You recently trusted in Christ? That is fantastic. Believe me when I say that it will take you the rest of your life (and then some) fully to understand what has happened to you. There quite simply is no more important, life-changing transformation that a human being can experience — and that includes marriage, career, or anything else that you can imagine. As you will see, your coming to trust Christ had its beginnings in the plan which God made in eternity past, affects every aspect of your present, and will stretch on in its amazing results into eternity future.
This little article is designed to help you begin to understand what has happened to you, and to aid you in finding your balance and direction in the Christian life.1 I do not want you to miss any of the blessings that God has for His genuine children. And I especially want to warn you against some things that can cause shipwreck.
Important: as you read, be sure to have a Bible handy, and to look up all of the passages to which I refer.
A word of warning. Before we go any farther, I need to share some rather sobering thoughts with you. You know that, in one way, trusting Christ is fundamentally a very simple matter. There are no forms to sign, there is no money to pledge, there is no elaborate ritual or ceremony to carry out. You don’t have to burn incense, walk down an aisle, dance a waltz, kill a poodle or any such things. No, receiving Christ is a matter of the heart. It is done without twitching a muscle. In this sense, it certainly is a simple matter.
This fact leads some people to envision becoming a Christian as something like getting "Eternal Fire Insurance." That is, they think and live with this attitude: "One simple prayer and Presto! — I checked the box! I’m going to Heaven no matter what!" These people may go to church a few times, find a verse or two that they like in the Bible, and have a flicker of apparent interest in spiritual things — at first. But then, after awhile, that flicker fades and nothing is left except memories. Memories, and the empty, false hope of Heaven.
"False hope?" you sputter. "I thought that salvation was a gift, unearned."
Yes, praise God; that is completely true. None of us would ever be saved if salvation were anything other than a free gift. Yet you will see that salvation is a gift that changes one’s life, or else the gift was never truly received in the first place. The Lord Jesus says, "Not everyone who calls Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).2 Do you hear Him? He is saying that many will mouth the right verbal formula (calling Him "Lord" not once, but twice), but will turn out to have been self-deceived. These folks clearly believe that they are "in" with Christ, yet they will be denied entry into Heaven. That makes the issue of the reality of our Christian life an extremely serious matter, does it not?
The Parable of the Sower. In fact, our Lord paints a sort of mural that shows the range of possible reactions to the Gospel. That mural is seen in what is called the Parable of the Sower. You can find it in Mark 4:2-20. Please stop and read that parable right now.
The basic movement of this story is fairly plain. We see four different types of soil depicted in this parable. The sower throws seed on each of these soils. The seed is the same in each case; it is the soil that is different. The seed is the Word of God (Mark 4:14), the Gospel. As it confronts us, that Word is the good news about Jesus Christ, that He is the only and perfect sacrifice for sinners, that He rose bodily from the dead and forever lives to save those who receive Him (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11).3 This, I take it, is none other than the good news that you heard, and in which you have expressed interest.
Seed Beside the Road. The first soil does not receive the seed at all, and birds soon gobble it up (Mark 4:15). The Lord tells us that this represents all those people — and there are so many — who just let the Gospel in one ear, and right out the other (Mark 4:12). Satan is there to make sure that they think that the Gospel just is not for them. Their "soil" has been hardened by the illusion that the Gospel may be all right for old ladies, little kids and the emotionally unstable, but is not really what they need. These folks feel that they already have what they really need, and they just don’t care much for "religious" things. Christ "and all that" just isn’t for them. And sadly enough, as long as they think in this fashion, they are right — but not in the way they imagine. God’s grace, His forgiveness, His love, and His gift of eternal life are not experienced by such folks, while they maintain this attitude.
I have known so many like this, and my heart aches for them. Some of them are relatives, some are close to dear friends of mine, and some are acquaintances in the town in which I live. They may (or may not) listen politely as Christians talk of Jesus, may even be glad for our faith, occasionally asking us to pray for this or that need. They may even enjoy a sermon now and then (I cannot imagine why). However, there is no flicker of genuine interest, of personal hunger, of willingness to seek to know the Lord for themselves. It just is not for them.
Tragically, their disinterest does not cancel out the unchanging penalty for sin, which is eternal torment in Hell.4 However, your interest in the Gospel leads me to hope that you do not fit in this category — and you can thank God for that.
