How Does a Person Become a Christian?
Millions of people claim something has happened that has changed their lives, brought them profound peace of mind, and assured them about the future. People have faced death singing, entering eternity with confidence.
Some with this unusual confidence say they have been "saved," others use the term "born again," and still others say that they have "found eternal life." All these terms are synonymous, for they each have to do with three aspects of life: being saved from past guilt, being delivered from present thought patterns, and gaining assurance for the future and for eternity. All these mean that a person has become a Christian.
At this point, let us look at some things that do not guarantee a person is a Christian. Being born in America or the British Isles, living a decent life, thinking positively, going to church, giving to charity, taking the sacraments, praying—none of these is a guarantee. Not even believing in God makes a person a Christian—many people of other religions believe in God.
What is a real Christian? First, a real Christian has been born into the family of God. Just as we are born into our human family, so we have to be born into God's family. The Gospel of John puts it this way: "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (John 1:12, 13). In other words, we are all created by God as his creatures, but we only become members of God's family when we open our hearts to Christ, believe in him, and receive him into our hearts.
Second, a true Christian is walking in the way of life. Jesus said there are two roads: the broad road leads to destruction, and the narrow road leads to eternal life (see also Deuteronomy 30:19; Jeremiah 21:8). The narrow road leads to a clear conscience and liberation from habits that destroy us. We do not have to walk under clouds of guilt—real or imagined. When you have found Jesus Christ and have been forgiven for your sins, you have absolute peace with God. You know that your sins were dealt with on the cross and taken away. You are free to live a new life of moral cleanliness—this does not mean perfection, but it does mean walking in the light and desiring to be pure.
Third, the true Christian has eternal life. Such a promise comes into its fullness when we die, but we can enjoy it now, here on earth. Eternal life lives in our hearts, convincing us that we need never feel alone or empty. Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). You can have the assurance of eternal life because Christ lives in your heart. John Calvin called this the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.
Now that we have a clear picture of what a Christian is, how does one become a Christian? There are three basic steps. Step one is to admit that your sins keep you away from God. The Bible says there is no difference among people because we all have sinned and fallen short of God's perfection (Romans 3:9-23). We can deny how we miss the mark, but as the apostle John put it, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us... If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives" (1 John 1:8, 10).
Step two is to believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to lead us back to God. We do not have to understand it all, but we do need to believe it. I do not understand how electricity or radios work, but I trust that they work and enjoy their benefits. "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve" (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
Step three is to receive the Lord Jesus as Savior by making a personal decision. The individual must take a step of faith, which is receiving based on believing. It is not enough merely to believe; the gift of eternal life must be grasped. When I travel and bring home a present for my wife, all she has to do to enjoy the gift is to take it and say thank you. To receive Jesus Christ is similar. By faith you say, "Thank you, Lord. I receive you into my life." At that moment the gift of God, which is eternal life in Jesus Christ, is yours.
This last step demands a personal decision. It is an act of the will, for we can either reject or receive Christ. Too many people depend on inherited faith—a secondhand faith. But only authentic faith leads to life eternal.
Two Women, One Savior
One night in November 1971, I was preaching in the capital city of Lima, Peru. In the crowd was a woman who was a guerrilla fighter and had killed policemen and civilians alike. She heard the Word of God and before the next sunrise had knelt by her bed and, with little knowledge of the Bible, received the Lord Jesus as her Savior.
That woman's life has been completely transformed by Christ. Now she is taking care of two thousand poor children by feeding them a full breakfast. She has built schools for them in the slums of Peru and started churches too.
I also know of one of the wealthiest women in the British Isles. Despite her breeding and education, she was filled with fear of the occult and of death. She is now living a life of peace and freedom from fear—belief and trust in Christ have brought her this. She is now leading many others to the Lord.
In the worst slums of Latin America or the wealthy circles of Great Britain, people are experiencing eternal life—promise for the future and hope for today.
Who Can Become a Christian?
Clark H. Pinnock
Who can become a Christian? The answer in a nutshell is that anyone can. Anyone who wants to can "take the free gift of the water of life" (Revelation 22:17). Whosoever will may come. Everyone has an invitation to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Matthew 22:9).
The Bible's teaching about God's gracious desire to save everyone is too strong and clear for us to accept the notion—which many hold—that God is free to give and to withhold salvation as he pleases, and that he gives it only to special individuals whom he has selected.
Paul said that God wants everybody "to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). Peter added that God is "not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Through Ezekiel, God announced: "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:11).
Jesus told us who can become a Christian. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). It seems that God quite sincerely wants everyone to be saved. "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). On another occasion Jesus said, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32).
So strong indeed is the scriptural teaching about God's universal saving will that people have sometimes even concluded that all will in fact be saved, that no one at all will be lost. As Paul said, "As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22). Because of Paul's teaching elsewhere—as when he warns about God's wrath that is coming (1 Thessalonians 1:10)—we know there will be wicked who perish and are banished from God's presence. But we should not lose the marvelous scope of Scripture. God's intention is to save the human race, not a pathetic little segment of it. "Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men" (Romans 5:18).
