What is Expected of a New Christian?

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What is expected of a “new” anything? When someone is new to a job, or just enrolling in a new school, or just learning to swim or do anything, there is usually some kind of orientation period, or probationary period, during which special care is given, special instruction is provided, and there is extra careful watching for problems or potential problems. With time, as adjustments are made, skills are learned, and confidence is built, the special care and attention tends to diminish sometimes too soon and without adequate consideration as to whether the purpose of the orientation or probation has been met.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he said that there had been such a probationary period or time of orientation while he was with them (I Cor. 3:1-2). During this time of their early discipleship they were like babes or infants in his eyes. Unfortunately, as he wrote the epistle he said that the situation hadn’t actually changed, they were still immature babies, and he could not consider that their need for basic care had ended. He proceeded to provide for that kind of nurturing and training by writing them doctrinal letters, sending capable men to instruct and correct them, and visiting them himself to encourage cooperation in the will of God. Babes or not, Paul expected conformity with the commands of God and commanded them to yield to the will of the Lord who purchased them. In order to achieve that conformity though, Paul clearly spelled out the Lord’s expectations in the specific areas where they were having problems. He repeated himself as necessary, and explained purposes behind nearly every command he gave. He wanted to lead these babes in Christ into willing and reasoned cooperation with the Lord, not just bully them into acquiescence. In the final analysis though, they were expected to pursue and maintain the same high moral and ethical standards that he himself as a mature man of God lived by. They had made a choice, to accept God’s gift of life, and that led to other choices as they learned to live God’s way.

The Christian relationship to Christ is likened to a marriage relationship in several scriptures, most notably perhaps Eph. 5:22-33. Particularly in marriage God has recognized and sanctioned a period of orientation and readjustment, while the spouses learn to please each other. Deut. 24:5 directs that a newly married man should be excused from military and civic duties for one year, to bring happiness to his wife. The Israelite people were to recognize a period of probation in a new marriage during which unusual demands would not be made, or in fact special privileges would be extended. The newly married man would not be expected to go to war beside his fellows, or perform other duties for the community, because his first obligation was to please his wife, and he needed to devote himself to accomplishing that goal. Likewise, in turning to Christ a relationship has been started that is meant to be a source of happiness and contentment. The Lord would not have his people place extra burdens on one who is newly bound to him, but rather would encourage a period of probation during which the new believer can learn how the Lord would bring happiness to him, and how he can bring happiness to the Lord (in contrast, see Matt. 23:15). This is a time for patience and forbearance on the part of the community of believers as readjustments are made and new relationships are formed and strengthened.

The Lord provided such a period of probation and orientation for the first New Testament Church, as described in the book of Acts, which probably indicates to us something of how Paul had led the church in Corinth as well, since we are informed that the Lord’s expectations were basically the same everywhere in every church. In a quick overview, Acts 2:42 tells us what was expected of new Christians and provided for them, “the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers.”

The new Christian is expected to devote himself to the apostles’ teaching (I Pet. 1:23-2:3, II Pet. 1:12-15, II Pet. 3:15-18) including the prophetic writings they taught from (II Pet. 1:19-21). Reading the word of God, dwelling on the Bible’s teachings about Christ and the life he would have us live, is of primary importance to the new Christian. Not just the word as filtered through some intermediary source, whether speaker or author, but the sincere milk of the word. Experienced Christians must learn to steer new Christians to the source, the mother’s milk of the church, God’s own word, rather than devotional materials or the various religious resources proffered so persuasively in today’s temple marketplace. New Christians above all need the word of God, the apostles’ doctrine, not the responsibility of sorting through the varied interpretations and doctrinal emphases imposed on the scriptures by men who would like to clarify what Peter and Paul already made clear. There is no sufficient substitute for the direct teachings found in the written word.

Along with the apostles’ doctrine, new Christians need to devote themselves to fellowship with the saints, to be eager for the chance to be with other Christians and have common experiences with them. The Israelite in the probationary year of his marriage might avoid conflict by staying close to home, close to his wife, but the injunction to let him out of war would cease to be applicable if he insisted on leaving the sanctuary behind. He needed to stay where he was priveleged to be, close to home and relying on the strength of others. The need for him to give up his privileged position and take his own stand would come soon enough, no point in grieving his wife prematurely, as would likely happen if he went to war with a mind divided by the newness of his situation. The one who thinks he has the most to lose, is most likely to lose it, because his divided mind makes him vulnerable. The new Christian must avoid the possibility of being overwhelmed by seeking the fellowship of the saints, learning ways to bring happiness to the Lord and his brethren by fellowshipping with them.

Behavior is very much a part of this devotion to fellowship, and nothing will damage the fellowship more quickly or more thoroughly than persisting in immoral behavior after coming to Christ (I Cor. 5:9-13, 6:13-20). Jesus Christ in bringing us to fellowship set the example, laying down his life, of what the commitment to fellowship is about. He asks that the new Christian grow into making the same kind of commitment to his brethren (I John 3:16), dictated by love, not appetite. Fellowship includes providing for our brother’s needs, the needs of his flesh and the needs of his spirit. Within the concept of fellowship we have instructions to feed our hungry brother, encourage our weak brother, rebuke our sinning brother, and edify the church, in love.

The life laid down by Christ is remembered by His church each first day of the week, in the breaking of bread, which is another of those things the first new Christians devoted themselves to. The breaking of bread is an expression of the fellowship we believe in, a fellowship of one body. It is also a statement of moral principle, as it is identified as a time of self-examination. At the same time, perhaps in the same vein, it is a time of reflection on the atoning sacrifice of Christ, a focus on the depth of his love. The new Christian, and the old, is expected to participate in this ceremonial recognition of dependence on Christ with clean hands and a pure heart. All Christians are equal as they share the bread and fruit of the vine at the Lord’s table (I Cor. 11:23-33).

Eating together at the Lord’s table is called a communion or participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), and in a very real sense is a communication with God. Still, along with that, the new Christians of Jerusalem devoted themselves to prayer. New Christians need to learn to talk things out with God, essentially everything that has bearing on their lives, whether good or bad (Philippians 4:6-7). Christians need to learn to become comfortable with discussing the affairs of life with God, seeking his help in all things, giving him thanks and praise in all things. If indeed new Christians need a period of adjustment to a new life and new situation, then the most important adjustment of all is not to new moral standards, though those are important, nor to new relationships in the church, though those are important, but the most important adjustment of all is to a new and enduring relationship with God. God has become the father of the new Christian, by adoption, through the power of the pure and holy blood of Jesus and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. A relationship of love, trust, and obedience to a kind and generous father has been initiated. Learning to be made happy in the Lord, and learning to please our wonderful father, are what that early probation of the babe in Christ is all about. Dependence on the apostles’ doctrine, the encouragement and commitment found in fellowship, the refreshment and reminding associated with the breaking of bread, and open communication with the Father, are all just a part of the new beginning in a new and enduring family, the family of God.

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