How to Become a Christian, Part Two
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, April 26, 1998
Copyright © 1998, P. G. Mathew
Reality Versus Sentimentality
What is reality? God discloses reality to us in his infallible word. There he tells us that he is the living and true, infinite, eternal, personal, holy, all-wise, omnipotent God--the Sovereign Lord of the universe--and that we are sinners. He also tells us that there is no cure for our sin except the one provided by God in his Son Jesus Christ.
However, modern men and women prefer emotion and sentimentality to reality. I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal by Digby Anderson, director of Social Affairs Unit, a think tank based in London, and co-editor of a new book, Faking It: The Sentimentalization of Modern Society. Mr. Anderson analyzed Western culture and declared that the society in which we live is a sentimental society, defining sentimentality as "not just feeling. . . . [but] false feeling, feelings without commitment, feelings displayed for show. In government that becomes gesture politics." Concerning schools and children Mr. Anderson said, "The sentimentalist regards children as innocents, offers them opportunities to 'fulfill' themselves, indulges them in play, and is never judgmental. Again, sentimentality runs away from reality, the reality of children's nature, which has a capacity for evil and needs judgment and discipline." About religion he wrote, "In modern society even religion is frantic to adjust reality to appearance and indulgence. In this case it must adjust the ultimate reality, God, to a human image we feel comfortable with. He is not to be judgmental or set moral standards that are inconvenient for us. He is not be described by immutable doctrines of truth but to be infinitely and variably malleable into our own image. His job, we must remind him, is to be supportive of us. And when religion is emptied of doctrine, tradition and discipline, all that remains is cozy feeling. If sentimentality creates a fake world with fake churches containing no religion and fake schools containing no education, then no wonder our politicians produce fake policies."
What was Mr. Anderson's conclusion? "Does this tide of sentimentality matter? Yes, because it is essentially escapist. It involves the substitution of appearance for reality, of wishes for facts, of self-indulgence for restraint, and of victimhood for personal responsibility" (Wall Street Journal, April 24, 1998).
The Unsentimental Gospel
In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, we read about prophets who spoke falsely to God's people. Twice Jeremiah says of these false prophets, "They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace" (Jer. 6:14, 8:11). These prophets were skilled practitioners of the type of sentimentality Anderson described in his article.
On the day of Pentecost the apostle Peter preached his first and greatest sermon to a great crowd of people assembled from all over the known world. Do you think Peter preached sentimentality? No. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter preached the real gospel, boldly telling the crowd, "You committed the most horrible sin by murdering through crucifixion the One whom God made both Lord and Christ." The Bible says this authentic speech of Peter pierced the hearts of the people and they cried out, "What must we do?" meaning "What must we do to be saved?"
This is what will happen when the gospel is preached boldly and truthfully. May God help us to declare the truth, not a fake gospel or false prophecies. Only when we do that will we bring people to reality and deliver them from their delusion of sentimentality, cozy feelings, escapism, and phony religion. We must preach the gospel as Peter did, and when we do so, God's Holy Spirit will cause the sword of the Spirit to cut through people's hearts so that they, feeling the pain and weight of their guilt and sin, will cry out, "What must we do to be saved?" Then we can give people the only real solution.
What is the cure we offer to those whose hearts are pierced? Should we tell them to look to legalism, moralism, ritualism or sentimentality? No. As Peter did, we also must tell them, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins." Wherever there is true repentance, there will also be the only true solution offered by this God who said through Isaiah, "'Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,' says your God." No man can comfort us. Only God can comfort us and he is ready to do so, offering us real, everlasting comfort through his Son.
Has your heart been pierced and cut through by the sharp two-edged sword of the word of God? If this is true, there is hope for you. That is what Peter told the crowd, and that is what I as a minister of the gospel am telling you today. What is the reason for your hope? As Peter said to the crowd, this Jesus now in mercy freely pardons all sinners who repent.
What Is Repentance?