According to this kind of theology, we ought to think of being saved as the normal outcome and being rejected as the exception, and not the other way around. I think we have erred in thinking of condemnation as the ordinary and salvation as the extraordinary outcome of the history of divine redemption.
Who can become a Christian? According to the New Testament, anyone can. It is certainly true that not all do make the decision to give their lives over to God. Some stubbornly insist on going their own way. "Whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him" (John 336). Such people will not enjoy the salvation God has for the world. "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12).
But a difficulty comes to mind—not on God's side, who is on record as desiring the salvation of the race, but on man's side. Has not sin affected human nature so as to make it impossible for individuals to save themselves and even to turn to God for salvation? Are people not so hopelessly alienated from God and dead in their sins that they have no ability and no desire to turn to God for help? Is it perhaps true that anyone may but no one actually can become a Christian?
If we focused only upon man's lost condition, we might very well suppose that bare invitations to eternal life would be useless and would fall upon deaf ears. But we must remember God's powerful Word. His invitation to save sinners carries with it all the resources necessary to see it happen. God's grace creates within humans the power to respond to or resist his love. He works in their lives to draw them to himself. When God calls a sinner to turn to him, he gives the sinner the strength to do what he requires.
God does not abandon sinners in their depravity, but visits them with his grace and goodness. He gives them good gifts out of his abundant creation and sends his Spirit to draw them back to himself. Stephen made that clear in his last sermon: "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!" (Acts 7:51).
God works in sinners to draw them to himself. It does not follow that they will return. His drawing of them, being the call of love, is not irresistible. Love which did not leave the option of refusal would not be love. God deals with us as persons. We are saved not by force, but by faith, the free decision to trust in God.
Who can become a Christian? Anyone can, because God's grace closes nobody out. There are no limits to his grace except those that sinners impose upon themselves. Jesus Christ, our Advocate, has become "the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). Salvation is so broad as to encompass potentially the entire human race. So let us enter in, and let us invite others to enter the kingdom of God.
What Is a Christian?
A Christian is one who...
The Marks of a Christian
Francis Schaeffer called love the mark of a Christian in a book of that title. This simple wondrous truth is the theme of the popular chorus, "They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love." This truth, according to 1 John 4:12, is the mortar of all relationships in the Church: "No one has ever seen God; but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." When God lives in us, we cannot help but love him and each other.
As love marks our lives in Christ, so does the inner control of the Holy Spirit. Thus Christians differ from non-Christians at this very crucial issue of inner direction and guidance. When we are controlled by God's Spirit, we begin to care about the things that he cares about. And what are they? The Spirit's first concern is the exaltation of Christ. Jesus said, "He will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:26), and "He will bring glory to me" (John 16:14). Thus, whichever way he points our individual destiny or careers, the Holy Spirit will direct each of our lives to exalt Christ.
As others look at us, they will of course not be able to see this invisible controller, but over a period of time they will observe that our lifestyles are marked by directions greater than our own values, ethics, or willpowers could ever explain.
These two marks of a Christian—love and Spirit-control—work hand in hand. As the Holy Spirit directs our lives, we become less abusive and more loving to others. People soon learn they can approach us, trust us, and feel secure around us. They then feel as though they can come to us, confide in us, and feel good about being with us. The Christ in us becomes near and touchable, a resource for those who desire his counsel and love.
A third mark that characterizes Christians is the overwhelming desire to please Christ. Jesus yearned to please the Father on earth: "I always do what pleases him" (John 8:29), and at Jesus' baptism, God made it clear he was pleased with him: the voice over the river said, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11).
As the Father and Son find pleasure in each other, so we seek the pleasure of Christ. Paul wrote, "So we make it our goal to please him" (2 Corinthians 5:9). This desire to please Christ, then, is shown in our continual willingness to submit ourselves to God's will, to take up our crosses daily and follow him (Luke 9:23). This desire to please means Christ should permeate our whole lifestyle. Proverbs 3:6 says, "In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight."
Part of pleasing Christ means we joyfully enter into God's redemptive plan. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:19, "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation." Because Christ is in us through his Spirit, we enter God's wonderful reconciling work, and through love we help to draw people toward God.
When we have all these marks of a Christian, what will other people see in our lives?
First of all, they will see joy. A Christian martyr once observed that "joy is the most infallible proof of God's presence!" People want to look at Christians and see happiness in our walk—joy in our lives! Isaiah 3:9 says, "The look on their faces testifies against them." If a Christian looks sad all the time, his very face testifies that he doesn't contain much of God. People want to see the abundance of our great spiritual wealth reflected in our positive spirits. Jesus likened the kingdom of God to a treasure hidden in a field: this hidden treasure is the wonderful sense that God is working in us to make us complete in abundance and joy.
