Monday, June 07, 2010

What is a Christian?

Recently I have heard a lot of people make statements about Christians which indicate that they don't understand what it means to be a Christian. I can't really blame them, because not being Christians, it is not their responsibility to inform themselves. In fact, I think that the Church has failed to get the message out in a clear and complete form, leaving people to deduce and surmise about what Christianity is all about. Most non-Christians see Christianity as just another flavor of organized religion, which provides a list of DOs and DON'Ts which people must follow to get in good with God. Based on what people see, that is not an entirely unreasonable conclusion, because a recent poll found that more Christians are concerned about social issues like abortion and homosexuality than they are about telling people that Jesus is the only way to be right with God. Many times Christians offer partial explanations which fall far short of providing a full explanation. When Christians do get down to the heart of the matter, they tend to switch into Church talk, seemingly unconcerned that the people who most desperately need to hear the Gospel don't understand the jargon about propitiation and ecclesiology and stuff like that. So I'm going to attempt to explain what it means to be a Christian, without being overly simplistic but still using language understandable by ordinary people.

Pluralism is the increasingly widespread view that any religious system is equally good, and whatever works for you is fine. Oprah expresses this view by saying that god is on top of the mountain, and there are many roads which lead to him, and it doesn't matter what road you choose to take. I may choose the road of Christianity, and that's fine for me. You may choose the road of Buddhism, that that is good for you. Someone else may meditate on the texture of their belly-button lint, and that's equally good. The problem with this fallacy is that any two religions you name have different and contradictory doctrines on central tenants of belief. Christians believe that Jesus is God. Jews and Muslims say that He is not. Similar examples can be found to demonstrate that each religion is mutually exclusive of the others. Thus they cannot all be true. The claim that all religions are equally valid is equivalent of saying that no religion is true, they are all fabrications, and you can pick any fiction you prefer. People who adhere to this outlook tend to pick and choose from various philosophies, world views, and religions, taking what they like and assembling a hodgepodge of myths which they find helpful, enlightening, inspirational, or emotionally gratifying. But I am not interested in an expedient delusion. I am satisfied only with truth, and the existence of truth requires that anything contradictory to truth is false. Therefore I reject pluralism and pursue truth, recognizing that truth is narrow and exclusive.

The Bible lays out God's plan for humankind and His involvement in history and in people's lives to draw people back to a relationship with Him. The perspective gained by looking at this "big picture" is essential in understanding where we are today.

First of all, it is important to understand God's purpose for us as people. To get a good picture of what God had in mind for us, we'll go back to the beginning when God created the earth, everything in it, and finally humans. We are unique because we are the only thing God created in His image, meaning that we are spiritual beings with a soul, and we can know God. God created us because He wanted to have a relationship with us. You can see what this looks like by examining the way God and humans interacted before Adam chose to rebel against God. Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden which God had created, and each evening they walked with God through the garden, talking, discussing, and enjoying each others' company. Adam and Eve saw no need for clothing, as they were at harmony with God and each other and had nothing to hide and no cause for shame. This perfect, intimate fellowship between God and man was what God had in mind when he created you. He desires to be with you and enjoy you.

However, people had other ideas. Led astray by Satan, Adam and Eve decided that they wanted to do things their own way. They believed Satan's lie that God was withholding something good from them when God told them not to eat from one particular tree. Satan told Eve that the fruit would cause her to be like God, so the temptation was about more than fruit, it was about her desire to exalt herself and claim a position of moral authority equal to God, the creator. In an act of deliberate rebellion against God, they ate the fruit and set humanity on a path away from God. The perfect fellowship with God was broken, and for the first time people felt shame. Worse yet, that act introduced death into the world, not by an action of God, but as a natural result of our own choice to ignore God's warning. Now instead of living forever in perfect relationship with God, we will die separated from God by our own rebellion. Every one of us makes the same choice as Adam when we decide to sin, or to go our own way instead of God's way. We like to think that we have the right to do things our own way, but that thinking denies God's authority to define right and wrong. Like Adam, we have the arrogant presumption to believe that we know better than God and that our way is better than His. So every one of us is separated from God both because we inherited that condition from Adam and because we chose it on our own.

While our rebellion was far from God's ideal for us, it certainly did not catch God by surprise. God already had a plan to restore our relationship with Him which we had broken by our sin. This was no small task. God is holy, which means that he cannot simply ignore our sin, and He is just, meaning that the penalty for sin must be paid. God knew that we were completely incapable of doing enough to meet His standards. Apart from God's intervention, justice demands that we die and spend eternity separated from God, and God would have been entirely in the right to allow that to happen. We couldn't blame God for our fate, because it was what we chose in direct defiance to His commands. Anyone who says "I don't believe in a God who sends people to hell" is basing their unbelief on a false premise. You send yourself to hell, while God offers an alternative. If you reject the alternative, that is not God's doing. The dire nature of our own condition could not be overstated: we stand before God guilty of numerous acts, each of which merits death, and a just God cannot simply ignore those transgressions -- the penalty must be paid.

God resolved this quandary in the most amazing manner. He Himself became a man, Jesus, and paid the penalty for our sins on our behalf. God offers that payment to us as a free gift. There is nothing we could ever do to begin to deserve it or to earn it. All we can do is receive it. The most clear statement of what God did for us is found in Ephesians 2:8-9: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." God's plan for saving mankind is different from every man-made religious system because every religion is based on man earning favor with God by doing good deeds, while the truth is that we cannot earn God's approval, so God offers us forgiveness as a free gift. Paul says that we are saved by God's grace alone, not by works, and not even by faith. Faith is the means by which we receive God's saving grace, but the faith is not even our own, it is also a gift of God. God does it all, from beginning to end.

At the moment when God saves a person, He transforms that person from the inside out. Our old self which was dead and rotting under the power of sin is removed and God makes us into a new creation. We are freed from slavery to sin and set free to experience the fullness of life in Christ. We are no longer separated from God by our sin, but we are restored to the relationship and fellowship with God which we enjoyed in the Garden of Eden.

God says that in Christ we are righteous (Romans 3-4). To be very clear, this does not mean that we tried harder and worked more than other people and made ourselves right with God. This righteousness came from God just as His forgiveness was given to us. It is all grace. But the righteousness is also real. I have heard people say that when God looks at us, he wears "Son glasses" so that we look like Jesus. I have to give whoever came up with that some points for cleverness, but the illustration falls short because a believer's righteousness is not an illusion. When God says you are righteous, you really are righteous.

Being holy, righteous, set apart for God, and forgiven are all part of our new identity in Christ, and that can never change. However, we don't always act in accordance with that new identity. When a non-Christian sins, he is acting according to his nature, but when a Christian sins, he is acting contrary to his nature. He is still a forgiven child of God, but that sin can do all sorts of damage. Sin damages our fellowship with God and our witness to other people, and it keeps us from living the life God desires for us. God continues to work in the heart of a believer for the rest of his life, conforming him to the reality of his new identity in Christ.

You don't have to make yourself right with God in order to come to Him, and in fact you can't possibly do that. However, after you receive His grace there are some things you should do. To be completely clear, your salvation does not depend on any of these things. That is a done deal and nothing can ever undo it. The Bible says that your name is eternally written in the Book of Life, and can never be blotted out. These are things to do because you are saved, not in order to be saved. One of them is baptism. There is nothing magical about baptism. The water doesn't do anything besides get you wet. The importance of baptism is that you are declaring to the world that you are a new creation in Jesus Christ, that you have been united with Him in His death, and raised by God's power to a new life. Another thing a believer should do is join a local Church and serve in that Church, because we are more effective together than we are by ourselves. The Church is God's only plan for reaching the world with the message of Jesus.

Christians talk about "eternal life", but it is important to understand that eternal life does not start when you die. Eternal life starts the moment you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Living in that reality today is every bit as amazing a blessing as going to heaven when you die. Some people plan to wait until later to turn to God, thinking that they would rather do their own thing for now. The premise is that living without God is better than living with God. This is an irrational way of thinking. The difference between heaven and hell is the presence or absence of God. People can accept that God's way is better after death, but they think that their own way is better now. The truth is that a life lived in fellowship with God and in accordance with His plan is the best life there can be. In comparison to the glory of God, the stuff you hold on to is worthless, self-destructive garbage. Trading that junk for the riches of God is just good sense.

History, ultimately, is the story of God's plan to restore us to relationship with Him. He does not force us or coerce us, but He does provide a way. That way is Jesus. Will you take that gift which is freely offered to you, or will you continue in the destruction brought about by going your own way?

1 comment:

todd said...

Our friend Scott used Oprah's view of God on the mountain as an example when he said Christianity is the only religion where God comes DOWN the mountain and carries us back up with Him.