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The Christian Life. What is the Christian life? Basic Christian Living. Koinonia.
Christian Fellowship. Intimate Fellowship. The Christian Life.

What is the Christian Life?

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2009 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at Thank you.

What is the Christian Life? An Introduction

Part 1 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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Today I’m beginning a multi-part series on the Christian life. I want to try and answer a simple question:

What is the Christian life?

A similar question might be: How should a Christian live? Or perhaps one might ask: What are essential elements of a Christian lifestyle? Or maybe: What difference will it make in my life today if I am a follower of Jesus? There are many other possible forms of this question. The simplest one is: What is the Christian life?

This question is essential for those of us who are Christians, that is to say, for those of us who have put our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Why? Because being a Christian is so much more than merely believing certain truths or getting a free ticket to heaven. Trusting Jesus is the first step in a whole new way of living. Eternal life, rightly understood, isn’t just something for which we must wait until we die. Rather, it begins in this life, though it won’t be fully experienced until the age to come.

Although I am writing this series primarily with Christians in mind, it might also be helpful for my readers who are not Christians. If you’re curious about what the Christian life should be, I hope to satisfy your curiosity. If you’re considering becoming a Christian, it would be good for you to know in advance what you may be getting yourself into.

I’m going to propose one basic answer to the question: What is the Christian life? This answer will be based solidly on Scripture. In fact, my answer will emerge from a close examination of the biblical text. But I am not suggesting that my answer to the Christian life question is the only answer, or even necessarily the best answer. I think it’s one true perspective on life in Christ, a perspective that is invaluable for all Christians and relevant to the opportunities and challenges of contemporary living. But I expect there are other perspectives that are also true, valuable, and relevant.

I am not implying, however, that the Christian life can be anything you want it to be. The way of living for a follower of Jesus emerges from our relationship with him, and this relationship rests on who Jesus is and what he has done. Thus, the Christian life is shaped by core theological truths. These truths are revealed to us in Scripture, which becomes a kind of roadmap to the Christian life. I realize that many people today claim the freedom to construct their religious life without basing it upon the Bible. This is true even for some followers of Jesus. But I am convinced that God has give us his written Word as a sure guide, not only for what to believe, but also for how to live. You don’t have to agree with my take on the Bible in order to profit from this series on the Christian life, however. But I do at least want to lay my cards on the table before I begin, so you know where “I’m coming from.” If you wish, you could call this series “One Biblical Perspective on the Christian Life.”

I’ve been thinking about what it means to live as a Christian for a long time. My serious reflections began when I was in college, seeking to be a faithful Christian in the multi-cultural and aggressively secular environment of Harvard University. During my years as an associate pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, I was exposed to a wide variety of Christian lifestyles and living environments. Sometimes I worked with street people from inner city Hollywood; sometimes I worked with highly successful people from the media world known as Hollywood. My reflections on the Christian life continued and intensified during my sixteen-year tenure as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. Week after week, I sought to help the people of this fine church live out their Christian faith in their daily lives.

While I was serving in Irvine, the church gave me a three-month sabbatical. My major project during this period of time was to write a manuscript on the Christian life. I wrote it for the express purpose of helping new members of our church understand what it meant really to live as a Christian. I hoped that a publisher might pick up this manuscript, but official publication was secondary to my goal of providing a resource for people joining my church. As it turned out, Baker Books did publish my manuscript with the title: After “I Believe”: Experiencing Authentic Christian Living. This book is now out of print, though it can still be found every now and then on eBay or in used bookstores.

The series that follows is based on a chapter of After “I Believe.” I plan to rework, refine, and expand that chapter. Though my basic perspective on the Christian life hasn’t changed substantially in the last ten years, I have a few more things to say today, and I hope to be evening clearer in this series than I was in my book. If you read After “I Believe,” you may find some of what I say today vague familiar, but much will be new.

As always, I will be interested in your comments along the way. You can post them here for others to read, or email them to me if you wish to speak confidentially. So here’s a question for you: How do you envision the Christian life? If you had to summarize in 25 words or less what it means to live as a follower of Jesus, what would you say?

Life for a Divided Community

Part 2 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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Yesterday I began a new blog series I’m calling What is the Christian Life? If you missed yesterday’s post, you might check it out to see where I’m headed in this series. Or, you can read on, and be surprised.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had years ago with a friend I’ll call Doug. Doug was the pastor of a growing church not far from where I lived. That day his face told a sad story. As we sat across the coffee shop table from each other, I could read his grief in taut lines that etched his usually cheerful face. My friend was in obvious distress.

"Our church is splitting," he admitted. "I can't do anything more to keep it together. It feels like my heart is being torn up, my family. I can't believe this is happening."

Neither could I. Everything had seemed to be going so well for Doug and his congregation. Begun as a home Bible study, under Doug's leadership the church had grown swiftly in size. Many of those added to the membership had become Christians as a result of his ministry. Soon the expanding fellowship added new staff, including a talented, young assistant pastor.

But disaffections with Doug's ministry began brewing. The assistant pastor all too willingly stirred the pot. Before long, a sizable faction of the church planned to break away to start their own fellowship. Their gripes weren't substantial, matters of theology or morals. They had more to do with ministry style and strategy. Mostly, they reflected spiritual immaturity among believers who saw the church as place to meet their needs rather than a place to serve the living God.

