What then is the Christian life? What does it mean to be a Christian? How do you live as a Christian? Well, it doesn’t mean to be a Baptist. It doesn’t mean to be a Lutheran or Catholic or Methodist or Presbyterian. Those labels do not make anybody a Christian. Being a Christian means getting up in the morning and saying in your heart: Jesus, you are my Savior, my King, my Friend, my Treasure, my Hope, my Joy, my Guide, my Protection, my Wisdom, my Advocate, my Strength. I need you, I love you, I trust you to be all that for me today. I know you have given me muscles and a mind and a will. I know you intend for me to use them all in doing things that are just and loving and God-honoring. But you have shown me that without you my will is rebellious, my mind is darkened and my muscles obey the rebel will and the darkened mind.
And so, Lord Jesus, I need you every day. Work for me today – not because I deserve it, but because you paid my ransom. Serve me today – to subdue my will, so that I love what you love and find joy in doing your will; to bring light to my mind, so that I think the truth and see you for who you are, infinitely valuable and beautiful. And so may my body magnify you whether in life or death. That’s what it means to be a Christian. – John Piper
Three days ago I read an article called, “Why I Miss Being a Born-Again Christian.” It was written by Jessica Misener, senior editor for Buzzfeed.com.
My first thought was that she wrote it to belittle Christians and make Christianity sound like it was invented by men. But, what stood out was this: her honesty. Her experiences were very similar to my own. If you’d like to hear some of my story, read the introduction.
In order to give an answer for the hope that I have (1 Peter 3:15), I needed to hear her out. I needed to listen carefully to her, so that I wouldn’t answer questions that were irrelevant to this issue. Instead of putting blame on her, I looked to see what she thought was Christianity.
Before we continue: you might be thinking I want to criticize Jessica and make myself sound good. I wrote this because although some people are condemning her and others are praying for her, I have yet to see someone respond back with the real gospel. That is why I wrote this: I want Jessica to know that she missed out on real Christianity.
Jessica thought she was a Christian, as many people do. The sinners prayer for her was a one-and-done approach to conversion. Instead of someone explaining to her what is conversion or repentance, it became about saying the right things to receive God’s grace. This is tied to a movement today known as the “seeker-sensitive” movement.
The millennial generation is facing the rise of the “seeker-sensitive” movement. I confess that this movement hasn’t gone well for the church as it’s developed. A recent survey conducted at a mega-church in my area discovered that although their congregation was large and filled with young people, the average member only attended every six weeks! One consequence of a “seeker-sensitive” service (making everything comfortable for the “seekers” or inquirers of Christianity) is that it eventually makes the church sound like a nice restaurant: if it doesn’t satisfy your palate, you go somewhere else. Read this article by Carl Trueman that sheds some light on the issue.
It seems like Jessica’s environment taught her a poor version of “Christianity”- this led to her thinking that she was a Christian by simply praying a prayer or doing good deeds (good according to whom?). She admits that the kind of Christianity she heard, was one version among many others. Instead of pointing her to a deep knowledge of Scripture, the church gave her an environment where she could fill the void she had in her life instead of transforming it by clearly communicating the dynamics of the gospel.
To be clear: There’s only one kind of Christianity- the kind the Bible teaches. Sound cliche? I hope so! All arguments eventually form a circle. Eventually, I’ll have to explain where I got all of this from. If you heard a different gospel than the Bible’s, then what you heard was not Christianity. But, first you need to assume that the Bible communicates its message with clarity. We will investigate this later.
It’s important to note that Jesus’ key mission was not to be the only way to heaven. He came to be the only way to God (I.e. John 14:6). When Jesus does talk about heaven, He never does so without also talking about God the Father being there (see John 14, 17; Matthew 26; John 19). As Paul Washer says, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, they just don’t want God to be there when they get there.”
