Mar 09 - What is genuine Christian Faith?

Newsletter March 09

What is genuine Christian faith?

            I once bought a counterfeit DVD. I was an inexperienced ebay-er and didn’t spot the tell-tale indicators. When the DVD arrived it looked genuine enough. The picture on the front of the case was right. The disc itself looked like any other DVD and even had the colour imprint on its surface. It was only when it was played that I realised that I had been ‘had’. On the outside it looked like the genuine article, but the inside was dodgy and counterfeit.

            I now know better.

            Question: How can you tell real Christian faith from counterfeit?

            It is an important question. There are many counterfeits around which masquerade as Christian faith, but are not the ‘real deal’. So what does the genuine article look like? What goes together to make the genuine article? This was an issue the Lord Jesus faced. At the end of John chapter 2 we read of people who seemed to be genuine disciples, but whom Jesus recognised were not authentic.

“Now while He was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs He was doing and believed in His name.” (John 2:23)

            Sounds good, doesn’t it? We should be celebrating something of a revival when we read this, should we not? ‘Many people’ around Trinity would be something we would celebrate. But then we read the next verses: John 2:24-25

“But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for He knew what was in a man.”

            It is clear that their ‘faith’ was not the real thing. Their ‘belief’ in Jesus was inadequate, to the extent that Jesus did not believe in them.

            This raises the question – so what does the genuine article look like? What are the features of genuine Christian faith? Here were people who were ‘around’ Jesus; here were people who were ‘interested’ in Jesus and who professed to ‘believe’ in Jesus; but their ‘faith’ was counterfeit. To return to the question: What was missing in these people?

            In fact we are told in the very next chapter of John, for we learn about genuine faith in Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus, the leading religious teacher in Israel. There are three ingredients which are absolutely necessary, says Jesus, for genuine Christian faith:

1. First ingredient: you must be born again. Jesus says to Nicodemus:

"I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

            That is utterly unambiguous. When I was young, I used to think that the ‘born again’ Christians were the ones who attended the ‘Hope Hall’ in Baillieston, and that the rest of us were a different variety altogether. But then I realised that the phrase ‘born again’ did not find its origins in a denomination, or even in American politics for that matter, but was a phrase used by the Lord Himself. And He used it in description of all genuine Christians, admitting no exceptions. To be a Christian is to be born again.

            It is important to realise that when Jesus insists that we be ‘born again’ He is not referring to something that we can do to ourselves, or something that we can accomplish in ourselves by ourselves. Another way of translating the above verse is:

"I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above."

 The new birth, which is indispensible in Christian faith, is not a human accomplishment but a divine gift. It is a new life which is generated within us by the Holy Spirit, and which will make a genuine, discernible difference to the way we live. Nicodemus would have found this hard. After all, he had lived all his life as a Pharisee, concerned with externals, believing that the religious life was primarily about doing this and doing that: what Jesus wants Him to grasp is that at the heart of the true religious life, at the heart of genuine faith, is not what we accomplish but in the reception of a new life from above.

Let me put that another way: the life to which Jesus refers is not a DIY reformation of manners; it is not B&Q religion; rather it is a complete renovation of life which is undertaken by God. There is no power or talent or ability within the scope of human achievement which can come close to effecting such a change.

My attention was drawn to a testimony to this power by which lives are changed from the atheist and journalist Matthew Parris. He recently wrote an article in the Times about Africa – he was born in Malawi. He wrote this:

But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

2. Not only is the new birth necessary for genuine Christian faith, so too is a focus on the death of Christ. This is the second necessary ingredient to Christian faith. John 3:14-15

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”

       Jesus reminds Nicodemus of an episode when the people of God were guilty of rebelling against God. In judgement God sent snakes, which bit and killed them. But Moses heard their cries for mercy and prayed for them. So God instructed Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole for all to see. When the people looked up to that pole and believed the promise of God, they were saved from judgement. 

       In the same way, Jesus Himself is lifted up, not on a pole, but on a cross. Jesus is referring to the events of Easter. Just as the people of old looked to the snake in the wilderness and believing the promises of God were healed, so when we look to Christ and His death on the Cross, and believe the promises of God, we too will be saved.

       The death of Christ is utterly central to the Christian faith and genuine Christian faith must have at its heart the Easter events. To qualify or diminish the importance of Christ’s death as an atonement for our sin is to depart from Christian faith.

3. Third ingredient: genuine Christian faith must be personal for it to be effective. John 3:16

"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.”

            Christian faith involves a personal believing in Christ, an embracing of Him in total trust, having been drawn to recognise who He is and to acknowledge Him as our Saviour and Lord. Genuine Christian faith does not belong to the detached observer but to the committed participant.

            These three strands, the new life of being ‘born again’, the acknowledged centrality of the cross of Christ and a personal trust in Him are the key and necessary ingredients of Christian faith. They are neither dispensable nor optional. Together they create the genuine article that is Christian faith.

            Yours in Christ

            Martin Thomson

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