Published in The Sovereign Grace Messenger/Winter 2011.
What distinguishes a Christian woman from the world?
Looks. I’m nearly sure of it. Christian women boast less makeup, fewer piercings and tattoos, longer skirts, milder perfume, a higher neckline, and more natural glow than their secular counterparts. And they let their hair go gray to boot.
Actually, no, wait—maybe I’ve got it all wrong. I think maybe the real difference lies more in the area of domestic accomplishment. A Christian woman is neat and organized. She charts out a life plan and sticks to it. She exercises every day and buys organic milk. She just loves company. She blogs, coupons, and home schools all ten of her children. She cooks three meals a day and makes her own laundry detergent…from scratch. She is a member of the tennis club, leads a girl scout troup, and hosts a women’s Bible study every Tuesday afternoon.
Oh-oh-oh, STOP. Now I’m sure I’ve really got the answer: virtue. That’s the key, ladies, to letting your light shine in this dark world. Read your Bible twice a day, pray through the bulletin prayer list, volunteer at the local crisis pregnancy center, teach Sunday school, carve room in your home and heart for your aging in-laws, smile, put others first, stay married, say grace, never miss church, donate to charity, save your virginity for your wedding night, don’t get drunk, never ever use a four-letter-word, point your children down the straight and narrow, keep your gossip to a bare minimum, and avoid all R rated movies. Yessirree, that will definitely put you pretty much miles ahead of anyone else in your office, play group, or country club…and maybe even church, too.
Are you shaking your head and thinking I don’t know where in the world the editor dug this girl up, but she’s off her rocker!? Well, you may be right…but at least this time, there’s a method to my madness. Here’s my point, over-exaggerated though it may be: I’m afraid that all too often we Christians try to distinguish ourselves from those around us using the wrong criteria.
Maybe it’s just me, but when I first began thinking about how Christian women differ from the world, my mind went right to external distinctives. After all, that’s what fits with my experiences. In my interactions with the secular community, I’ve discovered that I have a very different approach to marriage, family, recreation, politics, authority, etc. than most of my non-Christian peers. Sometimes it feels like I’ve had more than my share of aghast looks from people who cannot fathom chastity before (and during) marriage, the respect and submission I endeavor to give my husband, my commitment to our marriage’s permanence and importance…not to mention where I spend my Sunday mornings, what I drink when I’m out with the girls, my word choices, my reading material, my idea of a fun weekend, my theories on child raising, and the list of movies I’ve (purposefully) never seen. Yes, in my experience, these are the things that set me apart from the world. These are the things that coworkers, neighbors, and friends notice and comment on. This is the difference between “us” (Christian women) and “them” (the world).
Can you relate? It’s true that many of the behaviors I’ve discussed so far can be good and appropriate and glorifying to God in the right context. We are commanded in Scripture to act differently than those around us who do not know and love Jesus Christ. But I would argue that although these actions may make us stand out from our contemporaries, they are not primarily what set us apart from our secular peers.
Did you know that there is a word used in Scripture that literally means “set apart”? That word is “saint”. What is it, exactly, that makes Christians saints? Is it our good works? Is it?! Well, just in case you don’t already know the answer to that question, let’s do a little Scriptural exploration.
1 Corinthians 4:7
For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?
The church at Corinth had some problems, and one of them was pride (they were “puffed up for one against another”—vs 6) in their own righteous achievements. Paul has to remind them (and us) that a Christian has no room to boast except in Christ, for any praiseworthy thing we see in ourselves is a gift from Him. If this is true within the church—that we are distinguished one from another only by the grace of God–how much more true for a Christian in relation to the lost! We differ from the world not because of anything in us, but because of what we have received from God [1 Corinthians 6:9-11 specifically addresses the difference between ‘saints’ (vs 2) and ‘unbelievers’ (vs 6) and again places all the emphasis on God’s work and none on our own merit]!
What is this gift that God has given? What exactly have we received from His hand to make us differ one from another?
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
For most of us, these very familiar verses teach a very familiar concept—so familiar, in fact, that we sometimes forget how important and precious it is: salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Both the salvation and the faith are gifts of a gracious God. It is this saving faith we’ve received from Him that sets us apart from the world, and we’re clearly taught here that He gives it to us not because of anything we do to deserve His favor, but simply because He has chosen to recreate us in Christ Jesus.
Is there then any room for our boasting? No. Our pride (and trust!) in our own accomplishments is excluded in our Savior. Christ Jesus (and Christ Jesus alone) sets us apart from the world, and all we can do is fall to our knees before Him in overwhelmed, mystified gratitude.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are…I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
As you and I meditate on these words of our Lord Jesus concerning the Pharisee and the publican, perhaps we can begin to understand the problem with living as if external distinctives are what really matter. When we do so, we’ve completely missed the point of the gospel. The key difference between “us” and “them”–what really makes a Christian woman a Christian woman–is not our own personal holiness. It’s not the lives we live and the choices we make and the priorities we set and the activities we participate in that set us apart from the world. Let’s be honest with ourselves, ladies. Let’s not glory in our own righteousness. Let’s not give pride any room in our hearts. Let’s not leave the unbelieving world with the impression that we’re heaven bound merely because we’re such good people. Let’s not widen the gap between “us” and “them” because “they” do things “we” would never think to participate in. With the English Reformer John Bradford, let us always remember that it is exactly there (yes, right there where our coworkers, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, leaders, and family are) but for the grace of God go we. Oh, praise the Lord that He loves such sinners as us!
