The Life of the Christian
Course: A Guide to Christian Beliefs
Lecture: The Life of the Christian
We have now looked at God's original intention for the world and the way in which mankind has fallen into sin and rebellion against God's plan. We have seen how Jesus Christ came to be the Savior of mankind. The next stage in the study of Christian doctrine is to consider the new life which God bestows upon those who accept Jesus as their Savior from sin. We shall begin by looking at two general words which are used to describe our experience as Christians; then we shall discuss four different aspects of Christian life; and finally we shall consider the nature of our response to God's gift of salvation and eternal life.
Salvation (1 Peter 1:3-12)
The first of the two general terms used in the Bible for the great gift which people receive as a result of the work of Christ is salvation (Romans 1:16). It is an interesting fact that the corresponding verb "to be saved" is used in all three tenses. Christians are people who have been saved: the time when they put their trust in Jesus marks the beginning of their experience of salvation (Ephesians 2:5, 8). They are people who daily are being saved as they continually experience more and more of the love of Christ and the power of the Spirit and increase in faith and knowledge (2 Corinthians 2:15; cf. Ephesians 3:14ff.). But their salvation is not yet fully given to them, and the Bible also speaks of it as a future gift: they will be saved in the day of God's final triumph (2 Timothy 4:18), and so their present life is one of hope for that full, future salvation (Romans 8:24). We find that these three tenses of salvation are placed alongside one another in 1 Peter 1:3–5. They point to the fact that Christians believe in one who is able to save "now and always" (Hebrews 7:25, Today's English Version) those who come to God by him. His name "Jesus" portrays his character as the "Savior."
The completeness and sufficiency of God's gift is seen not only in the fact that it embraces past, present and future, but also in the fact that it is both negative and positive in its effects. Negatively, it is salvation from' sin and the wrath of God (1 Timothy 1:15; Romans 5:9): to "save" is in effect to "rescue" or "deliver" people from an unpleasant fate. Positively, salvation brings us into a knowledge of God (1 Timothy 2:4).
From first to last, salvation is the gift of God to us in Jesus Christ (Acts 15:11). It was God who chose to prepare a saved people for himself (Ephesians 1:3–6). He acted by his Spirit to communicate the good news of salvation to us and to awaken the possibility of faith in our hearts (1 Thessalonians 1:4–6). And it is God who continues to keep us by his power and who will bring us at last into the full enjoyment of salvation (1 Peter 1:5; the whole process is summarized in Romans 8:29f.).
Eternal life (John 6:27-71)
The word "salvation" conveys the idea of rescue from danger and the restoration of peace and well–being. The thought of "eternal life" suggests the resurrection of the dead. Sinners can properly be regarded as dead to the spiritual life of God while they are in this world, and they stand under condemnation to eternal death in the next world (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:1–5). The coming of Jesus has brought the possibility of true life to them (2 Timothy 1:10). This means that for the Christian physical death is not the termination of real life, but is the gateway to everlasting life in the presence of God and of Christ (John 5:29; 11:23). Such life is "eternal" not merely in the sense that it is everlasting, but also and above all in the sense that it is the life of the eternal God shared with his creatures (John 5:25f.; 2 Corinthians 4:10f.).
Eternal life can in fact be defined as the experience of knowing God (John 17:3) — an experience which is unknown to the sinner (Ephesians 4:17f.). But although it is often thought that eternal life simply means the future life of heaven after death, it is in fact the present possession of every Christian here and now in this world (John 5:24; 6:47). Our present life as Christians is a foretaste of the life of heaven. Here and now we can know God and experience his love (John 11:25f.; 1 Timothy 4:8; 1 John 3:14; 5:11). Even though our outward bodies perish, our "inner man" possesses an indestructible life from God (2 Corinthians 4:16), and in the end we shall openly possess that life which is now our hidden possession (Colossians 3:3f.). Our present experience of eternal life is, therefore, incomplete and "hidden"; it depends on our continual sustenance with the bread of life (John 6:35, 54). One day it will blossom forth into full experience of being in the presence of God.
