The following article appeared in the most recent edition of Insight, the magazine of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland:
Look up your average church constitution in search of some advice about Christian lifestyle and you’re likely to find words to the following effect:
‘It is the responsibility of all saved souls to live soberly, righteously and godly in this present age’
This is a concise, lean, succinct prescription for Christian living which lends itself well to the context of a constitution, but in terms of how one is actually to live as a believer, it gives little practical information. What does it mean to live a godly life? What should be the marks of a Christian lifestyle? Are there any pitfalls to be avoided in dealing with this issue? It is precisely these kinds of issues that this article seeks to address, albeit suggestively rather than exhaustively.
An essential foundation stone to any treatment of Christian living is that of motivation. Without placing this issue at the heart of Christian lifestyle, the believer exposes him or herself to a number of very real and common dangers. The Christian life is not primarily concerned with externals, nor with slavish conformity to superficial standards of behaviour. It goes much deeper than that. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gave perhaps the fullest treatment of Christian lifestyle in history, articulating the principles of His kingdom for the practice of all Christians. The preamble to this great preaching section in Matthew 5-7 puts the heart under the microscope, probing the internal attitudes which inform external actions. Christian lifestyle consists of poverty of spirit, mourning hearts, meekness, hunger for God, a heart of mercy, a desire for purity, a peace-making spirit, and strength under persecution. This take on Christian lifestyle emphasises the inside-out, rather than the outside-in, privileging authentic seeking after God over rigid legalism.
The rest of this great sermon extrapolates these issues into almost every conceivable area of human concern, from sexual standards to bioethics, from relating to one’s neighbour to meeting God in the Judgement. And at the heart of this teaching is the issue of the heart. Sincerity, integrity and a desire for God which is deeply personal, function as the operating system for all other Christian behaviour. Everything else is merely application.
Christian lifestyle is preoccupied with motive. This helps us to avoid many common pitfalls which attend any attempt to live for God. Authentic Christian living isn’t concerned with donning a tie or a hoody for ourselves, or damning a tie or a hoody on others. It isn’t about preferred worship style, or a whole host of personal predilections which seek to bind our consciences and those of others. Christian lifestyle is a calibrating of the heart on the concerns of God, an earnest desire to live for Him, and for His glory. It is not the begrudging acceptance of other people’s standards or a matter of fulfilling certain arbitrary conditions out of a sense of duty – rather it is the sheer delight of living under Christ’s Lordship. J.I. Packer phrases this powerfully when he states:
‘Any idea of holiness as required refusal to do all that one most wants to do must be dismissed as the unregenerate minds’ misunderstanding. True holiness, springing as it does from what the Puritans called the “gospel mystery” of the sanctifying work of God, is the Christian’s true fulfilment, for it is the doing of that which, deep down, he now most wants to do, according to the urging of his new, dominant instincts in Christ’[i]
This means bringing every decision about how we live into conformity with Christ’s counsel as revealed in Scripture, and undergoing the painful-now, pleasant-later discipline of God as he shows us our hearts as measured against his holiness (Hebrews 12:4-13).
There are many metaphors used in the New Testament for Christian lifestyle. From the worlds of cultivation, commerce and condiments, many word pictures are employed to drive home the reality of living for God. Arguably one of the most compelling and crucial of these images is that of warfare. Ephesians 6:10-20 is a seminal passage on how to live for Christ, showing us that successful Christian living must be armour-plated, prepared to meet a ferocious and implacable enemy with all of the resources God has provided. An in-depth treatment of how the Christian’s armour is to be worn or used is beyond the scope of this present article, but this well-known passage at the very least presses home the war-torn backdrop against which Christian lifestyle is embodied. Living for God entails wrestling not repose, engaging with our enemy Satan with all his hordes in a theatre of war strewn with casualties. We live in a world of devalued Facebook ‘friendships’, and where the concept of ‘following’ has been reduced to clicking an icon on Twitter. There is, however, nothing casual about the Christian lifestyle; this is a way of living which entails struggle, opposition and pain.
The post-war rewards of this kind of living are beyond imagining – when the Captain of our salvation will place the collective suffering of His people on the scales and show us just how much weightier and wonderful the glory of an eternity spent with him truly is. But for now, the Christian is called to wage war, finding their discipleship forged in the furnace of a relentless spiritual fight.
To grasp the military nature of Christian lifestyle changes everything. We begin to see other Christians as comrades, a band of brothers (and sisters) allied against a common foe; we will begin to see Scripture and the preaching of it not as dry dead didactics, but as fresh dispatches delivered from heaven to help us through our most fearsome times. Perhaps most profoundly, our prayers will be transformed. Rather than an obligatory exercise to be undertaken our prayers will be marked by urgency, fervency and dependency. John Piper has articulated this aspect of Christian lifestyle beautifully in the phrase: ‘Until you believe that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for’.[ii] Realising the military flavour of Christian living transforms our perspective on discipleship, granting us a sense of urgency and purpose in seeking to be conformed to the image of Christ.
All of the foregoing leads us to one final meditation on Christian lifestyle – fellowship. Christian living is at once deeply personal and profoundly relational, private and public. It finds its inspiration and articulation in community, in being part of something bigger than ourselves, in finding nurture and growth in partnership and mutual prayer with other Christians. The writer of Hebrews, in seeking to encourage Jewish believers who were struggling to persevere, strongly exhorted them to work out their Christian living in community with others. There is, he says, a context for ‘spurring one another on towards love and good deeds’ and that this is to be capitalised on with each Christian ensuring that they do ‘not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching’ (Hebrews 10:24-25). Christian lifestyle is not nurtured in the isolation of the cloister, but finds expression in the dynamic of relating to other believers, learning from one another, and mutually seeking to prompt growth in one another’s lives.
Christian character thus finds it initiation in God’s work of grace in our lives, giving us motivation and power to live for Christ. It finds expression through a sense of urgency in the face of spiritual warfare and is nurtured in fellowship with other Christians. Under these terms being a Christian is an exciting, terrifying, enriching experience; an adventure in grace in which God works in and through us for the glory of His name and for the renown of His Son Jesus.