Abandon Counterfeit Living

(or How to Live an Authentic Christian Life)

Romans 12:1-21

In the series “Grace is for Everyone”

Author and pastor Craig Brian Larson tells the sad-but-true story of a foolish criminal.  The man from Pittsburgh determined that he needed money, so he would counterfeit it, go to the grocery store, hand it to the clerk and ask for change.  If it worked, he would get real money in exchange for counterfeit.  He was an ambitious man, with big plans. If he was going to do this, he wanted to be set for life. So he decided to try to pass not a counterfeit $100 bill, not a $1,000 bill, not even a $10,000 bill – he would counterfeit a $1,000,000 bill!

There were just three problems with his big plan. First, grocery clerks don’t have a million dollars in their drawers. Second, you might think a million dollar bill would attract some attention.  And third – this is the clincher – there is no such thing as a $1,000,000 bill.  The largest bill currently printed in the U.S. and in circulation is the $100 bill.

So, full of hopes and dreams, he walked into a grocery store, and asked for change for his $1,000,000 bill. The clerk refused.  The manager came and confiscated the forgery. Soon the police had him in custody. [“Man jailed for trying to pass $1M bill,” Associated Press, Yahoo News (10-9-07), on PreachingToday.com (http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2007/october/1102207.html). Accessed 08/25/2017.]

Findlay’s Crime Prevention Officer recently spoke to a gathering of business owners about the problem of counterfeit money, as reported in The Courier.  He said that 1 of every 4,000 bills in circulation is counterfeit.  He shared the story of a local gas station clerk who received a $100 bill from a customer, but later when she ran it through a counting machine, it counted as a $5 bill.  It was actually a $5 that had been altered.  [“Funny Money not so Funny to Businesses,” http://thecourier.com/local-news/2017/08/11/funny-money-not-so-funny-to-businesses/. Accessed 08/20/2017]

Recently there were counterfeit solar eclipse glasses being sold that offered no protection. People are duped into buying counterfeit watches, purses, clothing and medicines.  Do you know how to tell the difference between counterfeit and real things?  It’s been estimated that counterfeit items and money cost our economy between $225 and $600 billion a year.

While counterfeit money and goods represent a serious problem in our society, for the Church, counterfeit Christians are a big problem.  Counterfeit Christians are people who know the “Christian” words to say and even engage in “Christian” activities, but their lives don’t truly reflect the heart of Jesus Christ.  Some of the marks of counterfeit Christians include (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • They feel more guilty about missing church than hurting a neighbor
  • They think the Bible is more important than Jesus
  • They try to figure out how close to sin they can get without actually sinning
  • They hold grudges against others who hurt them bad enough
  • They believe Christians should never engage with sinners
  • They regard the Church as a building, rather than the people
  • They think Christian maturity is about how much they know rather than what they do with what they know [Frank Powell, “7 Signs You Are a Counterfeit Christian,” http://churchleaders.com/outreach-missions/outreach-missions-articles/266527-7-signs-you-are-a-counterfeit-christian.html. Accessed 08/24/2017]

Counterfeit Christians turn off people outside the Church, who decide they don’t want to be around people who are fake. They turn off others inside the Church as they hurt them or behave in unkind and unChristian ways.  Others look at their lives and decide that they don’t want to live like that, and so they avoid Christians and Christian community.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul has described all the mercies God offers us, including:

  • Freedom from sin and death (5:12-21; 6:1-23)
  • The gift of the Spirit (8:1-17)
  • New identity as children of God (8:14-17)
  • Love that never ends (8:38-39)
  • Life conformed to Jesus Christ the Son (8:29)
  • Faithfulness to keep God’s promises (11:25-29)

So in chapter 12, in view of and response to these mercies, he urges Christians to live the authentic Christian life. That life involves transformation (12:2).

What does transformation mean?  It is not about achieving some spiritual standard.  It is not about trying to mimic Christ.  Transformation is about recognizing the life of Christ in us and responding to the work of the Holy Spirit within us.  The point of transformation is not for us to become something we are not, but to become the best person God created and intends us to be.

Paul describes eight characteristics of the authentic life.  These are not “steps” – they’re not a process for some artificial path to a righteous life. The goal is Christ himself. When our hearts are set on Christ completely, then our lives will show him in authentic life as individuals and how we live authentically together.

