What is Authentic Christianity?

by Ray C. Stedman

The Great Imitation

The Christian life begins with an encounter with Jesus Christ. It cannot be otherwise. "He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life" (I John 5: 1 2).

Many things may lead to that encounter and much of it may be intensely religious, but until a person responds to the promise of Christ and receives him as Lord there is no possibility of eternal life. That "receiving" may be so effortless and gentle as scarcely to be chronicled, as with a child; or it may be spectacular and dramatic, like the Apostle Paul; or peaceful and with little or no feeling except warmth, like John Wesley's conversion; or even tortuous and painful. As with St. Augustine. However it occurs, it must occur before there can be any hope of living a Christian life.

The Bible Says . . .

That encounter with Christ, so vital to becoming a Christian, assumes a number of things which rest upon the written record of the Bible. Consequently, some knowledge of the Bible and/or of its teachings is essential to believing in or receiving Christ. It is the biblical account of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus which gives us any reason for believing that Jesus is alive and available to us; that Jesus can, by the Holy Spirit, actually come to live within a human being and so entwine his own life with that person that from then on the two must be regarded as essentially one. It is the biblical account of the life and character of Jesus that gives us any basis for assuming that Jesus is truly the Savior he claimed to be and that he has the power and wisdom to deliver and free all who come to him. You recall that Jesus said, "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28); and "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).

No Other Way

But no matter how clearly one may understand who Jesus is and what he can do, and even how he does it (by the principle represented in his cross and resurrection, or what some like to call "the plan of salvation"), nevertheless, until the human will responds to the invitation of Jesus and chooses to receive him, obey him, and follow him there can be no impartation of eternal life. All offers of salvation in the New Testament are directed to the will to make the choice of surrendering to the Lordship of Jesus. One does not become a Christian by intellectually comprehending the historical facts about Jesus. By the same token one does not become a Christian by grasping the theological implications of his death and resurrection. One does not become a Christian by adhering to certain moral and ethical standards which Jesus taught. Nor does one become a Christian by seeking to relate one's life to God apart from Jesus Christ. Rather, one becomes a Christian by asking Jesus to come in as Lord and by then believing that he is capable of doing it and has actually done it by means of the Holy Spirit. Whenever (and however) that occurs, what is essentially a miracle takes place, though it may well be without outward demonstration or feeling. A new quality of life (called eternal life) is imparted to that individual and he is "made alive in Christ." It is this divine action that makes him a Christian, and nothing else. "He that has the Son has life; he that does not have the S o n does not have life." It is that simple.

Signs of Life

But that is just the beginning. As a human baby, fresh from its mother's womb is truly a person, though its life may be undeveloped, so a newly regenerated individual is truly a Christian and shares the life of Jesus. This is true even though there is much to be learned and experienced before that life achieves anything that can properly be called maturity. Happily, however, certain manifestations of the new life do appear soon. Perhaps the easiest to recognize is a sense of peace and well-being, especially in terms of one's feelings about God. It is, as Paul tells us, the result of God's Spirit bearing witness with our human Spirit that we are now the children of God. And that sense of peace is made more intense and lasting as we come to realize the full implications of sins forgiven through our relationship to Christ. This release from guilt is a large part of the peace Christians experience. Another element soon present in the new Christian is a sense of belonging to a family. We learn that we are not alone, but have become members of a large and ever-growing family. As members of that family, we have many brothers and sisters to relate to and enjoy while at the same time we have continual access to our heavenly Father through prayer and love. For many the most joyful part of that new life is release from the fear of death and what lies beyond. To have the certain hope of heaven rather than the fear of hell is a relief beyond all expressing. Because of these elements present in varying degrees at varying times, many new Christians experience intense excitement and joy. The Bible becomes a fresh and exciting book, and meeting with other Christians is a continual joy. The change in their own attitudes and outlook is apparent to everyone, and they find it difficult to understand why they did not become Christians years earlier.

