You’ve probably heard people say that one should not simply say he is a Christian, but rather act like one. This, they say, is how the world will know he is a Christian.
Here’s the problem with this idea: as soon as we begin to say that our behavior is what identifies us as Christians, we start to categorize and define what we believe to be Christian behaviors. In other words, what does it mean to “act like a Christian”? If I passed out a questionnaire with that question to my (or any other American church) congregation and asked them to jot down ideas, I’m sure we would get a lot of “doing good” answers. Loving the outcasts. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the poor. Do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Help support orphans and widows. No doubt, these are all noble causes. They’re all commendable concerns. But there’s nothing uniquely Christian about them. One does not have to be a Christian to be a good person. Furthermore, one does not have to be a good person to be a Christian (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Why can’t we have both? Is there any reason we cannot fearlessly tell of our faith in Jesus and support that by living a lifestyle that supports and reinforces the principles of said faith?
The apostle Paul did not get beat up, run out of town, and stoned (the violent one, not the hippie one) just because of acted like a “good person.” Nor did he receive violent opposition just for his words. Paul’s life and ministry was turbulent because he was effective. His faith, words, and actions were constantly in such perfect harmony that they actually had a lasting impact on those he came into contact with.
One does not have to read very far into Paul’s letter to the Roman church before seeing some defining characteristics of a true follower of Jesus Christ.
Paul affirms his fellow Christians.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. (Romans 1:8, ESV)
Affirmation is a delicacy in our day and age. Whether it is at work, home, or even church, words of affirmation are few and far between. If you read my first post in this series, you would know that the recipients of Paul’s letter are struggling. They are discouraged, and are living in constant fear and uncertainty. Living in a new “modern” society and as outcasts of their upbringing, they need to hear words of encouragement. Paul’s affirming words not only reinforce their efforts, but give them much-needed support that they aren’t receiving elsewhere.
Paul prays for his fellow Christians.
God knows how often I pray for you. Day and night I bring you and your needs in prayer to God, whom I serve with all my heart[a] by spreading the Good News about his Son. (Romans 1:9, NLV)
The Christians in Rome did nothing to earn Paul’s prayer. They did not ask for it. They didn’t offer anything in return. It was unsolicited divine intercession. To be sure, the Christians in Rome were lonely and discouraged. How wonderful it must have been to read this letter and learn that someone is thinking of them and lifting them up in prayer.
Some of my biggest points of growth have been when receiving encouragement from a church member. I can remember a couple occasions where a man or woman offered, unsolicited, to pray for me. A few times, the prayer happened on the spot. Other times, it came in the form of “I’d like to pray for you. Is there anything specific I could be praying about?”
On the other side of the coin, I’ve experienced others’ lack of support for me. Sometimes it was because of my preaching or worship-leading style. Other times, folks may have disagreed with a particular administrative decision I made in ministry. I’ve even learned of someone recommending I be removed from ministry because I wore a hat in the building. Folks will always (and are perfectly entitled to) disagree with something going on in the church. But each of these incidents has two things in common: 1) I was not directly approached for a discussion on the matter, and 2) I’m pretty sure the people did not make it a matter of prayer – in private OR with the folks they chose to take the matter to.
The fact is the same for Christians today as it was for the Roman church in AD 57: knowing that others are lifting them up in prayer gives them an incredible feeling of support and empowerment.
Paul values fellowship & synergy with other Christians.
…I find myself constantly praying for you and hoping it’s in God’s will for me to be with you soon.11 I desperately want to see you so that I can share some gift of the Spirit to strengthen you. 12 Plus I know that when we come together something beautiful will happen as we are encouraged by each other’s faith.
13 If, my brothers and sisters, you did not already know, my plans were set to meet you in Rome, but time and circumstances have forced every trip to be canceled until now. I have deeply desired to see some good fruit among you just as I have seen with so many non-Jewish believers. (Romans 1:10-13, The Voice Translation. Emphasis belongs to the publication)
If anybody knows the value of strength in numbers, it is Paul. He understands the value of being physically present with like-minded people, both for the sake of sharing a common goal and for supporting one another. How should a sports team expect to win any games if they do not practice together? How would buildings ever be built without like-minded people sharing a common goal? If affirmation and prayer are the support that Christians need, then fellowship and synergy are the foundation that they stand on.