Peace with God (Ephesians 2:11-18)
In attempting to define more closely the nature of the salvation and eternal life which we enjoy as Christians, we shall make use of four key concepts. The first of these is peace, and we shall explain it by means of a further three significant words.
Paul uses the word justification as a technical term for the gracious act of God in pardoning sinners and restoring them to a right relationship with himself. This is a word drawn from legal terminology. It brings before our eyes the picture of a judge who declares the man in the dock to be innocent of the charges brought against him. In the Old Testament there are strict warnings to judges that they must not justify, i.e. acquit, evil, guilty people (Proverbs 17:15). In the New Testament, however, we find that God himself acquits sinful, ungodly people (Romans 5:8f.). How can this be?
It is possible only because in his grace and love God gave his Son to be the sacrifice for our sin (Romans 3:24f.). He came into this world and lived a life of perfect obedience to God. He identified himself with sinners and their sin, and on their behalf and in their place he submitted to the just claims of God's law and bore its curse (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13). It is because he bore our condemnation and offered a perfectly righteous life to God that God is able to acquit those who make themselves one with Jesus. God regards them as righteous not because of anything that they have done to deserve it, but simply because they trust in Christ alone as their righteousness (Romans 4:20–25; 1 Corinthians 1:30). Those who admit their sinfulness before God and put their trust in Christ no longer receive the reward due to their sin, but are freely acquitted or justified by God for the sake of Christ.
Because of what Christ has done, sinners no longer need to try to do good works as a means of pleasing God and winning salvation (Romans 4:5; Ephesians 2:8–10). Indeed any such attempt is ruled out of court by what God has done for them; it would be an insult to God's love and to the perfection of Christ's sacrifice if we felt that we needed to do something else in order to get right with God. Nevertheless, true faith in God will inevitably express itself in good works; there is all the difference in the world between trying to win God's favor by establishing our own goodness and showing our gratitude to him for what he has done for us by expressing our faith and love in action. Good works are the necessary fruit of justification, but they are not its cause.
Justification is a legal word, and it is used almost exclusively by Paul. Another, perhaps more easily understood, word which conveys essentially the same meaning is forgiveness. This word takes us in the realm of personal relationships (Romans 4:7; Luke 7:36–50). It is used to describe the effects of Jesus' death on the cross (Matthew 26:28; Ephesians 1:7), and Jesus himself declared God's forgiveness to sinners (Luke 7:48). The way to forgiveness is through faith in him (Acts 10:43).
Forgiveness occurs when someone whom we have offended or hurt agrees to forget what we have done and not to hold it against us. Such an act may be very costly to the person who forgives. In the human situation this may be because of the very real loss that they have suffered, for example, if somebody has murdered a member of their family. But it may also be hard for people to swallow their hurt pride and forgive what is in reality a small insult. In the case of God it is obvious that there can be no false pride to be overcome. Nevertheless, it was costly for God to forgive, since the effect of human sin was to disrupt the creation which he had made as something good and beautiful. God forgives by taking upon himself the hurt done by humans and absorbing it in his love, and this we see happening in the cross when the Son of God suffered patiently the rejection and cruelty of people, without retaliation.
At the same time there is another side to forgiveness. The offender can receive forgiveness only when they are penitent and sorry for what they have done. But this is something that people are scarcely capable of. In Jesus Christ, however, we see mankind's perfect representative offering himself to God on our behalf and doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. It is as we identify ourselves with him that God's forgiveness becomes a reality for us.
Justification is an act of God as the sovereign Judge. Forgiveness, however, can be performed by humans. Those who receive free and unmerited divine forgiveness must be ready to forgive others (Matthew 6:14f.; Ephesians 4:32). Indeed, if they are not ready to forgive other people, God will not forgive their sins. While justification is usually regarded as a single act of God (anticipating his verdict on the day of judgment), forgiveness is something for which we need to pray daily (Matthew 6:12; 1 John 1:9), for although justified, we are still prone to sin and need to seek forgiveness from God.