Three Possible Choices

This initial state of euphoria may continue for weeks or even months. But inevitably, sooner or later, the old natural life begins to reassert itself. The glow begins to fade from Christian worship, and Bible reading becomes less and less rewarding. Christian fellowship in meetings and individual contact becomes dull and routine---old habits of thought and action reassert themselves. This is a critical time when one of three possibilities may occur. First, the young Christian continues his decline to the point of dropping out of all Christian relationships, neglects his Bible totally, has little or no time for prayer, loses interest in spiritual matters entirely, and is finally living no differently than he was before he became a Christian. It is true there may be occasional periods of remission with the possibility of eventually establishing a fairly consistent Christian life, but in the majority of cases there is no return, at least for many years, and grave doubt is raised as to whether the individual ever became a Christian at all. The second possibility is that he becomes aware of his cold and rebellious heart, is frightened by the thought of regressing to what he was before, and casts himself in repentance and frustration upon the Lord anew, renewing his trust in God's promises, and perhaps seeking the help of older, more experienced Christians and thereby returning to a state of peace and joy. This cycle may be repeated many times until it becomes the pattern of his experience and he comes to think of it as normal Christianity. On the other hand he may, happily, learn something from each repeated cycle till eventually his eyes ate opened to the truth that will deliver him from his roller-coaster experience and he becomes a settled, stable, Spirit-led Christian.

The third and most likely possibility is that the new Christian may discover what millions of others before him have learned: It is possible to avoid the pain and humiliation of repentance and renewal by maintaining an outward facade of spiritual commitment, moral impeccability, and orthodox behavior. In so doing he can preserve a reputation for spiritual growth and maturity that is satisfying to the ego and seems to gain much in the way of opportunities for service and the commendation of the Christian community. Such a Christian life-style is usually so prevalent and so little condemned that the new Christian can hardly be blamed for adopting it and regarding it as the expected thing. He drifts into it with scarcely a pang, little realizing that it is a total fraud, a shabby imitation of the real thing. He would be deeply offended if anyone should call him a hypocrite. To him hypocrisy is a deliberate attempt to deceive others, and his own commitment to the doctrine, moral standards, and practice of Christianity is deep and sincere. But in reality he is a hypocrite because the peace he claims to have is present only while his circumstances are untroubled, the joy he sings about seldom shows on his face, and the love he is forever extolling is reserved only for those who please him. It is all a giant sham, though for the most part an unconscious one. He may be a true Christian in whose heart Christ dwells, but except for rare moments (usually of desperation or high ecstasy) he does not live the Christian life. The quality of life may be moral, often even generous, and it certainly is religious, but it is anything but Christian. Actually it is virtually the same life he lived before receiving Christ, but now it is covered by a thin Christian glaze, a veneer which quickly disappears when events become irritating, difficult, or distressing.

Different More Than Somewhat

This may seem like a harsh judgment to many. True Christianity in certain circles is equated with doctrinal purity, and whenever true teaching is adhered to it is very difficult for those who view life this way to accept the charge that they are not yet living an authentic Christian life. But it must be remembered that true Christianity is more than teaching it is a LIFE. "He who has the Son has life"! Remember? That life is more than mere morality, it is more than doctrinal accuracy, it is more than inoffensive gentility. It is positive, not merely negative; it is radical, not superficial; it is humble, not self-praising; it is compassionate, not indifferent; it is courageous, not retiring. It is a far cry indeed from the mild compatibility that passes for Christianity in thousands of churches across the land. The Great Imitation is so widely accepted as genuine Christianity that the real thing is often regarded as a threat or a heresy whenever it appears.