The intervention of denominational officials shone a ray of hope into the dark situation, but only for a brief moment. It was too little, too late. The church was dividing. As his beloved congregation broke apart, so did Doug's heart. He winced as former friends now averted their eyes when they saw him in town. He yearned for reconciliation and ached because it seemed so unlikely.

Doug's situation is as old as Christianity, I'm sorry to say. In the closing years of the first century A.D., a pastor known to us as John watched sadly as his church splintered before his eyes. The divisive issues were not trivial, as in the case of Doug's church. They had to do with fundamental theology: the nature of Christ and the Christian life. Those who had departed from John's church rejected the essential humanity of Christ, denied their own sinfulness, and failed to love their fellow church members. Unwilling to abandon their mistaken views and practices, they instead parted company with the church that had been their spiritual family. They also abandoned John, who was not only their pastor, but perhaps even one of the original disciples of Jesus. Many scholars believe that he was also the author of the Gospel of John (or at least that both "Johns" were leaders in the same church).

Though devastated by the split in his congregation, John turned his pastoral attention to his remaining flock. Fearing that others might leave the church, he wrote a short treatise to reaffirm the basic truths that the separatists had denied. He urged those he called his spiritual "children" to think rightly and to love energetically (1 John 3:18). This treatise is preserved for us as the first letter of John in the New Testament.

John does not merely refute the views of those who left his church. Rather, he strengthens his community by helping them to understand the Christian life. With greater regularity than any other biblical book, John uses the Greek word "life" (zoe, pronounced ZOE-ay), and explains what that life is all about. He does this with particular intensity in the opening verses of 1 John:

The one who existed from the beginning is the one we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is Jesus Christ, the Word of life.  This one who is life from God was shown to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and announce to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was shown to us.  We are telling you about what we ourselves have actually seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-4, my translation, with italics added. I will generally use my own translations in this series, for the sake of accuracy and clarity.)

In my next post in this series I will examine in greater detail the life that has been revealed to us according to 1 John 1:1-4.

The Life Has Been Revealed

Part 3 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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In my last post I introduced the New Testament letter we know as 1 John. Written by a pastor for his hurting flock, John begins his letter by talking about the life we have in Christ. Here, once again, are these opening verses:

The one who existed from the beginning is the one we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is Jesus Christ, the Word of life.  This one who is life from God was shown to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and announce to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was shown to us. We are telling you about what we ourselves have actually seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-4)

Let’s pay close attention to the life of which John writes.

The life John "declares" to his spiritual children is not something he has contrived in his imagination. It comes neither from cultural convention nor from philosophical speculation. Rather, "The one who is life from God was shown to us," John writes. So we don't miss the point, he repeats, "He was with the Father, and then he was shown to us" (1:2). This revelation occurred, not in some private, mystical experience, but in something tangible, something that was heard, seen, and touched (1:1). God acted observably and spoke intelligibly, with John as one of the witnesses. As a caring pastor, he wants his flock to know about and to experience the revealed life of God.

Christianity is based upon God's revelation in history. Though God often whispers in our hearts when we are quiet enough to listen or moves our hearts when we make them available to him, our faith does not rest upon our subjective perceptions. It stands upon the rock of God's self-revelation throughout the ages, a revelation that is recorded in Scripture.

We see God making himself known in every part of the Bible. In the Old Testament, for example, Abraham and Sarah didn't conjure up a god to meet their needs; their culture supplied plenty of household gods already. Rather, the sovereign Lord freely disclosed himself to them, changing their lives forever in the process (Gen 12-25). The same was true for Moses. While he was out in the wilderness minding his own business (well, actually, minding his father-in-law's sheep business), God appeared to him, divulging his essential nature and calling Moses to into his service. Through the Law and the prophets, through exceptional miracles and daily blessings, God revealed himself to his people. The New Testament continues the story of God's self-revelation with a dramatic new development of the plot, as we'll see just below. (Photo: Charleton Heston as Moses)

Divine revelation lags in popularity these days. In our postmodern world, we are encouraged to invent our own gods, not to be told by anyone else – God included – what God is like. We claim the right to fabricate a religion that meets our needs and conforms to our values. Take a little of Christian grace, a bit of Eastern meditation, a bunch of generic love, and – voilà! – you have your own personalized religion. The whole idea of revelation seems foreign, even offensive. I can't tell you how many times, when talking with folks about some difficult aspect of God's revealed character, I have heard them say, "Well, I'm just not comfortable with a God like that. My God isn't that way." They simply assume the right and the ability to determine what God is and isn't like. If there really is a God who lives outside of our imaginations, that's rather audacious, don't you think?

Furthermore, if God has actually bothered to reveal himself through something other than our personal inclinations, it would be rather foolish to try to invent God. Don’t you think it would be better to pay attention to what God has revealed about himself, even if certain aspects of God's nature make us uncomfortable? There are many things about the God of the Bible I don't especially like, I must confess. For example, I am often perplexed by God’s willingness to use violence and suffering in the unfolding of his plans for redeeming the world. More personally, sometimes I would like God to be much more compliant to my will and less committed to his own sovereignty. (I know this sounds silly when written down, but it is how I feel at times.) But, when the cobwebs are swept away from my mind, I really do want to know God as he is, as has shown himself to be, and not to chop him down to level of my conceptualization and comfort. In the final analysis, I wouldn't want to trust my life to the pint-sized God of my own creation. Though the idea of revelation insults my postmodern pride, it actually relieves me of an impossibly heavy burden – the need to invent God and get it right.

