Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What does it mean to be a Christian?

Our Church has just started an eight week sermon series in which we'll be looking at what it means to be a Christian. It's a good question.  Think about it. Are you a Christian? For those people that were born into the faith, grew up in a Christian family, or have gone to church off and on for years...the easy answer is 'yes'. Sure I am...everyone in my family is!

But I'm asking seriously...are you REALLY a Christian? 

In order to properly assess that question, one needs to understand what it means to be a Christian. Going to church doesn't make you a Christian. Many people idly day dream through most of the service. Being born into the faith doesn't make you a Christian any more than being born in Dunkin' Donuts would automatically classify you as a piece of pastry. 

Being newly alive in the faith, I have often pondered this question. How do I know that I'm on the right path?  Peter explains in Acts, that if you repent from your evil ways and get baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins - then you will be given the 'gift of the Holy Spirit.' Sounds great right? Sweet! What...do I get like magic powers or something? When does it begin? How will I know? (As I found out later...for me, this 'gift of the Holy Spirit' first showed up as a form of 'conviction'.)

The Apostle Paul says that "those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old is gone. A new life has begun!" (2 Cor 5:17) I think this is spot on. I've seen it happen in my own life. But for me, it wasn't an overnight process. Sure, I think there are some people out there that feel a lightning bolt moment and can point to a specific conversion date. But not me. I wasn't overcome with any instantaneous magical feelings or powers. I prayed that Jesus would forgive my transgressions, take charge of my life, and I thanked him for loving me enough to carry the burden of my inequities. If there were any initial feelings...it was one of relief. Relief at least that I had made a decision about SOMETHING in my life. There was a God, and I was submitting to his divine authority. Whew! But no lightning bolts.

Slowly I noticed that I began to have a distaste for my old ways. As time went on, I began to look back on my prior lifestyle and choices, and felt remorse for living in such a destructive manner. I realize now that I was slowly becoming 'convicted' by the Holy Spirit. The best and most well-known Scripture using this word is found in Jesus' teaching, John 16:7. "But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment."

'Conviction' is a powerful word. Sometimes I think of it as being absolutely convinced of something. Or to convince others of something...as when a jury decides that a defendant is guilty. The Bible word for 'convinced' is "elegcho" which is translated a variety of ways: confute, admonish, convict, convince, tell a fault, rebuke, reprove.American theologian Albert Barnes says that the word translated means commonly to demonstrate by argument, to prove, to persuade anyone to do a thing by presenting reasons. It hence means also to convince of anything, and particularly to convince of crime. This is its meaning in John 16:7. He will convince or convict the world of sin. That is, he will so apply the truths of God to men's own mindsas to convince them by fair and sufficient arguments that they are sinners, and cause them to feel this. This is the nature of conviction always."

And that's what slowly started to happen to me. The Holy Spirit began to convict me of my poor behavior. Which in turn became an everyday reminder of how much I needed Christ's intervention in my life. And the more I turned to Christ, the better my life became. I began to crawl under Christs blanket of Justification as much as possible. I found joy there that I had never experienced before. I began in earnest to pray, and make prayer a daily part of my life. I began to have a relationshipwith Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. It was through my relationship with Jesus that I began to feel more and more assured that I truly was a Christian. But I'm not sure this relationship would've been started had I not experienced the humbling nature of the Holy Spirit's conviction in my mind.

So how do you know you have a relationship with Jesus? Is this when the lightning bolts start happening? Is this when the magic powers start to kick in? Yes actually, it is! I say that because, I really believe that my relationship with Christ has allowed me to feel a bit of magic. I really feel that I have witnessed a little bit of Heaven whilst I've been here on Earth. I've been given the wonderful blessing of enjoying my life for what it is, and sensing God's presence in places I never knew he existed before.  I wish I had the verbal acumen to explain it better...but I can only say that I've experienced a quiet joy as opposed to a fleeting happiness. I am quiet when I used to be loud. I am patient when I used to be impulsive. I am forgiving when once I was resentful. I can give it over to my creator. I am slowly learning to entrust him with my life. What freedom! 

But feelings aren't what I hang my hat on. In order to develop my faith I need to practice it. I need to be able to explain what faith is beyond just telling people that..."Man, I know I'm a Christian, because Jesus makes me feel really good!" 

Here are some some ways I know that what I'm feeling is real. Ways in which I can rest assured that I am a Christian, and I can have confidence in my Faith:

1) The Word Of God
     A. "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." (Rev 3:20) I asked Jesus to come in, and he slowly began to convict me through the holy spirit. I began a process of change.
     B. "I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matt 28:20)Every time I need his help, he is there to guide me. I feel his constant presence in prayer.
     C. "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish!" (John 10:28) I have sensed this eternal life, I have tasted it, in the glimpses of pure joy that I never felt before I invited Jesus in.

      A. God loves us and died to prove it. (John 3:16) This is actually documented outside the Bible. See the above link to examine the sources.
      B. He took our sins upon himself. (Prophesied in Isaiah 53:6, See also 2 Cor. 5:21) Jesus removes the barrier of sin that would normally block my living, breathing, interaction with God.
      C. Christ's historical works (Crucifixion/Resurrection) provides for me the Gift of God. (Rom. 6:23) Eternal life in Christ Jesus, that can be experienced here on Earth...before we physically die. 
3) The Witness of The Spirit 
      A. When someone becomes a Christian, God's Holy Spirit comes to live inside them. (Rom 8:9) As mentioned above, I have felt the conviction of this reality.
      B. The Spirit transforms us from within. (Gal. 5:22, 23) I don't behave the way I used to, I enjoy learning about God & being with other Christians, I have a new concern for others...I feel Joy.
      C. The Spirit, especially during prayer, brings a deep personal conviction that I am God's child. (Rom. 8:15,16) This is what brings me to such Joy. The slow acceptance that I am worthy of being loved by the creator of the Universe. That truth that he loves me even more than I love my son, always moves me to tears. I am truly worth something in his eyes. He delights in me. That is breathtaking!!

I feel so blessed to be on this journey. I know I'm a Christian because I have a living, breathing relationship with Jesus Christ. I'm sure of it. He wants me to be sure of it. (1 John 5:13) Can you imagine being married, and when a stranger asks if so-and-so is your spouse... responding... 'Well, I think so...". That would be ridiculous. God wants us to be sure of our relationship with him. More than just intellectually secure in the matter. But sure - on a heart level. Loving him like you would a spouse...with a heart type of knowledge. 

It is through this kind of intimate relationship that we become truly secure in saying "Yes! I know I am a Christian!"