“I like Jesus alright; it’s Christians that I can’t stand.”
Surely you’ve heard this sentiment before.
It’s often used as an excuse for why, although someone has no real opposition to the person of Christ, they are unwilling to profess the Christian faith. It’s the Christians, they say, who make Jesus look bad. If being a Christian means acting like that, then you can count them out.
Is this a legitimate criticism? Is my personal character really that important to the mission of advancing the gospel?
If so, then what should I do in response?
How the Gospel Changes Us
The promise of the gospel is not only a promise for eternity; it’s a promise for transformation in this life. If we preach the gospel with our words but are not being transformed from the inside out, then we are only telling half of the story.
We are God’s handiwork, the Bible says, created to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). Sin disrupts our ability to live up to our created purpose but, when Christ defeated the power of sin on the cross, he made it possible for us to reclaim that purpose again.
The more we experience intimacy with Christ and the more we are transformed and sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit, the more our hearts and minds begin to reflect the righteousness of God. This is what enables our good works. This is what makes it possible for our lives to reflect and glorify God the way they were created to.
The process of sanctification is sometimes slow and painful. But it is continual. And our personal sanctification should be part of the evidence we present for the power of the gospel.
Clothing Ourselves with Righteousness
Have you ever seen a construction worker as he leaves work? What about a baker or a carpenter? What does a surgeon look like when she leaves the operating room or an artist when she leaves the studio?
Mud. Flour. Sawdust. Blood. Paint.
They are, literally, clothed with the evidence of their labor and I’ll bet that, some days, they’re absolutely covered in it.
It wouldn’t take long for a perceptive person to guess that the man covered in flour has been in the bakery all day. What about us? What would it take for a stranger to see me on the street and know that I’ve been spending time with Jesus?
We should be so busy with the inner work of sanctification that it overflows into our visible lives. To the world, we should look like we’ve been “working on ourselves,” not in some sort of superficial behavioral therapy way, but so that the very righteousness of Christ becomes like our own clothing (Ephesians 4:20-24).
Preaching the Gospel in Word and Deed
What does it look like to clothe ourselves in the righteousness of Christ?
The New Testament is full of exhortations to act in accordance with Christ’s example, beginning with the words of Christ himself in John 13:14, 15 when he implores his disciples to follow his example of service and humility.
In Philippians 2:2, Paul tells us to have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who, being in his very nature God, still took the nature of a servant. He echoes the sentiment again in 1 Corinthians 9:16, 17 when he discusses his own attitude in preaching the gospel.
Paul wrote about it again in the book of Titus. In Chapter 2 he instructed his young friend Titus to encourage the men and women of his church to preach sound doctrine and to be “self-controlled and pure,” “worthy of respect,” and to live “upright and godly lives” as a testimony of the gospel.
In the book of 1 Peter, the apostle Peter wrote at length about what a sanctified life looks like.
First Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
The Christian’s new identity in Christ comes right alongside the proclamation of the gospel. They are equal parts of the message.
In the rest of the chapter Peter laid out the ways that the life of a Christian should be different from the lives of those who do not know Christ. Rather than living like pagans, they should be clothed with things like good deeds, respect, endurance, and self-control.
The world might not understand this as holiness, or know where it comes from, but they will recognize the difference in the way we go about our work and relationships and family life in their midst.
A good way to asses ourselves is ask hard questions about the way we conduct our business at work and home and about the strength of our relationships.
How strong is our work ethic? How well do we treat those who work above or below us? How well do we empathize and show deference to others? How do we speak of our enemies? How do we treat our loved ones? What does our home feel like to guests? Is it full of peace or conflict?
Would people say we are honest? Are we patient? Are we full of love?
Can they tell that we’ve been with Jesus?
Avoiding a Me-Centered Gospel
In pursuing this kind of visibly sanctified life, there is a common error that we need to avoid: the me-centered gospel.
The object of our faith must always be Christ. The goal of preaching the gospel and of living as a testimony to its power is for people to think about us less and Christ more. Our testimony, both in word and deed, should elevate him.
One simple way to do this is to remember our place in the story—as the one in need of being saved—and to be transparent about the long, difficult process of sanctification.
Change isn’t always a smooth or easy process. A watching world will appreciate our honesty about that. People have a thirst for something realand they will know if we are faking our way through it.
Do not make false promises of instant perfection. Instead, invite others to follow Jesus with you as you are changed from the inside out, through constant and consistent sanctification, to reflect the holiness of God.
Also, take heart if not everyone receives your good works with gratitude. Jesus, Peter, and Paul all discuss the certainty that God’s holy people will experience trials and suffering at the hands of those opposed to God. There are those whose hearts are hardened or who are so in love with their own sin that holiness is offensive to them. So don’t be surprised if people reject the gospel. It is certain to happen.
This is another reason to keep first things first. The goal is to get ourselves out of the way so that Jesus is always the main point.
When the object of our faith is Christ and he remains at the center of our gospel testimony, it will be Christ that they reject, not us. And, conversely, when they accept the gospel as truth, they will be accepting Christ and not our personal, me-centered testimony.
So as you go about your business of preaching the gospel, let your character and behavior speak as loudly as your words. Allow your heart and mind to be transformed, through the Sprit, so that all you do is seasoned with the righteousness of Christ.
Let those who know us be able to say:
“How did I know I wanted to follow Jesus? Because I saw him reflected in his followers.”
Liz McEwan is a proud Cincinnati resident, wife, homeschool mom, musician, and (halfway) urbanite.