Vital Christianity


What unfreezes us? What gets us out from behind locked doors? What compels us to share the good news of the risen Christ? And what makes us do it, not because we are obligated to, but because – get this! – we are so affected by it that we can’t contain ourselves? We have a risen Savior. We know that he is alive. Will we then retreat into a holy huddle and hide from the big, bad, mean world? We have the best news ever, waiting to be announced from the rooftops. Will we keep it to ourselves?”

John 20:19-23 (NRSV)

         19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

WITHOUT JESUS AT THE CENTER of our faith and life, what are we left with? As far as our Christianity goes, it’s going to be nothing more than some form of bland moralism, religious formalism, or an anemic spirituality that neither motivates us nor appeals to others. We must have a Christ-centered faith if we want a faith that matters. Only a vital Christianity creates vital Christians.

And so, how do we come to possess such vitality? The answer is right here in Scripture. The account in John 20 takes place during the evening hours of that first Easter Sunday. Jesus’ disciples are huddled together with the doors locked, and John, who was one of them, tells us that it was because they were afraid. They have heard the wonderful news that Jesus, who was crucified and buried, is now alive. But they are still afraid, and they have closed the world out.

It’s an apt description of the church not only in their day but in ours as well. We have a risen Savior. We know that he is alive. And yet, we retreat to the holy huddle and hide from the big, mean world. We have the best news ever, waiting to be announced from the rooftops; yet we keep it to ourselves – and we do it out of fear.

So, what unfreezes us? What gets us out from behind locked doors? What compels us to share the good news of the risen Christ? And what makes us do it, not because we are obligated to, but because – get this! – we are so affected by it that we can’t contain ourselves? Take these first disciples. What moved them from cringing behind closed doors – locked doors, no less! – to the point where they found themselves saying, as Peter and John would later – “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard”? What was it that made the difference? You can’t miss it! It’s all over this passage. It’s Jesus.

I want you to notice how these first disciples were overtaken by four realities that changed them forever. I call them four tests of a vital Christianity. These are, by no means, the only tests the New Testament gives for a vibrant faith. There is no mention here of loving God and neighbor, no talk of believing and guarding the truth, and no mention of walking in righteousness. Those are also evidences of a vital Christianity. But here in John we have four. Let’s take a look.

So, here were the disciples – as we mentioned – hiding in fear behind locked doors. And Jesus appeared to them. And what’s the first thing he said to them? Shalom, right? Shalom. Peace be with you. The peace of Christ – that’s the first thing we have to know if our religion is going to have any life in it. Shalom, of course, is to this day a Jewish greeting. But on the lips of Jesus – as it should be on our lips – it is more than a mere formality. It’s not just another way of saying hello. It attests to a blessing for which every human heart longs: the announcement that we’re not at odds with God any more.

You and I may not like it, but the Bible says that, before Christ entered our lives the way he entered that locked house on that first Easter – before God moved toward us in grace – we were his enemies. What a thing to say, right? That we could ever have been enemies of God! How can I even suggest such an idea? Here’s how: As a race, we rebelled against him. In the words of Luke 19, we made a solemn declaration by our sin: “We do not want this man to rule over us” (v. 14). God would have been well within his rights, so to speak, to destroy us. But he didn’t. Instead, he chose to love us. Paul says that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” That’s Romans 5:8, and just two verses later we read, “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” Or, as Paul puts it at the beginning of that chapter, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). We are at war no more.

This is the beginning of any measure of vitality in religion. We must know that, by God’s grace, we have now been reclassified. We are no longer enemies of God because of our sin, but we have been declared righteous in his sight. God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13f.). We know the peace that only Jesus gives.

Do you know this peace? If you do not, no amount of religious activity or moral effort will make up for it. In fact, you must lay down your best efforts and refuse to rely on anything other than the Prince of Peace. How does the old hymn go? “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

So, the first test of a vital Christianity is knowing the peace of Christ. There’s a second, and it is experiencing the presence of Christ. After Jesus announced his blessed shalom to the disciples, John tells us, “he showed them his hands and his side. Then,” we are told, “the disciples rejoiced” at seeing the Lord. This is John, chapter 20, verse 20, and this is true 20/20 vision: seeing the Lord.

