In his book, Church History In Plain Language, author Bruce Shelly gives four reasons why Christianity grew to such an extent in its early history that it became the dominant religion of the Roman empire in little more than 300 years after its founding. As I read through what Shelly identified it occurred to me that these same traits are also necessary for a Christian to truly grow in his faith and multiply himself with others. What are these four traits? Shelly defines them this way:
- Early Christians were moved by a burning conviction
- The Christian gospel met a widely felt need in the hearts of people
- The practical expression of Christian love was probably among the most powerful causes of Christian success
Persecution, in many instances helped to publicize the Christian faith.
First, let’s define what these things mean, then look at our western culture to see if we have them today, then look into our own hearts to see what occupies that space.
Early Christians were moved by a burning conviction
What was the “burning conviction” that occupied the early Christian heart? It was the good news about the person of Jesus and what he did on the cross, as well as his resurrection from the dead. God is a god of redemption and that redemption came only through Christ. The very confession of our faith is that confession of who Jesus is, what he did, why he did it, and how we should respond.
What is your burning conviction? Do you look for God’s hand or his heart? Are you seeking material blessings or comfort, or status? Or does the person of Jesus occupy your very soul? If we look around at the famous preachers of our day, such as those in the prosperity gospel movement, what place does Jesus occupy? Is he Sovereign Lord?
The Christian gospel met a widely felt need in the hearts of people
What was that, “felt need?” It was the realization that something is wrong with us in our very core. Man is broken because man is sinful. Without a solution for sin, man remains forever broken. Everyone knows this at some level. We know that we are not perfect. We know that we are flawed. We know, deep down where it counts in those places of our hearts that we avoid, that our very soul lives in decay.
Is this the felt need of our society today or is it the pleasures of life? Perhaps it is the American “pursuit of happiness” that prevents us from fully recognizing our true need—redemption from sin—so that we ignore it and shove it to the back of minds. Yet, it is still there.
What is your greatest felt need?
The practical expression of Christian love was probably among the most powerful causes of Christian success
Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Sacrificial love should be the mark of the Christian life. Yet, Jesus also gave a warning about the day we live in. “Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). We give money to the homeless, but don’t want to touch the dirty. We use our donations to worthy causes to keep us at a comfortable distance from the suffering instead of engaging them where they live. Even as I type this I recognize this in myself.
It was the early church’s expression of love that moved so many to come to faith in Christ. People saw in Christians something that they could not find in the popular religions of their day.
How about today?
Persecution, in many instances helped to publicize the Christian faith
This is counter-intuitive for American Christians. Unlike places like the Middle East, China, Indonesia, and other difficult countries, American Christians suffer under what is called soft persecution. We aren’t being rounded up and beheaded like our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. Our churches aren’t being razed to the ground as happens in China. We aren’t be slaughtered or imprisoned for turning people to faith in Jesus as happens in Iran.
Our persecution is different, and so is our response. We have prayer and Bibles removed from schools and hire a lawyer. We can’t pass out literature in public without a police officer confronting us about religious-free zones. So we complain about it through the media. We cry foul when our constitutional rights are violated. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do these things. I’m simply pointing out that our response is far different from our brothers elsewhere who must simply endure it, demonstrate a gracious humility, and pick up the pieces of their lives while trusting God with their future. It is these qualities that have turned many of their countrymen to Christ—when they see the Christian’s response.
What place do these four things occupy in your life? If we want to see our faith embraced by others, then we need these four things to be lived out: burning conviction, the felt need for redemption, expressions of sacrificial love, graciousness under persecution.