The Gospel creates Christians. In fact, you can be as confident that it will create Christians as surely as the sun will rise because God has promised that His Word will not return to Him void. His Gospel will triumph in the hearts of sinners and create Christ-loving, God-centered, glory-bound saints out of self-loving, self-centered, sin-constrained wretches.
Yet we know that not everyone who hears the Gospel becomes a Christian. In fact, repeated exposure to the Gospel tends to cut both ways. It can soften a heart, cracking away at the cement until a person truly believes or it can harden already brittle hearts, causing the unbeliever to put up ever increasing walls of defense against its assault on their own god, whatever or whomever it may be. This reality is both beautiful and horrific, and it is certainly cause to take the Gospel seriously today, for this is the appointed day of salvation. Tomorrow is too long to wait for the glory of God.
When a person hears the Gospel, and the Spirit opens their eyes and their hearts to its glories, a series of strange, God-orchestrated events begins within that person that results in “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). What exactly is this new creation? The world knows this new creation as the group of people called Christians, literally meaning “little Christs”. But what is a little Christ? What do little Christs look like? What should they look like, according to Christ’s own definition? The Bible demonstrates that, among many other things, a Christian is primarily a sin-forsaking saint, a disciple, a member of a body, an alien, and an adopted child.
A Sin-Forsaking Saint
A Christian is a saint who sins. They are not perfect, nor will they ever be so long as they’re breathing in the first body they were born to. But their orientation and attitude towards sin is markedly different after seeing Christ, adoring Christ, and following Him. They now find their sin odious, but for different reasons than many people dislike sin. A normal man need not be a Christian to dislike sin; all you need for that is simply a rational man. Gross pride is repugnant to most men, selfishness offensive, murder detested, and hatred abhorred. Despite living in a country that has nearly toppled into orgy-like obsession with sexual immorality, there still remains a sense that a person should be sexually faithful, and that this produces the best life. Lying is unethical and leads to bad consequences and no one enjoys feeling guilty. These are all perfectly normal reasons for anyone to dislike sin, whether they would call it “sin” or not. But for the Christian, sin is most offensive because it primarily does two things: 1) testifies that there are better gods than God, and 2) limits the Christian’s ability to enjoy God.
When a Christian grieves over their sin and rejects their sin because of these two reasons, the Bible calls this repentance. Repentance is not, “I feel bad and now I want to feel better.” Nor is it, “I’m going to suffer consequences for this and I’d prefer not to,” or even, “On second thought, I probably shouldn’t have done that. Can you forgive me?” True repentance is God-centered, not self-centered. It is beholding God and saying, “It is unfathomable that I should disobey or prefer anything to you.” It’s the difference between feeling a sense of moral guilty over the fact that you tossed an empty can out your window and the sense of incredulity and grief that you might feel if you realized you just threw your can away into the Grand Canyon. You are grieved because you have disrespect and dishonored something so much greater and glorious than yourself, and something that in an of itself, should always be worth more to you than the convenience of getting rid of that can right now. Even if no one ever found out, even if nothing bad would ever happen to you, and even if the can turns out to just get picked up by a good person the next day – and there’s no ultimate harm – you still repent, because ultimately it’s about the object or person you have sinned against.
This is a great gift of salvation. The sweetness of forgiveness comes to those who embrace the momentary sorrows of repentance. And a Christian is one who embraces this task, who embraces the hard and gut-sickening confrontation with all the darkness within himself and lays it before God and says, “I am a fool to ever prefer anything to you.” A picture of the Christian as Christ describes it is not the put-together gentleman who excels in moral standards, generosity and a life that is clean of swear words, alcohol and bad sexual actions. The picture that Christ describes is of a man, beholding the superior glory of an awesome, powerful and loving God and who responds by falling to his knees, bowing his head and beating his chest, proclaiming, “God, forgive a sinner such as I.”
God calls such men saints. They do not repent once and for all. They get off their knees, and they go live and they return to their knees, and they get up, and they continue the cycle. And the repentance is not a way of atoning for sins. God does not withhold grace until you confess to a Priest or do a formal weeping routine. Christ died once for sins, so for the Christian, it is already accounted for before it occurred. The sinful act is only surprising to the Christian, not to Christ, who saw in advance all the sin one would do before moving forward to the cross. No, repentance is a perpetual posture of one who stands before a God who appears more glorious day by day. Each day brings a new reason to repent, but even more so, each day brings a new reason to sing aloud for joy.
The goal of repentance is not to create someone who perpetually feels bad, but to create a disciple. A disciple is someone wholly committed to a way of life, to growing, to learning, to following and knowing the object of their ultimate disciple.
Jesus’ final words to his followers was to go out into the world and make disciples of the nations. He did not say to go make adherents, or to go put on a marketing campaign for Christianity, or to force someone by sword, or even to go make the world a better place by being nice. Rather, He said:
Disciples obey. They look to the One who leads and they follow, humbly, adoringly and faithfully.
But Christ’s call to discipleship is founded upon and imbued with the promise of grace and strength that only He can provide, and which He will lovingly provide. We follow Him, because He is with us always. We don’t scour the Scriptures to follow the example of a great man who lived a long time ago, but in order to follow the active leadership of the living Christ right now. He isn’t behind us, as an example, but ahead of us, with us, holding us in His arms.
A Member of the Body
Once a man is made a disciple, he is also made a member. No longer is he merely an individual entity with a relationship to God, but a part of the Bride of Christ, a globe-spanning institution consisting of men and women whose defining characteristic is the exuberant, joyful expectation of Christ coming in all His glory.