It is the purpose of this book to trace the sharp distinctions between the phony and the genuine. We shall be guided wholly by the revelation of Scripture for the Word of God is the only sufficient guide to distinguish truth from error. We shall explore together a major passage from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians chapters 2:14 to 6:13. In this passage Paul helps the Corinthians to distinguish between authentic Christianity, as he himself lived it and the pale imitation that many of them had mistaken for the real thing. Then the apostle takes them on, step by step (and us with them) into an understanding of the enormous enrichment that awaits those who learn to live by the New Covenant, which gives life, and not by the Old, which kills. The treatment of the passage will not be theological (in the bad sense of that term), nor will it be devotional (horrible word), but intensely practical and forthright. If you are interested at all in radical and authentic Christianity, read on.

The Real Thing

It has always seemed unfair to me that many churches (and some individual Christians) keep careful records on how many converts they make to Christianity, but never keep any records at all on how many they drive away from Christ. Fairness would seem to dictate that both sides of the ledger should be maintained. For the fact is, churches often turn far more people from Christ than they ever win to him, and frequently it is the most zealous and orthodox of Christians who are doing the driving away. The reason is, as we have seen, that though they may indeed be true Christians themselves, the life they are manifesting is false Christianity. It is as phony as a three-dollar bill.

False Out of True

True, there is a false Christianity which is practiced by those who aren't Christians at all. There are many religious frauds who have never been real Christians, and there are apostates who give every appearance of being Christian for awhile and then throw the whole thing over. But surely the most subtle stratagem ever devised by the Tempter to deceive and delude men is to take genuine Christians who truly know Jesus as the living Lord and Savior and mislead them into practicing a sham Christianity which they sincerely believe is the real thing. It can't, of course, be detected by a doctrinal statement or adherence to a creed, for this type of phony Christianity is always orthodox. It is frequently very zealous and feeds upon consecration services and dedication meetings. It uses all the right terms and behaves in the proper, orthodox manner, but the net result is to drive people from Christ rather than bring them to him.

In sharp contrast to this, there is the real thing---authentic Christianity as it was intended to be. When it is manifested, it never requires advertisement or publicity. It has a fascination about it that will draw people like flies to honey. True, it may antagonize many when they find out what its secret is, but the initial character of authentic Christianity is to attract and compel admiration. That was certainly its effect in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. There is, of course, no clearer demonstration possible of what real Christianity looks like than was evident in the life of Jesus. This was Christian life in its purest and most utterly consistent form.

An Apostle's Example

But the trouble with that demonstration, for many people, is that they feel Jesus had an edge over the rest of us in that while he was undoubtedly man, he was also God, and from that Divine heritage he drew strength to resist evil that the rest of us do not have That is a highly debatable point, but we shall not enter into the argument here. Rather, let's turn to one of the many other passages of Scripture which describe authentic Christianity in terms of someone we may feel a bit closer to at least at first. Since authentic or radical Christianity is the end result toward which all the Scriptures move, there are many passages in both the Old and New Testaments which could be used to guide us to this discovery. But we shall choose one particular selection from Paul's second letter to the Christians at Corinth. This letter is one of the most biographical of all Paul's letters. In it the apostle gives us insight into his own experiences and reveals to us in the clearest terms the secret of his great ministry.

The first one and one-half chapters of Second Corinthians indicate that Paul was being challenged by certain Christians at Corinth. They had been affected by some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who suggested that Paul was not a genuine apostle at all because he was not one of the original twelve, and because he taught certain things that went beyond the law of Moses . Claiming that he was not a real apostle they insisted his brand of Christianity was not real Christianity. One of the Devil's favorite tricks is to brand the truth as a big lie, and that was what was going on at Corinth.

Five Unmistakable Marks

Paul's response to this is to describe for us the nature of his ministry. It has, as we shall see, five marks or qualities which cannot be successfully imitated. These qualities are always present whenever real Christianity is being practiced, and no matter how clearly false Christianity may try to copy them, it can't be done. They are inimitable. They have nothing to do with personality or temperament and therefore are attainable by anyone who discovers their secret. And they are not limited to one period of time, but are just as genuine when manifested in the twentieth century as in the first.

