DALLAS (BP)–Ergun Caner spent the first half of his life devoted to Islam. Raised as the son of Acar Mehmet Caner, he practiced the Kalima, Islam’s creed; the Salat, praying to Mecca five times a day; the Zakat, contributing a specified portion of his income to the faith; the Sawn, fasting during Ramadan; and awaited the opportunity to participate in the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Seventeen years later, Muslims would call him a “kafir” of the worst type, he told an overflow crowd at First Baptist Church in Dallas, using the term for an infidel declared to be as good as dead. Several hundred Kurdish Muslims were among those invited to hear Caner describe how his life changed in 1982 when he converted to Christianity.
Citing the Koran’s words in Hadith in 9:57, Caner said, “Mohammed says anyone who changes his Islamic religion, ‘Kill him.’ But I also know, my Kurdish friends, that you have given me this hour the greatest gift that I have ever had in my ministry — your presence here.”
Caner told the Christians in the audience, “For 17 years of my life, I assumed you hated me.” Similarly, Muslims living in America have similar expectations, he said, in light of the recent attacks justified by members of the Islamic Jihad. “There are those that expect retribution. They expect revenge. But, believers in Jesus Christ, do you know what they do not expect?” Caner asked. “They do not expect you to love them in spite of themselves. And why would you do so? Because that’s exactly how he [Jesus] loved you.”
Such an outward expression of love won Caner over when he accepted a friend’s invitation to Steltzer Road Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio. “I didn’t walk in there and see them spit upon me. They didn’t smack me down or call me a sand nigger. Instead they loved me. And when I asked them why they loved me, they said it was because Christ first loved us.”
Refusing to back away from a gospel message in the presence of diverse religious groups in his Sept. 16 message, Caner said, “The one thing good Muslims and good Christians agree upon is that we are confounded by the media that keeps insisting that we all offer up prayers to the same God.” He added, “I did not switch religions nor did I trade teams. I was saved by the precious blood of Jesus Christ and thus I am born again. What has happened to me was done to me, not through anything I have done. And it is that gospel, that hope in that name that I preach tonight.”
All of the television network affiliates sent camera crews to the church service in downtown Dallas. A local Muslim prince offered words of condolence to Americans during the service. Caner, who serves as assistant professor of theology and church history at Criswell College, has spoken in mosques and debated Muslim scholars.
He turned to Book of Habakkuk to describe another time when people asked, “Where is God in all of this?” While stating that there is no sin in asking such a question, Caner said the answer can only come by asking the right person. “Even in the midst of this cacophony of questions, the plethora of issues that he [Habakkuk] asks, with every worry and every pain, he says, ‘The Lord is still in his temple. Let all the earth be silent before him.'”
Habakkuk’s passionate prayer stands in contrast with the “pundits pontificating on television in dry tones as if this is some sort of political or cultural issue,” Caner said of the passage. “Habakuk takes his question directly to a God who is listening. Don’t think for a moment that we have all the answers. We don’t,” Caner insisted. “But I know the One who does. And be he silent or revelatory, I’m just going to have to trust him on this. And so we believe in victory, but we only trust in God.”
Caner empathized with the rage that Americans feel over the acts of terrorism. “We ask the question, ‘How could a religion do this?'” And yet, Christianity has in its history a time when warriors were promised that Jesus would forgive all their sins if they died on the battlefield during the Crusades. “While we may have forgotten the Crusades, they have not,” Caner said of the Muslims. “We must admit that we, on our side, have had the same testimony of our own type of Christian jihad.”
Such accounts from the history of religion reveal the distinction between “man seeking God” through a religious activity and “God seeking man” as expressed in Christianity, Caner explained. “Religion is trying to do things to earn God’s favor. But Christianity says there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more.”
While practicing the pillars of Islam, Caner said he began to realize that the terror he felt was “the terror of religion” as he sought to earn God’s favor. “And before you think that’s only a Muslim thing, oh, no, no,” he reminded. “There are those of us in this room who think, ‘God, if I just lose weight, if I read my Bible a little more, if I pray a little bit more, if I’m a nicer person,'” such works can earn salvation.
“The wages of sin is death and the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Caner said, quoting Romans 6:23. “There are no works that could save me. There is nothing to equal out those scales. And while I may have followed the five pillars and said my rak’ahs and followed my imam, I was desperate.”
Caner said he tired of a fear that Allah would not accept him. “When I heard about mercy and grace, I felt a release of love and liberation that I cannot explain.” In subsequent years, his brother, Emir, accepted Christ and now teaches Anabaptist history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. Another brother, Erdum, also professed Christ and now lives in Indianapolis.
“In 1991, my mother got saved and I got to baptize my mamma in the water,” he said to an applauding crowd. “But it gets better. In 1995, at almost the age of 100, my grandmother, speaking no English, with a Bible that Emir duplicated and enlarged, came forward on a walker and accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior.”
From the third chapter of Habakkuk, Caner found hope in God’s promise of eternity. “Christianity is not just getting your soul into heaven, but getting heaven into you to become salt and light to a world that is putrifying and dark.” He asked, “Why do you think God has left you on this earth? Why do you think that you have breath and nigh unto ten thousand do not?”
And from Habakkuk 3:18-19, Caner appealed to Christians to “rejoice in the God of my salvation.” He urged them to “do war on the floor” by expressing their desperation for God. “We’re wanting revival, but there has never been a revival on this earth that did not begin with repentance.”
To the Muslim visitors, Caner reminded, “Jesus will do for you what you cannot do for yourself and liberate you from the bondage of works and give you grace and salvation the moment you repent and turn to him.”
While Caner’s first copy of the Koran was given to him at age 13, his second copy was presented to him by his father in 1989 who urged in an inscription to “read each and every word for you and for me.” As a muazzein in the local mosque, Caner’s father took a role of helper and aid, comparable to a servant deacon in the practice of Christianity.
“The day that I surrendered to the gospel ministry was the last time that I saw my father until three days before his death. My father was a good Muslim, but according to his testimony, he went to a devil’s hell.” Acknowledging the horror of such a statement, Caner added, “Good Baptists also go to hell. God doesn’t care whether you’re a good Baptist, Methodist, Catholic or anything else. God cares what you did with his Son, Jesus Christ.”
Adding that his father died in the shadow of three churches, Caner said, “Not a one of them ever came to his door in the 15 years that he lived there. Who lives in the shadow of this church and has not heard the precious gospel of Christ?” Caner asked. “Who lives next door to you on their way to a devil’s hell and you haven’t told them?”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ERGUN CANER.