Am I A Christian?

A friend sent me a message on Facebook the other day, asking me about my thoughts in regard to a portion of a recent interview between Timothy Keller and a self-proclaimed doubting Christian, Nicholas Kristof, entitled, “Am I A Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?”  The gist of Kristof’s argument was, is it necessary for a Christian to believe the basic tenets of the Christian faith to be a Christian?  That this is deemed a valid question, seems absurd to me.  However, as absurd of a question as this may sound on the surface, I can see the value in its debate, especially in our current age of “cafeteria style” Christianity.

Questioning whether or not you have to believe the basic tenets of Christianity to be a Christian, is truly absurd, but questioning just exactly what makes a person a Christian, is a concept I feel worthy of debate.  At what point do we cross the Rubicon of eternal salvation in Christ?  Where, exactly, is the delineation on the event horizon between eternal damnation and eternal salvation?  Not only do I find these questions worthy of our consideration, but I also find them necessary at this point in Christendom.  A point, it seems, where anything goes as long as you have an intellectual awareness of Christ and repeated a prayer, or as long as you’ve been baptized and go to church, or as long as you’ve done one or the other, or all.   A point at which current evangelism says that as long as you do “A”, “B”, “C” and “D”, you are forever-locked into the kingdom of God.  A point at which people are told that simple acknowledgment of Christ is enough to inherit eternal life.

When I study scripture, I marvel that Jesus seemed to deftly avoid the “grocery list” of necessary tasks people sought from Him to define the path of eternal life.  Every time someone asked Jesus what they must do, He seemed to give a different answer:

– We must be born again (John 3:3-6)

– We must be converted (Matt 18:3)

– We must be obedient (Matt 7:21)

– We must not commit adultery, murder, or theft; we must not lie and we must honor our parents (Luke 18:21)

– We must forsake our possessions and follow Him (Luke 18:22)

– We must hate our life in this world (John 12:25)

– We must serve and follow Him (John 12:26)

– We must believe in Him (John 7:38)

– We must keep His word (John 8:51)

– We must drink the Living Water of Christ (John 4:14)

– We must live in Him (John 11:26)

He did this because the only way to eternal life is through a personal relationship with Him, which must be sought with our whole heart, rather than works of our own effort checked off like items on a grocery list.  It is not that scripture is in error when it says that we must only believe in Christ to be saved, but rather, it is our understanding of what it means to believe.  When scripture tells us that we must believe in Christ, the implications of such a belief is to acknowledge Him as Lord.  And the only proper response a human being can have when they acknowledge Christ as Lord, is to surrender to His Lordship.

Jesus said, “For it is My Father’s will that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40).  Yet we are told by James, “You believe that God is one. Good for you! Even the demons believe that, and shudder!” (James 2:19).  The demons believe in God and shudder, yet they are not saved.  And yes, I am aware that Christ died to save men and not demons, but I feel it is worthy to note what is being articulated here by the dual use of the word “belief”.  The Greek word translated in the New Testament as “belief” is the word “PISTEUO”.  It is the context of the use of this word that determines its meaning, whether a belief of simple intellectual acknowledgment or a belief that leads to submissive faith.  A belief of simple affirmation versus a belief of trustful surrender.  James differentiates a belief based on simple affirmation from a belief that leads to trustful surrender when he goes on to say, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:20).  Not only is James referring to a faith that results in bearing fruit for God’s kingdom, but also a saving faith in Christ that is willing to conform to His authority and will, rather than a faith that is defined by simple intellectual acknowledgement of a certain list of beliefs.

Is it necessary for a person to believe in the basic tenets of Christianity to be a Christian?  Absolutely.  The definition of any religious movement is a belief in a certain set of fundamental tenets.  If you do not believe in the set of tenets that define that religious movement, then find another faith that is more appealing to your intellect and personal motives.  Does belief in the basic tenets of Christianity make a person a Christian?  Absolutely not.  Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matt 7:21-23).  Salvation is by faith alone, in Christ alone, but our faith must be one of surrender, rather than one of simple acknowledgement.

