I was raised in a Christian community during a time when boundaries of faith and community were very clear. In my world, drinking alcohol, dancing, smoking, gambling, or going to any kind of “bar” were definitely not within the boundaries of acceptable Christian behaviour. In fact, certain acts were not only clear violations of discipleship, they placed your soul at risk of eternal damnation.
I remember being chastised one Sunday for not wearing “appropriate” attire – I had on a jacket and tie, but it wasn’t an official “suit.” Although I didn’t like being reprimanded, I realize people prioritized certain behaviours because they honestly desired to live a discipled life.
Much has changed since that day 20 years ago.
Both legalism and holiness have gone the way of the cassette player – a quaint memory of how things were “back in the day.” Christian and secular worlds have changed dramatically, and the church has struggled to reconcile Jesus’ call to radical discipleship with society’s pushback on behavioural limits.
Conversations often polarize around “right living” vs. “right thinking,” juxtaposing the ethics of Jesus against the atoning work of Jesus, as if they were mutually exclusive. Some say if we love others with Christ’s love, we must behave accordingly – which, at times, seems to mean we avoid naming sin as sin, or articulating everyone’s need for Jesus’ redeeming work. Others pursue correct doctrine apart from the application of that doctrine.
It’s unbiblical to pit grace against truth. The two go hand in hand. Perhaps it’s time to rethink our poles and consider which way we’re headed.
Thinking beyond fences
More than 25 years ago, Mennonite Brethren missiologist Paul G. Hiebert introduced a new way of thinking about ministry, discipleship, and the gospel. Pastor and author John Ortberg summarizes Hiebert’s teaching this way:
“If we treat Christianity as a bounded set, there will always be a disconnect between the gospel and discipleship. The gospel will be presented as something to get you ‘inside the circle.’ Once you’re inside, we don’t want to say you have to do anything to stay in (that would be salvation by works). But we don’t want to say you don’t have to do anything (the triumph of entropy, or, to use a biblical word, being lukewarm, or to use a theological word, antinomianism). So we don’t know what to say.
“However, if we treat Christianity as a centred set, the relationship between the gospel and discipleship becomes much clearer. The gospel is the proclamation that life with and through Jesus is now available to ordinary people. It is a free gift of forgiveness and grace that cannot be earned. If I want it, the way that I enter into it is by becoming a follower of Jesus and orienting our lives with him at the centre.”
So what – or who – is at the centre of our centred set? There can only be one centre, and it must be Jesus and his gospel.
“The gospel is the central imperative for Christian mission,” write authors Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in The Shaping of Things to Come. “Since the core of a centred set is Christ, a church should be concerned with fostering increasing closeness to Jesus in the lives of all involved. We believe that a centred-set church must have a very clear set of beliefs, rooted in Christ and his teaching. This belief system must be non-negotiable and strongly held by the community closest to its centre.”
Walking toward Jesus
As Christ followers, we point people to Jesus clearly, unashamedly, passionately, and authentically. As people move toward Jesus, they will be confronted with their sin and need for Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. They will discover new life in him.
Jesus’ invitation isn’t to neo-moralism or socialization into a new community. Rather, it’s an invitation to receive a new identity and allow God to radically transform us. It’s a call to transfer our identity from that of “sinner” (outside of Christ) to “saint” (identity in Christ) through Jesus’ exemplary life, substitutionary death, and life-giving resurrection. To offer anything less is to misrepresent Jesus and his good news.
When we embrace this new identity and focus on moving closer to Jesus, the indwelling Holy Spirit will open our eyes and invite us to progressively align our lives with Jesus’ life and teachings.
Although we have a new identity, it takes time to live into it. We do this through relationship. In Romans 12:2, Paul instructs us to put on the mind of Christ – to think like Jesus. We aren’t to mimic Jesus, but rather to develop a mind like his, which was formed through an intimate relationship with his Father. Jesus didn’t give us a list to follow; he gave us a relationship to emulate.
As a centred-set people, we focus on the centre – Jesus and him crucified – and then let Jesus define the boundary markers. Jesus’ boundary markers were straightforward; for example, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15), and “Take up [your] cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Jesus calls us to die to self, living in complete submission and allegiance to him in every area of our lives. Too much of Canadian Christianity is an exercise in self-validation that leaves us empty and disillusioned. We conform to Jesus rather than expecting Jesus to conform to us.
As we follow Jesus, we find our identity in him, submit our lives to him, and increasingly conform our behaviour to reflect our new identity.