One thing has always troubled me. I’ve from time to time been in conversations where the question is asked: “What about Joe? He’s a really good guy. He lives a good life—better than a lot of Christians I know. Are you saying he will go to hell?”
Now, I’m not troubled in the sense that I think the argument carries in final weight. The Scripture is clear—Joe’s goodness will not merit eternal life. As a sinner, if he remains unrepentant and does not come to saving faith, he will perish eternally. I’m certain of that.
What bothers me is the hint of truth that the question is based upon. The question presumes that there is no essential difference between the quality of a good non-Christian life and the quality of a Christian life. The non-Christian (sometimes hypothetical, sometimes real) is seen as living in a moral manner as good as or better than the Christian. So, the question always hits me with a certain amount of force because I can think of a number of perishing-in-their-sins non-Christians who outlive a number of people I presume to be heaven-bound Believers.
But why should that be the case? Why should it ever be the case that a group of non-Christians live better than a group of Christians?
I think the answer has something to do with the kind of nominalism that affects Christians and Christian culture. That nominalism causes us to live with the wrong referent. We live with the assumption that a general or average human goodness scale is what we should live by. If we’re nice people compared to “most other nice people,” then we’re doing okay.
However, the fact that my questioner’s question hits me the way it does is evidence of the effect of nominal attitudes in my own life. It exposes me as a bit of a Pharisee who is thanking God that I’m not as bad as some other sinner. Rather than smite my chest and cry out, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner,” I’m peering around to place myself higher or lower (usually equal or higher given my pride and inflated self-evaluation) on some moral pecking order. I have to remind myself that that entire scale is defective. Our conception of the Christian life is too often “natural” or essentially humanistic rather than supernatural and God-directed.
So, what would a supernatural, God-directed, Spirit-filled life look like? How would it contrast with the nominal Christianity and scale of general goodness against which we measure ourselves? I want to suggest at least a couple of things.
The Lord repeatedly calls us to live lives marked by a supernatural love. Were we to do this we would draw a yellow highlighted line around the Christian life that effectively distinguishes it from the lives of nominal Christians and moral non-Christians. That supernatural love would be seen in our love for our neighbors, our enemies, and other Christians.
So, Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39; see also Lev. 19:18). Combined with love for God, this second great commandment forms the structure on which all of the Law and the Prophets hang. There is no commandment, Jesus tells us, greater than these two (Mark 12:31). Get that: ALL the Law and Prophets hang in part on our love for our neighbors! Distinctive Christian living must evidence this kind of love in the power of God’s Spirit and love for Him.
Then, there is the command to love our enemies. “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35). Okay… now that’s distinctive, is it not? Who loves like this? As Christians, we are supposed to. And the fact that we so often do not contributes to the deadening effect of nominalism as we slide toward some standard of humanistic, rationalistic “goodness.” Jesus calls us unequivocally to love even those who are our avowed enemies. We are to do good to them, to lend to them without expectation of return, even when they are ungrateful and wicked—because that’s how the Most High loves! He loved us when we were yet sinners, alienated enemies of God. That’s precisely when He gave himself up for us! And now, He calls us to love accordingly.
Well, let’s consider what should be an easier act of love. Jesus commands us to love other Christians. "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." How are we doing at even loving other Christians? Jesus is clear. This is a command. His love for us is to be our standard, our model, for loving others. And… our love for one another is explicitly identified as a distinguishing mark of those who follow Jesus. “By this (our love for one another) all men will now that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I take from this that our love should be visible, tangible, identifiable, unique, compelling, extraordinary, and cross-like in the sight of men because it’s how they will know we are disciples of Jesus.
I don’t think nominal Christianity could withstand the assault of supernatural love. I don’t think its pretensions and evasions and camouflage would be sufficient to blend in with the genuine article. I don’t think nominal Christianity could explain—much less follow through on—the notion of loving your enemy to the point of your own loss. I don’t think that love like this could be easily replicated by folks who have not been savingly loved by the Savior and returned that love through faith.
If we want to make Christianity distinctive in nominal settings, we must live and call our people to live this kind of supernatural love. We must pray for that faith that works itself out in love. We must start to think of church membership and identification as a disciple of Jesus in these terms. Our membership in the local church, our claim to be a disciple, must meet by prayer and faith and dependence on the Spirit of God who resides in us this acid test: all men are able to identify us as Christ’s followers because of how abundant and unusual our love is for each other. Now here’s a reason to practice a high view of church membership. Here’s a reason to challenge all the “hangers on” to not just profess Christ with their mouths but to profess Him by loving His people the way He does. And that at least implies a serious commitment to the local church, where other Christians are meant to be found.
We surely need to confess and repent of any attitude or action that prevents us from loving the way Christ loves and calls us to love. Until we do that, perhaps we all will be nominal Christians.
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