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6. The Abundant Christian Life

– Chapter 6 –

The Abundant Christian Life

How many of us know what is the abundant Christian life? If you have never experienced it, you wouldn’t be able to imagine what it is like just as you wouldn’t know what Canada or Europe is like if you haven’t visited those places. How would you explain what is the abundant Christ­ian life to those who haven’t exper­ienced it?

If you see nothing attractive about the Christian life, is there anything that will motiv­ate you to seek after it? Perhaps what is driving you forward is the realization that the life you now have is empty and devoid of joy and meaning. Perhaps you feel that this kind of life is not worth contin­uing in, so you want to move on to some­thing better.

If I were promoting Canada, I might show you posters of Cana­da’s forests, rivers, parks, and the Rocky Mountains. Then you can look at the posters and say, “So this is Canada!” But I can’t show you photos of the abundant Christ­ian life in the way I show you photos of Canada or the beautiful Swiss Alps. So how can you visualize the spiritual life?

One way is to get to know a few people of God, to see the quality of their lives. As a young Christian in China, I had the privilege of know­ing one or two men of God. I lived with them, got to know them, and saw them in action. You need to see them in action in the field, not just in a teaching environ­ment. Then you will see what a soldier is made of, not when he is marching in a parade, but in combat. Then you will see his military experience and combat skills. But you won’t see any of this just by sitting in front of him and listening to a lecture on military tactics.

Is there anything in the spiritual life that speaks to your heart? When you listen to testimonies, you marvel at the spirit­ual exper­iences of those who walk with God. Because these experiences are second-hand to you, you might say to yourself, “These experiences are real for him but not for me.” But the point of a testimony is that it can be real for you too, even in the mat­ter of being led by the Spirit. The leading of the Spirit will be just theory to you until you experience it in real life.

Where do you see this kind of dynamic life today? The sad reality is that very few in the world live a victorious and dynam­ic life. The Bible has already warned us that there will be few:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Mt.7:13-14, ESV)

The ongoing challenge that we face in the Christian life is that there is always an easy road in front of us to tempt us. Most of us will go for the easy road, a few will take the narrow road. Why so few? After all, there are two billion Christians in the world today: over a billion Cath­olics plus several hundred million Pro­testants plus sev­eral hundred million from the Orthodox churches. The statis­tics are im­pressive, yet “few” will find the narrow gate that leads to life.

Will you find the narrow gate? Will Jesus’ words in John 10:10 be fulfilled in you: “I came that they may have life and have it abundant­ly”? Jesus is talking about the present life, not the future. He wants you to live the fullness of the abundant life right now.

What will a man give in exchange for his soul?

When the Christian life gets tough, you may wonder if it’s worth it. Jesus brings out this issue when he says, “What will a man give in ex­change for his soul?” (Mt.16:26). Is your financial wealth too valuable to exchange for your soul? What will you give in exchange for eternal life? Matthew 10:39 goes straight to the issue: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” If you find your life in the world, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for Jesus’ sake, you will find it. This is also brought out in Matthew 16:25-26:

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (NIV)

We are selfish by nature and it is mainly because of our selfishness that we are sinful. The Lord Jesus seeks to change the direction of our lives from a selfish way of thinking to a self-giving one. To effect this change in our lives, he attaches a condit­ion to eternal life.

The words “love” and “hate” convey strong attitudes (as in loving your life versus hating your life, Jn.12:25). If you love your life, you are walk­ing on the broad road to destruction. If you hate your life, you will save it to life eternal. When the Bible says to hate your life, it doesn’t mean to hate the life you have in Christ, but the life that is in bondage to sin. To break free from this bondage, all you do on your part is to kneel before God and say, “Dear God, I hate the life I have been living, seeking praise from men among other things. I ask you to change my life.” We do our part and God does the rest. The Holy Spirit comes in, and you will exper­ience God’s power.

Many Christians live in selfishness because they have been taught that they only need to “believe” to gain eternal life, even if there is no fun­dament­al change in their lives. But this is not biblical teach­ing. In the previous chapter we saw that to believe in the biblical sense means to fol­low, which means to serve, which means to die. You have to lose your life for Christ’s sake before you can receive eternal life. You have to change from a selfish way of living to one that is self-giving.

I am not playing around with words. On judgment day when you and I stand before God, if you lose your life and are con­demned to eternal destruction, let it not be said that I didn’t make this truth clear to you. Paul says to the Ephesians, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of every­one’s blood, for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole plan of God” (Acts 20:26-27, HCSB). I am telling you from God’s word that you must change from a self-centered life to a self-giving one, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We don’t have the power to transform ourselves because we can­not save ourselves. Salvat­ion is en­tirely of grace because it is attained only by God’s pow­er. We cannot change ourselves any more than a leopard can change its spots (Jer.13:23).

Since this is achieved by the Spirit’s work in us, all we can do on our part is to be willing to be changed. Are we willing to let the Spirit change us? If a sick person refuses medical treat­ment, the doctor won’t go to his house and drag him to hospit­al. Likewise God won’t drag you kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God. You have to tell God whether you want eternal life or not.

What must I do to be saved?

False teaching is often presented as the truth, and many cannot tell the difference. An example is the way we water down Paul’s statement, “Be­lieve in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). This comes from a well known incident in Acts 16.

In the city of Philippi, Paul and Silas were beaten by the local auth­or­ities and thrown in jail on false charges. In jail they began to sing songs of praise to God. That makes them a bit odd, doesn’t it? Yet the odd thing about people filled with the Spirit is that they sing praises to God even after they have been beaten black and blue and thrown in jail. Paul and Silas were so badly injured that their wounds had to be attended to later. Yet they weren’t thinking about nursing their injuries or easing the pain, but were rejoicing and sing­ing praises to God. That is the victor­ious and abund­ant life.

A powerful earthquake shook the prison. The walls crum­bled, the gates fell, and everything was breaking into pieces. The jailer thought that the prisoners had escaped, Paul and Silas among them.

The city of Philippi was a Roman colony, so the jailer was probably a Roman soldier, either active or retired. After sup­posing that the prison­ers had escaped, he knew what punish­ment awaited him: beheading. Roman military code was severe and merciless. The jailer wanted to spare himself the dishonor of a military trial, so he got ready to com­mit suicide: “The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.” (Acts 16:27, NIV)

If the jailer had killed himself, you can imagine what would have hap­pened to his wife and children, his “household”. In Roman soc­iety, when a man died, his wife would be unable to support herself, much less her family, unlike today’s career women with college de­grees. When a man died, his wife would be in a pitiful, even tragic situation. A family’s dependence on the head of the household was almost total. That is why when the head of a household comes to the Lord, the house­hold would usually follow.

Paul’s statement, “believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved,” was spoken to a man who was ready to die. When you quote that to some­one, is that person ready to die as was the Philippian jailer? If so, then you can tell him or her, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved,” since the part about dying has been dealt with. But if you leave out the element of death, Paul’s statement would be taken in the wrong way.

Paul’s teaching about baptism

Paul cried out to the jailer, imploring him not to kill himself. The jailer in turn pleaded, “What must I do to be saved?” to which Paul replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31). But that is not the end of the story. Paul didn’t say, “Believe and you will be saved. Now sign your name on the baptis­mal form.” Verse 32 tells us what hap­pened next: “They spoke the word of the Lord to him toget­her with all who were in his house.” This was in preparation for their baptism.

Paul and Silas were giving them solid teaching from “the word of the Lord” on what it means to believe in Jesus. Paul was thor­ough in every­thing he did, and he did not jump to baptism immed­iately. The baptism would come only after he had given them instruction from the word of God. Because of Paul’s thor­oughness in God’s word, the jailer and his family could easily have received a few hours of solid instruct­ion. Only after­wards came the baptism.

In all this time, Paul’s wounds were still un­treated, perhaps still bleed­ing. It was only after the teaching had finished that Paul and Silas allowed the jailer to treat their wounds. Paul had his pri­orities: first the teaching of salvation, then the treating of his wounds. Saving others was more im­portant than his own physical wel­fare. When we read the Bible attentive­ly, we catch small details that reveal important things, in this case the life quality of Paul and Silas. We miss these vital details when we read the Bible hastily or superfi­cially.

Baptism and death to sin

So what did Paul teach the jailer and his household? We can be sure that he would not teach them anything contrary to what he has written in his letters. We have enough of Paul’s letters to have a good idea of what he taught them: Before baptizing them, Paul simply taught what he himself taught about baptism in his letters, and what Jesus himself taught. Many Christians think that Paul taught differ­ently from the Lord Jesus, e.g., that whereas Jesus told us to hate our lives in order to gain eternal life, Paul made things easy for us by saying that we only need to believe in Jesus. But Acts 16:31 (“be­lieve in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved”) has to be under­stood in the light of Paul’s whole teaching.

Paul, like Jesus, taught emphatically that there is no life without death. Romans 6, which talks about baptism, gives us a good idea of what Paul might have told the Philippian jailer before baptizing him. In Romans 6, Paul explicitly links baptism and death:

Shall we go on sinning so that grace may in­crease? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Romans 6:1-3, NIV)

We can be sure that when Paul was about to baptize the jail­er, he had al­ready explained to him the meaning of baptism. In Romans 6 he says that baptism involves death. Does he mean this in some fictional or meta­phor­ical sense? Is bap­tism a pretend death? Or do we die to sin in some real sense?

Paul is not so superficial as to play around with weighty words and then arrive at superficial meanings. “Die” is not a word to play around with. If “die to sin” means nothing more than “forget about sin,” then we must not use the word “die”. But Paul does use the word “die,” so it must mean something weighty.

What does it mean to die to sin? Is it a change of attitude? And does a mere change of attitude deserve to be described by a weighty word such as “die” or “death”? If an evil person wants to implement some reform in his lifestyle, can that change be properly described as death?

To be sure, a change of attitude is an important first step towards the death that Paul talks about. But is it the same as death? Is “death to sin” just a change of attitude, or is it something deeper?

The word “sin” in the singular doesn’t refer to specific deeds of sin but to the whole way of life dominated by sin. Therefore “death to sin” means a complete break from the old way of life. If I am finished with my old way of life, I have died to it.

Death is more than reform; it is something deep that the Holy Spirit does in us. I can achieve moral reform without God’s help, but when Paul talks about death, he does not mean moral reform. He is speak­ing of something that the Spirit does in us so deep and de­cisive that some­thing in us has died. That part of us which is controlled by the flesh and is responsive to the flesh — which Paul else­where calls the “old man” — has been put to death by the work of the Spirit.

Moral reform requires some measure of commitment but not of the kind the Bible talks about. Being a Christian is not a matter of moral re­form but the com­mit­ment to let the Spirit put to death the “old man” in us. Everyone accepts reform to one degree or another, espec­ially after seeing the ugli­ness of bad and the beauty of good. But that is not what being a Christian is about. Mere reform is like patching an old gar­ment with new cloth, or pouring new wine into an old wineskin, an act that will ruin wine and wineskin (Mt.9:16-17).

But the Spirit works deep to destroy the cancer of sin in us. This is accomplished by God, not moral reform. Salva­tion is entire­ly of grace because it is achieved solely by God’s power.

In the New Testament, our commitment to God is faith, God’s com­mitment to us is grace. We are saved by grace through faith, that is, by God’s commitment to us working through our commitment to God. Sal­vation is ultim­ately by God’s grace, without which we would be left with only moral reform.

We can now hear what Paul told the Philippian jailer: “Killing your­self will accomplish nothing, so let the Spirit of God destroy the disease of sin in you and bring God’s life into your life by your death to sin.”

Freed from slavery

Romans chapter 6 talks about death, but the second half of the chap­ter draws a contrast between slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness:

But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18, NIV)

We previously mentioned three ways in which a person can become a slave. There are similarly three ways one can be freed from slavery.

The first way to be freed from slavery is by the death of the slave.

The second way is for your master to release you voluntari­ly. But if your master happens to be sin which enslaved you in the first place, you can rule out any voluntary surrender of the slave into the hands of Christ. Hence death still remains the way for us to be freed from slav­ery to sin. If our death is not real, neither is our so-called freedom. A slave doesn’t cease to be a slave just by playing dead. His pretend­ing to be a corpse won’t fool any­one. Unless there is true death, there is no true release from slavery. Through death we are freed from slavery to sin, “for he who has died is freed from sin” (Rom.6:7).

The third way to be freed from slavery is by redemption: the pay­ing of a ransom to release a slave from slavery. It is signifi­cant that Christ’s redemptive death for us is tied to our death with him.

Christ died for us, and we die with him in baptism. Romans 6 has many references to our death in baptism (see the underlined in the following), showing beyond any doubt that baptism involves death:

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried there­fore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall cer­tainly be united with him in a resurrect­ion like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to noth­ing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:3-8, ESV)

The theme of the next chapter, Romans 7, is the Law. Our bond­age to sin is compounded by our bondage to the Law, and the same quest­ion arises: How can I be set free from the Law? Or from the power of sin? Or from the guilt of sin, since the Law condemns me? The answer in Romans 7 is the same: death. Through death we are freed from the Law and from guilt, as seen especially in verses 1 to 4.

