Three Ways We Make It Difficult For People Turning To God
Acts 15 has a statement that I think should be engraved on the cornerstone of our church: “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). Far too often, usually without realizing it, Christians drift away from grace and start creating personalized rules to test who is “really” Christian. These aren’t usually bad things, but when outward benchmarks replace inward transformation, we risk turning the grace of the gospel into a whole host of laws. And when we do that, we make it difficult for those who are turning to God.
Here are a three ways that folks in church often make it difficult for those who are turning to God:
I grew up in a church with teetotalers. Absolutely no alcohol for any reason, ever. And they had some decent reasoning. The Bible warns against the dangers of alcohol, and our society has shown that we are particularly susceptible to it. One out of 6 people in the U.S. has a serious drinking problem, 1 out of 10 kids grows up in homes with alcohol abuse, and last year there were 100,000 alcohol-related deaths. The dangers are just too great, they argue, to mess with the stuff. Decent arguments.
But then on the other side, you’ll find people say, “Just because something is abused doesn’t mean we should totally abstain.” After all, sex is abused. Do we get rid of that? Words are abused. Should we stop talking? And if you want to talk about things that kill, while there were 100,000 alcohol-related deaths last year, there were 300,000 deaths related to obesity. Plus, even though the Bible warns against alcohol abuse, we clearly see people drinking fermented beverages…like, well, Jesus. Decent arguments here, too.
So what does all this mean? It means that we should follow our consciences and not judge each other based on this external standard. Godly people can choose either side of this.
It also means we should exercise our freedom of conscience in ways that are loving to others, not offensive. If you hear that Jesus had some wine now and then and think, “Man, I can’t wait to throw this in so-and-so’s face,” that says more about your selfish attitude than it does about alcohol.
2. Appearance and Vocabulary
Some of us grew up in churches where being “Christian” meant looking a certain way. Tattoos were a major problem. Piercings, too. Guys couldn’t have long hair, and women certainly couldn’t have short hair. When men came to church, they wore whatever 3-piece-suit they had, because “you offer God your best.” And if that’s your conviction, that’s fine. It’s good to honor God with your appearance, but don’t make a specific style a new law for everyone.
Profanity was a big one, too. You don’t typically hear Christians use profanity, and there are good reasons for that. There are certain words that you simply won’t hear from my mouth during a weekend sermon. But I don’t want to judge someone else’s heart—especially someone new to Christ—just because they haven’t learned to talk like the rest of us.
I remember explaining something during a Bible study to a man who was brand new to the faith. Apparently, it was rather stunning to him, because his response was a slow, whispered, “Damn.” Is that an appropriate, worshipful response? Well, I wouldn’t commend it to others. But he was responding to the gospel in the terms he knew. I never want to jump all over someone’s vocabulary and miss the heart behind it.
The Bible needs to shape how we think about every aspect of our lives, including politics. There are wise, biblical ways to view issues from taxation to education to immigration reform. But for a lot of people, certain political positions become a religious law, an external sign of whether a person is right with God. And so you can’t be a real Christian unless you voted a certain way in the last election.
Following Christ changes our politics, but following Christ isn’t all about politics. I don’t want the “Gentiles turning to God” to assume that becoming a Christian entails converting to a political party. As proof of this, look no further than Jesus’ twelve disciples. In the same group, you find Simon the zealot—which means he was an anti-Rome revolutionary—and Matthew the tax collector, who worked for Rome. That’s a tea-party conservative and a big government liberal in the same group of disciples. (I’m sure they had some interesting conversations!)
I have political convictions, and I encourage others to think through their convictions biblically as well. Let’s have those political conversations—they matter—but let’s keep them secondary to the gospel. When the gospel occupies the center, we can live in unity even with those who do not share all of our convictions. Only the gospel has that kind of unifying power.
For more, be sure to listen to the entire sermon here.