When we have the marks of a Christian, people will see personal stability in our lives. In our hassled age, everyone is looking for inner peace and freedom from the stress that often characterizes even Christian lives. Isaiah 26:3 says, "You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you." And when we fail, they want to see us handle our disappointments in the way Paul described in Philippians 4:11: "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances."
People will readily see the good works we do in Christ's name. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). Others want to see us triumph over our need to serve ourselves, to turn outside ourselves and reach out to help others. They continually watch to see what we will do when other people are wronged; they do not observe just how we treat other Christians, but whether or not we show concern for those who don't know Christ.
Those around us seek those who are more interested in serving than in being served. Although Christians should never do good works in order to be seen, the Christian life is so different from the world's that a person who is really following Christ will be immediately visible. Jesus said, "By their fruit you will recognize them" (Matthew 7:16). The fruit of the Spirit, as Paul pointed out, is quite different from the fruit of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:19-24).
When we let our negative characteristics show through, they will eradicate our witness. Others may say, "You can't be much of a Christian or you wouldn't be doing that." We don't want to be hypocritical and pretend to be something we aren't, but we want to work awfully hard at showing others the positive, consistent, and joyful Christian we want people to see. If people ask us about our struggles and problems, we should always be honest and confess that we do have them. At the same time, we want to be constantly purifying our lives and moving toward our better selves.
What do I mean by "work awfully hard"? You can't obtain the marks of a Christian simply by trying to act as if you are loving or at peace. When you try to please Christ, character results. When you try to obey Christ, you end up serving others because that's what he motivates you to do. Still, it is not as though you are straining to produce lots of good works; rather these good works are the natural response of your life because you have a new love and allegiance.
When a man and woman fall in love, they do not measure every little act of courtesy. They don't try to be good to each other. Their desire to please each other is so overwhelming that a lifestyle of mutual love and service flows from that desire. All people who come to know Christ have this same need to serve him. Christian character develops and results in serving Jesus naturally.
It's natural, therefore, once Christ comes into our lives, to set spiritual goals for ourselves, making time to study and pray. We do this because we love him. It is natural for young lovers to dine together every evening at seven. They do this because they love each other. By observing this "seven o'clock" discipline, they will increase the amount of time they have together.
We will never develop the marks of a Christian by trying hard. We can, however, set up forms of discipline for ourselves that will help us grow. And as we grow, the Holy Spirit will transform our lives and make our Christianity visible.
Paul said in Romans 12 that we don't want to be conformed to this world, but we do want to live in such a way that sooner or later we will be conformed to the image of Christ. Phillips translates verse 2 in a beautiful way: "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its mold." Instead, our minds are to be transformed. God is in the process of bending us and molding us into the image of Christ as we yield to him moment by moment. This momentary yielding is how we grow in obtaining the marks of a Christian.
Goodness in All People
One of the wonderful things about God is that he gives all of us, whether we follow him or not, a temperament that includes many strengths. Many non-Christians are charitable and kind and gracious. I believe that all good qualities ultimately derive from God's goodness. As James said, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father" (1:17). So there is goodness in many people—not just Christians. But the Holy Spirit does a refining work. He continually purifies our lives and makes us better than we would be without him.
What Is Conversion?
Conversion or "accepting Christ" is a matter involving action on the part of two persons—you and God. In a sense conversion is a continual process. We become more involved with Jesus day by day.
However, the act of deciding to change course in mid-life, so to speak, is what is normally referred to as conversion. It is this act that is cited as the beginning of being a Christian. When a person becomes converted, he by faith in Christ (putting his whole trust and reliance upon, confidence in, utter dependence upon him), turns toward God and away from his life of isolation and rebellion against God (Hebrews 11:1, 6; Acts 26:20).
God asks us to accept
You must turn your mind
Becoming a Christian
J. I. Packer
How does a person become a Christian? The process is not difficult to understand. It can be explained as easily as ABC:
A represents the truth that all have sinned. It calls me to admit my sins.
To be a Christian, I must acknowledge my sins.
B stands for belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. I must call on him, receive him, trust him, and worship him, recognizing who he is and what he has done for me.
C stands for something Paul requires in Romans 10:9—I must confess that the risen Christ is my Lord and Savior. That seals the transaction.
When I have admitted my sins, believed in Jesus, and confessed Christ as my Savior, I am a Christian, ready to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).
What It Means to Be Born Again
Richard Owen Roberts
Many people use the term born again carelessly. Nicodemus, they say, is the first New Testament example of a converted man. In saying this, they show that they have misread John 3.
To understand John 3, the account of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, it is crucial to look also at the last three verses of John 2: "Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man" (vv. 23-25).
The ending of chapter 2 does not seem to relate to the rest of the chapter, which tells about the marriage at Cana and the cleansing of the temple. Until you go on and read chapter 3, those three verses appear to be just dangling. But John carefully constructed his Gospel, and he didn't let odds and ends dangle without relationship or meaning. The story of Nicodemus makes the meaning of those verses clear.