Six things I’d like to point about her article
1) Jessica doesn’t know what it means to be “born again.” Even if she thinks it’s all fake and just positive thinking, she needs to know what it should mean to a Christian. What matters is if the belief is correct (otherwise, it’s futile, I.e. 1 Cor. 15).
“Whatever “it” [this desire] was, it was powerful enough to bring a girl who grew up in a non-churchgoing family to a sweaty school gym for youth group every week, and binding enough to yoke me to a conservative faith for most of my formative years. From ages 17 until about age 23, I was a born-again Christian, something I’m usually embarrassed to admit here in New York City.”
Born-again in this case sounds like a certain sect of Christianity. It’s a genre of spirituality- you can be a Christian, or you can be a born again Christian.
I remember channel-surfing and coming across the show, “Millionaire Matchmaker.” One of the questions the matchmaker asked her client was, “are you a Christian?” The person said, “yes.” She then asked something like, “So, are you a born again Christian?” The conversation eventually led to her saying that born-again Christians usually don’t believe in sex before marriage. This is true (depends who you’re asking, as premarital sex seems to be becoming more “acceptable”), but definitely not what born-again means.
Here’s the thing: Born-again isn’t a type of Christianity, it refers to conversion. There’s only one way to be born again, and that is through hearing the gospel and believing it.
Consider the teaching of Jesus in John chapter three:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:1-4 ESV)
Put yourself in Nicodemus’ sandals:
He was a Pharisee, which means he knew the Old Testament pretty well. He was talking amongst his fellow Pharisee-homeboys [context implies there were only a few who shared his viewpoint], and concluded that yes, Jesus was a teacher sent from God. He saw the evidence. He knew the prophecies. He put all of the evidence together intellectually. He knew from an objective standpoint who Jesus was, but Jesus didn’t tell Nicodemus to pray a sinners prayer. What did He tell him?
“Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Imagine hearing this statement for the first time. The word “born” would bring to mind conception and child birth, “again” would raise your spidey-senses or a hint of, “he’s crazy.” Jesus is talking about something radical- a rebirth, so to speak. But He never told Nicodemus he needed to rebirth himself. He wasn’t responsible for his first birth, neither can he activate a second one.
Nicodemus clearly knew Jesus was talking about something life-changing, but missed the point. He took Jesus statement in an entirely different way. He thought that Jesus was talking about another physical birth, when in fact, Jesus was talking about an internal, spiritual one. According to Ezekiel 36:26, Jesus was talking about a spiritual heart transplant that came with the new covenant. A transplant that would result in a new life, where you desire new things, think differently about old ones, and live differently than the rest of your peers. This is a result of God at work in a sinners heart. That, my friends, is what it means to be born again. It means you’ll never be the same.
How do we deal with this practically? Here’s where context comes into play. The first few verses are talking about God’s work in salvation. The next few verses call for our response:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV)
2) She doesn’t know which Christianity is the real one, and consequently the gospel.
To use the jargon of my former life, I became a “believer” in Christ shortly after my mom “got saved” — the term evangelicals use to mean a conversion to a very specific kind of Christianity, the Billy Graham and gay Teletubbies kind that preaches Jesus as the only path to salvation.
In her mind, there are many types of Christianity, ones that do not claim Jesus as the only way to heaven or homosexuality as a sin. If you want my take on whether homosexuality is wrong, check out my series Homosexuals Do Not Exist.
It is true that there are many denominations and forms of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Unitarian, Universalist, Messianic Jew, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, RCA), but not all of them are alike. There is only one true, historic Christianity, before denominations and church politics come into play.
Some will say that the Bible is open to interpretation and we should just pursue loving God and our neighbor like Jesus taught us. Funny, how can you be so sure of that, since it’s in the Bible after all? At this point, it would make sense to claim that Christianity is a movement invented by men for men, since there are so many opinions across the board. However, we must remember that early Christians claimed the same source (the Bible) and Jesus claimed it was written about Him (John 5). In order to discredit Christianity, you have to diminish or overthrow the Bible, that’s where all of these denominations splintered from. Jessica points to her Religious Studies at Yale as the nail in the coffin of her faith.