Seed On Shallow Soil. The second soil is rocky ground without much earth (Mark 4:5). Here the seed germinates, sprouts up quickly — and just as quickly dies out. Jesus tells us in verses 16 and 17 that this soil represents people who hear the Gospel, get interested and excited, and then poof! They’re gone. What happened? They never had any depth; the roots never sunk in deeply and took hold, and so the seed never gave out any fruit. When pressed, they popped; when it got hot, they wilted; when it got rough, they were gone.
These are people who really like many selected parts of the Gospel. For instance, they like the idea of forgiveness, of eternal life as a free gift, of assurance of Heaven, and maybe of being able to get things through prayer. They love the idea of God as their sort of Personal Therapist, as they may interpret the Gospel. They hear these ideas in the Gospel to the exclusion of the rest, and it brings an immediate and temporary reaction of great excitement.
But they do not understand that when Jesus comes into a heart at all, He comes in to take over. He is not willing just to ride in the back seat; He will have the driver’s seat, or He will not come in. The Lordship of Jesus is non-negotiable.
Because of this serious misunderstanding, the "rocky-soil" person buckles, and bails out as soon as the going gets rough. If anybody "leans" on him because of his faith, he is gone, sure as last week’s newspaper. He is totally uninterested in becoming a disciple, which means a student of the Lord Jesus, and so naturally he is not particularly concerned about learning and doing Jesus will. He may attend churches where he can get occasional "jump-starts" by walking an aisle, and/or getting slapped on the forehead, and seeking exotic experiences which (he is assured) will give him instant leaps ahead.
But when this man discovers that Biblical Christianity is a daily walk of left-foot, right-foot, left-foot marching in line, and when he learns that "Through many tribulations [pressures] we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22b), the whites begin to show all around his eyes. This was not what the fellow on TV promised. This is not what his emotions were all whipped up about after all those pretty songs in the evangelistic service. It is not what the Christian self-help book offered.
According to Jesus, the man who finally settles in this position, leaving behind the commitment that he had claimed to have, does not lose his salvation, because he never had any salvation to lose. He was never truly saved in the first place. As a result, this man has no reason to hope for Heaven. He is like his spiritual kinsman Simon the sorcerer, who in spite of initial enthusiasm and Christianlike activities turned out to be still "not right before God," and "in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity" (Acts 8:21, 22). We do well to recall, once again, the chilling words of Matthew 7:21.
You do not want to be that sort of person, do you? Yet I know of this happening very often, and it is tragic to see-and all the more so when that person still imagines himself to be a Christian. Have you begun to follow through on your commitment to Christ? Ask Him to make sure to break up your hard soil, to help you pull out the rocks, and to deepen your shallow ground, so that the roots of the Gospel can go down deep into your heart.
Seed On Weed-Infested Soil. The third type of soil already has thorns in it (Mark 4:7). As soon as the seed starts to grow, the thorns choke it out, and it gives no fruit. Jesus says that this represents people who hear the Word, but the Gospel ends up being strangled by various life-thorns: worldly anxieties, money-hunger, diverse desires (Mark 4:18, 19), and the pleasures of this life (Luke 8:14). If the second sort of person ended with a pop, this third man fades with a wheeze.
Again, I know of this happening far too frequently. People think of Jesus as some sort of an addition, not unlike like putting another room on a house. These sorts simply add Jesus to their ambitions, their pride, and their basic way of doing things — but, of course, in that case they never added Him at all! Why not? Because He will not come in on those terms. He does not want to give a pain-killer for the tumor; He wants to remove it. He does not want to cap the tooth; He wants to pull it and replace it. Jesus offers Himself to us as Lord. Jesus does not hold Himself out as an accessory.
Again I ask, you do not want to be like that miserable person, do you? If you try to keep one foot on the dock and the other in the boat, I think you know what will happen. That sort of two-minded way of belief is not maintainable. You need to have the same attitude towards Jesus that Noah and his crew had towards the ark. You need to jump into the "boat" of Jesus Christ, leave all the junk on shore, and let Him be in charge through His written Word. That is the only way to have it, because those are the only terms which Jesus offers.
Seed On Good Soil. Finally, the fourth soil is good soil, where the seed produces fruitful crops of differing sizes (Mark 4:8). Our Lord tells us that this represents people who hear and receive the Gospel, and who consequently bear fruit (Mark 4:20), showing by their lives the impact that the Lord Jesus has had on them. It has always interested and encouraged me to note that Jesus says that different ones yield different size crops-some thirty, some sixty, and some one hundred-fold. That is, we all produce at different levels. The point is this: the good soil produces, it bears fruit. You can tell that the seed has gone home and come to full life in that soil.
