Last year, an opportunity opened up for me to teach a group of very-young-in-the-faith believers. This is not the first time I have worked with new believers but I find that I am taking a different approach this time. You would think that one of the first things I would teach them was how to be a good Christian. After all, isn’t that what every new believer wants to know…”how do I do this Christian thing?” It seems reasonable that I would want to teach them Christian living principles so they can have some type of guideline. Right?
Well, I that is not what I did nor is what I advocate to teach Christians, even believers who are new to the faith. Instead, I wholeheartedly endorse teaching the foundations of Christianity. Foundations of Christianity are a very different animal than Christian living principles. Foundations start with an understanding of God, who He is and what He has provided. Foundations establish how God has revealed Himself and His redemptive plan for His creation through Christ. Foundations teach who Christians are according to what the Father has done through the Son by the Spirit. Foundations teach how the individual salvation relates to the corporate entity of the church.
Christian living principles, on the other hand, provide a methodology for how to approach spiritual life. It is basically a checklist for compliance for maintaining Christian growth. Here are some principles that I have found common
- Read your bible
- Maintain fellowship with other believers
- Walk in integrity and honesty
- Get involved with serving
- Share your faith
While this may seem like a good list to give new Christians, I do not believe that ultimately compliance with principles is what leads to authentic Christian growth. In fact, I think this could actually be a hindrance and can ensnare new Christians as they strive to understand what the Christian life is about. So here are five reasons I do not teach Christian living principles.
1) Christian living principles do not teach the Christian how to grow spiritually. They only provide a standard for compliance.
2) Christian living principles can get confused for actual spiritual growth. A believer may get the impression that they are becoming a better Christian simply because of compliance. Conversely, they may feel they are not good Christians by lack of compliance. Rather, spiritual growth occurs when the believer is becoming more Christ-like, trusting in the completed work of the cross, yielding to the Holy Spirit and participating in active body life. This can only happen through authentic learning and support of the Christian community.
3) Christian living principles encourage a standard by which to evaluate the spiritual status of other Christians. This is not necessarily a good thing. What I have discovered both through the pages of scripture and experientially is that God takes Christians through varied and individualized growth processes. Growth should be steady but does not occur the same way with everyone. The Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts of Christians in ways we cannot fully know.
4) Foundations establishes the Christian in their identity. Considering that we still have fleshly tendencies and histories of how we see ourselves, authentic growth occurs by understanding who we are in Christ. And this happens when we understand who He is and what He has accomplished according to the will of the Father. The more we understand who God is and who we are, the more it ought to affect our reliance upon the Holy Spirit, our worship and submission to the triune God and our relations to members of the body of Christ. We will not need to tell Christians to read their bible if they understand that it is God’s communication to us. We will not need to tell Christians to pray when they gain an understanding of the necessity of prayer. We will not need to be told to serve if we understand our position in relation to the church, its purpose and function.
5) Foundations encourage developing a life of grace. If we are to believe that the grace freely given to us through Christ is unmerited and the basis of our Christian existence, then maintenance of grace is only achieved through reliance on that grace and the active work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, it mitigates the need for us to evaluate other Christians according to a list of things we think they should be doing. Foundations rightly put the focus on God and how we relate to Him.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Christians do not need to live by principles. Nor am I advocating for the abandonment of methodology. But my premise is that what Christians need to grow in grace and true knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18) is the foundation by which they understand grace and the true knowledge of Christ. This can only happen when they learn about God on His terms and the life that He has called them to. Whatever methodology is needed will follow. Whatever principles that should be the fabric of our Christian life will fall into place as we grow and develop into maturity.
So how have I approached this? In my class, we started out with the concept of revelation and God’s intentional unveiling of Himself. The gospel is the very fabric by which we understand what we have. We did an overview of the bible, establishing the story of revelation and how each component fits within that story. We have been plodding through John for a few months now, which we approach holistically and theologically striving to learn about God on His terms. To be sure, the subject of Christian living principles come up but it is only in response to what we are learning about what God has communicated to us and our Christian identity. It is invigorating watching these guys grow.