I heard that phrase many times throughout my childhood, but didn’t really ponder it until I was a Christian. When applied in worldly terms, e.g. to behavior in one’s place of business or in a relationship, the simple weight of the phrase has proven true time after time, yet in the spiritual realm, the meaning becomes so much more important – and particularly because of who we’re representing. I grew up in a Christian home, by the grace of God, and the church where I spent my early years was a fundamental Baptist church, in practice perhaps familiar to some of you, where you would sign a document upon entry into the membership stating you wouldn’t drink alcohol, play cards, go to theaters, etc. This didn’t affect me too much since I was only a child, but the one thing that did was the fact that many who attended the church lived one way throughout the week, and had a completely different vocabulary on Sundays. I didn’t exactly realize how much it had impacted me until I started working at a Christian summer camp. I was shocked that the young people there spoke of the Lord Jesus Christ as though they actually knew Him! This experience, along with reformed preaching and a major church split, was what God used to bring me to Himself.
I don’t think I’m alone in this – I think many of us had parents who lived differently than we do today. Perhaps they were a bit legalistic, maybe they trusted too much in a list of do’s and don’ts, and yes, a few in the membership of our congregations even wrongly believed that because they went to church and followed a set of rules that they would one day be allowed into heaven. Surely, some of those rules do not square with Scripture, either in explicit or implicit command. But – there is also the distinct possibility that, just maybe, a majority of our believing parents were striving to live according to the Scriptures. James 1:27 says that “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” John 2:15-17 “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” 1 Peter 1:13-19 “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” 1 Corinthians 6:12 “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”
There seems to be a change that has somehow been brought about in the past decade or so amongst mainly my generation and younger. We have perhaps seen a bit of legalism in our parents, and instead of seeking to find a Biblical balance, we have begun to buy estates in the town of Vanity under the guise of being under grace, and not the law. In some cases this manifests itself in our work habits or diversions, in other instances in our family and social relations; and in some cases it seems to skew our efforts to spread the Gospel. Perhaps we have good intentions, zealous to spread the Gospel of Christ, seeking to draw the unsaved into our midst, or maybe we are touched by pride, believing that we have fully embraced the grace of God, and are no longer under the law. Regardless, it seems to me that we don’t really believe – or at least our actions would imply so – in the power of the Gospel of Christ. If we believed that the power of the Gospel was God’s means to save sinners, we would not be so unflinchingly consumed with how to get people into our churches (at nearly any cost), and how to keep them there, with how we can calibrate our musical arrangements, our style of dress, or our manner of language in order to win souls for Christ. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prayerfully considerate and reverentially intentional of our posture and practice as churches and ambassadors for Christ. But it does mean that we don’t elevate secondary things over the principal ones. And it also means that we remember that when we come to worship, we are meeting with the Most Holy and Awesome God. When we look and act like the world, aren’t we really just sending a message that says, Hey, we love to sing and pray and talk about God, but we need all this other stuff too – after all, we are to enjoy our liberty! You can be cool, and be a Christian… You don’t have to change your lifestyle to serve Christ!
Believe me, if the world wanted “coolness”, the church is (or should be) the last place it would look. 21st century evangelical attempts at this very thing are pandering and cheesily derivative at best, and blatantly contradictory of Christ’s own example at worst (John 2:15; John 4:17-18; Matthew 12:34; Matthew 16:23). It seems that sometimes shepherds even unwittingly forsake the health of their own flock, or overcommit themselves externally, in their attempts to manufacture a “just right” faith-based experience.
Let’s look honestly in the mirror. If we really care about being trendy or at a minimum non-offensive, isn’t it just ourselves that we are serving and not the Majestic and Righteous God of heaven who has saved us? It’s absolutely amazing when God redeems a sinner, and especially to the onlooking world when He saves an alcoholic, a drug abuser, a womanizer, or the like. How, when He plucks them out of their sin and brings them to repentance, they can go on to live a life honoring to Christ without their drugs, their alcohol, their flirtations. That’s the power of the gospel. So are we really drawing people to Christ when we need (as defined by the level of time we spend with them, or perhaps by the value we attach to our peers’ silent dissatisfaction should we lose them) our tattoos, our drink, our feel-good iPod playlist, our latest fashion, our slightly-provocative-yet-not-vulgarly-so swimwear or bridalwear, our worldly magazines and noir novels, our almost giddy anticipation of the latest TV dramas or reality shows, our just-released Wii or Xbox game, our painstaking bracketology on ESPN.com or our dishy hours on Facebook, our idle, unsanctified chatter in the store or on the phone, or whatever it is to make us happy just like every other person in America? Christ has freed us, we are no longer in bondage!
Please don’t mistake me. I do enjoy my iPod, usually with my running sneakers on. Facebook has been a great way to share pictures with my extended family and friends. And yes, I love a glass of good Merlot, especially with penne arabiatta! My concern for myself and for my generation is that we’ve lost a sense of Biblical symmetry, priority, and tension, and at times going beyond that, have lost the sense of what is, and what is not pleasing to a thrice-holy God – perhaps due either to a creeping indulgence of self, or in a misguided effort to be “like the world in order to win the world”. We’ve lost our discernment on what’s paramount and what’s not. In wanting to be as far away as we can from being labeled a pharisee, we’re becoming closer to what they really are – by speaking one way, and acting another.
Romans 12:1-3, 9-11
“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….Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.”