And notice what it is they see of him. It is “his hands and his side.” They see him risen, but this risen Christ is none other than the One crucified for them. We must never forget the precious wounds of our Savior. To borrow a phrase from Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer, only a survey of “the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died” will cause us to count our “richest gain…but loss and pour contempt on all [our] pride.” When Paul was writing to the Christians in Corinth, with their puffed up, propped up pseudo-intellectualism, he said, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1f.).

You and I may boast of a sophisticated religion, but we will never have a vital, life-changing faith without experiencing the presence of the crucified and risen Lord. That is why the symbol of our faith is a cross.

If we want a vital Christianity, we will need to know the presence of Christ, and it is the crucified Christ that we will want to be present to us. Because those marks in his hands and side are the signs of his mercy toward helpless sinners. There’s an old spiritual that says, “Jesus walked this lonesome valley; He had to walk it by himself. Nobody else could walk it for him; He had to walk it by himself.” So far, so good, right? But then comes the next verse, which says, “We have to walk this lonesome valley; We have to walk it by ourselves. Nobody else can walk it for us; We have to walk it by ourselves.” My brothers and sisters, there is no gospel in that song. It is in fact another gospel, and it will lead nowhere but to despair and to life-crushing religion that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called Christianity.

Who needs a Christ who comes to us and says, “I did it. I walked the gauntlet. I showed you what to do. Now you have to do it.” There is no grace in that! No, Jesus came to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. Peter says, “Christ…suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). You can’t bring yourself to God, no matter how good you may try to be, no matter how sincere you are, no matter how many right things you believe or how many right things you do. Psalm 37 says, “The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; he is their refuge” (v. 37). Or, as the Bible puts it elsewhere, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). A vital, vibrant Christianity has its source – not in our best efforts – but rather in the presence of a Savior whose wounds stand as lasting testimony to an essential fact. And that fact is that he is the One who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

There is a third test of vital Christianity. The first test is knowing the peace of Christ. The second is experiencing the presence of Christ. The third is being commissioned with the purpose of Christ. When Jesus first appeared behind locked doors to his first disciples, he said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). We are not sent to do what Jesus did. Only he could do that. Only he could die for sinners. Only he could take upon himself the penalty they deserved. That’s not why we’re sent. But we are sent. We are sent to bear witness to what Jesus did, to tell the glorious good news of the salvation that he procured by his atoning death. We are soldiers of the cross. And if you want to see a dead, lifeless Christianity, all you have to do is look at a Christianity that has forgotten this. The word “mission” comes from a term that means “to send.” It was Emil Bruner, the great Reformed theologian, that first said, “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” A vital Christianity creates vital Christians, and vital Christians embrace their commission to be on mission for Christ, to pursue his great purpose of bearing witness.

Of course, nothing we do will bear fruit unless we, like branches, abide in the Vine. The fourth test of a vital Christianity is the power of Christ. That is why Jesus “breathed on [his disciples] and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (v. 22). This is so important that Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses but not before the Holy Spirit had come upon them (cf. Acts 1:8). He gave them strict instructions to wait “until [they had] been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

It is pointless to try to do God’s work without God’s power. And only the Holy Spirit can give us that. Only a vital Christianity creates vital Christians. Can you picture yourself with such a vibrant faith? Can you see yourself like this? Can you think of yourself as fully persuaded of your gracious standing with God, enjoying fellowship with the crucified and risen Christ, and relying on the Holy Spirit to empower you as you share the joy of Christ with others? Why would you want any other brand of Christianity?

We’ve looked at what I have called four “tests” of a vital Christianity. I wonder if, sometime this week, you would be willing to examine your own heart, if you would simply set aside the time to ask yourself four questions. And here are the four questions: (1) Do I know peace with God through Jesus Christ? (2) Do I regularly experience the presence of Christ? (3) Am I committed to the purpose of Christ? and (4) Do I witness the power of Christ in my own life?

You will need some time to reflect on those questions, and I hope you’ll plan to take the time it requires. And, as you consider your response to each of those four questions, I want to ask you to do one more thing: Whatever you discover about yourself in relation to these questions, I want you to pray about where you would like to be in each of these areas. Simply talk to God about knowing the peace, the presence, the purpose, and the power of Christ in your life. He is the source of vital Christianity. And remember: Only a vital Christianity creates vital Christians.

Photo Credit: Vitality by Nguyen Vu Hung

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