There was a youth rally when I was in my late teens that generated considerable attention when it advertised that the speaker, now converted to Christ, was a former member of a very notorious street gang.
The school auditorium where we gathered to hear him speak had a good turn out, and I was eager to hear this guy’s story, which I was sure would be filled with reports about a world I knew very little about. After a time of singing, the speaker was introduced. But as he stood at the podium ready to begin, members of the gang itself suddenly started slowly standing up in the auditorium. Loud and menacing, one by one they began to interrogate the speaker, demanding some kind of proof that he had indeed been one of them. Finally convinced that he was an imposter, in a sudden rush the whole lot of them stormed the stage to get this guy whom they considered a fraud.
My brother-in-law, sitting with us, rushed up along with others to defend this lone man. I remember the scuffle and the fear… then somehow, inexplicably, the whole gang just suddenly turned and all stalked out, leaving the guy tussled and a whole auditorium of us shaken. They’d made their statement. They knew who really belonged to their gang, and they knew that this guy didn’t– and they were committed to defending the “honor” of their notorious gang.
I remembered the incident recently when someone on Facebook posted the question, “How do you know if someone is really a Christian or not?” There were not many responses. Unlike the street gang– or, in fact, most other religions– Christians, it seems, are afraid to identify the characteristics of what makes somebody a Christian– and especially, of what doesn’t. We’re so terribly afraid of “judging” or offending others by questioning authenticity in the Christian faith. Consequently, without perimeters, the definition of “Christianity” has become so broad and all-inclusive that we seem to have lost any idea of what it is at all. It’s become an “anything goes” (i.e. “don’t judge”) kind of loose-knit structure, and we don’t want to know if someone is really part of it or not. Anybody can claim some loose connections to it, and we’re all supposed to be okay with that.
The trouble is– it isn’t okay. The common understanding of what Christianity is has largely become so diluted that what’s considered to be “Christianity” these days doesn’t look anything at all like the real thing. And while we are never to judge others according to our own silly expectations and self-righteous standards, we are commanded to judge everything –starting with ourselves–by God’s standard of rightness, and to live our lives accordingly.
When a man is truly “saved,” he knows so well that he is a sinner who cannot change no matter how hard he works at it– and at the same time, he knows that by God’s truly amazing grace, the sin that he is totally unable to conquer on his own is forgiven, as God transforms him–incredibly– into the image of His Son. When we’re truly saved, our lives can never stay the same. They just can’t! From that moment on, God is at work, changing us to be like Him. Transformation is the mark– the very heartbeat– of Christianity.
In a sermon, Pastor Robert Rayburn (Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA) said, “The salvation that comes to men through Jesus Christ provides forgiveness and standing before God, to be sure. But its real object is the transformation of sinners’ lives; its real purpose is to make men good and to enable them to live a holy life, a Christlike life… What God is after is not primarily righteous standing, important as that is, but righteous living.”
In other words, true Christianity shows.
So what does “transformation” look like for me? And for you?
-It means I’ll likely continue making mistakes and tripping over sin– but the difference now is that I hate my sin. When I fall, I’m miserable, and terribly uncomfortable. I won’t have peace until I’ve confessed my sin and, by God’s grace and power, turned from it.
-It means I can never forget how weak I am, and how amazing God’s grace and strength are.
-It means that I ought to be a whole lot different today than I was twenty years ago… or ten…or five… If I’m not seeing some change, then something’s wrong, and I know where to go to get it fixed.
-It means I can’t keep holding on to unforgiveness towards others because of offenses that happened long ago. When “transformation” is the heart and soul of the Gospel I believe in, that’s what I look for in others. I get very, very happy when the evidence of transformation is alive in others’ lives. The offenses of the past become nothing more than the measure of just how far God’s grace has lifted that other person.
Christianity means something. Thankfully, we can know what it is– and Who it is– that we belong to.
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