3 Tests for Genuine Christianity

 

In 2011 I had the great joy and pleasure of preaching through the book of 1 John.  It was a series birthed out of the necessity to ensure that those who heard had 1. definitely been exposed to the gospel and 2. Had known without question what genuine Christianity was to look like.

In this epistle, the Apostle of love, writing under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, provides for us three tests for genuine Christianity which of course should be applied first personally (2 Corinthians 13:5) and then to professing believers (Matthew 7:20).  These three tests, by way of gleaning through and interpreting the epistle, may be summarized as follows:

  1. Knowledge of God
  2. Growth in Holiness
  3. Love for Believers

First, knowledge of God.  This knowledge of God is more than just accumulating facts about who God is, or what He has done.  Instead, this knowing is more intimate, it is far more relational.  In fact, in 1 John it is called fellowship, If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:6-7  This mention of fellowship, namely the “with him” is further defined in verse three as “fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.”  

Concerning this fellowship, Martyn Lloyd- Jones says, “Here we are given, without any hesitation, a description, the summum bonum [highest good], of the Christian life; here, indeed, is the whole object, the ultimate, the goal of all Christian experience and all Christian endeavour.  This, beyond any question, is the central message of the Christian gospel and of the Christian faith.” As the Apostle instructs us, walking in darkness is incompatible with having fellowship with God.”

Which brings us to the second test, growth in holiness.  An extended quote from chapter 3 is necessary to establish the significance of this in the apostle’s message

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

Clearly, a practice of sinning is incompatible with practice of righteous, or growth in holiness.

Finally, love for believers.

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. 1 John 2:9-11

A genuine Christian profession, by necessity, manifests love for the brethren.  It is not optional.  Commenting on this test and its relationship with fellowship with God, Lloyd-Jones writes, “To fail to love the brethren will interrupt our fellowship with the Father and therefore rob us of many of the blessings of the Christian life.” 

This trinity of genuineness, in the form of these three tests, cannot be broken.  If one has perceived knowledge of God, but lacks any noticeable evidence of growth in holiness, then their profession is simply disingenuous.  How many scholars have waxed eloquently on philosophical musings of the attributes of God, yet their words have lacked any notion of charity or love.  How many preachers of doctrine of God have garnered a spot in the public eye only to fall hard and fast from scandalous sins.

Similarly, if one would appear outwardly to be holy, perhaps by living a moral life, but internally lacking any knowledge of God through His Son Jesus Christ, then again, the result is a disingenuous profession of faith.  It is by grace we are saved through faith in Christ, thus drawing us to an intimate knowledge of the Father through the Son.  Works have their place after salvation, but despite the efforts of men simply cannot contribute towards a coming to faith.  We throw around the label of a “good man” far too liberally, yet why do we call anyone good?  No one is good but God. (Mark 10:18)

Finally, love for believers is sometimes the most misconstrued quality because it seems most naturally connected to the condition of the heart, i.e. good heart, and this may sometimes prove to be true.  Downstream of genuine knowledge of God and growth in holiness is a necessity to show love for the brethren.  It is an indispensable consequence.  However, charities, hospitals, and mercy organizations by the legion have been started by men and women who could care less about who Christ is, yet alone the demand of holiness placed on their lives.  Additionally, there have been those whose great goal in life was the establishment of social justice, yet lack genuine knowledge of God and any semblance of holiness.  Would anyone dare doubt the love for humanity that someone who rings the bell for social justice, be it race, class, economic or otherwise? (unless of course there were ulterior motives, but that could never happen…right?)

The motivation for this post has primarily been driven by recent conferences in which men have ascribed genuine Christianity and then celebrated a man who has certainly rung the bell for social justice louder than any other in the United States, yet without question there is documented evidence of failing the first two of these tests.  Is he then among the faithful?  No.  Should he then be celebrated and held up as a Christian model for showing love to the brothers? No.

Brothers and Sisters I implore you, do not let personal agendas or feelings, even if they are for friends or family members who you genuinely desire to see saved, compromise the written and holy word of almighty God.  As we know, our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, yet God’s Word is true and provides a plumb-line, a compass for navigating this life through the revelation of Himself.

If you are struggling to know whether you are genuinely saved, look to the epistle of 1 John and humbly ask the Lord to apply these tests to your heart.  For those who do not struggle with assurance, these tests are a good reminder and litmus test for where you are currently in the process of sanctification.  Are you growing in the knowledge of God, a desire for holiness, and expressing love for the brothers?   Finally, if there are those within your circle, even those whom you admire from a distance, apply these tests to their lives and take the results into consideration before ascribing to them the label of a genuine believer in Christ.

The Favor of God in the Life of Joseph

 

If one were to summarize the life of Joseph it might well be this: Joseph experienced the favor of God, in good times and in bad, through the providential working of God, for his good and the magnification of the glory of God.