What is this "fruit" of which Jesus speaks? The root idea is results, deeds, actions which spring from a transformed mind. We read of the "fruit of the Spirit" in Galatians 5:22 and 23, where we see that it is a complex of God-honoring attitudes, a character very much reflecting the impact of Jesus Christ.
But lest we think that the major impact of the Spirit in the lives of the genuinely redeemed is to help them sit at home and be nice polite slices of meat, we need to consider such passages as Colossians 1:9-12 and 1 Thessalonians 1:3. These attitudes inevitably and invariably issue in actions.Jesus’ half-brother James is, if possible, even more pointed on the subject (cf. James 2:14, 17). We are saved solely through genuine faith, and genuine faith invariably shows itself by its effects in the believer’s life (cf. Galatians 5:6).
In Luke’s record of this same parable, we learn that Jesus described these people as ones who have heard the Word "in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance" (Luke 8:15). Do you hear Him? He says that these ones hear the Word in an honest and good heart. That is, they are not trying to "fake anybody out" with a phony claim to faith. I have seen that happen, too: boyfriends (or girlfriends) of Christians make a false claim to conversion just to keep the party going, and bad scenes like that. Sometimes the undiscerning and misguided marry such false performers, and tragedy results. The good soil is not like these play-actors.
Further, Jesus says that they "hold it fast" — that is, they really grab onto it, as a drowning man clutching a life preserver does. They know that if they do not make the Gospel their own through personal faith, they are goners. Everything that they have goes into getting and keeping God’s Word. There is nothing casual about it. And, praise God, I have known folks like this, too. As in this parable, they are the minority, but they do exist, by the sovereign grace of God.
In their case, you can have no doubt that these folks know of their sin, and that they know the awful penalty for sin. But there is equally no doubt that these ones know that Jesus is the perfect and only Savior, and that they need Him with all their hearts. Their lives show that they know these things. There is no doubting, overall, that they are good soil.
Jesus also says that the "good-soil" folks "bear fruit with perseverance" (Luke 8:15). That is, they keep bearing fruit. They resemble the blessed man of Psalm 1:3, who is "like a tree transplanted by channels of water, which keeps giving its fruit in its season, and whose leaf does not wither; And everything that he does prospers" (my rendering). Even when the pressure is on and the going gets rough, they bear fruit. Especially with the all-important test of time, they bear fruit. It has been my joy to know many like this, whose fruitfulness almost seems to increase as the pressure grows.
If the consideration of any or all of the first three soils alarms us, we should take our alarms seriously. Let us take those fears to our great God. There is no doubt that each of us by nature has the seed of those maladies within us. It is only by God’s sovereign grace that we respond genuinely to His Word. Even after genuinely responding, we still commit sins (1 John 1:8), but God’s design in us is to break that chain of sin (1 John 2:la; 3:8b). Our very struggle to overcome sin’s power shows the reality of our relationship with Christ (cf. Galatians 5:17). God both commands (Galatians 5:25) and promises (Galatians 5:16) headway in that struggle. Let us examine ourselves in the light of His Word. Let us ask Him to break up our hard soil, and to plant His Word deep within our hearts. Let us hold onto His Word with all of our God-given might, and produce much fruit to His glory.
What needs to happen now that you have professed faith in Jesus Christ? I shall simply lay out a few Biblical truths for you, to help you make the all-important first steps of your Christian life. Let me set them forth outline-style, to make the "lay of the land" easy to see.
A failure to grasp this truly and deeply will mean a drastically defective view of God, of our need for Him, and of our standing with Him. Jesus did "not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32). It is the one who is conscious of having been forgiven much who loves God greatly; others love Him but little (see Luke 7:36-50). Have you truly seen yourself in the blinding light of God’s utter holiness, as Isaiah did, in the sixth chapter of his book?5
Are you still thinking that you are saved by some residual "goodness" of your own, whether in terms of what you have or have not done, or in terms of your good intentions? Are you therefore really trusting in yourself, in something that comes from you? Or have you come to trust in Christ, and in Him alone?
Do you glow with pride over the fact that you have "had the good sense" to trust in Christ? Or are you aware that even your faith is a gift of God, never in any way deserved by you? Do you think that your relationship with God was begun by your search for God? Or have you realized that none of us naturally searches for God (Romans 3:11), and that even our interest in Him is a result of His reaching out to us in our disinterest (Romans 9:16; 11:20)?
