Jesus Christ lived and taught a unique way of life. This three-part series explores the process of conversion and what true Christian character is.
They called Christ's disciples "these that have turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). The blunt, ruggedly honest young Teacher from Galilee revolutionized human concepts of morality in His series of verbal lightning flashes known as the Sermon on the Mount. Most professing Christians are lulled by the familiar, pithy phrases found in Matthew 5, 6 and 7. But Christ's brief epigrams, known as the "beatitudes," or "blessings," are actually shocking, profound. And they are the very essence, the hallmark, of Christianity. The plain truth is that the Sermon on the Mount totally inverts conventional religion — yes, even this world's so-called Christianity. What is the precise, biblical definition of Christianity?
The Bible definition
The word Christian was coined in the Syrian city of Antioch only a few years after the day of Pentecost in A.D. 31 (Acts 11:26). On that Pentecost the promised Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49) descended from heaven in a brilliant display of power (Acts 2:1-4). It welded Christ's 12 disciples into the very nucleus of the Church of God. Until then — until God actually placed the Holy Spirit within them — even the 12 disciples were not converted. Christ Himself said so (Luke 22:31-32). Before that time, God's Spirit worked with the disciples and opened their minds to certain truths, but was not yet actively inside their minds doing a transforming work (John 14:17). Now understand why the most specific scriptural definition of real Christianity is directly connected with this Holy Spirit: "But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his" (Rom. 8:9). There it is! A true Christian possesses the energizing presence of the very Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is not any third person of the Godhead. God's Spirit is defined in Luke 1:35 as "the power of the Highest." It is the dynamic power of God, emanating from Him like light from the sun and filling the entire universe (Ps. 139:7). It is something that can be "poured out" or "quenched" (Acts 2:17, I Thess. 5:19). It is a mighty, moving force, not a person (John 7:37-39). God's Spirit is the active, indwelling presence of "the divine nature" (II Pet. 1:4) at work in a human mind. It fashions, molds and shapes that mind into the image of our Father in heaven (Phil. 2:5). Now how may we receive this Spirit of God? Peter outlined the steps in Acts 2:38. After a process of genuine change — of turning from one's carnal, selfish way to the way of outflowing love and obeying God's commandments — demonstrated by bearing "fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8), comes the baptism ceremony. The Greek word baptizo, translated "baptism" in the New Testament, means total immersion in water, symbolizing the death and burial of the old self, of the old, sinful way of life (Rom. 6:1-6). At baptism the new convert makes a statement of intent, as it were, to leave his past behind. He surrenders sovereignty over his failed, sin-filled life to God. Then comes another ceremony: the "laying on of hands" (Heb. 6:1-2). Physical representatives of Jesus Christ, men empowered to discern repentance and grant the Holy Spirit by the laying on of their hands, facilitate contact with God's Spirit (Acts 8:14-18, John 20:21-23). How many professing Christians really understand this? Incredible as it may seem, God is calling only a tiny minority of all who ever lived to understand these truths at this time. God is not trying to save this world now. Only a few, chosen ones really respond to God in this age, repent, fight the obstacles in their paths and receive the Holy Spirit, "whom God hath given to them that obey him" (Acts 5:32).
A changed life
Now understand Matthew 7:13-14: "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." Some few believe God's servants. They begin to see the wretchedness and futility of the way of life they have followed. They realize they have accepted doctrines diametrically opposed to what the Bible actually teaches. These few feel "pricked in their heart" — they are sincerely and deeply sorry for the sins they have committed (Acts 2:37). They want to change their lives. After counseling with God's ministers, they resolve to dedicate their lives to living God's way, accept the baptism covenant and receive the Holy Spirit. What, then? Is that the end? Absolutely not! This only starts the Christian journey. The work of overcoming now begins in earnest. Baptism signals but the first effort in a lifelong struggle to "put off the old man" (Col. 3:9-10). Self-will is still active after baptism. Though past sins are forgiven; the Christian may stumble and sin anew. The new convert must increase the Holy Spirit of power through prayer — much prayer — Bible study, fasting regularly (Luke 11:9-13). It takes sincere, mighty effort to replace the carnal, selfish, fleshly mind with the mind of Christ Himself. This is difficult, a lifelong struggle, and requires God's constant help and continual forgiveness. But this is the very purpose for human life, the only reason God gave us this temporary, fleshly existence (I Tim. 6:12). Only by imitating Christ in every way do we prepare for an eternal life of usefulness and accomplishment in the Kingdom of God. Now, exactly what must we do to be ready when Christ comes to straighten out this sick planet in the world tomorrow? For that is the true Christian's goal, even though almost no one understands it. How deceived this world is (Rev. 12:9)! Paul asked, "Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?" (I Cor. 6:2). Revelation 5:10 says "we shall reign on the earth." In Revelation 2:26 Christ promised His followers "power over the nations." In the Sermon on the Mount Christ gave specialized instructions to His future inner cabinet, those who would be sitting with Him on His throne (Rev. 3:21). This vital seminar for future kings and priests (Rev. 1:6) is found in Matthew 5, 6 and 7. "And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him" (Matt. 5:1). Notice how Christ avoided the crowds. It was time for some deep spiritual discourses that would challenge even His own disciples. Later on, Christ explained why He taught in parables, and it was not to make the meaning clearer! Read it: "Because it is given unto you [His disciples] to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given" (Matt. 13:11). What a shocker! But it was true. Only the few — the small minority — earnestly seek God's way of life, make the necessary changes to for an eternal life of rulership and service in the Kingdom of God.
