Monday, April 7, 2008

The Questions we Don't Want to Ask

This post is a follow-up to my last one and will culminate by answering the question, "What variables must line up for us to rightfully call ourselves "Christian?" In my last post, I assumed that while Bob Dylan may be nominally Christian, he is not "Christian" in the biblical definition. I hope that he'll prove me wrong in the end. Whatever the case, the more important question for all of us should be, "Am I a Christian?" I will give six tests from the Scriptures to help you answer that and promise that I myself have to constantly answer that same question.

Through the vissicitudes of life, the elements of time beat against our souls and our tastes and interests change. But we could never be freed from the sounds of our youth. Some music always resonates with us and sparks up nostalgia of days gone by. You're probably already hearing the music of your own days.

Probably no other almum hits closer to home for me than Marvin Gay's "What's Going On." This album revealed Marvin's political, philosophical side, which people hadn't seen much of until 1971 when it was released. As a kid I listened to everything from Country to Ol' Skook R&B, and will never forget thumbing through all my parent's old LP's, which defined their era. This got me acquainted with the Carpenter's, The Four Tops, B J Thomas, etc. But none of their music spoke to me like Marvin Gay's. I could listen to songs like "What's Going On" and "Make Me Wanna Holla'" all day while cleaning the house or just killing time. I even remember having friends over and playing it for them. Much to my chagrine, they just didn't get it.

There were a couple years where I quit listening to non-Christian music. But this attempt would be short-lived when I met Jermaine Fenwick during college. Jermaine came to know Christ after being involved with the Nation of Islam for some time. He and I became good friends and would talk, debate and pray together about every day. I found him grooving along one day to his walkman and asked what he was listening to. It was none other than Marvin Gay's song, "What's Happening Brother", from the greatest album ever. I was hooked all over again.

Ever since that fateful day on April 1, 1984, when Marvin was tragically shot by his own father, we have brainstormed about what this 44 year old crooner, who showed no signs of slowing down, could have produced. One of the questions that come up among R&B lovers like myself who also happen to be Christians, is whether or not Marvin was truly a believer. Even after reading Marvin's biography, "Trouble Man," I'm not even going to attempt to answer that question. I reverence his smooth, debonir personality far too much I guess you might say.

It would be easy to conclude that Marvin Gay was a Christian. He had a strong belief in God and even inculcated this belief in his music. One of his songs was entitled "God is Love." In this song, Marvin repeats the chorus "Oh don't go and talk about my father, God is my friend." Then background of Marvin's voice chimes in by singing: "Jesus is my friend." You will not find a more beautiful song anywhere that puts in perspective the need to confirm our love for God by exhibiting love toward our fellow man.

I have read enough to know without a doubt that artists like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ron Isely (of the Isely Brothers) and Bob Dylan all have a strong belief in God as well. Steve Turner has written a great book describing the journey of countless artists in their spiritual quest for truth (Hungry for Heaven: Rock 'N' Roll & the Search for Redemption, 1995). As I said in my previous post, I am not in a place to judge anyone; it is only by the grace of God that I myself am not only judged, but condemned (Romans 5:15-21). Yet, Jesus told us: "you shall know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:20). These words in context were to help his disciples discern who was a sheep, and who was nothing more than a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Keith Green, who was a bluntly biblical Christian artist, once said, "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger!" In other words, it is not enough to profess that we know Christ by going to church or standing up on stage and thanking Christ. We must not only profess Christ, but possess Christ.

Obviously, I profess to know Christ. But I must always ask myself, "do I really possess Christ?" If you read this blog and then see me cussing somebody out after giving them the double-gun (two birds) salute in traffic, you would probably say that I'm not a sheep at all, only a wolf in sheep's clothing. When Jesus says that "you will know them by their fruits" He is telling us that we can know whether or not we, and those around us are believers based on the fruit revealed in the way that we live.

Having an assurance that you are safe in the arms of God as a Christian cannot be based solely on the fact that we prayed a prayer, or were baptized, or go to church every week. However, the Bible gives us several tests we must first apply to our lives to determine whether there is evidence of God’s grace there. Paul goes so far as to command us to “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves” (II Corinthians 13:5). Here are six tests straight from the Scriptures you can start with. As our lives line up to the following six tests that we can gain the hope and assurance of salvation. But remember, following these tests could never get anyone saved. Rather, these tests give evidence that you have already been radically changed by God himself:

1. Do you love the Lord Jesus Christ?

Paul prays, “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha” (I Corinthians 16:22). These are politically incorrect words if there ever was such. But to fulfill the first and greatest commandment, which is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37) our hearts must be solely devoted to Him.

St. Augustine described this love well when he wrote, “He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.” Everything in our lives should exist for His glory; and every activity done should be done out of love for Him.