We shall begin our journey of discovery at the fourteenth verse of the second chapter of Second Corinthians. In this one verse are hidden three of the marks of genuine Christianity, and the remaining two are found in the verses that follow. "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere" (2 Corinthians 2:14).

Unquenchable Optimism

The first of the five marks is found in the very first phrase, "thanks be to God." One unmistakable mark of radical Christianity is that it is a thankful life even in the midst of trial and difficulty. It is a kind of unquenchable optimism. You can see it clearly in the Book of Acts where a note of triumph runs right through from beginning to end despite the dangers, hardships, persecutions, pressures, and perils that the early Christians experienced. The same continual note of thanksgiving is reflected in all of Paul's letters as well as those of John, Peter, and James.

The kind of thanksgiving referred to throughout is genuine. It is really and truly felt. There is nothing put on or artificial about it. It is a far cry from the phony imitation that is sometimes seen in Christians today. Some people think they are required to repeat pious and thankful words even though they don't really believe them just because the Scriptures say that is the way Christians should act. Many have settled for a form of Christian stoicism, a grin-and-bear-it attitude which even a non-Christian can adopt when there's nothing much he can do about a situation. But that is a long way from Christian thankfulness. To listen to some sermons today one would think that Christians are expected to screw on a smile and go around saying, "Hallelujah, I've got cancer!"

But authentic Christianity does not do that. It feels all the hurt and pain of adverse circumstances as much as anyone else, and does not enjoy them in the least degree. But it does see an end result being produced (not only in heaven, someday, but right now, on earth) that is so desirable and glorious it is worth all the pain and heartache. Therefore, it can do nothing else but rejoice. An authentic Christian is confident that the same Lord who permitted the pain to come will use it to bring about a highly desirable end, and can, therefore, be genuinely thankful even in the midst of perplexity and sorrow.

There is an outstanding example of this in Acts 16 when Paul and Silas found themselves at midnight thrust into an inner dungeon in the city jail of Philippi. Their backs were raw and bloody from the terrible flogging they had received at the hands of the Roman authorities, and their feet were fastened immovably in stocks. The future ahead was very uncertain; they didn't know what might happen to them in the morning. There was no one around to be impressed by a show of courage and no one to whom they could look for intervention or help. Yet despite such a discouraging outlook, Paul and Silas saw something about the situation that made them literally break into song.

No one could accuse them of being phony or of putting up a good front in an effort to keep up their spirits. They were genuinely thankful to God and began to praise him at midnight because they knew that despite the apparent rebuff and lack of success, their objective had been accomplished. The church they longed to plant in Philippi now could not be stopped. That made them break out in praise and thanksgiving. Of course, they knew nothing at that moment about the earthquake that would jar their chains loose and set them free. They had no premonition at all of being set free, but were simply manifesting the inevitable mark of having found the radical secret of Christianity---unquenchable optimism and thanksgiving.

Unvarying Success

The second mark is closely linked to the first and is found in the next phrase, "who in Christ always leads us in triumph." Note how Paul puts it, "he always leads us in triumph." Not occasionally, or sometimes, but always. The apostle makes perfectly clear that the Christianity which he has experienced presents a pattern of unvarying success. It never involves failure but invariably achieves its goals. It involves, as we have seen, struggle and hardships and tears, but though the struggle may be desperate, it is never serious. It issues at last in the accomplishment of the objectives sought. Even the opposition encountered is made to serve the purposes of victory.

We must remember that these high-sounding words are not mere evangelical pep talk. They were not uttered by a pastor to a well-dressed congregation in a twentieth-century church to give them a vicarious thrill as they momentarily felt the challenge of faith. Instead, they were written by a man who bore on his body the brand-marks of Jesus and who had endured much difficulty, endless disappointments, and bitter persecution with great pain. Yet he could write with rugged truthfulness: "He always leads us in triumph."