In chapter 2, verses 23-25, John is making a generalization: A large number of people in Jerusalem believed in Jesus because they saw his miracles, but Jesus refused to commit himself to those people. He knew what was in their hearts. He didn't need their affirmation.
Then immediately in chapter 3 we move from this general statement to a particular example. Jesus selects an individual out of the larger group—Nicodemus.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and declares his belief in exactly the terms we would expect from one of the Jerusalem believers: "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him" (3:2).
In spite of the way evangelists and a great many others use this passage, Nicodemus is not here a converted man. Jesus didn't commit himself to the larger group, who believed in him as a result of his miracles, because he knew what was in their hearts. Nicodemus comes as their spokesman, and it is sensible to suppose that Jesus would not here commit himself to Nicodemus either.
Instead, he challenges Nicodemus's thinking and announces a great truth: "I tell you the truth, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (33).
Nicodemus's responses are not positive, believing responses, but the words of a man who doesn't understand what is being said: "How can a man be born when he is old?... Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!... How can this be?"
The telling words that indicate most clearly how this passage must be understood are verses 11 and 12: "I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?" So Jesus ends the conversation by verifying the fact that the individual, Nicodemus, is like the larger crowd in Jerusalem—he doesn't believe what he's told about Jesus and salvation.
We aren't given exact details about Nicodemus's life after his talk with Jesus, but later passages indicate warm sympathy on his part with Christ and the disciples (see John 7:50, 51; 19:38-40). It may be that he eventually became a very real believer, but in this John 3 passage it is plain that he has not yet been born again.
Here's the key: the crowd believed what they saw Jesus do, but they didn't believe what they heard Jesus say. Nicodemus believed what he saw, but not what he was told. Yet nowhere in Scripture are we told that people come to faith in Christ through the eyegate. Instead, we are told that "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). Anyone who professes to be a Christian solely because of what he has seen is in the same category as the Jerusalem group and as Nicodemus, when they had not yet heard the word in faith and believed.
If the new birth, then, is not simply seeing miraculous deeds and being impressed by them, what is it? Jesus' words in John 3 need to be taken literally. Regeneration is like physical birth. Here is an important question to ponder: What part did I play in my first birth, my physical birth?
Obviously we didn't give birth to ourselves. We didn't dictate who our parents would be. We didn't even suggest the time at which we were to be born. We in no way participated in making decisions leading to our conception or in managing the events of our birth.
It would seem incongruous to suppose that we, who had nothing to do with determining the events of our first birth, would have a great deal to do with bringing about our second birth. It seems perfectly logical to assume that, if it is the parents who are responsible for the physical birth of a child, there must be someone other than ourselves responsible for our spiritual birth.
Being born again, or regeneration, is not something I do; it's something God does. I can't enter the kingdom through sight—through seeing miraculous works. I must be born again to enter it, and the new birth is something that God must bring to pass. God is the initiator of this glorious work of salvation.
If we pay close attention to New Testament stories and terminology, we will see God's part and our part in the whole glorious process of salvation. God does the initiatory work: he awakens us and brings us to life. When he has done this, we must believe what we hear in his Word and repent of all that has displeased and grieved God. Then God will justify us through the work of Christ, the Redeemer, and we will be in the midst of the work of salvation. We will be new persons in Christ, "born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (John 1:12).
What Do All Those Words Mean?
Richard Owen Roberts
A lot of New Testament words are being thrown around loosely and used interchangably as if they all mean the same thing—words like new birth, conversion, salvation, regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification. What exactly do these words mean?
It is helpful to think of an umbrella and to call the umbrella salvation. Under the umbrella term of salvation a whole series of biblical concepts can be arranged sequentially in order of appearance in life.
As far as the individual believer is concerned, the work of salvation begins with the new birth when God quickens the person, replacing deaf ears with those that hear, blind eyes with those that see, and a heart of stone with a heart of flesh. The gospel then has meaning and the cross of Christ can be and is responded to in repentance and faith. In repentance there is a turning away from sin and in faith a turning toward the Lord Jesus Christ. In response to believing faith, God then justifies the believer and makes him legally as if he had never sinned.
At the same time he receives the spirit of adoption and knows himself to be a child of God. This inner work of God takes on outward visible aspects in a conversion or turn-around in life. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul writes, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" Obviously that can be seen. A process of growth and development then begins that is called sanctification. This is like a plant that in time produces a bud and eventually a beautiful flower is seen. Daily the Christian is to grow in the grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ until the very beauty of Jesus is seen in the life. This process must continue from the point of justification until glorification.
The process of salvation is magnificently concluded in glorification, when the person dies and enters glory, or when Christ returns in glory and gives his people their incorruptible spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15).
It is important to remember that all of these words are part of a single process called salvation. Jesus Christ is our Savior, "the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Hebrews 5:9). He is our justification, our sanctification, and our glorification.
Salvation—Past, Present, and Future
Richard Owen Roberts
Salvation begins with the new birth, but it does not end there. It is a continuing process. I was saved when God quickened me in the new birth and justified me. I am being saved as I live a life of holiness in obedience to Christ. I will be saved when I receive my glorified body and live in the presence of Christ for eternity.
