Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Through the Bible, You Learn Distinctive Living

  • 2004 28 May
Through the Bible, You Learn Distinctive Living

A holy man is a mighty weapon in the hands of God.

Robert Murray McCheyne

In this chapter…
…enter the world of the culture wars.
…learn that character counts, but not enough.
…discover why purity is so important to God.

America is in a culture war, and things are not going well for our side.

Take one example – the so-called reality TV programs that have dominated American television for the past several years. They are nothing less than an invitation to voyeurism, concocting lifestyle situations that are foreign to biblical values (and probably to most Americans), while millions mindlessly watch.

Is some media elite in America bent on destroying all that most of us would deem good and holy? Many experts think so.1 Those who seem to despise Judeo-Christian ethics are often in the positions of greatest influence in America – educators, intellectuals, Hollywood movie producers, TV personalities, and liberal politicians.

In his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,2 James D. Hunter describes two sides of the conflict of ideologies:

  • On the one side, he identifies the “orthodox” group – those who have a commitment to some definable, external, objective authority. From the perspective of the evangelical, this authority is God and His Holy Word.

  • On the other side, Hunter finds the “progressives” – those who are more frequently given to rationalism and subjectivism. For them, truth is not an absolute but rather an unfolding reality of the way things are.

And caught in the middle more and more is the Bible.

Using (and Misusing) the Bible as a Guide for Life

Of course, whenever people appeal to the Bible for support in the cultural war, their arguments are meaningless to those who oppose God’s standards. But recently we’ve seen the confusion that comes when people who hold positions foreign to God’s Word also appeal to the Bible for support.

Nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in the summer of 2003, when Rev. Gene Robinson was installed as the Bishop of the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire.3 This appointment would have drawn little attention outside New Hampshire’s Episcopal church had Rev. Robinson not been openly gay for seventeen years. The fifty-four-year-old priest married in 1973 and fathered two daughters before divorcing his wife in 1986 and moving in with his gay lover.

When Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today show (June 10, 2003) asked Rev. Robinson how he would respond to those in the Episcopal church who planned to leave the denomination as a result of his confirmation, Robinson responded, “I would say to them, you know what? This breaks God’s heart that you would let something like this stand in the way of our commonness in the body of Christ.”

How can those opposing Bishop Robinson and those supporting him both appeal to the Bible for support? I believe it’s because people have chosen to use the Bible to support their point of view instead of trusting the Bible enough to let it change their point of view – and their way of life.

In this chapter, I want to explore what the Bible says about the distinctive lifestyle that is actually meant to be the norm for all those who follow Christ.

A Distinctively Biblical Life Will Affect Your Character

Many educational institutions today are seeing the need to develop character in students. As a result, character education courses are springing up everywhere. Character education is an effort to develop virtues that are good for the individual and society. While most would agree that character education should be infused into the environment of education, not all agree on what character traits should be taught.

For example, the Character Education Network has identified the most common and broad-based group of character traits that it feels should be instilled in young people:4

The Character Education Network

  • Responsibility – being accountable in word and deed. Having a sense of duty to fulfill tasks with reliability, dependability, and commitment.
  • Perseverance – pursuing worthy objectives with determination and patience while exhibiting fortitude when confronted with failure.
  • Caring – showing understanding of others by treating them with kindness, compassion, generosity, and a forgiving spirit.
  • Self-discipline – demonstrating hard work controlling your emotions, words, actions, impulses, and desires. Giving your best in all situations.
  • Citizenship – being law abiding and involved in service to school, community, and country.
  • Honesty – telling the truth, admitting wrongdoing. Being trustworthy and acting with integrity.
  • Courage – doing the right thing in the face of difficulty and following your conscience instead of the crowd.
  • Fairness – practicing justice, equity, and equality; cooperating with one another. Recognizing the uniqueness and value of each individual within our diverse society.
  • Respect – showing high regard for an authority, other people, self, and country. Treating others as you would want to be treated. Understanding that all people have value as human beings.

Each of these character traits has roots in the Bible. But if you lived only by these character traits, would you be living distinctively according to God’s Word?

