The classic version of this question is “What must I do to be saved?” , but the answer to it is the same.
We need to understand what we mean by “Christian”. Many people believe themselves to be Christians, but you do not become a Christian by being christened as a baby, being brought up in a Christian home, going regularly to Church, doing good deeds, keeping the Ten Commandments, loving your neighbour, or putting lots of money into the Lord’s work. You do not even become a Christian by believing in one God-the devil also believes, and tremble.
According to the Bible the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. A disciple is one who follows a particular teacher, obeying him and following his teachings, in other words, making that teacher lord of his life. So to become a Christian means to become a disciple of Jesus Christ, that is, make Him Lord of your life. To understand that, we need to find out what things He commanded and what things He taught.
And we are told He began His teaching ministry with a proclamation:
Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.
Jesus not only told us what to do, He told us what order to do it in. We must believe certain truths that lead us to Heaven but the first command is not that we believe, but that we repent. First we repent, then we believe the gospel, and what we believe causes us to be born again. This Biblical language defines the three things that must happen before we can claim to be disciples of Jesus. And of the three, only the first is within in our power.
1 Repent. This means more than being sorry. It means turning away from my present life and towards God. To repent is to be like a driver who comes to one of those blue signs on the motorway and follows the leftward arrow, leaving the motorway behind, and goes in a new direction towards a new destination. And the road he is now on takes him further and further from the way he was heading, this is a new road, and as we shall see, a new life. It will not be an easy road like the one he was on, for as Jesus said to His disciples:
…wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait (ie constricted) is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
This is signed as “single track road with passing places”, steep and rugged, a way of cattle grids and deep fords, it passes through hostile country yet he meets good friends along the way, it is sometimes bleak and industrial and yet sometimes a view of great beauty will surprise him as he crosses the brow of some hill. This is the road to heaven.
He will tell his friends what he has done, and when they say, “What’s all this sin you’re on about?” he will cite some salacious aspect of his life, something of which he is now ashamed, and they say, “So what? Everyone does that.” People don’t like to be called sinners. Millions of people lead respectable lives, paying their mortgages and their taxes, making their children do their homework, being faithful to their wives or husbands, hardly ever swearing, never smoking or getting drunk and probably giving to Oxfam. They may even go regularly to Church, and they unhesitatingly ticked “Christian” on their Census forms. And yet the Bible says they are sinners, just as surely as the most drunken, promiscuous, drug-addled gambler who ever fought in the streets is a sinner, for the verdict of the Bible is:
… ALL have sinned, and come short of the glory of God…
God’s definition of sin is more stringent than our own! When Christians talk of sin, they mean falling short of God’s standards, not man’s. God is so holy that nothing we can do can make us worthy to approach Him. Joshua told the people: “Ye cannot serve the Lord, for he is an holy God.” .
We even come short of our own standards, and there comes a time in the life of every man (or woman) where he realises that. Some deed, some fault in his life, or some loathsome bluebottle of a thought buzzing persistently through his mind, exposes his spiritual poverty. He experiences a profound dissatisfaction with his life, which may even amount to self-loathing. He is powerless to do good, and he feels he is on a downward slope that gets steeper and darker with every step, like those lanes in the country that dive steeply between high banks into darkness. It’s then that he turns from the way he was on and towards God.
This is what is called repentance from sin.
2. Believe. Having repented, the would-be Christian has now to believe the Gospel. In that collection of inspired books we call the Bible there are four which style themselves Gospels because each of them records its own aspect of what Jesus started His ministry by commanding us to believe.
What that Gospel is we shall see in a moment, but first we must understand what we mean by “believe”, and how we come to believe it. Consider Satnav! A recorded voice says “In two hundred yards, turn left.” And in two hundred yards the driver turns left. He doesn’t stop in a lay-by and check with his map that the Satnav is correct. He turns left, unhesitatingly, because he believes what his instruments tell him. That is how we are to believe the Gospel. We can believe intellectually that it true, but we cannot claim to believe it until we rely implicitly on what it says. This kind of believing is called faith.
How it was that we came to believe in this way is specifically revealed in the Bible: So then faith cometh by hearing, (literally “what is heard”) and hearing by the word of God. We came to believe because we heard the message of Christ. The preaching of the Gospel is the very thing that enabled us to believe the Gospel.
