From Cultural Christianity to Biblical Christianity

Pastor Benny Ho preached what I would call a “faith defining” sermon today, so I thought it was important to record here some of the main points and some reflections on it.

The passage he preached from was pretty obscure: Luke 7:31-35.

Here it is in the NIV:

Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.’

“For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

I’ve never heard anyone preach from this passage before; it’s not something that you immediately recollect from your Bible reading either.

But the key point Pastor Benny made was this: the people in Jesus’ day were trying to fit God into their own paradigm. John the Baptist came to them as a reclusive, other-worldly prophet and they said “he has a demon”. Jesus came eating and drinking with the sinners, and they called him a “glutton and a drunkard”.

Many in the church today are like this. Just as the people were divided as to their views of how God was manifesting Himself in their day, so much of the church today have tried to fit God into their neat theologies. In my view, this is the reason why there is so much division in the church.

In fact, I think Christians try so hard to fit God into their own theological mould to the extent that we can’t accept that God can work amongst Christians in other parts of the church that don’t believe the same thing as we do.

In the context of the Luke passage, for example, some Christians might hold fast to a Nazirite-lifestyle and we say they are legalists and performance-oriented. Then there are those who try to be relevant to the world, who eat and drink with “sinners”, and they are called “licentious”.

You might think it’s better to side with Jesus on this one, but even Jesus said that there is no one greater than John the Baptist. In fact, Jesus wasn’t going to tell you which theology is better. Rather, as Pastor Benny expounds, instead of our trying to fit God into our paradigm, we should be fitting into God’s paradigm!

And here is Pastor Benny’s clincher: “we need to move from seeking the God we want, to seeking the God who is”.

  • We were created in God’s image but we want to recreate Him in our image.
  • We don’t define God, but it is God who defines us.
  • We have substituted commitment for surrender.

The difference between commitment and surrender is the difference between cultural Christianity and biblical Christianity.

And it had me thinking about all the times that I’ve used God to get the things I want. “God, if you’ll bless me in my job, then I will serve You.”

I remember doing that years ago. I was sitting my university entrance exams, but unlike most of my peers, I decided to “double-up” my commitment to God through service. So despite doing a full load of subjects (and very difficult subjects at that), I decided to also keep serving God in the worship team and also as a youth leader. I fully expected that because I was serving God, He would help me get through my exams and reward me with getting me into the university course that I had desired.

You can see how wrong my thinking was! That’s an example of commitment: my choosing to serve God in order that He might give me what I want.

Quite amazingly, I failed the exam for the subject in which I had the greatest confidence. In fact, all throughout the school year, I was averaging about 95% in my marks, but in the final exam, I “achieved” a score of 49%. I couldn’t believe it.

Sometimes God has to get you to a place where you just have to rely on Him entirely. I learnt so much about what it means when Paul says “Your grace is sufficient for me”.

Over the next two months or so of waiting for university offers (and also waiting for an appeal to come through on the subject I had failed), I had to get on my knees to a place of surrender, realising that my whole thinking about why I was serving God and my relationship with Him had been completely exploded.

I can’t say that I’ve completely learned my lesson, to be honest. A good deal of me still lives a life of “commitment Christianity” rather than in surrendered faith. It becomes all the more real when you face the pressures of the marketplace and being a young working adult. Your peers are all trying to get ahead in life, build houses, buy nicer cars and climb the career ladder.

Despite this, I can attest to the fact that being a committed Christian can get you quite far in church circles.

People in the church like committed Christians. They are predictably hard-working and faithful, they dabble in multiple ministries, they attend a lot of meetings, they display a good deal of leadership skills. On the other hand, the surrendered Christians are actually quite rare. They are the ones like the guy I met the other day who is about to uproot his entire family to begin a missionary enterprise to an unreached peoples. Surrendered Christians are unpredictable and fearless. They live with audacious faith. They aren’t concerned with the consequences of following God’s call, of laying down their lives. They aren’t bound my investments, mortgages, and the question of whether and how God will provide.

I think the problem with being a committed Christian, a cultural Christian, is that once you have adopted the culture, it becomes pretty easy to stay committed and feel like to some degree, you have arrived. The church itself often perpetuates that sort of Christianity.

And that’s why I think it’s hard for me to live a surrendered life. I feel like I’ve already made significant progress in the commitment stakes even though I’m probably well at the bottom of the curve of the surrendered stakes.

Perhaps, to be fair, the transition from committed Christian to surrendered Christian is part of a spectrum. It’s an aspirational state that we may never get to, but at least we are heading towards it. I wondered if DL Moody, Hudson Taylor, Billy Graham or other heroes of the faith ever thought that they were completely surrendered to Christ to the extent that they could say “It’s no longer I that lives, but Christ that lives in me”. Perhaps they had doubts as well, or areas of their lives which could be more surrendered.

By the way, I still got into the course I wanted, but my marks for the subject I failed stood the appeal and it dragged my entire average score down. I only got into my course by 1.3 of a point. It was a “memorial stone” on my journey towards surrender.

And it’s something I’m still learning. Today’s message was an important rallying cry and reminder. We can be commitment centred and choose what we want to do and what we don’t want to do. Or we can be surrendered, and let God choose how He wants us to live for Him.

So my prayer for myself, and for His church, is that we will move away from cultural Christianity towards Biblical Christianity by embracing a life of surrender beyond a life of commitment. Let us not be a generation that worships the God we want, but rather worships the God who is.

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