"And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Matt. 5:2-3). Who, exactly, are the poor in spirit? Not those lacking in the precious, energizing Holy Spirit of God! "Poor in spirit" refers to a lack of human pride, stubborn self-will. It is humility — a yielded, submissive attitude before God. Blessed are those who rate themselves as insignificant — who are of no great stature in their own eyes, Jesus is saying. Blessed are those who deeply feel their utter dependence upon God for anything truly worthwhile and lasting. This is completely opposed to worldly concepts of "finding yourself," self-reliance, "I'm OK, you're OK" or tapping the hidden power of the "inner you." Here Christ demands the puncturing of vanity, pride, deceit, the stubborn selfishness rooted deep inside us (Ps. 39:5-6). Christ loves the poor in spirit (Isa. 66:2). He brilliantly portrayed their sincere, humble attitude in His parable of the Pharisee and the publican: "And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13). "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4). A contradiction? How can mourners rejoice? Yet the Teacher from Galilee skillfully planned every word. He Himself lived these words on that meaningful occasion when He revealed, through His tears, His passionate concern for His fellow human beings: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matt. 23:37). Christ, dynamic adversary of the money changers (John 2:13-17), was also a man of infinite compassion (Mark 6:34). No one was more concerned for others, more sensitively attuned to the pain and mortification of the pariahs of His day (Luke 5:12- 13). Compassion and warmth surcharged His ministry. He felt wrenching, stabbing pity for the agonies we inflict upon ourselves in this sin-sick world (Matt. 9:12-13). The deeply committed "man of sorrows" burned inwardly to finish His part in God's Work and bring salvation that much closer to mankind (Isa. 53:3, Luke 12:50). Do we? Ezekiel 9:4 reveals that God is going to spare those only who "sigh and cry" for the daily atrocities perpetrated on this planet.
Meekness in action
"Blessed are the meek," Jesus continued, "for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5). Moses (Ex. 2:11-12), one of history's outstanding leaders, was actually "very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3). How come? Aren't the meek the weak? Absolutely not! The Greek word praus, translated "meek" in Matthew 5:5, refers to strength under control. Moses was forceful and vigorous, yet teachable and yielded to God's direction (Num. 12:7). Meek men can really take charge when they must. Christ did when He routed the money changers (John 2:13-17). The meek are "peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated" (Jas. 3:17). They are easy to correct and admonish (Prov. 17:10). This willingness to listen to sound advice, to defer to authority, saves much needless trauma. "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled" (Matt. 5:6). Psalm 119:172 states, "All thy commandments are righteousness." In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus emphatically clarified His devotion to the laws of God (Matt. 5:17). Christ thundered: "Verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the "law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:18-19). Don't be deceived: Those not striving to obey God's commandments in every aspect of their lives are simply not converted. They fear men or follow their own ideas. They have not yet surrendered to God (Prov. 29:25).
A challenging statement
Next came one of Jesus' most challenging statements: "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy" (Matt. 5:7). This is an absolute measure of our conversion. Why? Because the polar opposites of mercy and forgiveness are hate, revenge, spite. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wrote, "He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding" (Prov. 14:29). What did he mean? Simply this: Pardoning offenses and forgiving injustices demonstrates faith in godly principles (Prov. 19:11), our conviction that God's laws regulate this universe. God doesn't need us to police the universe for Him by retaliating, taking revenge on our enemies. No one ever evades the consequences of breaking God's law (Isa. 57:21). The revenge-takers don't believe this. True Christians have a special incentive for being merciful: They are deeply conscious that their personal sins caused the brutal death of the perfect and spotless Son of God (I Tim. 1:15). God forgives us only through the atoning work of "Christ our passover" (I Cor. 5:7). God hates the unthinking hardness demonstrated by the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:28, a man who had just received merciful pardon from his master (verses 23-27). Beware of tempting God this way. "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God," Christ taught (Matt. 5:8). Yet how can sinful human beings achieve purity and perfection? None can by himself or herself. (Rom. 3:10). But our attitude, our basic motive and intent, our overall life's direction can indeed please God (Jer. 29:13). We actually become what we think about, desire, muse upon: "As he thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7). So how about it? What dominates our thinking most of the time? God's Work? God's laws? Or the various secular, worldly ways we are prone to follow to please our acquaintances in the world? Those who are truly converted and growing gradually find their attitudes, interests and goals transformed (II Cor. 4:16). They change from purposeless, contentious people into stable, optimistic "ambassadors for Christ" (II Cor. 5:20).
