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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Being "in Christ" and Personal Responsibility

In theology, there is often a raging debate between those who say that we should do nothing in the way of "works" as part of our relationship with God and those who say that we have to do a lot of things to earn or keep God's favor. It seems to me that this debate promotes two extreme positions, neither of which are completely accurate.

This space is not nearly adequate to fully discuss the merits of both positions, but I do want to address some of the dangers that I have found in these positions. As I have watched both of these positions lived out, I have found myself asking some questions. And it seems to me that the major problem that comes in is that we don't base our theology on Scripture. We approach Scripture with an immense number of filters and grids through which we see what we think Scripture should be saying. In doing so, we choose to pick and choose what parts of Scripture we apply, rather than considering the whole of Scripture as the guide.

Legalism is always a danger, and so once we decide that we must do certain activities or act/look a certain way in order to obtain favor with God, we have crossed a dangerous line. Favor with God is, according to Scripture, solely on the merit of our position in Christ. (More on this in a minute.)

Conversely, once we decide that we can't do anything to merit God's favor, we start to assume that anything we "do" is suspect, and therefore to be avoided. I have seen both of these extremes lived out, and the end result in both has been very difficult to watch.

It seems to me that many times in these debates, the legitimate answer is a "both/and" approach. When we attempt to box God in to our systematic theology, we always run the danger of going too far in one direction and losing the balance that God intended. When we look at the whole of Scripture, we see two very clear messages:

  1. We are saved by grace, through faith, and God has done everything through Jesus to provide the right relationship between us and Him.
  2. There is definitely a lot of mention in Scripture about fruit, works, and "doing", which we cannot ignore just to avoid legalism.

So, to bring it to a point of discussion, what is our responsibility in our relationship with God? And what does that look like in "real life"? (I must interject that I despise the term "real life" as used by most Christians to imply that the Scriptural ideal is simply that -- an ideal, and that we somehow need to modify the teaching of Scripture to fit the world in which we live.) Well, let's consider a couple key Scriptural thoughts:

  1. Jesus contrasted two builders: a wise one and a foolish one. He was talking about a "hearer only" vs. a "hearer and doer". Sounds a lot like what James wrote in chapter 1 of his letter. In other words, we have a responsibility to act on what we hear in the Word, not just to digest it academically.
  2. Scripture talks repeatedly about being "in Christ", "abiding", etc. In fact, it appears to me on the surface that Jesus talked a lot more about this concept than He did about "believing". It seems evident that believing in Him is played out in how we live.

So, I would conclude that our personal responsibility is to be "in Christ". What does that mean? It's hard to define this concept because it is an intensely spiritual reality that almost defies human language. But we can draw some implications from Scripture.

First of all, being "in Christ" means that we are placing our trust solely in the work of Christ. We deserved (in fact, were required) to die for our sin, but Christ did that for us. If we continue to place our trust in our own ability to please God, we reject the payment Christ made for us. To be "in Christ" means to not put our faith in anything or anyone other than Christ.

(Let me interject here that it is an incredible shame that our English word "believe" conveys so little of what the Bible intends to convey when it talks about "believing" in Christ. The word used in the Greek language has a whole lot more to do with "putting one's faith in", than just "believing", which in English boils down to little more than intellectual assent. Most would say that they "believe" in Jesus, but even among those who claim to believe in Him, I find that many do not actually put their faith in Him -- at least as evidenced by how they live their lives. Instead, they choose to trust in themselves, trust in their employment, trust in their abilities, etc. This is a far cry from what Scripture teaches.)

Secondly, being "in Christ" means that we will be producing the kind of fruit that is consistent with Christ's nature and character. We cannot legitimately claim to be "in Christ" if we continue to produce bad fruit or no fruit at all. An apple tree cannot bear oranges, no matter how much it might claim (assume for the moment the absurd notion that a tree can "claim" anything!) to be an orange tree. Likewise, if one claims to be "in Christ" or chooses to bear His name (as a "Christian"), yet continues to produce fruit that is of another nature, the book of 1 John says that one is deceived and is a liar. One cannot be choosing to live in sin, and yet claim to be in Christ.

Finally, being "in Christ" means that we will do the things that Christ taught. One cannot read the New Testament without seeing this. Jesus was very plain about this. The foolish builder was labeled by Jesus as foolish because he heard the words of Jesus, but did not do them. The wise one was the one who heard and did.

I find it interesting that the very passage that is often used to decry any mention of "works" as a believer is Ephesians 2:8-9 which states in part that we are saved "by grace...through faith...not of works." Yet, in reading the very next verse, we read that Paul continues to say that a result of that salvation is, in fact, works. Verse 10 says that we are "created in Christ Jesus for good works" (emphasis mine). Very interesting, in my opinion.

Until next time,

steve :)

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