Friday, October 16, 2009

Christian: Fickled Fan or Faithful Follower?

My most recent blog about the three Hebrew men that faced incineration in exchange for their faith in God has stirred in me a growing uneasiness about calling myself a Christian. Not because I don't consider myself a true believer in Christ, but because I do... Let me explain.

As I come to grips with the likely reality of my impending death I am growing increasingly concerned about those I deeply care for who call themselves Christian but are amazed by my faith. While I genuinely appreciate the sentiment, I regard my faith during this time as basic to following Christ. I trust you will agree that there is a dramatic difference between being an admirer of Jesus and a disciple. “The demons also believe, and shudder…” (James 2:19)

The truth is that, some time after embarking on this journey of faith in God (especially after becoming a "sophisticated" physician), I recognized that I did not measure up to what scripture describes as a fully-devoted follower of Christ. I had heard the gospel message that Jesus offered me a free ticket from hell to paradise and I said "I'll take one!" Although purchased at an enormously high price, the cost to me was completely free! At a fairly early age, I became an enthusiastic fan. (For the details, see blog entry of 03/09/08).

Recently I have come to the conclusion that this slant on the gospel message (let's call it the popular or the "get-out-of-jail-free" version of the gospel), as understood by most individuals, amounts to an obscene lie from the pit of hell -- for it grossly distorts the true transaction that must take place to become a disciple of Christ with full assurance of eternal life. Although indeed all I need is faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), genuine faith does not come without first counting the cost, abandoning my own agenda for an all-out commitment to the One I am trusting. (Luke 9:23; 14:26-27)

The transaction by faith is simple yet profound and life-changing: "He came to His own and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name." (John 1:11-12) There is something to believe (i.e., the facts about Jesus' life and His claims to the Truth) and there is someone to receive (i.e., to surrender allegiance to, wholeheartedly pursue and obey). I fear that many struggle in the borderland between believing and receiving and may ultimately fail to enter the life-transforming rest that He promises. (See Hebrews 4:1-3, 11)

Why am I so exercised about this? First of all because this popular version of the gospel misleads us about the goal: eternal life (at least as popularly understood). Eternal life is not simply an enduring, unending life (floating on some cloud with harp in hand, or basking-in-a-tropical-paradise sort of existence) -- at least that is not how Christ defines it. During a prayer to the Father shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus says, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." (John 17:3) (Like He really had to explain that to the Almighty! He said it for our benefit.) Eternal life is ultimately life lived fully immersed in the reality of an intimate relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a qualitatively and dramatically different existence celebrated in a new relationship with my Maker, now and forever.

It is a life that is supposed to begin the moment I commit to follow Jesus, not some day when I trade skin and bone for some ethereal new reality. If I take the Bible seriously, I conclude that we are all going to live forever... some in eternal darkness and torment, some in fulfillment of all our best and highest dreams in perfect relationship with both our Maker and His (renewed) creation*. (See 2Peter 2:9, 1John 5:12, Romans 8:18-23)

Do you have eternal life? In this context, it is like asking me, "Are you really a married man? -- i.e., Has your life been turned upside down by an exciting unending mutual commitment to another person that alters all your priorities, allegiances, goals, hopes and dreams?" The answer lies in the reality of my committed relationship with a person I have been drawn to love, not primarily what I believe about that person, nor even what I hope a relationship with that person can do for me!

So secondly, this popular version of the gospel distorts the true nature of the relationship I must have with Christ: it is less about giving assent to facts about Christ just so I can gain some reward -- rather it is all about an utterly dependent and intimate relationship with Him, committing my life to follow His example. Following His example just may entail some suffering and loss. (John 16:33, Rom 8:18, Col 1:24, 1Pet 4:13)

Finally (and most importantly), this counterfeit gospel may ultimately rob those I passionately care for of a much-needed resilience in this life and even the eternal destiny that they long for in the next. (Review the scary scenarios that Jesus told in Matt 13:24-30 and Luke 23:23-30.) If your faith does not work for you, if you fear it would not stand up to a major loss or life crisis, I urge you to throw it out, or at least re-examine its foundation.

If we call ourselves Christian, we must soberly determine: Are we fickled fans ("Christian groupies") or faithful followers? Only those in the latter category are assured of eternal (qualitatively and quantitatively fabulous and resilient) life. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were willing to fry rather than deny or betray that relationship with the one true God. That is genuine faith. And that capacity in itself is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9).

My earnest prayer is that, whether or not you are faced with a crisis similar to ours (and you most likely will some day), you will have the same confidence and genuine joy that stems from being a faithful follower of the One who has already conquered sin and death. From the testimony of thousands before me, that is the normal Christian life.

Grateful for all your concern and prayers,
Dr Dan

*I highly recommend a thoroughly biblical examination of the subject of eternal life in a popular book by Randy Alcorn, entitled Heaven. This book could dramatically change your outlook on the future and the way you live your life today :-)


  1. Like you Dan, I find myself increasingly challenged in recent weeks to examine the quality of my faith, whether it’s been from listening to our pastor’s messages about whole-heartedly following God or Hap’s classes on Wednesday nights, where we see the terrible effects of compromise and sin on the fledgling nation of Israel. Your most recent blog reminds me of a book I read many years ago—perhaps a book we should all read again—Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship.” It is a classic of Christian thought in which Bonhoeffer spells out what he believes it means to follow Christ. (It is of some interest that Bonhoeffer’s theology of costly discipleship ultimately led to his death.)

    One of the most quoted part of the book deals with the distinction that Bonhoeffer makes between "cheap" and "costly" grace. In Bonhoeffer's words:

    "cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ."

    My fear is that we, the church (and that includes me), like the young national of Israel, fall far too easily into compromise and sin. The lack of demand for discipleship today stands in contrast to costly discipleship. Bonhoeffer says that grace is costly because “it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him.” It is not a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card. Fortunately there are those today who, like you, oppose such easy grace. We should all display the kind of faith that you display, whatever our situation may be—-whether ill or well, whether employed or unemployed, whether young or old, whether rich or poor—-now or at any time in the future. Whatever the Lord brings our way, our lives should always be marked by true discipleship.

    Sonny Phipps 10/20/2009