I understand the Bible to say that until we are reborn we do not, in the deepest sense, seek God. We may seek His blessings; we may even seek salvation; but God Himself we reject.
Nevertheless, it is common today to refer to those who are interested in knowing more about the Christian faith as “seekers,” and since it is possible that the reader may fall into that category, I would like to say a little about the implications of the topic of this book for you.
First, I hope you will not become angry with me for speaking to you plainly and bluntly about spiritual matters. If I suggest to you that you are currently lost and in need of Christ, I do not intend by this any disrespect for you as a person. On the contrary, it is because I care about you that I speak as I do. I would like to be of service to you.
Are You a Christian?
Let’s begin by trying to determine whether you are already a Christian. Many people are deceived about their standing with God, supposing themselves to be Christians when, in fact, they are not. Others are simply uncertain and perhaps feel anxious and worried about how God views them. The Bible tells us that we are to make every effort to make our calling and election sure, and so it is only reasonable to try to determine how we can be certain of our spiritual state. I will first mention some things that do not indicate that we are genuinely converted, and then some that do.
On the negative side, a person is not a Christian simply because he or she is born into a Christian family, or baptized into a Christian church, or because he or she joins a church. This is an important point, because millions of people have been deceived with the idea that their baptism or christening as a child, or their membership in a church as an adult, automatically puts them in God’s good graces.
Such people often have next to no knowledge of the Christian faith, and nothing in their behavior to suggest that Christ is, in fact, important to them. Yet if you ask them if they are Christians, they will very confidently answer that they are. When I was converted I happened to tell one of my professors that I had become a Christian. His puzzled response was, “Well, what were you before?” He apparently took it for granted that everybody born in America is automatically Christian.
But it is not so. Christian conversion is a spiritual matter. A Christian is a person who has entered into a new relationship with God. Christians have been forgiven their sins, and they have been declared by God to be His children. Their hearts have been changed by His Spirit, and they have within them a love for God and a heartfelt desire to please Him. These things do not come by birth or baptism but only by spiritual rebirth. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” said Jesus, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Another way people are deceived is by thinking that because they have raised their hand in an evangelistic meeting or gone forward to kneel at an altar, they can take their salvation for granted. The problem here is that there are many possible motives for responding to an evangelistic appeal other than a true Spirit-wrought change in the heart. Perhaps you raised your hand one day to “receive Christ.” You knew that was what your parents wanted you to do, and you didn’t want to disappoint them. Or maybe all your friends were going forward, and you didn’t want to be left out. Or maybe you were moved by the story of Christ’s death, or by some other story the speaker told, and your public response was simply a reaction to the emotional power of the message. Or again, maybe the speaker presented his appeal in such a way that you found yourself desiring some benefit that Christ can bring, and your response was an expression of your desire for that benefit rather than for Christ Himself.
Sad to say, the gospel is often presented in terms such as these: “Are you lonely? Christ can become your best friend. Are you fearful? Christ can take away your fears. Do you want power to overcome your bad habits? Christ can give you power. Now, don’t you want Christ?” A person may listen to that type of message and make a public response to it without, perhaps, ever understanding anything at all about his or her own sin, the meaning of Christ’s death, and the nature of true faith.
Your decision to go forward and “give your life to Christ” may have been based on a completely inadequate understanding of the commitment you were being asked to make, with the result that you have lived for years in a condition of disappointment, feeling that promises were made to you that have never been fulfilled. Perhaps the problem is that you are not yet a Christian.
One other way we deceive ourselves is by supposing that spiritual “experience” is what shows that we stand in God’s good graces. Mormons encourage potential converts to pray that God will show them the truth of Mormon doctrine by causing them to experience a “burning” sensation in their hearts. People involved in New Age religion are inclined to place great emphasis on their ability to make contact with beings in the invisible spirit realm. Some people build a religious faith not on God and Christ but on angels, and they suppose that the experiences they have apparently had of angelic visitations prove that they are at peace with God.
This, too, must be rejected as deceptive and inadequate. It is not that the non-Christian who claims to have had a spiritual experience is necessarily wrong in that belief. The problem, rather, is that apart from the testimony of the Bible, there is no way of being sure that the experience is from God. One popular author claims to be receiving her theology straight from a woman dead several hundred years. I don’t know whether she is in contact with a spiritual being, is deluding herself, or is deliberately lying. What I do know is that her theology is completely at odds with the Bible, and so even if she is indeed having some sort of genuine spiritual experience, it has not reconciled her to the true God.
You may think of yourself as a “spiritual” person, but beware: The only spirituality the Bible recognizes as genuine is one that is focused on Jesus Christ and guided by His teaching and that of His apostles. If you put your confidence in your supposed experiences, those experiences may wind up costing you your soul.
