Monday, April 20, 2015

How Does Someone Become a Christian?

Recently, a friend gave me two pamphlets and asked for my opinion of them. Both focus on what it means to become a Christian, and I would classify both as Evangelical Protestant documents. But they still have a good deal of difference between them, representing disagreement that exists between a number of churches (and even members of the same churches) under the wide banner of Evangelical Christianity. As is so often the case when it comes to my relations to other Christians, I do not completely agree or disagree with either of the positions presented by them. I also know I cannot present my own opinion in such a way that it will be completely satisfying to everyone else. Nevertheless, I intend to give my best attempt. I am going to go over each of these documents, specifically pointing out the areas I would criticize, and then I will conclude by presenting my own synthesis of what I consider to be their best ideas and my own ideas for what it means to become a Christian.

“The Gospel”

The first pamphlet I read was "The Gospel" by Ron Shea. The hyperlink I provided will take you to a copy, but unfortunately, I do not think it has examples of what I consider to be one of the greatest flaws of the booklet: the 1980’s illustrations. They are not exactly high art. Nor are they entirely helpful. On one page, for example, a drawing shows a massive fist being dropped on a frightened, ragged man. It distracts from the point the author makes about punishment being earned, and suggests that God is cruel. I cannot know if Shea chose these illustrations, but I hope not. I also think not. The actual words of the pamphlet draw attention to the justice of God, His holiness and the fact that sin cannot exist in His presence. It is perhaps unfair of me to say this about such a simple drawing, but it evokes nothing of the patience of God, which is the only thing we have keeping us from destruction at any given moment (the point made so poignantly by Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”). Does God punish? Yes. But not with the gracelessness the illustration suggests. It, along with the others, is simply off-putting to me.

Of course, that is all subjective. What about something substantive? To discuss that, I need to explain the basic premise of the booklet (for which you can get a better feel by reading it yourself). This is the type of pamphlet you frequently see in the foyer of a church, a relatively short and simplistic introduction to an important topic to make it easier for an unbeliever to find answers to a certain question, or as a help for inexperienced Christians to share such answers. It explains the problem of sin, the substitutionary atonement through Christ, faith, grace, and repentance, assurance and eternal security, and steps to take to remain rooted. In describing all these things, there is no doubt the author believes salvation comes solely and finally through nothing more than faithfully accepting the grace offered through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To add anything else to access this grace is to refuse it. The comparison he draws is to liken it to one friend giving a gift to another. If the giftee were to offer money to his friend in return, the gifter might then refuse to hand the gift over. After all, if he is paid for it, it is something he then owes the buyer. For it to be a true gift, it must be freely given. Shea then uses Romans 4:4 to show that this is the same with the gift of salvation offered by God.

So we can see, then, that Shea’s emphasis is fairly clear. Salvation is not a matter of following rules, but of accepting a freely offered gift. In my opinion, though, the greatest weaknesses come in when he attempts to explain eternal security and to point out the flaws in the theologies of others. To take the first problem first, let me begin with the full disclosure that I believe in a form, at least, of eternal security. My reading of the Scripture leads me to believe that someone who becomes a Christian remains a Christian. But that does not mean someone who makes a confession of faith can then live a completely faithless life and then expect to escape almost entirely without consequences. And that, unfortunately, seems to be Shea’s position. He makes a nod to natural consequences in this life, and to the potential loss of rewards in heaven. But this allows for “skin of their teeth” thinking, that someone can just barely make it into Paradise. In one sense, we all just barely make it because we cannot be good enough to earn it. In another sense, we make it abundantly because the way is fully supplied by Christ. Shea misses an opportunity to explain this by completely misinterpreting three passages of Scripture. He takes Hebrews 12:14-17, Luke 19:11-27, and Matthew 25:14-30 to describe situations where legitimately saved people have been punished in heaven with the loss of all they might have had in heaven, but not with the loss of their own souls. That is clearly wrong, and Matthew 25:14-30 is the clearest proof of that. In verses 29, 30, Jesus says that the wicked servant will be thrown out “into the outer darkness” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Does that sound like heaven to you? It shouldn’t, since it is the exact same phrase Jesus uses to describe hell in Luke 13:22-30. Beyond that, there are also the words of Revelation 21:4 to tell us there will be no tears or sadness in heaven. So where are Shea’s weeping, barely-there saints? The real question about the situations described in the passages Shea cites is whether the people mentioned were never truly saved in the first place, or whether they were and lost their salvation. Without being able to see into their hearts, we cannot know. I lean towards the former because of passages like Romans 8:38, 39 that speak to the unconquerable power of God’s love, and ones like  John 3:5-8 that speak of the birth of a brand new nature, which taken together show that the new life of the Christian is one which cannot be ended. Those who would disagree with me and think of apostasy as a possibility would point to verses like Hebrews 6:4-8 and Galatians 5:4 to show that personal salvation can be lost. Whatever the case may be, neither side can be absolutely proved because we cannot see into another person’s soul. We can only gauge actions, which can be markers of the state of someone’s inner life. From there we can guess what a person needs to hear. But how anyone could look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 and see it as saying the wicked servant is safe, is beyond me. It is an attempt to ignore a “problematic” passage rather than addressing it directly.

