So, thinking about becoming a Christian? There is no greater thing in life to contemplate, or to do. Life is largely an empty waste without making this most momentous of all decisions. Every person on earth needs to face this question and decide appropriately.
But I must add a word of caution here. To become a follower or disciple of Jesus Christ is not quite what it is cut out to be by many preachers and many churches. Many will tell you it is as easy as can be – a piece of cake. But they are only partly right.
Coming to Christ is in one sense quite easy: we simply say no to ourselves and say yes to him. We agree with him that we are sinners in need of redemption, we repent, and we cast our faith on him. Jesus has done all the work by dying a cruel death on a cross so that the just punishment we deserve for our sin and rebellion was instead placed on him, so that we can find forgiveness and newness of life in him if we avail ourselves of it.
But this is just the beginning however. As J. Budziszewski has rightly stated: “Although the forgiveness of sin takes an instant, the cure of the sin-soaked soul is gradual and not complete until heaven.” The initial forgiveness is simply the first of a million steps of discipleship. Getting saved is not just a once off affair in which we can just do our own thing for the rest of our life.
True, at our conversion we are justified freely because of Christ’s grace. But biblical salvation is in fact a three-part process. There is first justification, which is the free gift of God’s grace which we receive through faith. But then there is sanctification, the process by which we become less and less like our old sinful and selfish self, and more and more like him. Then at death there is glorification, where we are reunited with our Lord in our new resurrection bodies.
But sadly far too many preachers and teachers focus on the first and third components, while ignoring or minimising the second. They make salvation sound like it is the easiest thing there is: get emotionally moved by some music and a sermon, put your hand up at the end and there you go: you are now a Christian, and that’s it.
But that is not it; that is just the very beginning. The aim is to be conformed to the image of God’s son. The aim is to be Christlike. The aim is holiness. That is the stated aim of conversion as discussed throughout the New Testament:
-Matthew 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Romans 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.
-Galatians. 4:19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,
-Ephesians 4:13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
And this process is no easy road. It involves the hard slog of following him, renouncing self and the world, and carrying your cross. Since I am reading in Luke just now, let me present to you his version of events. A passage like Luke 9:57-62 makes it perfectly clear about the costs of following Jesus:
“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God’.”
That passage sounds a clear warning to those who think they can come to Christ on their own terms and in their own way, without any sacrifice or hardship. And consider what Jesus said as he sent his disciples out to preach the gospel. He warned them with these words: “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” (Luke 10:3)
This was not going to be some joyride. This was not going to be a pain-free journey. Not only must they wage daily war against sin, self, and the world, but they can expect active and animated opposition and resistance. Things will simply not be all that rosy.
Yet sadly, far too often we are preaching a watered-down gospel to would-be converts, promising them all sweetness and light. We seek to make it as easy on seekers as we can, while Jesus seemed to go out of his way to make it difficult for people to become a disciple of his.
But we think we can improve upon what Jesus said and did. We think we can make it easy for people. We want to let them off the hook and offer them rosy promises of a pain-free life and a problem-free walk with God. But we are then simply presenting a false gospel.
Way too often we appeal to people’s emotions and pride. We get them emotionally wound up, and we promise them a life of ease and one in which they can have everything they want. “You can be a better you.” “You can be successful.” “You can live a happy life.” “You can lose weight for Jesus.” “You can realise all your dreams.”
It is all a self-centred gospel and it is therefore a fake gospel. And in making things so easy for folks to become a Christian, we are then actually surprised when it is so easy for them to fall away. They have been sold a bill of goods, and when the trials, hardships, opposition and flak come their way, they simply give up.
“Hey I was not told about any of this! I was promised that all my problems would disappear and this Christian life would be a cakewalk.” No wonder Jesus had to so often make such strong warnings, as in the parable of the sower (really the parable of the soils) in Luke 8:1-15.
As he taught in 8:13: “Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.” How many rootless believers do we have today who are gearing up for a big fall? And how much of that is our fault as church leaders?
We get potential converts to sing ten choruses of “Just As I Am” and they leave the meeting just as they were. They have never been properly converted. And tragically there will be a lot of surprises come judgment day. Many people who simply assumed they were saved will be shocked to discover they never were. And sadly many of our churches today are full of such people.
It is the crucified life which we must all aspire to, not just a life of ease and self with a fire insurance policy tacked on somewhere. There simply is no justification without sanctification. As James Montgomery Boice put it, “It is not merely a question of our being delivered from the law’s condemnation. Christ has delivered us from the law’s power, too. He died to start the process of sanctification and not merely to provide propitiation from wrath. . . . Justification and sanctification always go together, so that you cannot have one without the other. . . . According to Romans 8:3-4, sanctification is the very end for which God saved us.”
And this journey will not be easy. There simply is no magic pill here. True holiness and conformity to Christ requires work and effort – all by God’s grace of course. All the great saints have known this and experienced this. William Wilberforce put it this way: “There is no shortcut to holiness; it must be the business of our whole lives.”
Or as Jonathan Edwards once said, “The way to Heaven is ascending; we must be content to travel uphill, though it be hard and tiresome, and contrary to the natural bias of our flesh.” Or as D.A. Carson has written more recently:
“People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”
Quite so. Sorry folks, but there is no easy road here. It is hard to get into the Kingdom and hard to grow in holiness. But the good news is God promises to help us in both these endeavours. He gives us grace to repent and turn to him, and he provides the Holy Spirit to take up residence in us as we grow in grace and in holiness.
Let me conclude with Catherine Booth on why we have so many weak and unstable believers: “Here is the reason why we have such a host of stillborn, sinewless, ricketty, powerless spiritual children. They are born of half-dead parents, a sort of sentimental religion which does not take hold of the soul, which has no depth of earth, no grasp, no power in it, and the result is a sickly crop of sentimental converts. Oh! the Lord give us a real, robust, living, hardy, Christianity, full of zeal and faith, which shall bring into the kingdom of God lively, well-developed children, full of life and energy, instead of these poor sentimental ghosts that are hopping around us.”