How Is a Christian Different from a Non-Christian?
J. I. Packer
The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian has two focal points: One is allegiance, and the other is a change of heart at the very center of a person's being.
Let's first discuss allegiance. I use this word because no modern word is quite as strong. In the middle ages, if a man swore allegiance to the king, he was making an absolute commitment. He was putting himself entirely at the king's disposal. That is the kind of relationship to Jesus Christ that I want to talk about.
Allegiance means that the one to whom you are committing yourself is absolutely in command of you and can dispose of you in any way he wishes. This is a foreign concept to the modern person. Even in marriages nowadays, people's commitment is so weak and conditional that it doesn't make an adequate illustration of allegiance. Commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ is much stronger, not stronger than the marriage commitment ought to be, but stronger than the marriage commitment often is.
A person who is a Christian is connected to Jesus Christ—that is the point of allegiance. That is what it has meant to be a Christian ever since the days when Jesus was ministering in Galilee. The disciples actually followed Jesus in his travels. Wherever he went, they went. He was poor; they had to accept not knowing from one day to another where they were going to sleep at night. And yet, out of loyalty to him, they followed uncomplainingly wherever he went.
That pictures the kind of relationship that marks you when you become a Christian. As a Christian, you realize that Jesus is more powerful than any mere human being. You can trust him with your soul. You know what he can do for you, and you put yourself into his hands. Out of that comes allegiance.
You live as the Lord's person, subject to his command. Your commitment is motivated by love and gratitude. You know he loves you; you know he died for your sins. And you know that if you put yourself in his hands, in his love he will forgive your sins, watch over you, and bring you to glory. Your allegiance is thus a glad and joyful thing.
The other focal point of difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is that the Christian has a renewed heart. In Scripture the heart is not the organ that sends blood around the body, but rather the center of identity, the source of all motivation, purpose, and drive. That's why Scripture says, "Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (Proverbs 4:23). On the conscious level, a Christian's allegiance is drawn out by the knowledge of God's love and an understanding of his personal need. At the same time, on the unconscious level, God is at work changing the heart.
This change of heart causes a discernible difference. In John 3:8, Jesus said to Nicodemus, "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." You're aware the wind is blowing because you see its effect; but it remains a mystery. Likewise, everyone born of the Spirit shows a new purpose and direction in life. This is a mystery to the unbeliever.
A changed heart is absolutely basic to becoming a Christian. It is easy to profess faith and not be a real believer, but if a person claims to be a Christian and yet continues to live as he did before, I would doubt that the profession of faith is real. The difference is discernible if the heart, the very core of life, has been changed.
One difference in the Christian's life is that he has new attitudes. These are spelled out in Galatians 5:22, 23: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." That is the character profile of the Lord Jesus, and it is to be reproduced in believers. Each of these qualities is a way of responding to situations, and none can be there as a consistent reality unless a person's heart is changed.
Another difference is that a person with a renewed heart has changed motivations. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:31, "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." The Christian behaves in a way the non-Christian can't understand because he doesn't have the Christian's motives. The non-Christian's heart is self-regarding and self-absorbed. He only understands those motives that spring from self-centeredness. The Christian has a heart after God, a love for worship, a love of praise, and a desire to be with God's people and share with them about divine things. He is a child of God, his heavenly Father, and like any normal child, he is interested in what his Father is doing.
Third, the Christian has an interest in finding out Bible truth. He wants to learn as much as he can about his heavenly Father, and he knows in his heart that Scripture is God's Word; so he gets much joy from reading and studying it. In that way too he perplexes his unconverted friend, who again and again will say, "I don't know what makes this fellow tick."
A fourth observable difference is mentioned in 1 John 3:14: "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers." We find it natural to love our fellow Christians. Something has happened within our hearts, something that gives us a new love for God's people as an extension of our love for the God we all serve.
Finally, what marks the Christian is the desire to make the Lord known. A Christian is ready to be a witness to him.
A Christian, then, is observably different from a non-Christian. His allegiance is to God rather than to himself. His heart has been changed; he has new attitudes, motives, interest in Scripture, love for other Christians, and desire to witness. Everything in his life is in the process of being reshaped and refocused around the new center, Christ.
I'm always struck by Paul's words in Philippians 3:13, 14, "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Paul did many things in his life, but they were all integrated around Christ. In that, he is a model for every believer. We too can have lives that are integrated around the Lord—loving him, pleasing him, and glorifying him in everything we do.
Who and What Am I Supposed to Believe?
J. I. Packer
A Christian should believe everything he reads in the Bible because the Bible is the Word of God—he is the true, divine author. The Bible is God's instructions to his people. The applications change, but the essential truth of the message remains the same.
As for Christian teachings you hear in other places—at church, in books, from friends—take Paul's advice in 1 Thessalonians 5:21: "Test everything. Hold on to the good." He means you are to check everything you hear by the Scriptures, the Word of God. See if what is being said is a faithful echo of what the Bible says. If it isn't, don't believe it.