Justification and forgiveness are two of the terms which describe the process leading to peace between God and mankind. The third term for this process is reconciliation. This word presupposes the existence of a state of enmity between two people, so that they are not on friendly terms with each other. If I have an enemy, I may need to take the initiative by attempting to reconcile him to me. It is doubtless significant that in the New Testament God is never the object of reconciliation by people; they do not need to do anything to make him their friend, and in the light of what we have already learned about justification and forgiveness, this should not surprise us. Rather, God himself is the one who reconciles rebellious sinners to himself, and once again the means involved is the death of Jesus. By the death of Jesus, who bore our sins, God makes it plain that he does not hold our sins against us; there is no enmity on his side. He invites us to accept the reconciliation as an act already completed on his side (2 Corinthians 5:18–20; Romans 5:10f.). To put the point otherwise, Jesus can be represented as the mediator between God and mankind, who brings about reconciliation between the two parties separated by human sin (1 Timothy 2:5f.). Yet, as in the picture of Jesus interceding for us with God, there is no suggestion that God is an unwilling partner to the action of Jesus.
Reconciliation means the restoration of peace. Those who have been justified by faith enjoy peace with God (Romans 5:1). They need no longer fear the wrath of God, but can now approach him with confidence. For peace is not simply a negative concept, the absence of enmity and war; positively it refers to the state of well–being which becomes possible when enmity has ceased.
It is true that those who have been restored to a right relationship with God may still sin against him and need forgiveness and cleansing. They are at one and the same time justified and yet still sinners; but because they trust in Christ they need not fear God's condemnation, although this is in no sense a licence to sin. The person who goes on sinning deliberately shows that they have not truly understood the meaning of forgiveness.
Sons of God (Matthew 6:24-34)
The new situation that has arisen through the work of Christ and its acceptance by believers is peace. With it there comes a new status for those who have been reconciled to God. They are now reckoned as members of God's family and consequently as heirs who are qualified to receive the blessing which he has promised to his children. (Titus 3:7).
The act whereby people enter into peace with God and become his children is such a decisive one that it can be described as a conversion (Matthew 18:1–4). The word itself means not so much a transformation or alteration (as when a gas cooker is converted to operate on a new type of fuel or an electronic device converts one kind of current into another) as rather a change in direction. It involves a "right-about turn" in one's way of life. Concretely it means turning from worship of idols to the worship of God, from an old style of living with its sin to the new way of life in which God is Lord and Master (1 Thessalonians 1:9f.). People must be ready for the humiliating step of becoming like helpless children who cannot do anything for themselves but must trust in the care of their parents. From a human point of view, becoming a Christian involves an act of conversion in which we begin life all over again and go in a different direction. In Matthew 18:1–4 Jesus is using the idea of becoming like children in a metaphorical way to signify going back to the beginning. In John 3:1–17, however, Jesus speaks of a new birth and thereby suggests something more like a transformation from within than a mere change of direction.
Conversion is in fact a change of such magnitude that it can be compared ultimately only with a new birth. This new birth is the work of God himself who implants the seed of a new, divine life within us through his Word and his Spirit (John 3:5; 1 Peter 1:23). This takes place when we believe in Jesus Christ (John 1:12f.; 1 John 5:1) who died to bring us life (John 3:14f.). But this new life is that of the children of God (John 1:12f.), and it differs from life outside God's family in that it is characterized by hope (1 Peter 1:3), righteousness (1 John 3:9) and love (1 John 5:2).
Sometimes the way in which we become God's children is expressed by a different metaphor, that of adoption (Galatians 4:1–7). Although adoption may seem less drastic than a new birth, in both cases the reality indicated is the same. By nature we are not members of the family of God and have no rights within it. We cannot find our own way into this family, but only if the Father is willing to adopt us as his children. When he does this, we have exactly the same privileges as if we had been born into the family. Adoption is possible because Christ has redeemed us from sin and removed the blemishes that make us unfit to be called God's children. When we put our trust in Christ, we now become by adoption what Christ is by nature (Romans 8:17). Paul puts this by saying that we receive the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14), just as Jesus himself possessed the Spirit and was addressed by God as his Son (Luke 3:22). The possession of the Spirit is the proof of our sonship. It is because we possess the Spirit that we are able to confess Jesus as our Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3) and to address God as our Father (Romans 8:15).
