Editorial: February 2008
A bumper sticker recently caught my attention. It read, "Christians Aren't Perfect, Just Forgiven." It seemed to suggest that forgiveness alone is what Christianity is all about. What it says is that faith in Christ brings forgiveness, and that your life is no different from others in every other aspect. Christians are forgiven. They are not perfect. There will always be room for improvement and growth in the life of a Christian. Forgiveness does not depend on being perfect.
The mark of forgiveness, it seems, is similar to the bar codes used on goods sold at stores. A scanner reads only the bar codes. It does not matter whether the sticker is on the right package or not. If an ice cream bar code is on a tube of tooth paste, for the scanner, it makes little difference. "Just Forgiven" stickers suggest that Christian faith works much like bar codes. Our willingness to accept Christ as our personal Saviour makes God to "scan" us and erase our guilt. The payoff then comes after death. The day-to-day life, it would seem, has no relevance to being a Christian, according to the words on the sticker.
To use another analogy, the emphasis on forgiveness to the deletion of all else is akin to celebrities who endorse shampoos and hair gels, but wouldn't be caught dead using them in real life. So also with Christians. We are not dining on our own recipes. Our preaching is divorced from our daily lives. Come to think of it, can people tell you are a Christian just by your conduct and conversation? Is there something in us that makes us different from those who have not seen the light?
This disconnect between preaching and practice may explain the weakness of churches. Why is it that the church does not bear true witness in our society in spite of the large number of conversions reported by many organisations? How come we have no influence on national policies even as we boast of twenty centuries of Christianity in the country? Why are we not able to distinguish Christians from the world? Why the dissonance between the message and the messenger?
Like the words on the bumper sticker, being a Christian, for many, is about having your sins forgiven, being born again. Christianity certainly deals with sin and after-life, but they are not the only qualifications for salvation. For some others, a Christian should have a commitment to the eradication of social evils. A Christian is either one who is prepared to face the Judgment of God after death, or one who is committed to love and justice in society. Neither group lays down a framework and practical direction for personal transformation.
Bishop Stephen Neill is emphatic: "To be a Christian is to be like Jesus Christ. Being a Christian depends on a certain inner relatedness to the living Christ. Through this relatedness, all other relationships of a man-to God, to himself, to other people-are transformed." This view is true to biblical teachings.
Many people who have made a commitment to Jesus Christ believe that Jesus died for their sins and they will go to heaven after death. For them, justification has taken the place of regeneration or new life. The magical moment of mental assent will open the door of heaven for them, they believe. Even as they talk about being "born again," there is a total lack of understanding of what the new birth is, in practical terms, and how it relates to forgiveness and imputed righteousness. They think that to insist on something more than mere faith is to add "works" to pure grace.
It is true that a sinner is saved by faith, without works (Eph. 2:8-9); but true saving faith leads to works (Eph. 2:10).
How can we rely on Christ for the next life without doing so for the present existence? How can we trust Him for our eternal destiny without trusting Him for the things that relate to Christian life? The eternal life Jesus spoke about is not knowledge of God, but an intimately interactive relationship with Him in this world. Little effort is made by churches to teach people to do what He did and taught. The most common response is "Faith is Faith." In his book The Search for God at Harvard, Ari Goldman tells about one of his classmates in the Divinity School, who was heading the Gay and Lesbian Caucus. She was appointed as an Associate Pastor after graduation. The congregation did not know that she was a lesbian. She said, "I never raised the issue with them. If I did, I would never have got the job. Sure, there is a degree to which I am leading a dual life, but that doesn't seem like a problem right now." Such evasion and disobedience have become all too common in Christendom. Remember, "The crooked man is an abomination to the Lord, but He is intimate with the upright"(Pro.3:32).
In his letter to the Romans, Paul deals with the application of the doctrines of salvation to the realities of life. Paul urges us "in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom.12:1-2).
True Christian service and living must begin with personal dedication to the Lord. The Christian who fails in life is the one who has first failed at the altar, refusing to surrender completely to Christ. True dedication is the presenting of body, mind and will to God day by day. It is yielding our bodies to Him daily, having the mind renewed by the Word and surrendering our will to Him through prayer and obedience. When we think of godly men and women like Joseph, Daniel and Esther, who exercised spiritual ministries in pagan governments, we can see what the Spirit can do through the dedicated believer.
Being a Christian is not a matter of what we say with our lips; it involves what we do with our lives. The only way faith can be expressed in the Christian's life is by practical loving obedience to the Word of God. Even the devil has dead faith! (Jas.2:19). James argued rightly that a faith which was not expressed in deeds was of no value at all. Real Christians are a peculiar people, zealous of good works (Tit.2:14). The distinctive peculiarity of the Christian life in relation to others is love, expressed to man as the redeeming love of God and of Christ.
We should give our bodies in dedicated service to God. With the body goes the mind, the heart, the will, the possessions. The incense rising from our sacrifice is the dedicated love and service of a life made holy and well-pleasing to God. We are not to adopt the external and fleeting fashions of this world, but be transformed in our inmost nature. Forgiveness is not just the salvation of your soul, but the healing of our entire bodies. It is not a superficial change of fashion, but a vital change leading to a new life. Obviously, this is not something we do in our own power, but with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
The roots of much of the friction that exists with others can be traced to our self-absorption, our rights and prerogatives, our capacities and responsibilities. Paul therefore exhorts (Rom.12:3-8) us to have humility as right thinking, co-operation as the proper relationship and stewardship as the Christian attitude. To see oneself as both a dependent and dependable part of the whole is an essential Christian attitude.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for doing their religious duties while neglecting "justice and the love of God" (Lk.11:42). To treat people with fairness and integrity is part of our responsibility as Christians. It is required of us to stand publicly for what is right.
We should learn to forgive others. Forgiving each other is powerful, bringing a comforting calmness. With it, we can enjoy harmony with God's people; the storm will continue, without it. To forgive is to dance to the tune of God's forgiving heart. "To err is human, to forgive is divine."
Many are content with a string of experiences, rather than transformation of character. Jesus the Teacher is absent from their lives. The "latest studies" have more to teach them about love and sex than His teachings. Carl Sagan is a better authority on the cosmos than the Creator. They do not seem to know the difference between information and wisdom.
Being a Christian comes to have nothing to do with the kind of person one is. There is a divorcing of life from faith. We do not seriously consider Jesus as our Teacher on how to live. His messages must come to us free of the deadening legalism, political sloganeering and dogmatic traditions. Those who speak for Christ must ask themselves this question: Does the Gospel I preach and practise cause people to become disciples of Jesus?
"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?" Similarly, faith without works is meaningless. The love of God must be manifested through and in us. It is transformative and redemptive, leaving no behaviour and no trait untouched. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" It is pertinent to ask if our neighbours and friends see us as any different from the rest of the community.
In a letter dated April 16, 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. wrote as follows: "There was a time when the Church was very powerful-in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society." When will the Church become the thermostat it used to be?