This article was first delivered as part of a sermon series for Credo at UTS, Sydney.
We’re surrounded by sales messages and confronted with subtle (and not-so-subtle) advertisements from businesses seeking to persuade us of why we should buy their products. After all, what kind of salesman would tell us not to buy their product?
A good and an honest one. An ethical salesman is focused, not on profits for shareholders, but on doing their job to help you find what you need. They are there to serve you; they want you to get what is good and right for you.
In this sense, Jesus is a good salesman – he warns us quite carefully about the costs and responsibilities that come with what he offers us in meeting our greatest need. Similarly, those who faithfully carry on Jesus’ work will be honest and frank about the true risks of following Christ, as well as what are the truly good reasons to become a Christian.
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In Luke 14:25-35, Jesus tells a significant story to his followers about counting the cost of being one of his disciples. Using the illustrations of a building project failing due to insufficient finance, and a government committing to a war it cannot win, Jesus urges us to consider carefully what it will take to be a Christian, before we commit.
What are proper motivations and expectations for becoming an authentic Christian? One way to find out is to consider what are bad or inadequate desires for becoming a Christian.
1. Christianity is not for good people
For some, Christianity is code for “intolerant” and “judgmental”; for others, “Christian” is code for “good person”. Christianity can be associated with a lifestyle of a nice, moral person. Living according to the commandment to love your neighbour, or by the devoutly spiritual side to Christianity, can be viewed as indicators of what it means to become a Christian.
An un-Christian person can be viewed in terms of being a “bad”, sinful person. As a result, becoming a Christian for some is about turning over a new leaf; trying to “come good” and find God’s acceptance.
But true Christianity is for bad people. Jesus famously said in Mark 3:13-17 to the religious and morally pure people: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
This may sound offensive to you, because true Christianity dares to claim that you are not good,
Becoming a Christian begins with an acknowledgement of your guilt and failure to live up to God’s standard of what is good and loving and right. You have a realisation of your need for forgiveness.
The reason Jesus came was to suffer the judgement we deserve (death) and rise to life on our behalf as the giver of the forgiveness we need as sinners before a holy God.
You cannot be a true Christian until you realise this.
Christianity is not about trying harder or being better as a person. Nor is it about meaning well and seeking to do what is good and right. It’s about the humble surrender of begging for pardon and the joyful relief of being accepted by God because of his forgiveness.
This may sound offensive to you, because true Christianity dares to claim that you are not good. In that respect, you are the same as everybody else. Although humans were created good by a good God, our pride can be offended by the Bible that asserts we are wicked at heart.
True Christianity doesn’t hide this. If you do feel angered by it, perhaps you are understanding the shock that genuine Christianity is to our own notions of what we are really like as humans.
2. Christianity won’t take all your problems away
For many, becoming a Christian can be a way of pursuing blessing, given God is the source of all good, whether love, happiness, healing, safety or prosperity. The motivation and the expectation can be for a better life, a richer life, a happier life. Such an approach seeks to maximise the strength, support and advantage you can get from Christianity to help you and make the most of your life.
To be sure, there are many blessings that come from following Jesus, as God does lovingly take good care of his children.
Jesus does not promise us physical blessings in this life
Ephesians 1 lists many of these blessings including the knowledge of God, peace with God, confidence in prayer, belonging to the family of his people, and freedom from guilt over sin.
The problem with becoming a Christian motivated by expectation of blessing is that Jesus does not promise us physical blessings in this life. In fact, Jesus promises that Christians will have much trouble, just like everyone else (John 16:33). Actually, often Christians experience extra trouble, such as struggling with sin, or from rejection (Matthew 10:34–39; Acts 14:22; 2 Timothy 3:14).
True Christianity is about “denying self” and “losing” our lives of pursuing preference and comfort, in order to follow Jesus in a life marked by death and suffering. The promise is gaining our lives in eternity with him (Mark 8:34-38). In the end, we have the hope and goal of final peace, rest, and lasting life.
