The most obvious mark of a true believer

One of the most consequential experiences I have ever had was the privilege to direct a Christian camping and conference center for five years. I had served with that ministry during my high school and college years, then began teaching there in the Summer once I became a pastor. Soon after that, I became a member of their board. Then, during a season when that ministry had experienced a major downturn, I was hired as the director.

There were many things I enjoyed about that job, even though it was probably the most difficult job I've ever had. I enjoyed working with various churches and ministries. I enjoyed working to repair and improve the property. But my favorite part of directing the camp was working with the staff. Each year, I had the responsibility to hire and train about thirty people who would help us implement the Summer camping program, the weekend retreats, and the mid-week meetings and conferences. We were often quite exhausted, but we loved working together.

One of the things that became very clear to me about that role was that if I spent time making sure that I hired the right people, gave them the right training, and showed my appreciation for their work, they would thrive in their roles. In time, it became clear to me that I could trust this group of people, many of whom were still in high school, to manage very complicated tasks. I could trust them to keep their schedule without constantly needing to hover over them. Even at night, I could sleep soundly because I knew they weren't sneaking out of their cabins or leaving the property. They showed that they could be trusted, and they made it clear by their faithfulness and commitment to their tasks that they truly valued being on that staff. They were obedient to the instructions they had been given, even when I wasn't present.

I mention their commitment and faithfulness because those are traits the Lord makes visible in the lives of those who trust in Him. When we come to a place of genuine faith in Jesus Christ, a transformation takes place in our lives. Instead of running away from God, we embrace Him. Instead of ignoring Him, we strive to hear Him. Instead of disobeying Him, we find delight in obeying Him. That obedience becomes the most obvious mark of our genuine faith in Him.

I. Do I trust the Lord enough to obey Him?

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!  Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 
— Romans 6:15-16, ESV

The church in Rome was made up of people from different backgrounds. There were some believers in the church who grew up as Gentiles. Others were from a Jewish background. As Paul explained the nature of the grace of God, and pointed out that in Christ, we are no longer under the Mosaic Law, that would have sounded very strange to the Jewish believers in particular. I'm sure some of them wondered if Paul was actually saying that we could do whatever we wanted since the Law of the Old Covenant wasn't governing us any longer. So Paul clarifies what he's saying in this passage.

Paul explained that living under grace does not mean we are to indulge in sin. That's not the point of grace at all. God showed us His grace to set us free from sin's bondage, not so we could misinterpret His grace as a license to sin. Paul stresses in this passage that we become slaves to whatever we obey. We can live like we're slaves to sin, which leads to death, or we can live in obedience to God, which is the fruit of righteousness and leads to even more righteousness.

But admittedly, the word obedience probably doesn't rise to a very exciting level in the minds of most people. More often than not, the word obedience is something we associate more with pets or small children. The truth, however, is that obedience is actually evidence of trust.

For example, if you ask me for directions to my house and you follow those directions, you're showing that you actually trusted me enough to do what I told you to do. In the same way, obedience to the Lord is evidence that we actually trust Him. But who do most people in this world primarily trust? Who do we sometimes act like we primarily trust? Ourselves. The fruit of many decisions in our lives, and in the lives of those we love, give clear evidence that our greatest trust is in ourselves and not the Lord.

If we trusted the Lord, would we try to stifle our consciences when He's speaking to us by the Holy Spirit? If we trusted the Lord, would we choose the values of our culture or era over the clear counsel of His word? Admittedly, the lusts of our flesh, the lusts of our eyes, and the boastful pride of life look wonderful to us at first. But behind the scenes, they're conspiring against us to produce death, disease, and depression in our lives.

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other." Can we identify with that statement? Is it possible that one of the reasons you may be struggling to experience the joy of the Lord during this season of your life is because you're trying to serve two masters? Have you made yourself the slave of something that's working against you instead of living in the joyful experience of trusting Jesus to be all you truly need? Do we trust the Lord enough to obey Him?

