This the first in a continuing series of hard questions that I have been asked by members of my congregation, other Christians, and in some cases non-Christians.
What is the normal Christian life? Or better yet, what is a healthy Christian life? Why is that we know Christians who hold to correct practices and doctrine, yet they seem so unhealthy? They are bitter, angry, joyless, and judgmental. Often as time goes on, they leave the faith or their children leave the faith. Why is that we know Christians who hold to different practices or doctrines than we do and yet they seem healthy and solid. I believe in not sending your kids to public school. Yet I know parents who send their kids to public school who are more godly than some who don’t. Why is that? Why can someone be right in doctrine and practice and yet look so little like Jesus and be so unhealthy?
The temptation here is to point to externals. That is good as far as it goes. There are central actions that a Christian will do. These would be worship, prayer, reading the Word, fellowship with the saints, reaching the lost, confession of sins, etc. These are core practices of the Christian faith. But we all know Christians and churches who do these things and yet…something is off.
The Heart of a Healthy Christian Life: Trust In Jesus or Justification by Faith
It might seem odd to start talking about the healthy Christian life by trotting out doctrine, but this is where it begins. The longer I am in ministry the more I am convinced that justification by faith alone in Christ alone must be central to my preaching and to pastoral ministry. I don’t mean it is the only thing I preach and teach. But it is the foundation. Without this, rot is guaranteed.
What do I mean by justification by faith? Simply this: We are wicked sinners separated from God by our sinful nature and our sinful deeds. We cannot now or in the future earn our way back into God’s favor. But God in his mercy sent His Son to die in our place, to fully take all our sins, and redeem us. All who trust in Christ are redeemed by Him apart from good works and yet they are saved unto good works. We are accepted in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6). We are completely forgiven and accepted in the eyes of God because of the work of his Son. Therefore we are free from our sins, the fear of death, and able to cheerfully obey God and repent where we fail. A healthy Christian life begins and grows on the foundation of trust in Christ as the Savior of sinners and a understanding that I am one of those sinners or in the case of a church, we are those sinners. We must believe that we cannot earn God’s favor and that all is mercy and grace. Our home life, church life, love for the lost, and everything else must reflect this reality. Without this foundation, a Christian or a church cannot be healthy no matter how many boxes they check.
Unhealthy Christians and churches are those who live as if their doctrine or practices are what ultimately save them. They would never say this, of course. But at root they trust in their formula to deliver them. This formula can vary from church to church and from person to person. It could be tithing, reading the Bible, dressing modestly, memorizing Scripture, showing up at worship, evangelism, wearing head coverings, homeschooling, not homeschooling, private Christian school, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the right view of the Tribulation, contemporary worship, traditional worship, saying the rosary, or a combination of these things. It can be a good thing or a bad thing, but is often a good thing. For these Christians their salvation depends on them “getting it right.” And of course, everyone else’s does as well. If your salvation depends on you getting it right you are in serious trouble.
Particular doctrines and practices do not automatically indicate health. But we think they do. “Oh that person agrees with me on homeschooling, evangelism, free will, the Lord’s Supper, or modesty. They must be a good Christian.” Or worse, “I hold to doctrine x and practice y so I must be a healthy Christian.” But it is never that simple. A good doctrine and a right practice can be corrupted because of the “why.” The health of a church or Christian is destroyed when there is a built in assumption that getting the formula right will make things right.
Does this make our actions and doctrines of little value? No. They matter a lot. But if we are not trusting in Christ, if he is not our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (I Cor. 1:30) then our practices and doctrines, no matter how “right” will be wrong. And this is why someone can believe a doctrine or have a practice that is right and yet not be right. That is why we can find someone we agree with on so many things and yet not want to be around them. This is why someone can jump through all the hoops and yet leave the faith. Or why someone who doesn’t follow our “formula” can still be a healthy Christian. Trusting in Christ alone to save us is the heart of the Christian faith. When this is not just spoken, but lived and believed then a church will be healthy. It won’t be perfect, but it will be solid with all their doctrines and practice built on the right foundation of Christ’s righteousness.
Two Signs of Health
What are a couple of signs that a church or person understands that Christ saves them not their formula? What are some signs of health? I could put a lot here, but let me list two.
First, they are gracious to Christians whose practices or doctrines are different. I do not mean they “put up with” Christians who are different. Condescension is not graciousness. It is easy to think, “Oh, I will put up with you for a while until you come to see things my way.” Or “I am sorry you don’t understand everything about the Christian faith that we do. If you come to our church long enough, you will see that we are right.” In other words, we still believe in our formula. We still believe all Christians must look like us. This is not graciousness. It is pride. True graciousness comes from a church or a person recognizing they are sinners saved by grace. They are not gracious to other Christians because the other person is a sinner. They are gracious to others because they are. Knowledge of one’s sinfulness, blindness, pride, and the grace God has extended makes one gracious. This does not mean compromise, abandoning distinctives, ignoring essentials, or rejecting one’s own confession. But it does mean holding these things without pride. A healthy Christian knows that they are not saved by their modesty, theology, liturgy, or Bible reading. They are saved by Christ. This is reflected in how they treat other Christians.
Second, a healthy Christian or Christian church is filled with joy. How could it be otherwise. We were lost and now we are found. We were blind and now we see. We were dead and now we are alive. How could a person not rejoice as the greatness of their salvation and Savior slowly takes root in their life. A church without deep joy is an unhealthy church. A church without growing joy is church that is living for something other than Christ. Joy can be faked for a while. Fake joy is found in cliched answers, shallow fellowship with other Christians, going through the motions in worship, a constant critique of others and many other things. This can hold for a bit. But the cracks eventually show. A dead church is one that has lost the anchor of Christ and has come to trust in their formula to rescue them. A healthy church is built on Christ’s work and not their own and therefore has joy.
A healthy church or Christian is one that seeks out the truth about theology and practice. They are constantly trying to grow and mature, learning to obey all things that Christ teaches (Matthew 28:18-20). But they are not trusting in getting it right. They know that all is grace. They know that they are sinners undeserving of their salvation. Often the difference between a healthy Christian and an unhealthy one is not doctrine or practice, but what foundation those doctrines and practices are built on. Don’t assume a church is healthy because there is agreement on doctrine or practice. And most importantly, don’t assume you are healthy just because you have checked certain doctrine and practice boxes. Healthy churches and healthy Christians are built on Christ.