You can be a Christian by just believing the basics, even if you are ignorant of or mistaken about other truths God has revealed. You become a Christian on the basis of the essentials: admitting sin, believing in Jesus, and confessing that Jesus is your Savior. But every new Christian ought to acknowledge the Bible's authority and begin to feast on its words. They are food for his soul.
If you do not do this, ignorance and error will eventually weaken your Christian life. Soak yourself in the Scriptures, then, to make sure that mistaken notions and ignorance don't have any place in your mind. They can only do you harm.
What It Means to Repent
All my life I thought I was a pretty good guy. I did everything I thought good people did. I gave money to charity. I took care of poor people when they needed help. I was always careful to tell the truth—when I was young, my dad had lectured me that a person should never lie.
In politics, I played the game hard—it was dog eat dog—but I liked to tell myself I wasn't doing anything other than what others had done before me. Actually, I thought I was especially good: in the White House, when I was counsel to the president, I received Christmas gifts as everybody did—everything from cases of whiskey to crates of fruit—and I never kept any of them. I sent them to the limousine drivers, or the switchboard operators, or other White House staffers because I wanted to be incorruptible. When I went to the White House, I left a six-figure law practice to go to work for forty thousand dollars a year. I put everything into a blind trust so that I couldn't be corrupted.
So I looked at my life and thought, When I die, if there is a God [and I wasn't sure there was, but I figured there must be], I won't fare too badly because I'm not much different from anybody else. I reckoned God was like a college professor—he would grade on a curve.
Then I encountered an old friend, Tom Phillips, and he had changed. He told me about Jesus Christ and what he had done in his life. And, as Tom talked, I saw I wasn't so good after all. I saw that I was full of pride, that I had done some ugly things in politics, that I had hurt people, and that I hadn't felt any remorse over it. I came to realize that I was cold and hard and tough. By the time I reached Tom's driveway to leave his house that night in August 1973, I felt unclean for the very first time in my life. And I wanted to be clean, to live by different standards, to be pure. It was no longer enough that I wasn't any worse than anybody else. I sincerely wanted to know what it was to have a pure heart. I wanted to be cleansed, forgiven, to have a new start.
I had never heard the phrase "regeneration in the Lord." I'd never heard of being "born again." I was simply convinced that I was a sinful person who needed to be forgiven by God. I was, for the first time, under the conviction of sin.
I don't believe it is possible for a person to be regenerated until the Holy Spirit has convicted that person of sin. Man can't be moral on his own. Given a choice, we will always choose the sinful way. I thought I was a moral person, but it wasn't until the moral person died that the Spirit of God could come to work in me. I love what William James said: "The death of a moral man is his spiritual birthday."
This is gravely misunderstood in the Church today. We preach about a new birth without mentioning the death of the old self first. What brings about the death of the old self is the awareness of sin. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes about this in the second volume of The Gulag Archipelago, where he speaks of reflecting on his life and realizing all of the things he had done that were really evil when he thought he was doing good.
The conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit is the beginning. Without it, we cannot understand our need for God, and we cannot understand God's grace. We must not ever leave that out of our preaching, teaching, or understanding of Christianity. To omit it is to trivialize the work of Christ on the cross.
Conviction of sin leads to repentance. If I were asked today to name the one doctrine of the Christian faith being preached about the least, I would have to say repentance. Repentance means change, and we don't want to threaten people with the need to change.
Repentance is commonly thought of as breast-beating, but it is not that at all. The Greek word used in the New Testament is metanoeo, which means, very simply, "change of mind." When you come to God, you have a change of mind, from exalting yourself to exalting Christ. Repentance means turning from man's ways to embrace God's ways. It means a desire to be different, to belong to Christ and to live as he commands us to live. Repentance, then, is the flip-side of conviction of sin—it is the longing to turn away from the old self and to live a new life in Christ.
In my own life, repentance meant that I wanted to adopt new values. I wanted to be forgiven of what I'd done in the past and not continue doing those things, but rather be led by the Spirit to the kinds of things that God wants from my life. There is a certain sorrow that goes with repentance, a sorrow over your sins, a desire to restore where you have done harm in the past. One thing I did was to apologize to some of the people I had hurt in politics. I went to them to seek their forgiveness because I realized that God had forgiven me and I should seek to restore my relationships with people I had injured. Some of them remained cynical about me. They had been political enemies, and they thought my seeking forgiveness was some sort of ploy. Some did not understand it. Others were deeply affected by it. And some people had trouble accepting my repentance. They would say, "Sure, I forgive you," but they were very uncomfortable because it convicted them as well.
A prime case of repentance leading to restoration is the well-known case of Cathleen Webb, who falsely accused Gary Dotson of raping her. When she came under the conviction of sin—six years later—she realized that she had to recant her story and tell the truth. You can just imagine the pain that was involved for that young girl in coming forward with the truth. I met with her, and I know that her decision was a moving of the Spirit. She was left with no choice but to confess.
