"The Difference 'Born Again' Makes"
Robert Byrne observed, "There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on." In reference to Jesus, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who follow Him, and those who don't. The former are referred to as "Christians" because they're associated with the Messiah: as a Canad-ian originates from Canada and to some degree represents our country when they're in another land, so Christ-ians supposedly reflect Jesus' nature, are familiar with Him, and are looked at by others with expectation that they'll see Jesus in us. Christians are supposed to have an identity that makes them different: to use New Testament terminology, they are "born again" or redeemed, not conformed to evil desires, holy, living as strangers in the world.
In theory, anyway. In reality, research has shown Christians are sometimes indistinguishable from the rest of the population - or even worse.
In a poll about divorce released in December 1999, George Barna's research group interviewed 3,854 adults from 48 states. Within 2 percentage points, they found divorce rates among conservative Christians were much higher than for other faith groups, and for Atheists and Agnostics. Barna commented, "While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce, many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing." Later, when publication of the results brought on a little holy anger, he defended them saying, "We rarely find substantial differences" between the moral behaviour of Christians and non-Christians. Barna Project Director Meg Flammang added: "We would love to be able to report that Christians are living very distinct lives and impacting the community, but ... in the area of divorce rates they continue to be the same."
Commenting on a November 2004 poll of 1004 adults, Barna said, "For years we have reported research findings showing that born again adults think and behave very much like everyone else. It often seems that their faith makes very little difference in their life. This new study helps explain why that is: believers do not train their children to think or act any differently. When our kids are exposed to the same influences, without much supervision, and are generally not guided to interpret their circumstances and opportunities in light of biblical principles, it's no wonder that they grow up to be just as involved in gambling, adultery, divorce, cohabitation, excessive drinking and other unbiblical behaviours as everyone else."
So it seems the difference being Christian makes is more theoretical than actual. With the apostle Peter's help, let's re-examine how conversion - a fresh start with the right inputs - is supposed to make a noticeable difference in a believer's life.
Grace Given: Past, Present, & Future
Chapter 1:13 starts, "Therefore, prepare your minds for action..." "Therefore" is an important conjunction that points back to something that was discussed earlier, as a basis for what follows. Peter's referring to all God has done for us that he's been talking about in vv 3-12: past, present, and future.
In the past, v3 says God "in His great mercy...has given us new birth" through Jesus' resurrection; v23 we've been "born again" of imperishable seed. That's a radical, qualitative new start at the core of our being, God's own Spirit giving us a new nature. Mercy refers to, as v18 puts it, "you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers...with the precious blood of Christ." Our former way of life, rejecting or ignoring God's guidance, was "empty", vain, futile, pointless. A news item described the expense of funerals in Ghana: much is spent on a casket, even customized to represent the individual, such as coffins shaped like an airplane! I wouldn't want to be the person that has to dig the grave for that! But the most fancy and expensive coffin doesn't change the fact the person is dead. It's over, no more flying. "The wages of sin is death" - that's the destiny for all us sinners, apart from the Lord's intervention. No more control over wealth heaped up while we're alive; it's all gone. "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall" - gone to the refuse like leaves bagged at curbside waiting for the truck. That empty way of life is what Jesus redeems us from.
V22 notes "you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth..." We can't purify ourselves, we're only cleansed by Jesus' blood, the only absolutely holy and perfect person that ever lived.
V12 adds that we've been served by the prophets who predicted Christ's sufferings and the glories and grace that would be associated with that. Also we've been ministered to by those who preached the gospel to us. We were convicted by the word of the Lord that "stands forever": we've come up against the message of Jesus that halts us like a brick wall, an unavoidable stumbling block. For some, that confrontation results in faith, of greater worth than gold (1:5,7); "through [Jesus] you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him..." (1:21) These are all things that are in the past, they've already happened for those who believe in Christ.
Peter also mentions the good things we're enjoying in the present, here and now, as a result of new birth. V5 says we "are shielded by God's power". Isn't that great - knowing we're protected by the force of the Almighty? V9, "you are receiving the goal of your faith (what's that?): the salvation of your souls." Salvation isn't just a one-time thing when we first trust in Christ; it's ongoing, Jesus is still saving me today, rescuing and delivering me moment by moment. That's what His name means, "Saviour".
V8, "you love Him": a spiritual relationship of affection and devotion. Vv6&8, we "greatly rejoice", we "are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy" as we believe in Him. What good stuff, here in the present!
And the future dimension has even more. Vv3&4, a "living hope...an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade - kept in heaven for you..." V7, our genuine faith, refined by trials, will "result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed." That means for US! That's exciting! A far cry beyond all earthly honours, which quickly dim and fade. This is eternal recognition Peter's talking about. That will come when, as v17 mentions, the Father "judges each man's work impartially..." There is an inevitable court date set which will evaluate with perfect justice human actions; in light of whether each person has taken Christ up on His offer of mercy. What we do in this life does have absolute significance; God will reward those who persist in doing good (Rom 2:7).
