Everyone’s path is different.
Each one of us is unique.
But, may I share something of my experience with you? Maybe something I write will help you. Or maybe you will write to me, and I will find that helpful.
At the heart of the journey is the conviction that there is something out there – good – that is prepared to befriend humanity.
But what is this ‘something’? We’ve all heard of benign aliens from outer-space; or, closer to home, ‘enlightened ones’; or the temperamental gods of myth; or more contemporary philosophical and metaphysical conceptions of ‘God’
There’s so much diversity!
You can take your pick.
Christianity often doesn’t get good press because it’s seen as bigoted. That’s because some preachers still take a legalistic view of scripture: ‘Thou shalt not kill; though shalt not bear false witness; though shalt not commit adultery’(a). Or divorce, or break the Sabbath, etcetera, etcetera. They lack the moral courage – or just plain divine grace, as simple, and as wholesome as bread – to recognise that legalism was finished and done with 2000 years ago when Jesus was crucified.
Jesus said that through him God was making new covenant (or agreement) with humanity sealed in his (Jesus’) blood. This sounds like religious jargon until you realize that he lived it out: he taught, healed, went to the cross, died, and rose from the dead. And he invited us to join him in this covenant with God by following in his footsteps. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he said.
St Paul, his disciple described it as a new law to supersede the old; ‘the law of the Spirit’(b)…
And this is where I always used to get confused. Let’s sum up.
The old law of Moses – the Ten ‘Though Shalt Nots’ was gone.
Replaced by a new covenant in Christ – the ‘law of rhe Spirit’.
But quite a few preachers go on preaching the old shalt nots.
Seems like we just swapped one set of legalisms for another: the same set actually, just re-branded as the ‘law of the Spirit’.
But those preachers are missing it. Because the two ‘laws’ are not at all the same.
The first law – the shalt nots – is outwardly imposed, like a policeman stopping you for an infraction; a rule you broke wilfully, or through neglect or ignorance. The second law is like a force of nature: like a yacht floating on water; a hawk soaring on an updraught. St Paul writes: “If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. Because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons [and daughters] of God.”(c)
The first is like a playground bully pushing you face-down in the mud, telling you that you will never be good enough.
The second is a loving father who picks you up each time you fall down – because good fathers nurture their children: they want their children to grow up to be successful like them.
Simple isn’t it?
But we, as a species, seem to be afraid of religious freedom; we seem to be addicted to legalism and narrow-mindedness. To in-groups and out-groups, social advantage and power. Fear. Riches. Lust, anger, murder. It’s like a box we crawl back into. Our twisted, oh-so-human comfort zone.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me.”(d)
Sounds like an uber-bigoted statement, doesn’t it? Exclusionary of other faiths.
Until you actually look into his eyes.
What he’s saying is: “I’m going to the cross. It’s the only way back to God – compassion, commitment, obedience, sacrifice. No one has ever risen from the dead, but I’m going to. I’m going to rise to eternal life and glory in God’s presence.” Then he says, “Walk with me. No one else knows the way. No one else will be able to walk you through. No matter what promises they make, they haven’t walked the path I’m walking.”
It’s a process. When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” it’s not a religious legalism. It’s not like signing a legal document, ‘I believe in Jesus’, so that, when you get to heaven’s gates, you can show it to the gate-keeper angel and say, “There! Let me in.” Or again, it’s not like purchasing an online subscription to a virtual reality platform, where once you have your registration code you can upload yourself.
But if you haven’t got the code, you can’t upload…
Anyone who thinks that way is missing the point; it’s an invitation to walk with him.
Because he knows the way.
And will pick you up when you fall down.
Well…you can take it or leave it. When Jesus preached to the crowd: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,”(e) he weirded them so much that almost everybody left. Except his closest disciples. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” he asked them. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” replied Peter. “You have the words of Life.”
You can take it or leave it. Except if you want to be a Christian you have to acknowledge the crucifixion. St Paul writes: ‘We are…co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’(f)
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to be literally crucified. One of the characteristics of a good father – and God is a better Father than any earthly one – is that he suits tasks (and playtime, and presents, and words of wisdom) to the capacities of his children. He doesn’t make the same demands on his six-year-old son that he makes on his eighteen-year-old daughter. And if one of his children has a disability – of any kind – he makes special allowance for that too.
But he does make demands – with our future, eternal destiny in mind – and we must bear them if we are to grow up in his image. And taking up your bespoke, individually tailored cross and carrying it faithfully as you follow him is a non-negotiable requirement. Jesus’ own words: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (g)
Well, there are books and books written on what it means. But here’s two sentences.
Taking up the cross that Father God lovingly custom-made for you means walking hand-in-hand with Jesus, and loving, even when it hurts; even when the sweat gets in your eyes so bad you can’t be sure where you’re going…were it not for his hand leading you.
It also means that after the dying is done, God’s resurrection power brings new life.
So, how does one become a Christian?
