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I have recently been pondering the history of the Christian religion, in an effort to trace a pattern of spiritual growth in terms of understanding what God wants from us as believers.  What I see is that, from the start, those who aspired to be followers of Christ have floundered over exactly what this has meant.  At significant points in history, some new understanding has developed which has resulted both in good fruit and in bad.

Through it all, people have recognised that Jesus Christ, though easily looked on as a failure in his own lifetime (because of his untimely and cruel execution), truly did have the key to eternal life.  The many miracles, his amazing resurrection, and his incredible wisdom all pointed to him truly being what he claimed to be, i.e. the Son of God and Saviour of the world.

In the scriptures, we find many references to saving faith in Jesus.  Whatever this faith is, it is guaranteed to result in eternal life for those who have it and use it.  But from that point on, the way, the truth, and the life branches into many different directions.

1. Water Baptism
Surprisingly, one of the first assumptions people made about how one would recognise this saving faith had to do with being baptised in water.  Even though Jesus himself said almost nothing at all about baptism, the early Christians were given to dunking people in water, and it wasn’t long before it became widely believed that, if you were dunked “in the name of Jesus” or “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, you were “done”, i.e. cleaned up and ready for eternal life.  To this day, many churches still believe that, most notably Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans.

Never mind that the only record we have of Jesus mentioning baptism comes in two verses, one at the end of Matthew’s gospel, and one at the end of Mark’s gospel.  (The one in Mark is widely believed to have been added sometime after the original manuscript was written.)

Never mind that John’s gospel states that Jesus himself never baptised with water, but rather his “baptism” was an invisible spiritual experience involving the Holy Spirit.  (More on that later.)  See John 4:2

And never mind that the Apostle Paul himself eventually concluded that God had NOT sent him to baptise people, even though he had started out doing that, based on the same assumption, i.e. that water baptism involving a certain mantra was the doorway into eternal life.  See 1 Corinthians 1:17

2. A Personal Decision
Starting with the anabaptists, a body of believers arose about the time of the Reformation that taught the need for people to make some kind of conscious, informed decision that they wanted to be Christians.  While anabaptists continued to baptise people, they no longer would baptise children, believing that the baptism had little meaning if the one receiving it had not consciously decided that they wanted to be Christians.

This new emphasis was still relatively simplistic; consequently, it did not solve the problem.  The reason is that virtually anyone could “decide” that they wanted to get their share of this “eternal life” that was being offered, and thus they would call themselves Christians; but if it did not result in a change in their behaviour, you would end up with a world full of people who did not have a clue about what they really believed, but they would all say that they were going to live forever, just because they decided that they wanted to live forever.  Surely Jesus expected something more than this from his followers.

3. A Religious Experience
Again, there were those who could see the shallowness of the “decision” approach, and so they argued that something needed to happen between the believer and God, which amounted to a life-changing religious experience.  There were various formulas for what this should be, and how one was to attain it, e.g. being “born again”, “sanctified”, and/or “filled with the Holy Spirit”.  Over time, however, it became clear that the people who taught such doctrines did not really believe that everyone who fit the formula had genuine saving faith, nor were they always convinced that people who did not fit the pattern were eternally lost.  Just as it was easy to place false hope in a “decision” that may not have had the right motives, so it was easy to assume one was right with God despite overwhelming evidence that a religious experience had been abused or, at the very least, wrongfully understood.

3.a. Being Born Again

Early revivalists boasted a record of lives having been powerfully changed as a result of religious experiences people underwent at the conclusion of a powerful sermon.  But, over time, it became less and less important for the experience to be particularly emotional, so long as it fit certain other criteria, which put it back more in the category of a simple “decision” to call themselves Christians.  People would recite prayers and then be told that they were “saved” whether they had experienced anything or not.

