Does the Bible “Get in the Way” of Enjoying a Christian Life?
We encounter two very opposite extremes among people who describe themselves as “Good Christians”. On the one hand are people who are keen to continue following many of the Old Testament laws which they believe to still apply with equal force to Christians today. We’ll talk about this matter another time, not as part of this already lengthy article.
The other extreme are people who talk about “the unconditional love of a forgiving God/Jesus” and the New Testament commandment that we should love one another. They claim that most of the rest of the New Testament interferes with the simple joyous life in Christ which they believe they have been promised and received, and which our loving God wishes us to fully experience.
On the face of it, there is something surprising about a claimed good Christian saying “The Bible is a bother and should be ignored”. What are the 180,000 words of the New Testament for, if not for our guidance and edification (to say nothing of the 610,000 words of the Old Testament)? But let’s carefully and respectfully consider this point of view – that as long as we’re loving one another, and feeling happy, we’re being good Christians.
Is being a Christian as simple as this? Or are there obligations on us as Christians?
Is our salvation a revocable gift, and dependent on our actions and compliance with other teachings of the New Testament? Or, is it irrevocable and based on faith alone?
Is our salvation guaranteed, no matter what we do? Are there things we must or must not do subsequent to accepting Christ’s precious gift of salvation?
We’re going to try and humbly answer these questions – which truly are essential and vexing questions which many Christians stumble over (including ourselves) and which different denominations interpret differently (we’ll view that charitably as many shades of grey). And when we say “humbly” we make two comments/disclaimers in advance.
The first is that if you feel we are misstating any part of these important issues, please engage with us – as an article comment below, or via email – and please help us better and more fairly discuss this matter.
The second is that this truly is a complicated subject that troubles many Christians, and while we appreciate you reading our thoughts, we urge you to pray fervently for guidance with an open mind and open heart and act as God in his great wisdom tells you. Most of all – and this is truly key – please don’t let any sense of shame about continued sin separate you from God. Please use this as a lever to bring you closer to God, and to seek his further help and strength to become better.
So, with that as introduction, we’ll first look at the matter primarily without any scripture at all, using analogy (sort of akin to a parable) and common sense, because that seems to be the way that the people advocating full freedom in their Christian lives do. And then, after having reasoned with the people who don’t want to look at their Bible, via non-Biblical concepts, we’ll see what the Bible teaches us.
A Non-Biblical Approach
To paraphrase what these people suggest and believe, from a common-sense and reasonable approach, we are told that God loves us and forgives us our sins, and all he asks from us in return is that we swap love for love, and welcome Jesus into our heart and accept his precious gift of salvation. If we do that, according to this line of reasoning, then we have received and accepted this irrevocable gift and we can then live the rest of our life as strictly or as loosely as we choose.
Let’s think about what happens in an earthly marriage. Imagine the most wonderful man or woman in the world has asked you to marry them, and they say to you “Darling, I love you so very much, and in return for your love of me and our marriage, I will trust you completely and never be jealous, never nag you, never second-guess you, and will accept anything and everything you do”.
Sounds great, doesn’t it. You’ve all the upside of a relationship and none of the downside.
Five years later, you’re going through a gruelling divorce and you wonder what went wrong. Your ex had given you a “blank check” for your marriage. No expectations, no requirements, no obligations. You’d even more or less been a decent person in return. How could things have got so messed up when your ex seemed so undemanding and forgiving?
Perhaps in a mediation session, your former spouse bursts into tears and says “You never loved me. I gave you all my love, and you rejected it. You still went out and (fill in the gaps depending on gender and circumstances). You never paid me any attention. It was all one-sided and unbalanced. You totally took advantage of me and betrayed me. You’re the worst person on the planet, I’ve never met anyone as selfish as you!”
Love’s Required Reciprocity
While these comments are exaggerations and not entirely fair, all of a sudden, you have an epiphany and realize that the initial promise of unconditional love was predicated, exactly as stated, on a mutual balanced love. Your former spouse was willing to give you everything, but, and as expressed by the words “in return for your love of me and our marriage”, they expected at least some expression of love and commitment in return.
They believed that if you truly loved them in return, you’d never be unfaithful. You’d never beat them or abuse them, you’d not embarrass them in public, and so on. You’d look after them when they were sick, you’d help them when they needed help, you’d spend time with them, and generally comply with the social norms of what mutually loving couples do.
They thought these things to be self-evident, and that is what they were offering you, only doubly so. They also thought these expectations didn’t need to be contractually spelled out, because society is awash with centuries of formed expectations about what a fair balanced loving relationship is and countless books on how to have a successful marriage. The single word “love” and the concept of “marriage” expressed and encompassed all these elements.
And so, from their point of view, you never loved them, and you never fully accepted and exchanged their love with your love. Hence, the divorce and the great feeling of betrayal they experienced.
You see where this “parable” or analogy is going, don’t you. Can we now tie this in to God’s love for us and understand the variously spoken and unspoken expectations and obligations attached to that love.
