Category Archives: Being a Real Christian Series

Being a Real Christian – Part 7

I want to conclude this series by talking about an often quoted passage from Romans 10.

Romans 10:9-13: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This passage is where the concept of a “Sinner’s Prayer” comes from, that is, the teaching that one is saved by praying to God and making these proclamations of faith. However, some Christians have objected to the idea, saying that you cannot be assured of your salvation simply because you have said a prayer. They say that you must also demonstrate genuine repentance.

That could be a valid objection if you are only seeing the surface meaning of the Scripture above. However, what I have come to believe is that the passage has a deeper meaning, and if you believe the deeper meaning underlying those words, then that prayer is indeed enough to give assurance of salvation.

First, while the concept of confessing Jesus as Lord is often seen as pledging allegiance to His will for our lives, it could also be seen as placing our trust in Him to work in us “to will and to work” (Phil. 2:13), believing that He will operate in us to ensure that our attitudes and actions progressively conform to His will. Next, the part about believing in one’s heart that God “raised him from the dead,” alludes back to Chapters 6-8 in which Paul describes how we should believe in the power of Christ’s resurrection over our own lives to set us free from sin’s bondage. This goes beyond simply acknowledging that a miracle happened 2,000 years ago.

Paul writes, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame . . . for ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” This is the ultimate assurance that if we sincerely ask God to bring us into this transformation through Christ, we cannot mess up our salvation. We can rest assured that, regardless of what phase of the journey we are in now, we are undergoing a transformative process to become what God has made us to be.

Being a Real Christian – Part 6

Romans 8 opens with the statement that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

One important thing to note is that in the original Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the books were not divided into chapters or verses. Thus, the statement that “there is no condemnation” was meant to be in the same context as the struggle with sin described at the end of Chapter 7. I think Paul wanted readers to see that we are free from condemnation even when there are problems that we have not yet overcome.

Verses 5-6 state, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

Verse 9: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”

Verses 12-13: “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

I think it’s important to consider what it means to “put to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit in order to have life. At first, this may sound like an admonishment to try harder to stop committing sins. However, I think Romans 7 shows how, in some cases, ramping up the effort to live right can actually keep us stuck in bad habits because inward rebellion is stimulated in response to the righteous effort. Thus, I think that, where Romans is concerned, living according to the flesh versus the Spirit isn’t so much about what we are doing, but rather, what is the focus of our minds. The point is that our minds should be focused on freedom from sinful habits, believing that the new life given to us through Christ’s death and resurrection has the power to change our lives as the Holy Spirit works in us.

So, I’ll get back to the question, “Should we continue trying to avoid sin?” I think it comes down to this: What are our efforts, or lack of efforts, doing to the focus of our minds? Ultimately, it is only by the Holy Spirit that certain problems can be overcome in our lives. And deliverance can be a process rather than an instantaneous event. Many spiritual Christians have taught the importance of patience in waiting for prayers to be answered. Although that principle is not often put in a context of personal morality, I think Romans gives us reason to make that extension. In Romans 4, Paul describes the faith of Abraham, who believed in God’s promise to give him descendants even though his and Sarah’s bodies were dead where reproduction was concerned. Paul wrote that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17). When that promise was given, Abraham and Sarah were powerless to fulfill that promise. Even if they had tried to act, it would not have succeeded. They were too old. Likewise, we can try to do what’s right, but our efforts don’t work unless we are spiritually enabled to follow through.

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, Paul wrote,
“And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?”

Paul wrote that the Corinthians were still “of the flesh . . . behaving according to human inclinations.” However, Paul refers to them as “brothers and sisters,” which clearly indicates they were justified and genuinely in the faith. Spiritually, they were in a situation similar to Abraham’s physical situation. But if we trust in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to set us free, we can know that our time is coming to grow out of the problems in our lives even if currently we do not feel that power working.

If we are trying to change ourselves, and see that our efforts are not working and are simply causing frustration, that frustration takes our attention away from trusting in the Spirit to set us free and puts the spotlight back on the problems in our lives. If that’s the case, we might need to concede the failing efforts, trust in the Spirit’s power to ultimately set us free, and wait until we receive the empowerment to tackle certain issues.

If we realize that we don’t have to change ourselves to be right with God, we become free to conduct an honest examination of ourselves, rather than feeling like we have to twist the data to make it look like we’re meeting a certain standard. When we get a clearer view of what is going on inside of us, we may see why our efforts to change ourselves aren’t working. We can try to create new approaches to solving problems in our lives that better reflect our individual psychology. Ultimately, God may empower us to overcome issues by leading us into this kind of wisdom.