The first thing a person must do to become a Christian is to repent. What does repentance mean? The New Geneva Study Bible tells us, "Repentance means changing one's mind, so that one's views, values , goals, and ways are changed, and one's whole life is lived differently. Mind and judgment, will and affections, behavior and lifestyle, motives and plans: all are involved. Repenting means starting to live a new life" (New Geneva Study Bible, edited by R. C. Sproul et al, [Nashville:Thomas Nelson, 1995], 1756 n).
The Westminster Confession says that, in repenting, "a sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for and hates his sins as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments" (Westminster Confession of Faith 15.2).
What is true repentance? It is something that is demonstrated in our actions. It means that a son who dishonored his mother will now honor that mother. It means that a daughter who disobeyed her father will now obey that father.
If you study the life of David as expressed in Psalm 51 or the life of the prodigal son as expressed in Luke 15, you will understand what true repentance is. The one who truly repents will forsake his sins and begin to think the way God thinks, feel the way God feels, will the way of God, and do the works of God with earnestness, great delight, zeal, and joy. True repentance is a change of one's mind, emotions, and will.
I do not believe in fake baptism, fake repentance, or fake faith. Therefore, we must all examine what our understanding of repentance is. Feelings of remorse, self-reproach, and sorrow for sin generated by fear of punishment without any wish or resolve to forsake sinning should never be confused with repentance.
God Must Help Us Repent
However, there is a serious impediment to our repentance. In 2 Corinthians 4 we read that the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot understand the gospel, and thus they cannot repent.
Without God's Holy Spirit working in people's hearts and regenerating them, they cannot understand anything about the gospel and repent. In 2 Corinthians 4:4 Paul writes, "The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God." You can preach to unbelievers, clearly and boldly placarding the gospel before them again and again, but they will not understand anything about it unless God works in them. In fact, as you are preaching, they will be thinking how intelligent and superior they are, and how the one sharing the gospel with them is just a nothing. These brilliant philosophers will gladly assert that they know everything and that those who believe in Christ don't understand anything. But, in truth, such people have been blinded by the God of this age and truly are the incompetent ones, in the sense of being incapable of understanding the gospel. God has to open the minds of such people.
The wonderful truth is that God does open the minds of unbelievers. In 2 Corinthians 4:6 Paul writes, "For God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." If you have come to believe in Christ, that means there has been an internal enlightenment. The light has been turned on, and now you can see.
Paul himself experienced this internal enlightenment. In Acts 9 we read how Ananias came and prayed for Saul of Tarsus, who had been blinded by the Lord Jesus Christ. Ananias said, "Brother Saul, receive sight," and Saul was able to see.
We must understand that salvation, from beginning to end, is God's gracious task, and he alone can enlighten us. By nature our minds are blinded and our wills are enslaved in bondage to Satan. How can we repent and turn around to go in the direction of God? We cannot unless God helps us and he does.
Everyone Must Repent
Peter told the crowd, "Metanohsate--Repent ye!" In the aorist tense in Greek, the word metanohsate means, "Repent speedily!" or "Repent completely!" In other words, "Let there be complete and immediate renunciation of sin, Satan, and the world, and do so with godly sorrow. Get out quickly from Sodom, as the angels demanded of Lot. Do not linger any longer. You are in serious danger. Repent!"
John the Baptist demanded such repentance of those who came to him as did Jesus Christ himself. Paul also demanded such repentance when he declared in the book of Acts that God commands all people everywhere to repent, and then Paul gave the reason: If people do not repent, they will be judged by this same Jesus whom God raised from the dead and who is coming again to judge the stubborn and the rebellious.
True Repentance Requires Change
First, then, we must repent, and as I said before, true repentance means a change in behavior. There must be a radical change of one's mind, purpose, plan, direction, heart, desire, and emotion. It means a glad repudiation of any sentimentalism and fake life and and a willing coming to reality as the prodigal son did. The Bible says this man came to himself, meaning he was insane before, but suddenly he began to see the reality that he was the sinner and his father was all right. It means being like that son whose father said, "Go to the vineyard and work." At first the boy said "No," but then he changed his mind and went.
