Professor Edward H. Pauley
As any reputable historian can attest, movements and institutions have a way of changing over time, sometimes within one generation, so that they are almost unrecognizable to later observers. Historic, orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, has maintained an identity and continuity at its core for nearly two thousand years. That core of faith and practice, of doctrine and deed, has been dubbed by one of its most articulate twentieth century adherents, C. S. Lewis, as "Mere Christianity." It is the common ground on which traditional Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant believers stand. Despite centuries of passionate differences among themselves, the wonder is how much they share with each other and with the first century Christianity of the New Testament.
The purpose of this essay is to adduce a fundamental, underlying reason why this should be so. If the central dynamic of historic Christianity can be highlighted, it will provide the impartial observer with a basis for giving it serious consideration as well as for sorting out its various historic expressions. Put briefly, the elan vitale of Christianity is Christ. It is not the teaching of Christ by itself that makes Christianity unique; the world has known many great teachers. It is not the example of Christ alone that sets Christianity apart from other world religions; there have been many admirable lives that have been lived in the history of mankind. It is certainly not any visible organization that calls itself "Christian," for all such organizations have had leaders and periods of history of which they are not proud. Rather, it is the absolute distinctiveness of the person of Jesus Christ that accounts for Christianity's continuing to be a living, growing movement.
Beyond the person of Christ, there is indeed a central body of teaching that has been believed and taught by all major Christian groups throughout the last twenty centuries. Since the critics of Christianity often delight in pointing out the differences among various communions, and there are real and deep differences in doctrine, it is all the more important to underscore the points of agreement. Since Christianity claims to be teaching truth, it should not be surprising that that truth will, in the words of Shakespeare, "out" and that believers of all historic communions should be able to agree on what that truth is.
Finally, Christianity is not a dry, detached set of creeds. Its dynamic quality derives from its being lived by countless millions over the centuries. Just as Christ took on human flesh to show mankind what God is like, so his teachings have to be translated into the daily routine of human lives for their truth to be experienced. It is easy to marshal arguments against a merely intellectual system. It is far more difficult to ignore someone who challenges us but to act on his word and see for ourselves that his words are true: "If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself." If Jesus Christ is who he says he is, and if his teaching is true, then human beings who are honest about wanting to validate it for themselves will have their lives changed.
In the end, it is the prospect of a new life in Christ that draws men and women to Christ or drives them away. For the seeker of truth one of the most remarkable things about Christianity surely has to be the common impact that a believing encounter with Jesus Christ produces. His message to all such inquirers is the same: "I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly."
1. The Person of Christ
I can recall my own preconceptions about God, ideas I entertained as a totally unchurched teenager growing up in the City of Boston, Massachusetts. My parents had the idea that I should not be required to go to church and have "religion" forced down my throat. As a result, I was a subconscious agnostic and regarded God, if there were a God, as an impersonal "force," not unlike the notion presented in the movie Star Wars. It came as quite a shock, therefore, when I first heard a clear presentation of the Christian message at age 16 and was asked a question (alongside hundreds of others!) at an evangelistic meeting held at an exhibition hall in uptown Boston, "Do you know God personally?"
That question might as well have been uttered in Greek, for all the sense it made to me. It required a shift in my categories of thinking to link the idea of "God" with the idea of "a person who can be known by acquaintance." I remember thinking to myself
how wonderful it would be if I could know God the way I knew my mother or brother. It was that kind of God, a God who can be known personally, that Jesus Christ came to disclose. Weeks later, these words of the Apostle John leaped out of the text when I came across them for the first time: "And the Word (Jesus Christ) became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth."
That phrase, "the only begotten from the Father," says two things about Jesus Christ (1) that he is the Son of God, and (2) that he is the only human being who ever lived who can be considered God's Son in that unique sense of revealing precisely the kind of being his Father is. Among the symbols used by first century, and twentieth century, Christians to identify themselves to one another is the stylized figure of a fish. The letters of the Greek word for fish (ICHTHUS) stood for the first initials of the phrase: "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior." This simple creed contains the essence of who Jesus Christ claims to be in himself and in relation to us.