That's what happens when the conviction of sin leads to repentance. The yearning for God's cleansing is so strong that we cannot find peace until we have accepted that "change of mind" and begin to walk in the new life with the Lord.
How can I be sure Jesus is my Savior and Lord?
One way is through the explosion of joy and excitement I feel when I read Scripture. That happens when God is speaking to me through Scripture. It could not happen if I didn't know Christ.
Another way I know is by the sense of God's presence I have when I'm alone. When I travel overseas and the bed is empty, God is there. In the hospital room, God is there.
Christians who have never felt God speaking to them and putting his arms around them in the lonely times may not really know him. Walking with God is not a theological matter; it is experiential. It is a response, a feeling, an emotion. There is emotion in every other relationship I have, and there is also emotion in my relationship with God.
The question arises because we don't always feel saved. There will be times in our Christian walk when we don't feel close to God, when we don't feel like being Christians, when we just feel the Christian "blahs."
But our salvation is not based on feelings. We didn't need strong faith to be saved; we just needed faith. We don't need warm feelings to be sure God is with us; we just need faith.
When you feel this way, ask yourself two questions: (1) Do I really believe what God says it takes to be saved (John 3:16)? (2) Was I sincere when I asked Jesus to come into my life? If you can say yes, then you're ready to look into God's Word and find assurance for your faith.
You have salvation and eternal life because of what Jesus Christ did for you (1 John 5:11, 12). God has shown his love for you by giving eternal life (Romans 5:8). Your sins are covered and you have his Holy Spirit (1 Peter 3:18).
If you received him, you are his child (John 1:12). When you believe in Jesus Christ you have eternal life and you stand guiltless before God (John 5:24). No one can take you away from him (John 10:27-29).
You have begun a new life (2 Corinthians 5:17). You may not always feel new and different, but you can trust in God's promises to you.
How Long Does Conversion Take?
Regeneration happens in a moment. The process of becoming a Christian, however, may take a long time. I deal with many people in prison who have made professions of faith, and I know God has regenerated them, but they live in agony, subjected to every kind of pressure and temptation. They struggle and fight back, and they get up again and keep going. They are prayed over and they pray; they fall back into sin and they get up. Their conversion is taking a long time, and a lot of pain and struggle go into it.
Some other conversions happen on a modern-day Damascus Road. But don't forget that Paul went off for three years after his Damascus Road experience to be taught by the Lord. Although people think of his conversion as a blinding flash, that experience was the moment of regeneration. His conversion took years.
We become Christians when God's regenerative Spirit moves in our lives. Conversion means we are changing from one thing to another, and the process of change is not instantaneous. Sanctification goes on all of our lives. If you encounter people who think they have arrived at a spiritual plateau where they have become fully sanctified, you'd better stay clear of them; they're usually very dangerous.
Some people grow up in the faith in Christian homes. They've never known anything different. God regenerates them and their conversion is painless. Other people go through very difficult, tormenting experiences. I don't think that one experience is more significant than the other. My own conversion was rather dramatic, but that is only an advantage to me because, in a sense, I have lived two lives. In the secular world, I felt what life is like without Christ. I saw the corruption of power and success. Today I can look at the secular world I was once part of and critique it from a Christian perspective. I can also look at the Christian world as a relative newcomer and see what some brothers and sisters, who don't really know what it means to surrender all to God, are missing. I pray God can use my two lives to challenge other believers and to challenge nonbelievers to see the bankruptcy of life without Christ.
How Much Do I Have to Believe?
I was talking with a missionary doctor once who said that in his judgment good work was being done on the mission field, but there was one serious lack. "We want so much to win people to Christ," he told me, "that we water down the gospel. We make it too easy to become Christ's follower. People don't see the need to change their lives."
Not only is that a problem on the mission field. It also describes much of Christianity in America. Often what passes for Christianity isn't real Christianity at all.
But how much does an individual have to believe to become a Christian? That's an honest question. Obviously no one understands everything about the faith. Since we can be saved by understanding only a part of faith, which part is necessary?
People have been saved with very limited knowledge of Christian truth. That's because salvation depends on a person's being born again. If God has done a work of grace in the heart, even in the heart of a very young child or in the heart of someone who is mentally retarded, the person is still saved.
I heard a story that illustrates this. Years ago an orphanage in Scotland catered to mentally retarded children. Along with Bible stories, the children were taught a little nursery rhyme with hand motions. It went like this: "Three in one and one in three, the one in the middle he died for me." To signify the three persons of God in one, the children held up one finger followed by three fingers. Then the children would put their hand around the middle finger for "the one in the middle he died for me."
One youngster couldn't even talk. He would listen to the Bible stories and these rhymes, but no one knew if he understood. Then one night, the orphanage caught on fire. After the fire had been put out, this child was found dead, asphyxiated by smoke. But the child was found clutching his middle finger.
