It seems every group of Christians has some kind of ammunition to aim at other groups of Christians to judge them as a false church or label them as “not really Christian.” The Bible gives us a clear standard for determining whether we are saved or not–and by which to discern if a church or teacher is truly of God: Repentance. Without God’s conviction which is manifest in repentance there is no salvation. Rather than repenting of sin, there are many who justify their sin and twist the word of God to fit their thinking rather than having their mind renewed by the word…and it is giving rise to some powerful trends.
There are two groups of believers in the church. The first is those who have chosen a works-based life founded on natural faith. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was presented to them and they were convinced to choose Jesus because he can restore their relationships, relieve them of their guilty feelings, make them feel accepted and loved, or make their lives more comfortable. In this Gospel presentation, it seems favorable and made sense to “accept Jesus.” This kind of faith is based on what is seen and experienced and it leads to a view of God that is unhealthy and unstable. Here, God is distant and relatively uninvolved. He is there simply to give us our best life now and when he doesn’t do what we want, when we want, how we want, we begin to question and accuse him, or we twist his word to justify living according to the desires of our flesh. We try to manipulate God by our good works and religious devotion, as if he would ever owe us anything. By natural faith, God is here for us and we can manipulate him by “exercising enough faith.”
I saw an article the other day on social media about a website for “Christian swingers.” That’s right, there is actually a group of people who claim to be Christian and who willingly and proudly live adulterous lives. They even use scriptures (albeit very poorly) to justify it. This is where natural faith lands us. We either have to defile God’s word to justify our self-centeredness and the gratification of our flesh, or, eventually we walk away altogether, disillusioned by a God who didn’t do what we want or expected. Natural faith has concepts and philosophies, methods and programs, but no conviction. We choose natural faith based on logic and reason…and we can fail to choose it too, led astray by that same logic and reason. We are convinced to choose natural faith…and we can be convinced to abandon it too. This is why people leave the church (1 John 2:19). They come to Jesus by their own volition with their own desires and agenda, and are disappointed or turned off by the cost of following a God who does everything for His glory, not ours.
The other group we see in the church is composed of those called to a supernatural faith. This faith is the work and gift of God in faithless people. “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:2-9). Jesus said to his disciples, “Remember, you did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16). In fact, Jesus said that no one could come to him (Jesus) unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). The key is the call and work of God: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to me” (John 6:45). This is conviction, when God speaks to the heart and reveals truth. It is an assurance from the Holy Spirit that I am sinful and in need of the mercy and grace of the Savior, Jesus Christ. It is an assurance–not founded on what is seen, understood, or experienced–that God’s word is true, that he is who he reveals himself to be and that he can and will do all he has promised.
Jesus said that conviction is the main work of the Holy Spirit–a ministry Jesus jealously guarded through his use of what we call the “Messianic Secret” (when he told people not to tell anyone about him). When the Holy Spirit comes, he convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11). He convicts (or assures) us of our sin because our sin nature fosters enmity with God–“There is no one righteous, not even one; no one who seeks God, no one who understands” (Romans 3:9-11)–and we will not otherwise seek God unless he initiates through conviction. The Spirit convicts (or assures) us of what is right, holy, and good. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, and that belief comes by the work of the Holy Spirit to assure us of the truth of God’s word. Those living in this conviction are transformed by the word, they don’t change the word to suit them. When experience or philosophy tells us otherwise, we stand on the truth of God’s word and experience God in new and powerful ways because the Spirit holds us fast to Truth by his conviction. The Spirit also convicts of judgment…Yes, there is actually judgment and wrath–both expressions of God’s holiness and love. The “ruler of this world,” the devil, has been judged. This is the assurance that evil will not prevail, and the wicked do not get the last word. We are held fast in supernatural faith because we are assured that no matter how bad things may look, God is sovereign, and justice is served.
Ed Setzer, president of Lifeway research, published an article about four trends in Christianity today that could scare you. You can read the whole article here (and I suggest you do, it’s really good). In summary, the four trends he notes are: 1) The word “Christian” will become less used, and more clear 2) Nominals will increasingly become Nones 3) Christians will increasingly change cultural tactics and 4) More robust churches will result from the death of nominalism. These trends don’t scare me, they excite me! For too long people claim the name of Christ and live in a natural faith, falling well short of the holiness to which we are called. **It’s important to note, there is a difference between someone called by God who is imperfect and being transformed, and someone who is claiming faith and willingly remains unchanged.**
Setzer notes that more and more of those who claim a loose affiliation with Christ are now starting to claim “spirituality” over “Christianity.” Nominal Christians are identifying themselves less and less with biblical Christianity and what Mr. Setzer believes is happening is that we are seeing holiness trending and the church being refined and purified. This means a church that is more devoted to God (rather than to principles), more faith-filled, and Spirit led which will lead to more and more souls–not accepting Jesus into their lives like some kind of insurance policy, but acknowledging Jesus as Lord, Savior, and Judge.
The one trend that is concerning, however, is #3: changing cultural tactics. In the realm of natural faith, rather than trusting the work of God and the power of his word, churches will rely on methods and programs that can persuade people without the work of the Spirit. Too many churches are already conforming to the patterns of the world in order to become friends with the world and increase attendance. We are not called to make attendees. We are not called to make believers; that is exclusively the work of God. We are commanded to make disciples, which requires that we hold out the word of God and preach the Gospel of Christ (the complete fallenness of man, the holiness of God, the lordship of Christ, and righteousness to which we are called), not a gospel of comfort and convenience. I am not excited to see people leave the church, not at all. I am, however, eager see holiness trending in God’s church–to see him refine his bride so that we are radiant with his glory…through which many more will be called to real, supernatural, saving faith.