During my master’s degree program, my plan of going on to do a Ph.D. gradually dissolved — Exhibit A: me working full time at BuzzFeed, hi! — but something else materialized: a swelling doubt about the faith I’d set out to preserve, which hinged almost solely on believing the Bible to be the literal, inspired word of God. As I learned ancient Greek and Hebrew and pored over the biblical text in its original languages, and read it in larger quantities than I’d ever read it at church, its discrepancies began to shine a hot and uncomfortable spotlight on my personal religious views. Pieces of the gospels contradicted each other, I realized. Greek words, like the ones we’ve translated 2,000 years later to mean “homosexuality,” didn’t quite mean what modern evangelicals wanted them to mean. Early Christians disagreed up to the fifth century on which portions of texts should even be in the biblical canon.
More and more, I realized that the Bible was a flawed, messy, deeply human book — and that in treating it as an unimpeachable guidebook for life in the 21st century, many conservative Christians were basing their entire worldviews on a text that, in my opinion, wasn’t that much different from any other historical collection of letters and stories. I was forced to confront the fact that I’d converted into a pre-fab worldview: one hatched largely in recent American history from Jonathan Edwards and the theology of the Great Awakening, and one that “family values” politics has buoyed through modern decades.
This is why we need to go back to the sources and examine the evidence. If Jessica is right, then Christians should jump ship because their faith is useless. This is also why her saying that the early church didn’t know which books belonged in the Bible is such a crucial argument. I will explain this at a later time by examining the Council of Nicea.
The way she understood salvation was very pragmatic; it was all about what she could do. She thought that since she was a Christian, she should vote Republican, tell non-Christians to consider why they’re drinking, and “proselytize” by getting involved in different school activities. None of these are wrong, they’re just not always correctly executed. What is absent from her article, is any understanding of why Jesus died for her sins or any part of what Christianity is about. In fact, she bought into the lie of the God-shaped hole in her life.
Some days I wake up in my bedroom in Brooklyn and I just don’t know what to do, in an existential sense. Christianity gave me something to do. A large reason I converted to the faith as a teen was because I felt a weird void in my life, like something was missing that no relationship, amount of money, or enviable career could fill. The Christian message was packaged and sold to me as the only thing that could fill that void. And for six years, I let it.
In other words, “Christianity” filled a void but never satisfied it. She is not the only one to fall into the dangers of a God-shaped hole theology. The idea that every person has a God-shaped hole in their hearts and are aware of it is silly. There might be an awareness that you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to do, but ask almost any person and they’ll tell you they feel the same thing. God is not here to fulfill our desires, we are here to fulfill His, which is satisfying (Psalm 16).
What the Bible teaches, is that your heart is not right (sinful); it’s filled with error, not just empty of God. It worships creation and goes against what you were created to do (Rom. 1:20-31). Your conscience is also broken because of sin (Jer. 17, Rom. 1). You don’t need a filling for the decay in your heart, you need a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). You need to be changed into a new person from the inside out, and only God can do this (2 Cor. 5:17).
It’s about knowing the gospel, repenting of sin, and receiving the eternal love of God in Christ. It doesn’t matter how hard you believe; it it’s not real, it won’t change you, it’ll just be optimistic thinking. Faith only matters if the object of that faith gives what it promises.
3) Weak understanding of the sinful nature and Christian obedience.
But my secret is this: Even though I staked my life on an arbitrary historical document for six years, I liked who I was when I was born-again. I woke up each day determined to conquer my “sinful nature,” i.e., my id that was prone to thinking only about myself, and determined to put others first. I was more selfless. I was a more caring and giving friend back then; I listened deeply, instead of waiting for my turn to talk. I prayed for people and made care packages and wrote nice letters and volunteered. With a divine outlet compelling me to focus on something besides self-preservation, I felt free from the prison of ego.