A Christian once said, "Life with Christ is an endless hope, without Him a hopeless end." Having a previous arrangement, through Jesus, with the Judge of the Universe, gives sure hope; else, hell is an awful prospect.
Peter in v13 tells us to "set your hope fully on the GRACE to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed." We've already received grace, through forgiveness of our sins by His cross; there's more grace yet to come, when He returns. Grace is undeserved benefit, receiving something positive you don't deserve. But somebody has to pay. Back in September, Meredith needed her high school transcript sent out to Edmonton. I went to Madill and paid for them to print off an official copy, which they faxed to Edmonton, and I brought home the original embossed record to keep in Meredith's file. Recently we got a call from Meredith saying she wouldn't be able to register for next semester's courses because the Registrar didn't have the original copy. I mailed it out to Edmonton by Expresspost. When that was received, Meredith emailed a forward from the Registrar's office stating it wasn't acceptable because it had been in our possession. I started to become angry. I phoned the Registrar's office in Edmonton and argued since they had the fax there directly from Madill AND the embossed original, they should be able to compare the two and see there were no alterations. They replied, No, it's 'industry standard' that the transcript must never have been in the student's/family's possession, and the fax wasn't reliable because it could have come from an origin other than the high school. I was upset. I had paid for the original transcript to be produced and faxed. I had paid EXTRA for the original to be hastened by Expresspost. I did NOT want to pay AGAIN for another transcript!
My sour mood was helped when the Guidance Office at Madill offered to mail a second transcript at no extra charge. They were very GRAC-ious: they absorbed the cost. That grace allowed my steam to evaporate. So, Jesus paid the price for us: He's all about grace, He "was chosen before the creation of the world" to be revealed for OUR sake (1:20). It's His precious blood, "a lamb without blemish or defect" (19 - taken from the Passover symbolism), that pays the price, confers the value we were short. The fact His blood was precious shows how highly valued we are by God. The Father allowed His only-begotten dear Son to be sacrificed in our stead, so the insurmountable barrier of our guilt could be overcome.
In England there's a paper factory that makes the finest stationery in the world. One day a man touring the factory asked what it was made from. He was shown a huge pile of old rags and told that the rag content was what determined the quality of the paper. The visitor wouldn't believe it. In weeks he received from the company a package of paper with his initials embossed on it. On the top piece were written the words, "Dirty rags transformed."
That's the reality, the miracle, of the Christian life: it's a transformation from the dingy, dirty rags we were, into something new and wonderful. Sheer grace, thanks to God's power and the Son's obedience.
New Attitude, New Actions
We're pondering what makes Christians different, or SHOULD make them different. According to the researchers, it's partly because we haven't been trained to think Biblically. Barna finds that only 9% of America's born again Christians have a Biblical worldview. How come? He conjectures, "What we build into a child's life prior to the age of 13 represents the moral and spiritual foundation that defines them as individuals and directs their choices for the remainder of their life.Garbage in, garbage out; there's no magic that suddenly changes the young person from what they were trained to be in their formative years into a model Christian once they get older." Note Barna used a phrase coined in the computer programming world: "Garbage in - garbage out." Having a grace-conscious attitude - aware of all God's done for us, past, present, & future - will help motivate us to respond differently to whatever stimuli come along. From attitudes, actions flow.
Peter says in 1:13, in the context of setting our hope fully on grace, we are to "prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled." The King James Version says, "gird up the loins of your mind": the person with loose flowing robes in the Middle East would tuck them into a belt before going for a long walk or getting down to work. Peter's saying we're to "roll up our [mental] shirt sleeves". Get prepared, get down to business in terms of having a Christian outlook.
By "Biblical worldview" George Barna means 8 things: Believing that absolute moral truths exist; Such truths are defined by the Bible; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator and still rules today; Salvation is a gift of God and cannot be earned; Christians have a responsibility to share their faith in Christ; Satan is real; and, The Bible is accurate in all its teachings. Sounds pretty basic, right? Yet, according to the studies, more than 90% of born again Christians would deny at least one of these fundamental truths. We really do need to prepare our minds, roll up our shirt sleeves, be intentional about training ourselves and our offspring with Christian truth.
Peter adds, "Be self-controlled." How crucial that is in having different behaviour! The word means sober, calm, collected, dispassionate, temperate - as in one who resolves not to use strong drink. "Just say no to drugs" - or anything the enemy tries to entrap you with.
V14, "As obedient children [there's that new birth /relational basis again], do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance." Don't conform, don't "fashion yourselves" according to the world, unthinkingly adopt its scheme or trends; don't fit its fads, which change so quickly as fashions change in the clothing world.
Such a simple, expected and accepted thing as lust ("he's just a red-blooded guy with normal teenage hormones"), if fed, can quickly draw a person into degenerate and damaging behaviour. Just a couple of examples from the past week's news: a Montreal man received a 15-year sentence for posting images of a sexual nature involving his two-year-old daughter on the internet; he's also to be tried on charges of sexually touching his neighbour's daughter. How sick! Even more sickening to think that there's a demand for such images. In other headlines, Winnipeg police broke up a large child-sex ring: this involved not just 12-to-17-year-olds, but unfortunately younger children in the same houses were also damaged by watching or awareness of the occurrences. Do not conform to evil desires...