Returning to John’s letter, he states that God has revealed, not only his nature, but also "life" or "eternal life." This is great news. God has shown us how to live in his way, how to experience his quality of life. If this is true, then our next question is obvious: What is this life? To this question I’ll turn in the next post in this series.

What is the Life Revealed by God?

Part 4 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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In the opening verses of 1 John, we discover some essential characteristics of the life revealed by God. First, it was "from the beginning" (1:1). Second, it is something John has experienced personally: heard, seen, and touched (1:1). Third, prior to its being revealed, it was "with the Father" (1:2).

For John's original readers, these clues pointed to an obvious candidate for the revealed life: Jesus, the Son of God. The language of John’s letter echoes the introduction to the Gospel of John, the content of which would have been familiar to John's community:

In the beginning the Word already existed. He was with God, and he was God. He was in the beginning with God. . . . Life itself was in him, and this life gives light to everyone. . . . So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full on unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, . . . . God's unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ (John 1:1-2, 4, 14, 17).

The Word of God, who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, is the one who existed "in the beginning." As his disciple, John heard, saw, looked at, and touched Jesus. As the Word of God, Jesus was "with the Father" prior to coming in the flesh so that John and others could see his glory. So the introduction to 1 John makes it clear that Jesus is the life revealed by God.

John's identification of Jesus and life reiterates that which Jesus said about himself. The Gospel of John records these words of Jesus,

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again (John 11:25).

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me (John 14:6).

It would seem that we have found our answer to the question: What is the Christian life? The Christian life is Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. (Photo: A painting of the resurrection of Jesus by Matthias Grünewald, as a part of his famous Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1515)

In a sense, nothing could be more important that this truth. But the use of language here can also leave us in a quandary. If the Christian life is Jesus, how do we live Jesus? If I want to live as a Christian today, what do I actually do?

The equation of Jesus with life is a figure of speech, a creative use of language that suggests an inseparable connection between Jesus and the divine life. When John sums up the point of his Gospel, he explains:

Jesus’ disciples saw him do many other miraculous signs besides the ones recorded in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life. (John 20:30-31)

Notice, here life is not equated with Jesus. Rather, it is a result of believing in him. John makes that same point earlier in the Gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Once again, Jesus is the source of life. This life is often characterized as "eternal life," a phrase that describes the way we will live one day when we are fully in God's presence and all creation is the way God intends it to be. Yet we can begin to experience eternal life even now as we trust in the Son of God.

Jesus invites us to do more than trust him for salvation, however. In John 15, he invites his disciples, and by implication all who believe in him, to "remain" in him (John 15:4). The verb translated as "to remain" means "to abide" or "to make one's home." Jesus urges us to make our home – to center our experience, to orient our hearts, to find rest and security – in him. The results of such abiding are appealing: abundant fruitfulness, answered prayer, and plentiful joy (John 15:4-5, 7, 11). Since Jesus is the source of life, then staying closely connected to him leads to the best kind of life there is, a life of meaningful productivity and maximal delight. If you ask me, that sounds pretty good.

So, at first, the question “What is the life revealed by God?” isn’t quite right. The better first question is, “Who is the life revealed by God?” Answer: Jesus, the Word of God incarnate. Once we’ve identified him as the Life, we are then able to answer the question “What is the life revealed by God?” It is life lived in relationship with God through Christ.

I grew up in a Christian community that emphasized “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Thus I was disturbed when, as a teenager, my study of Scripture nowhere uncovered the phrase “personal relationship with Christ.” I remember once telling one of my pastors, “The Bible never mentions having a personal relationship with Christ,” much to his consternation.

I was literally right, in that the phrase “personal relationship” doesn’t show up in English translations of the Bible. But the idea of having a relationship with God permeates the Scripture, from the first chapters of Genesis to the closing chapters of Revelation. In my next post, and in the ones to follow, I want to examine in detail one of the ways that the Bible speaks of what we might call “having a personal relationship” with God.

The Christian Life as Intimate Fellowship

Part 5 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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In my last post in this series, I asked: What is the life revealed by God? The answer of John in his first letter is: Jesus Christ. Through the one who is the Life, we experience the fullness of life. In the first chapter of 1 John we learn much more about the essential character of this life.

John explains his purpose in telling his spiritual children about God's life this way: "We are telling you about what we ourselves have actually seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1:3). Faith in Jesus, the eternal life that was with the Father, opens up a way to experience eternal life now, a life that John describes by the word "fellowship." In fact he uses this word four times in the first seven verses of 1 John:

The one who existed from the beginning is the one we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is Jesus Christ, the Word of life. This one who is life from God was shown to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and announce to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was shown to us. We are telling you about what we ourselves have actually seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

We are writing these things so that our joy will be complete.

This is the message he has given us to announce to you: God is light and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness. We are not living in the truth. But if we are living in the light of God’s presence, just as Christ is, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin. (1 John 1:1-7, emphasis added)

What does John mean by this word "fellowship"?

