God wants his people to be radically different from others. British pastor and teacher John R.W. Stott said, “Insofar as the church is conformed to the world, and the two communities appear to the onlooker to be merely two versions of the same thing, the church is contradicting its true identity. No comment could be more harmful to the Christian than the words, ‘But you are no different from anybody else.’ “For the essential theme of the whole Bible from beginning to end is that God’s historical purpose is to call out a people for himself; that God’s people is a ‘holy’ people, set apart from the world to belong to him and to obey him; and that its vocation is to be true to its identity, that is to be ‘holy’ or ‘different’ in all its outlook and behavior.”25 God, through Moses, told the people of Israel, “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 18:3-4 NIV). (Also see Leviticus 21:23; Deuteronomy 12:30-31.) Jesus told his followers, “Do not be like them” (Matthew 6:8). (Also see 2 Corinthians 6:17; 1 Peter 1:14-15.) Jesus did not want his followers to be like the heathen, or to be like the religious leaders of his time. (See, for example, Matthew 6:1-8.) Paul told the Ephesians that they should “no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk” (Ephesians 4:17). Jesus told the religious leaders of his time, “You are of this world; I am not of this world” (John 8:23). Then he said to his Father in heaven that his disciples “…are not of the world any more than I am of the world” (John 17:14 NIV). (Also see verse 16.) The disciples were to be different. The rules of the kingdom of God are often the exact opposite of the rules of this world. That is why many people speak of the teachings of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, as “unrealistic” or “impossible.” To those who do not give their full allegiance to God, they are impossible to follow. To those who are wholeheartedly committed to God, have the Holy Spirit living in them, and God’s power working in them, they are still very challenging. But as we mature as Christians, we can come fairly close to living by them. Why is it so important for Christians to be different?
It is the fact that we are different that challenges and draws unbelievers to God. If committed Christians are perceived as no different from anyone else, then what does Christianity have to offer to unbelievers? It is only as we are seen as having something different to offer, that people will be drawn to that something different and to God. It is only as we are perceived as being different that we can “be witnesses” to God. If we continue to be conformed to the pattern of this world, then our allegiance is to this world. Or else we are double-minded, with one foot in the world and one foot in the kingdom of God. In either case, we will not have the desire or the power to stand up against the ungodliness that is so prevalent in our society today. Most Christians spend relatively few hours a week on the things of God. The rest of the time we are bombarded—systematically, pervasively and insistently—by the things of this world. If we are to stand up against that bombardment, we need to make a deliberate effort to be radically different from the world. Paul’s letter to the Romans is the most detailed and systematic discussion that we have of Paul’s teaching to believers. As in most of his letters, he starts with a discussion of basic spiritual principles, and then discusses their practical application in our lives. In Romans that discussion of application begins with chapter 12. First he tells us to give our lives to God, to commit ourselves totally to God (Romans 12:1). (I deal with this in chapter 16.) Then he says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this...
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