A scandal here. A dark secret revealed there. Another famous abuser. Another judgmental, hostile speaker. Another unethical use of funds. Another aggressive political attack.
Unfortunately, it is hard to tell whether or not I am describing the drama of celebrity culture in Hollywood, or perhaps the dark side of the political world, or perhaps even the public perception of Christians.
The Christian faith has been a part of our world for just about 2000 years. In that time, the religion has spread to a significant portion of the human race. Even just in North America, a significant majority of Americans and Canadians identify as some kind of Christian. Out of all of these people, many have very different approaches to how they live their faith. But sometimes, it seems that some people who are claiming the faith don't live it at all, or at least not as much as you'd expect that they should.
Jesus gave some solemn warnings and instructions on this topic. In Matthew 7, he says this:
“Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions." (Matthew 7:15-20 NLT)
There are more quotes we could give besides this one. Throughout the Bible, it has always been acknowledged that there would be people who pretend to be something they are not on a spiritual level. With so many public figures in the modern world identifying themselves with the Christian religion, how are we to distinguish between who is genuine and who is not?
Thankfully, there are not only negative statements and examples to be found in Scripture. The qualities that define the disciples of Jesus are actually quite simple, but deeply demanding to implement throughout our entire lives:
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT)
Think of the people you know who are Christian. Or perhaps even more usefully, think of yourself. Are you characterized by these fruit of the Spirit? In this passage, Paul does not mean that everyone will always have all of these qualities to their full extent. There will always be a need to grow spiritually. Nevertheless qualities will increasingly reveal themselves in people who are truly growing in their connection to Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus gave another quality that would indicate that people were his true followers. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35 NIV)
This, again, seems like a simple instruction, but in practice, it is difficult to do all the time. People are not always very lovable. Love takes work sometimes. Nevertheless, people who are connected to Jesus should demonstrate loving characters, and show genuine concern for the well-being of people around them.
In his book that sought to explain the basics of Christian faith, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis had this to say about professing Christians who fail to live up to the requirements of the faith:
"When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian." (C.S Lewis, Mere Christianity)
The central teaching of the Christian faith is grace. Even a bad Christian who hasn't quite fully grown to maturity in the faith can still be counted as righteous because Christ gives us a right standing with God as a gift (Romans 5:17). But we do need to understand the defining aspects of Christian living.
In confusing times, when things become compromised, sometimes it is the simple principles and truths that hold the most power. Humanity is weak and broken because of sin, but God has made a way for us to be made new, for us to have changed hearts. Jesus invites us all to live our lives through his power.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." (John 15:5-8 NIV)
Read Matthew 7:15-23. What does this passage imply about Jesus' priorities? What, according to Jesus, makes someone a true disciple of his?
Related to the last question, compared Matthew 7:15-23 with John 6:28-29. This this a contradiction? Is it about doing good things, or having faith in Jesus? Read Ephesians 2:8-10 to find the connection.
According to passages like Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:20 seem to say that people are not "justified" before God by their good deeds or their knowledge of the law. If this is the case, what role do good works have to play, if any? And how do they relate to faith in Jesus? What answers can you find in 1 John 3?
Read Galatians 5:22-23. Which of the fruit of the Spirit do you feel are very strong in your life? Which ones do you feel like need some work?