What we should avoid is the situation in which we sense that we realistically have the willpower and strength to make certain changes, but we force ourselves to override our conscience because we want zero pain. In that situation, we are steering our attention away from deliverance and back towards sin. When Paul instructs readers to avoid giving in to sin, I think this is what he is talking about.

I believe there are two mentalities that should be contrasted: A mentality of law, and a mentality of licentiousness. The mentality of law says, “You must do xyz. No buts, no ifs, no debates. JUST DO IT!” The mentality of licentiousness says, “Forget about xyz, there’s no need for change in your life. You can define your own ideals.” Grace, however, acknowledges that we should be subject to God’s will. However, grace (unlike Law) allows us to be realistic about what we can and cannot do. Grace is not lenient; rather, it has the transformative power to bring our lives closer to God’s will. Biblical grace could be likened to chemical reactions, combustion, radiation, etc. When you come to see this, you can see that pejorative terms like “cheap grace” are completely irrelevant. Also, phrases like a “license to sin” become irrelevant because if you are free from Law, there is no need for a license, for a license gives you permission to do something that the law normally forbids. The only reason you need a driver’s license is because there is a law that says you cannot drive without one.

Ultimately, any power to make a change in our lives comes from God. I believe that for some Christians, due to either psychological traits that God designed them to have, or a special working of the Holy Spirit within them, they can apply heavy self-discipline and actually get the desired results because they have some sort of power that many of us do not have. I think that there are even non-Christians who have this inherent ability as I alluded to in Parts 2-3 of this series. For some people, this is the only way that they can understand obedience because they are not experiencing the limitations of willpower. These people can live by the principle that the Apostle James outlined (that faith without works is dead). They show their faith in God by consistently doing what the Holy Spirit convicts them that they should do.

But what can happen is that over time, temptations build up, and they get tired of persevering to live right. But they do not understand the message of grace and transformation outlined in Romans, so they resort to a mentality of licentiousness and disregard Biblical virtues. I think that it is possible for salvation to be lost, and this is where it might occur.

However, I believe if we come to realize that we cannot change ourselves through our willpower and energy, and are trusting in God to help us experience freedom from sin through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, we cannot mess up our salvation. Furthermore, I believe we are living in a state of continual repentance by believing these things even if we have not verbally confessed every act of sin. It is at this point that we are justified apart from our present works. We have left our lives in God’s hands, and we can be assured that He will operate in us so that we will be saved when our lives are evaluated.

Being a Real Christian – Part 5

In Part 1, I mentioned what often happens when we try to change our ways. Although a small percentage of us will succeed, most will not see a meaningful, sustained difference. And I think that in Romans 7, Paul describes why that is the case. It took me many years as a Christian to see that Paul is actually admitting the difficulty that we all face when we try to change ourselves. It was too hard to believe that the Bible was acknowledging these things.

Look at Romans 7:4-5, “In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.”

Notice that Paul mentions “sinful passions aroused by the law.” This is why changing one’s lifestyle through self-motivation can be impossible. You set rules for yourself, but when you push yourself to follow the rules, desires to do the opposite are also energized, so the net result is little or no change, or even a negative difference. The “just do it” mentality breaks down.

Some have said that when Paul refers to the law, he is only referring to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, and that he is not referring to Biblical morality. If we were talking about the epistle to the Galatians, that is probably the right interpretation (I may write an article on that later). However, in Romans, the concept of law encompasses more than religious rituals. The problem that Paul addresses of law stimulating desire to do the opposite, thus nullifying one’s efforts, applies to laws of any type, and I think subsequent passages in Romans 7 make this clear.

Paul writes, “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” (Romans 7:7-8).

More evidence that trying to follow laws can keep us trapped in bad habits comes when Paul has to address the misconception that the law itself is sin. If Paul were not saying that good laws can trigger bad psychological reactions leading to sin, why would anyone come to the bizarre conclusion that the law itself is sinful? Also notice that Paul uses the law forbidding coveting as an example. This is the ultimate proof that, in Romans, Paul’s references to law are not confined to ceremonial rituals.

Looking at verses 19-20, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

Here Paul is describing a human condition which further explains why the “just do it” mentality can fail us. Notice that Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” Notice that he used the word “cannot.” Some people say that we should stop using the word “cannot.” But Paul used that word! Many think that if we fail it’s because we’re not trying hard enough. In a sense, that may be true. However, if we’re under a mentality of law, antagonistic parts of our minds will eventually cause us to stop trying. At least, this is what my personal experience has shown.