All analogies break down somewhere, but the best one I have ever been able to come up with concerning knowledge of other persons is that provided by other ordinary human beings I have come to know personally. In some cases, I had heard of them, or seen them, before I met them. In other cases, I met them for the first time when we were introduced without any prior description or observation. In all cases, I did not really get to know them until they began telling me something about themselves, sharing their background, their feelings, their wishes, and so on. In other words, I knew them by acquaintance only when they disclosed themselves to me. Jesus Christ is the supreme Self-revelation of God, God in human flesh talking to us about Himself, His feelings, His wishes, and so on. Theologians, call this the "Incarnation," God "in the flesh."
Why should the Son of God voluntarily leave his privileged position in heaven, where he shared the glory of the Father, and deliberately limit himself in human form, really become a human being, including going through the trauma of human birth? One answer is given by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi:
The question remains, why did the Son of God so humble himself? No better answer can be given than that found in the Gospel of John:
These answers immediately move us to the second description of Jesus Christ represented by the fish symbol: "Savior." Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into the world to reveal the Father perfectly, and to save us. From what? To what? According to the last passage quoted above, he came to save us from perishing, and to provide us with eternal life. In this succinct explanation of the purpose and work of Jesus Christ in this world, we learn something about ourselves. What we learn from this and many other passages of the Bible is that the human race is composed of individuals who are in a state of rebellion against their Creator, who will ultimately "perish" because of their rebellion, and who need rescuing from that impending fate.
As I think back to my pre-Christian youth, I can recall some other preconceptions about the relation of this supposed "force" to my ultimate destiny. I rather imagined my fate being decided along the lines of the blindfolded statue of Justice holding the balance scales. I thought if I ended up doing more good things than bad, I would fare all right. But I was never sure I had done enough good things, and I chose to ignore any possible consequences of the bad things. I certainly had no confidence that I would live after this life was over, or where I would live.
So far, we have been told that Jesus Christ claims to be the Son of God and that his purpose in coming into this world was to save us from perishing because of our rebellion against God, all because he loves us and wants us to spend eternity with God rather than without Him. How did he accomplish this saving work? By dying on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago. Is that all there is to it? Not quite. If Jesus had merely died to take the consequences of our rebellion upon himself, he might be admired as a martyr but not be worshipped as the Savior of mankind. For that, something more is required.
In one classic presentation of the Gospel, the Apostle Paul writes:
In the remainder of this chapter, Paul expounds the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead and argues for its centrality to the Gospel: "and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins." For Christ to be the Savior of mankind, it is necessary that he be the Son of God (to take the consequences of the rebellion of all mankind upon himself), and that he rise from the dead after dying for our sins (signifying both that he is God come in the flesh, and that his death upon the cross was acceptable to the Father as an atonement for the sins of all human beings).
Not only did Christ rise from the dead on the third day after his death, but he returned to heaven after appearing to the disciples over a period of some forty days. According to the Bible, Jesus Christ is alive and reigns over the world today. As he promised, he sent the Holy Spirit to dwell inside believers and currently intercedes with the Father on their behalf. Finally, Jesus Christ will return personally, visibly and bodily to the earth to establish his rule for all to see. After this will come the judgment of those whom he has saved as well as of those who have rejected his saving work. Those who have had their sins forgiven by coming to Christ will spend eternity in heaven with him; those who have not had their sins forgiven will spend eternity separated from him.
Ever since the time of the Apostles, all major Christian communions have taught these truths about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Conservative Roman Catholics, traditional Greek Orthodox, and evangelical Protestants all subscribe to these teachings. In the words of one missionary of the last century "If Jesus be God and died for me, then nothing he asks is too great for me to do." It is this spirit that has motivated all the major charitable endeavors of the western world and that makes Christianity the most vital, thriving religious movement in the world today. Christianity is alive because Christ is alive, really alive, and because he chooses to accomplish his work through a race of redeemed rebels, sinners saved by his grace and growing to be like him through obedience to his word.