3. Christianity is not a tribal identity
Some people are attracted to Christianity because of the identity they think it reinforces. You might gravitate towards Christianity because of your social community or because of a cause you believe in that you think Christianity represents.
Some ethnic communities around the world are strongly associated with Christian history and culture. Similarly, some political priorities and agendas can be thought of as Christian ones. Some values associated with family and ethics can be thought of as Christian.
But being truly Christian is not about where you come from; whether your family or culture or country or tribe or ethnicity has a history associated with Christianity. It’s also not about what group you identify with, whether a churchgoing social group or a morally conservative or economically liberal group.
Be open to Christianity breaking down the barriers which divide us
This kind of thinking has fed into some of the worst seasons of Christian history, where Christianity meant “European” or “colonialism”. In the past, Christianity has also meant “hostile” towards pagans or Muslims; “hostile” towards Jews, Hindus or Catholics. But this is not genuine, spiritual, biblical Christianity.
True Christianity transcends and subverts tribal identities, because it is a word from God who is above and beyond our narrow categories. Colossians 3 demonstrates that having Christ, who is above all, as the centre of our identity (verses 1-4) strips away simplistic categories of who’s “in” and who’s “out” (verses 9-14).
Having Christ, who is “in all,” should lift us beyond concerns about culture wars. It gives us a longer timeline and a greater goal than gaining rule, respect or power. In practice, we all have blind spots and so authentic Christians fail to live up to this ideal. But genuine Christianity itself is not a tribal identity and becoming a Christian for that reason distorts it.
Be open to Christianity breaking down the barriers which divide us; let it influence you to transcend your identity markers.
4. Christianity won’t help you to do what you want to do with your life
For some, Christianity appears to be a means of getting God’s help with what you’re doing. You can expect God to bless, guide, inspire, or strengthen you to do what already planned to do — in work, relationships or lifestyle.
If you become a Christian for this reason then you are not coming to the true and living God. You’re coming to a small god that you can bring “down” and fit into your own life. This approach also reduces your own life to the tiny scope of your desires and plans.
In part, knowing God will help you to live your life, given God is your maker and has all the power and the wisdom. Following him will give you a completely different perspective on life; a whole different foundation. Christians do have the wonderful blessing of being able to submit to God, in prayer, all of our plans for his blessing and wisdom under the guidance of his Word. They also have the ability to serve him through whatever they do.
Genuine Christianity is much bigger than our little plans, and so is the God that it worships. Christianity is about the immeasurably great God who lifts us up into his story, so that our lives are caught up into his will and plans. Following Jesus means being a part of his purpose to build his Church (Matthew 16:18), which involves his plans to bring rescue through the gospel to the world (Matthew 28:18-20).
Ultimately, following Jesus means going his way in the direction he is going.
To be sure, becoming a Christian begins with returning to God through surrender, asking for his mercy so that, with his forgiveness you begin to live his way, trusting him, listening to his Word and obeying it. But this results in you starting to live for the same purposes as his; your priorities shift as you keep in mind God’s will and plans and the ultimate end of all things.
Even if you do get married, buy a house, have children, start a business – whatever you do – you will live your life obedient to God’s command to love, serve his Church and give to his mission.
Your priorities will not only include being kind and successful, nice and sensible, but also focus on sharing in and furthering God’s great message to the world about Christ.
To live as a Christian is to live and die for something that could not be greater: God himself.
Is this a bad sales message? Is this the kind of advertisement that is just an annoying interruption; one that you could have done without? After all, becoming a Christian would invariably involve you giving time, money, and talent in service to Christ.
It could involve major life sacrifices, like giving up your option to pursue a childhood dream in order to remain faithful in serving Christ where he has placed you right now. But to know God and to share in his ultimate purposes for your life and the whole world is, in the end, no sacrifice at all.
It is the best way to live. It is to live life as it is truly meant to be lived.
It is big, and beautiful and greater than us. To live as a Christian is to live and die for something that could not be greater: God himself.
Mikey Lynch, with Joe Towns