Probably not. These traits are all people-centered, not God-centered. While they are commendable, they are not life-transforming and Holy Spirit–empowered, nor are they distinctively Christian. So while biblical character counts, it’s just a beginning.

A Distinctively Biblical Life Will Affect Your Morals

Character needs a moral underpinning. Otherwise when the winds change, so will what we perceive as character. With the decline of the Bible’s influence on popular culture has come a commensurate decline in morality. This trend has thrown fuel on the fires of our culture wars.

For example, George Barna noted:

Americans unanimously denounced the September 11 terrorist attacks as a textbook example of evil, suggesting that there is a foundational belief in an absolute standard of right and wrong. Subsequent research, however, has shown that in the aftermath of the attacks, a minority of Americans believes in the existence of absolute moral truth.5

What’s even more surprising is that less than one out of three born-again Christians believes in absolute moral truth.

Today, morality isn’t based on the standard of God’s Word but on the criterion of personal benefit. In a Barna poll conducted the day before the 9/11 attacks, when asked the basis on which they formed their moral choices, nearly half of all adults said they made their moral choices based on what would bring to them the most pleasing or satisfying results.6

Even so, Americans worry about declining morals. Three out of every four people say they are concerned about the moral condition of the United States. The stronger the respondents’ personal faith, the stronger their concern. People who read the Bible were 32 percent more likely to be concerned than others.7 Clearly, reading your Bible helps define what distinctive living is.

The Bible presents a comprehensive plan of morality – most notably, the Ten Commandments, the Levitical laws, and the teachings of Jesus. Still, in the current cultural wars, the Ten Commandments are often dismissed as a religious code unsuitable as an influence on contemporary moral choices.8 The Levitical laws are scorned (for example, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable,” Leviticus 18:22) or are mangled by improper interpretation.9 And the teachings of Jesus are selectively applied (for example, “I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” Matthew 5:28, NKJV).10

So while living a life of morality is a cut above living a life of character, something more than even morality is necessary if we are to live distinctive lives.

A Distinctively Biblical Life Will Affect Your Purity

The Bible indicates that if you want to connect with God, purity is a prerequisite. David asked, “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?” Who is prepared to enter the intimate presence of a Holy God? Who has the only chance of connecting with God? The king answered, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3–4).

But purity as a personal value is even rarer than morality these days.

Mr. Holland's Opus, which came out a few years ago, is a movie about a young, frustrated composer in Portland, Oregon, who takes a job as a high school band teacher in the 1960s. Although this diverts him from his lifelong goal of becoming a classical musician, Glenn Holland (played by Richard Dreyfuss) believes his school job will be temporary and will provide for his family.

At first he maintains his determination to write an opus, composing at his piano after putting in a full day teaching. But as life’s demands increase, Mr. Holland knows that his dream of leaving a lasting musical legacy is dissipating.

Throughout the movie, Holland’s relationship with his wife is strained, due in part to raising a deaf son. While directing the school musical, the middle-aged teacher becomes intrigued by the musical skill and physical beauty of a senior named Rowena. When he affirms her abilities, Rowena becomes attracted to him, telling him that she has decided to move to New York City to pursue her own dreams and that she wants him to go with her. It would be Holland’s chance to feel young again and his ticket out of the humdrum life of a high school music teacher. Maybe he would even write his magnum opus.

After the final performance of the school musical, Mr. Holland rendezvous with Rowena at the local drug store, where the bus picks up passengers. Her eyes light up as she sees him approach, but she quickly notices that he has no luggage.

“You pack light,” she jests.

Mr. Holland hands Rowena a piece of paper with the names of some people he knows in New York where she could stay.

“This isn’t the way I imagined it,” Rowena sighs.

“But it’s the best way,” Holland says, as he finds the inner strength to resist temptation and remain pure.

That evening, Glenn Holland enters his bedroom, where his wife appears to be sleeping. He looks at her tenderly and says, “I love you.” To his surprise, his wife looks up at him and responds, “I know.” Mr. Holland takes his wife in his arms and holds her tightly. This scene lasts approximately four and a half minutes (which in Hollywood time is an eternity).11

Do you know what caught everyone by surprise about this movie? It was Mr. Holland’s choice for purity, for loyalty to his marriage vows – and that this choice was presented as a worthy life “opus.” That choice was quite a shock in a world where purity is all but passé.

