Two Stories

Everyone has a story to tell about their life. Some stories are more dramatic than others, some are sad, some are enthralling, some are unpredictable, while others (and probably the majority of us) have stories that are rather mundane and will never bring us even fifteen minutes of fame. Nevertheless, every story is important and relevant, no matter how significant or insignificant we might think ours (or another’s) is. Stories are always interesting, however, and worthy of notice. I would like to present two stories from the lives of people I have met over the years, narratives of interest that might help the reader understand how one becomes a true Christian.

Free but Chained

A number of years ago, in a previous ministry, I was sitting at a University of Florida cafeteria dining room table with a student who had visited our large group campus ministry meeting held on the UF campus the week before. Surprisingly, even though I had never met him before the evening on which he visited our meeting, he was not only willing, but was eager to meet with me again, this time on an individual basis. I immediately made an appointment to meet with him during the next week. As we conversed in the campus cafeteria that day, I discovered that this student, although an avowed non-Christian at the time, was extremely transparent about the emptiness of his life. Through a personal, tragic circumstance, he had almost lost his life, had lost all of his friends, and also had entered into a valley of depression. He was a handsome young man with a vibrant personality. Although small in frame, he was a body builder and had an active social life, showing me his little black book of female students’ names, college women (and others I guess) whom he could contact at any moment, if he was looking for a “good time.” He was succeeding in school, enjoying the college scene and some might conclude, “what more could he want in life?” He was drinking in the pleasures of the collegiate “good life” and was envied by many of his peers.

But while we spoke, it was obvious he wasn’t happy; rather, he had been broken by his self-driven (or self-fulfilling) lifestyle, as well as his personal life crisis. He presently was living with an internal sense of guilt and shame. We spoke at length and the conversation was both engaging and positive. Amazingly, even though he was in his early 20’s, he had never been inside a church building, had never attended a worship service, nor had he read any part of the Bible. But, he did believe in God and finding himself at the end of his rope, he was seeking the truth about the questions of life.

In his seeking for God, he came to understand that the answers to his questions were to be found in God’s Word, the Bible. Eventually this young man received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, finding forgiveness for his personal sins and failures, purpose for his future, a relationship with the living God, and a warm community of good friends. He was wonderfully changed and didn’t look back.

Successful but Failing

Or possibly you might relate to this young woman I met some years ago. She grew up in a very religious setting, an overtly Christian home, but it meant very little to her after she reached her teens. In her mind, Christianity was only a way to escape hell, not a relationship with the living God. Consequently, in her words, she became a very shallow adult. Thinking she could pray “the sinner’s prayer” (a confession of personal sin) at any time if the going got tough, she tried never to think about what she believed in and what kind of person she was. She constantly made bad personal choices. However, from time to time, she would stop and think about eternity and “try to be a Christian.” But try as she may, she couldn’t figure out what that meant. She felt blind to what a real Christian was.

Nevertheless, she pursued her career goals with a passion, earning the appropriate university degrees for her field of endeavor, even being awarded the honor of summa cum laude in her bachelors’ degree program. Armed with a fine educational arsenal, including an eventual Master’s degree, she continued to climb the ladder of success on the way to the top of her profession. By the age of 30, she was a Vice President at a leading advertising agency in a major city and went on to become an advertising director at a large corporation where she was designated a top performer. She appeared to have it all: success, prestige, money, and all the nice things a person could want – she was at the top of the world!

However, at the peak of her career and seemingly at the apex of her life, she suddenly hit rock bottom. Her marriage was falling apart and her husband told her that he no longer loved her as a wife. He wanted a divorce and everything seemed to be crumbling before her eyes. It seemed that her career had trumped her marriage and there was no recovery to be found. She did everything she could to save the marriage but nothing seemed to work. She was truly broken hearted over this loss and suddenly realized what a mess she had made of her life.

She decided to start reading the Bible and going to church regularly, since she didn’t know where else to turn.  One day, she entered a Christian bookstore and discovered a book by a man who was known as an intellectual convert to Christ, author C. S. Lewis. The book was entitled, Screwtape Letters, and provided a glimpse into how her life had been manipulated by God’s archenemy, Satan. Intrigued, she went on to read another book by C. S. Lewis, his most popular work and a Christian classic, known as Mere Christianity.

