Losing Christ in Christianity
The question sounds strange at first, but I’ve come to ask it of myself: Am I in danger of losing Christ in my Christianity?
Among those of us who truly know Jesus, love him, believe upon him for eternal life — have we lost our first love? Does the greater light now shine as the lesser in our hearts? Has he traveled unnoticed from his place as the great Object of our souls to an adjective modifying other pursuits? Books on Christian living sell today — books on Christ himself usually remain in stock.
Can we still say in truth, “My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:6)? Is the one thing we ask of our Lord to gaze upon his beauty and converse with him (Psalm 27:4)? If he returned today, would it feel like an interruption, or would he only interrupt us asking each other, “Have you seen him whom my soul loves” (Song 3:3)? Do we feel the pain of his absence? Do we miss him?
Of late, I have peered less over the walls of this world, waiting for his coming. Instead, I have busied myself with good and even godly pursuits — those that are from him, to him, and through him, but are not him. To my surprise, I realized I began to lose Christ, of all places, in my Christianity. And losing sight of him here seems subtler, easier.
I shall attempt to describe how we can lose sight of him in a few places most precious to us: the gospel, the Scriptures, the pursuit of holiness, and the church.
Have we lost him in the gospel?
I’ve misplaced Jesus in the gospel when the gospel becomes faceless, when it becomes part of an equation where gospel plus faith equals heaven. Michael Reeves gets at this when he writes that Charles Spurgeon
preferred to speak of preaching “Christ” than preaching “the gospel,” “the truth,” or anything else, because of how easily we reduce “the gospel” or “the truth” to an impersonal system. Christ himself is, in person, the way, the truth, and the life; the glory of God; the life and delight of the saints; the Bridegroom that the bride is invited to enjoy. (Spurgeon on the Christian Life, 71)
If I do not keep guard, the gospel and the truth can be reduced to a bloodless, pulseless science. Against this personless scheme, Paul describes God’s gospel as that
which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 1:1–4)
“If I do not keep guard, ‘the gospel’ and ‘the truth’ can reduce to a bloodless, pulseless science.”
Paul did not dedicate his life to a static formula, but God set him apart for the gospel, the gospel “concerning his Son.” This gospel, God’s power for salvation, is the good news of a person — Jesus Christ, the long-prophesied Son of David, crucified for sin, resurrected in power, and ascended to the right hand of the Father, soon to return.
Have we lost him in the Scriptures?
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life,” Jesus told the Pharisees, “and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). Have we learned bad habits of Bible reading that imitate these blind Pharisees?
Ask yourself, What have I seen in the Bible lately? You may answer that you’ve learned about contentment, how to suffer, or how to better love your wife. You may have explored the disciples’ boldness in the book of Acts or gleaned from the minister’s heart in the Pastoral Epistles. You may have bent low in humility while traveling through Philippians or been taught to pray in the Psalms or contemplated your assurance in 1 John. All good lessons.
Next, ask yourself, What have I seen of Christ lately? What about him has emblazoned your heart and satisfied your soul? Which of his words has captivated your attention? Which of his excellencies has harpooned your affections? What about his cross has humbled you, what of his resurrection has sustained you, what of his return fixes your eyes upon the skies, waiting?
I suspect with most of us, the first question will be much easier to answer than the second. We have thought about much — but how much about Christ himself? We speak much of faith — but how much about whom our faith is in? The Pharisees searched out many holy topics but missed seeing the Messiah right in front of them.
Have we lost him pursuing holiness?
When we lose sight of Jesus in our sanctification, Christlikeness comes to mean perfect virtue, and sin a nonpersonal infraction.
Instead of seeing our own love as imitating Christ’s love (John 15:12), we seek to possess a generic love to the full extent, a general patience overflowing, a basic joy and gentleness and self-control to the superlative. Holiness soon becomes ethical math, where we take a positive attribute and calculate how much more of it we need.
And when we think of sin, we come to mean merely breaking a soulless law. Sin happens when the sign said the speed limit was 70 miles per hour, and the speed camera clocked us going 80. We broke the law. The cold eye of justice catches us — a ticket is sent in the mail.
Instead, our holiness looks at Jesus, looks like Jesus. Beholding his glory, we are changed into the same image (2 Corinthians 3:18). The Father predestined us to be conformed to his Son’s likeness (Romans 8:29). We do not attain shining virtues for their own sake; we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). And we obey not an abstract law, but his law: we bear one another’s burdens “and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Instead of confessing sin as those who broke the speed limit, we confess sin against our triune God.
Have we lost him in the church?
Our increasingly post-Christian society prefers the Golden Rule to the Golden Ruler. Humanitarianism pats the conscience on the back — love of neighbor remains, though many pretend God is dead.
Yet we can be guilty of a more holy version. We are to be known by our love for each other, it is true, but not merely by our love for each other. We cannot major on horizontal love for other Christians and forget vertical love for Christ, thus taking seriously the second great command to love one another as ourselves while ignoring the first to love God with everything.
The temptation is like the short-term-mission-trip temptation — dig the well; forget the living water. We can cook for the small group, lead the prayer meeting, visit the recluse members, set up the chairs for service, practice for worship, set up a meal train, send a card, attend the funeral — and lose focus on Jesus. Christian community, for it to remain such, must be community founded upon the work of Christ, full of the Spirit of Christ, and existing for the glory of Christ.
Our life in the body is life in his body. Jesus “is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Colossians 1:18). We are not the best version of the world’s social clubs, the best humanistic society with sprinkled platitudes about Jesus. We remain his possession, his sheep, his bride. As the King leaves, so goes our lampstands.
Searching the Unsearchable
“The study of Jesus Christ is the most noble subject that ever a soul spent itself upon,” writes John Flavel. “Those that rack and torture their brains upon other studies like children, weary themselves at a low game; the eagle plays at the sun itself. The angels study this doctrine, and stoop down to look into this deep abyss.” The angels never tire from gazing upon the King in his beauty. Have we?
“The angels never tire from gazing upon the King in his beauty. Have we?”
Christian, “though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8–9). To know him is heaven on earth and the very heaven of heavens. The saints’ eternal happiness is to see God in the face of Christ and become like what we see. Heaven orbits him. Will we settle now for a Christianity malnourished of Christ?
Let’s spend our lives beholding his manifold glories. Let’s plunder the riches of Christ until we too verify that they are “unsearchable” (Ephesians 3:8). Let’s make his love — which surpasses knowledge — our all-engrossing subject. Let’s request of our ministers, as the Greeks did Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21).
We all have more of him to see. Flavel again:
It is the studying of Christ, as in the planting of a new discovered country; at first men sit down by the seaside, upon the skirts and borders of the land; and there they dwell, but by degrees they search farther and farther into the heart of the country. Ah, the best of us are yet but upon the borders of this vast continent!
Travel onward, dear Christian, in the knowledge of him — do not settle for his ethic, his marriage counseling, his worldview without him. You will explore this vast continent for coming ages, for all eternity, and ever have more left to discover.