Many people, however, think that God can be described as the Father of all people. While there are one or two places which speak in a rather general sense of God as the Father of mankind in the sense that he is their Creator and Preserver, these passages are very few. The word "Father" is never used in this sense in the Old Testament, and the only references in the New Testament (Ephesians 3:14f.; Hebrews 12:9; James 1:7; cf. Acts. 17:28f.) scarcely permit the conclusion that God can be spoken of glibly as the Father of all people. On the contrary, God stands in the relationship of Father only to those who trust in him. In the New Testament era this means that he is the Father only of believers in Jesus. When the New Testament speaks of the fatherly care of God for people (Matthew 6:25–34), this teaching is addressed to disciples. They, for their part, must show the "family likeness" by living lives of holiness and love (Luke 6:36; 1 Peter 1:15-17), and to this end God disciplines them so that they may become more holy (Hebrews 12:5–11).
All this shows that men and women are not God's children by nature, and that each of us can enter his family only by the doorway of conversion and new birth. Even those brought up in a Christian environment must make their own personal response to Jesus. They cannot inherit the faith of their earthly parents, although there is no doubt that a Christian home can be one of the most effective influences leading to conversion. This is not, of course, to say that everybody must undergo a cataclysmic or sudden conversion. In many cases conversion may be more of a gradual process, and those fortunate to come to Christ in this way will want to echo the words of Dr. G. Campbell Morgan, who dedicated his book The Crises of the Christ to his parents, "Who forty years ago gave me to Christ, and who, never doubting the acceptance by him of their child, did from infancy, and through youth, train me as his, from whom I received my first knowledge of him, so that when the necessity came for my personal choosing, so did I recognize the claims of his love, that without revulsion, and hardly knowing when, I yielded to him my allegiance and my love."
Union with Christ (John 15:1–11; Romans 6)
In the preceding two sections we have in effect been looking at the new relationship between the believer and God the Father. But there are also new relationships between the believer and both Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God. It is of course impossible to distinguish rigidly between these three relationships with the different Persons of the Trinity, since they all work together for our salvation. There are things said about Jesus which can be repeated in virtually the same words about the Spirit. Paul can speak in successive verses about the Spirit dwelling in Christians and Christ being in us (Romans 8:9–11). It is, however, important to see what particular facts are stated about the relationship of the believer to Christ and to the Spirit respectively.
Although the Father is the source of all spiritual blessings, and everything in the new creation takes place in order that he may be glorified and praised (1 Corinthians 15:28; Philippians 2:11; Revelation 4), the whole of Christian salvation rests on the work of Christ. This fact comes to expression in one of Paul's most characteristic phrases, found with slight variations in wording some 160 times in his letters. It is the phrase "in Christ." It used to be thought that this phrase expressed the nature of Christ as a kind of universal personality, to whom Christians have some sort of mystical relationship. Although this thought may sometimes be present, it is now recognized that the phrase has more of an instrumental or circumstantial nature. It expresses the fact which determines the life of the Christian, the fact of Jesus Christ, who was crucified, rose from the dead, lives in heaven and will come again in glory. The life of the Christian is determined at every point by his relationship to this Jesus Christ. It is through the work of Christ that new creation is possible. The person whose life is controlled by allegiance to Jesus is a new person (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is through their common relation to Jesus that Christians of different races and social classes experience unity with one another (Galatians 3:28). It is because Christ, as Lord, determines their lives that Paul can order Christians to live on a new ethical level (Ephesians 6:1; Philippians 4:2; Colossians 3:20).
Other expressions show that the person who believes in Jesus is brought into a close personal relationship with him. They become a member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) or a part of the true Vine which is Christ (John 15:5). They "put on" Christ, in the way in which one might put on a new garment (Galatians 3:27; Romans 13:14). Jesus speaks of his being in the believer and the believer's being in him (John 15:4–7), and this description of mutual indwelling expresses the closeness of a personal relationship which can hardly be put into words. In the same way, Paul speaks of Christ being in the believer (Romans 8:10; Colossians 1:27). They can say that in effect their own self has died and now Christ lives in them (Galatians 2:20).