This world's Christianity indicted
Christ's next statement devastates the so-called Christianity of our godless society: "Blessed are the peace-makers," Jesus promised, "for they shall be called the children of God" (Matt. 5:9). Christ here exposes society for what it is: Satan's organized system of get, appropriating the name of Jesus Christ (II Cor. 11:14)! How else can one explain the wars and hostilities, the fiendish bloodbaths, of the so-called Christian countries? How could real Christians shamelessly endorse the countless conflicts in which professing Christians of this world have been involved? Could such hatred possibly be traced back to the Teacher who said: "Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.... And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain" (Matt. 5:39-41)? Jesus portrayed here the inoffensive, willing attitude, the lengths to which true Christians should go to avoid and settle strife (verse 24). A contentious Christian is actually a contradiction in terms. Christ trained ambassadors of light, men of goodwill (I Thess. 5:5). Yet they have met bitter opposition, just as He said they would. Why is that? Why are true Christians persecuted? Jesus explained: "I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (John 17:14). James warned, "Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God" (Jas. 4:4). Listen: Those who literally obey Christ's simplest precepts could end up splitting their families right down the middle (Matt. 10:35-36). When we reject this world's customs and habits, it startles and disturbs our former friends, relatives and associates (I Pet. 4:3-4). Persecution is inevitable. No wonder Christ concluded the beatitudes with the right mental orientation His people would need as they struggle to disengage from Satan's system: "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:10). Jesus did not praise those who invite persecution, as some enjoy doing. Rather, Jesus promised tribulation to even the most inoffensive person who quietly attempts to live by the Sermon on the Mount. Shocking? Obey Christ, and you'll encounter persecution (II Tim. 3:12). Jesus Christ's simplest teachings are spiritual blockbusters far too revolutionary for those who join denominations like social clubs to improve their civic status. For example, Jesus counseled His followers to trust Him for deliverance or, sometimes, to flee the scene altogether (Heb. 13:6, Matt. 10:23) and not to retaliate. Yet this is considered naive, impractical. Meanwhile the sins that drove Cain to murder Abel proliferate until today the mortals on this planet could incinerate in a 25-minute nuclear holocaust. Yet to those few who accept real Christianity, those who quietly begin the inner struggle, the spiritual battle, the crucifixion of self, Christ promises, "Great is your reward in heaven" (Matt. 5:12). Yes, reserved in heaven, to be bestowed at Christ's return, is a literal crown, a challenging assignment in the government of God for those who, while reviled, falsely accused, savagely smeared by Satan's world, win by practicing real Christianity (II Tim. 4:8). Are you one of them?
This Is Real Repentance
What is repentance? What actually happens in a repentant person's life? What does repentance have to do with salvation? Here are the facts.
You've heard the story — and what a stroy it is. "As" for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.... "And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord... came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?... "And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And... they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.... "And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou earnest, hath sent me... "And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized .... And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. "But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent...?" (Acts 8:3, 9:1-21). What a story, indeed! It is one of the best New Testament examples of real repentance — what it is, how one comes to it, how to tell if it's genuine (I Tim. 1:15-16).
Change. About-face. Total reversal. Redirection. Complete transformation. These are the essentials of real, biblical repentance. It includes feeling sorry, of course, but goes much deeper than that. A convicted, hardened criminal feels sorry when he faces the gallows. Yet this is not real repentance, merely selfish depression, inner anxiety triggered by the cowering fear of an inescapable penalty. The Bible, in a lucid phrase, distinguishes between "the sorrow of the world" and "godly sorrow" (II Cor. 7:10). Worldly sorrow is mourning for the self. It is only another form of selfishness — inwardly directed pity, not the total transformation of the self, evidenced by real, demonstrable change, such as Paul experienced (Matt. 7:16). Paul's life change was completely overpowering — obvious — striking. That's why the worst thing you can say to a true Christian is: "You haven't changed a bit!" Paul changed — totally. The transformation was so shocking that it stunned the early Church. Early Christians had a hard time believing it (Acts 9:26). The Bible describes "fruits worthy of repentance" — measurable, noticeable evidence of change (Luke 3:8). Paul had these fruits. The Old Testament prophets knew that real repentance is a definite, heartfelt change. "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" (Ezek. 33:11). Jeremiah eloquently portrayed real repentance: "Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth" (Jer. 31:18-19). Repentance is a point of no return. It is the pivotal decision in life. There is no room, in the mind of the repentant person, for turning back. God's terms are unconditional: " Repent ye there fore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts 3:19). Sin is defined in I John 3:4 as the "transgression of the law." Romans 7:7 explains that the law that sin violates is the Ten Commandments. God's law is a spiritual principle regulating our physical actions and relationships toward others, husbands and wives (Ex. 20:14, 17), parents (verse 12) and children (verse 10) and property (verses 15, 17).