As she read and thought, she began to pray. She felt the burden of her sinful and broken past. She had rebelled against the God who loved her. She felt the need for God’s forgiveness and the need to forgive others in her life as well. She submitted her will to God completely and asked Him to be the lord and master of her life – all that was left of it anyhow. In doing so, she experienced God’s transformational power in her life and her desires became totally different. In her own words, “I became a new creation.” She was convinced that the Holy Spirit of God was now living in her, and although she knew that she was the most unworthy sinner on the earth, she had personally received His gift of grace – and His forgiveness.  Her life had changed and all of the idols of this world that she had previously cherished paled into insignificance. She would now serve God with everything she could offer.

Today, as you read this pamphlet, for whatever reason, possibly you feel some affinities with either of these two individuals – this searching university student or this successful young business woman. You might also be wondering about the answers to the questions of life. Very possibly, your story is quite different from these two individuals, but in your own mind and heart, the questions of life – the deeper issues that face us all – still linger unanswered. I hope this short introduction to the Christian faith might assist you in some way to find what you are looking for and indeed, to find God Himself. And, if you have a Bible available, you might prefer to look up the various references (noted in parentheses) for your own study and inquiry.

Answering the Questions of Life

Our Origins

The answers to the questions of life always start with God. The Bible begins with the premise, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth….” (Genesis 1:1). The Bible simply assumes that God is. The living, personal, almighty God is the Creator of all that is, the entire universe. When we consider the origins of life, God’s existence is the most obvious answer to the intricate and amazing world in which we live. We could not be here by chance! Because God is our Creator, each of us owes Him our entire life; He brought us into being and sustains our every moment of existence (Acts 17:25-28). He has given us everything we have and we are accountable to Him for all we do. God created mankind – men and women – in order that we might know Him, enjoy a relationship with Him, and honor, love, and serve Him as our maker, sustainer, and caretaker.

Our Dilemma – Our Failure

As mentioned above, God made humanity that we might know Him personally, love Him, and walk through life in relationship with Him. But, as we consider the world around us, we recognize that people are not living in a natural relationship with God; rather God often seems distant and unapproachable to us. Unbelief prevails. This reality forces us to inquire into what happened to the original design of God’s creation. The Bible tells us that after God made man and woman in His image (relational, personal, and creative beings – Genesis 1:26), our first parents actually rebelled against Him in the garden of Eden (a wonderful place of perfect fellowship with God). Man’s original rebellion affects each of us, as we all have inherited this sinful nature and the personal guilt which ensues from our own sinful acts; therefore, we continue to seek our own way and our own will rather than God’s will. The Bible calls our state of rebellion and our acts of autonomy “sin.” A friend of mine, the late Dr. David Nicholas, has said that sin can well be defined as “crimes against God.” We are all criminals in the sight of a holy and sinless God. This sin nature and its expressions of self-centered behavior cannot dwell in the presence of God’s perfect being. This is one reason why God appears to be far off to all people. The bottom line is that we are in trouble with God!

Our Dilemma – God’s Requirements

The Bible tells us that God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-17). He is in essence morally perfect, pure, and altogether flawless in His being and character. His holiness makes Him so unlike us that we should be in awe of His greatness and live before Him in reverent fear. His awesome nature becomes even more overwhelming to us, because Jesus tells us that God requires perfection on our part, both in heart attitude and action (Matthew 5:48). And God requires us to be holy (sinless) like Him, as well. Added to this requirement is the frightening reality that God knows everything about us – our words, actions, and even our thoughts and motives. Nothing is hidden from His sight and He will judge us based on this knowledge of us (Hebrews 4:12-13). Our sin – our lack of holiness and inability to be perfect – is what has caused God to appear distant and inaccessible to us. We are unable to approach Him (I Timothy 6:15-16) or to have a relationship with Him because He is too pure to coexist with sinners. We are criminals and cannot see Him in His holiness and live. In His justice and righteousness, God, as the judge of all people, must condemn us for our sins against Him.

The Bible defines sin in at least three ways:

  1. Disobedience, rebellion or transgression – acts of the will, which break God’s law (I John 3:4). We have all broken God’s law, as expressed in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). We are criminals in His sight and stand in danger, convicted before a righteous judge!
  2. Unbelief – the inability of the mind to believe in or trust God (Titus 1:15).
  3. Personal failure – the inability to fully glorify God, which includes falling short of His glory and His perfect requirements (Romans 3:23).