At what exact point in our belief do we cross over the Rubicon into God’s kingdom?  What is the defining moment of transcendence from eternal spiritual death, to eternal spiritual life in Christ?  Despite the squawking pontifications of many theologians today and the formulaic “Roman Road” to salvation used by contemporary evangelism, that is truly a question that only God can answer to any degree of absolute certainty.  Because it is only God Who can see a man’s heart, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7).  But what I can tell you with absolute certainty, is that there is no salvation without surrender.

“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” (John 6:37)

Eagle Of Salvation

I hear the storm
The thunder rumbles in the distance
The clouds have gathered
The sky grows dark
Will it rain down judgment?
For it is judgment we surely deserve
Your judgment, O Lord, will surely cover the earth as water

In Your wrath, remember mercy
Pour out Your mercy, O Lord
On those who seek Your face
Pour out Your grace, O Lord
On those who reach for You with both hands
Cry out to God, you who hunger for righteousness
Lift your face to heaven and implore, you who thirst for truth

O Lord, let Your holiness cover us as the wings of an eagle
The Great Eagle of our salvation Carry us away
Away from Babylon and home to Zion
Carry us home to Your Holy Mountain
To the place where You dwell

“LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” (Habakkuk 3:2)

“LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart;” (Psalm 15:1,2)

“Send forth your light and your truth, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.” (Psalm 43:3)

“But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle to fly from the presence of the serpent to her place in the wilderness, where she was nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.” (Rev 12:14)

“One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.” (Psalm 27:4,5)

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)

“On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and called out in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.'” (John 7:37)

Not For The Faint Of Heart

I never want to convince someone that they need Christ. If I lead someone to Christ, I want it to be because I presented the Gospel to them and the Holy Spirit convinced them that they needed salvation. That is the only way a person can come to true repentance, “For no one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws them to Me, and at the last day I will raise them up.” (John 6:44).  No matter how convincing my words may be, they will never pierce someone’s soul. Convincing someone of my beliefs will not serve as the daily spiritual food that they need. Only Christ can be the spiritual food we need, because only Christ can take up residence in a person’s heart and make the changes in their understanding and perceptions that are necessary to transform a person, “Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35). Christ must take precedence over all things, including the way we present the Gospel.

When you read the Gospels, you become aware that Jesus never persuaded anyone to believe in Him. Jesus didn’t woo, entice or lure people to follow Him. He presented the truth, sometimes in all its naked glory and sometimes He made it relatable in the form of a parable, but either way, He simply presented truth and allowed the person to become fully convinced in their own mind. One thing that becomes starkly apparent when you read the Gospels is that Jesus never chased anyone, but on the contrary, many times He made it seem difficult, at times even impossible, to be His disciple and follow Him:

-“On hearing this, Jesus told him, ‘You still lack one thing: Sell everything you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.'” (Luke 18:22)

-“Then He said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Me.'” (Luke 9:23)

-“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

-“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be My disciples.” (Luke 14:33)

-“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)

-“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you will be put to death. And you will be hated by everyone because of My name.” (Luke 21:16,17)

-“Then will they hand you over to be persecuted and killed, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name.” (Matt 24:9)

You see, Jesus wasn’t looking for half-hearted, lukewarm commitment. Scripture says, “The eyes of the Lord search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him.” (2 Chron 16:9). Jesus was looking for those who were hungry for righteousness and thirsty for truth. Jesus sought those whose hearts would be fully committed to Him, who were willing to leave everything, just to be in His presence and learn from Him. He made it clear that following Him wasn’t just a one-day-a-week commitment. He made it clear that those who wanted to follow Him must be willing to forsake this world and everything in it. Jesus didn’t cheapen the message of salvation by making it seem appealing to those who didn’t want to come out of the world.

The Gospel of salvation has eternal implications, saving those who receive it from eternal spiritual death. The Gospel is serious business and Jesus took it very seriously. This is something the church today, as a whole, seems to have lost. Many churches today try to appeal to the culture by mimicking it.  They think they need to attract the world by using the things of the world.  They attempt to use a bait-and-switch tactic by dumbing-down the Gospel and try to present It in a way that seems non-threatening, when the whole premise of the Gospel message is indeed threatening– death to self, admitting you are a sinner, carrying your cross, coming out of the world, perpetual repentance and turning away from sinful desires. We shy away from telling the culture we are trying to reach that they must forsake sin and that they must repent. Without forsaking sin and without genuine, daily repentance, there can be no transformation by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel is not for the faint of heart. It is not for those who want Jesus to meet them halfway. Truly, a person can choose salvation no matter what depths of depravity and sinfulness they may be at in their life, but they cannot stay there. The moment the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the soul of a human being, they are propelled forward, out of the slimy pit and the mud and the mire, God graciously setting their feet upon the rock of salvation, Christ Jesus. Yes, the Gospel is a threatening message to sinners, but it is a message of hope and redemption to those who choose salvation through it.