Christ magnified the law
Jesus Christ amplified and enlarged the spiritual dynamics behind the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28). Christ showed that sin begins in the heart (Matt. 15:19). Action follows thought (Prov. 23:7). "I'm pretty good," some will argue. "I've never killed anyone." But have we never felt anger, spite, jealousy, resentment or the desire for revenge? Of course we have! These emotions are but preparation in the human heart for the most dire acts, if we dared try to get away with them. There are no inner reserves of goodness, no strong, selfless motives inside a human being (Jer. 17:9). Real repentance, then — the deeply committed, emotionally jarring confrontation with and rejection of the evil saturating us deep inside — involves far more than a few superficial, cosmetic changes on the outside. The outer facade of righteousness never deceives God and Jesus Christ (Matt. 23:25-26, 28). The rich young ruler who interviewed Jesus Christ thought he was doing all right. When Jesus challenged him with the Ten Commandments he replied, "All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?" (Matt. 19:20). Had he, really? Christ's next statement flashed right to the heart of the matter: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me" (Matt. 19:21). What a bombshell! Jesus discerned covetousness in this young man. Though outwardly successful, moral and a model citizen, the rich young ruler, whom Christ liked (Mark 10:21), had not even begun to live the deep spirit and intent of God's commandments. "But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions" (Matt. 19:22).
Death of the self
There have always been curiosity seekers, those mildly titillated by after-dinner talk and coffee-break discussions on the ultimate meaning of life. Some casually evidence an interest in the big questions at one time or another, and answers are available. Understanding is possible. The problem is that most people don't want it badly enough to pay the price (Prov. 17:16)! The price for understanding is to obey God's commandments (Ps. 111:10). This is too high a price for the average person. It is nothing less than the death of self, the willingness to crush pride and vanity, the abasement of ego, the humility to agree that we violate the spirit and intent of God's Ten Commandments every day of our lives, the willpower mobilized by the shocking encounter with the evil within, the tenacity to fight for years in a sometimes tiresome struggle to root out wrong habits, attitudes and assumptions, even in the face of persecution and suffering. This is the essence of the Christian life. This is why only the few endure to the end (Matt. 7:14). This is why the Bible teaches so emphatically: "They are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3:9-11). This is why Paul, a real repenter, proclaimed so exultantly: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
A tumultuous upheaval
What is real repentance? It is a tumultuous upheaval in a person's life, a spiritual and emotional crisis triggered by a painful and intense conviction from grasping the true inner motives and intentions — the evil inside us (Matt. 19:17). Real repentance is an experience that hammers home to us that we haven't just done wrong but that we are wrong (Ps. 51:5). The truly repentant are pricked in the heart (Acts 2:37). They are shocked by the deceit and vanity that permeate their words and deeds — they realize that even their good deeds are many times only selfish attempts to appease God's wrath or to make themselves feel better than others (Isa. 64:6)! Real repentance includes the heartbroken desire to give ourselves over to God — the willingness to allow God to refashion us as He sees fit. This includes submitting to the human representatives of God once we prove who they are (John 20:21). Real repentance is the stabbing awareness that our personal sins, the wrong habits that we relish and enjoy, required the brutal and excruciating death of Jesus Christ (Isa. 53:11). Real repentance is toward God and no one else. The truly repentant worry about their personal standing with God, not their standing with anyone else. Real repentance means to tremble at God's Word, not at the opinions, customs and traditions of mere men (Isa. 66:2). When God speaks, we listen. We are submissive, teachable. We're willing to observe any festival, pay any tithe, shun any worldly association to measure up to God's standards (Phil. 3:8). Real repentance is the sober desire to replace selfish, fleshly reactions with the promptings of God's Spirit inside us (Eph. 4:24). It is the axial change in life, the most important experience we can ever pass through.