Let’s break this down:
1) Her sinful nature thought only about herself, and being a Christian is about putting others first.
2) Being a Christian made her more caring and giving.
3) It made her a better listener.
4) She made care packages and wrote nice letters and volunteered.
5) It was a “divine-outlet” that compelled her to be free from the “prison of ego.”
As the saying goes, leggo my ego.
She says that being a “Christian” made her want to be better. That’s awesome! But, apart from Jesus we can’t be better, we’ll only fail every time. Apart from the gospel we are only being moralists. We need a deeper change than the external. Christianity is not a change from the outside in, but the inside out. Although she thought she wanted “Jesus,” she didn’t know Him.
My point is this: according to the Bible, Jessica was never a believer to begin with (1 John 2). She wanted Jesus but didn’t know Him; she prayed the prayed but didn’t know what it was about. No one took her by the hand and showed her what this really means. This may sound like a shunning kind of thing, but it’s not true. If Christianity is true it will have an eternal, lasting effect. It first begins by believing in Christ on the basis of the cross and resurrection and having some, if little, understanding of what they mean for your soul.
When it comes to her theology of obedience, the first issue happens when she says that her sinful nature needed to be, “conquered,” and she was the one to do it. That’s not how it works.
According to the Bible. Romans 8:13 says it’s by the Spirit we put to death “the deeds of the body.” This means that we seek to kill sin by the Holy Spirit, not our own strength. The Christian life is not about conquering a sinful nature, Jesus already did that. It’d about living in harmony with the new one you already have (2 Cor. 5:17, Eph. 4). Jesus destroyed the power of the Law (God’s standard we could never keep) and therefore the power of sin over us. Knowing what is wrong as sinners only makes us want to sin more. So, Jesus fulfilled the Law we couldn’t keep by obeying it perfectly- that, on the cross He gets treated like you should have (declared guilty), and you get treated like Jesus should (declared innocent). What happens is this: You don’t obey God’s law to earn His favor, but obey God’s Law because of it.
It’s about letting go of who you were, not becoming something that you’re not. You’re not in neutral when you become a Christian, the entire direction of your life changes. Even if she doesn’t believe this, it’s still sad to think she never understood this or was never shown that it’s a part of being a Christian.
Think I’m making this up? Consider the following verses:
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:9, 10 ESV)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV)
The sinful nature is not in control anymore in the Christian’s life. It lost its power when Christ died and rose again. Sin influences a Christian, but the winning nature is the new one created by the Holy Spirit.
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:6-8 ESV)
She tried to fight sin by suppressing her desires, when true Christianity is about fulfilling your deepest desires by worshiping Christ.
Later this week, we’ll conclude this series along with a personal message to Jessica.
Thanks for reading this lengthy article!
The gospel is this: Though you’ve sinned against an infinitely holy God (Isa. 6, Ezekiel 18), earning a sentence of eternity of Hell (Isa. 66)- though you are living in rebellion to Him (Rom. 1:18-3:27)- you, a rebel, can be made right with God (Eph. 1:6-7). You know that you’ve done wrong, but you need to know that God keeps a record of wrongs because He is just (Rom. 3). Though He is just, He is also loving (Jn. 3:16, 1 Jn. 4:1-10). So that these two desires would not be in conflict, God by His wisdom brought justice while demonstrating His love at the same time. He found someone else to be punished instead of you.
God sent the most precious thing to Him out of everything that exists: His only Son. He sent Him to live in your place and die in your place, if you trust Him to save you. He got the death sentence while you receive His reward: a right relationship with God and eternal life. When He rose from the dead, He guaranteed your release from being a slave to your sin and the death that follows. You can be free from sin and right with God. He is the answer to every need of the human heart. He is the only one who can save you from Himself. God desires to save you from His wrath for His love. Will you turn to Him today?