A Christian apart from a Church is as strange as a Crossfitter apart from social media. There is no concept in the Bible of an individual, once born again into the faith, living it out on their own, with none but their wits, their Bible and their own, personal relationship with God. The Bible is clear that God saves individuals, but He is returning for His Bride. So what happens between these two events? The Christian learns to love, to lay down his life, and to serve the rest of the body that Christ has purchased with His blood.
There is much more to be said about the Church – and rest assured, it will be said (in the next post). But as far as the Christian is concerned, all that matters is that they are already part of the Church and must be part of one. All Christians are part of the universal Church, or, the catholic church proper (catholic = universal),that eternal family of Christians spread across the nations and the ages. But Christians are called not just to love this great, globe-spanning collection of saints, but the ones in their own community; the redeemed druggie, the repentant adulterer, the reforming gossip and the struggling skeptic. A Christian can’t love the Church in abstract, for God has set it up in such a way that love and “Church” are concrete realities for every believer through the provision and institution of the local Church. Here, the Christian finds fellowship, finds ample opportunities to love, serve and forgive, and more opportunities to repent, seek grace, and receive the instruction, grace and blessings of God.
Once a man has become Christian, he is given a fundamentally different perspective of their place in this world. Salvation is act of taking a carnal person subject to the laws of sin and entropy and making them a citizen of an everlasting, righteous spiritual kingdom. So this place – this world, with it’s natural and man-man made structures and systems – suddenly shifts from our home to our hostel.
This powerful change in perspective has led many Christians to go off course one way or another, but mostly because they veered away from the Word that took them home in the first place. Upon realizing this world is but a momentary stop on the way to their true home with their true family, it is possible for a Christian to find investment in this world to be nothing but folly; and there would be some truth in that. This might begin with good effects, like experiencing less stress over finances and having a better outlook when small crises arise, but it can quickly lead to increasingly detrimental attitudes: apathy towards politics and pressing issues, a reluctance to engage with people who still call this place ‘their home’, and ultimately, with a pre-death separation from the world in the form of pursuing a monastic lifestyle. The God who sends His Son into the dirt of human reality to mingle with the diseased and break bread with prostitutes will have none of this sanitary spiritual separation.
But there is a separation of some sort, and God is clear that it should be noticeable and felt. A Christian simply cannot live a normal life as defined by their present culture. Christ’s call out of this world means that a Christian will abide by principles and dictates that will stand against the bent of this human world. If our culture despised a people group, that should be the group Christians love, regardless. If our culture comes around to not only loving said people group, but blindly praising every thing about them, even their sins, the Christian shall not budge. We are built on the rock of Christ, and that rock has yet to move throughout 2000+ years of violent cultural, global and political tsunamis.
As Paul commands, a Christian is to be “in, but not of.” The world is in some ways, a motel for the Christian. It is place they stay while on a business trip, a mission. They dare not confuse the room for the glorious inheritance they are promised from Christ, but neither do they despise it and leave it trashed. The Christian is grateful for the room – for the hot water, the bed, the cable TV – but they do not wish they could just stay in the room forever. In addition, they consider the maids who will have to clean their room, and the guests who will stay in it after their time is over, and they put in more work than is expected to make sure the room is better off than when they found it. When the maid comes in after a Christian leaves, they should find a room well-kept and put together, perhaps a small tip, and maybe even a vase of flowers.
The Christian is passing through this world; we hope to leave a wake of joy and love – and an invitation to come with us, to our country, to our home; to our Father.
There is no more profound identity for the Christian than the one given them by way of adoption by God the Father. For, while the Christian deserves no hint of the glimmer of the goodness of God, and certainly none of the identities I have just written about, it is clear that they deserve, least of all, to be children of God. And the main reason for this is that we were the cause of the loss of God’s only begotten child.
With this new identity, a Christian is meant to live with an eternal explosion of wonder in their hearts. We have all been adopted, rescued not from an orphanage of lost children, but from the hellishly abusive machinations of our first father, Satan. We, like him, were liars. We, like him, despised God. We, like him, preferred our own homes in the dark to God’s brightly lit mansion on the hill. And when God’s own Son came down to demonstrate grace, love, and God’s desire for us to be with Him, we succeeded in killing him in the most humiliating way we could imagine.
But the Lord is a trickster, and His Son, though he was certainly as righteous as we thought Him to be, held a secret. He had come ready to die, for he knew that the only way we could ever get to God was to have our bloody guilt atoned for. Christ, the Son of God, set us up, and we, the bastard children of the Devil, fell for it. And when Jesus, the one whom we had gleefully stuffed away in a tomb, came walking back into our cities and into our hearts, He came with a clear, concise call: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” The reward? To become – someway, somehow, by some inscrutable working of the Lord – children of God.
A Christian has a Father. A Christian has a Brother. A Christian has an inheritance, which is the glorious riches of the love and grace found in the supreme perfections of Jesus Christ. A Christian has a home, filled with good things, packed to the brimming with other children of all colors and cultures. The house is filled with song, the sounds of feasting, and true, pure, shameless laughter. The child has access, at any time, to walk into his Father’s room and be with Him. At no point is this Father too busy. At no point is this Father too stressed, too focused on the game, too concerned with success, absent because of work, hobbies, or emotionally absent, because he is with another woman, another family, living another life.
A Christian, above and beyond all other changes, is given the identity of a son of God, a co-heir with Christ of all that God has. But, like Christ, and like any true child, the infinite pleasures of our Father, though wonderful, mean little in comparison to the best part of the inheritance. A relationship with a Father who calls you in to be with Him, talk with him, know Him, love Him, and ultimately, worship Him.
We are Christians, not because we belong to a new heavenly country, but because we belong to a new, heavenly family. God is our Father; Christ is our brother; the Spirit of God now dwells within us.