II. Is my obedience motivated by love and holiness?

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
— Romans 6:17-19, ESV

During the course of most weeks, I meet together with families and individuals for pastoral counseling. Over the course of the decades that I've been doing this, the Lord has taught me something important that I wish I understood much earlier. When someone presents a problem or a concern, it's easy to start addressing those concerns from a behavioral standpoint. If you're struggling with overeating, stop stocking your pantry with snacks. If you're struggling with a porn addiction, put a filter on your internet. If you're struggling with overspending, ask your spouse to hide your credit cards. But these are all superficial solutions that might sound somewhat practical, but in the end, fail to address heart motivations.

If we really want to address what's going on in our lives, and why we're struggling with what we're struggling with, we need to get beyond the surface and begin digging into what motivates our heart. Behavior always follows belief. We often keep struggling with the same issues, over and over, because we never get to the heart of our struggles. We never address our false beliefs.

I appreciate the fact that the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul, in the midst of this discussion on obedience toward God, to stress the importance of being "obedient from the heart" instead of living like "slaves of sin." So what might actually be behind a food addiction, a porn addiction, or a spending addiction? Those addictions thrive in hearts that are being governed by the false belief that food, porn, or spending will soothe our pain, fill our emptiness, and make us happy. But food, porn, and spending can't really do that for you. They are false saviors that promise a false salvation.

Jesus, however, can soothe the longing of your soul. He can heal your pain, fill your voids, and give you joy that isn't dependent on circumstances. He will set you free from your dependence on whatever form of sin-slavery you've been leaning on. And as you experience the kind of freedom only He can supply, you'll watch your driving motivations change as well. As a recipient of His grace, mercy, and love, you'll desire to be obedient to His leading. You'll obey Him because you've learned to love Him too. You'll obey Him because you're experiencing the transformation of heart the Holy Spirit is facilitating in you as He produces holiness in your life.

Now, I can do the best I can to preach this message to you, but I'll never have the opportunity to preach a message to your heart as often as you will. If you've been preaching a message to yourself that is based on the teaching of false beliefs, please consider replacing that message with the joyful truth of the gospel of Christ. He is the source of true joy and in Him, our shame has been taken away.

III. Do I understand what Jesus did with my shame?

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
— Romans 6:20-23, ESV

Some time ago, I was watching the biography of a prominent, modern-day businessman. During this season of his life, he's studied and admired, but during his childhood he experienced a considerable amount of disappointment. He didn't grow up knowing his father. He was repeatedly beaten by a rotating cast of men his mother would bring home. He lived in poverty, and he was nearly expelled from school because of his defensive and defiant attitude. Now, he's known as a ruthless businessman with a high net worth, and I can't help wondering if a major reason he's so ruthless in his business practices is because he still feels the shame of his childhood and he's trying to do everything he can to distance himself from it while protecting himself from returning to it.

Knowing that every one of us have things in our past that we aren't proud of, things that can still produce a sense of shame, Paul asks the readers of his letter to identify what kind of fruit was produced by the sins of our past? What kind of legacy has come from the things we're now ashamed of? In the end, the long-term fruit of our rebellion against the Lord is death. Sin ends no other way. But the fruit of the righteousness of Christ which is being poured into the lives of all who trust in Him is holiness and eternal life.

Jesus took our shame upon Himself so He could offer us His righteousness in its place. When Christ was on this earth, He was mocked, beaten, spit upon, and crucified naked in order to subject Him to shame. Yet He hadn't done anything to deserve this. It was the shame of our sin that was being placed upon Him. But for the joy that was set before Him of seeing millions, if not billions of people clothed in His righteousness, He was willing to endure that shame.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.”
— Hebrews 12:1-2, NLT

In Christ, we have a new identity. We are holy and blameless in His sight. In Christ, we have a new destiny. We are destined to live in His presence forever. In Christ, we are blessed with the gift of new life. The wages, or what we earned from our practice of sin, resulted in physical and spiritual death. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Jesus makes us new, and the most obvious mark of a true believer is joyful obedience to Him. Do we trust Him enough to obey Him? Is our obedience motivated by love and holiness? Do we fully appreciate what Jesus did with our guilt and shame?

“Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.”
— 1 John 4:15-16a, ESV

© John Stange, 2018