Paul devotes himself not just to Christians, but the whole world.
For I have a great sense of obligation to people in both the civilized world and the rest of the world,[c] to the educated and uneducated alike. (Romans 1:14, NLT)
The original word that was translated to obligation in this verse is used in the Bible to refer to a debtor. The interesting thing about the debt that Paul feels obligated to pay here is that it is voluntary. He voluntarily devotes himself to praying for, supporting, affirming, and working alongside his fellow human beings. As his scars can attest to, this deep sense of accountability to the fate of humanity often brought him well outside his comfort zone.
Paul was eager to spread the gospel.
So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (Romans 1:15, NASB)
The Greek word translated to eager is “prothymos.” When we hear the English word eager, we usually think of someone who is wide-eyed, hopeful, and excited. But prothymos actually refers to someone who is ready and willing for a task. Prothymos implies that Paul is not just willing to preach the gospel, he is prepared. It is one thing to be willing to tell people you are a Christian. It is another to actually be prepared to talk about it. Paul has done his homework. He is prepared, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to spread the gospel.
Paul was unashamed of the gospel.
16 For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile.17 This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” (Romans 1:16-17, NLT)
Despite popular opinion, there are reasons a person could legitimately be ashamed of Christianity. My wife, who is an exercise physiologist and professor of kinesiology, deals with the issue of ignorant and arrogant people in her field all of the time. The health and fitness field is packed full of misinformation, fraudulent claims, under-qualified people, ignorant endorsements, and outright phony products. Because of this, she often finds herself ashamed to be associated with certain people, products, or positions in her field.
The church is no different. Packed with imperfect people, the church is not immune to misinformation, fraudulent claims, under-qualified people, ignorant endorsements, or even phony products. But Paul stands unashamed. Why? Because he puts his trust in a higher power than the feeble attempts of man. He has experienced, firsthand, the truth of the gospel, and he has staked his eternal life on this truth. Sure, the gospel may appear foolish to those who don’t understand and who haven’t given it a proper reading. Sure, the cause of Christ is often discredited by unprepared, ignorant, or arrogant people who claim to be Christians. But those who have sincerely put their faith in the good news of Jesus Christ have every reason to be confident in the power and righteousness revealed in it.
So how do they know you’re a Christian?
Atheist blogger Dan Fincke recommends these steps (not really) to showing you are a Christian:
When it comes right down to it the only way to show people you’re a Christian is with distinctively religious Christian words, signs, symbols, ritual behaviors, and deeds. And church attendance. Lots and lots of church attendance. Especially church attendance when poseurs would never show up. And proselytize. Do lots of that. Also go out of your way to bring up Jesus in contexts that no one but a Christian could possibly want to hear about him. (Or in ways that drive even other Christians crazy.) And create conflict and alienation with your friends and family and colleagues who don’t believe by taking their non-belief as inherently offensive and any criticisms they level at your faith as personal attacks. Also try to get Christianity established as an official religion in your country, demand laws be based on Christian teachings, and get Christian theology into science textbooks.
And whatever you do, don’t try to literally follow out that stuff that Jesus says about not being judgmental. Because not only will that make you seem outrightunChristian to many, it may have the totally unintended effect of just making others think you’re gay.
(I happen to really appreciate Dan’s thoughts on this issue. Read the whole post here.)
Bottom line: if you want to be the type of person who emulates the true spirit of the gospel of Jesus, look at Paul’s life and example. He had an entire career of working to attain holiness through works before he even came to know Jesus. Once he experienced Jesus firsthand, his entire life revolved around the Great Commission until his martyrdom in none other than the city of Rome. From experience, Paul knew that the Christian life took so much more than “acting like a Christian.” It takes nothing less than one’s whole life.