If there’s one thing that’s destined to doom Christianity, I believe it to be the conjoined twins of complacency and pragmatism infiltrating the Church and bringing it down from the inside out. Certainly, Satan, the prince of darkness, will try with all his might to afflict and affect the redeemed through violence and persecution — outside pressures. But to dismantle Jesus’s bride (the Church), he inflicts turmoil and unrest from the inside. “It has been always Satan’s object to cloud the Gospel,” Horatius Bonar said,1 and he does that no better than by stoking the flames of discord and disunity among God’s beloved. What causes the world to disbelieve the gospel, more often than not, is Christianity’s own infighting and schism, and shepherds of grace hurling passive-aggressive smear campaigns at each other over functional or theoretical dilemmas. And nothing stirs the evangelical pot more than “convictions.”
Christianity has a PR problem.
Look, you probably just cringed at the very mention of the word, perhaps it even raised a few goosebumps. Or, you rejoiced at the notion that an unabashed grace-addict, like myself, is finally facing the music and is about to talk about standards and rules and “the stuff we need to do,” and all that lot. Well, truthfully, both inclinations are more than wrong, as I’m not going to release my grip on the “plank of free grace,” nor am I going to object to convictions of truth and articles of faith that guide and cultivate our pursuit of holiness. What I wish to do is put a small dent in the discussion about standards and personal convictions and remind us all of their true purpose. This is long overdue, in large part because Christianity, as a whole, has a huge “public relations” problem.
We’ve forgotten the kernel of truth of the gospel, the crux of this whole thing: that it relies on a cross, and not our competence. If you were to survey a random group of unsaved individuals, and ask them, “What does ‘being a Christian’ mean?” the majority of their answers would likely center around the rules and regulations of the redeemed. I’m sure you’ve heard this response before (or one similar): “I don’t want to be a Christian, they can’t do anything! I want to live my life!” It’s a sad day when the mission Jesus came to accomplish has been relegated to nothing but a cold set of “do’s” and “don’t’s” that enclose, harass, and coerce those foolish enough to yield to it into “being good.” What a travesty that those doomed to an eternity in an infinite hell won’t relinquish their lust for life because they deem Jesus the killjoy of freedom! We have a big PR issue here. When Christianity is known more for people’s convictions than Christ, we’ve strayed far from what Jesus came to do.
Convictions, in and of themselves, are a treasure: they’re pulled from the lines of God’s everlasting Word and serve as the barometers of morality. The issue, though, are those “grey areas,” the subjects that God’s Word doesn’t outright say, “Thou shalt not!” Thus, in lieu of any direct command from the Lord saying “don’t,” men have reckoned it their responsibility to fill in those gaps, and created man-made standards by which all Christians must adhere.
Naturally, others opposed such sanctions, and there we have the bottom line of all Christian debate: one man’s opinion over another’s — one view pitted against another. What we need to remember to begin this “rebranding” process of Christianity is that, while convictions are good, they’re only good if they disregard themselves. I’ll let Dr. Bonar explain:
Convictions then are only precious when they lead you away from themselves to Christ . . . Convictions are precious things, but they bring no peace of themselves, but war and storm and trouble. Convictions are precious things, but they are not salvation; they are not the Saviour.2
You see, they’re good, but they’re not Life; they’re true, but they’re not the Truth; they’re helpful, but they’re not the Way. Only Jesus is those things. Only the Son of God is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” and “no one comes to the Father except through [him].” (Jn 14:6) The problem with our convictions is that we get lost in them, instead of being lost in God’s forgiving grace. We get mired in personal standards and progressing piety and making sure that everyone else has our same convictions, that we forget the gospel! We forget that it’s “not our feeling towards God that is our ground of peace, but his feeling towards us.”3
Convictions aren’t the rock upon which you stand, they’re more like the sand, in that, if you build your life upon nothing but sand, your life will crumble. (Mt 7:24–27) No, the only thing that lasts, the only thing that’s sure, our only hope and confidence must rest and rely on Jesus and his gospel of grace. “Our feelings vary, he varies not,” continues Bonar. “His love and favour toward us do not depend upon the warmth or the steadfastness of our love toward him, but remain ever the same.”4 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Heb 13:8)
I like what one old writer, Scottish churchman Thomas Guthrie, once said: “It is not religion to contend as earnestly for forms of worship as for the faith of the gospel . . . Religion does not consist in doctrinal or prophetical speculations; nor lie like a corpse entombed in old dusty confessions. She lives in action, and walks abroad among mankind — calling us to leave our books, to shut our Bibles, to rise from our knees, and go forth with hearts full of love and hands full of charities.”5 And, I’d add, nor does true religion consist in one’s own preferences and personal convictions forming the linchpin of true faith in Jesus’s salvation.
Rebranding our faith.
My friends, if we wish to re-brand Christianity, we must remember that God’s grace shines most brilliantly through the cracks of imperfection. We must make it a religion less heard through controversy and more seen through confession — through brokenness, defeat, and weakness. We must make it a faith that doesn’t major on the minor, that isn’t “serious on light, and great on little things.”6 We must make our faith one of active charity, not theoretical purity. And we do all of this, not by postulating convictions and standards, but by way of remembrance. Each and every day, the glorious gospel of Jesus’s substitution must overtake and overwhelm you, to the degree that you can’t help but tell and show others of the grace you’ve received. For, true religion “is a thing seen, not heard; it shines, but it makes no sound; not often found on [our] lips, but always in [our] lives.”7
Reader, what are you living for? Your convictions or Christ? What are you promoting? Man-made divisions or divinely-appointed truth? Are you being led to Christ daily? Or are you being led to think much of yourself because of your efforts in “progressive sanctification”? Friends, in this circle of religion, let’s let all our lines be drawn back to the one true center, the staunch, steadfast origin, that is Christ Jesus.
Horatius Bonar, Kelso Tracts (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851), #35.
Thomas Guthrie, Man and the Gospel (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1866), 88, 105.