A new union has thus been set up between Christ and the believer. This is made the basis of important teaching in Romans, where Paul shows how the believer shares the pattern of Christ's life. Jesus Christ died and rose again for us; there is also a sense in which we die and rise again with him. When Jesus died on the cross, he died on behalf of all people, so that one might say that it is as if all people died in his death (2 Corinthians 5:14). His death can be described as a death to sin, or a death as far as the power of sin is concerned. When Jesus died, he passed out of the sphere in which sin can exercise dominion over people (although of course it had no dominion over him personally), since sin can exercise no claims over a dead person, and temptation can no longer entice the person who is dead to its attractions. Paul now goes on to teach that the Christian may be said to have died with Christ — a fact that he possibly saw illustrated in the symbolism of "burial" in baptism by immersion. (This was certainly one of the ways in which baptism was carried out in the early church, although it was not the only way.) When this happens, the believer need no longer be under the power of sin (Romans 6:3, 6, 7). Their old selfish nature, which was the base of operations of sin, has been crucified with Christ, and they no longer need to obey it.
Similarly, when Jesus rose from the dead, all believers rose with him (Romans 6:4f.). By his resurrection he entered upon a new life, created and sustained by the power of God. Consequently, Christians who rise with him — a fact that also may be symbolized in the act of emerging from the water after baptism by immersion — enter upon a new life which has been given to them by the same God who raised Jesus from the dead. Now they are to employ that new life in the service of God (Romans 6:4, 8–11).
This identification with Christ, as a result of which believers can be said to be dead to sin and alive to God, takes place at the moment of conversion when they are joined to Christ by faith. But Christian faith is not the act of moment; it is a continuing attitude. It is by such continuing faith that the Christian is able to reckon himself daily to be dead to sin and alive to God. In any case it is a fact of unhappy experience that so long as the Christian lives in this world they are still confronted by temptations which attract their old sinful nature. Paul therefore exhorts Christians to persist in faith and to trust in Christ who is able to communicate new life to them and thus empower them to overcome their sinful nature. The Christian life is a battle, but it is a battle in which victory is possible because the power of God is available to help the Christian to win fresh victories over the power of sin.
There has been much controversy as to whether the Christian can reach a stage of complete freedom from sin. If their old self has been crucified with Christ, surely this means that they need no longer succumb to temptation. John states that the person who has been born of God does not sin, and indeed cannot sin because they are God's child and has God's nature in them (1 John 3:6, 9). Some writers, therefore, speak of "sinless perfection," and some would hold that by going through an experience of deeper faith at some point subsequent to conversion the believer may attain this "second blessing" of sinlessness. Other theologians point out that the phrase "sinless perfection" is not found in the New Testament, and that there is certainly no indication of any necessary second crisis as the gateway to fuller Christian experience. They point further to the clear statement that if we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves (1 John 1:8).
A correct interpretation of Scripture must take account of both the sets of statements stressed by these two groups. It is the case that John states that all children of God cannot sin — sinlessness is not meant to be the privilege of a special group — and also that we cannot claim to be free from sin. It is also true that he speaks of God's love being perfected in us (1 John 4:12). John appears to be stressing the ideal which should be true of all believers — namely that they should be fully controlled by the love of God and therefore should not practice sin — and yet he is aware that we can easily deceive ourselves into thinking that we are sinless. No person, therefore, can claim to be sinless, and yet the ideal of sinlessness is held before them as something that is possible as a result of their faith in the power of God. We dare not set the expected goal any lower than God has placed it, and yet equally we dare not claim for ourselves that we have already arrived and that there is no room for further progress in sanctification. It is the paradox of sanctification that those who appear to other Christians to be most Christlike are most conscious of their own shortcomings.