2. The Teaching of Christ
There are many compendiums of Christian doctrine published by the historic denominations of Christendom. At least one is shared by all of them, the Apostles' Creed, dating in its present form from about 650 A.D.:
I alluded to most of the elements of the Creed in the previous section, and I shall mention the other elements in this and the following section. Taken together, these elements form a collection of teachings dating back to the time of the Apostles that could also be referred to as "the teaching of Christ." Since all of these elements are found in the New Testament, it should not be surprising that they have been agreed upon by all orthodox Christians of the last twenty centuries.
Being able to specify a common body of Christian teaching is one thing, and not an insignificant thing, to accomplish. In so doing, it lays to rest a common cavil against Christianity-that it is hopelessly divided and can agree on nothing. Now, it must be admitted that throughout the centuries representatives of non-mainstream Christianity have taken issue with one or another of these elements of the Creed. These disputants have also been labeled as heretics and been treated somewhat harshly at times. But the fact remains that mainstream, conservative Christians of all historic denominations have been able to subscribe to the biblically based doctrines contained in the Apostles Creed.
More important than the commonality of the core teachings of Christianity is their truth. One might also detect similarities in the teachings of the various branches of Islam or Buddhism. But more than any of the major world religions, Christianity rises or falls on its historicity, on the factuality of its doctrines. If Jesus Christ is not, in fact, the Son of God in the sense described in the last section; if he was not, in fact, born of the Virgin Mary without the instrumentality of a human father; if he did not rise bodily from the dead on the third day after his death and burial; if the Holy Spirit is not a real person and is not co-equal as God with the Father and the Son; then our sins have not been atoned for, our bodies will not rise from the dead when Christ returns, and the promise of an eternity in heaven with God will not be fulfilled. Everything hangs on the truthfulness of the teaching of Jesus Christ.
Two real-life stories from my own past may be worth recounting at this point because they served more than any other events in my life to bring the question of the truth of Christianity into sharp relief and focus for me. The first occurred at an undergraduate institution I was attending; the second at the university where I received my graduate degrees. In both cases, the question I was confronting was whether Christianity is true, i.e., whether its core teachings are true.
The first incident happened in a dormitory room during my freshman year at college. I can recall vividly the shattering question put to me by my roommate: "What if Christianity is not true; what if Christ did not rise from the dead?" I paused for what seemed like a very long time before answering, and finally blurted out, "I would still believe in it, because it has changed my life!" There I was, only a year and a half after asking Jesus Christ to forgive my sins and come into my life at that evangelistic meeting in Boston, telling my roommate, in effect, I would still trust Christ even if he were a liar! The paradoxical nature of my response did not strike me until much later.
The second event occurred during my first year in graduate school. A group of students from the graduate course in philosophy of religion I was taking attended a lecture at Harvard given by the distinguished Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich. Since Professor Tillich was one of those liberal theologians bent on making Christianity respectable to the modern scientific mind, he followed his European counterparts in trying to "demythologize," or de-historicize, Christianity. The way that is generally done is by taking every seemingly historical claim of Christianity that smacks of the supernatural and explaining it, or rather explaining it away, by purely natural processes.
I remember asking the graduate professor of our course a question about one of the key historical claims of Christianity as we waited in the hallway to go in to hear Professor Tillich's lecture, "What difference would it make if Jesus never really rose from the dead?" His answer was more consistent than my earlier one had been:
However, he was conceding by way of this accommodation that the single most significant historical claim of Christianity was false! His substitute for the factuality of the resurrection was a psychological rationalization, self-imposed at that!
Contrast both the blind affirmation of faith of my freshman response and the rationalized explanation of my professor's response with the detailed appeal to facts offered by the biblical record concerning Christ's bodily resurrection:
This appeal to eyewitnesses offered by one steeped in rabbinic law was a self-conscious attempt to validate the truth of the apostles' claim that Christ had indeed risen from the dead. Remember, Paul belonged to a Jewish religious party, the Pharisees, whose distinctive was the affirmation of bodily resurrection as a cardinal doctrine of Judaism. Therefore such an appeal could hardly be intended to reinforce psychological delusion.