How repentance comes
How can we come to this conviction overnight? The answer is that we can't! Who can deeply grasp true repentance inside a circus tent, listening to a sweating preacher whip up a frenzy about "hell fire"? Real repentance does have an emotional content, but is much more than sheer emotion. It is conviction. Purpose. Determination. A quiet resolve to change. Now, how do we get that? Can it be "worked up" in a moment of hysteria? No. "The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance," Romans 2:4 tells us. Even the desire to repent comes from God. No human being decides of his own volition to surrender before God unless God is at work first in that individual's mind. God must help us pass from darkness to light, from death to life, from blindness to understanding. He must grant repentance: "When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life" (Acts 11:18). "Him [Jesus Christ] hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:3 1). "In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth" (II Tim. 2:25). Repentance is the gift of God! How else could we ever see ourselves through God's eyes? God the Father Himself carefully selects those to whom He wants to reveal His truth at this time (John 6:44). God then gives a small portion of His Holy Spirit to work alongside our minds (John 14:17). We begin to see our way of life for what it is — for the first time, we understand our true motives and intentions. God watches for the reaction this produces. If our conscience is tender, if we are yielded and teachable, we begin to put some things right in our lives. Then, in direct proportion to how much we yield to and obey God, God gives us more understanding. He works with us more strongly through His Spirit (Acts 5:29). This begins the process of Christian growth. A responsive heart and a pliable spirit are essential. Finally we amass enough evidence, through study, prayer and meditation, to see ourselves for the first time — as a sinner, with a chemical, temporary life expectancy of only 70 years, in need of forgiveness and power from Almighty God. But this new attitude of obedience cannot atone for past sins. Thus the truly repentant believer comes to hold an undying respect for the enormous sacrifice Christ made for him almost 2,000 years ago. Only Christ's death can purge our past sins, wipe the slate clean (I John 1:7). Gratitude, tenderheartedness, an exquisite consciousness of God's mercy — these are the attitudes that predominate during real repentance. No hardheartedness, belligerence or placing blame on others. None of the "But here's the way I look at it" syndrome. The repentant person surrenders to God. He throws himself upon God's mercy and pardon. Job's cry is now his: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5-6).
An ongoing process
But repentance is not merely a one-time event in a person's life. It is an active, ongoing, dynamic process. Even after we have deeply, sincerely repented of our past sins and been convicted to follow God's way in everything, we will stumble and fall. We do not become perfect all at once. We still are ruled, for the most part, by our human nature. We are still under the influence of Satan and the world around us. We will, in moments of weakness or carelessness, sin again. And then we must again repent and ask God to allow Christ's precious shed blood to cover the sin (I John 1:8-10). As we obey God and submit to His government in our lives, He will give us more of the power of His Holy Spirit to overcome. The process of Christian growth — the process of developing God's perfect character within ourselves — is gradual, a lifelong profession (II Pet. 3:18). The true Christian consistently keeps himself in an attitude of repentance and submission to God's will. In II Corinthians 7:9-11, Paul describes seven mental reactions triggered by real godly repentance. This Paul calls "godly sorrow," the profound realization that our personal sins caused the death of the perfect, spotless Son of God. It is a mature, heartfelt mourning over the wasted energies, the squandered opportunities, the misplaced time and attention, the deep hurt to ourselves and others that sin produces. Yet the truly repentant believer comes roaring out of this emotional turmoil raring to do something about it all. Let's notice these qualities: "For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you" (II Cor. 7:11). Carefulness encompasses the diligent, circumspect, intense habits the genuinely repentant believer practices. He is wary. He wants to avoid the same sins springing up again (II Pet. 2:20). The really repentant aren't involved in the same sins again, at least as a life pattern or habitual walk. A motorist pardoned from the penalty of a speeding ticket is careful. He doesn't gleefully charge off to speed again. The lesson sinks home. "Yea, what clearing of yourselves." How true! The deeply sorry, sincerely broken-up individual now eagerly seeks God's approval. He wants to be totally absolved of guilt. He is disgusted with himself for allowing sin to "lord it over him," and he energetically applies himself to the advice and counsel that will help him not miss the mark again (Ps. 63:1). "Yea, what indignation!" It is maddening to see how Satan subtly cons us into collapsing before temptation. Satan's ploy is to deceive us into thinking that the satisfaction we derive from sensual enjoyment is more worthwhile in the short run than the thrill we can feel from resisting temptation and making real progress in our personal lives. Don't fall for this "cunning craftiness," this devilish sleight of hand (Eph. 4:14). Abhor and despise the temporary "pleasures of sin" (Heb. 11:25). The real, repentant Christian is infuriated at Satan's victories against his own attempts to overcome. "Yea, what fear." Fear is a vital component in real repentance. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7). Once we understand that God considers Sabbath breaking as wrong as murder, adultery and stealing, we should fear to disobey (Heb. 12:28). We will want to flee the folly and distraction involved in worldly, pagan holidays like Christmas, Easter and Halloween once we deeply grasp the cunning deception involved. We should recoil instantly from sin (I Cor. 6:18). Otherwise our conscience slowly hardens and we end up half enjoying the sins we should hate. This is serious! Unless we dramatically wrench ourselves from some sins we can slowly become amoral creatures, conscienceless reprobates whom even God cannot shake up (Matt. 5:29-30). Godly fear helps yank us out of this attitude (Matt. 10:28). "Yea, what vehement desire." The spirit of our drifting, calloused, noncommittal generation affects us all. Vehement desire changes this. The casual "I suppose I should do something about this sometime" melts before the burning, pressing desire of the truly repentant to shake up his life, get back on track and stay there. "Yea, what zeal." The genuine Christian isn't a spiritual cliffhanger, edging as close to the spiritual abyss as possible. The repentant believer deeply feels the need to put as much distance between himself and his sins as possible. The invincible power of God's Spirit gives one a conquering, formidable zeal. King David of ancient Israel, even in the inky blackness of despair over his capital sins of adultery and murder, found relief only in real repentance. Psalm 51 is his emotion-etched expression of that crucial event in his life. David came storming out of that experience bursting with zeal, overflowing with godly projects as an expression of his thanks to God (verses 13-19). David's enthusiasm, triggered by his gratitude to God for showing him mercy, helped seal his repentance. He threw himself into God's Work even more. "Yea, what revenge." Exactly. David bounced back from his sins. The apostle Peter's cowardly rejection of his Lord and Savior shook him to the depths of his being (Luke 22:61- 62). It was a different Peter on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 31 helping move 3,000 people to real repentance (Acts 2:36). Peter's conviction and intensity flowed in part from his determination to overcome his own nature (II Cor. 10:6).