We associate fellowship with camaraderie and informal friendliness. At Irvine Presbyterian Church, we had a "fellowship hall." It was a place for church potlucks, wedding receptions, and casual conversation on rare rainy days. But our sense of fellowship fell far short of the word “fellowship” as used in the New Testament. (Photo: The Family Christimas Celebration in the Fellowship Hall of Irvine Presbyterian Church.)

The Greek word translated as "fellowship" (koinonia) means far more than hanging out with friendly people in a comfortable place. Koinonia literally means "holding something in common." Among Greek speakers in the Roman Empire, it was used in business to refer to partnership or joint-ownership, a relationship in which two people held business interests and assets in common.

Early Christians used koinonia for their celebrations of the Lord's Supper, that which we call "communion" (a word that is based on koinonia, coming to us through the Latin communio). By taking bread and wine in memory of Jesus, the first Christians were "sharing together" or "having communion" in him (1 Cor 10:16-17). Marriage could be called "the fellowship of life." Sexual intimacy between spouses could be called simply koinonia. Clearly, therefore, koinonia implies a depth of relationship we don't usually associate with a fellowship hall.

It's hard to find an English word that unites the various and deeper connotations of koinonia. "Fellowship," "partnership," and "sharing" highlight limited facets of the word's meaning. "Communion" gets much closer, but has a religious tone that might obscure the original sense of koinonia. The best translation I can conceive for koinonia in 1 John uses two words, "intimate fellowship."

God's kind of life involves, neither a casual relationship with him such as one might experience in a fellowship hall, nor a deep relationship that happens only when we "receive communion" in church, but intimate fellowship available at all times and in all places. God desires our kinship with him to consist of far more than a few rushed prayers or cameo appearances at Easter and Christmas services. The Creator of Heaven and Earth seeks an intimate, personal relationship with you and me. God wants us to share deeply in his life, both now and forever.

What a wonder! In our preoccupation with our personal search for God we can easily forget that God is searching for us too. That's one of the major narrative themes of the Bible: God's search for humankind, God's effort to reestablish the fellowship between himself and his human creatures that was broken because of sin. Jesus Christ came, not only to save us from sin and death, but also to lead us into close, lasting relationship with God. As the source of eternal life from God, Jesus welcomes us into koinonia, intimate fellowship with God . . . but not with God alone.

Intimate Fellowship with God and God's People

Part 6 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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In my last post I proposed that the Christian life is koinonia, which should be understood as intimate fellowship. This koinonia is with God through Jesus Christ, but not only with God. I’ll explain what I mean in today’s and tomorrow’s posts.

Let's return 1 John for a moment. John declares the message of life to his spiritual children “so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). John's order may surprise us. Rather than first mentioning fellowship with God, John gives prior emphasis to the intimate fellowship he wishes to share with those who receive his letter. We might expect things to be the other way around, with the accent placed on fellowship with God rather than fellowship with people. But John accentuates the human dimension because it is essential to full fellowship with God.

The inseparability of divine and human fellowship appears again in verses 6-7:

So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness. We are not living in the truth. But if we are living in the light of God’s presence, just as Christ is, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin.

Once we see in verse 6 that "living in spiritual darkness" precludes fellowship with God, we would expect verse 7 to read: "but if we are living in the light of God's presence, then we have fellowship with God." Instead, John mentions "fellowship with one another" as if it were almost identical to fellowship with God.

Later in his letter John makes a analogous point about loving God:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God—for God is love. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. . . . No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love has been brought to full expression through us. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we have not seen? And God himself has commanded that we must love not only him but our Christian brothers and sisters, too (1 John 4:7-8, 11-12, 20-21).

In this passage, love for God and love for God's people are so closely connected that we cannot love God without loving God's children, our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we love each other, God lives in us. If we don't love each other, we don't know God. The interweaving of relationship with God and relationship with God's people is so complex in this chapter that we might easily become confused. Without a doubt, however, relationship with God is inseparable from relationship with the people of God. We cannot have one without the other. We cannot love God without loving our spiritual siblings, even as we cannot have intimate fellowship with God apart from intimate fellowship with these siblings.

The virtual equation of fellowship with God and with God's people might seem surprising. Isn't the Christian life really about relationship with God? Isn't fellowship with people plainly secondary in significance? I suppose that if we had to choose between relationship with God and relationship with people, we'd rightly join up with God. But by making this sort of distinction we miss the indivisibility of divine and human fellowship as taught in the Bible. We echo the bias of our culture rather than the revealed word of God.

Many popular versions of the Christian life separate that which the Bible holds together so consistently. American individualism has penetrated deeply within our conceptions of Christianity. What really matters, we are told, is our personal relationship with God. That's true as far as it goes. But, in biblical perspective, that personal relationship always has corporate implications. We tend to equate personal with private, whereas the Bible links personal and corporate. God's personal relationship with me draws me into personal relationships with others. (Photo: Hey, even the Lone Ranger wasn’t really alone. He had his best friend and partner, Tonto, not to mention Silver!)

In my next post I’ll show how the inseparability of relationship with God and relationship with people is revealed throughout the Bible.

Intimate Fellowship with God and God's People (cont)

Part 7 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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In my last post, I showed how 1 John connects fellowship with God and fellowship with people in such a way that they are virtually inseparable. Although this notion might be surprising to some of us who have drunk deeply from the well of American individualism, in fact what we read in 1 John isn’t particularly new.