Now let’s look at the matter from a positive perspective. What constitutes true and adequate evidence that a person is a Christian? In one sense, the answer to this question is both brief and simple: A person is a Christian if he or she believes in Jesus. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). What connects us to the grace of God is faith. A person who has faith in Christ is, by definition, a believer. And whoever believes in Christ has already passed from death to life and has been forgiven all of his sins.
The problem, of course, is in defining faith. What constitutes true faith, and how does such faith make its presence known? If we don’t take time to think about this question, we may deceive ourselves, thinking we believe when really we do not.
So what does faith look like? Well, first, it has an intellectual component to it. In order to believe rightly in Jesus, we have to know who He is, what He did, and what His actions have to do with us. We need to believe that:
Many people who do not believe these things at all nevertheless claim to be Christians, but it is hard to see that there is any basis to their claim. Jesus taught all these doctrines, and it is manifestly dishonest to call oneself a follower of Christ if one denies them.
Faith, of course, requires more than intellectual understanding. The Bible reminds us that even the devils have an intellectual understanding of the gospel, but they obviously are not in a right relationship with God. To intellectual understanding we must add the assent of the will. That is, we must not merely believe that these things are true; we must be willing that they be true. You see, it is possible for a person to become persuaded that Jesus is the only Savior of the world and yet hate that fact. He may be intellectually convinced that without Christ he will perish eternally and yet be unwilling to change his life to bring it into accordance with that truth. His mind is convinced, but his heart is still in rebellion. Such a person is not a Christian.
And there is still more. To intellectual understanding and the assent of the will we must add another element of faith: actual personal trust in Christ. A Christian (1) believes that Jesus is the Savior of the world, (2) has no desire to deny or rebel against that truth, and (3) has placed all of his or her hope for salvation in Jesus alone.
A true follower of Christ is convinced that if God judges him according to his own deeds he will be eternally condemned; so with the hymn writer he says, “Nothing in my hands I bring/simply to Thy cross I cling.” And he means it! He would be no more willing to appear before God without the imputed righteousness of Christ than he would be to attempt to swim across the Pacific Ocean. From the heart he says, “Christ is a perfect Savior for sinners. I am a sinner. I will look to Him and Him alone for my salvation.”
A Changed Heart
This is faith, and faith is all that is needed to connect us to the salvation offered us in Christ. But because we are so prone to fool ourselves, it is important to know that if our faith is genuine, it will show itself in important and discernible ways. The Bible says of Christians that God has poured out His love into our hearts, and it would be very strange if that outpouring of divine love made no difference in the way we feel and act. If we genuinely believe in Jesus, then we will find, for example, that we have growing pleasure in knowing God through Him. We will enjoy reading the Bible. We will enjoy praying to God in Christ’s name. We will enjoy worshiping God and being with the people of God.
Our enjoyment in these things may vary in intensity depending on what else is happening in our lives, but we will have enough pleasure in our relationship with God to convince us that we are His and He is ours.
Similarly, if our faith is genuine, we will have a growing desire to see Christ glorified in our lives, in the lives of other people, and throughout the world. Our reasoning will be something like this:
“The God who has saved me is a great and wonderful God, and His Christ is a great and wonderful Savior. I want the world to know that I believe in Jesus, and I want other people to see Jesus in me and come to faith in Him because of me. I also want people everywhere to know about Christ and believe in Him, and I will do everything in my power to spread His fame throughout the world.”
Again, our passion for God’s glory may burn more brightly at some times than at others; but if we are real Christians, it will not burn out.
One more evidence of faith needs to be mentioned: A true Christian will always have a desire for personal holiness. We will want to obey God’s Law to the best of our abilities. We will find that we are still unable to comply fully with God’s Law, but we will have a heartfelt desire to do so. We will do everything in our power to remove all known sin from our lives, and when we are unable to overcome a sinful habit, we will find ourselves pleading with God to take it away from us.
This means that we will hate sin and love righteousness. Our prayers, once focused on asking God for various physical blessings, such as health, protection, or success, will now center on our holy Lord and our striving to become like Him.
Now let me again make this matter personal: Are you in fact a Christian? Do you believe in Christ, and is the genuine nature of your faith proved by its fruits? Does my description of Christian faith cause you to rejoice and say, “Yes, that’s me!” or does it cause uneasiness or even anger in your heart?
Be honest with yourself. There is no sense in ducking the issue or pretending to be what you are not.
A Word of Warning
Let’s assume you have answered the question in the negative—either you recognize that you plainly are not a Christian or else you see that you have insufficient evidence to prove that you are a Christian.
Please bear with me as I give you a word of warning.
You are in very great danger. You are a sinner, and God is angry with you for your sin. God holds you responsible for your every violation of His Law throughout your life, and He has stated plainly and solemnly that unless your sins are forgiven through Christ, you will pay the penalty for them through an eternity of suffering in hell. God will accept no excuses. You will not get away with blaming your sins on your parents, on Satan, or on God Himself. The sincerity of your false beliefs and wrong way of life will not purchase your forgiveness.