Are you holding back?
How about you? If you have read this far you must surely realize that it is no shame at all to kneel before your Creator, your Savior, your Lord and Ruler, and to really mean it when you say, "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13). Real repentance. It is that catalytic key step on the road to real life — the road to eternity (Luke 15:21-24). So how about it? Do you still only agree halfway with God? Do you resent the concerned direction and authority you receive from this Work? Do you still say, "Well, here's the way I look at it." Do you hold back? Do you still retain sovereignty over part of your inner nature? Those of you who really understand should know by now that this is God's Work, not that of men (Acts 5:38-39). Those of you who feel pricked in the heart by the promptings of God's Spirit as you study our publications should begin to respond. Why? Because the Holy Spirit can be inside you, illuminating your understanding, giving you a richer contact with the God Family, setting you on the road to your eternal destiny — a life of accomplishment, service and usefulness in the coming Kingdom of God. It all begins with that first step: the willingness to admit, the honesty to confess, the strength and wisdom to agree, that we just didn't do wrong, but that we are wrong. This is real repentance.
Why The Christian Life?
Why doesn't a Christian inherit his eternal reward immediately upon repentance? Why must he remain in this life, often to face trials and tests?
What exactly is the purpose of the Christian life? Why does God leave His people in "this present evil age" (Gal. 1:4) after their repentance and baptism? Why must we endure strains, tests, trials and even setbacks, all the while very much aware that we can stumble and fall and end up castaways (I Cor. 9:27)? Few questions are more important! They touch on vital issues for the true Christian: What is his code of conduct? How much does God expect of him? Why do some — even some who really repent and receive God's Spirit — ultimately abandon the Christian life? How may we guard against the same tragedy?
God's law in force
God communicates unmistakably to us how we must live — by His every word. Christ put it clearly in Matthew 4:4. "But doesn't the New Testament totally supersede the Old?" some ask. "Didn't Paul say that grace abrogates the Ten Commandments? Aren't we only supposed to live by love?" People have many different ideas about the Christian life. Speculation abounds. But people — fallible, fragile, erring mortals like ourselves — have no power in the face of death. People cannot impart eternal life to us (Matt. 10:28). Only God's opinions count on these vital questions. And there are some real shocks — some startling opposites to what people suppose — in the Scriptures: "For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope" (Rom. 15:4). "But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets" (Acts 24:14). "So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God" (Rom. 7:25). These are direct quotes from the apostle Paul, who purportedly taught against God's law. Jesus Christ Himself stated, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets" (Matt. 5:17). Yet millions mistakenly think He did. Furthermore, the New Testament defines the new covenant relationship thus: "'Behold, the days are coming,' says the Lord, 'when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah... For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days,' says the Lord, 'I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people'" (Heb. 8:8, 10). At almost every turn, it seems, the Bible teaches the diametric opposite of what people commonly-assume. A real Christian lives by every word of God.
