This is an unedited version of an article published in This We Believe: The Good News of Jesus Christ for the World, edited by John Akers, John H. Armstrong, and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 120-138.
BEING A CHRISTIAN: WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
Mahatma Gandhi rejected the Christian idea of salvation by grace through the work of Christ claiming that it was an irresponsible doctrine that opened the door to moral laxity. He would site examples of people who were morally lax in their behavior while claiming to receive God’s forgiveness and thus to enjoy his salvation. Buddhist missionary societies in my nation, Sri Lanka are sending missionaries to the West stating that the “Christian” West needs to discipline of Buddhism to stem its destructive trend of moral degradation. This is presenting a major challenge to our claim that Christianity is unique. People are challenging us saying, if Christianity is unable to really affect a change in the lives of its adherents, then how could it be all that great. When we say that Christianity is the truth, postmodern people (who are not that interested in objective truth) simply respond that this does not interest them. What they want to know is whether Christianity really gives what they consider an authentic experience.
Yet all through its history Christians have claimed that Christianity is the answer to the problem of human sin and righteousness because it provides us with a way to overcome sin and live righteous lives. When I was preaching at a conference in Peru, the three of us visiting preachers were given a bodyguard each because a terrorist group was targeting foreigners. Towards the end of the conference I was trying to persuade my bodyguard, Salomon to receive God’s salvation. He told me that would be impossible for him because he was too great a sinner. I pointed him to 1 Timothy 1:15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” He was very impressed with that worse, as he said that he was the worst of sinners. I told him that, if that were so, then this verse refers to him. But subsequently he lost hope saying that he was too accustomed to sin to be able to live a Christian life. I pointed him to Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Again he took heart. By the end of the day one of the other preachers in our group had led Salomon and another of the guards to Christ.
Can we give irreligious people like Salomon the assurance that God can do the seemingly impossible work of completely transforming their lives? Salomon’s life after his conversion showed that God could do this. And the Bible clearly claims that God can do this. It is our task in this paper to demonstrate in what way the gospel changes a person so that we could assert that Christ is indeed unique not only because he is the Truth but also because he can do a work in our lives that no other “savior” could.
A RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
Several times Jesus described the salvation that he gives those who believe in him as eternal life (e.g. John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24 etc.). He explained that this eternal life is equivalent to knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God sent (John 17:3). This relationship provides the deepest fulfillment that anyone could have as our loneliness is banished and a friendship with God is established. Jesus described this as life to the full (John 10:10). Human beings are made to find their deepest fulfillment through relationships of love. This is why so many of the popular songs of any given era are love songs. As music is the language of joy and love is the most joyous experience on earth, people often express love through songs. But human love always falls short of complete fulfillment, as humans are fallible. So we must never expect from people what only God can give—complete fulfillment. Through Jesus we can enter into this experience.
Why is it then that many Christians are not experiencing deep fulfillment in Christ? The fulfillment that comes from our relationship with God follows the principles of interpersonal relationships, which must be followed in order to experience complete enjoyment. For example, if we do not trust God to look after us as he has promised (Deut. 31:6, 8; Josh. 1:5; Heb. 13:5), we will struggle with doubt and anxiety when problems come our way and this will take away our joy. True enjoyment from relationships comes when they are cultivated. Our relationship with God is often compared with the relationship between husband and wife. Isaiah 54:5 says, “For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name.” If a married couple do not spend time conversing with each other, they will not really enjoy their relationship with each other. In the same way, if we do not spend time with God in what we call the spiritual disciplines (reading the Bible, meditation, prayer, worship etc.) we will not experience the fullness that the Bible speaks of.