One of the Biblical writers, Paul, tells us: ..by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: He means that saving faith, that is the faith that saves us from our sins, is given to us by God. We were able to repent, but when we set out to believe, we found we could not do it. It was something only God could enable us to do. Faith is a gift from God, so that now when we hear the Gospel, we believe it. Someone may tell you he cannot believe the things you believe, and he would be right. The unaided human mind cannot understand, let alone believe. Never take credit for believing the Gospel- before God opened our understanding, preaching the Gospel to us was like reading poetry to a Labrador!
Not only is the human mind unable to believe the Gospel without God’s help, so too is the human heart closed to the Gospel until He opens it. We just could not receive it, until the Lord did for us what He did for a certain woman, who the Bible describes as Lydia…whose heart the Lord opened.
But when God opens our minds and hearts to believe the Gospel it becomes more than a mere statement of facts. It has power to change lives. It is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.
The word Gospel is the Anglo-Saxon god-spel, “good news.” (In the original Greek of the Bible the word is Evangelion, which incidentally is why we called this church “Evangel.”) The good news answers the bad news. The bad news was Heaven is barred to all who have ever sinned, from the “vilest offender” down to someone whose life is exemplary except that he is not a believer, barred so that nothing awaits the unbeliever but the eternal torment we call Hell.
The Gospel starts with a statement by Jesus in a clandestine meeting with a rabbi called Nicodemus:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Jesus, the Man talking to the rabbi, was that only begotten Son. He was, and is, the Son of God, the one in Whom to believe. This does not mean simply to believe He existed. Most people believe that. It means we so completely believe that He is who the Bible says He is, and did what the Bible says He did, that we will turn our lives over to Him, like the man turning left when his Satnav told him to.
And if we believe that, then we shall not perish. We shall have everlasting life of a kind not even dreamed of, for it will be with God. But we must be aware that to accomplish this He gave His only begotten Son. If we understood the nature of sin we would know it deserved death. Justice demands that as all men have sinned all men should pay that penalty, but no man could ever pay it. So God elected to die in our place. He became a man in order to pay the penalty owed by all men. But only a sinless One could take away our sin, since if He had had sin, who would there be to take it away? So He became a sinless man by being born of a Virgin, and we who should not perish must believe in Him. And as sin is inconceivably horrible in God’s eyes, then He had to die in an inconceivably horrible way. So much did He love the world!
How should we not perish? It is because Jesus, who was, and is, both God and Man, took on Himself the penalty for our sin. This happened in a way foretold many centuries before it happened. God spoke by His prophets, and the record of what they said, the prophecies, is preserved for us in the Hebrew Bible we call the Old Testament. Possibly the most moving of all the prophecies is the one given out by Isaiah, part of which says:
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes (wounds from scourging) we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
This is the very heart of the Gospel. God knew when He created us that we would sin. And in the act of creating us He knew His love would constrain Him to become a man and suffer the horrible death that was our due. This is the Gospel which we must believe. For our sakes, Jesus tasted death. The One who knew no sin took our sin upon Himself and tasted death so that you and I could have eternal life.
If you taste something, you really experience it. You don’t taste vinegar by sniffing it. You take it into your mouth. And the death that Jesus tasted surpassed in horror even the death of his body. It was death in the Spirit. When Jesus died, he tasted the death that was ours to taste. According to Scripture:
Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? The torment of Hell is the one Adam and Eve tasted when they were exiled from Eden, banishment from God, cast away from all that was holy, all that was good, to share eternity with everyone and everything that was evil, and be tormented by the loss of all that was holy and good. That is what Jesus took upon Himself when He died on the Cross.
But the Gospel would not be complete if it left Jesus in the tomb, for a dead Christ could not give us eternal life. The Apostle Peter, preaching from Psalms, said of Jesus: …thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. It is an essential part of the Gospel that Jesus was raised from the dead. Because He lives, we shall live also. Our bodies will be redeemed from decay, so like Him we shall be raised from the dead, and through Him we are saved from the everlasting exile called Hell.
