Christian BoyLove Forum #66110

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Defining a 'Christian'

Posted by Eldad on 2013-11-20 06:39:08, Wednesday

One of the tensions of a board like this is that we all come to it with different understanding of what it is to be a Christian. This is not a new problem: C S Lewis, whose death occurred 50 years ago this week, discussed the issue in his 'Mere Christianity', rejecting the tendency to equate it with just being kind / generous / loving, and arguing for a more solid definition.

The problem for those of us caught up in Evangelical culture is slightly different: the definition seems to boil down to having once, at some point, prayed 'The Prayer', with the implication that anything else is 'works'. Whilst this appears to be an improvement on the Catholic (and Orthodox) position that being baptised makes you a Christian, actually it's not a lot better; if that prayer was said as a result of emotional pressure, because it was the 'expectation', because it was what everyone else was doing at the time, then it's highly likely that the reality never took. Jesus warns us in the parable of the sower that the word can die after it has grown, let alone when it takes no root whatsoever.

Perhaps holding together all of the elements of Matthew 25 offers a solution. The chapter consists of three stories of judgement. The first - that of 10 virgins - talks of having enough 'oil', which is surely a reference to the Holy Spirit. We need to learn to be filled with the power of God, an element which charismatics can over emphasis, but which the rest of us need to hear: we should, at least sometimes, have a real experience of God in our lives. If we're just living out God's commandments to the best of our ability, then we've missed a central element in the New Testament: the fact that the Holy Spirit, who was only given to a small minority in the Old Testament, is now made available to all. And the Spirit should make a real difference in our lives: the dramatic stories of people being overcome by the Spirit (e.g. Saul), David's pleas not to have the Spirit taken from him, as well as His pressurising the prophets into speaking (e.g. Jeremiah) point to this.

The second story in Matthew 25 is the Parable of the Talents, where the enterprising get commended, and the person who was given only one is offered no sympathy for having hidden it away. The terrifying challenge for all of us reading this is that having access to the Internet in itself probably counts as three talents compared with the experience of most of the world's population in the past 2000 years.

And the last is the most frequently preached: the description of the final judgement as the separating of the sheep and the goats, with the test being about how much you cared for those in visible need. Both the latter are probably well summarised by James' comments:

"14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!" (James 2:14-19)

Perhaps the difference between Evangelicals and their Puritan forebears helps us understand the issue more clearly. The Puritan tradition expects an extended period of 'contrition' - a personal knowledge of the true nature of my sin and that I am wholly unworthy of God - before the salve of the God's forgiveness is received. The experience of the Evangelical revival in the 18th century showed that an extended period wasn't necessary for a genuine conversion to occur. This led to contrition fading steadily from the gospel message being preached, to the point today where 'the gospel message' sometimes lacks any element of repentance whatsoever: a recent story of the 'Evangelical' drug dealers of a Brazilian favella expelling the expelling the worshippers of a traditional African deity from their homes in the slum surely demonstrates this clearly.

As Christians we are called to be Jesus' disciples. We are called by God to turn from our sins and aim to live as He desires. We are promised that this will result in our living for ever with Him after we die, in a place where sorrow and suffering are no more. We are NOT promised an easy life in the interim: much of the challenge of being a Christian is that we are trusting that it WILL all make sense one day, even if at the moment it's really really horrible. And this board is a ministry that tries to encourage us to carry on despite it being horrible, not least because it is a reminder that others have done OK despite struggling in this area.

For myself, I can offer the testimony that God has looked after me in some extraordinary ways over the years, giving me reason to believe that his promises offering a true hope for the future are worth trusting. As to why we have to struggle with our particular issue, that remains a mystery - but one that is common to all the bad things that happen to people throughout the world. The 'Lucretian trilemma' - how can an all loving, all knowing and all powerful god allow suffering in the world - is named after a 1st century Roman poet who therefore chose atheism. Ultimately we have a choice: live out the logic of believing in Jesus with all the unexplained bits that follow from that, or rejecting belief in God entirely - another choice that is not new, most elegantly expressed in Joshua 24: 'Choose today who you will serve'.

Yes it's not easy - but one day we will discover that it was all worthwhile.

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