There is a well-worn path in evangelical Christianity. It begins with the presentation of wonderful news – that God has done everything necessary, in Christ’s death on the cross, to make it possible for us to receive salvation. All we have to do is trust in Christ and we are saved. To put it another way, we don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done it for us.
The path then makes a surprising turn. Having trusted in Christ for salvation, we soon find the path turning steeply uphill as we discover that living the Christian life is another matter entirely. Living as a Christian is presented as a list of disciplines, activities, new habits to start and old habits to kick. The sunny days of gospel invitation give way to storm clouds of pressure and obligation.
A superficial reading of the Bible only seems to reinforce this idea. After all, there is plenty of instruction and lots of commands directed at believers.
But a more careful reading of our Bibles will yield a more helpful set of directions.
The gospel is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17). That faith is both pioneered and perfected by Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). And as Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The Christian life begins by faith, and is to continue by faith. The way we “get on” is the same as the way we “got in” – by faith in Jesus. (See Galatians 3:1-3 for Paul’s critical evaluation of the idea that we are to grow to maturity by our own flesh effort instead of by faith!)
I would like to illustrate what this means and then suggest three areas where we may need a reorientation of our perspective.
Illustration – An actively engaged faith. Imagine a couple dancing at their wedding. We are the bride of Christ, he has won our hearts and we are his. And now we are invited to live by faith, with our gaze fixed on him and our every move lived in response to his loving leadership. Just as in a dance, there are three options and two of them are bad. We can imagine that living by faith means being uninvolved – hanging like a dead weight as he leads the dance. That will never be a pretty sight. Or we might assume that we must play our part and fight to express our own leadership on perhaps 50% of the steps. Again, not pretty. The beautiful way to engage the dance is 100% active, but 100% responsive. We fix the gaze of our hearts on him and follow his every lead. Fully involved, but completely responsive. That makes for a beautiful married dance.
With that image in mind, let me suggest three wonderful gifts that God has given us for living the Christian life. These are three gifts that perhaps we need in order to reorient our perspectives and enjoy them to the maximum:
Gift 1 – The Bible. The Bible is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ. But we tend to view the Bible as a book about us. We read it looking for the instruction or the encouragement that we need to live our lives. We settle for the idea that it is an instruction manual for life and then read through it looking for something that will help us. Our unspoken feeling is often that it is not a very well-organized manual for twenty-first century living. Our disappointment can lead to us neglecting this wonderful gift from God.
In reality, the Bible is so much more than a manual for life. It is primarily and ultimately a revelation of the heart of God, culminating in the mission of Christ. (See John 5:39, for example, where Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for daily Bible time spent pursuing life for themselves, but neglecting the revelation of God’s Son.) When we sit down with a cup of coffee to read the Bible, or listen to it on the way to work, or take a few minutes at lunch time to ponder a few verses, we should come to it with a simple prayer, “Lord, please show me your heart as I read this now. I need to know you. Please show me you.” Coming to the Bible looking for God’s heart and character, looking for God’s plan that leads to Christ, looking for Christ himself – this is the best way to engage with this relational prompt given to us by God. As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today. The Bible is a fantastic gift from God to help me do exactly that.
Gift 2 – The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ. We tend to view the Holy Spirit as being there for us. We might focus on the Spirit as a means to experience excitement and miracles for our own sake, or we might reduce the Spirit to a mere source of power as we strive to live as we are supposed to live. Again, our disappointment with either the miraculous or the empowering work of the Spirit may remain unspoken, but may also lead us to neglecting this wonderful gift from God.
In reality, the Holy Spirit is able to work miracles when he chooses, and he is gloriously empowering. But the primary passion of the Spirit is to point our hearts to Christ (see John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:14, Romans 5:5.) When we wake up in the morning, why not begin the day by greeting the God who has not slept, but has been keeping watch over us, “Good morning, Father – thank you for your good heart and your love for me. Good morning, Lord Jesus – thank you again for all you did for me on the cross, that you are alive today interceding for me. And Holy Spirit, make me sensitive to all the ways you point me to trust in God’s good heart today, help me to keep my eyes on Jesus today.” As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today. The Holy Spirit is a glorious gift from God to help me continue to do exactly that.
Gift 3 – The Body of Christ. The Church is a relational prompt, given by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ. We tend to view the church as being there for us. What can I get out of it? Is it serving my needs? How easily we become consumers of services offered by the church, reducing our participation to that of a critic posting our negative reviews for others to browse. Our disappointment with the church is often not kept hidden, and too easily we can neglect this gift from God.
In reality, the local church is a God-given gift, a community where believers can love and be loved in a way that is different from the world around us (see John 13:34-35). Instead of looking to church as a consumer, ready to evaluate and offer a negative review, let’s see church for what it is. Who can I love, encourage, and pray for today? Who can I serve in practical ways? What responsibility can I take on that will give me the opportunity to point people to Jesus? When I preach, how can I point listeners to the goodness of God in Christ (instead of pointing them to their own failure and their need to try harder)? When I teach the children’s class, how can I point them to Jesus so that they might find life to the full? Who can I send an encouraging text message to today? Who can I love, and serve, and encourage? As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today. The local church is a community of faith strugglers like me, encouraging each other to look to Jesus day by day. “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”