Another problem with Shea’s pamphlet comes when he discusses his opinion of other Christians. When describing repentance, he says “Faith in Jesus will not save you if, while believing that Jesus died for your sins, you also believe that you must be baptized, go to church, or obey the Ten Commandments to ‘help’ get you to heaven. You cannot simply add Jesus to a long list of other things that you must do or be to get to heaven. You must utterly reject all of those other things as having no saving value whatsoever and trust in Jesus Christ alone.” Personally, I agree almost entirely with this. But the biggest problem I have with it, and with the whole document as a result, is in that very first statement: “Faith in Jesus will not save you if.…” I agree, nothing other than faith in Jesus will “help” us get into heaven. But if someone has that primary faith, and calls it primary, then why would the addendum of rituals to access grace be considered an unforgivable sin? How can that be, when nothing else is, and even living a life untouched by virtue is not cause for alarm (according to Shea)? As long as there is agreement on essentials, there is room for liberty on nonessential things. And the essential thing is knowing that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and nothing we do gets us there. If someone thinks this knowledge, this faith is only finalized through the performance of certain actions, I will disagree with him, but I will not judge his salvation. That is going too far. What really matters is that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). So long as that is done, so long as the works themselves do not actually do the saving in someone else’s theology, then my disagreement with him is more about nuance than necessary truth.

“Salvation According to Jesus”

With all that said, we can move on the other pamphlet. “"Salvation According to Jesus" by William Webster is more of a polemic than “The Gospel.” Its purpose is not so much to explain the basics as it is to defend a position, and as a result it is a bit more complex and argumentative. In essence, it is exactly what I am doing here. Which is partly why I have a problem with it. Not that it is bad to be argumentative, but you need to understand your target. I felt while reading it, especially after finishing it, that Webster was looking for a fight where there wasn’t one. In order to further explain what I mean, let me once again summarize the key point.

Webster’s purpose in this article is to show that salvation is not simply a matter of accepting the grace offered through the sacrifice of Jesus. That is a part of it for him, but to be a Christian one must also be a disciple, which means acknowledging Jesus not only as Savior but also as Lord. According to Webster, we must not only believe in Jesus but also follow Him by giving up our self-will. This position is often called “Lordship Salvation,” and clearly it is at variance with the opinion represented by Shea. Webster and those of a mind with him are suggesting that salvation is not only a matter of what you believe, but of what you do.

That was my first problem with the piece, and it stuck with me almost the whole way through my reading of it. There is very little distance between Webster’s stance and perfectionism or legalism. To say you must act a certain way to become a Christian is to say, in essence, that works are necessary to the reception of grace, and that the works must be maintained or the grace will be lost. This establishes an impossible standard. Even if it were hypothetically possible, no mere mortal has ever accomplished it. Personally, I do not think anyone ever will. And if it is taught along with the belief that failure leads to condemnation, it will cause terror and insecurity. To be forced to be perfect is to constantly walk on eggshells for fear of being destroyed, rather than living free and victorious in the love of Jesus.

Webster does not outright proclaim perfectionism, but he does suggest something close to it and he does an admittedly excellent job of using numerous passages of Scripture to back it up. Particularly, he gives the words of Jesus Himself in Mark 8:34-37, Matthew 11:28-30, and John 12:24-26 to show that the Lord called his disciples to give up their own desires, take up His burden, and die with Him. But what Webster does not do is discuss passages like John 3:16 and Romans 10:9, 10. These passages, however, suggest that salvation begins simply with belief and that nothing we do can add to it or make it real.