Quite apart from the intent of Christ's contemporaries in this matter of the resurrection, what remains for twentieth century minds to deal with is that someone could really die, and then really come back to life again. Ironically, more empirical data for some kind of after-death existence has been offered in the last third of the twentieth century than at any time in history. Religious unbelievers have been recording remarkably similar accounts of conscious experiences on the part of those deemed clinically dead, or near death, who later resume consciousness. Para-psychologists are now regarded as full-fledged members of the scientific community, and centers for the study of these near-death experiences have been established at major universities. I would ask one basic question: if it is in principle discussible to talk of extra-corporeal existence after death, why is it not thinkable to offer evidence for a renewed corporeal existence, i.e., for the resurrection?
For the present-day believer, the strongest evidence for the truth of Christianity's claims lies in the radical, life-changing experience of what Jesus called being "born again." It is one thing to read historical records of the experiences of others, or contemporary accounts of special phenomena experienced by still others. It is quite another matter to have such an experience oneself. Millions of individuals in all major Christian Communions have experienced new life in Christ. I did at age 16; you can today.
If the claims of Christianity about Christ being alive today and of his Holy Spirit inhabiting the lives of believers are true, then it would follow that there should be evidences of the actual presence of Christ in the believer's life and that that presence should make an ultimate difference in the destiny of the believer. Such is the message of the Apostle Paul to first century believers who had not known Christ before the resurrection:
What remains, then, is to examine the evidences for the Holy Spirit's indwelling the life of the believer. Therein lies the experiential key to the objective truth claims of the teaching of Christ.
3. The Christian Life
Before proceeding with an examination of the life filled and controlled by the Holy Spirit, the Christian life as it is intended to be, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. My experience or that of other believers does not make the factual claims of Christianity true; the facts do. But a believer's experience can validate the existential effects of asking Jesus Christ to come into one's life, and thereby provide a basis in experience for reasoning to the likely causes of such experience. My experience is a form of evidence immediately accessible to me, and the one form for which I do not need to take someone else's word. There are other forms of evidence available to the objective observer, e.g., archaeological evidence, that also support Christianity's claims.
In this essay, I have quoted liberally from the Bible as the primary source document for the truth-claims of Christianity. It is crucial that the Bible itself be trustworthy and without error in its affirmations. While it goes beyond the scope of this paper to engage in a discussion of the history and authenticity of the Bible, suffice it to say that all major Christian communions look to the Bible as the Word of God written, a book uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit and preserved by Him from all human fallibility. Centuries of biblical scholarship, and particularly our own, have only served to strengthen the believer's confidence in the truth and total reliability of the Bible. In addition, the believer's own experience confirms the truth-claims pertaining to the Christian life.
Individual Christians not only have the Bible and their own experience to which they can appeal, but they are part of a larger community of which they are all members and by virtue of which they are related to one another. That larger community is, of course, the "holy catholic [universal] church" to which believers of all ages belong. The Bible calls the church the "body" of Christ, and all believers "members" of that body. The sharing together in the worship and corporate life of the church is what is referred to in the Apostles' Creed as "the communion of saints." Not only does the Holy Spirit indwell individual believers, but He is present in special ways in the midst of believers as they come together for worship and instruction and are sent out for service in the world. The Christian life is both individual and corporate.
In real life, individuals make commitments about a host of matters with less than exhaustive knowledge. Every time I go to a doctor, step on an airplane, or enter into a human relationship, it is based on partial information. To be sure, there is some basis for my actions, usually knowledge of the experience of others, but in the end I always have to exercise a measure of trust, or faith. It is no different in the arena of the spirit. A person is called upon to trust someone, to take someone at his word, if he or she is to enter into a personal relationship with God. In the case of Christianity, we are asked to trust Jesus Christ, to take him at his word, in order to see for ourselves that his words are true.