This certainly did not mean that Paul's plans and goals were always realized, for they were not. He wanted to do many things that he was never able to accomplish. In the ninth chapter of Romans Paul tells us how he hungered to be used as a minister to Israel "my kinsmen according to the flesh." He even expressed the willingness to be cut off from Christ if only the Israelites would be delivered. But he never achieved that objective. It is not his plans that are in view here, but God's. The triumph is Christ's, not Paul's. But the invariable mark of authentic Christianity is that when any individual has learned to discover its radical secret there is never a failure. God cannot be thwarted in his will. Every obstacle becomes an opportunity and success is inevitable.

The Liberty of Prison

It is this principle of invariable triumph which Paul describes in the first chapter of his letter to his friends at Philippi. He is now a prisoner in the city of Rome, confined to a private, rented home but chained day and night to a member of Caesar's Imperial Guard. Things look bad for him. He must soon appear before Nero Caesar to answer Jewish charges that could mean his life. He can't travel about the empire, preaching "the inexhaustible riches of Christ." And he cannot even visit the churches he founded. What a time for discouragement. Yet no letter of the New Testament reflects more confidence and rejoicing than that of Philippians. The reason for this confidence, Paul says, is twofold. He writes, "I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really served t o advance the gospel" (Philippians 1:12). Then he lists two evidences to prove his point.

First, he says, ". . . it has become known throughout the whole praetorian guard, and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ" (Philippians 1:13). The praetorian guard is the Imperial bodyguard. Since he is a prisoner of Caesar's, he must be guarded by Caesar's picked guard. The guard was made up for the most part of sons of noble families who were commissioned to spend a few years in Nero's palace guard. Later on the group would become the king-makers of the empire and were responsible for the choice of several succeeding emperors. They were impressive young men the cream of the empire.

Anyone who can read between the lines a bit will see what is happening here. It is clear that the Lord Jesus, in his role of King of the earth, has appointed Nero to be the chairman of the Committee for the Evangelization of the Roman Empire. Nero doesn't know this, but then emperors seldom know what is really going on in their empires. Remember that when the time came for the Son of God to be born in Bethlehem, his mother and her new husband were 70 miles away, living in Nazareth. So God commissioned Emperor Augustus with the task of getting Joseph and Mary down from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Augustus felt strangely moved to issue an Imperial Edict that everyone should go to his hometown to be taxed. and that did the trick! So in this case Nero has given orders that his Imperial Bodyguard should have charge of the Apostle Paul. And every six hours one of the splendid young men was brought in and for six hours chained to the Apostle Paul !

I suggest that if you want to feel sorry for anyone that you feel sorry for this young man. Here he is, trying to live a quiet, pagan life and every so often he is ordered out and chained to this disturbing man who says the most amazing things about one called Jesus of Nazareth, risen from the dead. As a result, one by one these young men were being won to Christ. It is what you might call a chain reaction! If you doubt that this is what was taking place, then look at the next to the last verse of the Philippian letter. There Paul says, "All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household" (Philippians 4:22). Here is a band of young men, the political center of the empire, who are being infiltrated and conquered for Christ by an old man in chains who is awaiting trial for his life. It is not at all unlikely that some of the young men who accompanied Paul on his later journeys came from this very band.

This incident is a magnificent revelation of the strategy of God and, incidentally, of the weakness of human planning by contrast. No human mind could have conceived this unique approach to the very heart of the empire. We humans are forever planning strategies for fulfilling the Great Commission, but what we come up with is usually banal, routine, unimaginative, and relatively ineffective. The noteworthy thing about God's strategy is that it often takes the form of active opposition.

Progress by Opposition

That is what is recorded in the early chapters of Acts. The church in Jerusalem was growing by leaps and bounds. Some 2,000 to 5,000 Christians were gathering together weekly and enjoying the tremendous fellowship and excitement. Yet it was all contained within the city walls. When God wanted to spread these good things among the nations, he permitted sharp opposition to arise. As a result, the early Christians were driven throughout the empire, all except the apostles.