So how little does a person have to understand to be saved? Perhaps it is as minimal as that—to know that you are a sinner and that Jesus Christ, the Second Person in the Trinity, the Son of God, died for you.
That is a perfectly valid answer. Millions of people have been saved by understanding precisely that. But although Jesus begins where we are, he's never satisfied with the minimum. If we're to be real followers of Christ, we must give up everything. We must follow him wholeheartedly. We cannot hold back a single portion of ourselves.
Some people say that as heirs of the Reformation, all we need to understand is the simple gospel. But the simple gospel is really not all that simple. The three principles of the Reformation, sola scriptura (the Bible alone), sola fides (faith alone), and sola gratia (grace alone), are quite rigorous.
1. Scripture alone. To stand for Scripture alone, we stand for the Word of God over and above human opinion, especially when human opinion is contrary to what the Scripture teaches.
We must subordinate our thoughts and inclinations to the authority of the Word of God. We must "demolish... every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God," and we must "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). We must hold all our thoughts and beliefs up to the standard of Scripture.
2. Faith alone. Faith alone is not mere intellectual assent to certain doctrines. It is personal trust in the One who is our Savior and Lord. We have to give up confidence in ourselves in order to trust him. We must reorient our entire lives.
3. Grace alone. To live by grace alone is to give up our own self-righteousness. We cannot rely on our own goodness. We have to relinquish the pride we have in our own works.
When we think through the implications of the faith, we see there is a tremendously high price to pay. Christ requires absolutely everything from us.
Some people will still want to know what they have to do to be a Christian. As a Christian I can no longer count myself as a good person. I have to see myself as a person that has broken all of God's laws and is under his just wrath and condemnation. I have to pay the price of my self-righteousness. I can't cling to the sins I cherish. But in their place I gain the holiness that Christ gives, and "without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14).
As I have studied all of Christ's sayings in the Gospels about what it means to be his follower, I've been impressed that when people came to him, he did not treat them the way most of us treat inquirers today.
Take his interview with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-25). The rich young man was earnest and moral, and he knew the law. If most of us were confronted by an individual like that, we would tell him salvation is simple: you recognize you are a sinner, and you trust Christ.
But that's not what Jesus did. Jesus challenged the man's conception of God and brought him up against the law. He exposed the young man's sin and pressed commitment upon him. Jesus did this to the point that the man's wealth became a barrier. He had to give it all up if he wanted to follow Christ.
Jesus wasn't interested in making it easy to follow him. He didn't minimize what it took to enter the kingdom of God. He did the exact opposite. He made sure people understood they were getting into a whole new way of life, a whole new way of thinking. He wanted them to know that if they followed him, they would never be the same.
Lip Service or Life Service?
We are afraid of making it so difficult to become a Christian that people will reject Christianity. But what is the greatest danger? To show how difficult it really is or to tell people they are saved when they are not? I think the second is worse.
This is happening today. People give lip service to the faith. We accept their faith even if we don't see differences in their lives. We tell them, "As long as you believe these things, you are going to go to heaven." But what if they have not been born again? Then we're telling them they are all right when they are on their way to hell.
So how can we have an assurance of salvation? It is only by a change of life. It is by faith's fruit. Real faith will produce a new attitude toward sin, and as we become conformed to Christ's image, we will grow in our assurance that we are saved.
Some people submit their lives to Christ but still struggle with biblical doctrines. Are they Christians?
When we don't understand something in the Bible we can choose between two different approaches. One approach is to admit that we don't understand it and ask God to show us if and where we are wrong. If that is our attitude, we are saved, but questioning.
A person taking the other approach says, "Well, that's what the Bible says, but it is just the Bible. I can believe something entirely different." That person probably does not have the mind of Christ.
If we are born again, the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts. The Holy Spirit has also inspired the Bible, so the Spirit within us ought to testify to the Spirit that speaks from its pages.
What You Know vs. How You Grow
J. I. Packer
In order to become a Christian, one must believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ. The Gospels make it impossible, however, to equate this with precise knowledge of specific doctrines. When Jesus was ministering on earth, people became Christians with very little understanding. They believed Jesus was from God; they recognized him as the One who leads his followers to glory, they loved him, and they wanted to be his people. Their lives were changed by their relationship in Christ though they had no deep understanding of all the truths about him. This shows that we have to be careful before we say, "You can't become a Christian unless you understand all the doctrines."
Nevertheless, the doctrines need to be explained. For example, the human heart is inclined to believe you can become a Christian by your own works. Therefore most of us will never get clear what it means to trust ourselves to Christ until we are taught justification by faith. We need to understand that Jesus took our place under God's judgment, and that because of this, and only this, our sins are forgiven, and without this we should be lost.
The idea of salvation by works has such a strong hold on most people's minds that they won't understand what it means to commit themselves to Christ until this truth about the atoning death of Jesus and God's acceptance of them for his sake becomes clear to them. Only those who know that without Christ they are "guilty, vile, and helpless" (as the hymn says) will ever trust him wholeheartedly.
How a Christian Grows