While Joseph is certainly the central human figure in Genesis 38-41, most definitely the passage is centered upon the actions and character of God, often moving through and in front of Joseph.

About 8 years ago, we touched on the providence of God in the life of Joseph and that is probably the most recognizable theme within the story of Joseph. However, there is an equally compelling work of God in the Joseph’s life.  It is primarily displayed as God’s favor towards Joseph, which again brings us to a worthy meditation.

In Genesis 39 we find Joseph, whom his brothers have sold into slavery, ascending to the highest position in the house of Potipher, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh.  Verse 2 of this chapter sets the tone for our discussion here and serves as a reminder that despite the circumstances, which of course were filled with adversity, God never left Joseph’s side, “The Lord was with Joseph….”  This concept is repeated a couple of verses later, but the effects are expanded, “From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.” Gen. 39:5  This formula is used again and serves to frame this pericope in Genesis 39:23.

The principal question for us is, what does it mean that the Lord was with Joseph?  Summarily, we may call this the favor of God or the beneficence of God, to use the term from the Reformation Study Bible.

It would be enough for us if we observed this favor of God towards Joseph during times of prosperity.  For instance, if we read, “and the Lord was with Joseph” and found it occurring during a time of prosperity or blessing, it would likely be more palatable for us.  The difficulty, and what makes this even more worthy of our marvel, is that these statements are made after Joseph has been sold into slavery and again after he has been falsely accused and imprisoned.

The point is this:  often during our darkest or perhaps loneliest or perhaps our most adverse times, we get the impression not only that God is not for us, but that He is not even with us.  Yet the opposite is true and precisely what we see in the Joseph narrative.

Let’s pause to ponder this briefly.  Joseph, an Israelite by birth, is a slave in Northern Africa, Egypt to be precise, sold by his brothers no less.  Who did he have with him during this seemingly dry, deserted time in his life?  Noone…but God.

God’s favor towards Joseph was so abundant that it spilled over into the life and house of a pagan, Egyptian ruler, as seen in the verse above,  “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.”  Genesis 39:5  Have you ever considered that in your life, including your affliction, the favor that God may show you is so abundant that it positively impacts those around you?

Sometimes our inability to see God’s presence in our lives, particularly during difficulty, is because we are looking through the lens of circumstance, rather than through the lens of providence.  The former is blinding, the later is illuminating.  The former is crippling, the later is comforting.

God has promised to never leave us or forsake us and it is a promise that we should set our hope in.  A promise rooted and grounded in the love of the Father to send His only begotten Son to die, in the love of the Son who gave up His life willingly, and the love of the Spirit, who daily comforts us and brings to mind the aforementioned promises of God.

 

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VI

 

[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]

The post below is a a little longer than the others in this series.

In our last post from this series we looked at the development of “Christian sacralism” through the influence of Emperor Constantine.  We also saw its effects upon the growth and expansion of the so-called universal church and how it’s evolution, essentially its institutional unity and episcopal leadership, were instrumental for the arrival of Constantinianism, or the marriage of Church with State.  A marriage that resulted formally in Christendom, or nominal Christianity.  This was a union that would not be easily broken and continues to bear bad fruit to this day.

One particular area of rottenness was the influx of immorality into the universal or catholic church, a byproduct of Christian sacralism.  This increasing lack of discipline, which existed in the centuries prior, as we’ve seen, increased exponentially with the merger with the State, but interestingly its influence occurred in two opposite directions.  Historian Phillip Schaff points out that the first influence “increased the stringency of discipline and led to a penal code for spiritual offences.”  Essentially this resulted in an enactment of civil punishment on all those who would oppose Christendom, which would lead to the death penalty for heretics and wars against infidels.  Second, “with an increasing stringency against heretics, firmness against practical errors diminished.  Hatred of heresy and laxity of morals, zeal for purity of doctrine and indifference to purity of life, which ought to exclude each other, do really often stand in union.”  Basically the 4th Century suffered from the same errors of Jehu (2 Kings 9-10), that of zeal against the idolatrous all the while harboring golden calves within their own hearts.  This is the height of hypocrisy, but its to be expected when the emphasis shifts towards an institutional, external, now state-sponsored church, if we can even use that term anymore and still retain the biblical meaning of ekklesia. (as an aside, all of this is not to take away from the genuine believers, and there were many, who loved the Lord and sought personal holiness)

Turning to Schaff again, he eloquently states the primary issue, “In that mighty revolution under Constantine the church lost her virginity, and allied herself with the mass of heathendom, which had not yet experienced an inward change.” (pg. 357)  Again, as we’ve asked in previous posts from this series, can this usage of “church” with the adjective universal rightly describe and define the “church”, or more accurately the ekklesia, that Christ died for?