Consider the vast sweep of biblical revelation. When God created a solitary man, someone able to have a personal relationship with God, God said that it was not good for the man to be alone. So God formed a partner for the man, namely a wo-man (Gen 2). Later, God promised to bless Abraham not all by his lonesome, but by making him the father of a nation and by blessing all the families of the earth through him (Gen 12). God set his people free from Egypt, not so that each Israelite might please God individually, but so that the congregation of the Israelites would be a "holy nation" together (Exod 19:6). God views personal obedience as an aspect of corporate holiness.

Turning to the New Testament, we see that Jesus, in the moments before his death, prayed for those who would one day believe in him, that we might be "perfected into one," even as he was one with his heavenly Father (John 17:22-23). Our Savior died on the cross for our personal salvation, to be sure, and also so that he might create one new humanity between formerly divided peoples (Eph 2). God's ultimate plan is to "bring everything together under the authority of Christ – everything in heaven and on earth" (Eph 1:10). Someday we will be united with all of God's people, indeed, with all of creation. In New Testament visions of heaven, you will not end up sitting on your on private cloud playing a harp (as if this picture has any appeal). Rather, these visions show

a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. . . . And they were shouting with a mighty shout, “Salvation comes from our God on the throne and from the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9-10).

Someday we will join a vast heavenly choir, worshipping God in a way that is intensely personal and inescapably corporate. That's not all we will do in heaven, I expect. But whatever we do, it won't involve an eternity of playing spiritual solitaire. In fact, C. S. Lewis sees isolation from other people as an essential characteristic of hell, not heaven. (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

Thus, when John, in his first letter, links fellowship with God to fellowship among God's people, he stands squarely within the long line of biblical revelation. When we are adopted by our Heavenly Father, we also join a great extended family.

One of the highlights of my life occurred when I was three and a half years old. The spring afternoon was bright and warm as my parents drove across town to finish a process that had taken many long months. It had taken forever, from my childish perspective. When we finally arrived at our destination, I hugged a special teddy bear in one hand, while nervously grabbing my mother's fingers in the other. After walking down a long corridor, we stopped at a room. It was sparsely furnished, with a plain wooden crib in the corner. In that crib was a three-month old baby, my parents’ newly adopted son, Gary. My heart raced as I peered at him for the very first time. Dangling the teddy bear before his giant blue eyes, I swelled with pride when Gary smiled at me. This was not just my parents’ son. He was my brother!

Once we shared common parents, Gary and I became part of the same family. He couldn't be their son without also being my brother. This remained true throughout our lives, in the good times and the bad times, whether we liked it or not. I was still Gary's brother four years after his adoption when I ditched him in the hills above our home and he was lost for hours. Gary was still my brother when he clobbered me on the head with the sharp claw of a hammer, not in retaliation for his being ditched or anything like that, but just because he was curious to see what would happen to my head. (It bled profusely, and Gary ran into the house crying because he hadn’t intended to hurt me.) Gary and I were joyfully brothers when we stood together in each other's weddings, or shared the wonder of holding each other's babies only moments after they were born. I suppose that we could live without relationship together, but our lives would be impoverished and incomplete as a result.

Through the best of times and the worst of times, fellowship with our Heavenly Father initiates fellowship with his other children. Eternal life is personal life and shared life. Therefore, John seeks to have intimate fellowship with his spiritual children as they share intimate fellowship together with the living God.

In my next post in this series I’ll begin to consider how intimate fellowship impacts our whole life.

Intimate Fellowship Impacts Our Whole Life

Part 8 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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A couple of weeks ago I was working away on a series entitled “What is the Christian Life?” I got about two-thirds through that series when I was distracted by other things, including my most recent series on “Grief and the Christian Life.” I’d like to circle back and finish up my series on the Christian life before moving on to other issues.

Let me briefly review what I had explained before. Based on the opening verses of the first letter of John, the Christian life is koinonia, a Greek word often translated as “fellowship.” Yet “fellowship” misses the depth of koinonia, which is related etymologically to our word “communion.” I suggested that we translate koinonia as “intimate fellowship.”

According to 1 John, the Christian life is first and foremost intimate fellowship with God. But when we enjoy this kind of relationship with God, we are also drawn into intimate fellowship with God’s people. We are adopted as children into the family of God, where we have lots of brothers and sisters. Thus, the Christian life can be seen as intimate fellowship with God and God’s people.

In today’s post, and in the others that will finish this blog series, I want to show how this kind of intimate fellowship impacts every part of life.

Walking in Darkness

Sometimes I like to walk in darkness. I'm speaking literally here, not confessing my sin. There's nothing quite like the quiet peace of a late night ramble. When I'm in the woods at midday, I can race along to achieve my hiking goals. But at night, when the light is limited, safety demands a slower, calmer, more soothing pace – a ramble rather than a race.

One of the things I love about my new life in Texas is living on the edge of the country. On my street there are no street lights. And my town has very few. Thus, when my wife and I walk our dog at night, we enjoy ambling along, with our path lit only by the moon or stars.

