How do Christians become Christians? You will get many different answers depending on which person or which church you ask. I base my beliefs on Scripture and what I have learnt from mainly the Protestant, but also sometimes the wider, Church over decades.
Forgiveness is the key to understanding Christianity. It entails God’s full and free forgiveness of human beings for falling short of His standards, even in the most minute way, although what seems minute to us is huge in God’s estimation. It is not just forgivenenss of what we might call “minor” sins, using euphemisms like “white lies”, that are forgiven. All sins, from murder to infidelity to other sins, are also fully and freely forgiven by God. There are forgiven liars and slanderers, forgiven fornicators, forgiven adulterers, forgiven thieves, forgiven homosexuals, forgiven cowards, forgiven abortion providers, promoters and procurers, forgiven murderers, forgiven gossips, forgiven judgementalists, forgiven fomenters of violence, forgiven haters and more in heaven and on earth. God forgives all people for all manner of sin. But on what grounds does He forgive?
Here is what forgiveness is and is not. I will start with what forgiveness is not. We cannot wholeheartedly decide on a course of action of sin, thinking God will ultimately forgive us. See:
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.Galatians 5:19-21 (ESV)
With God’s forgiveness and entry into His kingdom, in other words, conversion to Christianity, followers of Christ continue to live with a proclivity to sin but it becomes lessened and people become renewed in their wills to want what God wants. Although God enables this change, we must be willing to grow in this change that God is effecting within us. So we can’t decide on a course of action we know to be sinful, depending upon some misguided notion of God to later forgive us. Having said this, we can fail God out of residual sin in our lives or cowardice (a desire to please men (humans) rather than God) but this does not mean that God ever stops forgiving us. As Christians, we depend upon God’s mercy and forgiveness our whole earthly lives.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;1 John 2:1 (NASB)
38 Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses. 40 Therefore take heed, so that the thing spoken of in the Prophets may not come upon you: 41 ‘BEHOLD, YOU SCOFFERS, AND MARVEL, AND PERISH; FOR I AM ACCOMPLISHING A WORK IN YOUR DAYS, A WORK WHICH YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE, THOUGH SOMEONE SHOULD DESCRIBE IT TO YOU.’”Acts 13:38-41 (NASB)
5 And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 Immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home.” 12 And he got up and immediately picked up the pallet and went out in the sight of everyone, so that they were all amazed and were glorifying God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”Mark 2:5-12 (NASB)
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the letter about bondage to the law vs freedom in Christ, Paul does not dismiss the need for obedience. See:
7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?Galatians 5:7 (NASB)
In other words, obey the truth out of love for God, not the law through working for your own salvation. We can fall from grace. Beware apostasy – turning wholeheartedly and determinedly away from God. Some Christians play with fire, not realising that they are entering a state of apostasy so that God and the things of God gradually become repugnant to them. This happens through a blunting of the conscience by not taking heed of it and suppressing it. See the following quotes.
15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; 16 that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.Hebrews 12:15-17 (NASB)
So what is the difference between obedience that comes from, or is oxygenated by, grace as opposed to obedience through trying to obey the law (impossible says Galatians)? The former is achieved by the Spirit, Paul says, while the latter is attempted through the flesh – human striving for perfection. But what do these states mean in practice? This is an extremely difficult question to answer. The following verses from Romans 6, like Galatians 5:7 above, shed some light:
1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? … 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! 16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.Romans 6:1-2, 8-18 (NASB)
Yes, there is a sense of “slavery” in our faith. But what a kind, benevolent Taskmaster we have in God! We all know life, its everyday demands, its everyday challenges. There are choices going on all day, every day. We are the ones who choose either obedience to God or obedience to the worst taskmaster ever to exist – Satan. By obeying Satan it is you and all around you who suffer because you become a slave to evil choices. Understand that Satan is not equal to, or on the same footing as, God. Satan is a created being, like humans are created. God alone is the Creator and is all-powerful. God, for some reason, has allowed some degree of power to Satan over humans but only insofar as humans allow Satan to influence them. This is a complex subject and has been grappled with for millenia. Note all the books that have been written on the problem of evil. Possibly the first chapter of the OT book of Job sheds some light on this question.
The question arises of what sin is. Scripture is our guide. The apostles wrote various lists of sins. Here are some samples;
Paul writing to Timothy
2 For men (humans) will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God2 Timothy 3:2-4 (NKJV)
John in his book of Revelation
… the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liarsRevelation 21:8 (NKJV)
Note the The Ten Commandments:
3 “You shall have no other gods before Me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not worship them or serve them 7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain 8 “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 12 “Honor your father and your mother 13 “You shall not murder. 14 “You shall not commit adultery. 15 “You shall not steal. 16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 “You shall not covetExodus 20:3-17 (NASB)
The last of the commandments, to covet, is to want the belongings of another person so there is an inherent sense of jealousy or envy within its meaning. I do not believe that coveting should be applied to consumerism, not that I am advocating it.
Here is Jesus summing up the ten commandments:
37 And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 22:37-40 (NASB). Also see Mark 12:29-31
Any and all are free to come to God, but on His terms. Repentance for any and all sin is possible if you ask God for His forgiveness. Being in a state of supposed grace by partaking of the sacraments or by any other means won’t save you if you determinedly persist in a state of sin. In fact, the sacraments will rather become a cause for your curse:
27 Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. 28 But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.1 Corinthians 11:27-29 (NASB)
The only deliverance from judgement will come through approaching God for His forgiveness with a truly repentant heart that is repentant in word and deed. God will help His people with any residual weakness if we honestly approach Him.