This first test may sound simple, but it is actually the only test. The other five tests determine whether we pass this first one, or whether we’re fooling ourselves when we sing, “I love you, Lord.”

2. Are you actively guarding your soul from sin and the world?

The Apostle Paul humbly acknowledges that he himself could apostatize and prove himself to become a hypocrite if he was not diligent in guarding his heart from being drawn away with the world. “But I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (I Corinthians 9:27).

First John tells us plainly, “Do not love the world, nor the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (I John 2:15). Guard your heart with all diligence (Proverbs 4:23), because to gain the world is to forfeit your claim to God. Too many professing Christians are in love with this world. They love endulging "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life." John tells us that we cannot love this world which is at war with God and yet profess to love God (read also, Colossians 1:20-21, James 4:4).

3. Are you free from habitual sin?

I John 3:9 tells us that “no one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” I John teaches that as Christians, we will sin at times, and that “If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (I John 2:1). We can confess our sins and know that He is faithful and just to forgive us (I John 1:9). As Christians, we never get beyond a place of brokenness and repentance until we see Jesus face to face (i.e., Psalm 34:18, 51:16-17).

However, it is clear that if a Christian remains in habitual sin, and is not convicted and remorseful, his faith is vain. Just consider the black and white clarity with which John distinguishes those who are true believers from those who are lying hypocrites, "The one who says, 'I have come to know Him, and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected" (I John 2:4-5).

4. Are you convicted when you sin?

As said previously, Christians are not perfect, and there are times that we succumb to our old nature and fall flat on our faces. The difference between a believer and one who is lost is in how they respond to sin. A believer possesses the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and will inevitably be convicted with guilt when he sins. Hebrews tells us that just as earthly fathers discipline their children, the Holy Spirit will discipline us when we sin. “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives . . . But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Hebrews 12:6, 8).

5. Do you love your neighbor as yourself?

Our world is becoming more decadent and distant from God; one of the most obvious indicators of this godlessness is that the love of many in our culture has grown cold (Matthew 24:12). The murder of unwanted children is commonplace as over 48 million abortions have been performed in the US alone since Roe vs. Wade. This type of disregard for human life out of convenience should cause our society to be repulsed. But instead, our society is only becoming more callus as we are now considering seriously the legality of euthanizing grown adults that are unwanted or disabled.

Christians, however, have a strong warrant to believe that every human life has dignity and is worthy of respect. We believe that man is created in the image of God. I John goes so far as to say that if we do not love our brother, we cannot call ourselves Christians, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:7-8). Also, “anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (I John 3:10).

It is not enough just to say we love our neighbor; John tells us that if this love is not evidenced by offering aid to those who are in need, then what we call love isn’t love at all, and our faith should be called into question. “But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him” (I John 3:17).

6. Are you persevering?

There are many passages in the New Testament that warn us of false faith that fizzles before the finish. Mark my words, this kind of fickle faith isn’t faith from the first. I John tells us that if someone claims to be a believer, and yet falls away, their faith was false to begin with, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us” (I John 2:18-19).

God’s grace never fails. If what we possess is genuine, it will persevere until the very end. This is why Paul can speak with confidence to the Philippians, “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Your assurance should grow day by day as you continue by God’s grace to persevere. Hebrews tells us that our full assurance will culminate in the end, when we have remained faithful to our Lord, “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (Hebrews 3:14).

An occasional, "I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" is cool. I'll be shouting with joy anytime a musician on the tube mentions the name "Jesus", especially in a PC culture where it been practically banned.

But sorry, this glib reference to "Jesus" is not evidence of true faith. If Jesus, who's entire message on this earth was "repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17) lives inside you, then your own message to a dying world must be just as urgent. If God’s Spirit has made its residence in your life, then you will persevere until the end because it is no longer you who lives, but Christ Himself who lives in you (Galatians 2:20).

1 comment:

Gene said...


It is an amazing and wonderful thing to ponder the impact of good music upon our hearts and souls. I was deeply impacted by the recent death of Larry Norman, the first great pioneer of what was then known as "Jesus Music" or "Jesus Rock". His music was very encouraging to me as a young Christian in the mid-1970s. Larry was the target of the slings and arrows from both the secular music industry, and sadly, religious folks that wanted nothing to do with his "new wine". His music has lost none of its power to deliver the Gospel to the listener, yet Larry was a flawed believer who deeply wounded some of his closest friends. He was a curious combination of "greatness and wretchedness" not unlike every man, as our friend Pascal has said. Your six tests for Christian authenticity are a daily tonic that we would be wise to apply. Only by the likewise daily abiding in His grace can we even have the courage to ask ourselves the questions! Every age has its temptations and distractions that war against the work of the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of Christ Jesus. I just discovered your site a few days ago. I appreciate your voice of faith and reason amidst a world and church that often value neither.