October 1, 2016

A Defining Identity

Recently a lady who was filling out a form for me asked what ethnicity I identified with. Her question reminded me of our culture’s confusion over gender identity. That confusion did not exist when I was born. In fact, the first words spoken in the delivery room upon my arrival in this world would have come from the doctor who declared, “It’s a boy!” Perhaps the nurse repeated, “It’s a boy,” when she handed me to my mother. Then I am sure the next comment would have been my mother saying, “He is adorable!” Whatever the exact words, those present identified me by my gender.

The disciples were labeled "Christians"

In our Christian lives, what really matters is not how we identify ourselves but how God identifies us. Once we yield our lives to Him, others will see the evidence in our daily lives. In Acts 11:26 we read how the early followers of Christ were identified: “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” Certain actions and behaviors distinguished these believers from unbelievers, and the society around them took notice.

After Pentecost, the followers of Christ had been scattered abroad due to persecution, and wherever they went, they took their testimonies. The result in Antioch was that others in that city believed on Jesus including, to the surprise of some, a number of Greeks (or Gentiles). At that point in time, the general understanding was that the Jews were the ones to whom the Gospel had been entrusted. We read in Acts chapter 11 that when word of the conversion of Gentiles came to the leaders of the Early Church in Jerusalem, they dispatched Barnabas—a man who was noted for being a son of consolation, a comforter, and an encourager—to help bridge the gap between believing Jews and the newly converted Gentiles.

It takes purpose to get saved; it takes determination to turn your back on the old life and go in a new way.

In Antioch, Barnabas exhorted the believers to cleave to the Lord “with purpose of heart,” just as we would exhort new converts in our day. It takes purpose to get saved; it takes determination to turn your back on the old life and go in a new way. If you have experienced salvation recently or a long time ago, maintain that purpose and determination to cleave to the Lord! Do not let anything come between you and God. We want to make Heaven. This Christian race is about to end, and we do not want to fall by the wayside in the eleventh hour. Continue in the purpose you demonstrated when you got saved.

The Gospel has not changed

Many souls were saved there in Antioch, and in time, Barnabas felt that he needed help so he went and found Paul (who earlier had been known as Saul) and brought him to that city. There they spent a year admonishing and encouraging the new believers. Paul and Barnabas taught from the Scriptures, likely expounding much of what you hear in our church services today, because the fundamental precepts of God’s Word have not changed. No doubt their message included the admonitions, “Serve God with your whole heart, honor Him in all you do, make Him the center of your home, bring up your children and teach them right.”

Paul and Barnabas would have taught repentance, as Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Old Testament prophets before them had taught. Those who came into their assembly would have heard, “Turn from your sins, and be born again. You will be transformed in a moment of time.” Those listening would have been exhorted to anticipate being tested whether they were new converts or older converts. “It does not matter if you are young or if you have been serving God for many years, the enemy of your soul does not give up. Even after you are saved, you will encounter discouragement. You must resist the devil and he will flee from you.” These are some of the teachings that Paul and Barnabas would have covered.

Although I was unfamiliar with religious terminology—I did not know what being “saved” or “born again” was all about—there was a difference in me. I had been transformed.

The society at Antioch observed those who had become Christians. When a person begins to serve the Lord, that fact cannot escape attention. There is a noticeable change! That certainly was my experience. I was an unchurched, unbelieving college student when I came to God at the age of twenty-one. I did not even know the difference between the Old and New Testaments; in fact, I was hardly aware that there were two sections within the Bible. After I was saved, I went back to campus not really understanding what had happened to me. Although I was unfamiliar with religious terminology—I did not know what being “saved” or “born again” was all about—there was a difference in me. I had been transformed without ever having been taught what real salvation would do in a person’s life.

