How Does One Become a Christian?
A Simple Discussion about a Vital Theme!
God is the ultimate Author of the Bible. Jesus Himself said to His Father (God), “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). Paul the apostle echoed the same idea when he said, “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). Peter said something similar: “Men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21b). If God did inspire and give the Bible for our learning, we can be assured that He made it very clear and simple how a person can be saved from sin and come to God for His forgiveness.
Since God is our Creator and “created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; make and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27), we can see why He would love us and want our good now and our good eternally. Because of this, He has made His will, His truth, and His expectations plain so that we will not be in the dark about His plan. Think for a moment. If God were to hide His truth from us or make His existence and nature unknown, would this be what a loving Maker would do? Instead, He would want us to know how to enter into a loving and eternal relationship with Him. This is exactly what He has done!
But what is the way? What is the truth that He wants to communicate to us, His creatures?
How “Christian” is used Today
Today people use the term “Christian” in a very loose and confusing way. In modern parlance, the term may be used of a Mormon who believes in multiple gods. It can be used of a liberal Episcopalian who rejects the basic moral principles of the Bible. It can be used of the so-called Jehovah’s Witness who doesn’t believe in the atoning death of Christ and rejects the bodily resurrection of the Messiah. And it can be used of the radical Fundamentalist or the Evangelical who thinks one can merely say a little prayer and he thereby becomes a Christian. Who is right—and what is right?
Technically, the term “Christian” comes from the Greek christianos, signifying “an adherent of Jesus” or a follower of Christ, the Messiah (W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary). It refers to a disciple of the Lord or a person who is “in Christ” and united to Him (cf. Acts 11:26; 26:28). In our familiar language, it can mean “professing belief in Jesus as Christ or following the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus,” or “showing a loving concern for others; humane” (The American Heritage College Dictionary). This may be true as far as it goes, but it is actually deficient since it allows “Christian” to be used of many who are not truly in Christ or united to Him in saving faith.
People may use “Christian” to refer to a professed follower of Christ—even if it is not a genuine commitment to Him. It may refer to a church member or a member of a denomination. In certain contexts, it may refer to a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes on a written form, the person can mark that he is part of “the Christian religion.” Sometimes it can mean that a person is not a Jew, a Muslim, or a Pagan. At times it has been used to refer to an American or European. It may also be used of a person who is kind and generous and sacrificial. Obviously, all of these uses are deficient and not founded on God’s own view reflected on the pages of the Scriptures.
If “Christian” is often misused and abused, we might also ask, “How does one become a Christian?” There is as much or more diversity about the answer to this question as there is about the former points. Depending on the one to whom we ask the question, we may hear the following answers:
- One becomes a Christian by becoming a member of the Catholic Church.
- One becomes a Christian by becoming part of a Protestant Church.
- One must be “baptized” as a baby to become a Christian.
- One must be “confirmed” at age 12 or 13 to become a Christian.
- One must lead a moral lifestyle to become a Christian.
- One must become a church member.
- One must regularly go to church and is thus a Christian.
- One must read the Bible regularly and this will make you a Christian.
- One must “invite Jesus into his heart” to become a Christian.
- One must repeat “the sinner’s prayer” after a preacher to become a Christian.
- One must prefer “Christian things, books, TV programs, and jewelry.”
- One must take a pilgrimage to the “holy land.”
- One must be visited by an angel or Jesus Himself to become a Christian.
- One must hear the voice of Jesus.
- One must have a spiritual feeling in the heart to be considered a Christian.
Some of this may seem far-fetched, but people can arrive at some very unusual, even strange, ways to connect to God and assume that he or she has become a Christian.
How Does the Bible say we Can be Saved?
As we read the Bible accounts on how people became Christians in the first century, at the time of Christ and His apostles, we learn a very different way to become a Christian or to be “born again” of God. We need to discuss this for no question more important can be asked than the one, “How can I be saved from my sins?” Other varieties of this basic question might be: “How can I be forgiven of my sins and go to heaven?” “How can I be ‘born again’ and enter the kingdom of God or family of God?” “How can I escape judgment and be received by God when Christ returns?”
What answers are given to the basic question, “How can I be saved and forgiven of my sins?” In light of the previous answers that some people give, what does the Bible really teach?