The first characteristic of the authentic life is surrender.  Paul calls us to present our bodies as “a living sacrifice” (12:1)  Surrender means giving up our plans, our agenda, and our preferences so that we can live for God, choosing God’s ways, God’s agenda, God’s values, and God’s heart over ours.  God becomes truly first when we willingly surrender.

A second mark is renewal.  In particular, Paul urges us to renew our minds, so we can discern and do God’s will (12:2).  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that sins such as murder and adultery happen in the mind before they are ever acted on.  In order to change how we live, we must first change our minds.  We need a spiritual mind to reflect God’s mind and God’s will.

Next, the authentic Christian life is marked by serving in the mission of God (12:3-8).  Paul tells us that God has equipped each and every believer with gifts through the Spirit that are to be used in ministry.  Every gift is valuable and necessary to build up the Christian community.  As the Spirit works in us, we realize that we are called and equipped by God to join in Christ’s mission of making disciples.  We don’t “volunteer” our services to God; no, we realize that God has given us gifts, abilities and passions to use in ministry and God has called us to serve. It’s not a matter of getting jobs done around the church; we serve because it’s one of the ways we thank God for what God has done for us and because it’s one of the ways we grow spiritually.  And while we might not always serve in the same ministry role, we never stop serving in Christ’s ministry; there is no such thing as retiring from serving God in and through the Church.  Transformation from the counterfeit to the authentic life involves serving in Jesus’ mission.

Another characteristic of the real Christian life is love (12:9-10).  Paul urges us to love genuinely and mutually. He challenges us to outdo one another in loving and honoring each other.  Love here is not a feeling – it is a decision which leads us to put the needs of others above our own.  If we think about it, that’s exactly what Jesus did.  He left heaven, came to earth, and lived a human life out of love. He loved us so much that he gave himself up for us so that everyone who believes in him might receive the gift of life forever with him.  Love must be lived in community, and it is only possible when we are honest, open and transparent with one another.  We’ll hear more about love in next week’s sermon from Romans 13, but for now, remember that love is a characteristic of authentic Christianity.

A fifth mark of the authentic life is enthusiasm.  Paul writes, “Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in Spirit; serve the Lord” 12:11).    The text literally reads, “in zeal not burned out, in spirit burning.”  The point is not to let our enthusiasm, our love for God, fade, but to stay in love with God.  We do that by serving the Lord, caring for our souls through prayer, devotion and study, sharing life with others as we learn, serve and grow together, worshiping God in community and receiving Holy Communion.

Perspective is another aspect of the real life.  Here we are talking about our view of life.  We view life through the lens of faith, and that enables us to see beyond our current circumstances and to hold onto hope (12:12).  Faith helps us hold on to and rely on Christ, even when life is hard, and that makes transformation possible.

Another mark of Christian life is community. Christianity is meant to be lived with others; we cannot do faith alone. So Paul gives advice for how to stay in community, including caring for the needs of those already in the Church, maintaining harmony, having a realistic view of yourself, and living peacefully (12:13-20).  He also directs us “to “extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13).  We should go out of our way to help strangers or guests feel welcome and accepted.  It is not OK to ignore them during worship or at other church and community events.  It is not up to one person to do this – it is the responsibility of all of us.  That means greeting someone whose name we don’t know rather than talking to our friend we can talk to another time. Engaging them in conversation and listening with empathy.  Treating them the way we would want to be treated if we were new, so they feel included in the community.

The last mark of the authentic Christian life is righteousness.  Paul urges us to not be overtaken by evil, but to overcome evil with good (12:21).  We can do this because of what God has done for us.  God has already given us a righteous nature, when we put our faith in Christ.  Even when we fail and give in to evil, we know that God’s grace is available to us and sufficient to restore and strengthen us to endure.  So the question is not, “Can I be righteous?”, but “How will Christ’s righteousness be revealed in me?”

The marks of authentic life are simply signs of Jesus’ presence in us through the Holy Spirit.  As we live these marks, it is because God is faithful to God’s promise to conform us to the image of Christ.  It is not that God is hoping for this transformation to happen, because God has already promised it and is working to bring it about within us.  We don’t have to try and keep a set of rules; we can enjoy Christ’s presence in our lives and participate in his work of transforming our counterfeit life to authentic Christian life.

As we conclude, I invite you to pray and reflect on these marks, seeking the one or two where God wants to work now.

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