Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Part II - Antecedents for Christian Behavior: What is a Christian?

This is part two of "The Congruence between Justification and Sanctification."
Before discussing the meaning of the term “Christian,” it is important to talk about what is meant by the term “antecedent.” The word antecedent means, something previous, prior to, that which precedes something else. It is a reference marker designed to point to something previous in order to avoid  redundancy. It is typically the case when translating the biblical text from Greek, or Hebrew to a receptor language that we encounter a pronoun, that we immediately begin to look for the antecedent of that pronoun in order to understand what it is referring to. Here is an example: The bible is the Word of God. It is such a wonderful book. The antecedent of it is bible. It refers back to the bible. Hence, when you see the title, “antecedents for Christian Behavior,” what I am referring to are those contingencies that are necessary in order for Christian behavior to take place. This tends to be a very controversial subject in contemporary times. And depending on what part of the world you live in, it may be even more controversial for you. One challenge of Christian living (and there are many) is the avoidance of extremes. If you have been in the Christian way any length of time at all, you probably understand what I’m getting at. The balance one seeks to achieve is a biblical one. You want to land in the place that values doctrine and relationships, abstract knowledge and Christian praxis, bible study as well as appropriation. The goal is to hold the standards of Christian living high, all the while living in the valley with the rest of us Christian sinners at the same time. Know the standards of God intimately, value them, aim for them diligently, but never ever forget what you are, where God found you, what He saved you from, not just what He saved you to.

Does this not go against the popular notion that I am in Christ, I am righteous now that I know Christ, my sin is cleansed and I am now a child of the king mentality? Not really. That is not all we are! We are all those things. We are forgiven! We are blessed! We are loved! We are recipients of the richness of God’s mercy and grace. We are the objects of His love and kindness! Amen. We are all those things! But we are also sinners. We possess a sin nature that is so prone to wander from God’s standards. We love our sin. Paul said the things I hate, I do! Those were not just words. Our problem is we either don’t take Paul seriously here, on the one hand, or on the other hand, we use Paul’s words as an excuse not to hate sin and worse, to pattern our lifestyle after it. Again, the delicate goal here is to achieve biblical balance in how we behave as Christians. Oh, and by the way, human thinking is a human behavior, and therefore, when you see behavior, please recognize that it means how you think as well. That cannot be overemphasized.

What is a Christian? What is the impact to the life of the person who is a Christian, not to mention, the impact to the lives of those with whom that person relates or comes into contact with? Unfortunately, there are millions of professed Christians who do not understand what it really means to be a Christian. They think they do, but they are terribly mistaken and have been deceived into thinking they have made a commitment to Christ when in fact all they did was submit to an outward formula and speak a certain set of words, not unlike taking your oath to serve in a particular military. However, the antecedents of Christian behavior and of becoming a Christian are much deeper and far more profound than outward procedures and words spoken with the mouth. Since Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven,” it seems in our best interest to understand who will enter into the kingdom of heaven if for no other reason, so that we can understand our eternal destination.

The first antecedent to Christian behavior is regeneration. This takes place solely as a work of God in the heart of the individual. Jesus said, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3) The Greek words genethe anothen literally mean born from above. This means to experience a complete change in one’s life. The voice is passive which indicates the action is being done to the object. We do not make ourselves born again. Only a born again person would follow Christ. A person whose heart is unregenerate is an enemy of God (Rom. 8:6-8) with a darkened heart and a blind mind. (2 Cor. 4:4) Regeneration is the work of God on the human heart by which he removes the cold hard stony heart and gives us a new heart. Hence it follows that the very first antecedent for Christian behavior is the work of God in regeneration. (Titus 3:5)