One great theologian of recent days, the late Dr. John Leith, has stated that sin is also defined by these additional categories: pride (a me first mentality), idolatry (loving something more than God), apathy (not caring about God), and sensuality (living primarily for our own desires). Unfortunately, we cannot escape the indictments which these definitions bring upon us; we are all guilty of seeking our own way. Because of our sin and guilt, each of us inevitably will face the consequences of God’s judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Those consequences are:

  1. Spiritual death (the inability to know God personally or have a relationship with Him – Ephesians 2:1)
  2. Physical death (aging and the death of the body – Genesis 2:17)
  3. Eternal death (being cast out of the presence of God, suffering in body and soul forever, a fate which the Bible calls “hell” – Revelation 20:11-15).

These prospects, being true and just, are disheartening and frightening to most any of us if we are honest with ourselves.

God’s Answer

The Bible describes man’s dilemma – his being separated from the God who made him – as his being “lost” (Luke 19:10). Mankind has lost his fellowship with God and his sense of true purpose in this world. He has lost the answers to the questions of life – life has become an unsolvable mystery to us. And he has marred the image of God in which he was originally created; the ugliness of broken human relationships is a vivid demonstration of this loss. The world has fallen from its originally intended purpose at creation – we have lost the opportunity to know, love, and glorify God and to serve Him in a rich and mutual relationship. Sadly, and tragically, all mankind – and each of us – lives under the judgment and condemnation of a holy God, whom he or she could have otherwise known and enjoyed.

The ultimate question of life is this, “Can men and women, fallen from their original perfect state of being and their initial relationship with God, restore what was lost in their disobedience to their Creator? Can we ever come to know God personally and avoid His righteous judgment and our own personal condemnation?” The Bible tells us that in and of ourselves, we cannot return to God or restore what has been lost. Because of our disobedience and unbelief, we cannot please God in any way; the imperfect cannot appease the One who requires perfection (Romans 3:10-12). We also cannot save ourselves or reach God by our own efforts (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our good works, morality, generosity, social involvement, thoughts and prayers, and even our religious efforts are unable to please God or make us acceptable to Him. Our motives are mixed with self-interest; our righteousness (goodness) is as filthy, soiled and stained rags in His sight (Isaiah 64:4). Imagine wiping down your automobile with an oily rag right after taking it through the carwash. Such thinking is abhorrent to us. Yet, we think we can walk into God’s holy presence with lives stained by our disbelief in and disobedience to God.

The good news, however, is that God has done something wonderful – in some ways unbelievable (some call it “amazing”) – about our predicament. He has given us a gracious gift (Romans 6:23). As a matter of fact, the word “gospel” simply means this: Good News! Because a sinful person cannot approach a holy God in his or her own ability, God has intervened by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ, to show us the way to God. Jesus is no ordinary man; he is the second person of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and as such is deity, i.e., God Himself (John 1:1, 14; Colossians 1:15-16, 19; Hebrews 1:3). He is God revealed in human flesh, as amazing as that might sound! He is eternal, before all things (John 8:58), declared to be the creator and sustainer of the universe (Colossians 1:17) and is the worker of inexplicable miracles. As a man, however, Jesus took upon Himself real human flesh and blood like ours, being born of a virgin mother, with no earthly father (God was His father). He had no sin nature, nor did He ever commit sin. As God in the flesh, Jesus was born in perfection and able to live His entire life in perfect conformity to His Father’s will. This is significant because, whereas we are unable to keep God’s law or satisfy His perfect requirements, Jesus fulfilled all of God’s requirements and perfectly satisfied God, the Father’s, perfect demands with His righteous life. With Jesus, the Father was well pleased in every way (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). Whereas the law of God condemns each of us, as sinners (criminals), Jesus has kept all of the law and fulfilled its demands for perfect obedience. His work is indeed amazing.

Not only did Jesus, God’s Son, live on this earth without sin, he also came to earth in order to satisfy the demands of God’s wrath, i.e. God’s anger against our sin. The only way to escape God’s wrath, eternal death and hell (our judgment) is through Christ’s work on the cross, a work done on behalf of those who will trust Him. Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinners (Isaiah 53:6; I Peter 2:24). As a substitute, He took the punishment – God’s wrath that our sins deserve – upon Himself and willfully suffered for us, so that we who believe might go free (free from God’s judgment). His death on the cross was a death made on our behalf, God coming to die in our place, so that we might be pardoned in regard to the guilt and punishment required by our sins. Jesus frees those who believe and repent from being punished by a just God.