Webster attempts to make a bit of an answer to this in his brief discussion of Ephesians 2:8, 9. He admits that works cannot save and that attempts to rely on self-righteousness will lead to destruction. His willingness to say so, in spite of my feelings for how he insists on discipleship as an element of salvation, is why I do not have the questions about his salvation that I feel Shea would. Webster makes a distinction, however, between self-righteousness and self-rule, saying we must give up the former works but also work to give up the latter. And I consider that to be a problem if it is improperly understood. There is a very subtle difference here, but what a difference it makes. Webster says, in essence, that one must make Jesus the Lord of his life and give up the self in order to become a Christian. I would say one must make Jesus the Lord of his life and give up the self in order to be a Christian. This level of submission to God is not so much a prerequisite of salvation as it is a proof of it. I say this because I believe it is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit, and He only indwells us after we have become the children of God. His presence is the proof of our adoption, and He empowers us to follow the Lord as His disciples (Romans 8:9-17). If someone claims to be a Christian but does not evidence the indwelling of the Holy Spirit by a changed and increasingly holy life, then it would be reasonable to guess he is not a Christian and never has been. But that means he never had faith in Christ in order to receive the Holy Spirit, not that he had the faith but lacked a commitment to Christ as Lord.

Perhaps the most deplorable element of this article, though, is the section on false prophets. Webster as much as says that anyone who disagrees with him is an unsaved heretic, even though they might have an orthodox faith in Christ. This unfortunate section goes from arguing to attacking, and ironically shows the same arrogance as the similar section in Shea’s work. There is no room for dissent. If you do not add a commitment to obedience on top of faith, then you are not saved. This, in spite of the fact that a committed Christian life cannot be lived apart from the power of Christ that only comes with that faith. I disagree with Webster, but at least I do not think he is going to hell or leading others there, as he would apparently say of me.

For all the problems with Webster’s argument, he closes on a much better note. In the last few sections, he finally defines what it means to make a commitment to Christ. And when he does, he waters down the rest of his argument so much that I am left to wonder which part represents his actual views. Where most of the article implied that sanctification needed to be flawlessly maintained throughout life, in closing he admits that there is a distinction between initial and ongoing sanctification. The latter is a process that takes a lifetime and has missteps. But the former is the initial decision to follow Jesus, the choice to accept His grace and acknowledge His godhood. It is this decision that brings about salvation. At this point, Webster’s argument actually reflects Shea’s. That is because it comes down to a question of what it means to have faith in Christ. To trust Jesus is to believe that He had the power to cover all sins with His blood, and to rise from the dead. Anyone who believes this and relies of Him believes that Jesus is God, because it could not have been done otherwise. The two are inseparable. To have faith in Christ is to accept Him as Lord. So in that sense, Webster is right. But he is actually the one making it into a separate step in the process instead of recognizing that it is inherent in the original decision. That is why I said earlier I think he was picking a fight where there wasn’t one. He created a false dichotomy in order to argue a point that did not need to be made.


It is ironic to see the ways in which Shea and Webster are wrong. In spite of their disagreement, their errors are the same. Both ignore scriptures that go against their positions, and both are arrogant enough to condemn those who disagree with them over nonessential things. But really, in spite of their mistakes, there is a lot of good in both positions, and by synthesizing them, I think we come closer to understanding what it truly means to become a Christian. Becoming a Christian begins with Jesus Christ. He loved us before we could love Him, and came to offer us salvation by paying the price for our sins (1 John 4:10). The work is all His. He wiped away all the requirements against us and offers us the cleansing of our souls (Colossians 2:13, 14). And so, as He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The work is done. Our only part in the process is to acknowledge we need forgiveness, that we cannot earn it, and then to accept it. When we do, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13, 14; 2 Corinthians 1:21, 22), enabling us to live committed to the Lord who saved us. This is faith. But it must be a true faith that results in action. To claim to know the truth is not the same as relying on it or allowing it to change you (James 2:18-20). There are many who desire the benefits of discipleship without any of its costs, and their refusal to count them shows that they never believed they needed saving. They just want to identify with something that will give them advantages. They have a form of godliness, but none of its power (2 Timothy 3:1-5). For such people, Jesus is not Lord, nor even Savior, but insurance. He is their means of entering a culture, and their guess is that if they are seen serving Him, it will buy their way into heaven. But without trusting in Him completely, or really at all, they are still in their sins. Grace is gained through faith alone. And that creates works. Where there are no works, there is no faith. But everything begins with faith that Jesus saves, and alone can save. To believe that is to submit to Him, to become an heir to His promises, and to begin a new life. That is how you become a Christian. If you have done that, do not rest easy, but rest assured. If you have not, consider how easy it is to begin because of the hard work already done for you, if you are willing to acknowledge your guilt, your need, and God’s grace. And if you are a Christian who needs to tell someone else how to become a Christian because their life does not show the works of those who have faith, then remember to keep it simple and tell them what they need to know. It is not your job to make sure they get it, or accept it. It is only your responsibility to tell them the truth of what they need and of how to get it. And they only get it by relying on Christ. 

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