In the next chapter, Romans 8, Paul continues on the topic of death yet he also speaks of victory in the Spirit: “For if you live accord­ing to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom.8:13) This reminds us of John 12:24 and Matthew 10 and 16, demon­strating that Paul’s teachings are under­girded by Jesus’ teach­ings. Paul does not alter or diverge from Jesus’ teaching, but teaches the same.

The next verse, Romans 8:14, regarding the leading of the Spirit, has already been discussed. This verse begins with the word “for”, indicat­ing a logical connection between verses 13 and 14:

13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom.8:13-14, ESV)

We won’t be led by the Spirit unless we allow the Spirit to “put to death” the deeds of the flesh. If we skip the part about putting to death the deeds of the flesh, and try to go straight to the won­derful life of being led by the Spirit — even experiencing an earthquake from God — we are going to be disappointed. The wonderful life in the Spirit comes only after the Spirit has put to death the flesh in us. First death, then life, in that order.

The deeds of the flesh

What then are the deeds of the flesh? Paul tells us:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impur­ity, sensuality, idolatry, sor­cery, enmity, strife, jea­lousy, fits of anger, rival­ries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunken­ness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal.5:19-21, ESV)

Those who do the deeds of the flesh won’t inherit the king­dom of God. You might say that you don’t do most of these things. But it takes only one deed to be guilty of all, just as you need only break one command­ment to be guilty of break­ing the whole law (James 2:10; Gal.5:3). Sor­cery or drunken­ness might not apply to you but what about jealousy or fits of anger? How many of us can go through this list and come away with a clean sheet?

Paul is not talking to unbelievers but Galatian believers. He tells them that if they do the deeds of the flesh, they won’t inherit the king­dom of God even if they claim to believe in Jesus. But in contrast to the deeds of the flesh, the abundant life is characterized by the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, good­ness, faithful­ness, gen­tleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal.5:22-23)

Die to the world

Finally, we die not only to sin but to the world: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been cruci­fied to me, and I to the world.” (Gal.6:14)

If we are united with Christ, we are also crucified to the world. We are dead to the world and the world is dead to us. If you have died with Christ and if the cross avails for your salvation, then through the cross you are dead to the world, and the world to you.

Here “the world” does not refer to lakes, trees, mountains, birds. We don’t die to these things. In fact these become more mean­ingful to us than ever before, for now we see in them God’s glory. In the Bible, “the world” refers to the world system enslaved to sin. The whole world lies in the power of Satan, the evil one (1Jn.5:19). If we have died to sin, we will have also died to the world. We have been set free from the values of the world and the way of thinking dominated by sin.

We live in a sordid world. The higher up you are in the world, the fier­cer is the battle and the more sinister the tactics of your rivals. But when you are in the lower ranks, no one is interested in you, a nobody.

A good friend of mine in the Japanese Foreign Ministry has twice writ­ten me pleading for prayer support. He was due to be trans­ferred to Africa as a discipline for a deed he had not com­mitted. He was a victim of a conspiracy in the foreign office where he worked. He was due to become the am­bassador of a certain country in his next post­ing, but some­one coveted that position.

Every country has a limited number of ambassadors, perhaps 100 to 150. The ambassadorial positions are not of equal rank or prestige. The ambass­ador to a country such as the United States enjoys greater pres­tige. At the bottom ranks are the ambassadors to countries which you have trouble finding on a map. An ambass­ador is still an ambassa­dor, but some are “more equal” than others in the real world.

There was infighting for the ambassadorial position that was to be my friend’s. The tactic was simple: take the job away from him by slandering him. Tell the boss that he had done this and that, and if the boss believes you, your target will be demoted or reassigned. That was what happened to my friend, so he was reassigned to Tanzania. He could have been the ambassador to France, regarded as being of high­er standing than an ambass­ador to Tanzania. My friend wasn’t concerned about the prestige because he doesn’t des­pise any country, including Tanzania. The pro­blem was that his wife, being in poor health, would not be able to go with him to Tanzania because the climate there was unsuitable for her health. Hence, during his posting in Tanzania, he was separated from his family. Because his sick wife was going through hardship, the whole affair was causing him a lot of grief.

That is how things are in the world. When the Bible says we are to die to the world, it means to die to this way of doing things and stepping on others. Without death, there is no entering into life. This death is a real death effected in us by the Holy Spirit, who then leads us into the fullness of life.

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