If you do not repent and believe in Christ, you will die in your sins and be lost forever.
Furthermore, your plight is made all the worse because you are morally unable to repent and believe unless God first gives you the power to do so. I do not say that you are physically unable to believe. God has not put any barrier in your way to prevent you from coming to Christ. The problem lies in your own will: You can’t come to Christ because you do not want to. Yes, you may well want some of the benefits of being a Christian. You may want to know that your sins are forgiven. You may want assurance that you will go to heaven. You may want the confidence that God will be with you throughout your life and through eternity. You may want the peace of knowing that God hears your prayers.
Not Yet Condemned, But . . .
But your problem is that while you want various things from God, you do not want God Himself. You do not want to submit to His authority in your life. You do not want to suffer the indignity of confessing your sins to Him and admitting your absolute need for Christ’s intercession for you. You do not want the inconvenience and shame of being Jesus’ disciple.
How can I know this? Because if you did want these things, you would have them already, since nothing stands in your way but your own will. The fact that you do not have them is proof that you do not want them, and your lack of desire for them makes it impossible that you should receive them. You are bound for hell, and it is by your own choice.
God has not yet condemned you, but you are in the process of condemning yourself, and unless God intervenes to save you, you will be lost. God requires you to trust in Christ, but you don’t want to trust in Him. God requires you to love Christ, but in your heart of hearts you despise Him.
Now maybe what I am saying is completely untrue of you. Maybe you are a Christian after all. If so, rejoice! But be honest with yourself. Do you love God or not? If not, then do not deceive yourself that He is reconciled to you or that you have it in your power to turn your hatred of Him into love. To put the matter in biblical terms, you are dead in your sins and transgressions. You are by nature an object of God’s wrath, without hope and without God in this world (Eph. 2:1–3; 12). God has full power to save you from your guilt and from your enmity toward Him, but only He has that power. If He saves you, you will be saved. If He does not, you will be lost.
Look to Christ
What then? If you are in a lost condition and are unable to believe in Christ as your Savior, what are you to do? Should you give up hope of being saved? Should you reason that if it all depends on the action of God, you might as well be passive? By no means! You cannot save yourself, but that does not mean that there is nothing you can do. You can look to Christ, confess to Him your depravity, admit your inability to love Him or even rightly believe in Him, and ask Him to mercifully change your bad heart to a good one.
You could pray such words of humble petition as these:
“Lord Jesus! I am not capable of loving You. I dread the loss of control involved in giving up my life to You. I hate the honesty involved in confessing that I am a sinner who cannot be saved other than by Your death on the cross. I do not want to submit my will to Yours. I do not want the shame of being known as Your follower.
“And yet, I also do not want to perish! I do not want to face an eternity of suffering for my sins. I do not want to experience the implacable and everlasting wrath of almighty God. I do not want to have lived in vain. I do not want to be lost, separated from You forever.
“And so, Lord Jesus, help me! Take away my heart of stone and give me a new heart, a good heart, one that will love You and love God. Change me from within; make me a new person; enable me to believe; cause me to love. If You leave me alone, I will damn myself. If You stand back and do not help me, I will use my free will to make a wreck of my existence. Do not abandon me! Have mercy on me, for the sake of Your own glorious grace. Amen.”
The Means of Grace
Friend, you cannot save yourself, but you can speak to God in this way. And there is more you can do. You can begin to make use of the means God normally uses to bring people to faith. You can read the Bible. You can pray. You can attend church. You can listen to biblical preaching. You can ask others to pray for you. I cannot guarantee that if you do these things, God will grant you faith and repentance. If I could offer such a guarantee, it would be tantamount to saying that you can, after all, save yourself. God reserves to Himself the right and power to save, and He will not share His glory with us, even if only by granting us the power to save ourselves by confessing that we cannot save ourselves! You are in His hands.
I can, however, tell you this. If you have read this far, and you find within yourself a willingness to pray along the lines I have suggested and to avail yourself of the means of grace I have listed, then it is very, very likely that the Spirit of God is already at work in you and that He plans to display His mercy in you by saving you.
As one great theologian has written,
“It is true that no man can regenerate himself, even although he hears and receives God’s Word. But God is prepared to come to those who come to him by the way he has told them. He meets souls where he says he will meet them.”
And the greatest of all theologians, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, has invited us with these words: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
So take heart! Perhaps this is the very day of your salvation. But do not rest until you are sure. Ask until you know you have received the power to trust Christ. Seek until you have found peace with God. Knock until you know that the door has been opened and you have entered in.
The Appendix (“A Letter to ‘Seekers’”) of David Clotfelter’s book, Sinners in the Hands of a Good God: Reconciling Divine Judgment and Mercy (Moody, 2004), pp. 266-274.