“What’s the best Bible translation for someone who isn’t saved?”
My wife Trista asked me this one day.
“Aunt Jill,” she replied.
Trista's aunt didn’t know the Lord, never went to church, and didn’t own a Bible. She was walking in the dark, as far as we could tell, and Trista's heart ached for her. She knew Jill needed Jesus in her life, like we all do, and she wanted to spend eternity with her beloved aunt.
Don’t we all long for the salvation of those in our family?
Giving someone a Bible when they don’t know Jesus (yet) is a great idea, but by itself it may not be as effective at saving souls as we’d like to think. After all, if evangelism was as simple as getting God’s word into the hands of the unsaved, we’d simply rain Bibles from the sky and all of humanity would be saved in a matter of weeks. Don’t get me wrong, distributing Bibles is vitally important, but there’s more to evangelism than gifting a book, even if that book contains living water. If you give someone a chest full of treasure but they don't have the key to open it, the true purpose of the gift will never be fulfilled.
For those of us who know the Lord and are familiar with the Scripture, opening the Bible is like sitting down to dinner with an old friend. We can flip open nearly anywhere and knowing the context. We know who Melchizedek, Darius, and Philip are, albeit vaguely. We understand how the words we’re reading explain God’s heart for us. The Bible speaks to our soul because we can understand it, thanks to the Holy Spirit and uncountable spiritual mentors who took the time to teach us. But for those without God’s Spirit inside them, or without someone to explain the stories, it’s like dining with someone who speaks a different language. It’s like reading someone else’s mail. They don’t understand the meaning of what they’re reading and subsequently feel completely lost.
I got a sense of this when I visited with Mormon missionaries. They were wonderful young men who taught me about their beliefs. They gave me a Book of Mormon and directed me where to read. Now, I’m familiar with the Bible and have no trouble reading “thick” translations (like the King James Version), but reading the Book of Mormon was like wandering lost in the woods with a map I couldn’t decipher. Who are all these people? When and where is this happening? None of this makes sense! The experience helped me understand why all those Bibles I gave to unsaved friends didn’t seem to amount to anything (as far as I knew).
Don’t we see this in the book of Acts? Philip meets an official from Ethiopia who is struggling to understand the scriptures.
Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” And he said, “Well how can I without someone guiding me?” (Acts 8:30-31)
The man was hopelessly lost trying to understand a foreign religion without anyone to light the way. He needed help. But when Philip opened his mouth and explained the truth of Jesus, the Ethiopian was overwhelmed: “Look, water! What stops me from being baptized?!” (v. 36).
Now, the Bible is powerful even by itself. Indeed, it's God's word. There have been many who’ve been saved just by reading its words. After all, God’s word never returns unfruitful (Is 55:11). But for most of us, didn't the Lord save us through someone patiently explaining things?
Let’s be real: evangelism is scary. Witnessing to a stranger is difficult, but witnessing to a relative or an old friend can be terrifying. “What if they laugh? What if I make Jesus sound foolish?” However, let's not be naïve: everything about Jesus already seems foolish to the unsaved.
The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. (1 Cor 1:18)
It doesn’t matter what Bible translation you give them or how you explain the gospel, without God’s Holy Spirit opening their heart it’s about as enlightening as your grandma trying to read computer code! Indeed, the believers at Pentecost were assumed to be drunk when they first proclaimed a new "Way" (Acts 2:13). But God has a way of making words that sound like nonsense take root and flourish in a godless soul.
My point is this: nothing can replace your story. God uses his people to explain his gospel. You are the key to unlocking the treasure of God’s word to others. Especially to someone who knows you, the intimate story of what Jesus did for you is irreplaceable in God’s plan to make his kingdom come. You might feel completely inadequate, untrained, or uninteresting – and you wouldn’t be the first to feel that way (Ex 4:1,10; Jer 1:6) - but the story of God rescuing you from darkness is none of those things. In fact, you are living proof of the power of God's word.
My wife, in particular, has a remarkable salvation story. Nearly washed out to sea while swimming in the tropical waters of Guam, Trista gave her life to the Lord as she clung to rock for dear life. When she was finally rescued hours later from the deadly riptide that had claimed so many lives in the past, Trista was covered in lacerations from the sharp coral but a new life had begun inside her that day. Now, a story like, when combined with the Holy Spirit, has the power to change someone's life. Such a testimony also has the ability to make reading the Bible come alive.
You don’t need any special training to share the gospel because it can start with your story; we all know how to talk about ourselves just fine. Just keep in mind that it’s not your job to save anyone. Share your heart and let God do the rest. You might feel like a fool, and you might even damage a relationship you value. But what if, through prayer and God’s Holy Spirit, your words take root in the hurting soul of someone you love? Isn’t that how you were saved? Ninety-nine out of a hundred people might brush you off, but your story could be the start of eternal life for one special person.
The gift of a Bible is a wonderful idea, but chances are nothing will be understood unless you shine your God-given light on its pages. Only after they know about your relationship to the Author will the book start to come alive.