I received this letter from a reader:
Dear Mr. Randy Alcorn,
My name is Aidan. I am a senior in high school. I am a student, a fellow writer, and a follower of God. For a religion assignment, I had to find a Christian online who practices the four non-negotiables of our faith: have private morality, practice social justice, have mellowness of heart and spirit, and attend church with vigor and a desire to learn from it.
The second part of our assignment was to write a letter to you asking how to be an exemplary Christian like you, preferably through living the four non-negotiables. If you could take time out of your life to give some advice to someone just starting on their path to God, I would deeply appreciate it.
Here was my response:
Great to hear from you as a fellow writer, and most importantly, as a fellow follower of Jesus.
My best writing advice to you is to immerse yourself in God’s Word, and study sound doctrine and good theology. (One great book, for reference or to read all the way through, is Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, or his abridged version, called Bible Doctrine.)
If God’s Word is daily at home in your heart and mind, your writing will take on a perspective, and an air of solidity and permanence it won’t have otherwise. God promises His Word won’t return to Him empty, without accomplishing the purpose for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:11). He does not promise that about our words, but His. If we want our words to have lasting value and impact, they need to be touched and shaped by His words—and that won’t happen without a daily choice to expose our minds to Scripture.
You mentioned four nonnegotiables of the faith, and asked how to live those out. Here are my thoughts:
1. Have private morality.
I would rename this category as “character.” Image is how we look on the outside to people who don’t know us. Character is what we are in the dark when no one but God sees us. Character is what we really are.
Who you become will be the result of the daily choices you make. The key to spirituality is the development of little habits—Bible reading and memorization and prayer—which will develop into life disciplines. Through God’s Word, the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts and minds. However, don’t just read your Bible out of guilt; do it to find great joy in Jesus! David said of God’s words, “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10).
God also chooses to use His people in each other’s lives as instruments of grace and truth. We need each other! I came to Jesus in high school, and I had close friends who studied the Bible together, prayed together, and read great books together. We stayed away from the things that tempted us toward evil. We asked each other how we were doing in our walk with God. Find friends like that. They might not just naturally come your way. Look for them. Seek them. Hang on to them.
Of course, it’s not just accountability to people that keeps us from sin. Our primary accountability is to the Lord whose judgment seat is the only one we will stand before. God that says “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). He has given us in Christ all the resources we need to live lives of character, which includes moral purity. God alone can mold your character to the image of Christ, yet you yourself must make the choice to submit to His transforming work. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
2. Practice social justice.
There are many definitions of “social justice” in the world today. We need to define this term according to what God says, understanding that when we follow Jesus, we will sometimes look like conservatives, sometimes liberals. But what we look like to people shouldn’t matter. What we look like to God, the Audience of One, should.
Micah 6:8 says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This verse lays out three requirements which our King will hold us accountable for: justice, mercy, and humility. The more we walk with God, the more we will be characterized by these attributes.
We should ask ourselves: are we dealing honestly and fairly with others, and caring and intervening for the weak, vulnerable and oppressed? (Or are we compromising in matters of morals and integrity, and passively accepting society’s mistreatment of those for whom God says we should speak up?)
One caution: if your life is centered on being against evils as abortion, pornography, sex trafficking, and racial injustice, that single issue isn’t enough. To endure in a cause, make sure it’s really about Jesus. And then keep reminding yourself it’s about Him, lest you end up really making it about you and your feelings of self-righteousness as you congratulate yourself for being spiritually impressive and better than those smug conservatives or foolish liberals: “The King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it for one of the least of these brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40).
My family and I have stood against abortionists, and I have confronted adulterers, not because we hate them, but because we love God and the people He has created. Certainly, we should hate abuse in all its forms—God calls upon us to defend the poor and needy. But some people hate evil more than they love good. While love strengthens you for the long haul, hatred has a way of embittering you and burning you out.
3. Have mellowness of heart and spirit.
I’m guessing that you might have meant “meekness,” which is another word for “gentleness”? Either way, God is clear how He wants His children to act: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:21-22). Our need today is for Christ-followers who bear the fruit of the Spirit and love our neighbors in doing so.
In his marvelous book Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortland says,
In the one place in the Bible (Matthew 11:28-30) where the Son of God pulls back the veil and lets us peer way down into the core of who he is, we are not told that he is “austere and demanding in heart.” We are not told that he is “exalted and dignified in heart.” We are not even told that he is “joyful and generous in heart.” Letting Jesus set the terms, his surprising claim is that he is “gentle and lowly in heart.”
Jesus came full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Not either instead of the other, but both together. We need to be bold enough to speak up and tell the truth even when it’s unpopular. But that doesn’t mean we have to be mean-spirited and graceless when we do it! Jesus told the truth, but He wasn’t malicious or ill-tempered, the way many professing Christians behave online and sometimes in real life as well.
David Powlison writes, “Jesus dealt gently with the ignorant and misguided, even when he suffered at their hands. Such meekness is incalculably powerful. …It’s unfortunate that ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ has become a picture of someone weak and ineffectual, a sentimental, pablum savior, good for children, but not good enough for grown-ups. May the God of the Lord Jesus Christ give us his true gentleness. Such strength is a royal attribute.”
People are attracted to Jesus when they see His attributes in others’ lives. They observe kindness, graciousness, and happiness, and as a result, they want to know the source of those qualities.
J. C. Ryle said something as true today as when he wrote it in the 1800s: “A cheerful, kindly spirit is a great recommendation to a believer. It is a positive misfortune to Christianity when a Christian cannot smile. A merry heart, and a readiness to take part in all innocent mirth, are gifts of inestimable value. They go far to soften prejudices, to take stumbling-blocks out of the way, and to make way for Christ and the Gospel.”
4. Attend church, embrace it despite its flaws, and seek to learn from it.
The local church is a key component of God’s eternal plan. Jesus calls the church His bride. He died for her and says that ultimately the gates of hell won’t prevail against her (Matthew 16:18). Yes, local churches can fail to honor Jesus. But knowing that full well, Jesus made churches a major part of His plan. I believe that more than ever, God’s people must prioritize being part of a local church, even though the best one they can find will be imperfect, and once they join it, they will be part of its imperfection.
Our church, which I been part of since it began in 1977 as one of the two original pastors, is very imperfect. In other words, it’s like us. But there is a sincere desire in the leaders to follow Jesus, obey Him, share the gospel, support missions, and help the needy locally and around the world. There really ARE churches like that, all over the country. Some people look for a church, maybe give two or three a try, and then conclude, “Church is shallow and insincere and hypocritical.” And they wash their hands of the church, passing on to their children at worst a legacy of disdain and bitterness toward churches, or at best indifference and disinterest.
Since the church is Jesus’s beloved bride, when we disparage the church, we insult Jesus. He doesn’t give us the option of hating her and loving him. If you wanted to be close to me but said you didn’t want anything to do with my wife, I would have said, “No, that’s not an option. My bride and I are one. We come as a package deal.” I encourage you to get deeply involved in your church, serving and praying and giving and believing the best of imperfect people even as you would want them to believe the best of you.
Ray Ortlund offers this advice: “…be the kind of person who can be counted on in your own church. Join your church, pray for your church, tithe to your church, throw yourself into the life of your church with wholehearted passion.”
May you follow Jesus with all your heart, Aidan.
Photo by Jeremy McKnight on Unsplash