Something that I’m increasingly becoming aware of as I continue in my seminary education is the idea that the way we view God impacts literally everything else in our lives. In fact, A.W. Tozer famously said:
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
If we view God as this angry judge, we’ll always live our lives like a child hiding in the corner who is just afraid of messing up because they don’t want to be physically abused by their parent again. But if we see God as a loving father, we approach life in a joyous freedom knowing that our standing with Him isn’t affected by our struggles and failures.
The reason I bring this up is because there is this belief that has been a struggle for humanity since the biblical times and it’s this concept of a “bad” Christian.
Most of the time, we would describe a “bad” Christian as somebody who doesn’t read their Bible enough, doesn’t worship as passionately as other Christians, and doesn’t pray nearly as much as they feel like they should. Basically speaking, a Christian who doesn’t feel like they do enough in their lives in order to warrant the title of being called a Christian.
That’s why I found it to be important to remember this key point whenever we feel like we’re a “bad” Christian or feel like God doesn’t love us anymore.
There is no such thing as a “bad” Christian because there is no such thing as a “good” Christian.
Now this doesn’t mean that there aren’t people in the world that claim to follow Jesus and represent Him poorly because that is true. This also doesn’t mean that there aren’t Christians out there who live their lives more obediently to Christ than others because that is also a fact.
But as soon as we think our merit as Christians in any way contributes to our salvation or righteousness before God, we have completely missed the point of the Gospel.
In fact, I want to look at a passage of Scripture with you from Luke 18 when Jesus talks about the Pharisee & The Tax Collector:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14
This is about as close as I can come to the concept of the “bad Christian” vs “good Christian” mindset because it illustrates Jesus’ priority in what it looks like to follow Him. We see on one hand, the Pharisee whose faith is all rooted in everything he has done and therefore believes that his righteous comes from what he does. Then on the other hand, you have a tax collector who was a hated member of society. They worked for the Roman government and were viewed as traitors in that society due to them collecting more than they were tasked with so they could build their own wealth.
However, in this story, we see the humility and acknowledgment of our depravity in the words of the tax collector rather than the Pharisee. Jesus even goes as far as to say that the other one was saved (justified) and the Pharisee wasn’t. The simple message of this parable is that God cares far more about who you are rather than what you do. It’s not that what you do isn’t important, but rather, what you do flows out of who you are. If you are doing things for the wrong reason, God doesn’t consider that honoring Him. The Pharisee was doing everything he was supposed to, but his heart was completely wrong and that’s why he wasn’t saved.
If we read the Bible because we’re trying to justify ourselves, if we worship because we are trying to be “right” before God, or if we are praying because it’s the “Christian” thing to do, we are missing out on the freedom that God promises us through salvation.
Spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, and Bible study were never meant to play the role of our salvation because then we wouldn’t live in that freedom, but rather we would live in a standard of burden and obligation. These spiritual disciplines are meant to help us experience the Christian life in fullness and when we build these things into our lives over time, we find that God more and more becomes the priority in our day to day lives.
Picture This: Just because a car doesn’t have oil, battery, or gas doesn’t mean it’s not a car. But for a car to live out it’s full potential and design, it needs gas, oil, battery, and maintenance. In the same way, spiritual disciplines don’t change our status before God as being justified, but they do help us to live out our intended design of following Him.
A big concern that I see with existing Christians as well as in my own life up until a few years ago was this idea that if I didn’t feel like reading my Bible enough, if I didn’t pray enough, if I didn’t give enough, if I didn’t worship as deeply as the person next to me, then somehow that reveals that my salvation is not real. Can I just tell you that I’ve never met an atheist that was concerned about any of these things? The reason I bring that point up is because isn’t the presence of these convictions in your life proof that you have been changed by the Holy Spirit? Is it possible that the very thing you are worried about if evidence that you have nothing to worry about?
I’m all for people deconstructing their faith and evaluating what they believe because I see this as being vital to developing your own theology and belief rather than regurgitating someone else’s. But don’t for a second believe that you can lose your salvation because you could never do enough for God to earn it. That’s why it wasn’t earned. Not even a little bit. Ephesians 2:8-9 even reminds us of that when it says:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Salvation is a gift. It isn’t earned or even maintained. It isn’t something that you can lose or something that you can give back. Matthew 7:21-23 reminds us that when we die, we will either be let into the gates of Heaven or Jesus will say to us, “I never knew you”. Did you notice that he said “never”, not “I used to know you, but then you lost your salvation.”
Remember this: there is nothing that you can do that can separate you from the love of God (Romans 8:38) and if you are God’s child, you cannot be snatched from His hand (John 10:28). You are sealed with the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:13)
While works are vital to the life of a Christian, they don’t save you. They are the fruit of your faith rather than the root.
We must stop looking at God like He is any other relationship. This relationship is not mutual because we aren’t pouring into God in the way that we would pour into normal human relationships. There’s an element of give and take with human relationships, but with God, it’s all take on our end and no give. It’s important that we understand that we depend on a God who does not depend on us. He is not mad at you if you don’t talk to him for a 1 day, 1 month, 1 year, or 10 years, but rather He welcomes you like the Father welcomes the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). No matter how far away you’ve walked from God, the return trip is only 1 step away.
Sadly, a popular quote that I often hear in Christian communities goes against this idea because at first it sounds good, but when we ponder on it considering what God did for us and who He is, we realize it’s not even close to true. It says:
“If you’re not getting closer to God, you’re only getting farther.”
To be fair, I do believe that one can get further away or closer to the righteous life that Christians should be living, but that’s not what this quote is claiming. It says getting closer or further away from God Himself.
The reason I hate this saying is that if we as Christians believe in an omniscient God who knows everything, an omnipresent God who is always everywhere, and believe that when we believe in God that He gives us His Holy Spirit to indwell our souls, how can this saying possibly be true? For one, if God inhabits our souls, how can we run away from ourselves? And two, how can we possibly entertain the idea that God’s presence in my life is dependent on me? That would be contrary to everything that has been detailed in Scripture.
At the end of the day, here is what I tell people who ask about the concept of a “bad” Christian. You are either Christian or you are not. You either believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus or you don’t. You either recognize Jesus as the only way of salvation or you don’t. Our concept of “good” or “bad” in terms of what it means for our Christianity has nothing to do with our work, and everything to do with the work that has already been done on the cross. It doesn’t mean that our works and our lifestyle don’t matter in this life, but they don’t provide you salvation from your sins.