I’m currently reading The 10 Commandments of Dating, by Ben Young and Dr. Samuel Adams (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999). Today, I want to engage its definition of a Christian.
The deal is this: Young and Adams say that Christians should marry only Christians. But how can you identify a true Christian, as opposed to someone who merely claims to be one? In answer to this question, Young and Adams offer the following criteria:
“Personal testimony. Someone who knows Jesus Christ will be able to point to a certain time in life when he or she personally trusted in Him as Lord and Savior. A Christian makes a conscious decision to repent of sin and to trust and follow Christ. A believer feels no fear or shame acknowledging and discussing this critical life foundation.
“Changed lifestyle. A Christian seeks to live according to the principles set forth in the Bible. Believers attend church and desire to hang out with other Christians. They seek to love others and bring them into a personal relationship with Christ. Christians value sexual purity and don’t take advantage of their partners. They desire to study, pray, and apply the Scripture to their lives. They forgive others because they have received abundant forgiveness from God” (47-48).
The “certain time in life” part reminds me of something I heard from an Assemblies of God preacher: If you don’t remember a specific time when you accepted Christ, then you aren’t really saved.
Others are more open-minded. At DePauw, I met with the sponsor of Intervarsity on a weekly basis, and he said that people can encounter Christ in a variety of ways. Some become Christians in a single instant, while others come to know God over a longer period of time.
Personally, I have a hard time putting a whole lot of stock in those times that I said the sinner’s prayer. I first did so when I was in elementary school. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was reading my Good News Bible alone in my room, and the appendix talked about accepting Christ as one’s personal Savior. I said the prayer that it suggested with tears in my eyes, but, unfortunately, it didn’t lead to a changed life. Sure, I had my share of powerful religious feelings–a hunger for God, if you will. But I still talked back to my parents. I picked on kids who were younger than me. I used profanity in public. I felt a general disorientation in my life. And my religious feelings would come and go.
When I was a freshman in high school, for example, I worked at a Vacation Bible School during the summer. The speakers really inspired me to love God and live for him, so, when I returned home, I resolved to honor my father and mother (the commandment that gave me the biggest problems). My bedroom door had a list of the Ten Commandments on two big sheets of poster-board, and I etched a mark by the fifth one every day that I respected my parents (which I defined as not arguing with them, doing what they told me to do, or, when I felt especially generous, doing chores without them asking). Well, that didn’t last long, let me tell you! I soon fell back into my usual spiritual aimlessness: having a hunger for God, but not being able to apply or maintain it with any consistency.
The next time I prayed the sinner’s prayer was as a sophomore in high school. I was reading a number of spiritual books, and one I came across was John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus. According to MacArthur, intellectual assent to Christian doctrine is not enough for salvation. Rather, saving faith includes surrender, commitment, and obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord. After all, did not Jesus say, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 NRSV)?
After reading MacArthur, I was slightly afraid. I did not know if I would enter the Kingdom of Heaven, since I was not living the Christian life. And I looked at several of my flaws–my disrespect for my parents, my anger, my bad treatment of others–and I felt ashamed. Moreover, I really admired the commitment that MacArthur described, the sense of purpose that biblical characters got when they resolved to follow Jesus Christ. My soul felt empty, and I needed consistent nourishment. So I committed myself to follow Jesus Christ as my Lord.
I went to bed, and, the next morning, I felt more at peace. And more consistency emerged in my Christian walk. It took a while for my parents to be convinced, but they eventually noticed that I was different. My Grandma told a customer at her health food store that I was a “brand new person” (though she attributed that to a supplement I was taking, which she was also selling).
And, in those days, my life was like what Young and Adams describe. I felt a hunger for God, such that I read the Bible and Christian books at home and at school. I couldn’t get enough! You may not believe me, but I actually enjoyed fellowship with other believers. My family didn’t go to church on a weekly basis, but I went to a Christian youth group that met at my high school. The people were really nice, and I felt a lot of fulfillment as we shared our commitment to Christ with each other. I sought out opportunities to serve, particularly at my Key Club and my local food pantry.