I can look back over my own childhood and religious background and see what the church of my childhood taught. However, I later concluded that I had been deceived or misled about how to become a Christian according to this denominational theology. This is what I would have been told:
First, this denomination said that a parent must bring the child to the church and he or she must be baptized as a baby. The theology of this well-known denomination would say that baby baptism is thought to impart forgiveness of sins, regeneration (the new birth), the kingdom of God, and salvation from sin. Is this idea according to Scripture? The Bible says that one must “repent, and . . . be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The Word of God also says that one must believe and be baptized to be saved (Mark 16:16) and to have sins “washed away” (Acts 22:16). In other words, a child or baby can’t believe, or repent of sins, or call on the name of Christ to be saved (Acts 22:16). We just can’t place this theology into first century conversion.
But what about other answers given to the same question relating to salvation? A variety of responses are given. Let’s look at some more of them:
Second, the Catholic Church has traditionally said that one must be part of the “Mother Church,” or the Catholic Church, for it is thought that Jesus began this church and still considers it as the one and only body of Christ. Since Jesus “purchased with His own blood” the body of Christ (Acts 20:28) and since Jesus is “the Savior of the body” (Ephesians 5:23), we can see why a religious organization might conclude that one is to be part of their communion—and only members can be saved. However, there is one basic problem with this: The Roman Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Churches as well) is not the body of Christ as described on the pages of Scripture. There are dozens of differences between the Catholic Church in the world today and the body or community of Christ that is described on the pages of Scripture! This means that it is indeed essential to be part of Christ’s spiritual body, but it is not necessary to be part of the Catholic Church. In fact, being a member of this religious body will lead one away from the Lord and His salvation!
Third, some people urge a sinner to come to Christ and “invite Him into the heart” in order to be saved from sin. Others may say that the person must repeat a “sinner’s prayer” after a preacher, evangelist, or teacher in order to receive God’s forgiveness. Still others attend a large crusade or religious meeting and are invited to write on a “decision card” to indicate an acceptance of Christ. Then there are some who are urged to “raise your hand” or “stand to your feet” to be saved. A century or two ago, people were coerced to come forward, sit on an “anxious seat,” and “pray through” for a feeling of salvation. These modern forms of evangelism may have a semblance of truth, but we don’t read about this on the pages of Scripture. For instance, Paul wrote, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13), and the apostle was told by Ananias to “wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). This “calling” or prayer was in the context of a repentant baptism, not as a semi-magical formula that guarantees salvation. This “easy believism” approach is different from the solid response of genuine faith and repentance required of one to be saved from sin (Acts 20:21).
Fourth, a certain theology would downplay the part that the sinner himself plays in his own salvation. They would say that “salvation is all of God, not man,” thus we’ve often heard it said, “You can do nothing to save yourself!” In contrast, Peter, inspired of God, commanded the repentant crowd on Pentecost, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40, ESV). A dozen times sinners are required to repent, to believe, to call on the Lord, to turn away from sin, in order to be saved from sin and come to Christ. They were not powerless to make a personal response to God for salvation. The jailer asked what He had to do to be saved (Acts 16:30). Paul responded that he had to “do” something—he had to believe in Christ Jesus (v. 31) and this involved repentance (20:21) and baptism (22:16).
Fifth, some people are waiting around for the Spirit, or the Lord Jesus, or God the Father, or an angel to personally “speak to their heart” in order to be saved. One woman I know has been waiting for over twenty years for Jesus Christ to personally reveal His will to her and lead her to be baptized! I’ve pointed out to her that God has already commanded repentance (Acts 3:19) and baptism (Matthew 28:18-19), thus He doesn’t need to reveal to each individual person the need to respond to God through Christ. He has already done this! We don’t wait to literally see Jesus (1 Peter 1:8) or God (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12). We have heard and seen enough to be saved—and this is sufficient. Let’s just take God at His word and not ask for something beyond this.
Sixth, it is not sufficient to do “Christian” things in order to be saved from sin and to become a Christian. Some people are relying on their watching “Christian” TV programs—unaware that many or most of them are filled with false and deceptive teaching. Others wear crosses around their necks or use other “Christian” jewelry. Still others contribute or donate money to a missionary organization or a church or a charity and assume that God will consider this a “Christian” thing to do. (Sadly, almost all of these supported causes are filled with false doctrine and compromising activities.) And there are some who depend on going to a “Christian” school or college to get them to heaven. They may go to a “Christian” concert or chase after a “Christian” performer, unaware that nearly all of these big-name personalities are promoting a false message or a compromising musical form. None of these are ways that a person can be saved, forgiven, or redeemed—or remain saved.
