When you sit in a Christian church and listen to the words coming from the pulpit, do you get the feeling that someone wants you to be something you’re not? Or to start doing something you’re not? Or to stop doing something you are?
If so, that’s good.
It’s good because, well, let’s be honest: God’s plan is to transform us into something better. Usually, there are areas of our life where we could be living more like Christ, which means that there are probably some things we should start doing and some things we should stop.
And this doesn’t have to mean pray, read your Bible, go to church or don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t gamble. It could mean ask your wife about how her day went or don’t worry about your finances.
But there’s nothing particularly Christian about behavior modification. Virtually all the world’s religions – formal and not – aim to help us become better people. Even atheists generally try to be decent folks. (Some think that means eradicating Christianity, but that’s another post for another day.)
So, when we ask whether a preacher really trusts God, we’re not asking whether he’s angling for a change in our behavior. We’re asking how he thinks it should happen.
Specifically, we’re asking what he thinks of Christ.
Two More Words: Christ Exaltation
A lot of pastors / preachers believe that their ministry should be judged by its fruits. Just like a stock broker is judged by his returns, or a chef is judged by his food, a minister often measures his effectiveness by the lives of his congregation.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Apostle Paul did it.
Well, sort of. He was far more concerned with whether he was faithful to Christ than whether people listened to him. But when push came to shove, he was willing to put the church on his resume.
In 2 Corinthians 3, he actually refers to the church in Corinth as his “letter of recommendation.”
Of all churches! (If you don’t know, this was a church that was rife with division and immorality.)
But he did so because of Christ. He said that the church was a “letter from Christ” written by him on their hearts. That is he carried the message from Jesus and preached it to their hearts so that the church would eventually be and say and display everything Jesus wanted.
The church didn’t reflect Paul at all. It reflected Jesus. Paul just knew that Jesus wouldn’t fail, so he risked nothing by exalting Christ instead of trying to change people.
Yet Two More: Holy Spirit
Jesus wouldn’t fail because he sent the Holy Spirit to change his people.
Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 3 to show that he had to choose between preaching Christ to their hearts or giving them a list of rules to follow.
Rules are so simple. We never have to wonder what they are. We can make them, multiply them, enforce them, and guilt people into them. With the proper stimuli – reward and reprimand – we can change people’s behavior. And we don’t have to trust God at all!
That’s why Paul chose the Gospel. It requires faith. The Spirit, not psychological stimuli, changes people, and they look more like Christ. And when change happens, God, not man, gets the glory.
Last Two: Glorious Transformation
It’s not about forcing people to change. It’s not about guilting them until they do. It’s not about embracing only those who get in line with all the other well-behaved automatons.
It’s about exalting Christ – who he is, what he’s done, what he’s doing, what he will do – and leaving people free to follow in the power of the Spirit.
Paul called it liberty. The kind of liberty that scares preachers who want to control the lives of the people in the pews.
But such preachers should know that while they can compel behavior, they can never produce glory. Much less transform another human being from one degree of glory to another.
That can only be done by God, through the Holy Spirit, with the message of Christ.
So does the preacher really trust God? What’s he doing – coercing your behavior or exalting Christ? Leaving people free to walk in the Spirit or binding them to prescripted paths? Using the law to change appearances or leaving the Lord to change hearts?
Of course, I should end by saying that there’s certainly nothing wrong with pointing out sinful behavior and calling for repentance, or reminding people of the commands of Christ and calling for obedience.
Paul did this too. By exalting Christ. By reminding people of their new lives in Jesus’ resurrection and their new power in his Spirit. By condemning sin, preaching repentance, promising forgiveness, and inviting them into the joy of following God freely.
People are imperfect, and imperfect people reflect badly upon the one they’re following. This really bothers some preachers. But the preachers who trust God don’t worry about it because they only encourage people to follow Jesus. They know that he doesn’t mind. Because he knows where he’s taking them and just how to get them there.