Getting clear about Christianity

Apparently around 70% of people in the UK still describe themselves as Christian, whilst less than 50% say they believe in God. They're interesting statistics. They suggest that what exactly is meant by the term 'Christian' is widely misunderstood. This short booklet addresses perhaps the three greatest misunderstandings. We hope it will help clarify what Christianity is all about.

1) We wrongly assume that it is just about believing in God.

“I’m an atheist” said one friend, “I don’t believe in God. “ “I do” said the other, “but I sort of pick and choose the ideas I like.” This conversation in a local pub brought home to me the key assumptions many share today: Either there is no God, or if there is, it doesn’t really matter what we believe about him.

Jesus said:
“Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him.” (John’s Gospel, chapter 5, verse 23) His point was not only that there is a God, but that if we truly know him, we will recognise him in Jesus himself. In other words, we need to believe in the God who is actually there - not a philosophical idea or a being of our own creation, but the deeply personal Creator whose power, love and sense of justice are so clearly seen in Jesus.

The first momentous truth of Christianity is that God has actually entered space time history as a man, and that he did so in order to put our world right. Jesus spoke of establishing a wonderful and everlasting kingdom - a new world order that he would reign over and that would be free from suffering and death. He promised that he would judge and exclude all evil from it, and fill it with those he would raise from the dead and enable to live in perfect love for God and one-another.

Now of course this is a lot for a twenty first century mind to accept. But God has not left us without evidence, and it was this that surprised and convinced me when an atheist myself. The historical trustworthiness of the gospels found in the Bible really can be verified. The writers had nothing to gain except possible death for writing what they did. And in the gospels we find eyewitness accounts that record Jesus’ divine ability to do just what he promised - overcome evil, suffering and death. Above all else we see that he himself was raised from the dead, proving that he is the only one qualified to bring us to God’s death-free world.

In 1944, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was sent by the Japanese army to the remote Philippine island of Lubang. His mission was to conduct guerrilla warfare during World War II. Unfortunately, he was never officially told the war had ended. So for 29 years Onoda continued to live in the jungle, ready for when his country would again need his services and information. Eating coconuts and bananas and deftly evading search parties he believed were enemy scouts, he hid in the jungle until finally emerging on March 19, 1972.

Surely all of us long for an end to the darkness of our world. Yet we continue as if God has done nothing to bring this about. More worryingly, like Onada, many live in a way that ignores or is even hostile to God, to the God who is there – the God that is Jesus. And this leads us to our next misconception.

2) We wrongly assume that we can be good enough for God to accept us.

Jesus said “No-one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10v18) He was so honest about the bad within our hearts. We may not commit adultery, but our imaginations do. We may not murder, but we feel the sort of bitterness that can lead to it. And just consider Jesus’ command to love God with all our mind, soul, heart and strength. Consider his example of actually seeking to do good to those who hurt and hate us. Next to him our best deeds are like 60 watt bulbs when the sun comes out - pretty inconsequential.

Jesus’ promise to judge and exclude all evil from his kingdom is therefore a problem for us, because none of us can deny that to some extent we do wrong. It was for this reason that Jesus spoke so frankly about hell. Hell is to be shut out of God's kingdom beyond death. Those who want little to do with God or Jesus are often provoked by the idea. But if that is you, please consider that it is only for God to give you what you ask for - an existence apart from him. Yet we shouldn’t minimise the seriousness of this. In great love Jesus desperately warned that hell would be the most horrific of existences imaginable, and something we should avoid at all costs.

This brings us to a second momentous truth about Christianity. Jesus was willing to experience hell on our behalf. He spoke of his own death by crucifixion as a laying down of his life for all who would come to him. He taught that it was somehow equivalent to the punishment we deserve for our wrongdoing. Do read the next sentence slowly to grasp what that means: By knowingly going to such an excruciating death, Jesus lovingly and purposefully endured the justice and anger of God at human wrongdoing so that you and I might not have to endure it ourselves. In other words, he placed himself in the dock and paid the penalty we should pay.