However much theologians may disagree over the question of Christian perfection in his life, they all agree that the effect of seeing Christ when we enter the presence of God will be to make us entirely like him (1 John 3:2), and this is a powerful incentive to be holy here in this life (1 John 3:3). Such devotion to Christ may well lead to suffering, but the believer has the sure hope that the person who suffers with Christ will also reign with him (2 Timothy 2:11–13). As one who has been crucified with Christ, they live by faith in Christ (Galatians 2:20), in the certainty that one day they will share fully in the resurrection glory of Christ which they have already begun to know in part (2 Corinthians 4:10–14).
Possession of the Spirit (Romans 8:1–27)
Our fourth way of looking at the Christian life is in terms of the gift of the Spirit to the believer. It is through the work of the Spirit in our hearts that we are born again and adopted into the family of God. It is the same Spirit who conveys the blessing of union with Christ to us, so that it does not greatly matter whether we speak of Christ or of the Spirit indwelling our hearts (Romans 8:9–11). He is the one who applies salvation to us and fills us with the power and blessing of God.
The Bible describes the Spirit most frequently as the Holy Spirit, and this adjective expresses what is the most important aspect of his work. It is by the presence of the Spirit in his heart that the Christian becomes holy (2 Thessalonians 2:13). He conveys to the Christian the loving and righteous character of God. The special name given to those who possess the Spirit of holiness (Romans 1:4) is saints; the two words italicized are translations of words derived from the same Greek root. This title for Christians primarily designates them as those who have been consecrated to God's service and belong to him. No matter how unworthy and even sinful they may be, all Christians bear the name of saints. Note, for example, the use of this title in 1 Corinthians 1:2, in a letter addressed to a church which was far from being perfect in holiness. But those who are called "holy" are expected to be holy, in the sense that they share the character of the God to whom they belong. Saints have to live in a manner worthy of God, and this is possible through the sanctifying influence of the Spirit. It should go without saying that the special use of the term "saint" to refer to a dead Christian of especial merit (Saint Peter, Saint Nicholas, Saint Ignatius) has no basis in Scripture, and indeed the whole theology of canonizing worthy people as saints and venerating them runs counter to New Testament teaching.
The effect of the presence of the Spirit in the Christian's life is that they can respond with obedience to the moral commands inherent in the gospel. They are no longer to live according to the old principle of sin (referred to by Paul as "the flesh"), but according to the new principle of the Spirit, which empowers them to fulfil God's law of love (Romans 8:1–4). Since they possess the Spirit, they are to submit to the guidance of the Spirit, to put to death their sinful nature and to allow the fruit of Christian character to grow in them. In Galatians 5:16–26 Paul compares in detail the results of living the old way and of living by the Spirit: the latter way leads to the "fruit" of a mature Christian character, which is seen in a whole list of qualities including love, joy and self-control. It is important to notice that these are very largely social qualities, displayed in personal relationships. Christian holiness is very much concerned with the life of the believer in society, and is not merely a matter of his personal devotion to God.
Such a life of increasing holiness is one of the surest signs that we are Christians. The Spirit who takes possession of a person when they become a Christian (Romans 8:15) and who continually strengthens them to live the Christian life (Ephesians 3:16; 2 Timothy 1:7) communicates to our hearts the assurance that we truly belong to God and can call him Father (Romans 8:14–16). Through his work we are being prepared for the day when we shall stand before God in perfect holiness (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Thus the possession of the Spirit is both the mark or seal of God's ownership stamped upon us and also the first taste of the full blessing which will be ours in the future kingdom of God (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13f.).
Possession of the Spirit is thus the basis of our assurance that we are Christians. Indeed it is possession of the Spirit which is the mark of the Christian. "Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him" (Romans 8:9). A question which has caused some debate among Christians is whether we can draw a distinction between this initial gift of the Spirit, without which a person is not a Christian, and a later reception of the Spirit in a newer or fuller manner. Some writers refer to this later experience as the "baptism" of the Spirit. We must be careful here to distinguish between the name of any such experience and the possibility of it. It needs to be said quite emphatically that when the New Testament writers talk about being baptized with the Spirit, the reference is always to the initial act of conversion and regeneration (Matthew 3:11; cf. John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16. The persons who were baptized in Acts 19:1–7 and then received the Spirit had not previously received Christian baptism and were merely nominal disciples). Nevertheless, this initial experience of receiving the Spirit may well be followed by a subsequent experience or experiences of being filled by the Spirit (compare Acts 2:4 and 4:8; 9:17 and 13:9), and there may on occasion be something of a crisis experience associated with such acts, as for example when a believer who has been growing weak in their faith and obedience to Christ makes a fresh committal of themselves to God, or when a believer enters upon some particular service for God which demands a fresh equipping with spiritual power.