So, if imposing rules on ourselves causes these problems, should we stop trying to follow those rules and just do whatever we are inclined to do instead? I think we need to find a balance between two situations, the first being insistence on doing what’s wrong even if the temptation to do it isn’t all that strong. This approach makes existing problems worse. The other situation is forcing ourselves to continue noble but vain efforts that contribute to a vicious cycle. I think that Romans 8, which we’ll look at next time, has some clues for how to find a balance between those two situations.

Being a Real Christian – Part 4

In Romans Chapters 3-5, Paul discusses how justification is by faith rather than works. The concept of salvation by faith is mentioned many times in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s writing and the Gospel of John. But the question which arises from this concept is, are works or obedience still required of us? Are we free to do whatever we want to?

As much as different Christian sects have tried to streamline answers to this question, I actually find that the New Testament gives at least two different perspectives. First, let’s look at how the Apostle James approaches this dilemma.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works” (James 2:14-22).

I think James is saying that faith can only exist when you are acting in obedience to God. He uses the obedience of Abraham to illustrate this. The point is not that you can “earn” your salvation by doing certain works. Rather, the idea is that you are saved by faith, but you have to follow God’s commandments in order for that faith to be genuine faith. But it is important to consider exactly what the faith that James speaks of entails. In James’s epistle, the only references to Christ are on two occasions when James refers to Jesus as Lord. Thus, the “faith” that James refers to, which is dead without works, seems to simply be a claim of faith in the Divinity of Christ. Contrast that with Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in which the whole epistle is centered on what Christ accomplished for humanity through His death and resurrection. Thus, Paul’s references to “faith” encompass a lot more than James’s references to faith alone.

Getting back to the question of, if we’re justified by faith, does it matter what we do, take a look at Paul’s answer to that question in Romans.

“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:1-11).

This is quite a different perspective from what James wrote. James’s answer had a very practical nature, highlighting the obedience of Abraham and Rahab to show that in order to have true faith you must do works in obedience to God.

In contrast to that practical explanation, Paul’s explanation is rather mystical, speaking of being joined with Christ in His death and resurrection and thus dying to sin and being raised to a new life where sin cannot dominate us. It is a very transformative message, and what Paul says is that we should consider ourselves to be vivified with Christ and free from sin’s dominion. What Paul implies in Chapters 7 and 8 is that believing in this transformation, rather than self-motivation to change one’s ways, is necessary to truly experiencing freedom from sin’s power. The next article takes a look at this in more detail.

Being a Real Christian – Part 3

In Romans 3:23-25, Paul reaches the conclusion that “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”

Remember that back in Romans 2:6-7, Paul wrote that “[God] will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”

Also 2:14-16: “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.”

In Chapter 2, Paul is very much indicating that it is possible to be saved on the basis of works. It is true that all have sinned (3:23), but Jesus died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Also note 1 John 1:7, “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Also consider Hebrews 10:26, “If we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”

The idea I see from Romans 2, 1st John, and Hebrews is that as long as people are not persisting in sin against the conviction of their conscience, they have forgiveness of their sins through Christ’s atonement. Romans 2 indicates that this principle applies to both Jews (who I think, in our day, are people associated with Christianity), and Greeks/Gentiles (who, I think, are everybody else you encounter today).

So, then, why be a believer? Well, notice that in Romans 3:23-25, quoted at the top of this article, Paul writes that those who have faith in Christ are justified by grace as a gift. This faith puts a person in a unique state. The forgiveness described in Romans 2, 1st John, and Hebrews is contingent on pursuing good works and following one’s conscience. However, the justification described in Romans 3 is a gift by grace, meaning that it is not merited by one’s performance. This unique state of justification cannot be attained by works given that all have sinned. The fact that this is not attained by works is described by Paul in Romans Chapters 3-5.

Now, what I am about to mention next is not widely taught among Christians, but I believe we’ll see later in Romans that the faith which brings a person into this unique state is a specific faith that goes beyond the baseline faith required to join the body of Christ. I think Romans 6-8 illustrates this, and we’ll look at that next time.

Being a Real Christian – Part 2

The Book of Romans is one of the most analyzed books of the New Testament. It has much material that is central to Christian teaching, so one’s interpretation of this book has much bearing on what Christianity means for that person.

So, let’s start with Romans 1.

Verses 5-7: “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.”

These passages appear to establish the epistle as one written to a Christian audience. However, later in Chapter 1 Paul describes people who do not appear to be Christians.

Verses 18-23, 28-32: “Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip.”