No.

In this post, we want to look again at a schism, or movement in opposition from the catholic church.  Recall that in Part III of this series we introduced two of these prominent movements, Montanism and Novatianism, that opposed the universal or catholic church and her episcopacy.  Once again, we’ll turn to Berkhof for a review on the climate of schisms

The early Church Fathers, in combating these sectaries, emphasized ever increasingly the episcopal institution of the Church.  Cyprian has the distinction of being the first to develop fully the doctrine of the episcopal Church.  He regarded the bishops as the real successors of the apostles and ascribed to them a priestly character in virtue of their sacrificial work.  They together formed a college, called the episcopate, which as such constituted the unity of the Church.  The unity of the Church was thus based on the unity of the bishops.  They who do not subject themselves to the bishop forfeit the fellowship of the Church and also their salvation, since there is no salvation outside of the Church.

To reiterate, the universality or catholicity of the church was rooted in the episcopate, or office of bishops.  As we’ve seen with various movements opposed to the universal church they sometimes occurred because of doctrine, but most often because of practice, i.e. a laxity in morality.  Any movement of opposition or dissidence against the catholic church and especially her bishops was a forfeiture of salvation, because, “outside the church there is no salvation.”

This, however, created a major problem.  What to do with those apostates who wanted back in, the lapsed, and what to do with those who were baptized outside of the catholic church who wanted to join, the heretics?  This debate was not new and not easily settled.  In the third century, Cyprian held the position that those who were baptized outside the catholic church were invalid and therefore not allowed in without rebaptism.  He was opposed by Stephen (who the Roman Catholic Church view as one in the successive line of popes), who took the position that a baptism outside the catholic church was valid.  These debates concerning discipline and baptism ultimately led a system of penitence, which of course becomes an issue again with the Reformation. 

Fast forward a century and we arrive at another schism from the catholic church, one that again revolved around this issue of discipline and more specifically who was in/out of the universal, catholic church.  This third group, the Donatists, were arguably the most significant and garnered the most opposition.  Historian Philipp Schaff introduces this critical schism

Donatism was by far the most important schism in the church of the period before us (311-590).  For a whole century it divided North African chuchces into two hostile camps.  Like the schisms of the former period (100-325), it arose from the conflict of the more rigid and the more indulgent theories of discipline in reference to the restoration of the lapsed.  But through the intervention of the Christianized state, it assumed at the same time an ecclesiastical-political character.  The rigoristic penitential discipline had been represented in the previous period especially by the Montanists and Novatians, who were still living; while the milder principle and practice had found its most powerful support in the Roman church, and, since the time of Constantine, had generally prevailed. (Vol. III pg. 360)

The Donatists were born out of the bloodied soil of martyrdom that arose from the persecution of Diocletian.  The Donatist Schism officially began after the 311 Edict of Toleration, but finds its roots in 305 at the height of the Diocletian Persecution. Historian N.R. Needham provides a succinct overview of the movement’s beginnings

“The last great persecution under Diocletian had left the Church in North-West Africa bitterly divided.  Large Numbers of Christians refused to recognise the new bishop of Carthage, Caecilian (appointed in 311), because one of the bishops who ordained him had allegedly handed over the Bible to be burnt during Diocletian’s persecution.  The result was a split: two rival Churches came into being, each claiming to be the true Catholic Church in North-West Africa.  One Church was led by Caecilian, the other by a rival bishop called Donatus (died 355).  The followers of Donatus were called ‘Donatists’.

Basically, during the persecution from Diocletian, bishops were specifically targeted, many were killed, but some, perhaps out of self-preservation, handed over the Scriptures or denied the faith altogether.  Those who did were called traditores, i.e. traitors.  These traditors sought restoration back to their position of bishop by means of penance once the persecution had ended.  One of these restored bishops was responsible for the ordination of another bishop, Caecilian, and it was that ordination, along with any subsequent baptisms administered by him, that was called into question.  At some point, we will need to address what baptism actually meant in the early church, but that place is probably not in this series.

The problem, from the Donatist perspective, was that an apostate should not be allowed restoration, especially to the position of bishop.  All sacraments administered downstream of this bishop would therefore be invalid.  This belief was similar to the earlier response from Cyprian mentioned above because of the emphasis on the worthiness of the one administering the baptism.

In modern terms, imagine if a pastor apostatized the faith but later repented.  Should he be restored to his position of pastor?  If so, should he then be allowed to administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper?  Would those baptisms be considered valid?