True repentance is not merely a matter of words. True repentance will always bring about a revolution in one's thinking, acting, willing, and purpose. Therefore, I urge you not to engage in phony repentance, phony baptism, and phony faith. As Peter declared, we who crucified the Lord Jesus Christ must now in repentance crown him as our King. We must think his thoughts, agree with him, and delightfully do his will. We who nailed his feet to the cross in our enmity against him now must bow down, kiss his feet and worship him.
Repentance Is Essential for Salvation
True repentance is essential for salvation. Jesus required his disciples to go about preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name. There is no forgiveness of sins without repentance. I heard a great evangelist once say that he forgave a certain well-known person. But had that person repented? No. What right do we have to offer forgiveness to those who don't repent? We don't! No one will receive forgiveness of sins without authentic repentance.
We must also realize that repentance is a gift from God. We read about that in Acts 5:31, Acts 11:18, and 2 Timothy 2:25. Regeneration itself is a gift, and faith and repentance are fruits of regeneration, according to biblical, Reformed faith. If you have been regenerated, you will experience authentic repentance and faith.
When you are granted this amazing, supernatural gift of repentance, you will turn from idols to serve the true and living God. You will turn from sin to godliness and righteousness. You will turn from serving Satan to serving the Savior. You will turn from the world and its hideous philosophies to the kingdom of God, which is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. You will turn from the darkness and come into the marvelous light of the gospel, immediately and completely. You will hate and forsake sin. This is authentic repentance.
May God help us not to embrace a fake repentance! May he help us to receive only that which is authentic and real. Why does it matter so much? Because it is appointed for man once to die and then comes the judgment. The fakism of the world shall never assist us on the judgment day.
Repentance Yields Fruit
When we repent, we will get up, leave the far country, and go home to the father, as the prodigal son did. True repentance, in other words, always produces action. In Acts 26:20 Paul said, "First to those in Damascus, and then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God," and then he added, "and prove their repentance by their deeds."
In Luke 3 we find this idea. People were coming to John the Baptist to be baptized, and he told them, "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." Not knowing what that meant, the people asked, "What should we do then?" John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." The fruit of repentance is love and concern for the community and for the poor. Then some tax collectors came to John and asked, "What should we do?" In those days a tax collector would make a contract with Rome to deliver a set amount of money from a particular city. He would be free to charge more than the tax obligation he agreed to pay to Rome, and generally tax collectors charged much more than Rome required. What was John's word to the tax collectors? "Don't collect any more than you are required to." In other words, be righteous and charge only a reasonable amount of money. Then soldiers came to John and asked, "What should we do?" Like tax collectors, soldiers had certain ways to make money from people. What did John tell them? "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely--be content with your pay."
In other words, repentance must bring forth fruit, and righteousness is the fruit of repentance. When we say we repented but our lives do not change, we must conclude that our repentance was fake and had nothing to do with the Holy Spirit of God. When there is real repentance, there will be fruit, and that fruit is the doing that which is righteous.
You Must Believe
Not only must a person truly repent to become a Christian, but he also must have true, saving faith. In Acts 2:41 we read, "Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day," meaning those who received and welcomed the message of the gospel. That is speaking about faith.
True faith has three aspects: knowledge, agreement, and entrustment. The first element, knowledge, means that faith is not a blind leap in the dark. Our faith is based on knowledge of the gospel and that is why we must preach the gospel. The second element, agreement, means that we agree with what is preached--that Jesus Christ is God, Savior, and Lord; that he is the Sovereign Lord of the universe; that he is the Judge; and that all have sinned against him. We must agree with these things to have true faith.
However, knowledge and agreement do not add up to true faith. The third and most vital element of faith is an entrustment of your entire self to Jesus Christ. This is what makes faith saving faith. We must commit our whole selves to Christ, become his disciples and follow him.
We must be very clear about this final point. If we are not trusting in Jesus and bringing forth fruit from our faith, we have only dead faith. Agreeing with the gospel and being baptized does not make a person an authentic Christian. The only way to have true faith is to entrust ourselves to Christ--fides est fiducia--now and forever and be zealous to do the will of him in whom we have trusted.
