we share the same desire. As Christians, we can say truthfully to our Muslim friends, "We both desire to worship the one true and living God."

The 'close enough for me' argument

The "close enough for me" argument says, "There are so many common characteristics of the Muslim god and the Christian god that they are 'sufficiently similar' enough to say they're the same." It's true that Christian and Muslim views of God are similar in some ways. We both believe there's only one God. We both believe that God created the world, sent prophets to guide his people, and will judge all people at the end of history. We both honor Abraham and the Virgin Mary. But to me, those similarities are dwarfed by the dissimilarities and the core beliefs that are mutually-contradicting. "Similar" means "similar"; it doesn't mean "same."

Suppose that, after the service, we're sipping coffee out in the lobby, and you talk about driving here this morning. I say, "You drove here this morning? Me too! You have an SUV? Me too! Yours is gray? Mine too! We drove here in the same car." No, we didn't.

But here's what I think we can learn from this "close enough for me" argument: as we talk with our Muslim friends, we can and should begin with what we hold in common. We highlight the similarities in order to create a safe place in which we can dialogue about the differences. If we're clear in our own mind and heart about the differences, we earn the right to emphasize the similarities as we enter into conversation. That's what Paul does in speaking to pagan philosophers: because he's super-clear about the differences between Christianity and Greek paganism, he can start with similarities to get into the conversation.

I asked a member of this church who has good relationships with many Muslims to describe what these kinds of conversations are like for him: "All my Muslim friends start out with the belief that we do worship the same God, but that I have a lot of wrong beliefs about him. The closest thing to this conversation that I have with them is when we talk about 'What is God like?' or 'What does God want of me?' or 'What do the prophets say about God?' Half the time I'm in these conversations, I hit walls where we finally say, 'We disagree about what God is like.' Half the time, though, I feel like the testimony of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus in the Gospels begins to tug on their heart, and their picture of God becomes a little clearer—a little more like Jesus."

The 'but what about the Jews?' argument

The third and final argument is the "but what about the Jews?" argument. This argument goes like this: "Jews are monotheists who deny the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity, yet Christians don't say they have a different god. So why single out Muslims?" To me, the difference between the situation of Jews and Muslims is large and clear. Jews and Christians begin at the same place. They agree on every word of the Law, Prophets, and Writings—what we call the Old Testament. We share that completely. Judaism is therefore like the foundation of a house that Christianity then builds a first story on top of.

But Islam does not begin with that revelation, and in many places denies that revelation. We might say Islam takes some shutters and shingles off of the Jewish-Christian house, then goes down the street and builds an entirely different one.

But here's what I think we can learn from this argument. Jesus is unalterably unique. He towers in the center of Christianity and says, "No one comes to the Father but through me." That's true for the Jew as much as for the Muslim and the agnostic.

That's all the time I can devote to growing in clarity. For more on the theology of this question, please see Timothy George's excellent article from Christianity Today titled "Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus Christ?"

Growing in charity

As much as we Christians we need to grow in clarity, there is an equal and compelling need for us to grow in charity. On December 4, Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University—the largest Christian college in the world—told his students in chapel, "I've always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in—and killed them." He later said he meant "Islamic terrorists," not all Muslims. But this would still rank as one of the most outrageous and un-Christlike statements I've heard. I love what the students at Wheaton wrote in the campus paper: "We as Evangelical Christians hold that Christ calls us not to react with religious oppression or violence—instead, we have the responsibility to live out fearless love."

Just as we would not want someone to judge "all Christians" by the actions of a few, we need to not think "all Muslims" because of the actions of a few. On the day that two Muslims pulled the trigger in San Bernardino, there were 3,300,000 others in America who got up and went to work as anesthesiologists, pharmacy assistants, and small-business owners. In fact, statistics would say you and I have a much higher risk of being shot by a citizen of Chicago than by an American Muslim, but we don't hate "all Chicagoans" because of that.

How can we show fearless love? Here are two practical suggestions.

First, donate to a group serving Muslim refugees. Here in Wheaton, we're blessed to have World Relief, a Christian agency doing great work in resettlement. Give generously to them. Or if you want to donate to an Anglican work, support Canon Andrew White, whose ministry works in Baghdad.

Invite a Muslim coworker, student, or friend to your house for dinner. Rez supports the work of Christian missionaries Pat and Joan Krayer, who for 28 years served in Muslim countries. I talked with Pat by Skype this week, and asked him what he would tell us as a congregation. He said, "Build bridges. I moved to Pakistan in 1984, and it took me eight years to feel at home there. As an immigrant, you don't speak the language, you don't understand the culture. You don't understand the simplest things: for example, if there's a funeral for a friend at work, what do you say or do? Now imagine what it's like for a Muslim immigrant to the United States: You speak English with an accent, and nobody gives you the time of day. But when we Christians invite them in, and treat them with warmth and dignity, amazing things can happen. They experience God's love, God's life, flowing through us."

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and it occurred to me that if Mary had refused these foreign visitors from Arabia, speaking a different language and with a different religion, there would not have been an Epiphany to celebrate. We might even say that they were welcomed in by Jesus—and I bet as a toddler he was really excited.

Finally, may I remind us that we cannot love the Muslims we're getting to know if we don't love the Christians we already know. This week my spirit was almost traumatized by the horrific statements people were making on the Internet about Dr. Hawkins. I was equally distressed by the cavalier judgments people were making toward the college administrators. We need to remember that Jesus, the unique Son of God, told us clearly, "Judge not, that ye be not judged."

The truth is, none of us has any idea what the professor's motives were. None of us has the slightest idea what kinds of pressures and information the administrators are working with. Our best position, therefore, is silence, humility, and prayer.


Imagine if every person here today made it our heart's passion to grow in clarity and grow in charity. If we forgave our Christian brothers and sisters, and with clarity in our theology and charity in our hearts, we warmly invited in our Muslim neighbors. Then might it be truly said, as Jesus taught, "They'll know we are Christians by our love."

Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,

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Sermon Outline:


I. Growing in clarity: 'Who is Jesus?'

II. An unusual star

III. Scripture after Scripture after Scripture fulfilled

IV. Jesus is worshiped

V. The incompatibility of Christianity and Islam

VI. The 'only god in town' argument

VII. The 'close enough for me' argument

VIII. The 'but what about the Jews?' argument

IX. Growing in charity