Sometimes, however, safety suggests that it just isn't good to walk in darkness. Many years ago I was enjoying one of my nighttime strolls while staying at a camp in the mountains above San Bernardino, California. The path was paved and the moon provided just enough light to keep me from going astray. All of a sudden the tranquil quiet of the forest was interrupted by a faint rumble, then a grunt, then the distinct sound of a curious nose sniffing the air. Squinting in the darkness, I could just make out the distinct outline of a large black bear. I knew that forest rangers recommend calm, not panic, in a situation like this. They encourage us not to run, but rather to seem unimpressed. I also knew that black bears, the only kind remaining in California, rarely killed humans. (Photo: A black bear at night, like the one I met on the road.)

As the bear and I scrutinized each other, I felt glad that I hadn’t tried to smuggle some food from the camp dining hall to my dorm. The bear's acute sense of smell confirmed the absence of snacks hidden somewhere on my person, so the beast moseyed off to find more a promising source for a midnight meal. Finally, when the bear had disappeared, I allowed myself to feel the fear that had been hiding in my heart.

“Sometimes,” I thought, “it isn't good to walk in darkness.”

John would certainly agree. 1 John 1:6 speaks literally of "walking in darkness." "Darkness" is a common metaphor for evil, found throughout ancient literature, including the Bible (for example, Ps 23:4; Prov 4:19). The verb "to walk" refers to the cumulative actions of a person's life. How we walk is how we live, what we do day after day (for example, Ps 15:2; Prov 4:14). When John mentions "walking in darkness," he's not envisioning a late night ramble, but a lifestyle of sin.

For John, therefore, the implications of walking in darkness are much more life-threatening than an encounter with a bear:

This is the message he has given us to announce to you: God is light and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness. We are not living in the truth (1 John 1:5-6).

Since God is pure light, living in darkness, which is to say, living a lifestyle of sin, will never follow from intimate fellowship with God. In fact, if we claim to have fellowship with God while continuing in sin, we lie, deceiving ourselves and any who would believe our claim. Our words and our actions are inconsistent with true relationship with God.

In my next post in this series I'll finish looking at what it means to walk in darkness . . . and light.

Walking in Darkness and Light (continued)

Part 9 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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In yesterday’s post I began examining a passage from 1 John that uses the metaphor of walking to talk about how we live. To review, here’s the text:

This is the message he has given us to announce to you: God is light and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living [lit. walking] in spiritual darkness. We are not living in the truth (1 John 1:5-6).

According to John, we cannot have intimate fellowship with God and, at the same time, live a life of persistent sinning.

After laying out this bad news, John adds something much more encouraging: "But if we are living in the light of God’s presence, just as Christ is, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin" (1 John 1:7). Once again, the use of "fellowship with each other" comes as a surprise. As he does in 1 John 1:3, John continues to link fellowship with God to fellowship with God's people. If walking in darkness keeps us from fellowship with God, walking in the light – living our lives in fellowship with God – binds us to one another.

Moreover, when we walk in the light, "the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin." The verb translated as "cleanses" appears in the present tense in Greek. This tense shows that the cleansing by the blood of Jesus is an ongoing experience for Christians. John is not referring here simply to our initial experience of forgiveness when we first trusted Christ, but also to the repeated cleansing we experience when we sin. Although intimate fellowship with God precludes "living in spiritual darkness," even when we know God and walk in him, we will still sin at times and find ourselves in need of forgiveness. We are not sentenced to a life filled with sin, however, because our hearts will be cleansed through the forgiveness we have in Jesus. In time, even the desire to sin will diminish within us if we keep on walking in the light of Christ. From John's point of view, ongoing fellowship with God will, over time, extinguish within us the desire to do that which dishonors God.

Verses 5-8 demonstrate how koinonia impacts our whole life. It transforms our walk, our lifestyle, our way of living. Before entering into intimate fellowship with God and God's people, we can and we do walk in darkness. We do what is evil and we keep on doing it. But once we have true fellowship with God through Christ, we experience forgiveness and cleansing that empowers us to stop walking in darkness. Yes, we continue to sin, but we have new freedom to overcome that sin.

Notice, however, that the Christian life is not some grueling battle of self-improvement. Walking in the light of God changes everything. Freedom from sin comes through fellowship with God. When we fail to live by God's standards – and we all will – we don't grit our teeth and strain to be perfect next time. Rather we come before God with an honest admission of our failures. As John says, "if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong." (1 John 1:9). The more we experience God's forgiveness and cleansing, the more we will be strengthened to stop sinning. The more we receive God's grace, the more we will live in freedom as the Spirit of God transforms every aspect of our lives (Gal 5).

Personally, I am thankful John mentions sin and forgiveness in this discussion of the Christian life. Even though my theology warns against it, my heart keeps on trying to turn the Christian life into a matter of perfect performance. A part of me thinks that I will finally live as a Christian if I only try hard enough, if I only do all of the right things. Of course I fall short of this unrealistic goal, both by failing to do many right things and by doing many wrong ones instead. Yet my shortcomings do not separate me from fellowship with God because the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses me from all sin. The Christian life is not a matter of perfection, but process, not performance for God, but relationship with God.

Intimate Fellowship Encompasses Four Common Ideas of the Christian Life

Part 10 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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So far in this series, I have been exploring the idea that the Christian life is, essentially, intimate fellowship with God and God’s people. I have based my discussion primarily on the first letter of John in the New Testament, where he uses the Greek word koinonia to describe the Christian life. This word, often translated as “fellowship,” points to a deep, committed relationship. Hence my translation “intimate fellowship.”