Seventh, there are millions of people who don’t think that one must “do” anything to be a Christian. Supposedly, this position or status comes automatically, just by being born into a “Christian” home or by doing “Christian” things. Although the theology of the church in which I was raised stated that an infant is saved, forgiven, and regenerated at the moment of infant “baptism,” probably many of the members just considered themselves “Christians” because they were such “by birth”! I never gave any thought to being born again and didn’t think this was needed as I grew up. Just as one might be born in America and assume that he is a United States citizen because of this, so we thought that if we were in this particular denomination and attended church regularly, then we were automatically Christians and on the way to heaven. How deceived I was—and how deceived many people are who hold this common but wrong belief!
Have I described you and your own belief in the foregoing seven different ways of being saved and going to heaven? If so, you are in dangerous grounds and you need to make some major decisions soon. After all, eternity is much too long to depend on a faulty view of conversion and salvation!
How then Can You and I be Saved?
If all of the foregoing methods, teachings, practices, and formulas do not lead a person to God and His way of salvation, how can we truly be saved? The answer is simple: we are saved according to the message and instructions of the Bible, God’s own inspired Word! For instance, the angel said to Cornelius, “He [Peter] will speak words to you by which you will be saved” (Acts 11:14). God communicated His will to lost people by means of “words” or a message from God. Saving faith only comes through exposure to the message of Christ that God gives to us (see Romans 10:13-17).
What does the word of God say about becoming a Christian? One clue is found in Acts 11:26 where we read that “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” A Christian is a disciple and a disciple of Christ is a Christian. “Disciple” comes from the Greek mathetes, and it means a “learner, disciple” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). Thus, a Christian is one who becomes a follower or disciple of the Lord Jesus.
But how does one become a disciple of the Lord? Jesus answered this in His “Great Commission”: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20a).
Jesus makes it clear that His desire is that “disciples” be made from all the nations of the world. And how is this done? By baptizing them and teaching them. As William Hendriksen points out, “The main verb is ‘Make disciples.’ Subordinate to this are: a. baptizing them, and b. teaching them. . . . The concepts ‘baptizing’ and ‘teaching’ are simply two activities, in co-ordination with each other, but both subordinate to ‘make disciples.’ In other words, by means of being baptized and being taught a person becomes a disciple. . .” (New Testament Commentary: Matthew, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973). Craig L. Blomberg adds to this:
The main command of Christ’s commission is “make disciples.” . . . The truly subordinate participles in v. 19 explain what making disciples involves: “baptizing” them and “teaching” them obedience to all of Jesus commandments. The first of these will be a once-for-all, decisive initiation into Christian community. The second proves a perennially incomplete, life-long task. (The New American Commentary: Matthew, Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 1992, p. 431).
This would say that one becomes a disciple when he is baptized (as an expression of repentance and faith in Christ) and as he continues to learn the way of Christ through the message of Jesus and applies this to his life.
Let’s continue this further. There are a variety of scriptures that make it quite clear how one is to be saved or forgiven of sin and brought into Christ’s body. As we have seen, the commission in Matthew (28:18-20) says that one is to be baptized and taught the way of Christ.
The commission in Mark (16:15-16) would say: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” Notice that one who responds to the gospel (v. 15) must believe the message and express that belief or faith in baptism (v. 16). One is not baptized first and then believes (as I was taught in the church of my upbringing), but he believes and then is baptized. On the other hand, Jesus didn’t say that one must believe and is thereby saved, then later may be baptized. According to what the Lord said, one is to believe and be baptized that thereby will be saved. Have you done this?
The commission in Luke emphasizes a different aspect of conversion: “. . . that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Repentance is far more important than many people assume. Jesus said “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). I’ve heard it said that this is only for rank sinners who know nothing about sin and salvation or the cross. No, Jesus said that all of us need to repent—to have a change of heart that leads to a different form of life. From these different accounts, we see that one must believe in Christ Jesus, repent of his sins, and be baptized to become a disciple and to be saved. Is this something that you—and I—have done?
On the day of Pentecost, we see further evidence on how people became Christians or saved people. There Peter proclaimed the message of Jesus to the crowd of devout Jews who had gathered for the important festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36). The people were convicted of their sin and guilt and cried out, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (v. 37). Did the apostle say they could to nothing? Did he say that they should “join a church”? Did he say that their moral and religious background was sufficient to save them?
No, Peter boldly and mercifully answered: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). They were to repent and be baptized! Why? Peter gives the answer: “For the forgiveness of your sins.” And what was the result? They were not only forgiven of the guilt of their sins, but they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. v. 39). Peter goes on to urge them to save themselves from a perverse generation (v. 40) and some 3,000 people responded to this simple message of the gospel (v. 41). They began to meet together as a group or fellowship of saved people (vv. 42-47).