Followers of New Age movements and Eastern religions are testifying to sublime spiritual experiences today, through their spiritual disciplines that they say surpass what Christians experience. When people exercise the aspect of their lives they will experience refreshment as they free themselves from the bondage of life in a rushed and competitive society. Therefore we should not be surprised by these testimonies. However these experiences will fall short of the fulfillment which comes through deepening our relationship with God. David said, “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psa. 16:11). Yet such pleasures are open only to those who spend time at the “right hand” of God. When Sadhu Sundar Singh was a youth he experienced great heights of spiritual ecstasy through practicing Hindu and Sikh spiritual disciples in India. But each of these experiences ended in frustration as he returned from the “mountaintop” to day-to-day life on earth. He finally surrendered to Jesus Christ whom he had been opposing through various anti-Christian activities. He became one of the great Indian evangelists of this century who also enjoyed wonderfully ecstatic experiences with God through the Christian spiritual disciplines. He once said, “Without Christ I am like a fish out of water. With Christ I am in an ocean of love.”
Christian spiritual disciplines, however, do not aim to establish a relationship with God as some non-Christian disciplines do. We cannot find God by trusting in our own efforts at reaching out to him, through spiritual exercises. God has reached out to us and initiated a relationship with us by offering us his unmerited favor (grace). Here, then, is one of the most basic differences that being a Christian makes: it opens the door to a relationship with God which in turns opens the door to life’s most fulfilling experiences.
LOVE AND JOY
While there are many characteristic experiences that ensue from entering into a relationship with God, two of the most commonly mentioned in the Bible are love and joy. If we enter into a love relationship with God, it should not surprise us that love is now an important aspect of Christian experience. Love is so important an aspect of God’s nature that John says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Therefore if our relationship with God is the most important thing about our life, then it is not surprising to find Paul saying that our lives are controlled by God’s love. He says, “Christ’s love compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14). Love now becomes our aim in life (1 Cor. 14:1), and the best mark to identify a Christian (1 Cor. 13). Yet this love is not something that we ourselves produce through our efforts. It is something that God has freely given us. Paul says, “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rom. 5:5). Here then is another major difference that Christ makes in those who receive his salvation: they become people whose lives are filled and characterized by love.
We have already said how love is closely related to joy. One of the key results of a love relationship is joy. So when Paul wants to describe the fruit of the work of God’s Spirit in our life, the first two qualities he mentions are love and joy (Gal. 5:22). When we realize that God loves us so much as to send Jesus to die for us, and that he forgives us of all our sin, freeing us from the burden of guilt and accepting us as his children, we are amazed (1 John 3:1). When we experience the thrill of having this love shed abroad in our hearts our joy peaks. A fairly new Christian was giving his testimony at a meeting, and it went well until he came to describing God’s love. He wanted to find a word that adequately described this amazing thing he had experienced. Finally he blurted out, “The staggerating love of God.” There is no word called staggering in the English language, but his joy over God’s love was so intense that he needed to coin a word to express his feelings. St Francis of Assisi said, “Let us leave sadness to the devil and his angels. As for us, what can we be but rejoicing and glad.”
Problems may come and cause us temporary fear and anxiety, but when we reckon that God is with us and is greater than the problems, the joy returns with great depth for we realize that even problems cannot remove this joy. The Bible calls this the joy of the Lord or God (Rom. 5:11; Phil. 3:1; 4:4, 10). Of course if we block the love of God through disobedience, through refusing to believe that God is looking after us, this joy will leave us. Some, perhaps because they have faced serious rejection in life, may find it difficult to believe that God would love them and wholeheartedly accept them as his children. Such reasons account for the anomalous, though all too common, incidences of Christians who are unhappy and discontented, even though they claim to believe in God and obey him.
There is a general recognition among people everywhere of the fact that love is “the greatest thing in the world.” There is also a deep desire in people to be truly happy, which really lies at the root of our quest for love. People, blinded as they are by sin, are looking in the wrong places for love and happiness. They may find love and happiness that temporarily still the yearnings of their hearts. But for true fulfillment they must come to the one who made them. And in Christ our Creator has provided an answer to human need. This is why we affirm that Christianity fulfills the deepest aspirations of human beings.
