Many people today move towards the Christian faith gradually. Maybe they have friends who are Christians, with whom they talk. They start to attend a local church. Maybe they attend a course such as Christianity Explored or Alpha. Gradually, things come alive for them. The God they talk about seems more real; they understand more of the Bible when they read it; the worship is something they're glad to join in with; church is somewhere they belong.
Many readers of this blog will be able to identify with just such a gradual move towards the Christian faith.
However, when it boils down to it, being a Christian is something binary. You either are, or you aren't, a follower of Jesus.
So I want to think for a few moments how you reconcile that gradual move with the black and white reality of becoming a Christian. I'm not so interested in reconciling them in theory. Rather, I'm thinking in practice. If you're reading this as someone who's been moving towards Jesus and his church for some time, how do you make sure that you arrive at your destination.
I'm a mathematician by background. We mathmos would put it this way: How do you make sure your growth towards knowing Jesus is not asymptotic — you get closer and closer to following him without ever actually getting there?
The Good News of Jesus
First, let's make sure we're all clear what the good news of Jesus is. This is not the place to develop this fully. I regularly give talks at which I explain who Jesus is, why he came, and what he means to follow him. I'd highly recommend finding a church that runs Christianity Explored, and signing up for that course. It's free, and it looks at Mark's account of the life of Jesus, with scope to ask any question. If you read, I still find John Chapman's book A Fresh Start accessible and clear. (If you live in Kemsing, I keep a stash, and would love to give you a copy). Or visit the Two Ways to Live website for a very simple pictorial summary.
But all the same, let me summarise here.
1. Revelation 4:11. There is one God. Without getting stuck on the question of how he did so, we can say that he made everything. He is morally perfect and perfectly good. As our maker, he is in charge, and has every right to tell us how to live our lives. He also has the right to be the one our lives are built around, the most important reality that shapes us.
2. Romans 3:23. However, we do not treat God as he deserves. We break his laws, and instead set ourselves up as though we were in charge. We live as though we were god, and not as though God is god. God is infinitely beautiful, but other things captivate our hearts more than he does.
3. Acts 17:30-31. God is perfectly just and fair, and cannot turn a blind eye to such flagrant rebellion. He is kind, and gives us time to amend our ways, but he has set a day when he will judge each one of us. Every wrong will be punished justly, which leaves all of us in deep trouble.
4. Isaiah 53:5-6. God is also perfectly loving and merciful. In the person of Jesus, God himself became a human being. He alone lived the perfect life that nobody else has. He was then executed on a Roman cross, where God the Father abandoned him. He was carrying on his own shoulders the failings of every one of his people, going through the darkness and punishment that we deserved, in our place.
5. 1 Corinthians 15:20. Jesus did not stay dead. On the third day, he rose back to life, and he's still alive today. As the living God, he was already in charge of all; he is now doubly so, victorious even over death. Because he is alive, we can know him for ourselves. We can hear his voice as we read the Bible; we can talk to him and he will hear. This means we can trust him for forgiveness, and live for him as our lord and master. Jesus being raised gives us confidence that, one day, all who are joined to him will also be raised from death.
6. John 3:3. John 3:18. This leaves each of us with a choice. As things stand, we are in deep trouble. We are guilty, and one day there will be a judgement at which we will be found guilty. We don't need to do anything to be condemned — our lives already fall short of God's perfection. But the invitation stands: Jesus invites us to recognise him as the world's true king, to proclaim him as our lord, and to trust him for forgiveness. All who do that are born again, a new beginning so radical it's like starting life all over again. We can be absolutely certain of his forgiveness in the present, the gift of his Holy Spirit to change us from within, and the promise that we will be accepted into glory when Jesus returns as judge.
How to become a Christian …
Back to where we began. With an invitation as good as that, how do we accept it?
It's very simple. All you need to do is to speak to the risen Jesus and tell him you'd like to begin to follow him. You can speak aloud if you like, or just say the words silently inside your own head. There's no particular formula of words you must use — this is not magic, it's the beginning of a new relationship. I was always taught that there are 3 components to such a prayer: Sorry, thank you, please. These days, I like to make it 4, and add another "thank you" on the end.
Dear Lord Jesus:
- Sorry — that I've lived in rebellion to you, and not treated you as you deserve.
- Thank you — for dying in my place so that I can be forgiven.
- Please — forgive me for all I've done wrong, and allow me to live with you in charge from now on.
- Thank you — that you have heard this prayer, and promise your Holy Spirit to change and transform me.