Have you appreciated the depth and quality of God’s love, and have you begun to thank God for it, and to share it with others?
This means that you can prepare for and expect some maximum changes in your priorities, in your decision-making processes, in your responses and behavior-patterns. Have you begun to see those changes take place? Are you really open to what God may need to do within you, through His Word?
Some supposedly mature Christians may urge you to seek this "baptism" as an experience subsequent to and distinct from your conversion: however, you must not do so. God’s Word never once urges Christians to seek to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Rather, God tells us beyond all doubt that we already have been baptized in the Holy Spirit, if we are saved at all. That is, if you are in the body of Christ, you got there by baptism with the Holy Spirit. If you are not in the body of Christ, you are not saved. Therefore, every saved person without exception has been immersed or baptized with the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ.
This baptism in the Spirit has nothing to do with "speaking in tongues. It is a reality which God says comes to every single believer at conversion. It is not connected with feelings, nor with any mystical experiences. God simply reveals it to us as truth to be believed, as surely as we must believe that Jesus accomplished our salvation on the Cross. We should take God at His Word, rather than testing Him by ignoring His Word and seeking experiences which He does not offer.
Firmly resist the idea that you need to "move up" to another level of Christianity by some experience to which the Bible does not call you. God tells you that you have been filled full in Christ (Colossians 2:10). You have already "moved up" to being raised up with Christ and seated with Him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). You can’t "move up" any higher than that. Believe Him. Any other idea is false teaching — no matter who says it.
You may have always thought of yourself as "my own man." If that was ever true, it is no longer true now. You are Jesus’ man, Jesus’woman. Has God begun to deal death to that pride, and that illusion of self-determination and self-ownership which has been living within you?
Even though we have since invented television, microwave ovens, video games, and personal computers, and even though some of our celebrities may hold hands and feel bad together about selected unfortunates, we are still the same sad, bad world that hated and crucified the Lord Jesus. Jesus Himself told His apostles in advance, "If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:19). John, who heard Jesus speak these words, later said, "Do not marvel, brethren, if the world hates you" (1 John 3:13). Peter says, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12). When the world hates Christians, it is simply following Standard Operating Procedure.
How could Paul maintain such a positive, dynamic attitude himself? It was because he knew that "momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison," which we can know as we fix our attention on the unseen realities of our relationship with Christ (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). So we too may steel ourselves with this resolve, fastening our attention on our Lord Jesus, who suffered an infinitely worse struggle, and who has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-3).6
It should make all the difference for you to know that Jesus tells us that the two most important things in the world are — what? Family life and a good job? Health foods and exercise? Self-love and clean living? No! The two top priorities for the child of God are loving God, and loving our neighbor (Matthew 22:35-40; we should know these as well as we know the words to our favorite song). Let us look at those two essentials more closely.
But what does it really mean to "love God"? Is it a matter of having certain feelings about Him, holding a special place for Him in our hearts, or getting misty when we watch religious movies like "King of Kings" or "The Passion of the Christ"? If that is the case, what happens when I don’t "feel" anything for God? Frankly, sometimes it is not easy to get too emotional about Someone whom I cannot see, hear, or touch.
Thank God, the Bible tells us what it means to love God. We do not have to guess. Are you ready? "For this is the love of God (that is, love for God], that we keep His commandments" (1 John 5:3). Just in case we did not get the point, Jesus Himself had said emphatically in another place, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15). In fact, His apostle John goes as far as to say, "the one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4).
That is it. It is a simple equation: love for God = obedience to the Word of God. That means that we can talk as religiously as we wish, but if we are not endeavoring to wrap shoe leather around our claim to love God, then all our talk adds up to precisely zero. In fact, the tally is worse than zero; we just saw the apostle John baldly call such a person a liar.
Here, incidentally, is an opportunity for a spot check for you. What do you think of when you read this talk of God’s "commandments"? Are you very familiar with those commandments? Can you name them, and point to the Scriptures specifically? If there has not been much effort to learn and practice them, this would be one sure sign of spiritual ill-health and stunted growth, at very best.
What, then, are some of God’s commandments for Christians?
Since the tenor of the Christian life is to be obedience to Christ, it is "essential" that we start out our Christian life obeying Christ. Then we do experience God’s blessing, but it has nothing to do with magic, and every-thing to do with Jesus’ principle: "If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them" (John 13:17).
