This past weekend, I got take take a group of my middle school guys on an amazing retreat, and as usual I got just as much out of the weekend as they did. Our speaker for the weekend began in Romans 12, which is a call for Christians to live conformed to Christ, not to this world. I had heard this and studied this all before, but he pointed out a spot in the text that I often glance over. It’s a small statement, but has profound implications for the way a Christian is meant to follow Christ. Romans 12:9 says “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” I have to be honest, when I read this verse I usually fixate on the second sentence as a call to pursue right living, but our speaker took a different approach, he focused on “Let love be genuine.” I really hadn’t paid much attention to this sentence before. The first 8 verses in the chapter talk about giving your whole self to Christ, and about how the grace of Jesus draws us into humble response and living as a result of that grace. All of this is in line with the greatest commandments of the Bible, to love God and love others (Luke 10:27). What I had not considered is that if we are not following the commands of the Bible out of a genuine heart of love, we are not obeying at all. Our speaker pointed out that in Christian environments, there is a tendency and temptation to put on a “mask” where we hide our sinfulness and pretend that we have it all together so that people will accept us. His point though, is that if we are not genuine in our presentation of ourselves, we are not obeying this call. If we put on that mask and pretend that we are “good Christians” by hiding our struggles, we are denying our continual need for God, not loving Him, and we are closing ourselves off from the full function of Christian community by pretending we don’t need the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ as we struggle through the process of becoming more like Christ.
I have been thinking about this, and why people do this (why I do this), and I think it comes down to two things: a misperception of the church and a misperception of the gospel. By misperception of the church, I mean that people who may genuinely want to follow Jesus are broken, and that brokenness bleeds into they way we relate to one another. The result of this, especially in places where Christianity has had a large impact on the culture, is that there gathers a pseudo-holy Christian air around churches and Christian communities where people feel that they have to be something better than they are to come to Jesus. The assumption becomes that people have to have all their ducks in a row already to become a Christian or be around the church. This is a fundamentally wrong approach (spoiler alert), but it affects the way that people interact with Christian communities in a few ways.
Three Types of People:
- Liberal: “I already know I’m messed up (at least in the eyes of those overly-traditional Christians), so I’m just going to do what I want since I’m not gonna meet their standards anyways.” This group sees the often hardened, stuck-up face of those who call themselves Christians, and are turned away by the bigotry and superficiality. They use the hypocrisy they see in those talking about hell and judgement as an excuse to justify their own sin and not actually consider the gospel.
- Anxious: “I know I’m messed up, but I need to pretend I have everything together so I can be accepted.” This group knows that Christians are supposed to act a certain way, and believes the lie that if anyone is struggling they will be rejected. They see the same things on the outside as the 1st group, but they want to be “in” and so they put on the “good Christian” face and pretend their marriage isn’t falling apart, that they aren’t struggling with anger or depression, that they don’t need help.
- Self-Righteous: “I’m not like those bad people, I’m a Christian. It’s so sad that those other people are struggling so much, if only they were following Jesus.” This group fuels the anxiety and avoidance of the other two groups. They believe that because their lives look all clean and tidy on the outside that they are good. For them, following Jesus is about a set of rules, and if you are following all the rules then you are in the clear and life should stay on course. These people may actually believe they are good, but this is from a misperception of the gospel, as are the other two.
These three groups may not perfectly capture everybody, but they do help us to see the fundamental problems we are dealing with here. When I talk about a misperception of the gospel, I mean that all of these groups are missing a view of the whole reason that Jesus came in the first place. The gospel is that mankind is so totally sinful, that there was no amount of good we could do to bring ourselves into right relationship with the perfect, holy God (Romans 3:23). God is completely and perfectly just, to the extent that no sin can go unpaid for, but He is also loving that he desires that all be saved and returned to right relationship with Him (John 3:16-18). To solve the problem of man’s sin while also maintaining perfect justice, Jesus came and took on the sin of man and wrath of God, so that anyone who puts faith in Him would be made right with God. “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we could become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
All three of these groups have a fundamental misunderstanding of this gospel because they are basing Jesus’ acceptance on what they do instead of what He has done.
- The liberal does not see that their living for themselves is actually slavery to the bonds of sin. At the same time they misunderstand that they don’t have to clean themselves up to come to Jesus. He came as a friend to sinners (Mark 2:17). Yes life change comes as a result of encountering Jesus, but as we saw in the verse that spurred this discussion, that is from a genuine heart of love for God not a desire to be accepted by man.
- The anxious, like the liberal, misses that Jesus’ call to sinners is one of grace and acceptance, not of judgement and rejection. When we become a Christian, we are given the Holy Spirit, who seals us for God and works in us for sanctification, the process of making us more like Jesus (Ephesians 1:13-14). This is a process, and won’t be complete till we are before God in eternity, but when we pretend that we are not still sinful, we are denying our need to fight sin, resisting the sanctification that could be working in us, and denying fellow believers the chance to walk alongside us as we bear one another’s burdens and learn to follow Jesus together (Galatians 6:1-2).
- The self-righteous group thinks they are something when they are nothing (Galatians 6:3). To deny one’s own sinfulness is to deny one’s continual need for Christ and His sanctification. In Jesus’ day there was a group called the pharisees who were confident in their own works, and didn’t think they needed the salvation of Christ. To this group, Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). Jesus tells us that no amount of making ourselves look good on the outside will change the inward reality, that we are spiritually dead apart from Him (Ephesians 2:1). Jesus knows what the self-righteous don’t see because they think they are “good.” That there is no one good but God alone (Mark 10:18), and that they need their dead hearts to be raised to life in Him (Colossians 2:13).
It is in a loving response to this salvation that we follow Jesus. It is with eyes fixed on the gospel that we are changed. We are called to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal your mind” (Romans 12:2), and this repentance is in response to the kindness of God (Romans 2:4). Let us love God and love others, obeying His commandments, out of a genuine love. We don’t have to pretend we have it all together to be with Christ and in community, let steps toward authenticity breed more authenticity in your church and in your life. “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9).
[Note: The speaker at the retreat was Matt Chewning from Netcast Church in Boston]