The New Testament’s Great Commandment
While it seems probable that Jesus “fulfilled the Old Testament laws” and we now live in a State of Grace, he did specify some other commandments in the New Testament (most of which read very much like the ten principle commandments in the Old Testament!), and in particular, he referred to what is now referred to as the “Great Commandment” (which, confusingly, is more accurately considered as two commandments, not one).
Many people know the lesser, second part of this great commandment, while conveniently overlooking the first and prime element. You can see the Great Command expressed in both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. This is so important, we’ll quote both in full.
Matthew 22:35-40 reads (AMP)
35 One of them, a lawyer [an expert in Mosaic Law], asked Jesus a question, to test Him:
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 And Jesus replied to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself [that is, unselfishly seek the best or higher good for others].’
40 The whole Law and the [writings of the] Prophets depend on these two commandments.”
and Mark 12:28-31 reads
28 Then one of the scribes [an expert in Mosaic Law] came up and listened to them arguing [with one another], and noticing that Jesus answered them well, asked Him, “Which commandment is first and most important of all?”
29 Jesus answered, “The first and most important one is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord;
30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul(life), and with all your mind (thought, understanding), and with all your strength.’
31 This is the second: ‘You shall [unselfishly] love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
In other words, you can’t claim to be a good Christian because you’re obeying the second part of this “Great Commandment” until and unless you’re already obeying, even more completely, the first part of this “Great Commandment”.
The AMP has a footnote for the word love in Mark 12:31 which says
The key to understanding this and other statements about love is to know that this love (the Greek word agape) is not so much a matter of emotion as it is of doing things for the benefit of another person, that is, having an unselfish concern for another and a willingness to seek the best for another.
We suggest that within this four letter word (love) and in that insignificant seeming footnote is the answer to the question we’re seeking. To accept the gift of salvation we have to invite Jesus into our heart, which surely means we have to love him, and we are commanded to love God – not just a little, but as much as is humanly possible, and in every possible way as expressed by the word agape.
How can we obey this imperative ultimate commandment, how can we love (agape) God and accept his son’s most precious gift in return, if we turn away from God and do things we know he doesn’t like or approve of?
Back to our analogy/parable. Our former spouse didn’t expect us to be perfect, but he/she expected us to at least make a reasonable amount of effort to reciprocate the love they were willing to so generously shower us with. If we’d met them half-way, and on occasions where we disappointed them, if we’d apologized, been sorry, and tried harder next time, they’d probably forgive us out of their love and compassion each time, and help us become a better spouse and partner, and we’d not now be staring hatefully at them in a divorce court.
It is the same with God. Becoming a Christian doesn’t make us perfect. We remain flawed and imperfect; the only change is that we are now forgiven these imperfections. But God expects us to try to be a bit better than we were. He is willing to forgive us when we fail in such attempts, and fully expects that we occasionally will fail. But if “our heart is in the right place”, if our failing wasn’t deliberate and willful, and our repentance is genuine, then he loves us all the more, and helps strengthen us as we grow in our faith and following.
But, if you ignore God and don’t love (agape) him as he commands you, have you truly accepted Jesus into your heart and received his gift of salvation? It seems to us that the answer to this question is that you haven’t truly accepted Jesus into your heart.
Our Requirement to Receive Redemption
A key theme of the promise of redemption through Jesus Christ is a requirement that we must believe in him. We hesitate to cite verses because there are so many (here’s a long list), but how about that most famous of all verses, John 3:16, quoted here from the excellent Lexham English Bible
For in this way God loved the world, so that he gave his one and only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.
This concept of belief doesn’t just mean “believe he existed”, nor does it mean “believe he is the Son of God and capable of saving us from our sin”. It means – of course, as it surely must – sincerely believe what he says, believe in and accept his teachings. This is exactly the same as the Republican Party hypothetically saying that to be eligible for membership, you have to believe in Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean acknowledge his existence, it means support and endorse him and his policies.
So if we do believe in (the teachings of) Jesus and he sincerely says we must love God in a total committed and unselfish manner, if we don’t then do exactly that, isn’t that the same as not believing in him?
This simple and logical understanding of what believing in Jesus requires makes our obligations and duties as a Christian clear.
Almost lastly, for those who still hope there’s a loophole in God’s merciful forgiveness that allows us to continue unrepentantly sinning, that has already been considered and addressed in the Bible too.
Paul’s Commentary in His Letter to the Romans
Paul talks at great length about the concept of sin and the behavior of Christians in this letter. Some of his commentary is fairly hard to grasp, and he jumps between talking of our present and future lives, but most of Romans 6 is excellent and reasonably straightforward. In particular, in Romans 6:15 he says (AMP)
What then [are we to conclude]? Shall we sin because we are not under Law, but under [God’s] grace? Certainly not!
We think that is exactly the question and answer that this article is all about. Thank you, yet again, Paul.