This is the second installment in my series about “Good, Or God.” It is perhaps the most important because it deals with the very nature of becoming a Christian. It also causes me the most apprehension, because this installment strikes to the heart of who we are in Christ. I would summarize this message by saying that contrary to much of what is taught in churches, Christians are born, not made.
This vital concept was driven home to me through a message delivered at a Christian conference in Branson. The speaker related how churches tend to teach that we are sinners saved by grace. And then she added, “But we’re not sinners saved by grace; that’s who we used to be. When we accepted Jesus as Lord, we were supernaturally re-born and became a new creation.”
As I considered how to flesh out this concept, the Lord spoke to me through Romans 6 during my daily reading. Here is what Paul wrote to the new believers in Rome:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Our old self was crucified with Him…that we should no longer be slaves to sin. Even so, consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God through Christ Jesus.”
The picture Paul gives us of the Christian life is that we are given immediate power to live a sinless life. We’ve been born anew as soon as we accept Christ as Lord.
Every church and every pastor knows this essential truth, but the very nature of church organization unintentionally distorts the simplicity of the Gospel. Many churches inadvertently change the born-again experience into a slow and gradual process of becoming Christianized. Pastors present weekly messages with the good heart to convey deeper revelation to their congregations. They make alter calls in case anyone in the crowd hasn’t yet accepted Christ. They try to exhort those who may be struggling with sin. They attempt to draw people into a deeper relationship. Similarly, worship leaders try to define how the congregation should worship. Sunday School teachers explain Biblical truths which the congregation might not otherwise understand. Men’s and women’s ministries embark on programs to improve the Christian walk of church members.
These are all good things, but are not God. Church programs can turn the Biblical born-again reality into a life-long self-improvement project. In spite of the best of intentions by leadership, church members tend to accept the idea that they are sinners without recognizing the powerful reality of transformation. As sinners, they feel unworthy, unskilled, unprepared for ministry, and condemned to a long road of spiritual renovation. They are a work in progress rather than overcomers through Jesus’ blood.
The self-improvement view of the Christian walk is attractive to many people, particularly men because men tend to be goal-oriented and egocentric. Men are used to being trained in their jobs, instructed in their sports, decisive in their beliefs, and accepting of their own personal faults. As action-oriented beings, men are easily drawn to seeing the Christian walk as a long process of self-improvement, kind of like body- building or hard work or endurance training. We may not thrive in the works mentality, but it is intuitive to us. We can even embrace the idea that our manly impulse is good, but we should also understand it is not fully God.
Rather than dwell on the negative, let me offer a few more Scriptures that describe the Biblical view of being a Christian. Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” He writes in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 reads, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come!”
The only Biblical place I see for a slow process of Christian growth is when Paul speaks in Romans 12:2 about the renewing of the mind by replacing your former way of thinking with God’s truth through the study of God’s Word and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. A solid church that believes in the work of the Spirit, preaching the Word, reading the Word, and singing the Word is invaluable in helping us renew our minds.
However, renewing the mind doesn’t save the individual, but only expands his or her knowledge and insight into the ways of the Lord. Scripture describes the Christian’s transformation as an immediate result of accepting the lordship of Jesus. Reflection about the past, recognition of faults, and yearning for self-improvement are all good things but not God’s way, which is a supernatural gift that is not driven by the individual’s works or effort. Our churches will become alive when it’s members stop seeing themselves as sinners slowly improving themselves, but embrace their true status as children of God, instantly empowered to resist sin and going into the world in the power of our Lord.