Fill in the blank: A Christian’s life ought to be most characterized by ________.
Here are your choices.
Which did you choose?
While (A) may seem like the obvious answer, the popular pick among many Christian teachers, authors, and leaders today appears to be (B).
And if we’re not careful, we’re likely to fall into the same error.
Authentic (adj): true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character; sincere [and genuine], with no pretensions (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary)
More and more, the trend is to shift our focus away from the pursuit of godly conduct, and toward just being honest, open, and transparent–even without true change of behavior!
The teaching goes something like this: since we’re going to be sinners our whole lives anyway, maybe we should be more concerned about not pretending to be holier than we really are, rather than actually striving to be holy in our daily lives.
In other words, let’s be authentic and “real” and admit just how messed up and imperfect we are… but let’s leave out the expectation that repentance and transformation will follow.
Here are a few of my observations about this “movement” (if we want to call it that)–listed here so we can recognize the lies and confront them with the truth of Scripture.
SINNER VS. SAINT: IDENTITY CRISIS?
As we saw above, the meaning of authentic includes being “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.”
Some of the most charismatic and popular Christian teachers today have authenticity down to a science. They don’t hold back from being their “real selves” with us, exposing their flaws and failings through detailed personal stories. They strive to make us know just how awful they are. There is often little to no hint of shame or remorse as they discuss their flagrant sins. Then they immediately transition into grace-talk: how happy they are that God has grace for all of us, and that He can use horrible people like us and make us worth something.
Of course, as with anything, there is some element of truth here. We should be honest about our sins, and confess them to others. We should rejoice in God’s grace, and the fact that He still employs us in the work of His kingdom despite our faults and weaknesses.
The Word also says that we are not only made holy positionally by Christ, but called to be holy in everything we do (1 Peter 1: 15-16). And it is possible!
We’ve been set free from sin, and now that we are believers, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, godliness is not some unachievable standard that we shouldn’t bother to pursue. Rather, the Scripture clearly states that we ought to “strive for the holiness without which no one can see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
This holiness isn’t the righteousness of Christ that we need in order to be saved; it’s the fruit of a changed, repentant life that all real Christians produce.
Of course, we will never be completely perfect until we reach glory, but we will grow in godliness as we are sanctified by God inwardly each day.
The Lord has not saved us so we can continue to be just as bad as we once were. He has not given us His Holy Spirit in vain.
We are saints, not just sinners. We are new creations, being remade into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; Colossians 3:10).
In fact, unlike what the “authenticity movement” teaches, the general pattern of a Christian’s life should be obedience, not rebellion. We are to count ourselves dead to sin–so that, instead of normalizing and tolerating it, we are always waging war against it.
AN OVERREACTION TO LEGALISM/PHARASAICALISM?
Everyone seems to be worried about legalism these days. This concern can be a good thing–if we’re getting our definitions right.
Sadly, too many confuse legalism with holiness.
Legalism (n): the belief that strict adherence to God’s law is enough to earn one’s salvation; or, the addition of manmade laws to God’s law as though binding on all peoples. (My definition)
Notice that the problem with legalism is not obedience to God’s law. We have the obligation and privilege to obey Christ by following the teachings of His Word. Jesus says, “If you love me, obey My commandments” (John 14:15).
The issue is when we try to obey in order to work our way to God or receive salvation. We can’t be made righteous by the Law, but only by Christ and His works.
Or, a secondary version of legalism is when we add our own commandments to Scripture that are not there. That’s exactly what the Pharisees did–making obedience to God a huge burden no one could lift.
But applying God’s Law to our everyday situations is not the same as legalism. We don’t need an exact “thou shalt not” in order to know certain things are out of bounds. It’s about rightly interpreting the Word so we are careful to honor Christ.
Could it be that this emphasis on “being authentic” originated as an over-response to legalism?
Are we so afraid of being seen as Pharisees that we would rather get rid of “be holy,” just in case?
We need not fear the tension between being saved by grace through faith alone, and yet knowing a godly life is a requirement for us. The Book of James addresses this apparent contradiction well when it says, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). Faith is what we need to be saved, but that kind of faith always produces good works. If not, we have reason to believe that it’s not true faith after all.
DOWNPLAYING THE NATURE AND CONSEQUENCES OF SIN
Ironically, as much as advocates of the “authenticity movement” emphasize how bad we are, they also tend to de-emphasize the nature and consequences of sin.
For one, they avoid the word “sin” as they tell stories of screaming at their children or refusing to submit to their husbands. They view these episodes as mistakes, mess-ups. And, perhaps inadvertently, they provide excuses for why they acted the way they did.
Similarly, they minimize the effects of their disobedience. It may make their lives and relationships more difficult, but rarely is it seen as heinous, Christ-dishonoring, or wrath-deserving.
There is no urgency to stop this behavior, but instead a sense that they expect it to continue every day as normally as their morning coffee.
It’s easy for all of us to adopt this attitude. We can become desensitized to our sin. We can think we are always bound to be impatient, to give in to angry outbursts or selfish impulses. It’s just “how we are.”
But how freeing it is to realize we do not have to view ourselves that way! We can and must, by God’s grace and power, put our sins to death for His glory. It may be a slow and gradual progression, but it’s progress nonetheless.
NULLIFYING THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL
Ultimately, if we focus only on “being real” and not on being holy, we are detracting from the power of the gospel.
Over and over in God’s Word, we are taught that we were saved by Christ for a reason. We were saved unto good works (Ephesians 2:10). The whole purpose for which the Lord rescued us and adopted us is so that we can serve Him and commune with Him as His chosen, holy people.
The gospel is not just for converting unbelievers. Nor is it simply a get-out-of-hell-free card. It’s powerful to transform believers, shining the light of Jesus on us so that we grow, in degrees, more and more into the image of Christ.
And that’s the authentic truth.