3.b Sanctification

Dissatisfied with the shallowness of the born again teaching, some movements taught that people needed a “second definite work of grace”, which amounted to a yet more powerful religious experience, in which the Holy Spirit was supposed to enter people, and make them spiritually “perfect” or “holy”.  They were expected to live miraculously changed lives as a result.  This started having the sound of a truly changed people, like those who were said to have “turned the world upside-down” in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection.  Believers were encouraged to pray, fast, and wait on God for this miraculous change to happen.  However, when it did not happen, some took to enforcing their own rules as a way of creating a change within certain denominations.  These rules included such things as not drinking, not smoking, not wearing make-up, not going to secular forms of entertainment, etc.  In fact, the list of rules became so long that the entire movement became noted for its total lack of spontaneity, and a constant oppressive feeling of guilt and condemnation about enjoying much of anything in this life.

3.c. Tongues and other Charismatic Gifts

The Pentecostal movement studied the Acts of the Apostles, to see if there was something (besides water baptism) that the disciples looked for amongst converts to Christianity, as evidence that they had truly become a part of this crowd that was to inherit eternal life.  They found a number of references to new converts speaking in unknown languages (“tongues”), and verses which suggested that such a phenomenon was enough to convince many of the early Christians that God had miraculously entered the hearts of these people.

However, had they read further, they would have discovered in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, just as he had concluded that water baptism was not the true evidence of Christian faith, neither was the gift of speaking in tongues.  In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul chides that church for its unbalanced emphasis on speaking in tongues, noting that, if it existed without supernatural love, it was nothing but a lot of noise (i.e. “sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal”).

4. Supernatural Love
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul delivers a moving essay in favour of love as the ultimate evidence of a supernaturally changed life.  He tells many things about what love is NOT (e.g. giving everything you have to the poor, understanding all mysteries, etc.) but very little to tell us what it IS.  When writing to the church in Galatia, Paul stated that the evidence (or “fruit”) of having God’s Holy Spirit is ultimately love (but also things like joy, peace, and self-control).  What we get from that passage is an outline of a perfect person, but without any supernatural guarantee that it is going to happen as a result of some other act of faith.  One can only assume that a person with faith in Jesus would try to be happy, try to be loving, try to be peaceful, try to exercise self-control, etc. but very possibly not succeed.

This is somewhat unsatisfactory, given that we see others with apparently no faith in God often doing a better job than ourselves of displaying those qualities, sometimes because of very good breeding as much as anything else.  It can be quite disappointing for someone who never learned as a child to consider the feelings of others, but who now wants to be a Christian, feeling like a failure because their “love” falls so far short of the love of the average person, much less the supernatural love that the early Christians apparently had.

Paul says, “My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but with demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”  He is not recorded to have done many miracles, but he did seem to have a supernatural power in his ministry which even other Christians of his day did not seem to have.  While perfect love should be the goal of every Christian, it does not seem to be something that one can possess in an all or nothing state.

5. Humble/Sincere Obedience
What seems to have been overlooked in so many of the previous attempts throughout church history, to find the ultimate criteria for a Christian, is a humble, sincere attempt to obey the teachings of Jesus.  Always people stopped short of that.  While Supernatural Love seems to come closest, it still eludes people if they feel that it must come all at once.

Jesus started by saying that what God is looking for is faith.  Throughout the history of the church we have mistaken true faith for some kind of theological statement or supernatural sign.  What God looks for and what results from that are very much the same.  He is looking for sincerity.  Yes, the Bible uses the word “faith”, but, as James says about the Father of Faith (Abraham), it was Abraham’s actions which showed God and the world that he had faith.  Abraham obeyed God… almost certainly not perfectly, but sincerely.  He humbly did what he could to respond to God’s voice in his heart.

In these last days, we are calling on seekers and believers everywhere to return to the feet of Jesus, listening to his words, and applying them to our hearts, in an attempt to do exactly what his disciples did 2,000 years ago, i.e. they applied them to their lives, and they changed their actions accordingly.

History has shown (as Peter pointed out) that the “builders” have repeatedly pushed to the side the teachings of Jesus in favour of lesser criteria for recognising saving faith.  But it is only through honest efforts to obey the teachings of Jesus that we can discover the life-changing faith that the Bible talks about… the kind of faith that alone can bring us eternal life.
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