Faith Must Be Genuine
Where there is genuine repentance, there will be genuine faith. Repentance is laying down sin and faith is laying hold of Christ. A Christian is one who is vitally related to Christ both now and forever, and our lives must demonstrate the reality of that union. Didn't Jesus say, "I am the vine; you are the branches"? The most important doctrine is the doctrine of our union with Christ.
Suppose you are a parent whose children are disobedient. Why do you think they do not obey you? Perhaps you yourself have been a phony. Perhaps you have pretended that you are a Christian, but do not really obey Christ as Lord. I have more sympathy toward children than toward their parents if they refuse to bow down to Christ and do his will. Such parents should not say that they love their children. They do not, unless they themselves are trusting in Jesus Christ alone and walking in obedience to him.
True, saving faith, therefore, is trust in Jesus Christ based on the knowledge of the gospel. Just as we do not generate within us regeneration and repentance, we also do not generate within us saving faith. True faith is a free gift of God. As Augustus Toplady wrote, "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness" and in Ephesians 2:8 Paul wrote, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. . ." In Philippians 1:29 we read, "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him." Saving faith is a gift, a charisma, from God, in other words.
Faith Always Accompanies Repentance
Repentance and faith are two wings by which a believer flies to the heavenlies, away from the world even while he lives in the world. So we read in Acts 2:41 that those who received Peter's word, welcomed his word, were baptized. Receiving the word involves faith in the gospel and in Jesus of Nazareth, who is Lord and Christ. This faith in Christ means vital relationship with Christ.
In Acts 16 we read of the Philippian jailer who cried out in the middle of the night, "What must I do to be saved?" What was Paul's answer? "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." In other words, "Trust in Jesus! Rest in him, depend on him, lean onto him now and forever, and in the hour of your death. Trust in him with all your heart, all your mind, all your might and all your affections. Follow him all your life, trusting him with all your burdens." Anything else is dead faith, faith without good works. Living, saving, vital faith is that which issues in the good works of obedience to God.
You Must Be Baptized
Not only must we repent and believe when we become Christians, but we must also be baptized in water as a public declaration of our faith in Christ. Why? God is not interested in secret disciples.
In John 9:22 we read that the authorities decided to expel everyone from their community who acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord. Whenever a person becomes a Christian, he or she is kicked out--from the world, that is. But, in truth, an authentic Christian will want to get out of the world anyway. When speaking about this verse Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that Jesus came to send a sword that separates a father who does not believe from the son who believes. There is a necessary separation, and one sign of this separation is baptism.
What is water baptism? It is the sign and seal of one's repentance toward God and trust in Jesus Christ. When we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we are saying that we have come under the direction and control of the triune God and that we have united with the Lord Jesus Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. We are announcing our separation from the world and Satan and our union with Jesus Christ.
One distinct characteristic of Christian baptism is that we must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Unlike the baptism of John the Baptist and unlike the baptism of Jewish proselytes, Christian baptism is in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Why? We are baptized on the basis of our confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. We are to confess this at the time of our baptism, as we read in Acts 22:16 where Ananias said to Paul, "Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name." When we are baptized, the one baptizing us also is to invoke the name of Jesus upon us--the name by which we will be known, as we read in James 2:7.
When we are baptized, therefore, the name of the Lord is invoked upon us, and we confess that same name. That is why we are Christians: God's name is put on us. We are not our own; we have been bought with a price, the blood of Jesus Christ, and we live out this confession all of our life. Baptism is the sign and seal of this great inward reality of salvation.
I would like to make one more point about baptism: The act of water baptism will not regenerate anyone. Many people are baptized in water but few are regenerated. When we are baptized we are saying that Jesus Christ is Lord, and if that is true, we must live that confession. If Jesus is our Lord, we will think his thoughts, will his will, desire what he desires, and do his will earnestly.
Join the Church
At the end of Acts 2 we read, "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." In his great sermon Peter had urged his listeners, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." These people lived in the midst of that crooked, twisted, perverted generation and, in fact, they were part of it. They were sinners under the wrath of God. But as they listened to the preaching of Peter, they were saved, instantly. They were taken out of that generation and added to the church. They moved out of the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of God.