God's Church exists today
At the time we repent we awake to the mind-jarring fact that this is Satan's world (II Cor. 4:4) and that we have all been willing accomplices of Satan, deceived by our own drives and desires as unwitting agents in his diabolical system of sin, hopelessness and death (Eph. 2:1-3). Real repentance is responding to God's call with conviction and urgency, answering God's divine summons to flee spiritual Babylon (Rev. 18:4). God's representatives help bring us to real repentance. "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). Indeed, Christ's ministry can discern serious repentance (John 20:23). Here is where some people stumble! A world suspicious of all authority is bothered by the fact that God uses human instruments to help reconcile the world to Himself (II Cor. 5:18). God uses human agents (I Cor. 12:27-30). God insists that He has elected to save humanity through the "foolishness of the message preached" (I Cor. 1:21). Christ conferred authority upon His true ministers (Mark 16:15-16, Matt. 28:18- 20). God's true Church is indeed a spiritual organism, but a definite, literal, physical organization as well (Acts 8:3). Do you know — and know that you know — where God's Church is today? Christ said it would exist at the end time (Matt. 16:18). One must exercise prudence and caution in this era of religious confusion (II Tim. 3:13), but sincere seekers of truth would also do well to emulate Ethiopia's capable first-century finance minister. Notice: "Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, 'Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.' This is desert. So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. "Then the Spirit said to Philip, 'Go near and overtake this chariot.' So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, 'Do you understand what you are reading?' And he said, 'How can I, unless someone guides me?'" (Acts 8:26-31). What is the point for us today? Just this: The well educated, intelligent Ethiopian eunuch needed human teachers. Though he was a studious, diligent man, he was willing to submit to God's human representatives (John 13:20). He didn't know it all. He needed trained and accredited representatives of the living Christ to instruct him. "So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. Now when they came up out of the water" — notice that baptism means complete immersion in water (Acts 8:38-39). And we cannot baptize ourselves! We need the Church of God and the balanced, concerned teaching of God's ministers. This should be obvious, but some forget it after baptism (Acts 5:3-4). The priceless Holy Spirit that begets us as God's children comes through the laying on of hands by Christ's ministers — and only through them (Acts 8:14-17).
Steps to salvation
The watery grave of baptism, symbolizing the death of the old self, and the laying-on-of-hands ceremony, which gives us access to the life-giving, energizing, Holy Spirit of power — these are fundamental steps to becoming a real Christian (Heb. 6:1-2). Yet God makes both ceremonies possible only through His Church, specifically through the ministry He has chosen (Eph. 4:11-12). (Read our free copy of the articles "What Is the True Church?" and "Why the Church?") We surrender to God at baptism. In effect we say, "God, through your Word and your Church, please teach me the right way to live!" And what does God tell us to orient our lives around? What is our life's new direction after baptism and the laying on of hands? "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and have all been made to drink into one Spirit" (I Cor. 12:13). The "one body" spoken of here is the Body of Christ, the Church, "which He purchased with His own blood" (Col. 1:18, Acts 20:28). The Church's goals and purposes become our own. Only that one true Church possesses the keys to the kingdom of heaven — the essential spiritual knowledge we will need to grow, to endure, to qualify for our ultimate destiny — membership in the universe-ruling, royal Family of God (Matt. 16:19, Rev. 21:7). Some forget this. They foolishly imagine they can achieve salvation apart from God's Church. They forget where they learned the basic truths necessary to even comprehend the plan of salvation (II Tim. 3:14). Though we are called as individuals, we are at baptism plunged into a group, a small but highly motivated organization with an urgent task to accomplish in this world. An individual Christian cannot accomplish the global work Christ commissioned to the Church. A group effort is needed under God's government, which is exercised in God's Church. Growing Christians are zealous to attend Church services, Bible studies and, in the right measure, unifying and uplifting Church activities (Heb. 10:25). They are profitable servants, going above and beyond responsibility (Luke 17:10). Others carelessly relax after baptism. They forget the urgency and commitment of real repentance. They settle into a comfortable rut. Few oversights are more deadly! Yes, baptism symbolizes pardon of past sins. Yes, the laying on of hands gains us access to God's Holy Spirit. Yes, that is the right beginning. But there is much more to real Christianity, even yet!
Stir up the Spirit
The plain truth is that a real Christian can quench the precious Holy Spirit of God (I Thess. 5:19). Even Timothy was admonished, by Paul, to "stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands" (II Tim. 1:6). Some run out of steam. The urgency, the interest, the enthusiasm that produced real changes before baptism wanes. They are easy victims for discouragement. Depression and despair are fertile ground for Satan (II Cor. 2:11). Discouragement is often triggered by the letdown we feel when we know we're not making the progress we should. Some, feeling condemned, go from this to the next step: slowly slipping away from Church activities, fellowship, Bible studies and even Church services (I John 2:19). Others cover up their lack of progress by adopting a hostile, aggressive attitude. They resent the concerned correction of the ministry (Heb. 13:17). They turn bitter, resentful, critical (Heb. 12:15). Plagued with guilt and self-pity, they gradually feel awkward and uncomfortable around God's people. The all-out commitment of repentance and baptism gradually weakens under this slow, debilitating bombardment (verses 5-6). God never forsakes us! We forsake Him. We can actually "neglect so great a salvation" (Heb. 2:3). It can happen to any of us.
