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John 4:19 (ESV)

The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive you are a prophet.”

The reality of the life, death, and impact of Jesus of Nazareth is rarely denied. You will have a hard time finding a credible historian who denies that this Jewish carpenter lived, taught, and altered the trajectory of civilization. The evidence is overwhelming. But was he who he claimed to be? What about the reports of his resurrection? Can the accounts of his life, as told in the bible, be trusted? By this point in the story, the woman at the well is beginning to perceive that the conversation is about more than fetching a pail of water. How could this man possibly know about her past as well as her current living situation?

C.S. Lewis famously penned what is commonly referred to as the “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” argument for the divinity of Jesus Christ. Here it is in full:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Lewis was not the first, however, to posture this line of thinking. In the mid-nineteenth century the Scottish Christian preacher “Rabbi” John Duncan formulated what he called a “trilemma” — “Christ either [1] deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or [2] He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or [3] He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.” In 1936, Watchman Nee made a similar argument — “First, if he claims to be God and yet in fact is not, he has to be a madman or a lunatic. Second, if he is neither God nor a lunatic, he has to be a liar, deceiving others by his lie. Third, if he is neither of these, he must be God. You can only choose one of the three possibilities.”

Overall, this can be an effective way to engage an unbeliever in gospel conversation about the man and the teachings that undeniably altered human history, but it is not enough. The Samaritan woman perceived that there was something special—supernatural, even—about Jesus, but it is not enough to acknowledge his wisdom and impact. Regarding her perception, Spurgeon remarked that, “It would have been better if she had perceived that she was a sinner.” Her time would come, most likely, but further conversation needed to be had. If you are having gospel conversations, or desire to, you must be willing to be patient. More often than not, logic and persuasive arguments like the ones above can get the ball rolling, but only the Holy Spirit can carry it across the finish line.

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