Jesus will come again, this time as Judge of all mankind. But He is like no earthly judge. He is the only judge ever to pay the penalty for the guilty. We were guilty, and worthy of death, but He tasted death for us all, and as it says in Romans:
(He) was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification
Justification is not a word we meet every day, at least not in the Biblical sense. Someone wrote that justification meant it was Just..(as) if I’d never sinned. That’s bad etymology, but it contains a vital truth. The exile is over. Our sins have been paid for by the precious blood of Jesus, and they are become as if they had never been. God banished us when He banished our ancestor Adam. Now He welcomes us back in Christ. He loves to be with us, and we love to be with Him.
The Gospel which we are called upon to believe starts with For God so loved the world. And it is completed with He was raised for our justification. If we believe that, there is only one thing we can do. We receive Him into our life. The Bible says: …as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name. The only thing we can do is receive Him.
And what can become the sons of God mean but “be born again?”
3. Be born again.
As in the case of the saving faith, we have no power to be born again, any more than we had power to be born when we were in the womb. God causes it to happen when we receive Him. This was what perplexed Nicodemus. The dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus is preserved in Scripture, and here is part of it:
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
When someone receives Jesus they become a new creature (creation). There is no continuity between their old identity and their new. They have a new awareness of God. Memories of past sins will rise up to accuse them, but those sins are no longer part of them, they have been taken by Jesus on the Cross, and God keeps his promise that I will remember their sin no more .
You have been born into a new life, a new existence. You have entered into eternal life, and one thing you will never taste is death. You can pray a prayer to receive Jesus, and be born again. But before you pray it, there is a further thing He commands you to do.
4. The cost of discipleship.
We have defined a Christian as a disciple of Christ. Discipleship involves following your Lord and learning of Him. The immediately joyful aspect of discipleship is that we are befriended by Jesus. As with any true friend, it is a delight just be with Him and enjoy His presence, because time with a friend doesn’t have to be about anything for it to be a delight. But there is a cost, and He bids us count it. In our motorway simile, when the driver repented he turned on to a rougher road.
There is no small print in the Gospel. Jesus did not hide the cost of discipleship, and He was speaking, not to a few, but to a great crowd, when He said:
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple
This obviously cannot mean a Christian must evince a strong personal dislike of his family, nor that he become suicidal. We are still commanded to honour our father and mother. What He means is that He has a greater claim on us even than the holiest of earthly ties, even than life itself. If we follow Him we turn our back on every aspect of our old life that was not of Him, even things that are precious to those we love. Some people have to offend their families by renouncing their ancestral religion, ungodly traditions and superstitions, or the cult they grew up in. In some countries turning to Christ still results in a martyr’s death. In all countries it can result in ostracism. So following Him involves going the way He went, even to the Cross. He went on to say:
And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple..
This imagery would be more shocking to His hearers than it is to us. There were roads in ancient Galilee that were avenues of crosses where rebels had been executed, the remains of them still nailed to the wood. Taking up your cross means the death of your old self, with his desires and ambitions. “Not my way, but thine!”
Old ways, old desires, will try to pull you back. Jesus may have you renounce things that were dear to you, possibly even loves, that He has forbidden. But you are a new man in Christ, and the old man, your own self, is “not to be resuscitated.” This may sound harsh, but it is not. In your new life as a Christian you will have as a Friend the One who will lead you to Heaven. And you will be led, not by a mere Satnav, but by the Holy Spirit, speaking to you directly and through the most important means of communication there is between God and man, namely the Word of God, which we call the Bible.
After reading all this, do you still want to become a Christian? Then repent, believe the Gospel, and receive Jesus into your heart:
Lord Jesus Christ, thank You for coming to earth to die for me, I confess that I am a sinner and have done many wrong things that don’t please You. I have lived my life for myself. I am sorry and I repent.
I know I need You in my life. I ask You to forgive me. Come into my life now, Lord. Live in me and be my King, my Lord, and my Saviour.
From this day forward, I want to live to please You and follow You all the days of my life. Help me to live every day in a way that pleases you.
Thank You for saving me now. Thank You, Lord Jesus, for forgiving me and assuring me that I will spend all eternity with You in heaven.
And you will have help on the way. You will have the fellowship of the Church, which is the people of God. You will have the Bible. And you will have the constant presence of Jesus, Who will never leave thee nor forsake thee .