Salvation crosses denominational boundaries. Christianity is about more than theology; it is about practicality. There is power in the Blood of Jesus to remove sin! Sometimes people try to patch up their lives and do better in their own strength. Some even think that before they can come to God, they need to clean themselves up a bit. That may help for the moment, but the best cleansing job we can do to our own hearts will not eradicate sin. We need Jesus! He makes a change that will be undeniable.

When I went back to college after my conversion, I said nothing to my roommate about what had happened to me. I would not have known what to say anyway. The following Friday night, my friends came over with the intention of going out and doing what we always did on Friday evenings—activities we claimed were a good time even though they really were not. Although my friends urged me, “Let’s go!” my response was, “I am not going to do that anymore.” They went without me and I was glad to see them leave. While I could not explain the difference salvation had made, I knew I had no interest anymore in doing what we had always done.

The next morning, I felt a need to attend church. I did not know where to go so I looked in the yellow pages of the Corvallis, Oregon, phone book and picked the first church that had the name “Christian” in it. I put on my best clothes. Though I did not own a suit or tie, I must have looked better-dressed than usual because when I emerged from my room, my roommate asked, “Where are you going?” I answered, “I’m going to church,” and headed out the door before he could ask more questions. I would have preferred to escape notice, but salvation makes a difference that is obvious.

What is striking—and the Scriptural record bears this out—is that it was not the new believers who called themselves “Christians.” It was those outside the faith who labeled these new believers as followers of Christ.

That is what happened in the lives of those individuals who turned to God in Antioch—they were changed! And as a result of that change, they began to be identified by others as Christians. What is striking—and the Scriptural record bears this out—is that it was not the new believers who called themselves “Christians.” It was those outside the faith who labeled these new believers as followers of Christ. They took knowledge of them, as they had done with Peter and John earlier (see Acts 4:13), observing that these new believers had been with Christ. He had changed their lives.

Self-identification is not enough

Not all the individuals who identified themselves as Christians in Bible times were Christians. We see that in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. If you had asked that husband and wife, “What faith do you identify with?” they would have responded, “We identify with Peter and John and the followers of Christ.” Although the name “Christian” had not been given yet, they self-identified as Christians. However, they were not Christians, they were liars! They had not experienced the change of heart the Lord offered, so they brought part of the money from the sale of some property and laid it at the apostles’ feet, deceitfully implying  it was the full price—in spite of the fact that there was no requirement that the full amount be given. The Holy Spirit revealed their dishonesty and they paid with their lives.

Simon the sorcerer, whose story is told in Acts chapter 8, was another who claimed to be a follower of Jesus. He even had been water baptized. If you had asked him, “Simon, how do you identify yourself?” he would have said he was a Christian, but his actions proved differently. How we identify ourselves does not change what we are. If we are sinners, falsely calling ourselves Christians will not make it a fact.

When I was in the fourth grade, each student in our Roseburg, Oregon, grade school was given a card to fill out. On that card, we were asked to indicate our religion, and one of the options was “Christian.” Though I was not sure how to respond, I checked the Christian box. Later, I asked my mother what box I should have marked. She said, “You checked the right one,” but, in fact, I was not a Christian. I was a sinner, but that designation was not offered as an option.

You are either saved or you are not saved. If you are still sinning, you are in an unsaved condition. Scripture tells us that all are born in sin. In Psalm 51:5 we read, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Even though you were adorable at birth, you possessed a carnal nature. That carnality later led you to commit sins that need to be confessed and forgiven.

Forgiveness and justification, and subsequently the experience of sanctification, are what God’s plan of salvation offers. These are real experiences that will change your life. In fact, they will change you in such a way that you will not need to identify yourself as a Christian in order for others to know it. Those who know you soon will recognize that something has happened! That is the power of God unto salvation. Nobody will have to tell you that you cannot do certain things anymore. You will find those old sinful behaviors and habits so disgusting and deplorable that you will have no desire to go back to them.

We cannot break the bonds of Satan in our own power, but deliverance and victory comes through the saving power of Jesus Christ. Jesus makes the difference…and others will see and know!

apostolic faith magazine