The normal (Christian) journey of faith
Chapter 2: The Beginning
One day – perhaps long ago, perhaps soon to come – we became, or will become, a Christian. That is a great day for all of us and for some, living in difficult countries, it can be a dangerous day too. It can also be a very misunderstood day. It is fundamentally important that we realize that it is a day when two persons are involved – not just one. We, the human individual involved, are the one that we talk about as having decided to follow Jesus/be born again/give our hearts to the Lord/or whatever way we express it. True enough; but not the whole of the story – not even the most important part of it. God, the Lord, is involved too, particularly in the person of the Holy Spirit. We commit ourselves to following Jesus. The Holy Spirit commits himself to being with us, staying with us, empowering us, so that we can ‘walk in step with the Spirit’ as Paul puts it.
As you may know there is a problem here, which has been argued over in the church for centuries. It is this: ultimately – did we choose him or did he choose us? The labels that have been given to this argument, going back into history, are Arminian or Wesleyan, and Calvinistic. I do not intend to try and make any statement about this except for the wise words of an old landlord of mine. He suggested, very imaginatively, that there is a great triumphal arch that we have to pass under as we approach heaven. If we look up we shall see inscribed on the outside of the arch is “Whosoever will may come!” (He tended to speak in King James version language!). If we pass under the arch and we look back and up we shall see inscribed on the inside of the arch the words “Chosen from before the foundation of the world!”. We shall never be able to add those two statements together as a logical whole yet both of them are profoundly true, thoroughly Biblical, and believing them is of great importance for us.
That there is this 2 person aspect to what happens when we become a Christian is clearly expressed in the common Biblical term ‘covenant’. A ‘covenant’ is an agreement, a will or a testament, between 2 people. The origin of the term is in an agreement between 2 kings, as is seen in the book of Genesis. In the rather strange Genesis 14 we read about a war between 2 sets of kings, 4 of them against 5 of them. To call the guys involved ‘kings’ is to suggest they were more important than they deserved. Abraham is able to go out and defeat the 4 kings with only 318 men of his own. So ‘clan chiefs’ or ‘local warlords’ might be more accurate descriptions. To give themselves any strength at all they had to work together. They were in covenant with each other. And it was that idea of ‘covenant’ that the Lord God uses in the next chapters to express the relationship between himself and Abraham. So it is with us. When we commit ourselves to following Jesus we enter into covenant with the Lord God, and, more importantly, he enters into covenant with us
This has some significant implications. We cannot decide to be Christian this year, but not in 5 years time when the commitment does not suit us so well. God is involved. Of course we may appear to walk away from this commitment, but what will God think, say and do if we try to do so? The writer to the Hebrews warns us “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” And goes on to point out that when the Israelites, travelling through the desert, thought they could give up on God he punished them for 40 years, thus warning any who would think they could give up on God in the present day that there may be implications.
To set out to follow Jesus is a life-time commitment. Probably few of us who have started out on that track took that fact adequately into account at the time. But we need to do so now and settle down to our life with Christ, which we will discover is a deeply rewarding way to live anyway.
Of the various words I used to describe the event of becoming a Christian the most Biblical one is to be “born again”. But we need to be careful here. In common language the phrase has come to mean not much more than “start again”. So in our present day language middle-aged men buying a motorbike after not having had one for many years get called “born-again bikers”. But the word used in John’s gospel means either of 2 things with equal force: “born again” or “born from above”, and bikers are never “born from above”! As we set out to follow Jesus we receive this new birth from above, from heaven, from the world of the Lord God, from the world of spiritual realities.
Many words are used in the Bible to describe what happened. Perhaps the most important are the words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’. Unfortunately they are rather difficult words, easily misunderstood in the English language. In the Bible they both come from the same basic roots in both Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek. In English ‘righteous’, or ‘righteousness’, sound the easiest to understand. But unfortunately there is no equivalent verb. If there was it would probably be ‘righteous-ify, so we might say we have been ‘righteous-ified’ instead of ‘justified’ – but there is no such word.
I’m going to invent it for these notes! Then what does righteous mean? It sounds like being right and is sometimes used that way in the Bible. Paul said that he was ‘as for righteousness based on the law, faultless’ clearly meaning he had always been a good boy! But there is a deeper meaning hiding in the way Paul usually uses the word. It is about being accepted by God. Of course, to be accepted by God implies that you have been a good boy or girl – but we haven’t – so how do we get to that stage where Paul says ‘This righteousness is given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe.’ The answer is in that word: ‘given’. It is not something we have earned but something, a status before God, that we have received because of, and only because of, what Jesus did on the Cross.
On the day that we became a Christian we were probably a mass of excited emotions. We knew something very important had happened but we didn’t quite know what. Well, here it is. Because we stated that we believed in Jesus – even if we didn’t know very well what it was we believed about him – a great transaction had taken place: God had granted us the status of being accepted by him, of being ‘righteous-ified’, or justified.
Yoiks, hooray and hallelujah!!!
There is nothing we must rush out and do as a consequence of being righteous-ified. The whole force of righteous-ification is that it is not something we do, or have done, but something that has been done to us. To be sure as a result of being righteous-ified we shall set out to live differently, to think differently, to bend our wills in a different direction –and all that is what I am going to try and offer some help and some suggestions about in the rest of this series of studies. Perhaps for the moment the most important thought to cling on to is that you are “born from above”. Something totally magnificent, totally unexpected, with no equivalent in this world has happened to you – if you have set out to follow Jesus. Think on it!