Don’t Expect Unbelievers to Act Like Believers?

One of the cliches of contemporary Christianity is “You can’t expect unbelievers to act like believers.” It’s often said in response to outrage or concern over current cultural conditions. The implication is we should not get all exercised about people’s behavior because, well, boys will be boys, so let’s just concentrate on the gospel and not try to reform the behavior of unbelievers because it can’t be done.

But is that true? Should Christians put no effort in trying to reform the culture or even the behavior of individuals short of their full conversion to the Faith? Is it impossible for someone to change a behavior that is harmful to themselves or society short of conversion?

To start answering that question let’s do an exercise in walking through to the logical consequences of this belief:

“I wish Hitler and the Nazis would stop loading Jews onto trains and taking them to concentration camps.”

“Well, you can’t expect unbelievers to act like believers.”

Or in our modern day:

,”I wish women would stop murdering their babies in the womb by the thousands each year.”

“Well, you can’t expect unbelievers to act like believers.”

Or what about an individual example:

“I wish my brother-in-law would stop drinking up his paycheck every week and buy food and clothes for my sister and their kids.”

“Well, you can’t expect unbelievers to act like believers.”

If you think those are extreme examples, you’re right. The point is, there is a point where everyone recognizes human behavior can and should change – whether the person engaging in that behavior is a believer or not. A change in behavior will never save my soul but it can make life in this realm better for myself and those I impact.

The problem may be in our understanding of what it means to “act like a believer.”

While Christianity always bears fruit in someone’s life, we cannot assume because a person is moral or loving to his family or law-abiding that he’s a believer. If that’s true, then nor can we assume because they are lost they have no ability to change for the better since clearly there are some people behaving morally who are not converted.

Christians understand God’s grace at work in the world in two different ways. One way is saving grace – the unmerited favor God gives to those who repent of their sins and place their trust in Him. God gives His saving grace to whomever He chooses (Romans 9:15). When we receive that kind of grace, God gives us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). Therefore, everything about us changes from our outward behavior to our inward motivation. We stop being about ourselves and start doing everything for the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31).

The other way is God’s common grace. Common grace is the unmerited favor God bestows on all mankind whereby He provides us with the good things of this world in far greater abundance than we deserve – which is to say, not at all (Matthew 5:45).  Part of this common grace is the restraint of evil. When evil is restrained it is always a grace of God but as with many other of God’s graces He often accomplishes it through ordinary means such as governments (Romans 13:2-4), the influence of friends (I Corinthians 15:33), and the actions of the godly (Joseph & Daniel both were used by God to bless believers and unbelievers alike through their skilled leadership).

On a mission trip to Ecuador last year I met an American expatriate. He was a nice man. By all appearances a very successful one as well. He shared with a colleague and me how he’s been sober for many years after struggling for many other years with alcohol abuse. But, when we began to speak with him about the gospel, he denied that Christ was essential for a relationship with God. He believed there were many ways to god and that the god he was praying to every day was going to accept him one day.

This man was lost. But, he was also sober to the good of his earthly well-being and that of his family. I praise God for the latter and yet pray too that he will come to know Christ to the good of his eternal well-being.

So, can we expect unbelievers to act like believers? No, not if by that we mean following Christ and doing all things to the glory of God. But, we can and should expect them to act like creatures formed in the image of God who have His existence written on their hearts – because that is what they are. And we should not hesitate to make an effort to influence them for the good of themselves and others in this temporal plane while remembering the most important thing we can do for them is share the gospel.

 

Do Not Forget You are Sons & Daughters of the King

The Lord Disciplines those He LovesAnd have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. – Hebrews 11:5-8

In this passage the author of Hebrews quotes the Old Testament, reminding his audience of something they’d forgotten – that they are sons of God.

He admonished them earlier for being immature (Hebrews 5:12). This passage from Proverbs 3:11-12 is one that would have been well known by a Jewish audience. He’s saying, you’ve forgotten this basic teaching of scripture from this commonly used passage. You’ve forgotten a passage you should be familiar with, that you should be turning to for help and encouragement.

And what is in this passage that is so important?