In 2:1 Peter urges, "rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind." Quite a variety here! Malice is wickedness or evil in general; "the mental state opposed to love." If it's not loving, it's probably malicious. Deceit is trickery, falsehood, craftiness. Hypocrisy is plain enough, pretending to be something you're not, acting a part, putting on a charade. Envy is 'grudging contemplation' of more fortunate persons or their advantages; feeling hard done by because someone else has what you don't. Slander is speaking ill of someone or backbiting.
Each of these things is unloving, therefore not like Jesus. Paul Cedar writes, "Jesus was the personification of love. He loved everyone whom He met. He reached out to the sick, the blind, the crippled, the lonely, the widows, the poor, the dishonest tax collector, the Roman officer, the children - everyone whom He encountered, He loved!" You can't imagine Jesus behaving like the list Peter says we're to be rid of - malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander; that's just not Him, that's not loving. So as Christians, God's love poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit helps rid us of such evil, too, and we become more truly like Christ.
Those fallen qualities are replaced by the positives Peter mentions. Vv15-16, "But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy."" Holiness is an essential attribute of God, that He increasingly works into our regenerate lives, so we share His divine nature. Samuel Lucas wrote, "The essence of true holiness consists in conformity to the nature and will of God." Conforming to Him, not evil desires. The Hebrew word gadosh means apartness, holiness, sacredness, or hallowedness. The Greek word hagios means to be without sin, blameless, or separated from uncleanness. There's to be a fundamental difference, a division from all that's not godly. This rises out of our being dead in Christ to sin's attraction, our circumcision from what would attract us to err.
Augustine was in Milan when God touched his heart and changed his life. He then left his former life of license; he even had an illegitimate son. When he returned home, his former girlfriend called to him: "Augustine, Augustine, it is I." He turned and said, "Yes, but it is not I." His fresh start by faith made him a new person in Christ.
Peter notes in 17 that since God is judge, "Live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear." The Greek word is the one from which we get "phobias"; for a Christian it's more a sense of awe and mighty respect. Fear the consequences of sin and subsequent judgment, for we will answer to God.
V22, though "you have sincere love for your brothers," Peter tells them to go further and "love one another deeply, from the heart." If you REALLY loved that fellow-believer, if you were really devoted to them and liked them and felt a kinship, what might you do in response? What would that look like in view of their needs? How might we "put ourselves out" for one another, happy just to have the opportunity to express practical love? Maybe it's a phone call. Maybe it's offering a ride, or inviting in for tea, or praying for them. Ask God to show you how to love better.
A final positive Peter suggests has to do with feeding our mind with God's truth. He's already been mentioning how God's word is living and enduring and stands forever (1:23,25). 2:2 says, "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation..." How keen is a baby to nurse when it's feeding time? There's just a single driving impulse in that tiny infant's body! Latch on / get connected... "Crave pure spiritual milk." There's no substitute for reading and meditating on a Bible passage each day for developing spiritual maturity. Without that ingrained habit, you'll never "grow up in your salvation".
When you know who it's from, it's no longer just a book, it's a love-letter. A young woman once picked up a scholarly book on marriage and family relationships. After reading a few chapters she found it too difficult to get through and put it back on her bookshelf, thinking, "That's one of the dullest books I've read on the subject."
A year or two later she met a man and fell in love. They became engaged, and one evening she said to him, "You know, it's a funny coincidence - I've got a book in my library, and it's authored by someone with exactly the same name as yours" - and she mentioned the name of the book. Her fiancé smiled and said, "That's no coincidence: I wrote that book." She said nothing more, but that night went home and read the book from cover to cover. This time she found it fascinating. Why? She had come to know and love the author, and she read his book now to learn more about him. So it is with the Bible: it becomes fascinating when you're seeking to know God better and understand His ways.
From Cop-Killer to Child-Shelterer
Being born again will make a tremendous difference in lives as people respond to Christ and invite Him to change the old ways that were destroying them. Luis Palau tells of a woman in Peru named Rosario who was a terrorist, a brute of a woman who was an expert in several martial arts. In her terrorist activities she had killed twelve policemen. When Luis Palau conducted a crusade in Lima, she learned of it and, being incensed about the message of Christ, made her way to the stadium to kill Luis. Inside the stadium, as she contemplated how to get to him, she began to listen to the message he preached on hell. She fell under conviction for her sins and embraced Christ as her Saviour. Ten years later, Luis met this convert for the first time. She had by then assisted in the planting of five churches; was a vibrant, active witness and worker in the church; and had founded an orphanage that houses over one thousand children. What a change! What grace and glory - all thanks to Jesus intervening in her life. What an effect and fruit!
Blaise Pascal wrote, "The serene, silent beauty of a holy life is the most powerful influence in the world, next to the might of the Spirit of God." The Lord longs for each person to be saved and experience for themselves such beauty; such a dynamic difference of new birth. Let's pray.