What does being a Christian involve? Is it merely some kind of initial “spiritual experience” and then not much else, or is there something I have to actually do–is there real work involved? Put another way, is being a Christian a passive process in which something is done to us, or an active one in which we are to be busily engaged?
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Matthew 13:44 NIV)
If you make the effort to personally sit down and study your Bible with integrity of purpose (rather than simply relying on what you hear) you may not be so inclined to assume it’s the former. We’ve heard “accept Christ in your heart” so often that we assume that’s all there is to it. Then we’re surprised and taken aback that so many who have “accepted Christ” fall back into their old lives and leave the church. Or they are functionally indistinguishable from non-Christians. Or our youth are leaving the church because they see no other call or purpose than sitting in a building week after week and socializing with a particular group of people. We have missed the full portent of what it means to accept Him as our Lord and Savior–the implications of what it means for Him to really rule over every aspect of our lives, and the full extent of what he’s saving us from. Granted, we do typically recognize that those who are born again have a sensitivity to the things of God, but in all fairness–so did the rich young ruler who went away sad after Jesus said he still needed to sell all and come follow Him. Yet most of us haven’t given up all we have for Christ–so how are we any different? If being a Christian doesn’t require any further action on our part, if it doesn’t change our life much, if we simply add Him onto our existing life–onto who we already are–have we really accepted Him as our Lord and Savior?
The point is that Christ came not to better our lives or enhance them, but to replace them! He doesn’t pour out His Spirit into our dead “I-want-nothing-to-do-with-Him hearts of stone–He only fills with Himself new, spiritually reborn-to-Him living breathing hearts of flesh (the “we don’t pour new wine into old wine skins” parable). Remember He said,“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10 NASB)
And while we do need to accept Him as Lord and Savior, I believe we in the post-modern church have committed a grave error in diluting the Biblical definition of what a life “…redeemed…from…[the] futile way of life inherited from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18 NASB)
But to begin with, let’s clarify that salvation isn’t “Christ and;” it’s just “Christ.” Period. Jesus paid the penalty for every sin ever committed by mankind on the cross and there is absolutely nothing we can or need to do to add to it. His work salvation is complete; “it is finished,” paid in full–tetelestai–as He declared on the cross. But that isn’t the issue.
The issue is what we believe He has saved us from. I think we as a culture are so sin-driven–so completely immersed in it–that all our guilt-ridden consciences can focus on is the Divine retribution we so rightly deserve. So when we think of salvation from sin, what we are really thinking is that we will escape eternal damnation as punishment for our sins. And that is part of it, but it is only a part.
When we read that Christ came to “save His people from their sins” we need to understand the full context of our picture–of the sin-infected world we live in. The effects of sin on humankind are so pervasive that we typically cannot comprehend how far short of true rightness we have fallen. We are so thoroughly enmeshed in our own sin and the sin around us that we cannot even see straight–we cannot see ourselves as God sees us. We need God’s sight; we need a power above and beyond anything we can muster. We need Him.
And the problem with believing that all Jesus saves us from is the penalty of sin is that we miss the forest for the trees–we miss the fact that He also desires to work on us now, to save us from ourselves–from “the sin which so easily entangles us.” An essential aspect of His work of redemption is filling us with His Spirit to show us how to live now, to “conform us to the image of…[Himself].” He doesn’t add onto our lives–complement them or make them better–He gives us Himself–He makes us into different people completely transformed through association with Him!
And this is not a passive activity–it requires work on our part–obedience, commitment, perseverance, having what it takes to make it to the end. Prove it, you say. Okay. How about Jesus’ own words?
“Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: ‘He started something he couldn’t finish.’
Or can you imagine a king going into battle against another king without first deciding whether it is possible with his ten thousand troops to face the twenty thousand troops of the other? And if he decides he can’t, won’t he send an emissary and work out a truce?
Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple. Salt is excellent. But if the salt goes flat, it’s useless, good for nothing. Are you listening to this? Really listening?”
(Luke 14:28-35 MSG)
Most translations render verse 33 similarly to the NIV “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” (Luke 14:33 NIV) but the Orthodox Jewish Bible, which can sometimes provide valuable insight, says “So, then, none of you can become my talmid if you do not renounce all your [idolatrous] holdings.” (Lukas 14:33 OJB)
The issue is idolatry; nothing can come before Christ and following Him–no association, no property, no pursuit, no love. Do you see that 1) there is a cost involved? Jesus speaks of being able to finish the Christian life you commit to–having the wherewithal to go the distance, being willing to sacrifice everything to gain the priceless treasure, HIM–unlike the rich young ruler who would not.
2) There is also a mission. It is the great commission:
“So go and make followers of all people in the world. Baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey everything that I have taught you, and I will be with you always, even until the end of this age.””
(Matthew 28:19-20 NCV)
We are to spend our lives calling others to a life of self-denial and commitment to Christ and His kingdom.
3) And, there is labor–there is actual, real work involved. It may involve pastoring, missionary work, teaching, serving in your church. It maybe constructing churches or homes, providing medical services, or digging wells. But it will certainly involve personal and private labor–what used to be called the spiritual disciplines, which now seem to many like a relic of an archaic practice, but which are absolutely essential and without which there is no growth in Christ–no moving forward!
It will involve studying the Word of God–reading it, spending time in it–so you hear God talk to you. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17 NKJV)
It will also involve spending extended time wrestling with God in prayer–worshipping Him, seeking His presence and will, interceding for others. An extended time. Not a quick “Good morning, Jesus” or even a rote Lord’s Prayer. A real fellowshipping with Him–if you ever want to progress beyond Christian “baby-dom.”
No, committing to Christ is not a passive activity, but we have made it appear to be so. It is not something extra you tack onto your life; if you follow Him, Christ becomes your life–you hand in your old one and He gives you a new one. It requires great personal sacrifice and much hard labor.
And that’s why we’re losing people–because by omission, we’re lying to them as to what following Jesus is. In our desire to “save souls”–to pack our churches–we’ve watered down Christianity so much so that first century believers would no longer recognize it. They lost their property; some had to flee for their lives, some gave not only their own lives but also the lives of their children. The church in China and the Muslim world is growing because they understand the cost–in so many cases it really does mean prison or death, and certainly a loss of comfort and standing in the community.
Remember Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:8?
“What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8 NIV)
Following Christ cost Paul everything; should we expect Him to require nothing of us—no personal sacrifice, no working for His kingdom , no effort for growth? I don’t believe we can–not if we take “gaining Christ and being found in Him” seriously!
Give me Yourself, Life–and give me It abundantly! Amen.