Knowing God’s word is the next antecedent to Christian behavior. Jesus said, “He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you did not hear them, because you are not of God.” (John 8:47) The grammar could not be more straightforward. First, to hear God’s word obviously means to do God’s word. The Greek word akouo means to believe something and respond to it on the basis of having heard it. Obviously the Jews heard what Jesus was saying. Hence, He could not mean hearing in the sense of hearing the audible syllables he was using to put together the words necessary to form sentences. Such thinking is mere folly. They heard the sentences, but they did not hear. They rejected Jesus’ words. Why? Jesus gives us the clear reason why they rejected God’s word; it was because they were not of God. People reject God’s word because they are not of God. They don’t reject it for any other reason. Jesus is correct! How novel is that? We think that ungodly people accept God’s word and become godly. Not according to Scripture. Christian behavior is not a decision unregenerate people make. It is the result of the work of God on the heart first and foremost. Now obviously, there is a component of Christian behavior we are responsible for, but only after this work of God has been performed in our hearts. Please God means keeping His word. It does not mean feeling a certain way about God. It does not mean subscribing to a creed. It does not mean adopting certain outward practices. Notice these three involve the emotion (feeling), the intellect (subscribing), and the will (adopting). This is how we become deceived into thinking we have a valid relationship with God. Worse, it is how we are sometimes used by the enemy to deceive others into thinking they have had a valid born again experience. This is devastating to the gospel not to mention to the Christian community. We feel warm and fuzzy about Jesus if we are from a culture that emphasizes feelings. We get our thinking straight if we are from a culture where logic and reason are emphasized. We make sure our thinking is orthodox! Finally, we go through all the outward processes expected of Christians if we are more prone to adherence to rules. We go to church every week, or confession. We sing the right songs. We attend Sunday school and Wednesday night bible study. We may even engage in visitation. We do whatever is expected of “Christians.” But this is wide of the mark when compared to Scripture’s description of what it really means to be a Christian.

John the Baptist is said to give the people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins. (Lu.1:77) The kind of knowledge Scripture talks about is not just intellectual knowing. While it is true that it includes intellectual knowing, it involves much more than that. Oftentimes, we stop at intellectual knowing. We must move beyond intellectual knowing to knowing intimately. This is true knowledge. True knowledge involves not only a right understanding of doctrine or theology, but an intimacy of those things that only appropriation can provide. Christians take abstract knowledge of God’s word, head knowledge, and appropriate it to their hearts and lives. But without head knowledge, it is impossible to know intimately. Hence, it is folly to contend that doctrine is unimportant. Without regeneration, it is impossible to know existentially. Hence, we end up with a cold, dead orthodoxy. Without doctrine, is impossible to know how to please Christ from the heart. Hence we end up with outward rules that have no basis in a heartfelt, biblically informed knowledge of the Savior. And when the going gets tough, our ability to do the right thing for love of the right thing is considerably diminished.

Desire is the last antecedent to Christian behavior. Christians are not produced by decisions people make for Christ. They are produced by a radical new birth that only God can perform. Secondly, Christians cannot come up with the right feelings, the right knowledge, and the right actions to make themselves Christians. They need a source of knowledge. They need something to inform them. That something is Scripture. Scripture provides Christians with all things necessary for life and godliness. (2 Peter 1:3) Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) How is it then that so many Christians believe they can love Jesus and not keep His commandments? Yet it is clear that many Christians all over the world have somehow arrived at the conclusion that their love for Christ is valid irrespective of how they live their lives. John wrote, “The one who says, I have come to know him, and does not keep His commandments in a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him is the love of God perfected.” (1 John 2:4-5) To love God is to keep His word. It is not an emotion. It is not the collection of abstract knowledge. It is not a list of rules that we follow week in and week out. It is heartfelt obedience to the simple truths and commands expressed in Scripture simply because we want to be like Christ and love our heavenly Father. We want our lives to represent God in the earth. We love one another because we love God and because God first loved us. Human behavior changes when our desire for different results is strong enough to cause us to do things differently. That desire must come from God. It must come from outside of us initially. Man is not able to please God in his unregenerate condition. He hasn’t the desire to hear God. God acts on man’s heart, and regenerates him. With that regeneration, comes the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit produces a desire to please God with our lives in every way. Hence, we busy ourselves with the revelation of God’s expressed will in Scripture. The Holy Spirit illumines our heart to understand God’s word. Moreover, the Holy Spirit spurs us on to appropriate what we read to our lives. We burn with desire to know Christ and to be like Him. Nothing is more important to us than behaving in a way that pleases our Lord and Master. This is what it means to be a Christian. Christians do not despise God’s commandments. They keep them. Christians desire to read Scripture and to do Scripture because they have a burning passion to be like Christ. However, Christians have a very serious problem. Christians are sinners. And as such, we sin. That will be the subject for our next discussion as we move to an exegesis of Romans 3:21-26; 5:1-2; 6:1-2, 4-7, 11-19.

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