You ask, “So when did you become a Christian?” One person replies “I went forward at the Billy Graham Rally in 1984.” A second person says “Ooh I think I’ve always been one. I can’t remember a day when I didn’t love Jesus.” Which one do you consider to be a believer? The first, second, neither or both?
Maybe you are thinking “I’m not sure, it’s a bit early to say from that.” I think you are onto something there. You probably would also want to add that as finite human beings we can never be totally sure about where someone is with the Lord. We’ve seen too many examples of people who seemed to be very sound falling away drastically. You would have a point there too. And yet we can’t neglect the question in church life. To the best of our ability, we want to be sure that those who are members of the church and making decisions together are followers of Jesus, that those we ask to preach, teach, lead worship, help with Sunday club etc belong to the Lord. Then there’s the question we raised the other day of dating and/or marrying a non-believer – what steps do you go to in order to make sure that you are not?
It’s vital to start with Scripture. Here are three vital examples
John 3:3 tells i
us that Jesus said “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
In Acts 2:38 Peter says to the crowd at Pentecost “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Paul in Romans 10:9 writes “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The first part of that verse is more literally “If you confess with your mouth.”
These verses tell us that
- Belonging to Christ is a “new birth” we are not born into faith. We do not inherit our salvation from our parents.
- That there needs to be a clear outward profession. This requires repentance – we need to recognise that we are sinners who need God’s forgiveness. There is a commitment or bowing to Jesus as Lord. He must reign in our lives. The Bible provides baptism as that means of outward profession.
- Outward profession is not enough it must be the outworking of a genuine inward belief. There must have been a response from the heart. The whole person responds including their intellect, will and emotions.
Now back to our two people -this means that we want to be clear that you are not always a Christian because you are not born one. However, I would suggest a word of caution here. There will be people who won’t remember a specific day when they turned to Christ. In some cases, it was a process over time as they heard God’s Word proclaimed and the Holy Spirit began to work in them moving them to belief. For others, I think it is possible that they heard about Jesus from as soon as they were able to listen. They responded to that good news, loving him and trusting him. My own experience is that as a 5-year-old child I prayed a simple prayer asking Jesus to be my saviour and come into my life. However, I would also say that looking back even earlier than that I wanted to follow Jesus, I knew that I did wrong but that Jesus had died for me. I also know that moving forward in time there was a growing response as I was increasingly challenged about fully trusting and completely following Christ.
Then there’s the person who said that they went forward at the Billy Graham meeting. So far, so good we think. But what if I were to tell you that they have not met with believers since, that they don’t pray or read their Bible and that their family will tell you that they are a horrendous person to live with, arrogant, bullying, deceitful. Now, it could be that we are talking to someone who has a kernel of faith or that they have backslidden. But I am also challenged by what Scripture tells me about how our fruit will show where our roots are. And this is the thing. Throughout my life, I’ve met people who have at one time or another been caught up in the emotion of an event, they may even have had some awareness of sin, they may have been encouraged to say the words of a prayer out but it was just that, an emotion, a form of words. In some cases, they’d told me that it was actually later on that they were properly confronted with the Gospel and put their life into Christ’s hands.
The danger here as well is that we want to remain positive and as Christians we can be experts at ducking painful truths. We cling on to the assurance that our friend, child, someone we witnessed to is a believer in the face of all evidence to the contrary because they once said the sinner’s prayer even when the reality is that they are as far away as you can possibly get from the Gospel even stating openly that they do not believe that God exists.
So how do we progress things forward. Here are a few thoughts:
- In some cases, we see people who have got faith but do not know how to express it. That is the benefit of hearing God’s Word taught regularly. There will be a growing sense of “aha -that is my experience -that is what God has done for me.” We help people to put into words and confess with their lips the state of their heart.
- We proactively encourage baptism and couple that with the person giving testimony about their faith in Christ.
- We encourage people to tell us their whole life story and listen out for what it tells us about their relationship with God.
- We ask questions about their faith now. What is the basis of their relationship with God? What do they know about their eternal destiny?
To this end, I have found the two diagnostic questions used in the Evangelism Explosion programme very helpful over the years. They are not perfect questions and when talking to people with no Christian connections at all can end up going no-where. However, when someone has had a reasonable exposure to Christian teaching they can be very helpful. They are
- If you were to die tonight, do you know that you would have eternal life with God for ever?
- If God were to say to you “Why should I give you eternal life and let you live with me forever?” then how would you answer.
You can see immediately how helpful these questions will be. You ask the first question and the person says “Yes!” then you move on to the second one. They may say “because I have been christened/baptised,” “I go to church regularly” or “because I have done my best to live a good life” This gives you the opportunity to go back to the verses we mentioned above along with Ephesians 2:8 and show them that it isn’t about outward ceremonies or works but about faith in Christ because of God’s grace at Calvary.
On the other hand, they may say that they know they have eternal life because Jesus died for them on the Cross and they are trusting in him alone.
Then you get the person who responds to the first question with “I hope so…” or “I’m not sure…” You move onto the second question. It may be that they can only hope so because they are relying on their efforts -they go to church and try to be a good person but are not sure if they are good enough. You may also have someone who has put their faith in Jesus but lack assurance. It can be a wonderful thing to sit alongside someone and show them how their life is hidden in Christ and he will not lose them from his hand.
Finally, you have the person who says “I know I won’t have eternal life because I am a sinner who deserves God’s judgement” (or something to that effect. What a wonderful opportunity to talk to them about the Gospel and how they can know forgiveness from sin and the hope of eternal life in Christ alone.
This means that the conversation is a win -win. We either have the joy of hearing someone testify to their faith in Christ or we have the opportunity to share the Gospel with them.
Whilst we cannot read people’s minds and hearts – only God can look on the heart, we do have a responsibility to look for the objective evidence of faith. We are looking for current evidence of living faith in the one true God.
Living faith means a complete dependence upon Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection for salvation.