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The normal (Christian) journey of faith

Chapter 1: before we begin

This series of studies attempts to say some useful things about how the journey of a Christian life is likely to work out. In fact, there are of course so many ways this may happen that to try and say something useful is quite rash – but here goes nonetheless.

Before I start I need to define what I mean by “Christian”. Many people, in many parts of the world, think of themselves as Christian because their passports say so, or would say so if they had one. They have been born into a Christian family, in a Christian community, so they, and other people, think of them as Christian. But being a Christian in this sense is not the same as following Jesus, consciously, and determinedly. When I say Christian I mean those who have positively decided that they will follow Jesus, owe allegiance to him, and are practicing Christians, associating themselves with other Christians of the same way of thinking.

Not every Christian can identify the moment in which they turned round and set out to follow Jesus. For some it happened so gradually they cannot pin down the time any more than to say that day, or that week, or that month. That does not matter – they have set out to follow Jesus, which is all that matters. Then there are some fortunate few who cannot remember the day when they did not love the Lord even as a young child and they grew up following him from before their days of memory. Great for them and a tribute to their parents!

It would more accurate if as I wrote these notes I used the phrase “following Jesus” rather than “Christian” but it would be intolerably clumsy to keep on doing that so I will say “Christian” and mean “following Jesus”.

Even before we became Christian, in any of these believing senses, certain things will have been true of us. All of us, everyone who ever lived, have a tension within us. This is an essential part of being human and quite inescapable. We are, you are, I am, made in the image of God, but we are also sinners.

We are told that we are made in the image of God in Genesis chapter 1 “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Then Adam and Eve sinned in the famous story of the garden of Eden as recorded in Genesis 3 “the Lord God said, The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil” and Paul, in Romans 5 summarizes what all the Scripture acknowledges with the statement “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned”. That is us.

Some people like to think that there is a dividing line between good and evil people (and they, of course, are on the right side of that line!), but it is not so. The dividing line between good and evil runs through each one of us. Some of us are, hopefully, more on the right side of that line than the wrong side, but it is still there, through each one of us. Failure to recognize that has led to many disastrous moments in history. Politicians have often assumed that people are essentially good so you have only got to put them in the right environment and all will be well. Everyone will live in peace and harmony with everyone else.

Sadly that is not true. It never has been true and it seems to have become increasingly obvious that it is not in the 20th century. Nazis and Communists have assumed that they can make the world work as they want. But they failed and have continued to fail. Muslim extremists fall into the same trap. On the other hand much of the modern western world proceeds on the assumption that progress is happening always and inevitably. That is true of our technology and science but not of our social and spiritual skills where we seem to be going backwards. There is much good in human beings but there is also a strong tendency to evil. This is the base from which we all start.

Why then do we, why does anyone, become a Christian? There are at least three main reasons.

1. From a sense of sin. This is the old classical way to start. Many preachers in this society seem to assume that this is the only way so they pick out the Scriptures that mention sin, or can be bent that way, and preach what they call “a Gospel sermon” whether it applies to the people listening to them or not. It is certainly true, very true, that the purpose of the death of Christ on the Cross was to deal with sin, your sin, my sin. Jesus was both human and divine. He was human so he could substitute for us, dying on our behalf. He was divine so his death was sufficient and effective for all of us. So Paul says in Romans 3:25 “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood —to be received by faith.” But people are unable to understand these words and take them to heart unless they have an idea of God as the pure and holy judge before whom they will eventually have to give an account of their life on earth. If they do not realize that, if they have not been taught that, they will not understand what is being talked about.

2. From a sense of lostness. Peter talks about people being redeemed from an empty way of life (1 Peter 1:18) Many people will feel that the way they are living is empty and is not satisfying and will cast around looking for a better way to live. They want to be good people – drink, drugs, partying, sex, material goods do not satisfy them. They want a reason to live differently, to live the way they want to live but they have a strong sense of needing a reason to break out from their currently unsatisfying life styles. If this is the way they think they are ready to hear a sensitively presented account of the Christian life. Follow me – said Jesus. If they hear that call they embark on a life of faith which is a journey through life – hence the title of this series of studies.

3. From a desire to progress. Unfortunately there is a strong tendency in many churches to present the Christian life as the solution to all one’s problems: practical, social and financial. Some preachers say become a Christian and you will meet all the right people, you will make your fortune, the right partner for you will miraculously appear. I call this unfortunate because such teaching runs directly counter to the whole teaching of the Bible. Jesus is, amongst many other things, our example. He only met the “right” people at his trial; he had no where to lay his head so he did not have a fortune; he had to live a celibate life in a society where marriage was expected. If you are looking for progress in a purely human sense it is a good idea not to become a Christian! Be careful not to believe the false promises of some preachers!

Of these three motives for becoming a Christian 1 and 2 are acceptable; 3 is not. In the New Testament Paul emphasizes motive 1, escape from sin; John emphasizes motive 2, desire for purpose in life; Peter is strong on both.

These are, I think, the main things that lead people to seek to follow the Lord Jesus. There are others: to some are given dreams and visions of him seen in the night; some fear the judgment, some desire not to be left behind when he returns, and so on.

There is something else worth noticing about what often happens to people before they become Christians. God has a lovely habit of speaking to us before we become one of his people. This can be, and often is, in small and scarcely noticed ways that yet can have a major effect on us. For me it was when the family friend who was invigilating an exam that I, a young boy at the time, was taking stopped to pray with me before the exam, which was not something to be expected within the world in which I lived and had a lasting effect on me.

So what?

Whether as you listen to, or read, this you are a follower of Jesus, or not, it is important to get our thinking about who we are and where we stand before a pure and holy God straight. We are made in the image of God but we are sinners in His sight. As a consequence of that we need a better direction in life. Those two facts make the essential and only correct starting point for our thinking.

Secondly we have the opportunity to be the messenger for one of those little events that the Lord God can put in someone else’s way as he did for me through my invigilator’s prayer. Only more than 20 years later did I learn that the wife of the man who prayed with me was ministered to as a young girl by my grandmother. That was a wonderful part of the circle of faith.

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