Today and tomorrow I want to show how the notion of intimate fellowship encompasses four common ideas of the Christian life.

If you were to poll a bunch of Christians, asking them “What is the Christian life?” you’d get a variety of answers. Among these you would commonly hear something like:

1. The Christian life is being in heaven after death.
2. The Christian life is feeling joy and peace in the Lord.
3. The Christian life is believing the right things about God and Jesus.
4. The Christian life is doing what God commands in his Word.

Each of these ideas is true to an extent. But each idea fails to encompass the diversity and depth of the Christian life. Intimate fellowship, however, is an elastic enough concept to embrace these four common ideas, allowing their partial truths to find completeness in a larger whole. Let me explain.

1. The Christian Life as Heaven?

The Christian life does include being in heaven after death. Those who think of the Christian life in this way correctly identify a core hope of our faith, but put too much emphasis upon post-mortem existence, overlooking the present reality of Christian living. When we think of the Christian life as intimate fellowship with God and God's people, however, we understand that this fellowship begins the moment we believe in Jesus. It starts now and extends forever. Our koinonia continues beyond death, though we don't have to wait until we die to experience it.

Putting emphasis upon intimate fellowship also clarifies the biblical sense of heaven. We often speak of heaven as a place, but most importantly it is the “place” where God dwells. To be "in heaven" is to be "with God." The New Testament speaks of our future, not primarily in terms of some mysterious spiritual geography, but in terms of relationship. Our everlasting future will be "with the Lord" or "with Christ" (1 Thess 4:17; Phil 1:23). For this reason, Scripture can even speak of heaven as a present reality, since we already live with Christ (Eph 2:6). Yet we yearn for a more complete experience of heaven, not because it’s such a great place to live, but because it is the dwelling place of such a great God. In time, heaven will come to earth as God will dwell here among us (see Revelation 21, for example. Photo: Not heaven, but close. A tributary of the Gallatin River in Montana.)

2. The Christian Life as Joy and Peace in the Lord?

Surely the Christian life includes feeling joy and peace in the Lord. Although, taken alone, this notion puts too much weight upon certain positive emotions, such feelings often proceed from fellowship with Christ. Jesus makes this clear when he says that abiding in him – another way of talking about koinonia – will lead to overflowing joy (John 15:11). Moreover, when in times of worry we share in fellowship with God through prayer, then we "will experience God's peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard [our] hearts and minds as [we] live in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:7). Joy and peace will be the sweet fruit of growing intimacy with God.

At the same time, we must never reduce the Christian life to positive feelings. For one thing, no Christians are immune from unhappy feelings such as grief or fear. For another, positive feelings are a common by-product of relationship with God, but not the relationship itself. The Christian life is rather like a marriage, in that marriage often includes warm feelings of love, but is not to be identified with those feelings.

These days, you’ll often hear people talk about worship in terms of their personal feelings. If they felt something tangible, such as joy or peace, in a worship service, then they really worshiped. If the feelings were absent, then so was real worship. But this confuses worship with feelings that often come as we worship. In fact, worship is not feeling something, but rather offering praise, thanks, adoration, confession, and ultimately ourselves to God. Genuine worship often includes genuine emotions, but emotions are not worship. Worship is an action, something we choose to do in order to honor the Lord.

Intimate Fellowship Encompasses Four Common Ideas of the Christian Life (Section 2)

Part 11 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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In my last post in this series I began to examine several common ideas of the Christian life and their relationship to intimate fellowship. These ideas included:

1. The Christian life is being in heaven after death.
2. The Christian life is feeling joy and peace in the Lord.
3. The Christian life is believing the right things about God and Jesus.
4. The Christian life is doing what God commands in his Word.

I showed that intimate fellowship includes the first and second ideas in this list. Today I’ll consider the third and fourth notions of the Christian life.

3. The Christian Life as Believing the Right Things?

Proponents of Idea #3 highlight the content of faith. For them, the Christian life is believing the right things about God. From John's perspective, right belief leads to genuine koinonia, but is not equivalent to it. He declares the "Word of life," the message of God's life in Christ, so that we may live in fellowship with God and God's people (1 John 1:1-3). Koinonia is not some squishy, subjective relationship with a god of our own formulation. It is a substantive, spiritual relationship with the one God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and who is known through the declaration of "the Word of life."

Yet, the Christian life is not the same thing as right belief. Rather, it is the relational result of right belief. We know God in truth, but our knowledge of God is not merely intellectual. We don’t just know about God. We also know God, personally, intimately. To the extent that we know God truly, our relationship with God will be deeper and more authentic. So right belief leads to deeper relationship. But right belief is not the essence of the Christian life so much as an essential component and facilitator of it.

Once again, we should not that relationship with God is quite a bit like a marriage. The more I know about my wife – her tastes, her beliefs, her fears, her history, her passions – the more I am able to have intimate fellowship with her. But knowing these facts is not the same as the relationship. So it is with right theology. It can lead us into deeper fellowship with God, but is not the same as that fellowship. (For the record, I do know a bit more about my wife than when this photo was taken 25 plus years ago.)