What is water baptism? To be "baptized" is to be immersed in water. Indeed, the very Greek word translated "baptize" means "to immerse." When you are immersed in the waters of baptism, you are portraying your intimate spiritual union with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection (cf. Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12). You are making visible something otherwise invisible.
What a privilege, to be invited to participate in an "acted sermon" which portrays for the world and the church alike our relationship with Jesus! A "privilege," yes; but also a responsibility. A deliberately unbaptized Christian is a disobedient Christian, which should be a contradiction in terms.
Have you obeyed Christ in this regard yet? If you have just recently trusted Christ, then your local church should be able to assist you in this step of obedience. If you have been deliberately putting this obedience off, then seek the Lord’s forgiveness for your failure to obey, and seek baptism at your local church.
We always need to remember that the New Testament was not written in English or Latin. It was written in Greek. And in that original language, the word translated "disciple" means a student, a pupil, alearner. Jesus says that we are disciples, students, only if we continue in His Word; and only then will we know the truth that sets us free (John 8:31-32, words worth committing to memory). This only makes sense: a student keeps studying his textbook. Obviously, then, if a person is not consistently continuing in the Word of Christ, he neither is a genuine disciple (student), nor is he experiencing Christ’s gift of freedom.
It is by God’s Word that we grow in Jesus (1 Peter 2:1-3). It is by God’s Word that our souls are healed, and we are guarded from sin and its ruinous effect (Psalm 19:7-11; 119:9, 11). It is by God’s Word that we ultimately enjoy fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3). It is by constant meditation in God’s Word that we know His blessings of continual fruitfulness and real success in our lives (Psalm 1).
Sadly, you will encounter approaches to Christian living that are very mystical and very contrary to the Word. You will be urged to seek exotic experiences (supposedly involving the Holy Spirit), and to look within yourself, so that you can listen to what you will be told is the voice of the Spirit in your heart. Much popular teaching will have the effect of encouraging you to "go passive," as if the Holy Spirit will be holy for you, as you idly let Him.
I urge you, as earnestly as I can: avoid such teaching like the plague that it is.
God’s directions for our lives is found in His Word. The person who wants to hear the "voice of the Spirit" will find that voice in God’s written Word alone (cf. Hebrews 3:7-11).7 The Holy Spirit does desire to speak to us, and He does so through His written Word.
The person who is not content with what he finds in God’s rich Word is showing unmistakable symptoms of severe spiritual disease, at the very best (1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 4:1-4). Further, you will soon see that what the Spirit has to say in Scripture is addressed to us, to our own individual minds and wills. He addresses us as a Person speaking to persons. This is very un-mystical. The Spirit does not tell Himself to be holy in our stead, as we more or less play Gumby, piously waiting to be animated. Christian growth is not a matter of passive flowing; it is a matter of active obedience.
Have you started your exciting journey through the living Word of God?
How can I say this? To "follow Christ" surely means to seek to be where Christ is, and to imitate His example. The Bible teaches unambiguously that Jesus’ heart is in His church, because it is His spiritual body (Ephesians 1:22-23). In fact, He loved the church so much that He laid down His very life for it (Ephesians 5:25, 26). He announced His plans for the present age as being the building of His church (Matthew 16:18). That quite evidently is His current activity. What, then, shall we be doing if we are "following" Him? Knowing His chosen priority as we do, shall we pretend that we have a better idea?
Yet somehow, in the muddle-headed, muddy-headed maverick mysticism of our day, regular attendance at a local church has been turned into an optional extra. Biblically, it is no such thing. In what way can a person delude himself into thinking that he "follows" or "loves" Christ, if he merely occupies a pew once a week with zero personal involvement in the life and ministry of Christ’s church, or worse still just drops by occasionally — or, worse still, seldom comes at all?
Jesus commands us to be regularly attending a local church (Hebrews 10:24-25). At church, He commands us to partake of Communion (1 Corinthians 11:17-26), to be involved in spiritual ministry to others (Philippians 2:lff.; Hebrews 3:12-13; 10:24-25), to contribute to the growth of the body with all that God has given us (Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:11-16), to submit to our spiritual leaders-that is, to the pastor(s) of our local church (Hebrews 13:7, 17), and personally to get to know and show love to those leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Also, we can cultivate friendships with folks more mature in their walk with Christ than we, to our mutual advantage (cf. Proverbs 13:20).
Obviously, neither a television set, nor an mp3 player, nor a whole library of books can substitute for any of these functions. Enough Scriptures to sink a boat could easily be given here, but the point is clear: one cannot follow Jesus without attending a local church. If we love Him, we will keep this commandment. Have you begun to obey in this area, or do you need to ask God to forgive you and to help you get with His program?