Baptism only the beginning
Real overcomers know that baptism marks only the beginning of the Christian life. They deeply treasure the minute portion of the Holy Spirit imbued by the laying on of hands and proceed to diligently and single-mindedly ask God for more of it in fervent prayer, Bible study and fasting (Luke 11:13, Jas. 5:16). Yes, sad to say, some people make only certain outer changes at baptism (I Cor. 3:3). Some merely switch days from Sunday to Saturday as their time of religious observances. Some smugly take pride in the fact that they generously boost their religious contributions to 10 percent. Not a few feel quite superior that they see through the foolish spectacles of Christmas and Easter. They are those who have trouble understanding why others miss the plain meaning of the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles. All of this — Sabbath keeping, tithing, Holy Day observance — all of these obvious fruits of the Christian life are absolutely necessary to please God (1 John 3:22). But real Christianity goes beyond that. Remember the Pharisees? They punctiliously performed external shows of obedience to God but hadn't even begun the tremendous task of changing their human nature (Matt. 7:21). Christ offered this witness against them: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (Matt. 23:23).
A living sacrifice
Baptism only begins the Christian life — a "race," Paul calls it, something we should work at, get better at (II Tim. 4:7). The precious and exquisite gift of God's Holy Spirit gives us the power to make real progress on overcoming our problems. But the Holy Spirit must be continually stirred up, increased, used. And how is that done? By prayer — much prayer. In deep, meaningful, personal Bible study. By regular fasting, searching our lives for the lacks and deficiencies. Paul magnificently crystallized the Christian life in two powerful sentences: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Rom. 12:1-2).
Our part in God's Work
Can anything be plainer? Real Christianity is deep, inner change. It is a lifelong calling to renew the mind (Phil. 2:5), recast the thoughts (II Cor. 10:5), rework the personality (Acts 9:21), restructure the emotional responses (Acts 20:35). The prophet Amos asked, "Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?" (Amos 3:3). You cannot agree with God until you find out what is uppermost on His mind. To walk with God, you must actively pursue His goals. So what is No.1 on God's mind right now? What is it that all of Scripture pivots around? Can we know? Yes, we can — definitely. The answer is in Acts 3:19-21: "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began." There it is! The No.1 thing on God's mind right now is the imminent return of Jesus Christ to set up the Kingdom of God! The key, then, to thinking like God thinks and to walking in harmony with Him is to do our part in helping establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Do we have a part in that? Absolutely. Dozens of scriptures reveal that a real Christian is actually in training during this physical life for divine rulership in the Kingdom of God (Luke 22:29-30, Rev. 2:26, 3:21). Right now, God wants the announcement of Christ's soon coming Kingdom trumpeted to the ends of this earth (Matt. 24:14). God will not pour out the awesome plagues of the book of Revelation unless humanity is warned first (Amos 3:7). This enormous task can only be accomplished by a group, a small (Luke 12:32) but well organized and highly dedicated body of people, a group reaffirming their commitment to their calling every day through the power of God's Spirit (II Cor. 4:16). Just as the early apostles needed the backing and zealous support of a highly motivated Church of God, so does Christ's modern-day apostle (I Cor. 12:28). This is the whole purpose of the Christian life! Yet how few understand the awesome, mind-splitting significance of this way of life! Listen: If there were not an elect, a group writing God's laws inside their hearts by the power of God's Spirit (II Cor. 3:3), a tiny nucleus of believers amidst a dying civilization who prove to God that, with His Spirit, overcoming is possible, interpersonal relationships can work (Mal. 4:5-6), human nature can be changed and people can become pleasing to God — if there were not such an absolutely crucial project being accomplished — then, Scripture reveals, God would allow human life to be utterly obliterated (Matt. 24:22). We are part of that monumental Work! Every growing Christian knows this! It is his motivation, his consuming interest in life, his real vocation (Eph. 4:1).
Living real Christianity
Without this energizing, clear cut purpose, we can lack the zeal and enthusiasm necessary to constantly drive ourselves before God's throne in daily prayer, in regular fasting, in claiming the strength to defeat our frustrating, ensnaring problems. Blinded to these awesome stakes, some begin to retrogress (Heb. 2:1). God doesn't forsake them. They, through neglect, discouragement, defeat, bitterness, have forsaken the great God, the ever living, all powerful One who offers in His Word a hope stronger than the steady drip drop of petty annoyances and personal irritations, a hope even stronger than death (I Pet. 1:3). How much better to continually reinforce in our minds what the baptism covenant was all about: only the first pioneering steps in a new way of life — a disciplined life wherein our allotted span is spent serving God's purposes, not our own — a life dedicated to furthering God's grand and global Work rather than spinning off into our own shortsighted, temporary pursuits. Jesus Christ, our Example, said, "I must be about My Father's business" (Luke 2:49)! That is real Christianity! "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (I Cor. 15:58).