4. The Christian Life as Doing What God Commands

To be sure, Christian living includes doing what God commands. True fellowship with God, as we have seen, impacts our whole life. Our way of walking – our daily behavior – will reflect our relationship with God. We will do what God commands as a result of our intimacy with him.

A lifestyle of perpetual disobedience proves the lack of such intimacy. Yet because the Christian life is not exactly the same as obedience, individual acts of disobedience do not kill that life. If we "live in the light," if we do what God commands, not only do "we have fellowship with each other," but also "the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin" (1 John 1:7). Because our relationship with God depends upon his grace in Christ and not upon our acts of obedience, occasional sin is more like a bad flu than a terminal illness. Koinonia with God not only heals our sickness, but it also vaccinates us from the virus of sin.

Often, Christians have a hard time figuring out how doing what God commands fits with intimate fellowship with God. Some Christians fall into the pit of legalism, turning the Christian life into a list of dos and don’ts. They promise intimacy with God only on the basis of our actions. Other Christians, however, completely disconnect intimate fellowship with God from obedience. They buy into a false notion that our actions are basically irrelevant when it comes to our relationship with God.

In fact, doing good works that glorify God is part and parcel of the Christian life. But it comes in the context of a grace-based relationship with God. No text of Scripture makes this clearer than Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

By grace we are brought into relationship with God through faith. As we live in this intimate fellowship with God, we live our lives for his glory, doing the good works that he has prepared for us. The works are a result of grace, an outgrowth of our relationship with God.

When we begin to live the authentic Christian life, when we experience each day as intimate fellowship with God and his people, our lives become richer and more joyful. I’ll say more about this in my next post in this series.

Intimate Fellowship and Complete Joy

Part 21 of series: What is the Christian Life?
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I began this series by looking at the sad situation that motivated John to write his first letter. Poor theology plus unloving behavior had led some members of his church to depart, leaving behind their former brothers and sisters in Christ. Koinonia, fellowship with God and God's people, had been broken. John wrote in order to keep others in his congregation from joining the separatists. He reminded his people about the "Word of life" revealed by God. If they held fast to this word, they would experience the fullness of the Christian life. That is to say, they would "have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). John wrote to preserve and protect the koinonia so central to Christian living.

But he claimed to be writing for a further reason: "so that our joy will be complete" (1 John 1:4). Although John had deep fellowship with God, and though he had probably known Jesus personally as his "beloved disciple" (John 19:26), John's joy depended upon his fellowship with other Christians. "Our joy" in this verse, means "your joy and my joy, together." John wrote, not only so that he might be joyful, but that he and his spiritual children might know the fullness of joy. Only if they share together in fellowship with God, would their joy be complete. Maximum joy follows from genuine koinonia.

It is especially striking to consider John's admission that his joy depends on his relationship with his church. If John knew Jesus personally, if he walked with Jesus and was his "beloved disciple," and yet John's joy was incomplete apart from fellowship with other Christians, how much more will this be true for us. Comprehensive joy is always a corporate experience. Although God can surely give joy to the heart of a solitary Christian, complete joy requires a rejoicing community. Joy is even better when it is shared.

I’m reminded of an experience I had years ago in the High Sierra mountains of California. Just about nothing else in life causes me to rejoice like the majestic grandeur of the Sierra, with peaks soaring over 12,000 feet. Several years ago, my family and I spent a week in these sublime mountains. One afternoon I set off by myself for a sightseeing hike to Sherwin Lakes. Without my young children tagging along, nothing interrupted my brisk pace or my alpine meditations. I saw plenty of sights and still had time to drink in the inspiring scenery. Sheer granite peaks, pungent cedar forests, sparkling blue lakes . . . I was just about in heaven. Could I be more joyful than this?

Yes, in fact, I could be. The next day I loaded my backpack with all the provisions for an overnight stay at Sherwin Lakes. But this time I didn't go alone. My six-year-old son Nathan accompanied me for his first backpacking trip. With him as my partner, I didn't hike as quickly, that's for sure. I didn't see as many sights as I had seen when walking alone or have the leisure to appreciate them without distraction. But my joy was even more supreme than it had been because it was now shared. I could show Nathan the cliffs that had stirred my soul the day before, and he could marvel at them with me: "Dad, they're just hunormous!" Nathan helped me to get pleasure from natural trifles I had overlooked just a few hours earlier: pine cones, water bugs, and sticks just right for throwing. Every aspect of that trip thrilled my son, whether we were gathering wood for the campfire or bundling up in our sleeping bags. My joy was more complete than it had been the day before because it was magnified through fellowship with someone I love.

That's the way it is in the Christian life. I've seen it again and again. A mother leads her daughter to Christ, but isn't overwhelmed with tears of joy until she shares her good news with the members of her small group, who add plenty of their own tears to the gladsome puddle. A man returns to church after a long illness and is welcomed back with jubilation by those who had been praying for him so faithfully. His personal joy becomes their shared celebration. The biblical command to "rejoice with those who rejoice" is not some burden to be borne, but an invitation to more abundant living (Rom 12:14, NIV).

The Christian life is intimate fellowship with God and God's people. It touches and transforms every aspect of our lives, beginning at the moment we believe in Jesus, and continuing into eternity. The more we experience true koinonia, the more our lives will be characterized by joy.