What can you do to ensure that you have clean hands and a pure heart? Three things come to mind immediately.

1. Be disgusted with sin.

Already I fear I’ve lost some of you. In our postmodern era, tolerance is chief among virtues. We make room for almost every lifestyle or perversion as an acceptable part of life. But the Bible reveals that sin sickens God, and if you want to live in harmony with Him, it must sicken you as well.

While the Bible teaches us to love our enemies, it also says that God hates evil.12 David wrote: “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong” (Psalm 5:4–5).

Purity is one of the marks of a distinctive life. As the psalmist wrote, “Because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path” (Psalm 119:128). Tolerance in the twenty-first century is not distinctive; purity is.

2. Keep short accounts with God.

Keeping short accounts with God means you don’t let your sin pile up, day after day, planning to deal with it at some time in the future. Each day you take your sin to God in brokenness and confession. It becomes a daily habit of life for those who would live distinctively.

What happens if you don’t deal with personal sin consistently, daily, almost hourly?

For one thing, you forget about it. It passes from your mind – but not from God’s. For another, unconfessed sin has a numbing effect on your mind and spirit. You become less disgusted by it. You begin to say, “Oh, it’s not so bad.” But that’s rationalization, not confession.

Fortunately, we can always come to the altar of confession because God’s Word promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That’s good news for all of us.

3. Ask the Holy Spirit to fill the void.

When you are broken by your sin and confess it to God, He “hits the delete key,” and that sin is expunged from your record. But then you have a blank screen, an empty file. Nature hates a vacuum; if you leave your file empty, other sins will rush in to fill it. So ask the Holy Spirit to fill the void instead (Ephesians 5:18).

That brings me to my final point about distinctive living.

A Distinctively Biblical Life Is Made Possible by the Holy Spirit

The Bible reveals an important paradox about the Christian life: Even though we must choose to follow God with all our heart, soul, mind, and body, it’s not really us who does the living – it’s the Holy Spirit of God who lives through us!

Paul put his finger on it when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). It is the power of the living Christ that enables us to live distinctively.

Distinctive living, then, is living in the power of God’s Spirit and exhibiting the fruit of His presence in our lives. Some of that fruit is mentioned in Galatians 5:22–23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Anything less isn’t complete Christian living at all. So those who claim to have faith in Christ but whose lives reflect no change are only fooling themselves. A new creation in Christ abandons old heroes, old habits, and old hangouts because all things have become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).

But the Holy Spirit gives us guidance and comfort as well as power. When Jesus was nearing the end of His ministry on earth, He made a pledge to His disciples: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16–17).

Jesus’ promise to us is the same. He has not left us orphans. The Holy Spirit has taken His place in our midst to do Christ’s work through us. “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

Distinctive living is “Spirit living.” Without divine help, holy living is just a dream. Evangelist D. L. Moody said, “You might as well try to hear without ears, or breathe without lungs, as try to live a Christian life without the Spirit of God in your heart.”

“Let God Remake You…”

Two verses that most encourage me on this subject are Romans 12:1–2. J. B. Phillips’s compelling translation reads:

With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-make you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed. Thus you will prove in practice that the will of God’s good, acceptable to him and perfect.

The culture wars will continue and deepen. But there is hope. We can live distinctively as individuals and as communities, believing in – and working toward – the victory of right over wrong.

Where do we start? By looking to the pages of the Bible as the measure of the truly good life, and by reaching for the power of God as our only means to attain it.

Excerpted from "How to Find God in the Bible" © 2004 by Woodrow Kroll.  Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.  Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.

Woodrow Kroll is president and Bible teacher for Back to the Bible, one of the world's best-known media ministries.  Heard daily on more than eight hundred radio stations in the USA and hundreds more internationally, Dr. Kroll is widely recognized as the "Bible teacher to the world."  He and his wife, Linda, have four grown children and live in Nebraska.