The Human Response (Colossians 3:1–17)
We have devoted a major portion of this chapter to a consideration of the Christian life as the gift of salvation and new life bestowed upon us by God. It remains now to discuss the nature of the response which we must make to God and the way in which we receive the blessings of salvation.
The fundamental attitude of the Christian towards God isfaith From start to finish salvation is the free gift of God in his grace towards people. It follows that there is nothing, but nothing, that people can do to earn salvation or to make themselves worthy of receiving the gift. If that were possible, it would mean that the work of Jesus was incomplete and that he had died to no purpose (Galatians 2:21). It is perhaps impossible to over-emphasize this cardinal tenet of the gospel, lost in the medieval church, and rediscovered at the Reformation. This means that faith, which is the biblical word for the human response to God's grace, is simply the holding out of our hands to receive the divine gift. There is nothing to do except receive what God graciously offers us. Indeed, even the process of believing can be called a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8), although this must not be misunderstood to mean that people have nothing to do in order to be saved. When it is made possible for them to believe by hearing the Word of God proclaimed in the power of the Spirit they must respond by accepting the call of God (Romans 10:9f.; 1 Thessalonians 2:13).
Faith is thus essentially an act of acceptance of what God offers to us. But this means that it must include an attitude of belief that the promises of God are true. A person who comes to God must believe that he exists and rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). They must believe, in however elementary a manner, that Jesus is able to save them, before they can receive salvation, even if they feel that they must pray for a greater faith (Mark 9:24). Thus faith may be defined as an act of trust in the unseen God, based on what he has revealed of himself in the Scriptures, which testify to his great act of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Two further elements enter into faith. Negatively it isrepentance a turning away from sin and evil. A true faith in God is measured by a person's willingness to leave behind the sins and false gods which have filled their life, and to allow God to rule over them (cf. Luke 19:8–10). The very demons says James, believe in God and tremble but that is not enough to save them (James 2:19). To be a Christian involves realizing that our sin has hurt God, and being sorry that we have grieved him. There must be a readiness to give up sin and all that God hates. This, of course, is not a "work" that we do in order to placate God. Our whole trouble is that we love sin and cannot free ourselves from it. It is only the power of the death of Jesus in which we see the full horror of sin and divine judgment together with the depth of divine love to sinners, that can awaken our hearts to hate sin and love God.
Positively, Christian faith is characterized by total submission to God in Christ. A Christian is a person who turned from idols to serve God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). They yield themselves completely to God so that they may be made perfectly holy (Romans 6:13, 16–23). For the Christian, Jesus is not simply a Savior to be trusted but also a Lord to be obeyed. It is significant that the early Christian confession was not "Jesus is Savior," but "Jesus is Lord" (Romans 10:9). If God has called us to a full salvation, that salvation cannot be complete so long as any part of our life is not yielded to the Lordship of Christ.
It follows that both repentance and consecration to God cannot be regarded simply as once-for-all acts by which we become Christians, but as ever-new and continual acts of believers. We employ the word "conversion" to signify the initial, decisive change by which a person becomes a Christian, but a Christian needs to undergo a process of "continual conversion," involving daily repentance, faith, and consecration.