What is supposed to happen if persons come to the place where they take the reasonable step of faith and ask Jesus Christ to forgive their sins and come into their life? The Bible states the result of such a decision rather succinctly: "Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.'' To be "a new creature" is another way of saying, as Jesus said one evening to the Jewish ruler Nicodemus, that one has been "born again." A radical transformation of life takes place, from the inside out, when Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit takes up residence in a believer's life.
If Jesus Christ is the dynamic of Christianity and if the body of truth claimed by Christianity is his teaching, it should come as no surprise that the Christian life is essentially Christ's life being lived in and through the believer. The Apostle Paul puts it most directly when he says, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." The ultimate goal of the Christian life is to be like Christ, a goal that will be realized one day when the believer stands face to face with Jesus Christ upon his return: "We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is."
From the time Christ enters the believer's life, a process of change begins that entails every aspect of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit begins the work of internal transformation that will be completed in eternity. The result of that process is described as "the fruit of the Spirit":
In this description is contained the internal evidence of which I spoke above. As the believer begins to see these attitudinal and character changes take place, he or she has first-hand evidence that Christ has really entered his or her life.
How do these internal changes take place? The Holy Spirit convicts the believer of things that are wrong and need to be eliminated, of things that are right and need to be incorporated; and gives the believer assurance of his or her personal relationship with God, i.e., of his or her salvation. These subjective convictions and assurances correspond exactly with the objective revelation contained in the Bible concerning God's will in these matters. They also resonate with the moral teaching of the church insofar as that teaching is in agreement with Scripture.
For the believer to be willing to do God's will is to be willing to become like Christ. In becoming like Christ, the believer validates for himself or herself that Christ's teaching is true. This further illuminates Christ's statement quoted in the introduction above (given, incidentally, to the Jewish religious leaders of his day who were questioning the authority for his teaching): "If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself."'
Jesus not only promised eternal life in heaven, but an eternal life that begins at the moment he is invited into the believer's life. Moreover, this Christian life, when lived in obedience to the Word of God and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, is the richest and most fulfilling life imaginable. Again, Jesus said, "I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly." It is also the life freest from the effects of man's sinful, rebellious nature:
How often the promise in the last clause has been quoted by academic institutions without any regard to its source or to the moral and spiritual conditions for its fulfillment!
Lest anyone suppose that the Christian life is a purely private matter, or that its implications are for the individual only, another look should be taken at the list of characteristics grouped together under the rubric of "the fruit of the Spirit":
The first thing to note, and it is startling once one realizes it, is that the "fruit" all consist of character traits of Jesus Christ-when one reads the Gospels, this is the character portrait of Christ that emerges. The second thing is that some of the traits are primarily internal and individual ("love, joy peace"), while others are primarily relational and necessarily involve others ("patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness"). The final thing to understand is that the Christian life is a disciplined life ("self-control"), a life under the control of the Holy Spirit.
So then, if Jesus Christ is alive and what he teaches is true, when he enters a believer's life, things will begin to change! I want to close this essay by sharing one of the immediate concerns that gripped me after I became a Christian at the age of 16, a concern that grips all believers once they experience new life in Christ. I began praying for my mother and brother, because I was burdened by the thought they might miss out on the most important experience life has to offer, knowing God personally and growing to be like Jesus Christ. I wanted more than anything to see them when I got to heaven, and so I shared with them the good news concerning the eternal life Jesus Christ had come into this world to provide. I had the joy of hearing my mother reaffirm her childhood faith in Christ and of seeing my brother pray to receive Christ into his life.
I have the same concern for you. If you do not know God personally, if you have not asked Christ to forgive your sins and to come into your life, imparting eternal life-his life-to you, please give serious consideration to what you have just read and act on it today. Jesus has these words for you if you respond to his invitation:
As you embark on the glorious adventure of a new life in Christ, in the company of all believers of ages past, you will know that Christianity is true. More importantly, you will become personally acquainted with Christ himself, he who said,