Let me introduce you to four men — four modern American evangelicals. We see these men every day.
Each claims the name Christian, and holds to a particular rule or philosophy, though he may not have arrived at such a position consciously or be able to articulate it clearly.
The first man lives by the rule “Christianity is a means by which I can live a peaceful life — one that minimizes pain while maximizing pleasure.” On the surface, he claims to hold to the basic tenets of the faith. He will tell you that he believes in Jesus. He will tell you the Bible is the word of God. He may even read his Bible regularly, but his is a faith of convenience. Put him in another context, where another faith is the dominant religion, and he will align himself with it. He is a religious chameleon, taking the faith of the culture around him. He has not really examined the truthfulness of the claims of Christianity — he just has grown accustomed to it. His faith has never really been challenged because it’s so benignly personal. Christianity leads to a healthy, happy life, but how it does, he has not considered. Christianity allows him to avoid many of the negative consequences of living a godless life. Loving his wife avoids the ugliness of divorce; being honest on his taxes keeps him from going to jail; doing all things in moderation avoids obesity, heart disease, and liver failure. Him we may call the Christian Epicurean.
The second man lives by the rule “I will embrace Christianity in so far as it gives me what I want; when it doesn’t, I will do as I please.” Like the Epicurean, he aligns himself with the Christian name. On a practical level, in most cases, Christianity is the best, most pleasant way to live — until, that is, it becomes difficult or too demanding. He is an ethical Christian businessman, until a desired promotion demands that he fudge on an important report. He is a generous believer, insisting that while God is holy, and he would like his children to be, he is not such an ogre that he would actually demand obedience. He’s a 21st century Ananias, who has sold the property, skimmed his share off the top, and convinced himself that God doesn’t operate the way he used to in the Bible days. Him we may call the Christian Atheist. He claims there is a God, but when push comes to shove, he lives as if there is not. He is similar to the Christian Epicurean, but the difference is in the degree. The Christian Epicurean may become the Christian Atheist; the Christian Atheist may have been a Christian Epicurean. The Christian Epicurean still holds that the commands of God are desirable. The Christian Atheist believes they are desirable until they are inconvenient.
The third man lives by the rule “I believe in Jesus, I know the gospel is right and true, but I can’t expect much joy in this life.” This man lives a life of drudgery. Faith is bare obedience to the precepts of God, stripped of the thrill of enjoying the presence of God. He must obey because it is right, not because it is good. If he has some temporal joy in life, he is anxiously waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. He has taken the truth about the vanity of this life to such an extreme that he misses the eternity present in it. Feeling the life-giving sun on his face, he can only think of skin cancer. Seeing only the brokenness of the world, he misses the beauty. Enjoying a delicious meal, he feels guilt at the supposed excess, which robs him of the opportunity to thank God for the simple gift of taste. He is as pleasant as a toothache. Him we may call the Christian Eeyore.
The fourth man lives by the rule “My greatest joy in life is God’s greatest glory.” John Piper has written much about this man, and has given him the title “the Christian Hedonist.” This man actually believes the psalm that says “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” This man believes the gospel message: that although he was a sinner, Jesus died for his sin, and that by faith and repentance in Jesus, he has been born anew, has been made a new creation, has been forgiven of all of his sin, has been made holy in God’s sight, and has been assured a fixed eternity in the presence of God. He has also come to know the truth as Jesus declared it: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Of course, the term “Christian Epicurean” is an oxymoron, as is “Christian Atheist” or “Christian Eeyore.” You cannot add the adjective “Christian” to something that stands in contradiction to it. (For a defense of the term “Christian Hedonist,” I would refer you to Piper’s book, Desiring God.) What’s more, the adjective “Christian” doesn’t just add to what follows — it changes it completely and identifies it wholly. If I say “I am a Christian American” (which I believe is the proper word order), I am making a statement of identity and ultimate allegiance, by which I can truthfully — and, I believe, biblically — say that I have more in common with a Christian Russian, a Christian Ukrainian, a Christian Israeli, or a Christian Palestinian, than I do with a non-Christian American.
We live in a world where people are afraid to draw solid lines. Everything has become fuzzy and gray. In an ironic mix of charity and arrogance, people quickly, uncritically defend anyone’s claim to be a Christian, but dismissively label “narrow” and “mean-spirited” those bold enough to assert that certain truth claims and evidence, or fruit, should be expected of any who call themselves Christian.
It seems pretty clear in the New Testament that Jesus and the Apostles were not afraid to draw lines dark and thick:
“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Peter 2:1)
“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ…Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. “(Jude 3-4, 11-13)
“Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. (1 Timothy 1:13-14)
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:12-17)
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:15-19)
So, what is the point of all this? Is it to point fingers at those who claim to be something they are not? No. My desire is twofold.
First, that in looking at these four men, we would examine our own hearts. Am I a Christian because I truly believe the gospel and love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength? Or, have I made up a religion of my own by creating a god in my image and simply painting it over with a Christian coating? If it suddenly became difficult to bear the name “Christian” (and I mean really difficult, in that it may cost me everything), would I still hold fast? Would I, like Peter, say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
Second, let us not be afraid to defend the truth — to lovingly, graciously, but firmly clarify what Scripture teaches about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The Enemy’s most effective deceptions are the ones most subtle. He is clever. He will dress up a deception so that it looks as much as the real thing without being the real thing, and thus lead many astray. To allow another human to go along in the belief that he is saved, when in fact he is fooled by a lie, is neither kind nor loving. Let’s love enough to stand up for the truth.