Have you ever been told that you or someone else is a strong Christian? Or that a person is “on fire” for God? I know I have and I myself have even used these terms to describe brothers and sisters in Christ. These terms are Christian cliches that so often flood our churches in describing what we deem to be an individual who is an elite or top-tier Christian. They never miss a morning quiet time, they are involved in their local church, they memorize Bible verses, and they can list all of the books of the Bible in order, without fail. But is there such a thing as a strong Christian? Can one Christian be stronger than the next based on their ability to recite Bible passages or put up perfect church attendance? As followers of Jesus, it is important for us to recognize this age-old truth about the Christian life: there’s no such thing as strong Christians, only a strong Savior.
Without Christ, Your Faith is Futile
Paul isn’t one to sugarcoat anything in his letters. He is candid and to the point. One of Paul’s more candid moments is in 1 Corinthians 15:12-17 where he writes:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-17).
Simply said, if God didn’t raise Christ from the dead, our faith is pointless and we are still destined for an eternity in hell for the just punishment of our sins. You could have the most robust quiet time, you could have the most intentional small group time, and you could serve each and every homeless person in the United States of America, but if Christ is not raised from the dead, those works become like a polluted garment. (Isaiah 64:6). The reality that all Christians must succumb to is that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is the only way we erase our hostility with God because of our sin (John 14:6). So, what does this say about our strength? It illustrates the fact that we have none, but praise God that Christ has come to be that strength for us! Paul writes:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Corinthians 5:21, emphasis added).
I once heard a strength coach say, “you get out what you put in.” In terms of your diet, this statement is valid. But in talking about God, this statement doesn’t apply. It can be easy to think of our relationship with God like we think of our careers- the harder we work or the more we do, the more blessings and appreciation we will receive. We almost think of God as a football coach. If we “do our job” (shoutout Bill Belichick), then we’ll be rewarded and remain a “starter” on God’s roster. But if we miss our assignment, we’ll either be cut from the team or have to run wind sprints at practice. What we often fail to understand is that every single human being has missed their assignment. This is what theologians call total depravity. This Biblical doctrine is an acknowledgment that as a result of the fall of man (Genesis 3:6) the mind, will, emotions, and flesh of man have become corrupted by sin. As the prophet Jeremiah puts it:
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it.,” (Jeremiah 17:9).
So, what about the strong Christian? Aren’t they the star quarterback that God so loves? The doctrine of total depravity erases any possible existence of a strong Christian. We clearly see that even the Christian with perfect church attendance is in desperate need of a Savior.
But God, And God Alone
Paul is not one to pass up on the opportunity to talk about total depravity. In Ephesians 2, Paul talks about the past lives of the people of Ephesus.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind,” (Ephesians 2:1-3, emphasis added).
Paul is making it crystal clear that the people of Ephesus were once subject to the doctrine of total depravity. They, like all humans, lived in the passions of the flesh and carried out the desires of the body and mind, and were by nature children of wrath. But, Paul is writing these verses in the past tense. He says, “you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” What changed?
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love in which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast,” (Ephesians 2:6-9, emphasis added).
You would be hard-pressed to read these verses and continue to believe that our works have any role in our salvation. They most certainly do not, and Paul makes that clear. The people of Ephesus were once dead in their sins, they were children of wrath like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy made them alive in Christ. It is by grace, and grace alone, that we are saved and are brought back into right standing with God. It is our human nature to look at our works. We see the Christian who memorizes Scripture regularly as more holy, or the Christian who serves in the church regularly as God’s special child, but it is clear in Scripture that this is not the way of our God. God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11) and He saves us apart from works (Titus 3:4-5).
It can be easy to look at the works of a Christian and believe that those works are what make them strong in their relationship with God. Certainly, our works are an important part of our walk with Christ, as Paul pens in Ephesians 2:10:
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10).
But these works do not make us righteous. Paul writes in Romans:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 3:21-25, emphasis added).
Our strength and our righteousness come only from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, we can conclude that there is no such thing as a strong Christian, but only a strong Savior.