Originally posted April 6, 2012
Statistically, we know that the vast majority of Americans believe in some form of a higher power. There are relatively few who are atheists. Since people do believe that there is something, and since it’s so easy to think of the majority of Americans as Christians, many simply attach themselves to Christianity.
But what does it mean? Christianity?
For so many, we call ourselves Christians but then never pray, or read the Bible, or go to church, or experience fellowship with other believers, or show any actual desire to have a relationship with Jesus. Without these, how can a person be Christian?
We live in a culture where it is accepted to be a “Christian” so long as we have a faith that is extremely passive, watered down, and without conviction. In the eyes of the world, when we have a faith that actually impacts the way in which we live our lives, we’re labeled as extreme, strange, ignorant, or bigoted. For people who actually have faith, they’re thought of as being “really religious.”
I argue that to be religious but not really religious is to be religious, not really.
Contrary to popular opinion, the gospel isn’t that we just need to be a “good person.” To say that this was the basis of the message of Christ is a complete misunderstanding of the New Testament because He never says nor implies that our moral goodness is the thing which will save us. In fact, the point of the gospel is that our own actions cannot save us.
All of us sin, and our sin separates us from God. But we are saved because of God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That is the heart of the gospel. That we need Christ. Some might not like that because it’s exclusive. But the gospel is meant to be inclusive. Jesus died for all who will accept His gift of grace.
Throughout the history of the church, there have been those who have unfortunately distorted the gospel or misused it. We can point to events like the church’s Crusades or her Spanish Inquisition. In modern times, we hear of abuses within the Catholic Church, and radicals like the Westboro Baptist Church who protest funerals. It’s easy to look to these things and to become disgusted with Christianity.
But if Christ really died and really rose from the dead, the fact that people distort the message doesn’t change the reality that He came to forgive you of your sins. It’s not the message of the gospel that is the problem. The problem is man’s selfish usage of the gospel.
But why should we be Christians? In our daily lives, we see people who claim to know God but who are hypocrites…
That’s the point!
Man is sinful! We are immoral. We were incapable of morally cleaning ourselves up.
We needed a savior.
And a savior came, and died, and rose, and lives.
Some may argue, if there is a God, why does He allow people to tarnish His message?
It’s because people aren’t spiritual robots. We are willing, moral beings. And there are people who choose to do morally egregious things in the name of the gospel. But that isn’t a shortcoming of the gospel. Like a shinning light, it clarifies the darkness of our hearts and shows our desperate need for grace.
Some may want to live as Christians, but feel that they can do a better job on their own, instead of through organized religion. But the idea that you can be a Christian apart from church contradicts the teachings of Christ. Certainly, there are bad churches. But there are also a lot of very good, Christ-centered churches. One bad experience, or years of bad experiences are no excuse for someone whose trying to live as a Christian to ignore church.
In discussions about religion, I’ve often times said that the gospel is either the most important thing in the universe, or it is completely irrelevant. Jesus was the God who died for our sins, or He wasn’t. If He was, we should worship Him. If not, then He is useless to us. The idea that Jesus might have just been a great moral teacher contradicts Jesus’ own teachings. His message revolved around Him being the savior of the world. If He lied about that, He cannot be a great moral teacher.
So what do you believe? Where do you stand with Jesus? Was He God or was he just some guy?
Jesus said “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for you souls.”
No matter what you’ve done, no matter who you’ve hurt, no matter what addiction is suffocating your life, no matter what dark thoughts you have, it’s nothing so great that the risen Lord cannot forgive you.
But where to start?
As I’ve already said, I think it comes down to prayer, studying His word, getting involved in a good church, fellowship with Christians. Jesus said that we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” If you do that, I believe that God will lead you to truth.
It’s not a self help message. Belief in the gospel isn’t a promise that you won’t have financial problems, or illnesses, or family issues, or countless other stresses and frustrations. The gospel is that you get God, and no matter what else is happening in this life, His truth will strengthen, and give purpose, and sanctify you.
Maybe you’ve lived your entire life and said you were a Christian, but you’ve never really had faith. The gift of grace and the offer of salvation is just as real for you today as it is for a person whose never thought about the gospel.
It’s easy to associate Christianity with a bunch of rules and a list of things that you can’t do anymore. If you truly accept the gift of grace by faith, no sin can separate you from God’s love or from the forgiveness that you have. A true faith in the gospel will also result in a transformed life. Certain things will become less appealing. But acting a certain way and following a particular list of rules is not what makes you a Christian. If it were, you would be earning your salvation which would have made Christ’s rising from the dead pointless!
However, a person who is a Christian who has faith will have a life that is changed and will naturally live differently. This transformation is what shows that the faith is genuine.
On the first Good Friday, when Jesus suffered that horrendous death for our sins, the Bible says that two other condemned criminals were also crucified with the Lord:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other rebuked him, saying “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And He (Jesus) said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Two condemned thieves found themselves condemned with Jesus. Both were guilty. One wanted Christ to work on his terms, the other recognized his guilt, and through faith sought forgiveness.
All of us our guilty.
Which thief will you be this Easter weekend?
Soli Deo Gloria
Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.
Other scriptures in this essay from: