Believe it or not, the question posed in my title has been challenging for the church to answer in practical concrete ways! It has struggled to find balanced answers that keep it from falling into the ditch on either side of the question. When it over emphasizes uniqueness and separation, it falls into the ditch of reclusion and isolation. When it over emphasizes relevance and contextualization, it succeeds in filling up churches with people who have not experienced real gospel transformation. Both extremes produce the same result – no real transforming impact of the surrounding culture.
However, the Bible makes it quite clear that true Christians are not only distinct from non-Christians but also from those who are merely religious (Matt. 6:1-8). The most definitive statement Jesus ever gave on how truly different an authentic Christian is and how that difference is lived out in concrete terms is found in the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon is filled with illustrations that compare and or contrast authentic Christians with non-Christians. In doing this, Jesus contrast: two sets of values, two kinds of disciples, two kinds of righteousness, two kinds of spiritual exercises, two motives for obedience, two masters, two paths, two trees and two foundations. When He uses comparisons, He primarily compares the Christian view with the worlds view (someone who doesn’t know God) or the Christian view with the view of someone who is merely religious (rule and tradition keepers that have no real relationship with God).
Being Different is Essential
The New Testament makes the case that authentic Christians are indeed different and that difference is fundamental. The greatest eras in the life of the church have been when the line between the church and the world was the most distinct. I fear today’s church has forgotten this principle. Christians certainly live in the world but they are not of the world. When the church becomes the same as the world, the church loses its unique ability to be a change agent.
How are Christians distinct from the world?
They are different in what they value (Matt. 5:3-12). One example of this is that the Christian values true humility while the world despises such a person. To the world, he lacks self-confidence, self-expression and the mastery of life.
They are different in what they seek (Matt. 5:6; 6:33) The Christians seeks after God’s Kingdom and His righteousness. The world seeks, fashion, longevity, wealth, status, power and publicity.
They are different in what they store up (Matt. 6:19-21, 25-33) The Christian stores up the kinds of things that have permanent value. The world stores up treasure that is passing away and has only temporal value.
They are different in whom they serve (Matt. 6:24) Jesus makes it clear that when it comes to material and spiritual things either your material things become your god or God is God of your material things. You can’t serve both! The world serves the god of the material while the Christian lays all his material things at the feet of his God.
How are Christians distinct from people who are merely religious?
True Christians are utterly distinct from those who are merely religious. In the gospels you see anger by Jesus toward the institutionalized religion of the Pharisees. However, when Jesus gets around sinners, He is patient and kind. When he gets around merely religious people, He is severely direct and critical. The reason for this lies in the difference between the two. Even though the Christian and the merely religious person may look much the same on the surface, there is a significant difference in the two.
They are different in the way they impact people (Matt. 13-16). Christians are attractive to and attracted to the kind of people that live in the darkness of sin. They run to bring the light of Jesus to the dark places of society. Christians are willing to engage the decay of the world with the salt of the gospel as well as their personal involvement. However, merely religious people are turned off by and alienated from these same people of darkness and decay. They put their light “under a bowl” while pulling their righteous robes about them lest they actually interact with these kinds of people.
They are different in the way they position themselves to other people (Matt. 7:1-5). Merely religious people see their sins as speck of dust and others sins as a huge plank. Christians see their sins as a plank and others as a speck of dust. In other words, the merely religious feel superior to others while Christians understand their need of constant grace.
They are different in their concerns for holiness (Matt. 5:17-6:6). The merely religious are concerned about externals while Christians are concerned about the heart. They seek conformity to letter of the law while Christians seek to obey not just the legal aspect of the law put the ethical side or the “spirit” of the law. The reason for this is that the motive for obedience is different. Merely religious people are motivated by the need for rule keeping and the fear of others while Christians are motivated by a love for God and His Word. Merely religious people let what others think become more important to them than what God thinks and in the end become a performer for the audience (others) rather than living a life solely for the glory of God. It is no wonder that Jesus charged the religious for having such a distorted view of scripture. The Christian, however, runs everything through the law of love.
They are different in their relationship to God (7:13-29). A Christian and a merely religious person may look much the same on the surface. They both may be orthodox in doctrine, passionate in service, moral in behavior and socially useful. Each builds on a foundation, bears fruit and claims to be on the path to heaven. But one’s foundation is firm while the other is faulty. One’s fruit is pure while the other is poison. One is on a path toward life while the other is on a path toward death and destruction. The key to the difference is found in Matt. 7:21-23, “ Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
The questions we must ask ourselves if we want to know for certain that we truly are Christian are these:
- As I examine the actions and attitudes in my life, and look at my life in detail, can I claim for it something that is essentially distinct and never found in a non-Christian?
- Is the difference more than just “not being like non-Christians” but rather a positive conformity to the image of Christ?
- Is this difference something that can only be explained in terms of a life-changing relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ?
The fundamental issue that Jesus points out so clearly in the Sermon on the Mount is that if Christians are going to make a difference they must be different. We can’t transform our culture by simply adding more of the same. It is not a difference just for the sake of being different, but a difference that comes from knowing and being known by Jesus!