Please note, too, that I urge you to attend a Bible-teaching church, not merely a Bible-believing church. Many churches profess belief in the Bible, but do not teach it. Instead, they are geared to entertain, to coddle, to give emotional experience, all for the Holy Grail of increasing their size. During whatever small portion of the service is devoted to the sermon, you will hear stories, anecdotes, vague notions, and self-help pep-talks. The last activity to which much time will be devoted is the actual teaching of the Bible!
Let me suggest how to get a feel for the church’s real commitment. Before attending, call and ask the pastor what Scripture he will be preaching on the next Sunday. If the pastor cannot talk to you, the church may well be too big to be of any use. If you do reach the pastor, and you question flummoxes him, you’ve got a pretty good line on his philosophy of ministry.
Then ask how much time he spends directly in the original Greek or Hebrew text of Scripture in personal study, and in the preparation of his sermons. A man truly committed to knowing and teaching God’s Word will highly prize hands-on knowledge of the Bible in its original languages. A church committed to knowing the Word of God will have called such a man as their pastor.
Then, once you have attended, here is another test. Ask yourself after the sermon, "What Scripture or Scriptures do I now understand better as a result of having heard this sermon?"
Be sure to evaluate a church by truth, and not by feelings or personalities. Many folks attend a Bible-teaching church...until the pastor touches a nerve. Then they leave, without serious discussion with the pastor. Never mind that the pastor has taught truth from the Word of God. No, what he taught was Biblical, but it was inconveniencing, or it made us think about things that we would have rather ignored. We didn’t like how it made us feel.
In such cases, the mature thing to do would be to consider fairly whether the pastor was teaching truth from God’s Word. We should pray that God will help us to consider the matter honestly, and that He will help us to be open to what He might be intending to do in our lives. Then, if we do not resolve the matter in our own study, we should personally talk with the pastor, and invite him to clarify what he had said, to show us more detail from Scripture, and to deal with our difficulties.
One final note: if you find such a Bible-teaching church, support it as fully as you can. Such churches are in short supply, because lazy, traditionalistic, denominatolatrous8 Christians overlook these ministries and support more comfortable (and comforting) established churches. If you have located one such, you have discovered a rara avis, a "rare bird" indeed, and an endangered species, at that. Do what you can to preserve the species.
What will that support include? Let me suggest a revolutionary idea: ask the pastor. The very word "pastor" means "shepherd." A shepherd, as you probably know, was literally a man who led, fed, and protected sheep. God has appointed pastors to lead, feed, and protect assemblies of Christ, and He commands His children to submit to the pastors’ leadership (Hebrews 13:7, 17). God has given you at least one spiritual gift for exercise within the body of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7; 1 Peter 4:10-11). The pastor is likely to be able to give you the most help in finding out how you can serve Christ within your particular fellowship. You can "start the ball rolling" by letting your pastor know that you are available and willing.
In addition to your personal, hands-on participation, the local church utilizes the financial gifts of believers in meeting its own priorities. I have never fully understood why so many immature Christians find this natively offensive, yet they think nothing of what they pay for cable TV, internet access, online services, movie tickets, or DVD rentals. Though Christians are not "of the world," their churches are in the world. They occupy space. The pastors who lead them need money to survive and support their families. Many ministries need financial support: literature, missionaries, and so forth. Though a church must not be money-grubbing, there is nothing Biblical about the fact that Christians serve God by devoting some of their money to His service.
Two priorities which are identified specifically in Scripture are financially supporting the pastor (1 Corinthians 9:6-13, 14; 1 Timothy 5:17, l8), and helping the needy (cf. Acts 2:44, 45; 6:1, etc.).9
We should follow the example of Andrew (John 1:40-42). As soon as he met Jesus, the first thing he did was to tell his brother Simon about Him, and to bring Simon to Jesus-and Jesus then turned Simon into the apostle Peter. Have you told your brother, your spouse, your parents, your friends? It was very hard for me to do this, and it may not be easy for you-but think of how important it is, and how much our loved ones need Christ. Do not run the risk of behaving as if ashamed of Jesus (Mark 8:38). Your pastor will gladly help you with this. You don’t have to be profound and to know all the answers. just tell what you know: the living Lord Jesus Christ.10
A final word on this privilege. All Christians are to be able to set forth their faith to others, and are responsible for ready at any moment to do so (1 Peter 3:15). Also; all Christians are urged to be able to contend earnestly for our faith (Jude 3). However, we are not all gifted as evangelists or fulltime defenders of the faith. Very often, we may not see the results for which we long. Loved ones harden their hearts, responding politely but without true repentance. Knowing us as well as they do, they are often able to "turn us off" very effectively, and we are deeply disheartened. Let us take heart nonetheless, knowing that our "toil is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 15:58), and that it is ultimately God who gives growth to what we plant, according to His will (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Sadly, you will hear a great deal of pious-sounding misinformation about prayer. You will be told to listen to God as you pray, that there is great power in prayer, that prayer is the most important element in the Christian life. You will be encouraged to think that you can maneuver God into giving you anything you want, if you apply enough faith-pressure to Him. At times you will be given the impression that prayer is quite a complex undertaking, and that you will only get the results you desire if you apply the correct techniques. While these are tremendously popular thoughts, they are not Scriptural, and therefore they are not true.