(v. 5b1) “…My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord…

The word “discipline” in the first line of the verse is associated with the training of children. It has the sense of helping someone reach full development. The difficulties they are facing is the Lord training them and the author tells them not to take that lightly. The verb form implies continual action: do not “keep on taking it lightly” or, said another way, do not “keep on caring too little about it.”

How do we care too little about the discipline the Lord sends into our lives?

Most of the time if I’m facing difficulty, I care a whole lot about it. But, here’s the thing, it is all in how I view it. By treating it as a nuisance, or as something just to be endured until it’s over, or as disconnected from my Christian life, after which I can get on with my life or my ministry or whatever – like a train pulling off of the main track onto a siding, I am not in a position to learn from it, to grow from it. As I heard someone say, difficulty is not a distraction from your ministry, it is your ministry. It’s not a sidebar in the journey for a Christian, it is the journey.

Paul tells the Corinthian church:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. – II Corinthians 1:8-9

 God had a purpose for the difficulty He placed Paul in. God has a purpose for the difficulty these Jewish believers are facing. He has a purpose for the difficulty He places in my life and in yours.

John Piper wrote a books called “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.” By that he meant, don’t lose the opportunity to grow as a Christian and glorify God that something like cancer provides you with.

The author of Hebrews says something similar, don’t keep on acting like these difficulties have no purpose, don’t see them as nuisances or as something just to get through, see them as discipline from the Lord. See them as something God has placed in your life to grow you in the faith. Don’t take them lightly, don’t waste them.

He goes on…

(v.5b2) “…nor be weary when reproved by him.”

He talks of another type of God’s work in their lives – reproof.

This word has a more negative connotation than “discipline.” This word is associated with rebuking someone, exposing their guilt or proving them wrong.

Not all difficulty that comes into our lives is a direct result of our personal sin –The man born blind John tells us was not that way because of his sin or his parents but, so that God’s works could be displayed  (John 9:1-3).

But some is.

When believers are involved in sin we should expect the Lord’s correction.

Often that comes in the form of a fellow believer coming along side us and gently pointing us back to the right path. At other times it may reveal itself as a consequence of our actions – a man who steals from his company is discovered and fired. At still other times it may be seemingly unrelated, such as an illness.

Again, not all difficulties are the result of my personal sin but when I find myself in a continuing difficult circumstance it pays to examine my life and see if there is any sin from which I need to repent.

Could it be some of the difficulty they were facing was because they were looking back like Lot’s wife (Genesis 19:26) and considering a return to their former way of life?

They were considering abandoning the faith so the Lord was reproving or rebuking them for this.

Whatever form it was taking with the recipients of Hebrews, they had become weary of the Lord’s correction. They wanted it to stop before it had done its work or before they had done what they needed to do, such as repent, because they didn’t see in it the hand of God.

But the author reminds them that such things, discipline and chastisement, are marks of God’s love and of their status as His sons and daughters.

(v. 6) “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

 These difficulties are a mark of God’s care and concern for them as His children. Therefore, the author says, you must endure it.

(v. 7) “It is for discipline you must endure.”

 Endurance is necessary for the discipline to be effective. Part of the discipline is the waiting, the trusting God in the midst of difficulty. If you seek to short circuit what God is doing in your life or you don’t seek to learn from it or you run from it, the discipline the Lord is trying to bring to your life, the growth He seeks for you, as His child, won’t happen.

It is for discipline you must endure.

He closes out this section with a sobering thought and a dire warning: If you’re not being disciplined, you don’t belong to the Lord.

 When the Bible tells us that something is the mark of an unbeliever, we need to listen up because it’s important.

 (v. 8) “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”

 Let that sink in a minute. If my Christian life makes no demands on me, does not stretch me and is always problem free I might not be truly converted. And while I don’t think we can say because we’ve had lots of difficulty we’re believers, based on what the author says here, if we are not experiencing the discipline of the Lord either positively as training or negatively as chastisement and rebuke when necessary, it’s a sign we’re not converted.

A friend of mine once told me “The most dangerous place you can be is involved in sin and experiencing no adverse consequences for it.”

In other words, if I’m not being chastised for my sin, if I’m not experiencing negative consequences of my sin, if I can just sin with impunity and be fat and happy about it, or even worse, proud of it, it’s because the Lord does not consider me His son or daughter and He’s therefore not taking the time to discipline me.