Finally, since we’ve established that it is first and foremost God’s mercy and grace in Christ that distinguishes us from the world (and not our own personal holiness), let’s return to some of those ‘external distinctives’. Our lives as the people of Christ should set us apart from the world. We should look and act and talk differently. But now we know that this is not the meat of our Christian life—it is the fruit of being set apart by God’s wondrous gift.
With that in mind, here are just a few (and I really do mean few of many!) precious privileges that are unique to the children of God and should impact the way we live:
Our Model–Philippians 2:1-11
“He that saith he abideth in him [Christ] ought himself also so to walk even as he [Christ] walked” (1 John 2:6). In the Biblical record of Christ’s life on this earth, we have an example after which we can pattern our lives. We can ask in the most reverent sense “What would Jesus do?” And we can know that it is not our own strength that enables us to follow in His footsteps, but we are made like Him only as He lives and works in us.
Our Weapons—Ephesians 6:10-18
Sin is a reality that we all face every single day. But God has not left His own defenseless against Satan’s attacks! Rather, He arms us with many weapons: the Holy Spirit, the Bible, prayer, faith, salvation, the gospel, obedience, and truth–just to name a few. If a soldier entered battle unarmed and defenseless, we would think him beyond stupid and we would expect his immediate death. Yet all too often we think we can face our daily battles without the aid of God’s strength or His armor! Every one of us is engaged in the war against sin, and we each know the struggles and temptations of our own particular battles. But we are not fighting alone! Christ is our Warrior, and He has already defeated our enemy. May He give us grace to abide in His protection and to take advantage of the means He provides to overcome sin.
Our Perspective—1 Corinthians 2:9-16
The world sees reality through the lens of physical sight, but we who are Christ’s are given new eyes and a new mind—the eyes and the mind of our Lord—with which we discern a new reality: the spiritual reality that is taught us by Christ’s Spirit. This opens up vast stores of comfort and hope for us in the nitty-gritty details of our lives. Are you a mother of small children feeling overwhelmed and insignificant? In God’s eyes, the unnoticed work you do each day is inestimably valuable (Proverbs 31:10, 27-31). Is your marriage a daily burden? You are so precious to your Heavenly Groom (1 Peter 3:1-6). Is your relationship with your parents seemingly broken beyond repair? The love of your Heavenly Father will never fail (Isaiah 49:15-16). Have your children forsaken the faith? Jesus wept over lost Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-42). Are you lonely? Jesus was betrayed and forsaken by all men, but He knew He was not alone (John 16:32). Are you struggling to forgive? Oh, meditate on the cost and depth of Christ’s forgiveness of us (Ephesians 4:31-5:2). Is your own death looming uncomfortably near? Paul wishes that his were nearer (Philippians 1:21). Have you buried a parent, spouse, or a child? Christ can repay out of His own fullness all that He takes from us in this life (Romans 11:33; 1 Corinthians 2:9).
Our Goal—Matthew 25:1-13; Revelation 19:1-22:21
Jesus once told of ten virgins waiting for their bridegroom. Remember that story? Only the women who were ready to meet their groom when he came were taken in with him to the marriage. The other women—the foolish virgins who were not prepared for his coming—were shut out of the great celebration.
Women of God, this is our goal: the marriage feast of the lamb. We want to be among the five wise virgins who are ready when the Bridegroom (Christ) comes, that we may enter with Him to the marriage. Any preparations we must make, any indignities we must suffer, any persecution or trial or discouragement or wait we must endure here in this life–no matter what it entails–is worth eternity with Christ. “For I reckon,” writes Paul, “that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). What a hope! What a future! What a goal. The Spirit and the bride say, Come (Rev 22:17), so let those who are athirst press on toward the prize of our Beloved Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14), for blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9)!
I pray that this article encourages you in your sojourn toward heaven to remember by what grace you stand and to live in a way that proclaims to the world the one difference that really matters. Truly what glorious and unsearchable riches belong to us in Christ Jesus (Psalm 45:13; Ephesians 3:8)! Maybe you already walk always in the light of the great and undeserved blessing of His love. Maybe your head knew the reality of these wonderful things, but your heart just needed a little reminder. Or maybe as you read of the marks of God’s grace to unworthy sinners, you realized that perhaps you’re not set apart from the world in this way. You may (or may not) have your act together, you may glory in all the good things you do in the name of God or Love or Reputation—but you’ve never learned to cry “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. Oh, precious sister! You bear the image of the God who created you. Don’t rest in your own good works, but surrender yourself to Christ! Don’t be shut out of the eternal feast of His love, but believe that His death on the cross was for you, that He might bear the offense of even your best acts on Himself and reconcile you to God on the basis of His righteousness and His alone!