Christians seem to have an uncanny knack for taking simple truths and complicating them through debate, dogma, and doctrine. I don’t mean to imply that these issues are not important. Certainly doctrine and dogma have their place. But I often wonder if Christ smiles in approval when he hears us debating his simple truths to the point that we divide ourselves into countless denominations and sects and tear asunder the Body that he meant to live in love and unity. On the contrary, I suspect this endless hairsplitting and theological nitpicking brings tears to his eyes.
During the early 1980’s I enrolled in several Religion courses at a small university near my home in north Alabama. I recall one course in particular that centered on the life of Jesus. My fellow classmates were an interesting group. Some were undergraduate students pursuing coursework in Religion and Philosophy in preparation for seminary. Others were ordained pastors of small local churches who, after preaching for a number of years, felt the need to further their education. Others, like myself, were there seeking a deeper understanding of the Christian faith as well as its history and traditions. Then there was Henry.
No one knew exactly why Henry was enrolled. He rarely spoke and when he did, it was with a soft, slow voice with a pronounced rural southern brogue. Considering the diverse make up of the class, it was natural that heated discussions would often break out. The professor often encouraged this in fact. The class argued about many issues. The nature of the Trinity, immersion versus sprinkling, the permanency of salvation, the list is endless. I admit I often enjoyed these ballyhoos as they lent a degree of excitement to the proceedings and made the class time pass more quickly. One night the class was engaged in a verbal free for all centering on the Virgin Birth. I remember clearly hearing a wide range of viewpoints on this, mostly in support of the indisputable validity of the doctrine of virgin birth. I for one remained on the periphery of this dispute mostly out of ignorance. The doctrine of Virgin Birth was not for me an issue of central importance to my daily experience of the Christian path. In fact, unless it was brought up for discussion, I rarely consider it. It was one of those issues that I had placed on the theological back burner.
After a lengthy discussion, the professor looked to the back of the room and said, “Well Henry, you’ve been mighty quiet in this discussion. Why don’t you share your thoughts on the Virgin Birth with us?”
After a long pause Henry folded his hands on the desk, looked cautiously around the room and said:
“Well, I’ve been a settin’ here for over an hour listenin’ to you gents discussing this here thing about the Virgin Birth of Christ. I guess ya’ll know a heck of a lot more about all this than I do. You must or else you couldn’t talk about it for so long. All I know is this. Jesus loves me and I love him and try to do what he says. I reckon it don’t matter much to me what his momma done.”
Point taken Henry, end of discussion.
One issue that I have often heard brothers and sisters discussing, often in heated tones, is the order of salvation. Some say that we repent and then we are saved. Others say that we repent because we are saved. I imagine one could make a case for either side of this issue by citing various passages of scripture but in terms of our response to God’s grace I don’t see that it matters much on a practical level. The fact is God makes His offer and we respond. The mere act of responding is in itself an act of repentance. We accept that we are accepted, complete with our cuts and bruises, our shortcomings and short-fallings. This is the meaning of grace, pure and simple.
Yet the response doesn’t stop here. We are amazed at God’s grace and this radical amazement leads to a more consecrated repentance. Brennan Manning describes this response:
The saved sinner is prostrate in adoration, lost in wonder and praise. He knows repentance is not what we do in order to earn forgiveness; it is what we do because we have been forgiven. It serves as an expression of gratitude rather than an effort to earn forgiveness.
God is a loving God, a God concerned with making our lives fuller, richer, and more rewarding. He calls to us from a heart of compassion, seeking our affirmative response to his offer to come and reside within us, his offer to make us holy and whole. He is a God who desires to give us peace amidst the storms and tribulations of life in this harried world. In the words of Hannah Whithall Smith, as we look at the life of Christ and listen to His words, we can hear God saying
I am rest for the weary; I am peace for the storm-tossed; I am strength for the strengthless; I am wisdom for the foolish; I am righteousness for the sinful; I am all that the neediest soul on earth can want.
God offers and asks that we accept. Acceptance is the beginning of the process of conversion, which means a turning around. In essence, we accept God’s gift and then turn our faces in a different direction.
It is at this very point of turning that a very critical and very real event occurs. This event is not all that complicated in the sense that it doesn’t involve any kind of doctrinal debate or theological nit picking. It is highly personal, it involves and analysis and a decision, and ultimately, a commitment to action.
Once we accept the fact that we are accepted, and here I mean truly accepted by the magnificent and unimaginable being that created all that exists, we first come to a deeper understanding of just who we are, what Christ has accomplished for us, and finally, if we indeed take on his yoke, what that commitment means in our lives – not the life of anyone else – but instead, your life as an individual believer now committed to walking with Jesus on a daily basis. We have to answer the basic question: What does it mean for me to be a Christian? Peter Vardy, in his remarkable little book And If it is True?, cogently explains this decision making process:
Christianity calls each of us to believe and trust in God, a belief and trust based on love. This is not simply a matter of intellectual assent….It is a matter of the truth of Christianity becoming ‘true for you’, as an individual. Only when Christianity becomes true for you so that you are willing to stake your whole life on it, does it really become true in your own case.
Belief that God exists does not come near to what Christianity is about. It is only when the factual truth of Christianity becomes “true for us” so that it becomes the center of our lives around which our whole existence revolves that we, as individuals, can see what Christianity involves….it means each of us coming to understand what it is for Christianity to become ‘true for me’, what Christianity is going to involve when it is taken on board and lived. Once we see and understand this, we then each of us have to decide whether or not we wish to try to live it – but that is our free choice. Until we have understood what is involved, however, we cannot even make the decision.
Christianity requires passion and total commitment – a commitment to a lived love relationship with God. The relationship has practical consequences and these can, to an extent, be foreseen.
“What does it mean to be a Christian?” ….The important way of looking at this question, however, is to see it as asking each of us, “What does it mean for me to be a Christian?” This is much much more uncomfortable and challenging. There is no single right answer – each of us needs to think the answer through for ourselves.
Before going any deeper into this, I want to pause for a few days and make a suggested assignment to those of you who might be interested. Each day for the next seven days, set aside some time for prayer and reflection. Your reflection should be on this simple question, “What does it mean for me to be a Christian?” Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you, teach you, and pray fro wisdom, insight, and discernment.
Write down you answers to the question each day. The only caveat is this: you cannot repeat any answer. In other words, if on the first day one of your answers is, “It means that I will pray daily,” you cannot use that answer again for the next six days. Each day will contain answers never used before. It may seem like a struggle, but believe me, it is worth it.
At the end of the seven days, write a short essay about your experience. You may be very surprised at your new ideas.
© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved