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Rainbow Divider

LESSONS FROM A STREETCAR

by Phil Enlow

Rainbow Divider

Mere religion, even if it uses the name of Christ, relies upon human nature for its “engine.” The Christian life is far more than a set of beliefs and a lifestyle; it is a literal expression of divine life through human vessels. Anything short of that is worthless.

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I have many pleasant memories of growing up in Eastern Massachusetts, about 30 miles south of Boston. During my early school years my grandparents lived in Watertown, a suburb of Boston and I remember visiting them many times.

Their house was about one block from the main street through that part of town. Down the middle of that street ran one of the many streetcar lines in the greater Boston area. I remember several times riding the streetcar, often into Boston itself.

There have been many different styles of streetcars over the years but the ones I remember were somewhat like individual train cars with a place for a conductor in the front. Two characteristics stand out in my memory: they ran on tracks like a train; and they were powered by electricity. What a simple picture this is of the Christian life!

In the first place a streetcar is designed for its task. Its wheels fit the tracks. Its engine is designed to convert electricity into forward motion. So it is with the Christian life. One cannot live the Christian life apart from a divine miracle, the miracle of the new birth. We need a new heart, a new spirit, a new life. God alone can produce that in a prepared and willing heart.

At best, without the new birth, there will be a mere imitation. As Paul wrote in Rom. 8:8-9, “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” Paul also wrote in 1 Cor. 15:50, “… flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God….”

Mere religion, even if it uses the name of Christ, relies upon human nature for its “engine.” The Christian life is far more than a set of beliefs and a lifestyle; it is a literal expression of divine life through human vessels. Anything short of that is worthless.

Men judge far too much by external things, what they can see with natural eyes. God looks at the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7.

But salvation is more than the new birth. Far too many seem to think of it as people “getting saved,” then becoming active in a church and going to heaven when they die.

But the new birth is merely a beginning even as it is with the natural birth. And a streetcar is not made to sit there and look pretty until it winds up in a museum someday! It has a purpose beyond simply being manufactured.

Heb. 12:1 exhorts us to “… run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” In 2 Tim. 4:7 Paul writes, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He also writes in Phil. 3:14, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” There is a race; it is marked out for us; there is a goal.

Paul expresses part of this purpose in Gal. 2:20 – “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The basic question is: which life is in charge? Which life is expressed during this earthly race?

Jesus set the example during his earthly ministry. In John 14:10 he said, “… it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” In John 5:30 he said, “By myself I can do nothing.” During his earthly ministry Jesus had a purpose, a “track” to run on. So did Paul. So do all born of God. Each one is unique, personal, yet each life is a race “marked out.”

So it is with the streetcar. It does not just go wherever it wants to go. There is a track. There is a destination. There is a purpose in the journey. God wants us to seek Him to discover His purpose for us as individuals. You may not be a “Paul” but we each have our own place in God’s plan.

In Phil 3:14, Paul mentions a “goal.” One clear expression of that goal is in Rom. 8:29 – “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

Apart from the new birth we are hopelessly unlike him. The new birth equips us to begin the journey that results in our being like him. 1 John 3:2-3 says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.”

And so a streetcar is manufactured to fulfill a specific purpose; it is equipped in every way for that purpose; and a track is laid that will take it to the goal. One thing remains: how can that be accomplished? Where does the power come from?

Paul addresses the Galatian believers on this very question in Gal. 3:3 – “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” So many are trying with human energy to conform to a religious standard of some kind when God’s plan is that we live by Christ’s life, that Christ live in and through us.

Think of the streetcar again. It is manufactured and designed to do its job. How does it make progress down the track that is laid out for it? Does it simply “try harder”? Does the conductor get out and push? Of course not! All the power it needs flows through wires overhead. All that is needed is to raise a metal arm and maintain contact with that power.

That is where we so often fall short. Even if we live with a consciousness of the “race” and the “goal,” we fail to fully realize just how dependent we are on power from above. Our failures lead us to “try harder” instead of stepping back and reaching up in faith to the only power that will move us forward.

The streetcars I remember did not run on battery power. Many Christians try the equivalent of that. They suppose that they can fill up with enough power on Sunday to get them through the week. We sing the old hymn, “Moment by Moment,” without fully appreciating quite what it means.

Progress in the Christian life does not come from re-charging our “spiritual batteries.” That approach typically results in our living our daily lives in our own strength. We wonder why we make so little progress. We are designed to need a continual supply of power from above, even as the streetcar. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.”

That truth is both humbling and freeing. We can no more truly live the Christian life with human energy that we could bring about the new birth by ourselves. Everything about salvation is a miracle from heaven. We participate by faith.

Paul encouraged Timothy in 1 Tim. 6:12, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”

The life itself is there, fully provided through the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. But we are called to “lay hold” of it. That involves a conscious reaching out in our hearts and spirits in the realization that we cannot live the Christian life any other way than through God’s enabling power.

2 Peter 1:2-4 exhorts us, “Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

I can still picture those old streetcars stopping at the station, picking up and dropping off passengers, then moving down the track towards their destination, all the while maintaining constant contact with the power line overhead. May we learn the simple lesson pictured by the old streetcar!

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