What is Christian faith for?

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In my last post, I asked What is Christianity for? I contended there that, whatever else it is, Christianity is primarily a critical agency rather than a therapeutic support  in relation to its own subculture as well as the larger culture it inhabits. Simply put, Christianity at its best has an influencing, shaping, transforming potential. The Church has the internal resources to reform itself and to reshape whole cultures.

So much for Christianity as a whole. What of Christian faith for individual people like you and me? What is Christian faith for? More than any program or technique, I think a vibrantly biblical answer to this question would thoroughly revitalize our efforts both to pursue our Christian faith and to share it with the people in our lives.

a christian identity

When Nicodemus, a religious leader in Jesus’ day, met with Jesus secretly at night, he said

Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him. John 3:2 NIV

The way Jesus replies to Nicodemus, he seems to be answering a question that Nicodemus has not yet asked:

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. John 3:3 NIV

Nicodemus is of course baffled

How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born! John 3:4 NIV

The words Nicodemus uses here make me laugh. It’s patently ridiculous to think about a grown up crawling back through their mother’s vagina into her womb! But Nicodemus’ frustration leads to Jesus’ explanation of Christian identity:

Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised by my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. John 3:5-8 NIV

What Jesus is talking about is both simple and profound. A child can wade in it, and an elephant can drown in it. Everyone is born of water, the process of human pregnancy where flesh gives birth to flesh. But some are born a second time, born again of God’s Spirit, a mysterious process where Spirit gives birth to spirit.

This raises the question whether those who are “born again” are just sort of randomly blessed by this experience. Jesus ties this new birth to believing in him.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the World to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. John 3:16-18 NIV

Not all tribes within Christianity regularly use “born again” terminology. But however we talk about spiritual birth or assemble the theological Lego bricks, all Christians affirm the miracle of a new identity for all those who are in Christ. Major parts of this include the individual’s spiritual life as the free gift of God, the importance of an individual believing or exercising faith, and baptism as a visible and tangible expression in that individual’s life of the gospel. The new Christian identity of every baptized believer as a child of God is the most obvious and correct answer to this post’s question: What is Christian faith for?

Libraries have been written about the new identity in Christ of the believer. It should be sufficient here to say that for the believer, life now can and should be approached not from the former grid of my personal history, my education, my family, my employment, my social status, etc. but from the new grid of my identity in Christ as God’s child. How will I as God’s child treat that hateful coworker? How will I as God’s child think about poverty and suffering as I encounter it in my own life and the world around me? What does it mean as God’s child to be a neighbor, an employee, a small business owner, a supervisor, a government official, etc.?

This language of a new identity continuously crops up in the New Testament. I will close out this theme with Paul’s usage of this new identity in condemnation of sexual immorality:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NIV

a christian community

The three themes I am using to answer this question (What is Christian faith for?) are not separate, but in fact telescope out from union with Christ. If you have a Christian identity, you are part of the Christian community. If you are a child of God, you are part of the family of God. If you are a baptized believer, you are part of the Church. These are not ideal or option statements, if the first part is true then so is the second part.

I have taken note in the past that my Roman Catholic and high church or liturgical friends often have a strong sense of their belonging to the Church, the universal Body of Christ across every time and place. Some within these traditions have a strong sense of belonging to the Church, but a weak sense of the importance of their own individual part to play including thinking and acting like a Christian. Our evangelical tribe seems to have a strong sense of individual faith and trusting in Christ beginning at a particular point in time. Some within this tradition have a strong sense of their own eternal security, but an anemic understanding of the importance of their own participation in the Church to which they belong if they are truly a believer.

There are many places in Holy Scripture that we could go for this theme, but 1 John is perhaps one of the most clear. John seems to be aiming his rhetoric at believers who are in fact very much like modern American evangelicals: a strong sense of security before God on the basis of personal confession or belief. John wants to say that saying you are a Christian is not enough. It matters how you live too. And oh by the way, if you say you love God then you must also love the family of God. How do I know this is what John wants to say? Because he says it.

If we claim to have fellowship with [God] and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not life out the truth. 1 John 1:6 NIV

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 1 John 2:9 NIV

Ideally and concretely, the Church will balance your imbalances. It will support you in time of need. It will believe when life has driven you to the ground. It will pray when trials and suffering have taken your breath away. It will comfort you when you are afflicted, and afflict you when you are comfortable.

If you are an evangelical or someone who resembles this pathology of strength regarding individual faith but weakness regarding the importance of your participation in the Church, I would encourage you to read 1 John and then the rest of the New Testament. Your worldview needs to be challenged by God’s Word! If you are a Roman Catholic or from some other corridor of Christianity with a strong sense of Church, you may benefit from focusing on the book of John and the idea of a miraculous new identity in Christ for each person who God adopts as his child.

a christian vocation

The telescoping action continues here. Identity in Christ or union with Christ equals belonging and participation in the Church or the Body of Christ. These are inseparable. If you are missing either one, you are in fact missing both. This third theme is sort of a marriage of the first two, which emphasized first the individual of faith and then the community of faith. The idea of Christian vocation is again not optional and not separable from union with Christ or belonging in the Body of Christ. Christian vocation is a way of tapping into the biblical teaching that every believer is gifted by God as a minister for the building up of the Body of Christ.

I don’t want to condemn the clergy-laity distinction too harshly; my life work as it turns out is a professional vocation in the church. But when I distinguish between clergy (those who lead and serve the Church as paid professionals) and laity (those who lead and serve the Church as unpaid volunteers), I want to say that we are not distinguishing between two different kinds of people (priest over against parishioner) but between two different roles (a Spirit-gifted believer who is paid to be more fully devoted to the work of ministry every believer is called to). The gifts or charisms of the Spirit are given to every believer for the building up of the Church. No believer got skipped over when God was handing out his gifts for service.

Unfortunately the formal worship of the Church has often been more shaped by our understanding of clergy as a different kind of person, and less shaped by an understanding of the Church as a community of believers of whom every single one is gifted to serve the Body of Christ. Some in our evangelical corner of Christianity will roundly condemn those churches with an extremely high view of the clergy, and yet their own evangelical worship is still led from the front by just a few professionals or experts.

I am hitting on the theme of Christian vocation in this post about the individual, yet a renewed sense of Christian vocation in many individuals would lead to a fresh burst of energy in the Church. Peter talks about Christ as the foundation, the cornerstone, and God’s activity of building believers, the baptized, as living stones into a spiritual house. God wants to use us, every one of us and all of us together, in his forward-thrusting mission in the world.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by Godand precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4-5 NIV

summary

What is Christian faith for? What does it do for an individual? What does it do to an individual? Whatever our answers might be, from a Christian perspective our walk with God as individuals should include a strong sense of the miracle and implications of a new identity in Christ, a renewed vision of the importance of our participation in the community of Christ, and fresh commitment to discovering and using God’s gifts in us as ministers serving to build up the Body of Christ.