Back to the specific question: How do you do this gradually but still get there? I simply want to share the wisdom of a friend of mine who helped me at the age of 15. Here's what happened:
I was brought up a Christian, and I regularly thank God for giving me parents who brought me up in a home where the gospel was the air we breathed. I never rebelled against that in a dramatic way. But as the years passed, I became clearer who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. I knew that I wanted to be a follower of his.
At school, we were having a week of events. A visiting speaker was in school, and each evening the good news of Jesus was being explained. At the end of each evening, he would pray a simple prayer aloud, like the one I outlined above. He would leave space between each line, so that those who wanted could echo the prayer in their own hearts. This, he said, was a prayer any of us could pray if we wished to become a Christian.
I was in a dilemma. I knew I wanted to be a Christian, but I didn't know if I needed to become one. I didn't know if I was already a Christian. Here was a prayer that I could pray to start as a Christian, but did I need to pray such a prayer or not?
I imagine that is how many feel, if they've moved gradually towards following Jesus. You reach the point where you know you want to follow Jesus, but don't know if you already are or you still need to begin.
My mistake, I think, was that I'd over mechanised becoming a Christian. Maybe I was slightly thinking of the prayer as "doing the magic", and it would be wrong to pray such a prayer unnecessarily. I don't know, as I can't remember. But I do remember talking to my friend, GPH, and explaining my dilemma. He said this:
"When Shaun leads that prayer tonight, why don't you say to God, 'If this is something I need to do, then please can I start now.' Then pray the prayer inside your own head as Shaun leads it through. Ink in your commitment to follow Jesus, then you'll know where you stand."
And so I did. 15th March, 1989.
Was that the date I became a Christian? I don't know. I doubt it. I suspect I had been a Christian for a long time before that. But that was the date from which I was absolutely certain. From then on, I know I have been a Christian.
Don't mishear me. There have been times when I've not felt terribly Christian. In some seasons, I've drifted from God. At other times, it's simply that our feelings are a less reliable guide than the promises of God. But I can look back to that date: From that date on, I've known where I stood.
Does this describe you? Do you need to ink in that commitment? Why not do it today.
When you pray a prayer like that, either as a sudden new beginning or as the culmination of several years, tell someone that you've done it. John Chapman always gave the advice that the first person you tell should be someone who will be pleased to hear the news!
Following Jesus is not meant to be a lone enterprise. We need other Christians around us, to support us, encourage us, pray with us, teach us. If you haven't already done so, join a local church. Don't look for one where everyone is perfect, as you'll never find one. Do look for one where the people love each other, and where the Bible is clearly taught week by week.
Jesus taught, the first apostles practiced, and the church has always lived, that public baptism is the way into the Christian life.
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’" (Matthew 28:19-20)
"Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day." (Acts 2:41)
"At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptised. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole household." (Acts 16:33-34)
How does this relate to what I've just been saying? Well, I could probably write several blog posts on that subject, so just two remarks.
On the one hand, being baptised is not a substitute for what I've been saying. Baptism is a sign that someone is a follower of Jesus. It is perfectly possible to have the sign, but not the reality that it signifies. You may be baptised, but that does not mean that you therefore have no need to trust Jesus for yourself. And the invitation I've just given you, to pray a prayer to start to follow Jesus, is simply an invitation for you to trust Jesus personally. Baptism makes that no less necessary. In fact, it makes it all the more necessary, as I one thing you should run from is being a baptised unbeliever.
On the other hand, baptism is the public sign that someone is a follower of Jesus. If you've never been baptised, and you wish to follow Jesus, then be baptised.
"Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38)
"Repentance" is the inner response of trust in Jesus, when we turn from all we know to be wrong, and decide to live a life of trust in and obedience to him. "Baptism" is the counterpart to that, the public statement that you are a follower of Jesus. The two go together, and if you've not been baptised but you have started to repent and trust Jesus, it's time to follow that up with baptism. I've already counselled you to join a church. If you need to be baptised, please speak to the leaders of your church about this.
Over to you!
I thank God that lots of people are exploring the Christian faith, taking their time to ask questions and to feel their way into a new life with Jesus. Nobody is 90% a follower of Jesus. Some follow him, and others don't — we're all one or the other. If you've been moving towards him for some time, have you reached the point where you know you want to follow him, even if there has never been a big moment of decision?
If so, don't leave things to chance. Why not end the uncertainty of whether you're a follower of his or not? Wouldn't today be a good day to ink in that commitment.