This is what we mean by the great love of God. God loves sinners and demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners, ungodly, and His enemies, living for ourselves, Christ died for us (Romans 5:611). This is the amazing good news we call the gospel.  Christ lived a perfect life, did nothing deserving death or God’s judgment, and yet he gave His life on the cross – the capital punishment of His day – in order to suffer and die on our behalf. His body was beaten, bruised and pierced and He did this because God loves us (John 3:16). Christ came to reconcile us to God. Stunningly, God, who came in human form through the person of His Son – one who knew no sin – truly suffered and died, becoming sin for us so that in Him we become acceptable (righteous) before God (i.e., we receive Christ’s record of perfect law keeping – 2 Corinthians 5:21). He then rose from the dead in order to demonstrate and confirm that indeed He is God and can give life to all who will trust Him (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). This is the wonder of the gospel. As I accept Christ’s work on my behalf – i.e., His active obedience (living perfectly in my behalf) and His passive obedience (suffering and going to the cross to die for my sins) – I escape the hell and punishment I truly deserve. Also, amazingly, I receive His perfect record, credited to the debt I owe to God and paying off that debt. I am now dressed, so to speak, in Christ’s perfect work (His righteousness), presentable to God the holy judge. I have an acceptance before God that is derived through Christ. And because He is alive today, I can know Him personally, like a friend. This is an amazing reality and truly the answer to the ultimate question of life.

The Bible clearly tells us that Jesus is the only way to reach God (John 14:6; 1 Timothy 2:5). The uniqueness of Christianity lies in the fact that the means to solving our dilemma is not found in our own efforts, i.e. trying to be a good person, building our own spiritual resume, being generous and benevolent, or faithfully following a moral code or a philosophy of life. Religion, by definition, is said to be man’s attempt to reach God; Christianity, however, is God’s plan to reach man and redeem – or save him – from his lost-ness. Religion is based on man’s efforts to do good or be better, and is therefore flawed and inadequate, due to man’s sin. But Christianity is a relationship based upon God’s gracious initiative to provide a sacrifice (a substitute) for the punishment of a person’s sins. The only way to have a relationship with God is to become right with God, i.e., to find a means to satisfy God’s wrath against our sin. Christ’s work is that means.

Once we recognize our brokenness, like my University of Florida student friend, and the successful business woman mentioned earlier, we can find pardon, forgiveness, and peace with God (Romans 5:1). What a relief! We do so by repenting of (i.e., grieving over and turning from) our sins/crimes and our self-centeredness (Luke 13:3; Isaiah 55:6-7). We confess our sins to God (I John 1:9) and trust Christ for the work he has done on our behalf (Acts 16:31). We submit ourselves and our will to His control, trusting Him to change us, which He will do. We become Christians, sons and daughters of God, by receiving Christ as our Lord and Savior (John 1:12). Faith is simply taking God at His word, believing that He will keep His promises and that He will accept us through the work of His Son, Jesus. You must turn to Him and call upon Him, and He will hear you (Romans 10: 9, 13).

I invite you to receive Jesus Christ into your life today, asking Him to save you from your lost-ness and to change your heart. He is indeed the answer to the ultimate question of life, “How can I know God?” There is no greater question, nor a greater answer. In Christ, you will find an abundant life today – walking in relationship with the risen Christ – as well as a life beyond this one which surpasses our imagination – everlasting life with the God who made us to know Him forever. If that is your desire, turn to your Creator and seek His pardon and grace. You will never regret your decision!

Conclusion

Ultimately, a true Christian is a person who has become a disciple –or follower – of Christ, having given Christ his or her life as a total act of faith and submission. The true Christian trusts in Christ’s finished work on the cross, knowing that his or her only hope is in the blood Christ shed on that shameful cross in order to satisfy His heavenly father’s wrath against sin. At the cross, a believer finds pardon, forgiveness, and God’s grace and love. A true Christian recognizes that he has no other hope than Christ, and so turns or repents from his sin and gives himself to God out of great gratitude. Out of this work – this change in the heart – flows a deep desire to please and live for God with all of one’s life. Following Christ is the response to a call. Becoming His disciple is a work that Jesus has initiated and one that he is doing in His “called ones’” lives. Christ is still calling men, women, boys, and girls to follow Him and Christ is still changing lives, one person at a time. I do hope that you might seek the One who has sought us by coming and showing us the deep love He has for us.