Running has been good for me these last few days. It’s given me an opportunity to let my mind wander and to reflect on one or two things that people have been saying at church. I’m also supposed to be praying. But I go for long runs, honest. I have time for both. So I suffer from mental drift when I pray. But at least it’s godly mental drift!
One of the things that’s come up of late has been the issue of assurance. It’s come about because as we’ve pressed people to engage with AP4L, to get involved in inviting friends and speaking about the gospel they’ve been brought face to face with their unwillingness to do so. Inevitably people have responded to that in a number of ways. Not all of them constructively.
I think the feeling has been that I’ve reduced the Christian life to being involved in AP4L. And by encouraging people to get involved and challenging them when they’re not, they’ve felt that I’m undermining their confidence that they’re Christian. If I’m saying that a Christian should do these things and they’re not doing them then you can see how they might think that.
But consider this illustration to see whether it sheds any light on the issue. It came to me whilst running; I was heavily oxygen deprived so it may not be right on the money!
If I claim to be a runner what would you expect? You’d expect to see me running. Not all the time but some of the time, at least. If I’ve never run then my claim to be a runner sounds pretty hollow, doesn’t it? If I haven’t run in a while does that mean I’ve stopped being a runner? Not necessarily, it probably means that I need someone to give me the encouragement to get back in habit. Does the fact that I own running kit make me a runner? No. Does the fact that I belong to a running club make me a runner? No. If I claim to be a runner I ought to run. Runners run. And if I’m part of a running club the guys in charge ought to encourage me to run. If they don’t you’d wonder what they were doing.
In the same way Christians speak about the hope that they have (1 Peter 3:15). Jesus promsied us his Spirit so that we’d be equipped to turn to Christ, live for Christ and speak about Christ. Christians follow Christ and therefore we testify to him. It comes with the territory.
But increasingly I’m finding that people are troubled by the ‘ought’ of the Christian life. They have an idea of the Christian life in which the second half of Paul’s epistles should be left out. It’s all about what God has done for us in Christ and it’s not what we do in response. That’s overstating it a little. But that’s the sense of it. The idea that there are obligations placed upon us as we follow Christ is something that people think undermines grace. Grace has become the ‘catch all’ term for God’s acceptance of us whatever we’re like. I want to defend that. God’s grace does mean that we receive what we don’t deserve; namely eternal acceptance through Christ’s imputed righteousness (Romans 8:1). But God’s grace is not only limited to saving us, by his grace he changes us. In Titus 1:1 Paul teaches that the knowledge of the truth will lead to godliness. God’s not done with us at conversion. He wants to sanctify us to become like his son.
So how can we get past this apparent impasse?
Let’s be clear on what I’m not saying.
- I’m not saying that being a Christian and doing evangelism are the same thing.
- I’m not saying that doing evangelism makes you a Christian.
- I’m not saying that if we stop doing evangelism we’ve stopped being a Christian.
- I’m not saying that if we don’t want to do evangelism that we can’t be a Christian.
But I am saying this.
- I am saying that being a Christian involves doing evangelism.
- I am saying that doing evangelism is one of the evidences that we are Christian.
- I am saying that if we’re not doing any evangelism that we need encouragement to get back in the game.
Pauls’ instructions in Colossians 4:5&6 are pretty clear. I’ve blogged on them a while ago. There’s an exepctation of obedience there. We should make the most of every opportunity. We should make sure that our conversations are salty and distinctive. And if we don’t we’re being disobedient. And that’s one of the many sins for which Christ had to die. Does it mean that I’m no longer acceptable to God, no. My acceptability before God depends not on my performance but on Christ’s righteousness. But does that mean that God’s not disappointed, no. But he’s not going to kick me out of the family. It’s like this;
Rufus is one of my sons and I love him to bits. There’s no doubt about that. But he can be disobedient, no really! When he is, I’m disappointed. And I communicate that. He’s not stopped being my son but he feels my displeasure at his behaviour. Being a Perkins carries an obligation. There are certain family rules. There’s no disobedience, no dishonesty and no direspect. You can’t become a Perkins if you keep those rules, you’ve got to be a part of the family. But once you’re in the family, by birth, those are the ways that we operate. So there are things that are expected of him.
It’s the same in the Christian life. We don’t become part of the family by keeping the rules. But now that we’re in the family there are ‘rules’. There’s a Christian way of life that we’re to live; it’s called discipleship. And it’s what Jesus called us to in Mark 8:31-38.
If we’re unwilling to be involved in evangelism that raises some questions. But I don’t think that anyone is saying that. They just feel guilty for not doing what’s ‘expected’ of them. And that would be the staff’s fault for pressing the obligation upon them, I suspect. But what would people have us do? We recognise that none of us is what we should be. None of us is living the Christian life that we should be. But we’re here and we’re paid to help one another become more like Christ and to mature in our godliness. And so we want to lovingly encourage everyone, at whatever age and stage, to make progress in their Christian life. We can be better and with God’s help we will be.