Since having learned to glimpse God's hand in these acts of opposition, I have begun to read missionary reports in a different light. Of late years there have been many reports in missionary magazines saying in one way or another, "Terrible things are happening to our country. The doors are closing to the gospel; opposition is arising, the government is trying to suppress all Christian witness, and we missionaries must soon pack up and get out." Now there is no question but what missionaries need much concerted prayer, and the national Christians are in terrible and immediate danger. Nevertheless, when I read such reports, I have learned to say, "Thank God. At last the missionaries are being forced to relinquish control of the churches and the national church is taking over." In Ethiopia, before World War II, the missionaries were driven out for twenty years, but when they came back in they found that the gospel had spread like wildfire, and there were far more Christians than if the missionaries had been allowed to stay. China is a similar story.

Bolder Brothers

Paul makes a second point in his letter to the Philippians to support his claim that the things which happened to him had only served to advance the gospel. He says ". . . most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment, and are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear" (Philippians 1:14). Because Paul was a prisoner, the Roman Christians were witnessing far more freely throughout the city than they would have done otherwise. It was at this time that the first official Roman persecution against the Christians was beginning. Many, therefore, were afraid to speak of their faith. But when they saw that God was in complete charge of matters not Nero, nor the Jews they were emboldened to proclaim the gospel. As a result, there was far more effective outreach going on in Rome than even if Paul had been free to preach at will. This fact has always suggested to me that perhaps the best way to evangelize a community would be to start by locking all the preachers up in jail! Other Christians might then begin to realize that they, too, have gifts for ministry and begin to exercise them in effective ways. Sometime I would like to try It.

Living Letters

As we who live in the twentieth century look back upon this first-century incident, we can see still a third proof of Paul's claim that even he himself could not see at the time. If we had been with Paul in that hired house in Rome and had asked him, "Paul, what do you think has been the greatest work you have been able to accomplish in your ministry, through the power of Christ?" what do you think he would have said? I feel sure his answer would have been: "the planting of churches in various cities. " It was to these churches that his letters were written, and it was for them that he prayed daily. He called them, "my joy and crown" and spent himself without restraint for them.

But now, looking back across these twenty intervening centuries we can see that the planting of these churches was not his greatest work after all. Every one of the churches he planted has ceased its testimony long ago. In most cases, the very cities in which they existed lie in ruins today. But the work of Paul which has persisted to this day and has had permanent and increasing value throughout the centuries has been the letters that he wrote when he was locked up and could do nothing else! Those letters have changed the world. They are among the most powerful documents ever known to men. No wonder Paul could write, "Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph. " It is an unmistakable mark of authentic Christianity.

Unforgettable Impact

The third unmistakable mark follows immediately. ". . . through us {God} spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him {Christ} everywhere." Here is another of the beautiful symbols by which God teaches truth. It is that of fragrance, of perfume. Paul clearly implies that the Christian life, lived as it ought to be, is a fragrance, not only to men but to God. He enlarges further on this thought: "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life" (2 Corinthians 2:15-16).

Most men have had the experience of being in a room when a strikingly beautiful woman enters. Before she came in she had applied a touch here and there of Chanel #5, and as she passes through the room, she leaves behind a lingering fragrance. All the males in the room take note of it, consciously or unconsciously. Perhaps weeks or months later they may smell the fragrance again and immediately the image of that beautiful woman flashes into their minds. The fragrance has made her unforgettable.

That is the picture Paul gives here. There is something about authentic Christianity when it is encountered that leaves an unforgettable impression. The Christian who has discovered this secret makes an enduring impact; he is never taken for granted by anyone. As Paul suggests, the impact may be in one of two directions. He either increases opposition to Christ (death to death) or he leads toward faith and life (life to life). If your life is one that reflects radical, authentic Christianity, then you are making people either bitter or better by contact with you. But one thing cannot happen: people will never remain the same. Those who are determined to die are pushed on toward death by coming into contact with authentic Christianity. Those who are seeking to live are helped on into life. Jesus certainly had this quality about him. No one ever came into contact with him and went away the same.

Many commentators on this passage have felt that Paul had in mind here a typical Roman triumph. When a Roman general returned to the capital after a successful campaign, he was granted a triumph by the senate. A great procession passed through the streets of Rome displaying the captives which were taken in the course of the conquest. Some went before the chariot of the conqueror bearing garlands of flowers and pots of fragrant incense. They were the prisoners who were destined to live and return to their captured country to govern it under Roman rule. Other prisoners followed behind the chariot dragging chains and heavy manacles. These were doomed to execution, for the Romans felt they could not trust them. As the procession went on through the cheering crowds, the incense pots and fragrant flowers were to the first group "a fragrance from life unto life" while the same aroma was to the second group "a fragrance of death to death."

This is the effect of the gospel as it touches the world through the person of a Christian. If it is authentic Christianity that is in view, it will be a fragrance to God of Jesus Christ, no matter what, but to men it is either of death to death or of life to life. Of course, if it is phony Christianity that is manifest, it will simply be a bad smell ! I once saw a card that said, "Old fishermen never die they only smell that way." That surely describes false Christianity. It never dies; it only smells that

Unimpeachable Integrity

The fourth mark of genuine Christianity is found in verse 17 of chapter 2: "For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ."

Remember, that is not a description of Christian pastors but simply of Christians. It has great application to pastors and others in the ministry, but its primary reference is to common, ordinary Christians who have learned the secret of radical Christianity. They can be described in two ways, negatively and positively. Negatively, they are not peddlers. The word means a huckster, a street salesman. Occasionally I hear Christian witnessing described as "selling the gospel." I cringe when I hear that because I don't believe Christians are meant to be salesmen for God. The idea here is that of a street hawker who has certain wares which he feels are attractive and which he peddles on the corner as people are passing by. He makes his living by peddling his wares.

Much Christian preaching and witnessing can be described that way. Men pick out certain elements from the Scriptures which have a power to attract people, and they major on these themes. Healing is a case in point. It is a legitimate subject for study and practice, but when singled out and harped on continually, especially when large offerings are connected with it, healing can quickly lead to hucksterism. Prophecy can serve the same purpose. If a man is known only as a prophetic teacher, I am troubled about him, for he has picked out something that is attractive from the Word, and if that is all he ever teaches, he is not declaring the whole counsel of God . He is a peddler, making a living by hawking certain wares from the Scriptures.

Four Qualities---One Mark

Paul says authentic Christianity is not like that. It is characterized by four things. First, we are "men of sincerity." In other words, we are to be honest men. We must mean what we say. Sincerity marks the highest demand of the world upon men. The world admires sincerity and feels it is the acme of character, but here it is but the beginning, the minimum expectation from a Christian. The least one can expect from a true Christian is that he himself believes what he says and seeks constantly to practice it.

Next, Paul says we are "commissioned by God." Here is the idea of purpose. We are not to be idle dreamers or wasters with no definite objective in view. We have been commissioned as military officers are commissioned, given a definite task and specific assignments so the Christian is commissioned. We are purposeful people with an end in view, an object to attain, a goal to accomplish, and we do not merely preach or witness as though that were a goal in itself. We are sent to accomplish something by our witnessing.

The third factor is that we do all this "in the sight of God." This indicates an attitude of openness to investigation, of transparency. To walk in the sight of men permits many deviations and contradictions behind the facade, but to walk in the sight of God is honest transparency. This does not mean sinlessness, but rather that there can be no hiding of sin when it occurs. It is to know that there are no hidden areas to God, that we are being evaluated and tested by the purity and knowledge and wisdom of God. A man who walks in the sight of God isn't interested in putting up a good front. He is perfectly trustworthy. You can trust his golf score. And if you get young people to do this, they can be trusted even in the back seat of a car.