If someone tells you the Christian life is a life of health and wealth and ease and the only reason you don’t experience those things is your lack of faith or your lack of positive thinking or speaking good things into existence run from them, they’re a false teacher.

In this life you will have trials Jesus told His followers. If it was true for Him it will be true for us. Thankfully for believers those trials are not random purposeless things but tools a loving Father uses to mold us into the likeness of Christ.

 

Photo credit: Grotuk via VisualHunt / CC BY

A Time for Choosing

A Time for Choosing

 

In Jeremiah 26 we read an account of Jeremiah standing before the Temple preaching the word of the Lord to the people of Judah. He did this because the Lord commanded it so:

“Thus says the Lord: Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the Lord all the words that I command you to speak to them; do not hold back a word.” – Jeremiah 26:2

Notice the Lord’s command was not only to speak, but to speak everything – not to hold back a single word of God’s commands.

We never have the option of truncating or soft-selling God’s word. Our job is not to make it palatable but to make it clear. Unfortunately when you do that, people don’t like it.

In Jeremiah’s case, they wanted to kill him:

“When the officials of Judah heard these things, they came up from the king’s house to the house of the Lord and took their seat in the entry of the New Gate of the house of the Lord. Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.” – Jeremiah 26:10-11

This will always be the result of sharing the truth of God’s word with a lost and dying world. They will not only not like you for it, they will in some cases actively seek to do you harm.

The problem with much of the church today is we can’t handle that. We want everyone to like us. We’ve confused loving people with making them feel good about themselves. And, as much as we say we do this out of a desire not to offend or to be loving, the reality is we do it for ourselves because we worship the idol of popularity and being liked. We are people pleasers (Galatians 1:10) rather than people lovers.

When we present God’s word and get the reaction Jeremiah got (or that Jesus got, for that matter), we think we’ve done something wrong when, in fact, we’ve done something right. We measure our effectiveness by people’s reactions rather than by our faithfulness to the message of scripture. We think by softening the edges or not speaking of things like sin or God’s wrath and judgment we will obtain a hearing for the gospel. But, with no understanding of sin or God’s wrath there can be no understanding of the gospel.

The irony is, the more we try to be inoffensive, the more we compromise with the world, the more they dislike us – because nothing short of complete capitulation will satisfy the wicked.

That’s the choice we have, complete capitulation or faithfulness to the word of God. If our goal is to be honored by the world, we must choose the first, if our goal is to honor God we must choose the second. There is no in between. We must either be cold or hot (Revelation 3:15).

The Christian life is difficult. That’s a promise from the Lord (John 16:33). If we seek to make it easy and non-confrontational, we will end up being unfaithful. But, if we stand firm in the face of opposition and are uncompromising on the truth of the gospel, the reward is great (Matthew 5:11-12).

The time has come for the church of Jesus Christ to choose this day whom they will serve.

 

Photo credit: Sebastian Anthony via Visual hunt / CC BY-ND

How to Fire Up Your Spiritual Growth

How To Fire Up Your Spiritual Growth

Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. – John 17:17

When my boys were in Cub Scouts (back before the gender and sexuality warriors made such innocent places ground zero in their war on manhood) we learned how to make a fire. We explained to the boys that fire requires three things: oxygen, heat and fuel. If one of those things is missing you will never start a fire.

As I read Jesus’ words in John 17:17, I had similar thoughts about our growth as Christians. As with fire, certain things must be present or it won’t happen.

The first is prayer. Jesus is praying here for the sanctification of his disciples. We too must pray for the sanctification of ourselves and others. God has ordained prayer as one of the ways He works out his will for His people.

Second is truth. Christ says we are sanctified by truth. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to tell us what truth is. Truth is the word of God. Again, one of the means God uses to grow His people in the faith is His word. We must be continually in the scriptures if we are to grow.

Finally, while not directly mentioned in this verse but taught directly in scripture as a whole (Hebrews 3:13, Colossians 3:16), is other people. We’re not called to practice our faith in isolation. That is one of the reasons Christ created the church – to be a place where believers are taught the faith, loved and equipped to do the same for others.

Prayer, truth and people. If any one is missing, I won’t grow in the faith as I should.