Why People Aren’t Christians

This John MacArthur sermon from 1988 recently played on the local Grace to You broadcast. It covers his  soteriology popularly known as lordship salvation. There’s a lot that can be said about the shortcomings of this view of salvation, but what is interesting to me is this: MacArthur quotes from John Stott’s Basic Christianity:

“The Christian landscape is strewn with the wreckage of derelict half-built towers, the ruins of those who began to build and were unable to finish.  For thousands of people still ignore Christ’s warning, and undertake to follow Him without first pausing to reflect on the cost of doing so.  The result is the great scandal of Christendom today, so-called nominal Christianity. In countries to which Christian civilization has spread, large numbers of people have covered themselves with a decent but thin veneer of Christianity.  They have allowed themselves to become somewhat involved, enough to be respectable, but not enough to be uncomfortable. Their religion is a great, soft cushion. It protects them from the hard unpleasantness of life while changing its place and shape to suit their convenience.  No wonder the cynics speak of hypocrites in the church and dismiss religion as escapism.”

MacArthur quotes Stott in the context of his more general view of salvation: that in order to be a Christian one must count the cost, forsake all, be willing to “go as far as death out of love.” You are not a Christian if a moment (or many years) after accepting Christ you are not willing to have your head chopped off or some such thing for the sake of Jesus. To support this view (in 1988) MacArthur referenced believers who lived behind the iron curtain where there could be very real danger for one who outwardly professed Christianity. The ones MacArthur had met insisted there were “no shallow professions of faith.” So, on the one hand where the church is persecuted no nominal Christians exist and on the other hand where the church is not persecuted so many profess to be Christians that it gives non-believers an excuse to dismiss Christianity.

The John Stott quote reminds me of the oft-repeated Brennan Manning precept: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” It appears that Manning is at least accepting the premise that such people are indeed Christians which Stott and MacArthur seem to deny, but this idea that non-believers remain such because believers or professing believers tend to be bad people is mistaken. Firstly, for the Stott type false/non-believers the scandal is phony non-believer Christians have such an influence that it gives the cynic warrant in his dismissal of the belief system. But if such people aren’t the least bit interested in taking the step toward becoming a real Christian/disciple because of all the discomfort that they reckon comes with such a step, what can the actual church do? If it’s the non-Christians who are giving Christianity such a bad name, then that isn’t really the church’s problem. It seems that it’s false believers who are drawing all of these other false believers to be false believers; after all, true Christians, yea true disciples, by virtue of being everything that MacArthur claims a Christian must be in order to be a real Christian wouldn’t stand for church leaders who are comfortable with comfortable nominal Christianity. How could a true disciple possibly stick around a church filled with unbelievers? So, in the end, MacArthur appears to be using the Stott quote to say that non-Christians give non-Christians an excuse to remain non-Christian.

While Stott places the blame for lack of conversions on fake Christians, Manning gives all the blame to bad, but apparently actual, Christians. His quote implies that if Christians were true to their cause unbelievers wouldn’t find Christianity so unbelievable. The biggest problem with his sentiment is that the truest Christian in history was Jesus Christ. His Christianity was so authentic, so believable that it caused the world to embrace, er, to crucify Him!

While I don’t care much for  MacArthur’s rhetoric I do acknowledge that his position comes from certain passages in the Bible that show that our Lord has a very high standard for His children. He certainly does and Christians must confront this. In light of all we have in Christ and all that He has done for us we must endeavor to live a life that is increasingly conformed to His likeness. I agree, too, that it is not precisely accurate to bifurcate believers and disciples. God calls all people to believe in Jesus and with that belief comes a stupendous package of spiritual gifts and with those gifts comes a tremendous responsibility to live up to God’s very high standard for His children. Given all that we possess in Christ this is how we should live. But what else would the standard be for such as what Christians are. Given all that God is and given that Jesus is all-God (He’s all-man, too!), what would one expect to hear from Him concerning how His followers should live? “Well, I hope you try to go to church at least once in a while.” “Don’t lie, well, you know, if you can help it.” “Don’t lust too much in your heart.” I mean, come on, it’s the perfectly righteous and holy Creator God of the universe. The standard for those who are in Him (in Christ!) must be to the standard of all  that He is!

Part of living up to God’s perfect standard includes never doing deeds that would shame the Lord who bought us. Indeed. But this is not what an unbelieving world finds so unbelievable. It’s not why the cynic dismisses Christianity. Sure, it doesn’t help the cause of Christ but the Bible states clearly the disposition of the unbeliever. “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn. 3:19). That is a harsh statement (said by Christ!), and it doesn’t get Christians off the hook but it should get Christians to stop sillily insisting that not so great Christians are what’s wrong with the world.

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