I remember buying a vacuum cleaner on the basis of advertisements praising its capabilities. I gave up on it after using it a few times. It was noisy, not easy to handle, and difficult to empty and maintain. The quality of anything depends on how well it fulfils its purpose. Why should this be less so for the Christian Church?
Over the years there has been a pendular movement among Christians between what is most important in Christian witness. Is it the message we need to share, or the quality of our lives. What has made us think that it is one or the other? When we read the Bible we see a particular pattern of revelation that emerges. God revealed himself through what He did and through the message that explained what He did, so that His actions would be clearly understood. Jesus continued this method of revelation. What he said explained what he did, and what he did illustrated what he said. Christians need to maintain this approach if they want to communicate the Gospel effectively. It isn’t merely deeds, or words. It is both in partnership.
When Moses passed on God’s message to the Israelites in the Old Testament, he said,
See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? (Deut. 4:5-8).
It was the quality of their lives as a community under God’s righteous rule that was to show up the weaknesses in the pagan nations around them.
In God’s case there is no gap between who He is and what He says. That is not the case with us. In fact, we often hear people say, ‘No-one’s perfect’, meaning, ‘Don’t expect too much from me.’ But the issue is not about our perfection at all. It’s about God’s honour in what happens to us as a result of his saving work. We are merely a ‘work-in-progress’, God doing what only He can accomplish.
What difference is there between us as followers of Jesus Christ, and those who have no relationship with him? If there is little or no difference, then what evidence is there that what we have can only be achieved through Jesus Christ? After all, there is an increasing raft of DIY self-improvement ideas that could be the reason for some marginally changed lives.
What Needs To Change?
What are the most critical changes that need to take place in people’s lives, or in the life of the Christian Church? What values and perspectives does the Bible teach that are in direct conflict with the values and perspectives of the world? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves in order to gauge whether we have understood salvation correctly. When John wrote his letter to encourage his readers to live in fellowship with God and with His Son, Jesus Christ, he warned them about three aspects of life that they should avoid. These belong to the world that is at enmity with God.
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. (1 Jn. 2:15-16).
- The lust of the flesh. Ever since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, that which had been a normal and healthy way of life, became warped, abusive, self-gratifying, and destructive. Sex is not the only area that falls under the category of the ‘flesh’, but it is certainly one of the strongest urges in human beings, particularly among the male species. The lust of the flesh is the powerful urge to possess another person or thing. Materialism falls into this category.
- We can’t keep desires from coming into our head. But we don’t have to let these thoughts become fixed in our mind so that they begin to affect our judgment. As someone has said, “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but don’t let them nest in your hair.”
The lust of the eyes. The whole advertising industry is aimed at making its products appealing to us. It begins its appeal through powerful and convincing visuals. A walk through any Newsagency bombards us with dozens of magazines portraying attractive, seductive women. I was asked one day by a Christian man if I bought or looked at these kinds of magazines. When I told him that I didn’t, he told me that I was avoiding real life issues. We men have enough problems without feeding our unregenerate appetites.
- These visuals also try to convince us what we need to look like to be attractive to others, or to be ‘successful’ in the world. That is not the success God wants us to achieve in life.
The pride of life. This is a focus on ourselves, our abilities, our knowledge, our possessions, our status, our influence over other people. It give us a wrong conception of ourselves in the light of what God considers to be important. Paul told his readers that when it came to personal achievements and experiences, he could boast only about his weaknesses because they provided the opportunity for Christ to demonstrate his power in and through him. But he didn’t have the same reticence when he thought about the cross and what Christ had achieved through his death.
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal. 6:14).
What the world regarded as important, as essential, as beautiful, as successful, was no longer important to Paul as he came to appreciate his new relationship with Jesus Christ.
But, can we honestly say the same thing? Are we being saved from these attachments and powerful urges? If we are, then there is strong evidence that salvation in Jesus Christ is working for us.
If we hide ‘dirty’ magazines from our wives and children (or parents); if we secure pornographic files on our computer with special passwords; if we try to hide our alcoholic drinking habits from others; if we secretly gamble away money hoping to hit the jackpot one day; if we are violent to our spouses; if we continue to use expletives whenever we get upset, then we are still in the world with all the habits that are destructive of life in Christ.
What Is Not Enough?
It is not enough to claim that at some point of time we made a ‘decision’ to follow Christ; or that we go to Church regularly; or that we have been baptised. A non-believer has every right to say, ‘Yes, but I want to see what difference it is making in your life.’ A Christian is a person in whom the Holy Spirit is continuing the process of salvation. This is not to deny that in the case of genuine conversion a person was ‘born again’ through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, many Christians have not grown past that point.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he spoke to them as people who were being saved (1 Cor. 1:18; 15:2; 2 Cor. 2:15). Once we have entered God’s family through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit begins His work of saving us from all the perspectives, values, methods, and practices we inherited from the world. It is the process of reshaping us into the image of Christ; a divine image badly marred by the Fall in the Garden of Eden. This is a life-long process.
I remember sharing this understanding in an adult small group Bible study one day, when one person retorted, ‘But you can’t take some isolated verses like these to say what you want to say.’ It is true we should never rely on isolated verses that cannot be corroborated by other teaching in the Bible. However, Jesus made it plain in the Great Commission how we are to understand the ongoing-ness of our Christian experience. To become a disciple of Jesus involves being taught all that God wants us to understand from His word, and then to learn to work that understanding out through practical obedience. (Mt. 28:18-20). Paul saw this as having our minds renewed; to cease to think and act like we used to; and to think and act as people who are under new management, i.e. with a biblical mindset. (Rom. 12:1-2). That is not a short-term process. Paul saw this as an aspect of salvation that will only come to full fruition at the end of time. It is this aspect of salvation that the world has a right to see in us and among God’s people in the life of the Church.
Are we being saved from the materialism that is one of the main enemies of people who claim that their real inheritance is in heaven? Are we being saved from self-centred living that breaks up families and spoils relationships at work, among friends and neighbours? Are we being saved from the kind of ambition that is prepared to step over everyone who is a hindrance to us? Are we being saved from the sensual passions that disregard the dignity of others? Are we being saved from a lying spirit, an unclean tongue, and an arrogant posture? Are we being saved from a paternalistic attitude that is content to live isolated from the needs of the world?
This is the kind of evidence the world has a right to see taking place among Christians. These are the problems people face in life generally and want to know if it is possible to live differently. Or, are the claims of Christians mere words. If the Church can show that it is wrestling with the same problems and finding solutions in Jesus Christ, then the world is likely to listen to its message.
Need For Self-Analysis
Today’s Church has to ask itself the question, ‘What is there in the life of our Christian community that is worth seeing and that confirms the Gospel?’ Simply, ‘nice people’? Not enough. There are many ‘nice’ people outside the Church? What else? The focus has to be different. When Jesus spoke about the witness of people in the kingdom of heaven, he said,
…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Mt. 5:16).
The emphasis here is on the transformation God is able to accomplish in people; a transformation that leads people to recognise the Source of that transformation, and to honour Him.
Writing in 1963, Bishop Stephen Neill, the mission historian, said, “the age of missions is at an end; the age of mission has begun.” He went on to say,
The individual pioneer is necessary; but in the end the Gospel will commend itself only through the quality of the life that it produces, and this quality must be seen in the life of a whole community and in the impact of its life on the world that surrounds it.