I’ve been a follower of Jesus long enough to know that it’s easy to lose sight of what it actually means to be a Christian.
When I was a kid and before I ever really went to church (apart from the odd wedding, Christening or other special occasion), I thought being a Christian just meant you believed in God and believed in Jesus. Of course, “believing in God” just meant believing that there was some kind of vaguely benevolent life force out there, and “believing in Jesus” meant believing that Jesus lived, told parables and did some pretty cool miracles before a bunch of bad guys caught up with him and nailed him to a cross. Oh, and he may have risen from the dead and then floated up to heaven to be with God. And the robe that was wrapped around him in the tomb was maybe in a museum somewhere in Italy.
I guess I also believed for at least part of my childhood that I was a Christian simply because I lived in Britain, and as everyone knew, Britain was a Christian country. I think I would probably also have said, if pushed, that Christians were expected to go to church from time to time, to offer up the odd prayer (“Please could you arrange it so I get a new bike for Christmas!”) and to be nice.
At age 14 I began to encounter and explore something of the reality of God in a new way. I came to understand that Jesus was not merely a very unique but misunderstood person in history, but that he must have been either who he said he was, or a madman, or an evil man (to paraphrase C. S. Lewis). I responded to the call to give my life to him at a Billy Graham crusade in 1985. Shortly afterwards, I prayed what has often been called the “sinner’s prayer” in the pastor’s office of an old-fashioned Pentecostal church in my home town.
From that point on I had a real, meaningful faith in God, and what felt like some kind of genuine relationship with Him. I did what good Christians do: I got baptised, I tried my best to witness of my faith to others, I went to every church gathering, home group meeting and youth group meeting, I served in church on the worship team (though it had no such name in those days), I even went to a church summer camp every year, and I endeavoured to dutifully read my Bible and to pray daily. And, if I’m honest, that is largely what my Christian life has looked like for most of the past 28 years.
And so doing “Christian stuff” has been a big part of who I am for longer than I care to remember. But somewhere along the line, in the midst of all the busyness and routine of church life, I think I began to lose track of what being a Christian was actually all about. Yes, I believed the basics, I knew all the lingo, and I could give some kind of explanation of the gospel if asked. But I also picked up a whole lot of clutter along the way. Anyone who’s been part of a high-commitment church (as Pentecostal and charismatic churches often tend to be) for any length of time will know what I’m talking about. It’s easy to unconsciously add a whole heap of additional requirements to the list of what makes someone a Christian, requirements like:
– going to church regularly
– having a daily “quiet time”
– believing in a pre-tribulation rapture
– giving tithes and offerings to the church
– believing that the earth was created in six literal days
– speaking in tongues or operating in other spiritual gifts
– listening to Christian music
– never saying swear words, smoking, or engaging in any number of other unacceptable behaviours
– believing that I must always have a smile on my face (after all, “The joy of the Lord is my strength”)
I don’t think I would ever have come out and said that being a Christian necessarily meant doing all these things; but for all practical purposes, I think it’s what I believed for a long time. It took some tough life experiences and a personal crisis to strip away all the accumulated surplus baggage and bring me face to face with the stark reality of the gospel.
The point I’m trying to make is that we often have a tendency to load all manner of additional requirements onto the definition of what it means to follow Jesus. And if we’re not careful, somewhere in our subconscious, we may even begin to see these extra things as necessary criteria for salvation. Whenever in your mind you start to question someone’s faith on the basis of anything on my little list above (or any similar list), it’s a sure sign that you’ve begun to forget what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. I know it’s something I’ve been guilty of many times.
Thankfully, when God made a way for us to be saved, He made it really easy. He didn’t put up all kinds of hoops for us to jump through or checklists we have to score highly against. Let’s look at some biblical examples. When a frightened jailer who thought his prisoners had escaped asked Paul and Silas what he had to do to be saved, their answer was simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved”. (You can find the account in Acts 16.) And when Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, this is how he described the heart of his message:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
And Jesus himself didn’t go around putting up barriers to make it hard for people to be saved. Even as he hung on the cross, he promised paradise to a criminal hanging next to him, simply because the man had recognised the gravity of his crimes and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his Kingdom. It wasn’t too late, there were no additional conditions, and there was nothing he had to prove.
To be saved, then, is simply this: to believe and confess that Jesus is who he said he is, and that he rose again and is alive. That’s it. There are no other entry requirements: no moral code, no set of qualifying or disqualifying behaviours, no special kind of church you have to join, no particular way you have to talk or dress. Yes, there is fruit that is expected to grow in the soil of a life that is lived with Jesus (see Galatians 5:22-23), but as far as requirements go, the list is very short – so short that it’s hardly a list at all. We do well to remind ourselves of this daily, because otherwise we have a remarkable ability to fall back into defining all manner of rules and requirements and then trying to keep them ourselves and expecting others to keep them. I know because I’ve done it, time and time again.
In his commentary on Galatians, the great 16th century reformer Martin Luther put it this way:
Here I must take counsel of the gospel. I must hearken to the gospel, which teacheth me, not what I ought to do (for that is the proper office of the law), but what Jesus Christ the Son of God hath done for me: to wit, that He suffered and died to deliver me from sin and death. The gospel willeth me to receive this, and to believe it. And this is the truth of the gospel. It is also the principal article of all Christian doctrine, wherein the knowledge of all godliness consisteth.
Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.
I think Luther was onto something. My head and my heart sometimes get so full of non-essentials that it’s hard for the simple truth of the gospel to get through. But this is what I need – not religious rules, not standards and requirements, not activities and programmes, not moral codes, not even well-meaning advice about how to live better. Just the gospel, neat and undiluted: that Jesus plus nothing equals everything.