Prayer is talking to God. In effect, it is us pressing the "send" button of our walkie-talkie, and transmitting. In itself prayer has no power, any more than merely talking has automatic, inherent power. The power belongs to God. When you pray, you are speaking to God, opening your heart and voluntarily disclosing yourself to Him. He is a Person to be addressed, not a "power" to be used. If you want to hear God speak, if you want to know His will, if you want direction in what to ask, you must open and study the pages of Scripture. This is where God has spoken and still speaks, not in prayer!
For a dynamite thought from God Himself on this topic, see Proverbs 28:9. Here we see that, if we do not listen to God as He speaks in Scripture, then God does not listen to us in prayer. In fact, He finds the prayers of those who choose to ignore Scripture abominable.
How do I pray? I pray in every season of life (Ephesians 6:18). The Psalms show us David praying when he is delightedly happy (Psalm 18:1-3), when he is terribly depressed (Psalm 6, and many others), when he is deeply grateful (Psalm 103), when he is under conviction of sin (Psalm 38), when he is bewildered by unjust persecution (Psalm 7), and simply when he is in a reflective, worshipful turn of mind (Psalm 8).
So, in prayer, I come as I am, and God welcomes me because I come in fellowship with His Son. It is God Himself who urges me to "pour out" my heart before Him (Psalm 62:8), and I take it that God means exactly what He says. It is not the "fanciness" of the prayer that matters; fancy prayers can be very wicked prayers. It is the reality of the prayer, and of the one praying. If I am in sin, I confess it candidly and receive God’s promised forgiveness (1 John 1:9). If I am depressed, in despair, perplexed, lonely, I tell God so (cf. James 5:13). On the other hand, when I experience God’s bountiful hand of goodness in my life, I thank Him for it. I come with freedom of speech,11 because I come to a throne of grace through my great and only High Priest, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Our praying is also to be guided by the Word of God. We can have great confidence in prayer when we ask according to God’s will (1 John 5:14). How can we know His "will"? We know God’s will as it is revealed in His Word, and we experience it as we keep His commandments (1 John 3:22). Though always sincere and heartfelt, and often spontaneous, our prayer life must be guided and informed by God’s Word. It should not be a place where we "throw out the Book and wing it."
Although the first place for reality in prayer is in our personal relationship with God (Matthew 6:6), our prayer life must spill over into our church fellowship. It is ever the desire of the redeemed to make God’s goodness known publicly (Psalm 40:1-3, 9-10), and to seek to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). These "burdens" are most commonly shared in the church’s prayer meetings, where we also have opportunities to let others share in our gratitude to God. Although everyone understands an initial reticence about public prayer, we must view this as an area to attack, and in which we need to grow.
This combines with much personal experience to move me to urge you in one final matter: do not go to church expecting to receivethis kind of love and care; rather, go to church to give it. Perhaps you became a Christian cherishing the same notion that I did at conversion: the idea that Christians were a different, wonderful species of human being. And if that was (or, Heaven help you, is) your belief, you may be heading for the same violent process of disillusionment that I have had to undergo. Christians can be wonderful people — holy in a healthy, bracing, Biblical way; giving to an incredible degree; and heart-stirringly loyal. But the dismal truth is that you can also find the most vicious, piously and coldly judgmental, Pharisaical, disloyal, stubbornly childish and hopelessly self-involved people imaginable in church. This is as Jesus predicted (cf. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; 24:12), and as Paul both indicated (Galatians 5:15) and anticipated (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
This being the case, what is the solution? It is clearly not staying away from church, genuinely tempting though that may become. As with all too many temptations, this is one that I know intimately from the inside. The thought that we (and our families, perhaps) can have a private walk with God, safely separated from all those messy and inconveniencing sinners and hypocrites in church, can be very enticing indeed. However, one sin does not cure another. Our refusal to do as God says (i.e. God’s repeated commands that’ we involve ourselves in a church fellowship) will not cure others’ refusal to embody God’s Word.12 No, rather the solution begins as I recall that I am a Christian because of the wonder and worthiness of Christ, and not the wonder and worthiness of Christians.
