From time to time I go back to those basic questions of the Christian faith. I need to step back because it seems as humans we are constantly complicating things. With respect to being a Christian, we add on expectations and duties we deem necessary if one is to be considered a “real Christian.”
Consider this statement, “if you are right with God you will read your Bible every day.” Is that a true statement? How about, “if you are living for Christ you will be in a right relationship with everyone else around you.” Is that a true statement? I know some people who would say yes, but I say no.
The problem is that both of these imply the necessity of the action, reading your Bible or being in right relationship, in order to be “right with God” or “living for Christ.” There is an implicit priority of doing the “right thing” to be acceptable to God. As well intended as these kind of statements are, they are wrong.
The statements are wrong for two reasons. First they presume, if only by a thread, that our works justify us before God. The implicit priority is right behavior and then acceptability. “You are good when you do ________ .” Second, and closely related, they negate grace. The statements in effect suggest, modify behavior and then “be right with God.”
That is not to say that what we do does not matter. For that matter, there is even something of a priority of act. Consider Matthew 10:38,
And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
… and Matthew 16:24,
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Exactly what it means to ‘take up your cross’ is no trivial question. The question of how do we ‘follow Jesus’ is also no trivial question. A life time is too short to fully grasp either one, yet as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12-13,
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
That God works in us is nothing other than grace, grace that makes it possible to take up our cross and follow Christ. What that means is something we work out daily in our lives. That is the Christian life.
One of the ways we figure this out daily is by spending time reading the Bible and meditating upon it. Reading the Bible, a relatively modern benefit of the printing press and literacy, is an important way of growing in knowledge and being shaped by God, but we are not “right with God” because we spend time in the Bible. We are right with God because God made it possible through Jesus Christ to be right with God the Father.
Likewise, doing our best to live in right relationship with other people is not living for Christ. On the contrary, it is because we are in Christ, with our warts, thorns and relational thistles, that we have any hope of living at peace with one another. Yes, as we become more Christ like, we will become easier to love. Perhaps more importantly, we will find it easier to love those who are the hardest to love.
When Jesus took up His cross, He demonstrated His love for those who were hard to love. Jesus did not need to do what He did, but His love for sinners was worth more than death on a cross.
When we take up our cross and follow Him, at least in part, it means that we love others, warts, thorns, thistles and all. Loving like that is impossible for us apart from the grace of Jesus Christ and the formative work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
So to return to our two opening statements, let me suggest another way of wording them. “By the grace of God we can spend time daily reading the Bible.” “By the grace of God we can walk by the Holy Spirit, growing in Christ-like love for one another.”
More importantly, “By the Grace and Mercy of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can take up our cross and follow Jesus.” That is the heart of the Christian life. That changes how we live.