Andrew Corbett challenges: ‘What does it mean to be a Christian?’
Some years ago a minor party senator criticised Christians for voicing concerns over her party’s policy agenda. She claimed that Christians should stop preaching ‘at’ people because Christianity was really about helping the poor. Her claim was bolstered by a recent delegation of nearly 200 Christian ministers who agreed with her! But she’s not the only politician to think that Christianity is merely about improving social conditions.
Just before Prime Minister John Howard lost power, his opponent was interviewed about being a Christian. He said that his Christianity was like that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the German pastor who withstood Hitler, was goaled for nearly three years by the Nazis and executed at the command of Hitler- Hitler’s final command which he gave two days before he committed suicide and the War consequently ended).
Bonhoeffer (Pictured left), stated this politician, did not see Christianity as being about converting people. Rather, Christianity was about opposing injustice – which is why this German pastor withstood Hitler at the cost of his own life.
If elected Prime Minister, this politician would promote Christianity as a force for social justice – not converting people ‘like evangelicals do’!
Converting to Christianity means becoming a ‘Pilgrim’
It’s one thing for politicians not to understand what Christianity is about, but it’s quite another matter for so-called Christian ministers! Today there are a growing number of such ministers who deny that anyone needs to be ‘converted’ in order to become a Christian.
For those of us who do know what a Christian is and care about how Christianity is understood, we are faced with the challenge of not only defending it – but getting on with it!
In his unequalled classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan tells of a man who prayed. As a result of praying he becomes aware of the burden on his back. This man realises that no matter how hard he tries he cannot free himself from this burden. He embarks on a journey to find relief and becomes Pilgrim.
Pilgrim meets Evangelist who points him to a hill called Golgotha. It is there that he meets the bleeding Saviour. (Illustration: Evangelist points the sin-burdened Pilgrim to Golgotha and the dying Saviour)
And there at Golgotha as he gazes into the face of Jesus he cries out, ‘For me he dies! For me he dies!’ The burden of sin, guilt and shame snaps off his back and rolls down the hill. At that point Pilgrim is converted!
So firmly did Bunyan believe that Christianity only began with conversion that he was prepared to be gaoled for that belief for some 17 years!
Universalists deny conversion
Theologically, people who call themselves Universalists believe that everyone is saved without having been converted. They base this idea on verses such as Romans 5:15 which compares Adam’s sin condemning everyone with Christ’s death saving everyone.
If the Universalists are correct, then Evangelicals are wasting their time preaching for people to be converted and should instead be concentrating on helping the poor.
But Universalists must ignore much scripture and history to come to this conclusion. But what’s more concerning is this: If they are wrong their error has dire eternal consequences for millions of people.
What conversion means
To be converted to Christianity is a dramatic spiritual change. It is described as being –
- ‘Translated’ (transferred) from darkness to light: Paul states, ‘He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of light’ (Colossians 1:13) and Peter agrees in 1 Peter 2:9.
- Brought from death to life: ‘We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death’ (1 John 3:14) and Ephesians 2:1-5.
- Being born again: ‘Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”’(John 3:3).
The problem that Universalists face in sustaining their case from scripture is: Scripture!
Reading all of Romans 5 it becomes apparent that the salvation achieved by Christ is available to every person through the preaching of the gospel to those who ‘receive the abundance of God’s grace’ (5:17). Salvation must be ‘received.’
Scripture is not the only problem the Universalist must deal with. Not only does the Bible affirm that all people are in the grip of sin’s tyranny, human experience down through history confirms it every time someone does something evil to other humans.
But the historical testimony of human experience also points us to literally millions of examples of people who have been converted, some dramatically, to Christianity.
Conversion involves a change of heart, mind, spirit and will. It is not merely ‘turning over a new leaf’ or ‘making a New Year’s resolution.’ It is rather a miraculous transformation by the Holy Spirit which begins with recognition of a person’s sinful guilt. This is called conviction.’ The Holy Spirit then opens that person’s heart to the gospel where they receive God’s grace and forgiveness as they are enabled by the Holy Spirit to repent.
God is in the business of conversion
It appears in scripture that God generally uses three broad approaches to lead people to repentance.
- Firstly, Romans 2:4 says that God uses kindness to lead people to repentance: ‘Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?’
- Secondly, it appears that God uses miracles to bring people to repentance. Christ expresses his disappointment that many of the cities in which he performed miracles did not repent – ‘Jesus began to denounce the cities where he had done most of his miracles, because they hadn’t turned from their sins and turned to God’ (Matthew 11:20).
- Thirdly, God uses tragedy to bring people to repentance.
God loves to convert people. He loves to rescue those who cry out to him in humility. To those people, including parliamentarians, who ridicule us evangelicals for promoting Christianity by conversion, converted people such as the apostle Paul, C S Lewis and people with my mindset present a problem.
It might also be worth noting that Dietrich Bonhoeffer would sound a loud ‘Amen!’ He made this extremely clear in his book Life Together where he stressed the need for conversion and pointed out that the Christian community should only be considered as being constituted of those who have been converted.
An atheist’s advice for converted Christians
Phillip Adams, one of Australia’s most renowned ABC media personalities and an avid atheist, spoke at a Pastors’ Conference.
He stated what should never have to be stated by an atheist to a group of Christian leaders: ‘If I believed what you claimed to believe – eternity, heaven and hell, and the need to be converted – I would be shouting it from the rooftops and I wouldn’t care who ridiculed or opposed me in the process!’
It is my prayer that we will see many thousands of people authentically converted to Christ all around the world. It’s one thing to claim that we believe everyone needs to be converted in order to become a Christian – but it’s an entirely different thing to live like we believe it!
Dr Andrew Corbett is an avid reader/researcher, a Christian apologist and author, pastoring in Tasmania. Link: firstname.lastname@example.org