The last characterization is that "we speak in Christ." What quality does that indicate? Authority! Paul says it clearly in chapter 5, "We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us" (vs. 20). Ambassadors are authorized spokesmen. They have power to act, to bind. Thus authentic Christians are not powerless servants. We speak words and deliver messages which heaven honors.

All this adds up to unimpeachable integrity. Men of sincerity, purpose, transparency, and authority are utterly trustworthy. They have integrity. You can ring a gold coin on their conscience. Their word is their bond, and they can be counted on to come through. They are responsible and faithful individuals. That is the fourth great mark of real Christianity.

At this point in the text of the Bible there comes a chapter division. This is unfortunate for it serves to divide two things which belong together. The apostle has not finished his line of argument. It is best to ignore the division and read right on, to find the fifth mark of authentic Christianity: "Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?" (2 Corinthians 3:1).

Undeniable Reality

It is apparent that the apostle is aware that he is beginning to sound highly complimentary to himself. He knows there are some in Corinth who will immediately take these words in that way. Indeed, it is obvious from his words that some had even suggested in previous correspondence that the next time he came to Corinth he bring letters of recommendation from some of the Twelve in Jerusalem! They were thinking of Paul as though he were a man entirely like themselves: so continually praising himself that no one would believe him until he had confirmation from more objective sources. But Paul says to them:
"You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
He is saying, in effect, "You want letters of recommendation to prove that I am an authoritative messenger of God? Why, you yourselves are all the recommendation I need. Look what has happened to you. Are you any different? Have there been any changes in you since you came to Christ through my word? Your own hearts will bear witness to yourselves and before the world that the message which you heard from us and which has changed your lives is from God." In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul made reference to "the immoral, the idolaters, the adulterers, the homosexuals, the thieves, the greedy, and the drunkards" which he had found in Corinth. "Such," he said, "were some of you." But now they had been washed, sanctified, and justified by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. These changes were proof of reality. The Corinthians had written to Paul about the joy they now had and the hope and meaning which had been brought into their lives. They described to him the deliverance from shame and guilt they had experienced, the freedom from fear and hostility, from darkness and death, which was theirs. So he says, "This is your confirmation. You yourselves are walking letters from God, known and read by all men, written by the Spirit of God in your hearts."

Here is the last mark of genuine Christianity. It is that of undeniable reality, a change which cannot be explained on any other terms than God at work. Paul did not need letters of recommendation when this kind of change was evident in the lives of his hearers. Once I heard of a Christian who had been an alcoholic for years and then was converted. Someone asked him, "Now that you are a Christian, do you believe the miracles of the New Testament?" He answered, "Yes, I do. " The other man said, "Do you believe that story about Jesus changing water into wine?" He said, "I sure do." The other said, "How can you believe such nonsense?" The Christian replied, "I'll tell you how; because in our house Jesus changed whiskey into furniture!" That is the mark of authenticity. Such a marked change cannot occur except under the impulse of a powerful relationship that substitutes the love of Christ for the love of drink.

There are the five unmistakable signs of genuine Christianity: unquenchable optimism, unvarying success, unforgettable impact, unimpeachable integrity, and undeniable reality. They are always present whenever the real thing is being manifested. Mere religion tries to imitate these marks, but is never quite able to pull it off. By comparison with these marks, phony Christianity is always shown up to be what it is a shabby, shoddy imitation that quickly folds when the real pressure is on. The remarkable thing is not that men seek to imitate these genuine graces, for we have all been hypocrites of one kind or another since our birth. The truly remarkable thing is that becoming a Christian does not of itself guarantee that these Christian graces will be manifest in us. It is not being a Christian that produces these, but living as a Christian. There is a knowledge we must have and a choice we must make before these virtues will be consistently present. It is the knowledge of this secret which the Apostle Paul goes on to give us.

From a sermon by Ray C. Stedman. Later incorporated into the book Authentic Christianity.

For other messages by Ray C. Stedman see the on line Ray C. Stedman Memorial Library.

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