As far as witnessing went, I somewhat did that. Often, I was defending Armstrongite doctrine (e.g., seventh-day Sabbath, holy days, post-mortem opportunities for salvation, etc.) to mainstream Christians. I mean, I was listening to Ron Dart sermons on personal evangelism, and those were the doctrinal items that he emphasized. I acknowledged that there were good Christians in non-Armstrongite circles, but I felt that Armstrongite doctrine was an important part of truly knowing God.
I also argued with atheists, boldly defended Christianity in my classes, and asked people about their relationship with God. I don’t think I ever walked people through the sinner’s prayer, but I was publicly identifying myself as a believer in Christ.
But things were not perfect. I was shy and introverted, so I had a hard time greeting people with a big Christian smile. In addition, I was still mad at this girl who had rejected me in the eighth grade, meaning that I had some forgiveness issues.
And obedience was becoming a burden. For example, take my issue of not greeting people first when I passed them in the hallway. Jesus says in Matthew 5:47, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Was I disobeying Jesus by not being an extrovert? Or, for my issue of resentment against that one girl, Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (Matthew 18:15). Sure, she didn’t go to my church, but she was a Christian, as were a lot of people in Brazil, Indiana. Did I have to approach her and tell her about my bitterness? Or ask her if she was mad at me (since, prior to my sophomore conversion experience, I could be pretty unkind to her)? Obedience to Christ as I understood it was becoming a burden, so I didn’t completely do it. As a result, I felt guilty, as if God did not accept me.
And so I have a hard time putting a lot of stock in my second recitation of the sinner’s prayer. I was committing myself to a set of rules, and I didn’t really believe that God loved me.
The third time I said the sinner’s prayer, I was a junior at DePauw University. As I said, I was meeting on a weekly basis with the sponsor of Intervarsity. He sensed that I knew a lot about the Bible, but, for some reason, I could not give him a clear answer when he asked me what the Gospel was. And so he systematically presented me with the doctrine of penal substitution. I already knew about Christ dying for people’s sins, but I wasn’t aware of the whole dilemma of reconciling God’s justice with God’s love, which he described to me.
He also answered a lot of my questions in a gentle and reasonable manner. I told him that I was an introvert, and he responded that he too was a wall-flower at parties, but that there are a number of ways to glorify God besides social extroversion (e.g., one could be a good student). He stressed that salvation is by grace through faith, not my own personal goodness. And he encouraged me to find my sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in God’s love for me, not things like grades or popularity or other accomplishments. I walked out of my meetings with him feeling refreshed, as if God truly loved me.
But that didn’t last long. For one, I had a hard time reconciling certain Bible passages with the idea of God’s unconditional love. I mean, can I say that I’m truly saved, if I am disobedient? There are a number of Christian perspectives on that, but my reading of Scripture inclines in the “no” direction.
I was also rooting my identity in accomplishments. I made really good grades at DePauw, to the point that I graduated summa cum laude. Whether others liked me or not, I could point to my good grades to show myself and others that I was a winner. Plus, professors actually liked me in those days. But, at Harvard, I had a harder time distinguishing myself. It’s easier to feel good about oneself as a result of what people think rather than what God thinks, since you can actually see the people. I can tell people who dislike me, “Well God loves me,” and they may think that I’m seeking security in some imaginary friend. Plus, God loves everyone, so how does his love for me make me special?
I’ll close with this: Christians act as if the moment one says the sinner’s prayer is crucial. But can the sinner’s prayer be more of a journey for some people? I am not fully persuaded by Christian notions of right and wrong, but I am becoming persuaded as time goes on. I do not fully feel as if God loves me unconditionally, but I am coming to feel that as I experience him more. Maybe faith and repentance occur over a lifetime for some people, as opposed to happening instantaneously once one mouths a few words.