We just said that God is love, resulting in the Christian life being characterized by love and joy. But God is also holy and pure. Therefore the Christian life should also be characterized by holiness. We cannot keep doing the sinful things that we did before we became Christians. This is said so many times in the Epistles that it should be considered a basic aspect of Christianity. Peter says, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance” (1 Pet. 1:14). Then he gives the reason why holiness must characterize Christians: “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:15-16).
In the Bible sin is not an acceptable practice for Christians. John puts it bluntly: “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9 NAS; see also 2:1; 3:6). That John does not mean absolute sinless perfection here is indicated by the fact that he had earlier suggested that it is wrong for Christians to claim to be without sin and that he prescribed a way of recovery for Christians who do commit sin (1 John 1:7-9; 2:1-2). Perhaps then most interpreters are right in their suggestion that in the earlier passages Paul is talking about habitual sin. However, we must remember that there is no excuse at all for Christians to sin. John said, “I write this to you so that you will not sin” (1 John 2:1)
The Bible often warns people who claim to be Christians that they will not be saved in the end if their lives are characterized by sin (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5; Heb. 6:4-6). Does this mean that those who are saved can lose their salvation because they rejected the way of Christ at some time after their conversion? The church will battle that issue, and it is an important battle for, without clarity here, there could be abuses on both sides. On the one hand, some Calvinists could lull people, who had once professed faith in Christ but are now living in sin, to a false sense of security by assuring them that because of that initial decision to receive Christ’s salvation they are eternally saved despite their wickedness. This is wrong because the Bible clearly states that those who continue in sin in this way cannot enter the kingdom. A biblical way out of this dilemma for those from a Calvinist perspective to suggest that perhaps those who behave in this way, despite their profession of faith were never really saved in that they had not exercised saving faith. Jesus said that we would recognize the genuine people of faith by their fruit (Matt. 7:16-20; John 15:8).
On the other hand the Arminians could adopt an unbiblical approach by asserting so much the possibility of falling away that they miss the whole tenor of Scripture which, despite the warnings, is one of confidence in God’s power to keep those whom he saved until the last day ().
The above discussion would have shown that the situation of people carrying the name Christian who blatantly break God’s laws is not biblically acceptable. Of course we are not transformed to perfect people overnight. It is said that Martin Luther equated conversion to the time when a doctor diagnoses the cause of an illness and starts the patient on the correct course of medicine. Until then his health had been rapidly deteriorating. Complete healing does not come at the moment the correct diagnosis is made and the correct medicine is prescribed. It takes time for the medicine to have its full affect. But at the time the correct course of treatment started the patient took a decisive turn for the better. Whereas once he was going down towards his death, after the correct medicine began to be administered he began to move in a direction of perfect healing. Similarly after our conversion we change the course of our lives and change from being hell bent sinners to being pilgrims along the road to heaven. This change of our nature to conform to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:29) is called sanctification (Rom. 15:16; 1 Thess. 4:3; 5:23; 1 Pet. 1:2).
In the next chapter of this book Maxie Dunnam shares how the Holy Spirit enables us live holy lives. Here we would say that the Holy Spirit does not bulldoze his way through us against our wishes. We must let him change us from within (Rom. 12:1-2). We make use of the means that God has made available to us to help us grow spiritually. We study the Word (1 Pet. 2:2) and seek to obey what we know to be God’s will (Jas. 1:22-23). We pray (Matt. 26:41), we participate in worship and let our fellow Christians help us to be obedient (Heb. 10:24-25). A girl went to her pastor and confessed that though she thought she was filled with the Spirit, she saw none of the fruit of the Spirit in her life. The pastor asked her what kind of devotional life she had. “Hit and miss,” she replied. “Do you have your meals that way?” he asked. She replied, “I had my meals like that once and I nearly lost my health.” She got the message! If she does not spend time with God, she is not going to become like Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18).
I believe that one reason why Christians do not take the call to be holy seriously enough is that our evangelistic preaching has been defective.