A while back a coworker stopped by my office to talk over some business. As we wrapped up that part of the conversation, he noticed a book I had sitting on my desk and asked me about it. I explained that it was about living a Christian life in the midst of a culture antagonistic to it. He then made an argument which I’ve heard many times before, from Christians and non-Christians alike. He said, “I’m a Christian too, but I think that most of the issues – problems between Christians and other people – are because Christians refuse to see that there is more than one way of looking at things. We make a lot of people uncomfortable by saying that there is only one truth. If we weren’t so judgmental about things, there wouldn’t be so many disagreements between us and non-Christians and the world wouldn’t be antagonistic to us.”
My response was, “That’s true: there wouldn’t be many disagreements; but probably because there wouldn’t be anything different about us, as Christians. I believe that, if our faith is to be at all valid, it simply must be transformative. We can’t accept a watered-down version of what Jesus said and did – even if it makes others more comfortable. A watered-down version of Jesus hasn’t been made available to us. We were given Him just the way He is and we are expected to accept Him in that way … and then be transformed in our thinking and actions to conform to Him.”
My coworker nodded and then said, “Yeah, I get you … I understand what you’re saying.” He evidently didn’t because, after a short pause, he immediately followed that up by saying, “But I also think that we have to be careful about the way we present Jesus. We can’t be saying that everybody who is not a Christian is wrong … we will just make enemies that way.” He said a lot of other words on the subject, but the important part of the conversation was over and from there it just degraded into some empty philosophizing about nothingness.
His view isn’t unique. You’ve likely heard that same argument made by several people before. There are lots of people in this world who claim Christ; people who go to church on a regular basis and who even live decent lives too – trying not to lie, cheat, steal or overindulge. But how many of them think that’s all that is required? How many of them think that a head nod subscription to “Christian principles” or “Christian morality” is enough? How many of them think that they’re okay with Jesus because they’ve been dunked in some water and say a word of prayer every now and then?
Somehow, in our everyday lives, we know that ritual and a tacit acknowledgement of a vague sense of right and wrong aren’t enough for a true relationship. You wouldn’t argue that an employee has met his obligations to his employer by simply showing up to work on time, staring blankly at a wall for eight hours and not punching his timecard to leave until the work day is over. You wouldn’t argue that a husband’s vows to his wife are kept by simply replying, “Yes, she’s my wife,” when asked. So why do we believe that it’s okay to say, “Yes, I believe in and accept Jesus,” but then not care enough to be transformed by all of the implications of that confession and decision?
Anybody can say, “I believe in Jesus.” The words are easy to form and, by themselves, they don’t even require anything more. For goodness sake, those words can even mean different things. By saying it a person might mean either, “He is my whole life” or “He is important to me” or “He is important to history” or just that “He lived once upon a time.” The words are just words. They’re just breath … at least, without some purpose behind them. So, the question becomes: how much of our will is transmitted in the words?
To be perfectly honest, the presumption when you accept Christ is that the words are accompanied by intention and dedication. Much like the seed that fell on rocky ground in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Lk 8), people can easily “accept” Christ without feeding the requisite change that He requires and as a result their faith won’t last long when troubles come along. A change in heart and a change in mind are inseparable … at least if you want the benefits of your confession to last. You can’t give your heart to Christ while keeping your mind in the world, nor can you make a cognitive decision to follow Christ while keeping your heart on things of this world. He either gets all of you or none of you.
Paul puts it like this,
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. Eph 4:17-19 (emphasis mine)
What we see here is that Paul is insisting that his brothers and sisters in Christ shed their futile thinking, soften their hearts and purge the impurities of this world from their lives. What’s more, Paul says all of this in rather straightforward words – not trying to water down the transformation required by Christians, nor the stark separation of the Christian and non-Christian worldviews.
Paul continues with the strong and solemn charge to be transformed in the next few verses,
That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in Him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. vv 20-23 (emphasis again mine)
The language Paul uses is extremely clear, but here’s my paraphrase in order to drive the thought home: We were being lied to by our old tendencies; and those lies were destroying us. But we rejected that old life of lies and death and we accepted the call to a new life. However we can’t accept it apart from also living in conformity with God’s righteousness and holiness!
How could these words by Paul be read as a call for anything less than complete transformation? Can we make a case that a watered-down devotion could either glorify God or be at all effective? Is it possible to be salt or light in this world by accepting tastelessness or dimness?
Or, perhaps it should be asked in this way: Is it possible for salvation to be gained without any desire for it? The grace of God is incredible in its breadth and depth, but I don’t know of any scripture which says that it is random. His grace is only “irresistible” to the one who actually WANTS it … and that’s not random at all, is it? God doesn’t impart His grace on someone who denies Him (Mt 10:33). Yet, if we follow the logic of people who claim Christ but who resist His transformation, isn’t that the conclusion to which we are pledging: that denial of Jesus might … just possibly … be overcome by a random impartation of grace? How does that make any sense?
The simple fact is that we can’t accept a part of Christ; it must be all of Him or none. We can’t add any caveats to the acceptance of His grace. We can’t make deals wherein we reserve some claim, no matter how small, to ourselves. It’s union with Him (as Paul talks about earlier in Eph 4) through transformation, or it’s the chaos of one’s own craftiness and cunning.
So let’s go back once more to my co-worker’s statements about us possibly turning people off from the gospel through being ‘judgmental’ about what is right and wrong. I agree that we have to be careful about the way we state things when talking with non-Christians. There’s no sense in turning people away from the goodness of life in Christ by calling down hellfire upon the sins of the age. But we may do non-Christians an even bigger disservice by misrepresenting the stark reality of humanity’s situation.
The Bible makes it clear that every last one of us is messed up (that’s my term, but see Rom 3, for example, if you don’t believe me). Trying to make it seem like we’re all only slightly messed up, or that something as precious as God’s grace is thrown around haphazardly, significantly cheapens the value of our message. Therefore we shouldn’t act like life can be continued in a worldly fashion while spouting a verbal acknowledgement of Jesus.
As a matter of fact, we’ve talked about that issue briefly on this blog before. Essentially, by cheapening the name of God to a non-transformational thing, we bear the name of the Lord in vain. I believe that’s what the commandment meant (“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” Ex 20:7). Don’t say that you follow God – don’t say that you believe in Jesus – and then walk around as if that means nothing. Be transformed by it! The holiness of God demands it! The glory of His Kingship demands it! The blood of Christ demands it!
Oh Lord, please help us to live lives worthy of Your Name. Help us to be worthy of Your calling. Help us to be transformed into conformity with Your purity, so that we might bring salt and light into this worl