Ah, friend; I would urge that thought on you until it is virtually branded on your heart. Christians, never being better than saved sinners, are likely to fail you, disappoint you, and perhaps even cruelly hurt you-but Jesus remains real, and living, and Lord; and He is worthy of all praise, love, honor, and service. Be a Christian because of Christ,and you cannot go wrong; be a Christian because of other "nice" Christians, and you may well be headed for disaster. That is a first bit of "preventative medicine."
The second essential is that I must recall that I am to obey my Lord quite regardless of whether others choose to obey Him. He does not say, "Love your neighbor if he loves you"; in fact, Jesus expressly rules out this kind of love (Luke 6:32-33). Rather, our Lord simply says, "Love your neighbor," and then fills out the ways in which I am to love my neighbor through the apostles’ writings, and those ways require church involvement. Jesus has given you and me quite a compelling example of and command for unselfish service (Mark 10:42-46; John 13:1-17).
Is this attitude which Jesus enjoins our attitude? Do we attend church so that we may love and give, and incidentally to receive? Or could we be those who go about as human sponges, concerned chiefly with the question of whether or not others are meeting our needs, and loudly complaining (usually to a third party) when they come short of our demands? I am afraid that this is the natural bent of each of us; but Jesus sets out to kill that in us, not to pamper it. It does not die easily, but die it must.
1While this paper is designed primarily with the needs of the recent convert in mind. it has also been so shaped as to be of help to those who have professed faith in Christ for a longer period of time. and who are open to encouragement and guidance from the Word of God.
2Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible. copyright 1960. 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
3For one presentation of this Gospel, see my little paper. How Can I Know God? A much fuller treatment, opening up and applying 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 in a whole-Bible context, is given in The World-Tilting Gospel (Kregel: 2011), available here.
5The theme of God’s holiness was developed in greater detail in How Can I Know God?
6Indeed, we learn in Hebrews 12:1-13 that the Father’s good hand can be detected by faith amid the pressures we undergo. He disciplines every genuine child of His, out of His measureless goodness and wisdom, for the inestimably precious goal of producing His holiness in us (v. 10).
7This section of Hebrews is extremely significant. The writer announces that what he is about to say is "just as the Holy Spirit says…." Since he uses the Greek present tense, we could accurately translate, "Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit is saying…." Then what does the author quote as the current message of the Holy Spirit for that day? He quotes from Psalm 95, which King David had written some 1000 years earlier. Thus, we see that the voice of the Holy Spirit is heard in the written Word of God. (Cf. also Hebrews 10:15-17 and 12:5-6, among many others.)
8A clumsy, six-cylinder word I coined, from "denomination" and the Greek latreia, meaning service or worship. It describes people in love with a denomination for the denomination’s sake. whose real loyalty is not to Christ and His Word (and to those who teach and obey it), but to a particular denomination. By no means are all who attend denominational churches in this category, but it is a wretched attitude that I have met far more often than I had anticipated when I became a Christian.
9Note that all of this takes place within the local church. Do not get drawn away into pouring your valuable resources into activities unrelated to your local church, such as radio shows and para-church organizations. One would think that recent scandals among public religious demagogues would have re-directed believers’ attention to their own local churches, but such has not sufficiently been the case.
10See John 9:1-39 for the story of one "layman" who threw the enemies of Jesus of his day into utter chaos, all by simply telling what he knew of Him. Our aim is not to impress people with out brilliance, but to let them be impressed by our Lord.
11This is the meaning of the Greek word translated "with confidence" in Hebrews 4:16.
12In fact, when it comes to obeying God. those who fail in their attempts to "do it right" are far better servants of God than those who succeed utterly in not doing it at all. There is nothing spiritually admirable or commendable in the person who proudly refuses even to try to obey God, vainly seeking shelter behind the excuse of others’ manifest faults.
Copyright © 1997, 2012 by Daniel J. Phillips; All Rights Reserved