“I waited patiently for the LORD; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in Him.” (Psalm 40:1-3)

Lift your head weary sinner, the river’s just ahead
Down the path of forgiveness, salvation’s waiting there
You built a mighty fortress 10,000 burdens high
Love is here to lift you up, here to lift you high
If you’re lost and wandering
Come stumbling in like a prodigal child
See the walls start crumbling
Let the gates of glory open wide
All who’ve strayed and walked away, unspeakable things you’ve done
Fix your eyes on the mountain, let the past be dead and gone
Come all saints and sinners, you can’t outrun God
Whatever you’ve done can’t overcome the power of the blood

Fire And Brimstone

The very foundation of the Gospel message is predicated on the notion of sin and our salvation from it. Unfortunately, over the course of church history, many well-meaning pastors inundated their congregations with fire-and-brimstone messages of God’s judgment of sin, and balanced it out with very little of God’s abundant grace towards repentant sinners. The result of their extreme focus on God’s very real hatred of sin, in effect, caused the pendulum to swing in an equally opposite extreme towards His very real abundance of grace towards those who repent from their sins. Anything done to one extreme, usually results in a backlash toward the other extreme, neither of which portraying true balance.

Thus, over the last half-century, most church movements have laboriously tried to disassociate themselves from the “fire-and-brimstone” messages of their predecessors. Which means that the pendulum has swung from “fire-and-brimstone”, clear to the opposite side with “hyper-grace”, resulting in an equally unbalanced presentation of the Gospel Message of Christ. But despite the best efforts of many church movements over the last half-century, sin cannot be separated from the cross.  A message of hyper-grace may fill the churches, but it will not fill those who hunger for true righteousness.  Any attempt to divest sin from the message of salvation in Jesus Christ results in preaching another gospel (Gal 1:6-9; 2 Cor 11:4). Which means if you preach the true Gospel of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, then you must preach about sin, for it is our sin that makes the Gospel necessary.

Jesus didn’t die for us to be happy, Jesus died because we are sinners in need of eternal salvation from hell.  Not a popular, warm and fuzzy message, but Gospel truth nonetheless.  Jesus loves us even though we are sinners, but He will not allow us to dwell in it. Which means when we come to Christ in true repentance, we cannot bring our sinful lifestyle with us. Jesus said, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. No one puts new wine into old wineskins..” (Mark 2:21,22).  Forgiveness of sin, and sanctification from sin through continued obedience, are part and parcel of genuine salvation.

I have borne witness to those going so far as to quote Jesus’ interaction with the adulterous woman at John Chapter 8 as an example of Him excusing sinfulness. But the reality of John 8:11, is that when Jesus told the adulterous woman He did not condemn her for her sin, the word used in scripture is “KATAKRINO”, which means He did not judge her worthy of punishment. Why? Because He could see true repentance in her heart. That is why He simply told her, “Go and sin no more.” Because He knew, in her heart, she truly wanted to turn away from it. Jesus never defended her for committing the sin. He never said what she did was okay. He never encouraged her to embrace it as a part of her life, neither did He try to convince everyone to be accepting of what she did. He only said He wouldn’t punish her for it and to never do it again.

Jesus said, “I have come into the world to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37). And as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to the same testament. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life..”  Therefore, anyone who condemns truth, whether a believer or unbeliever, condemns Christ. And the truth is, God hates sin. The truth is, when we come to salvation, God expects us to live holy lives. The truth….is equal parts fire-and-and-brimstone and abundant grace.

“..but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'” (1 Peter 1:15,16)

“For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” (1 Thess 4:7)

“But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and sexually immoral persons and those who practice magic arts, and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Rev 21:8)

“I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins.  I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.” (Isaiah 13:11)