So long as the Christian remains in this world they are exposed to temptation and the possibility of sin. It has become traditional to speak of an unholy "trinity" of opponents arrayed against them: the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the New Testament, the term "world" is often used to signify not the created universe as such, but rather the whole environment of mankind which is organized in rebellion against God and continually tempts believers to disobey God and follow its attractions (Mark 8:36; James 1:27; 4:4; 1 John 2:15). The believer finds that the world has an ally in their own nature, for they are a creature of "flesh," a word which refers to the fact that as a human being they are weak and liable to sin (Romans 7:18; 8:1–13; Galatians 5:19–21; 1 John 2:16). "Flesh" does not refer merely to the sensual aspects of human nature (our proneness to gluttony and sexual vice and the like), but to the whole of our human character with its capacity for selfish and immoral behaviour. Behind this process of temptation there stands the figure of the devil as the supreme tempter whose aim is to destroy our obedience to God and our spiritual life. Although the Christian has escaped from his power (Acts 26:18), the devil remains active in tempting and persecuting believers (1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 2:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:18). Yet despite all these opponents the Christian has the sure hope of victory. Through their faith in Jesus they have the power to overcome the world (1 John 5:4). By the power of the Spirit who dwells in them they can overcome the desires of this sinful nature (Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:16f.); and they trust in the power of God to overcome the machinations of the devil and his attendant demons (Romans. 16:20).
It follows that the Christian life is a perpetual fight against the forces of temptation and persecution (Ephesians 6:10–17). This element of continual warfare is termed "perseverance." Like other aspects of faith it is not a human achievement but rests on the keeping power of God (1 Peter 1:5). The Christian trusts in a God who keeps his people from falling (Jude 24) and a Shepherd who is concerned that none of his sheep should be lost (John 10:27–29). Yet here again this must not be allowed to become an excuse for indifference or lack of effort on the part of the Christian. The New Testament warns in the most solemn terms against the possibility of falling away from the faith (Hebrews 6:4–8; 10:26–31; 12:15–17). The promises of God are not a licence to sin with the assurance of divine forgiveness. They are comfort to the believer who is struggling against sin, and they assure him that a power mightier than his own will bear him up. The person who is not concerned to confirm their call and election (2 Peter 1:11) merely demonstrates that they are not one of God's elect people.
Thus Christian faith is a lifelong attitude to God. It means grateful acceptance of all that God has done for us, and it is characterized by three basic elements — trust in God's promises, abandonment of all that God hates, and entire commitment to him.
Such faith expresses itself outwardly in prayer and good works. Through prayer we demonstrate our faith in God. We draw near to God and praise and adore him for all his goodness. We express our trust in him by making our petitions to him and believing that he will answer them according to what is best for us. We express our consecration by praying, "Your will be done" (Mark 14:36). Jesus himself taught his followers how to pray (Luke 11:1–13; cf. Matthew 6:5–15), and we offer our prayers in his name, i.e. on the basis of the fact that he is our Savior and Intercessor with God. Through him we have bold confidence to approach the throne of a gracious God (Hebrews 4:14–16), and God's Spirit himself assists us in our prayers (Romans 8:26f.).
If faith is expressed towards God in prayer, it finds expression towards our fellow humans ingood works The Christian has not been saved merely for their own benefit but in order that they may do good (Ephesians 2:10). While it is true that we cannot atone for our sins by good works, nevertheless real faith finds expression in loving and kind actions, and faith which does not issue in good works is not faith at all (James. 2:26). Paul describes true faith as a faith that works by love (Galatians 5:6). Similarly, John says that the person who claims to love God but hates their brother is a liar (1 John 4:20).
This shows us that faith and the Christian life are not simply a matter of individual relationship with God. Being a Christian affects our whole situation in the world and all our human relationships. In the next chapter we shall consider particularly the place of the Christian as a member of the new people of God in the church.
Questions for Study and Discussion
- What grounds has a Christian for being sure (a) that he is now a son of God, and (b) that he will enter into the life of heaven?
- Martin Luther once described the state of a Christian being "simul justus et peccator" (at the same time justified and yet a sinner): what does this description mean, and would you accept it?
- Discuss whether holiness is primarily to be seen in the area of personal human relationships in the light of such a passage as Galatians 5:13-26.
- Does the doctrine of the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian add anything that is not contained in the doctrine of the Christian's identification by faith with Christ in his death and resurrection?
- What do you think is meant by the "greater works" in John 14:12?