In this passage Paul seems to single out people who worship idols or nature. What is noticeable when reading the Bible is that in the ancient world, Christians and Jews viewed pagans as participating in an immoral culture that separated them from the Scripture-based religious community. However, if we look at the world today, we may find non-Christians who don’t seem to have the evil characteristics described above. Basically, I think in the ancient world, pagans were viewed by Christians the same way that Hollywood is viewed by conservative American Christians today. Preachers speak of such people as a group, focusing on some characteristics prevalent in their lifestyles from a top-down view. They may paraphrase the passage above when talking about Hollywood and swap the word “idols” with “money” or “self-glorification” and then list all those sins at the end. But, that doesn’t mean that every individual movie star must be evil. I think in Romans 1, Paul was making top-down observations of the pagan culture in his day, and he saw a lot of immoral behavior and attitudes which he wrote about. However, that doesn’t mean that every non-Christian in the world must be evil.

Moving on to Romans 2, Paul criticizes the “churchgoers” of his day for casting judgment on the “worldly” people around them, but not actually practicing what they preach. Paul references “Jews” and “Greeks” a lot. I think that in Paul’s writing, the modern equivalent of “Jews” are those associated with Christianity, and “Greeks/Gentiles” are everybody else you meet today. In the first century, Christianity was viewed more like an interpretation of Judaism, rather than a separate religion as is perceived today.

What Paul writes in Romans 2 is that, regardless of whether someone is associated with the Church or not, if the person does not live according to Biblical commandments, he or she will be judged no differently than someone who doesn’t claim adherence to the faith. Also, notice what Paul writes in verses 10-15:

“There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them.”

In essence, I think this is saying that Gentiles (or today, those outside the Christian religion) can be rewarded when judged if they sought to live according to their conscience, which by nature has God’s law written on it.

So, the message of Romans 2 is clearly judgment based on works regardless of what you believe or what religion you associate with. Now, here’s the thing. When we move on to Chapters 3-8, Paul writes some things that seem to contradict everything he said in the first two chapters. There have been many attempts by theologians to make sense of the contrasts. You may wonder why I am bothering to try to address the matter myself. I’ve asked myself that as well, However, I have come to realize that my personal beliefs on this dilemma are connected to central elements of my faith, so addressing these issues is a part of evangelism rather than an attempt to wade into controversy.

Being a Real Christian – Part 1

Unless otherwise noted, Scriptural quotations in this series are from the New Revised Standard Version.

You have probably heard a lot of Christians state that we need to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.” I hear that a lot of people claim to believe certain things about God or Jesus, and maybe they also go to church, but they are not perceived as putting their faith into practice.
So, then, what exactly does it mean to put your faith into practice and be a real Christian? Well, depending on who you ask, you will probably get one or more of the following answers:

1. Engaging in evangelism
2. Charitable work
3. Devotional practices (such as prayer or meditation)
4. Staying pure of certain vices
5. Loving your neighbor as yourself
6. Being forgiving and patient
7. Separating yourself from immoral company
8. Not getting obsessed with material things.
9. Going to church

Some of you may have the experience I am about to describe. You go to church every week (among a congregation of, say, one hundred people), and hear sermons about what real Christian living involves. You think about your life and decide that you need to make some changes to be a more faithful Christian. You know that it’s going to be hard to change some things – that some lifestyle changes would cause anxiety or be difficult to get in the habit of, but while you’re at church hearing the message, you are probably not thinking about those difficulties too much. You decide that you’re going to somehow make yourself follow through with what you need to do.

Well, by the time you were back in church the next week, did anything in your life change? If your honest answer is no, you’re in good company. That was probably the case for at least ninety-eight out of the hundred people in church last week. Maybe you were trying to change, or maybe once you got back in your normal routine, you didn’t worry about changing anymore, until you heard the message again the next Sunday.
However, one person in the congregation actually succeeded at making those changes. Not only that, he has managed to stick with it for six months already. One Sunday, he gave a testimony of the changes he made. He talked about how hard it was to resist temptation and to get over the fear of doing what’s right, but refused to let fear or temptation stop him. So you think, if he did it, I can do it too. You may try a little harder after that, but did you get the desired results?

You may be thinking, “Well, that one guy can know that he is saved. He can read the Bible and feel good knowing that he’s doing what he needs to.” The rest of you may be finding some Scriptures that hit a little too close to home.

So, here’s the question I want to talk about in this series: Does the Bible have a redemptive message for the ninety-nine other folks? We often hear that God loves those people, and they can be comforted knowing that He is ready to forgive them as soon as they repent. But, what about those of us who can’t identify our sins as isolated acts that can be counted on our fingers? Is there a special message for such people, who can’t seem to change themselves, that can actually give them present assurance of salvation being what they are right now?

I believe there is such a message for these people, if they have come to believe certain things about the power of Christ’s death and resurrection in their lives. I find this message in Paul’s writing in Romans, which is what I will talk about in the rest of the series.