What Does It Mean to Become a Christian?
If Christianity is, as historic Christianity claims, the one true religion, and, therefore, the only way to God and life eternal, nothing could be more important than being or becoming a Christian. But therein is the problem. What does it mean to “become a Christian”?
It seems to me that there is a fair amount of confusion about this very question. So, especially among evangelicals such as we, who have been influenced by the Revivals that took place in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries, there is a tendency to make distinctions which come down to our saying that some are “nominal Christians” or just “Christians” while others are “real Christians.”
We rightly reject the idea that a person is a Christian just because something has been done to or by a person. For Roman Catholics, that may mean receiving baptism and the six other sacraments. For some from the Anglican tradition, it may mean receiving baptism and being confirmed. For Arminian evangelicals, it may mean “walking the aisle” or “raising a hand” or “signing a card” or “praying a prayer” indicating some kind of “decision for Christ.”
None of these things can be divorced from what one in truth believes and how one in reality lives. A person who joins a church, but does not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of sinners, is not a Christian. A person who is on the roll of a church but who lives unrepentantly (that is, habitually lives a life of sin without grief and without desiring to turn away from it) is not a Christian.
But, some of the ways evangelicals have responded to this problem are not helpful either. For instance, some ask, “Have you asked Jesus to come into your heart?” Many of us grew up hearing it. We have sung many times about floods of joy filling our souls like the sea billows roll since Jesus came into our hearts. My observation is that this question is used most often, though not exclusively, with children.
I suppose the question is based at least in part on Revelation 3:20 where Jesus is pictured knocking at the door and promising to anyone who opens the door that he will come in and eat with him. That text itself is directed, not to unbelievers, but to the members of the lukewarm church at Laodicea. But, leaving that aside, what does it mean to “ask Jesus into your heart”? Apparently this is asking if one has done something or experienced something, but what? And, it says nothing of a sinner receiving a Savior that he/she may be justified in the sight of God.
Then many ask whether people are “born again” Christians. This question played a role in the 1976 Presidential election when Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, said he was a “born again Christian” while Gerald Ford, an Episcopalian, was made to play defense on the issue. He did affirm he was born again, but, he may have had in mind not the kind of new birth that some associate with Billy Graham Crusades, but the kind of new birth the Book of Common Prayer speaks of at baptism.
Must those who are Christians be born again? Surely they must, else they cannot see the kingdom of God. So said Jesus.
But then, from this agreement about the necessity of the new birth, evangelicals diverge as to what it means to be born again. Reformed evangelicals mean by the “new birth” regeneration, which is the secret work of the Holy Spirit leading to faith. Humans are as passive in getting born again as they are in getting born.
Still, I have heard some Reformed folks tell people to “ask” God for the new birth. I have never understood how it is that an unregenerate person is any more able to ask to be born again than to ask the Lord to save him.
Evangelicals of the Jimmy Carter sort, usually mean something that occurs as the result of a human doing something - be it “making a decision for Christ” or “asking Jesus into your heart” or however it is put.
What both the Reformed and Arminian evangelicals do when they add “born again” to Christian is to make a distinction based on experience, whether one is passive or active in it. In one case the experience is God-given prior to faith; in the other it is an experience that either is the same as “making a decision” or the result of it.
Then another way of making the distinction has to do with whether or not one has “made Jesus his personal Savior.” I suppose that the motive behind this is to insist that Jesus is not a general Savior of those who are baptized, or confirmed, or covenant children, or church members. One must recognize one’s own sin and need of a Savior. But, it seems to me that, beyond the matter of personal faith, something is wrong with the idea of a “personal Savior.” He is indeed the Savior of each individual for whom he died, but he is at the same time and no less the Savior of the body of believers, of the church (Ephesians 5:23). He is also the “Savior of the world” (John 4:42) in the sense that there is no other Savior for the world and that he is the Savior of a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Revelation 7:9).
The question I have is: Where do the Apostles in preaching the Gospel call upon people “to ask Jesus to come into your heart” or “to be born again” or “to ask Jesus to be your personal Savior?” I don’t find these kinds of gospel invitations/commands anywhere. The apostolic gospel calls upon sinners: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Peter, Acts 2:38). “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Paul, Acts 16:31).
What to say?
(1) The Biblical distinction is between those who are Christians and those who are not, between those who believe and those who do not. When believers first began to be called “Christians” at Antioch, they were called simply Christians (Acts 11:26).
(2) There is a legitimate distinction between the visible church (those who profess the true religion together with their children) and the invisible church (the elect of all times and places whom Jesus died to save). But the very point of the distinction is that only God can make it. We do not help to make the invisible church visible by adding an adjective to “Christian” - whether “real” or “born again” or whatever.
(3) We must affirm the role of baptism. By this I do not mean that baptism automatically saves anyone (infant or adult), or that without baptism no one at all can be saved (as the Church of Christ teaches - one cannot be saved unless he/she is baptized by immersion for salvation). But I do make the historic Christian point - baptism puts a distinction between the church and the world. That is true whether or not one believes in child baptism (which I heartily do). Under anything other than the most extraordinary circumstances, what is a “Christian” who has not been baptized?
(4) We need to affirm the role of a profession of faith. Almost every church that claims to be Christian teaches that one must intentionally affirm or confirm the Christian faith in addition to being baptized. But, when it comes to profession of faith, the distinction we make is between “credible” (believable) and “incredible” (unbelievable). How do we do that? In the Presbyterian church we do that by asking the five membership questions and emphasizing that affirming them is not a formality but a matter of what one intelligently and intentionally believes (a sinner in the sight of God who receives and rests upon Christ the Son of God and Savior of sinners) and sincerely intends (live as becomes a follower of Christ, support the church in its worship and work to the best of one’s ability, and, submit to the government of the church, pursuing the church’s peace and purity).
(5) We need to make charitable and consistent use of the “keys of the kingdom.” Where the profession is incredible, the person is not received into the church’s communicant membership as a Christian (though in the case of infants and children who are baptized, they are non-communicant members of the church). Where the profession is questionable, sometimes it is wise to delay the person’s reception. Where the profession becomes incredible (by persistent denial in word or life of any of the 5 membership vows), the church’s duty is to warn the person, sometimes to suspend the person from the full privileges of church membership, or, in some cases, to excommunicate (remove a person from membership in the visible church.)
(6) We should rejoice in the place that “Christian nurture” often has in conversion (that is, conscious faith and repentance). We bring our children to Christ in baptism; we and the church teach them “our holy religion” and “use all the means of God’s appointment to bring them up in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord”; we are not surprised when they don’t have an “experience” but simply “believe” at every developmental stage what they have been taught from infancy, “the holy Scriptures which are able to make (them) wise for salvation.” And, we should not despair if some seem to wander away from the faith, or be surprised when they return.
(7) We should consider covenant children “Christian children” whom we expect to confess the faith as their own. We should proclaim the gospel by every legitimate means to those who are not Christians, and sincerely offer them salvation by faith in Christ. Then, when they have credibly professed faith (and, if un-baptized, been baptized), we should receive them into the company of the “Christ-ians”, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To become a Christian is to confess Christ as Savior and Lord. To be a Christian is to continue to do so for the rest of your life. Within the communion of the church.
(For any who may be interested, this was written several years ago. It is published here with punctuation edits and the addition of one sentence.)