They called me an Evangelical Part 5

Get right, then do right

Pete had a question. “A few weeks ago we mentioned people who seem to feel that a Christian is simply a person who tries to do good to others. They often quote Jesus as saying ‘love your neighbour’. So are they Christians?”

“But that was the second commandment”, said Marian, “The first commandment he gave us was to love God.”

“Well”, replied Pete, “the people I’m thinking of would say they loved God too.”

“God mightn’t find that very convincing”, I said, “if they were also sinning in other ways, even perhaps by feeling self-righteous about their good works.”

“Well if they truly loved God”, Larry retorted, “they wouldn’t sin, would they? But you’re right; that’s the crunch. The Bible says we’re a species that’s now innately inclined to keep its distance from God. Even good works can be an attempt to avoid facing up to our relationship with him; keeping him at arm’s length with our charity, as it were.” He paused, then went on: “Most religions tend to recommend ways of compensating for our faults and lapses either by self-denial or by giving alms to the poor, as if God keeps a set of scales to see if we’ve made it. So Pete’s raised a good question, and it has a lot to do with a third key Evangelical conviction. I can put it this way:

We understand from Scripture that all individuals need to get right with God, not by relying on good works or social reform which cannot save them, but through a “new birth” by the Holy Spirit and holy living in the Spirit thereafter.

“Of course”, Larry went on, “talk about being ‘born again’ is a favourite target in the press these days. In particular, people who publicly parade themselves as ‘born-again Christians’ but then fall into sin get a lot of stick – as they should. But also, as a result, so do the rest of us. But there’s no doubt that the Bible teaches that we first need to get right with God by truly repenting of our sins and seeking his forgiveness. Then we are restored, not by our own efforts, but by his grace alone.”

“’Twas grace my fears relieved”, I murmured, thinking of Newton’s hymn.

“Exactly”, said Larry. “That was the great emphasis of the Reformation, correcting an error that had crept into the church through the teaching that we could satisfy God’s justice by doing penance or giving alms to the poor. The need for restoration of a personal relationship with God through Christ was then, and is today, a core belief of Evangelicals.

“So what’s wrong with saying we’re ‘born again’?” said Pete.

“Depends how you say it – and how you live it”, said Marian very wisely.

“Yes”, said Larry, “It’s a correct description – our Lord used it – but it doesn’t entitle us to strut around proclaiming it proudly to all and sundry. The em¬phasis shouldn’t be on ourselves, but on what God has done for us – and will do for anyone who, in the poverty of their souls, truly turns to him.”

“So that means”, I said mischievously, “that we can disregard the need for good works and social reform.” My friends fell upon me.

“I think I headed that off earlier”, said Larry, laughing. If I remember rightly, I said people need to ‘be born again by the Holy Spirit, and live holy lives in the Spirit thereafter’. Actually, you’ll remember Paul took up the same issue in Romans 6. Repentance is a farce if you just go back to your old ways. But now the motive for a moral life is not our desire to save ourselves, but gratitude to God who has given us a new start. Now we seek to live to God’s standards, and that means everything that’s implied in the second command¬ment.”

“And more”, said Marian. “It includes being moral in our own inner lives.”

“Which is more than can be said for some of the big-time television evangelists”, said Pete.

“Or for many church leaders who wander in and out of sexual relationships as though it’s the done thing and quite irrel¬ev¬ant to Christian ethics”, I added.

“Yes”, said Larry. “I’m afraid we Christians have a lot to answer for, when we go along with contemporary attitudes and values, instead of standing up for personal holiness. We have to be more counter-cultural.”

“Even if they call us ‘wowsers’”, added Pete. “Something’s go to happen. Our society is in serious need of a moral spring-clean.”

“You’ve reminded me of one of the applicants our church is looking at”, said Marian. “He says he’s an Evangelical, and claims that the church has to get away from the ‘social gospel’ and focus on evangelism.”

“Really?” said Larry, “that’s very one-sided. It’ll be a good springboard for next week’s get-together.”

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