What do you think Peter meant by the words "this corrupt generation"? That is a description of our world as well as Peter's. The world in which we live is evil, perverse, wicked, and twisted. I hope you understand that. I don't know much about Digby Anderson's religious views, but he certainly seems to understand our culture. After much study and analysis, he came to the accurate conclusion that as a society we are faking it--faking it in the family, in the workplace, in government and even in the church. We are all faking it.
Why do you think ministers cannot tell anyone to repent anymore? Because we are indulged human beings who do not want to hear such "negative" words as "repent." In fact, we want to remove the concepts of repentance, sin, guilt, the wrath of God, and judgment from Christianity altogether. The only problem is that if we do that, we will be left only with a cozy feeling which we will call religion, as Mr. Anderson said.
Saved from This Generation
This natural aversion of people to God's reality existed during the first century and it is why Peter said his was a twisted generation. It still exists today, and that is why Peter's words speak to us also. But, in fact, ever since the Fall of man, the world has been warped, twisted and organized in opposition to the true and living God. And because of man's sin and rebellion, the world is under God's judgment.
Peter urged his listeners to save themselves from their twisted, wicked, adulterous, rebellious generation. "Get out of the world," he was saying, in essence. Why? "Judgment is coming! The flood is coming! The fire is coming! You must get into the ark of God's kingdom! The god of this world is Satan, and the people of this world obey him and oppose God, but judgment is coming. Get out! Be saved from this wicked generation that rejected and crucified Christ!"
Not all who heard Peter that day were convicted. Not all repented and not all put their faith in Jesus Christ that day. But those who welcomed the word--three thousand in all, we are told--were saved forever, instantly.
These people were changed. They were in the world one moment and in the kingdom of God the next. They were dead one moment and alive the next. They were the old creation one moment and new creations the next. They were enemies of God one moment and children of God the next. They were without God one moment and with God the next. They were without hope one moment and with hope the next. They were outside one moment and inside the next. They were starving one moment and feasting the next. They were naked one moment and clothed with the righteousness of Christ the next. They were darkness one moment and light in the Lord the next. They thought the gospel was foolishness and a stumbling block one moment and believed it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes the next. They were murderers of Jesus one moment and worshiped him the next.
This is salvation! Christianity is not, as Dr. Lloyd-Jones said, the old life improved or varnished. It is a new creation of God. We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works. If anyone is in Christ Jesus, he is kainh ktisiV--a new creation.
Are You An Authentic Christian?
In light of these things, let me ask you some questions: Is your repentance fake? Is your faith fake? Is your baptism fake? Is your profession fake? If you say "Yes," to any of these questions, then I would say you are fit to live in this culture which was so accurately described by Digby Anderson.
We should all ask ourselves these questions. Why? Because one day we will die, and then comes the judgment. Fake faith will not save us.
What about sin? Have you forsaken sin once and forever? Or are you still laying your head on the bosom of Delilah? If the latter is true, then soon, like Samson, your eyes will be gouged out, meaning you will be blinded by the god of this world. You must ask God to help you to see the gospel clearly. Ask him to give you a knowledge of the gospel, the pearl of great price, so that once your eyes are opened, you will forsake all things and obtain it.
What about you who are still outside God's kingdom? The feasting is inside, not outside. God invites you to come in through the door, Jesus Christ. May you cry out to God and say, "I want to come inside the kingdom of God. I want to experience the reality of authentic repentance and faith and be vitally connected to Jesus Christ the Lord of the universe, who is big enough and powerful enough to take care of me." Forsake all the phoniness and tell others, "I have been a fake, but from this day forward I don't want to be a fake anymore."
May God help us to forsake all inauthenticity and degenerate cultural phoniness. May God grant us authentic regeneration, authentic repentance, and authentic faith. May he help us to be true people of God that we may experience the greatest thing in the whole world--to be translated into the kingdom of his dear Son and forgiven of all our sins, past, present, future, and to be clothed with righteousness that shines like the dawn. May we embrace this great salvation by which we can meet death itself because our Lord Jesus Christ destroyed death for us forever and brought life and immortality to light. And may we ever praise and thank our God for making us partakers in such a great salvation. Amen.
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Copyright © 1998, P. G. Mathew
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