Because Donatism has often been labeled a heresy and because the summation of the movement has been about the one particular incident, then the stand they made might seem like much ado about nothing.  But at its heart was much more than whether one particular bishop who had denied the faith was qualified to ordain another bishop and subsequently whether that bishop could perform baptisms.  More than this, a debate was forming over the nature of the church, i.e. who was in and who was out, as well as whether holiness can rightly define membership.

Schaff summarizes,

“The Donatist controversy was a conflict between separatism and catholicism; between ecclesiastical purism and ecclesiastical eclecticism; between the idea of the church as an exclusive community of regenerate saints and the idea of the church as the general Christendom of state and people.  It revolved around the doctrine of the essence of the Christian church, and, in particular, of the predicate of holiness.” Vol III pg. 365

In 316, Constantine ordered the exile of all Donatists and the confiscation of their buildings, displaying the early effects of the newly installed Christian sacralism.  When these efforts at reconciling the Donatists with the catholic church failed, Constantine reversed his order in 321.

If you’ve followed along with this series up to this point, you may be asking whether this discussion of the universal church even matters.  For the Donatists, it did.  They were willing to die for the nature of the church.  This wasn’t and isn’t simply a matter of semantics, it was and is a matter of holiness.  It was and is about who can rightly be called the children of God.  It was and is about how the people of God embrace the pilgrim mindset as they live in this world.  Was the Donatist argument flawed?  Maybe, but the debate that lasted for over a century was revealing.  Simply put, the ongoing debate was due to a faulty conception of a universal/catholic church.

To get to the crux of this issue, it’s necessary to quote Phillip Schaff at length

“The Donatists, like Tertullian in his Montanistic writings, started from an ideal and spiritualistic conception of the church as a fellowship of saints, which in a sinful world could only be imperfectly realized. They laid chief stress on the predicate of the subjective holiness or personal worthiness of the several members, and made the catholicity of the church and the efficacy of the sacraments dependent upon that. The true church, therefore, is not so much a school of holiness, as a society of those who are already holy; or at least of those who appear so; for that there are hypocrites not even the Donatists could deny, and as little could they in earnest claim infallibility in their own discernment of men. By the toleration of those who are openly sinful, the church loses, her holiness, and ceases to be church. Unholy priests are incapable of administering sacraments; for how can regeneration proceed from the unregenerate, holiness from the unholy? No one can give what he does not himself possess. He who would receive faith from a faithless man, receives not faith but guilt.  It was on this ground, in fact, that they rejected the election of Caecilian: that he had been ordained bishop by an unworthy person. On this ground they refused to recognize the Catholic baptism as baptism at all. On this point they had some support in Cyprian, who likewise rejected the validity of heretical baptism, though not from the separatist, but from the catholic point of view, and who came into collision, upon this question, with Stephen of Rome.

Hence, like the Montanists and Novatians, they insisted on rigorous church discipline, and demanded the excommunication of all unworthy members, especially of such as had denied their faith or given up the Holy Scriptures under persecution. They resisted, moreover, all interference of the civil power in church affairs; though they themselves at first had solicited the help of Constantine. In the great imperial church, embracing the people in a mass, they saw a secularized Babylon, against which they set themselves off, in separatistic arrogance, as the only true and pure church. In support of their views, they appealed to the passages of the Old Testament, which speak of the external holiness of the people of God, and to the procedure of Paul with respect to the fornicator at Corinth.”

The questions that revolved around the Dontatist interpretation and application of Cyprian would remain, and the controversy would rage on for decades, until the arrival of Augustine, who would take up the banner of the catholic church and seek to silence the Donatist dissenters.  History remembers Augustine as the clear “winner” of this debate, as his works have survived and been a great influence, while the Dontatists have faded away.  But was he right?  We’ll examine his rebuttal in the next post.

The three “sects” that we’ve looked at up to this point, Novatianism, Montanism, and their culmination in Donatism, stand as sign posts for those who would challenge the authoritarian, institutional catholic church.  Additionally, they are evidence that orthodox believers, whether in sects or as separatists via schism, existed outside of what called itself the “universal church”.  Historically, all three have been referred to as heresies.  A heresy, rightly defined, is a belief that goes against Scripture.  Unfortunately, most of these early sects were called heresies because they went against the beliefs of the church while attempting to uphold Scripture.  You can almost hear the arguments forming for who holds the supreme authority, the church or the Scriptures? Sola Ecclesia or Sola Scriptura.

This isn’t to say of course that each of these movements were wholesale biblical, but neither were they wholesale heretical.  What they were, were early attempts to reform the church and conform her more to the image of the New Testament church.  They were begun by people who were not afraid to step outside of an external, institutional and eventually state-sponsored church.  Unfortunately, because of excesses in the movements, often tangential, they are largely viewed as heretical sects, but as we’ve seen and will ultimately conclude, this is a problematic and extremely slippery slope.

 

 

Ephesians 4:15 "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ"