Just a brief introductory note to say how great it's been to be able to work normally for the last week. Very busy, not without its frustrations but really, really good to be back. Something like stopping bashing my head against a brick wall - not that I've ever tried this out for real, you understand.
Anyway, this week a continuation of the Christian living theme, been thinking about this a lot so I hope you find the below interesting, do please let me know what you think.
What is a Christian?
Before getting to the question as to why we look to live as Christians, it seems to me important to address the question, what is a Christian in the first place? And we have the most wonderful summary answer to this question given in perhaps the single best known verse in the Bible:
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son,
that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
So there we have it. Jesus has done everything necessary for us, if we believe in Him then we are Christians. All to do with Him, nothing for us to do except accept it. It really is that simple.
And it has to be simple, doesn't it? Christianity is open to everybody, irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender, social class, IQ level, everybody. And this is one of the glories of the Christian faith: so simple anybody can understand it, so complex that the finest theological mind in the world could spend 10 lifetimes studying it and still not plumb its depths.
Whilst I am no expert in comparative religion, the idea that salvation is a gift from God as to what He has done for us is, not something that we earn in whole or in part, is, I believe, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Christian faith. I will resist the temptation to develop this further on the grounds that there are many people much better positioned than me to do so.
Why then live as a Christian?
So if Jesus Christ has already done everything necessary, why then do we live as Christians? This point is addressed many times in the epistles, one such passage is as follows:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith
- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -
not by works, so that no one can boast.
For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works,
which God prepared in advance for us to do.
The same point is made rather more bluntly in the following:
As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead
So having been saved by Jesus through faith, we then look to demonstrate this faith by living in a way which is pleasing to Him. Putting the point in the negative, is it really reasonable to accept a gift given at enormous cost and then turn our back on the giver?
Where things can go wrong
This would appear to be very straightforward - and in an important sense it is, and has to be, for reasons given above. Yet right from the very beginning problems arose with this idea that we live as Christians as an outworking of our faith, going in two somewhat different directions.
Firstly, there is the idea that we need to be obeying various rules, in effect earning our salvation through good works. This is seen in the book of Galatians, as considered in this blog post - when Christianity was still very new, even then there were problems in the message being clearly understood and acted upon. And in some recent American research by LifeWay Research (tab at the bottom of the page gives a fuller summary) only 23% of respondents expressing an evangelical Christian perspective disagreed with the statement, "An individual must contribute his or her own effort for personal salvation.” Of course, one can debate the finer points of this finding, but it would seem to point to the idea that problems in the Galatian church are still with us now, in adding rules and caveats and human endeavour to Jesus' work that we might be saved.
The second is that, since we have been saved already, nothing further matters, we can do whatever we like. Paul addresses this issue in the following passage:
Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!
We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
Or don't you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus
were baptised into His death?
We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that,
just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father,
we too may live a new life.
Romans 6: 1b-4
Whilst not explicitly stated, it is reasonable to suppose that Paul is addressing this issue because it has, actually, arrived. And it is certainly well within my experience, in talking to people both with and without a Christian faith, that this issue comes up.
Why do things go wrong?
When the original teaching is so clear, why is it so vulnerable to these two misinterpretations? There are a number of reasons I can think of, maybe you can think of more also.
As adults we learn to become suspicious of free offers, do not like being beholden to others, expect to have to do something in return for things given. So the idea that salvation is a gift, nothing to do with us, sits uneasily on this. Jesus's words, "..unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3b) would seem to apply. In my own experience, one of the great joys of dealing with young children is that they are happy to accept gifts at face value, without any sense of obligation resulting. But for adults, this is not easy!
I would suggest further that there is a bit of a paradox in the human condition, we both like and dislike being told what to do. So as a school teacher, on the one hand youngsters would push the bounds as far as they could, on the other they would speak scathingly of teachers, "who can't control us." In-so-far as we do like being told what to do, there's something rather comforting about having a list of rules, do this, do that, do the other, then everything will be OK. Extreme examples of this can be found within the cults, less extreme examples elsewhere. As I'm hoping to develop later in this series, Christian living is more a set of principles than directives as to what to do in any given situation. This brings freedom - but sometimes being told exactly what to do can be quite nice, can't it?
In so far as Christian living arises out of a sense of gratitude for what Jesus has done, we need to be realistic here, I think - feelings like this do not continue indefinitely and unbrokenly. It is for this reason I was never comfortable singing songs which included the lines: "Father God I wonder how I managed to exist without the knowledge of your parenthood and your loving care" and "I get so excited, Lord, everytime I realise, I'm forgiven, I'm forgiven." Both seem to me to be dictating feelings that, at any given time, we may or may not be experiencing. So we need to build a faith that goes beyond feelings, praise to God may come very easily or it may be a sacrifice (Hebrews 13:15). Basically, if we're depending on feelings, then we can easily degenerate into a way of thinking which says that Jesus has done everything so let's not bother further.
It may be that there are other reasons I've not thought of here, do please send any thoughts you have, I'd be very interested to hear from you.
So, where does this leave us?
In future posts I want to look at some specific examples of what Christian living means, all the time remembering, this is as we work out our salvation, not gain it in the first place. Meanwhile, two key Christian themes here are assurance and freedom. As Christians we can have assurance in what Jesus has done for us and the finality of His act. Jesus also came to bring freedom, so that we are slaves neither to sin nor to sets of rules which bind us down.
Tempting though it is to continue writing, I'll stop here for today. Aware that the above is somewhat rough around the edges, any help in thinking issues through further gratefully received. Thank you for reading, trust you have a good week and I'll be back again soon!