This same pattern is found again and again as we go through the New Testament. When the Samaritans “believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name f Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike” (Acts 8:12). Again we are struck with the simplicity of this—they believed the preached message and they were baptized. Notice that they all were mature enough to believe before they were baptized.
Later in the same chapter, we find the account of the conversion of the Ethiopian. Philip “preached Jesus to him” (Acts 8:35) then this preacher immediately baptized this sincere worshiper from Ethiopia: “They both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch [the Ethiopian], and he [Philip] baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch saw him no more, but went on his way rejoicing” (vv.38-39). Notice that there was no elaborate ceremony—just a simple immersion in water. Notice also that the Ethiopian was taken “into the water” to be baptized. This shows that baptism is an immersion (dipping, submersion, lowering, sinking) into water—which rules out such defective actions as sprinkling, moistening, or pouring that some denominations and churches practice.
The account of Paul’s conversion to Christ is significant. The text says that Paul “was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). A modern religionist or preacher might think that being blind for three days and fasting (eating no food or drinking no water) might be enough to save this devoted man, but it wasn’t. God used Ananias, a “disciple” at Damascus (v. 10) to reach Paul where he was staying. What did this devout disciple of Christ tell Paul (who was still lost)? “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). In other words, he had delayed long enough; he was now to “get up” and do something. He was to be baptized and through this simple act, he would “wash away his sins,” “calling on His [Christ’s] name.” Again, we see how simple this response was. He didn’t need to be taken to a religious gathering to vote on his acceptance. He didn’t need to go through a catechism class for 3 or 6 or 12 months. He didn’t need to go through an involved ceremony or ritual, being baptized at the hands of a visiting “bishop” at all. No, a simple disciple baptized Paul in an unassuming way.
As we continue through the New Testament, we notice that Paul says that we have been “baptized into Christ Jesus” and “baptized into His death” (Romans 6:3). “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4). In other words, the person who wants to be saved, dies to sin (vv. 1-2), is buried with Christ through baptism into death, is raised from the dead, and begins to “walk in newness of life.” Wouldn’t you say that this is a very simple procedure that can be done without paraphernalia, without ecclesiastical oversight, without religious ritual, and without any of the trappings that contemporary religious leaders demand.
Other scriptures add to this. Paul says to the Galatian brothers, “[You] were baptized into Christ” and “have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). This baptism occurred as an outward expression of faith in Jesus. They were “all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 26). The baptism demonstrated this faith in Christ, thus it was not intended for immature babies or young children—but for those old enough to repent of their sins and express faith in Christ.
In another place, Paul says that a spiritual “circumcision” or “cutting away” occurs in baptism (Colossians 2:11). He explains this further in verse 12: “. . . having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Similar to Romans 6, Paul here says that when we come to Christ, we are “buried” with Christ “in baptism.” And we also are “raised up” with Christ “through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). How many people today experience this significant act when they think they are saved from sin?
There are other significant passages, but these are sufficient to demonstrate that coming to Christ for His forgiveness and cleansing is quite different from what we have been led to believe through our religious authorities, our church leaders and pastors, our confessions of faith and rule books, and our theology volumes. Isn’t it clear to you that the various means by which hundreds of millions of people think they have become Christians and saved people are far removed from what the Bible actually says! We find no baby baptism, no “alter calls,” no “sinner’s prayer,” no “inviting Jesus into your heart” approach, no church membership concept, no denominational confusion. Instead, we have a simple but dignified experience described in Scripture that resulted in people being saved, forgiven, regenerated, cleansed, and united to Christ and His body.
Now we need to become personal. Most of you who are reading this article call yourselves Christians. Probably you think you have become a Christian through one of the many ways we first mentioned at the beginning of the article. Maybe your parents raised you in a church or denomination. Many of you probably think you were saved and forgiven when you were “baptized” as a baby, in your mother’s or father’s arms. Others of you answered an “invitation song” at the end of a religious service, or bowed your head to “invite Jesus into your heart,” or fell to your knees where a pastor or church worker took you through a “sinner’s prayer.” Or you may have repeated a prayer at a large gathering at a stadium or when a TV preacher led you through a formula at the end of his sermon. But now you can see that the Bible teaches a different way of salvation. It is a way that is focused on Christ but it is quite different from the usual methods that so-called “Christian” denominations and churches promote.
What will you do with this information? Will you respond to the truth with a submissive faith, a heartfelt repentance, and an obedient surrender? Or will you react with confusion or anger about the fact that your religious authorities misled you and told you that you were a Christian when actually you had followed a counterfeit religious system? Will you have a “love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10b)? Or will you reject the truth and continue your self-chosen, self-deceived way?
The choice is yours. . . .
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