Some people can point to a definite conversion experience – most commonly being ‘born again’ subsequent to a public act of confession. Other just undergo a quiet, personal experience of knowing that Jesus is Lord and that they are God’s child. And others slog at it for years, maturing slowly. (In fact, instant conversion or not, everyone matures slowly. …Make that ‘s..l..o….w……l………y’.)
But there is a tool that can be used to bring about conversion – the experience and conviction of it. It’s called the ‘sinner’s prayer’. It’s a serious business, and to prepare for it one has to acknowledge the following:
We have to acknowledge our need of God. This goes deeper than just being afraid of dying; it includes acknowledging that we need God’s Fathering to become all we dream of being. And on the other side of the coin, it mean we acknowledge that we don’t measure up to his standards. As the bible puts it: ‘All sin and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). We have to recognize that and decide that we want to live differently – that we want to walk the walk with Jesus.
We have to acknowledge that Jesus leads the way. ‘God shows his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us’ (Romans 5:8). To be clear, Jesus’ crucifixion opened a way for us to be reconciled to God. Before his sacrifice we were separated from God by our personal, and personally inherited, and our pan-human sin. We were not good enough to be adopted as God’s children, or admitted to heaven. But now, after his crucifixion we are able to approach God under cover of his sacrifice and be accepted.
The crucifixion is where God meets man, and makes peace. It’s complex, multifaceted, like a precious jewel: it can be understood in many ways. (Two of the most important traditional narratives are ‘atonement theory’ – Jesus’ sacrifice atoned for, or made right, our wrongdoing, and ‘ransom theory’ – Jesus paid the penalty for our wrongdoing, on our behalf. (I’ll give you a link to these at the end of the post – for now, stay with me.) Speaking personally, I think there’s even more to it than these classic interpretations offer – but I’m not going to get into that now.)
Instead, let’s go with one of the simplest interpretations. Believing in Jesus, walking with him, is like being friends with the President’s teenage son. None of the other kids can enter the President’s house but you get to come and go freely. As long as you’re with his son.
So let’s get started on the sinner’s prayer. Making friends with Jesus.
Take your time.
- Father God, you are the maker of all things, and Jesus is your Son.
- I am a sinner: I don’t measure up to your standard; I have thought wrong thoughts, spoken wrong words, and done wrong things.
- But I believe that Jesus died for me, in my place, to pay the price I should have paid for my wrongdoing, and to make it right.
- From now on I want to live a better life; I want to follow Jesus, walk with him, be more like him.
- Forgive me my sin; forgive me for my wrongdoing: accept me as your child, and be my God and Father.
- Jesus, be my Lord and friend. Come into my heart and live with me there.
- Thank you for saving me.
Now, if you meant that, the Spirit of God will have heard you, and honoured you and your request.
You may, or may not, feel strong emotion and conviction. But if you don’t feel anything, don’t give up. Stick with it. One of the most important lessons a young Christian can learn is to walk by faith, not feelings. Believing faithfully opens the door to new realities. (I speak from experience – read my post, My First Miracle.) Take this scripture to heart: ‘If you say, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Romans 10:9). Find other Christians to pray with you. Go to church. Ask God to guide you to a good one, alive in the Spirit. And read the bible: here’s a link to a good basic bible study for new believers.
Hmm… What to write in closing?
A rag-bag of final thoughts…
It is important to find a church you feel comfortable in. There are so many styles – quiet/loud, conservative/way-out, etcetera. Perhaps the single wisest comment I’ve ever heard on church diversity is that the choice of worship style is down to temperament.
But there are some things to be careful of:
Pick a church that cares about people more than religion.
Be wary of churches that are unduly legalistic and condemnatory.
Be wary of churches that create personality cults around leadership.
Avoid, like the plague, churches that continuously ask for money that is used to disproportionately benefit leadership. Leadership is entitled to a modest living, not riches: the money should properly be spent on assisting the needy. (See my posts on giving.)
Some (mostly NAR) churches are strongly prophetic in style. That’s OK when the ‘prophets’ say affirming things, and if you like the charged emotional atmosphere and love-bombing that goes with it, but please take everything ‘prophetic’ with a huge pinch of salt. I’ve heard so-called prophecies so inaccurate and potentially so harmful that my hair stood on end. (The amazing thing was…the congregation just accepted them! Probably, they didn’t take them seriously. That’s…OK. When they take them seriously; that’s when the trouble starts.)
God bless, and all the best.
You can email me if you want.
Here’s the link I promised: ‘atonement theory’ and ‘ransom theory’.
(a) Exodus 20: 1-17.
(b, d, f) Romans 8-1-15.
(d, e) John 6: 53-69. And by inviting people to eat his flesh and drink his blood Jesus more than just ‘weirded’ is listeners. Never mind that cannibalism was, and is illegal and taboo, Jewish law specifically forbids the consumption of blood on pain of being cut off from the people (Leviticus 17:10). Jesus couldn’t have challenged his listeners more controversially, or obnoxiously had he tried. Twenty centuries later our rosy religious spectacles tend to make us forget that.