Now that is good news. God is the God of the second chance. He is the God of the fresh start. This is why, despite being our judge, Jesus was still keen to spend time with those who were dishonest and immoral. It is why he was able to say he had come for those who are spiritually sick rather than healthy. It is why he was able to boldly hand out God’s forgiveness to those who sought it from him.
So no matter how you have lived, no matter how much of a mess your life may be in, no matter what you have previously believed, you can have a new beginning.

Here again we must slow down to take in, because this forgiveness is the heart of Christ's message. In the early church, the first physical act of faith was to be baptised, to be washed in water. It symbolised that the first spiritual act of faith was to bring all the grime of our lives to God for cleansing. Jesus taught that we are then treated by God as if we are clean, even though we so clearly aren't. We then have his acceptance. We are reconciled to him like hostile enemies to a gracious King, or wayward children to a perfect Father.

And doesn’t all this bring relief? At times all of us experience regret and guilt. We may suppress it as soon as we can. Yet it’s presence shows that we know only too well that we will not be able to stand on judgement day. This means that we should be rightly fearful of facing Jesus. But for those who come to him, that fear can be turned to joy. And so to our third misconception.

3) We wrongly assume that being a Christian is just to uphold Christian values.
I hope you have already seen that it is so much more than that. Jesus calls all people to “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 24v47) Sadly this brings only images of ‘the-end-is-nigh’ sandwich boards in London. But the word “repent” refers to ‘a change of mind that leads to a change of life.’ It is to truly believe in Jesus and so act accordingly: It is to believe that he has been raised from the dead and so proved to be God’s Son, King and Judge. It is therefore to call on him as judge for mercy and forgiveness whenever we do wrong. And with thanks, it is to serve him as King and so bring our entire life under his rule.

Centuries ago, everyone thought that the earth was the centre of the solar system and that the planets and sun itself revolved around us. A revolution in scientific thinking then occurred that caused a revision of all text books. Copernicus discovered that in reality the sun was the centre, and everything revolved around it.

The third momentous truth of Christianity is that the resurrection of Jesus means an even greater revolution in thinking needs to take place. We all live as if we are the centre of the universe. We believe what we want to believe and behave as we want to be behave. Yet in reality, it is the Son of God who is the centre, and we and all we think or do should revolve around him. Some (even within the church) disbelieved and opposed Copernicus’ theories, but that made them no less true. And so it is with Jesus.

Of course repentance can be hard. It really does mean changing the way we live: It means being part of God's new humanity and so living by the ways of the world to come. And this does impact our relationships, language, work-practices, and the way people regard us, in a way that can be uncomfortable.

Yet can I reassure you that repentance really is quite wonderful? Jesus promised that obeying his teaching would
“set us free.” (John 8v31-32) It liberates us from the expectations of the world and the addiction of our own nature to what is wrong. He spoke of dying so that we can “have life in all its fullness” (John 10v10) – the wholeness of the truly human life, flourishing because it is lived as God created it to be lived. He welcomed his disciples with the words “peace be with you,” (Luke 23v36) declaring the love and acceptance of God that we can experience through repentance.

And it is here that we need to be very clear indeed: Repentance is not an attempt to somehow earn or deserve God's acceptance as many assume. That would be hopeless, as we all fail. No, God’s acceptance is a gift to all who believe. Repentance is simply the evidence that we really do believe and so are sincere in our sorrow at sin and want to share in the life of the world to come.

We read that the response of Jesus’ first followers to all this was quite simply “joy.” (Luke 24v52) This is the essence of the Christian life. No matter how hard life gets, the true Christian can know an inner contentment and delight in personally knowing God, marvelling at his ways, looking forward to his kingdom, honouring him with their life, and being a member of his family the church.

So what must I do? 
We have seen that being a Christian entails three things:
1] Believing that God has raised Jesus from the dead, and that Jesus is therefore God’s Son, King and Judge
2] Relying on God for mercy and forgiveness for all you have done or will do wrong.
3] Committing to obeying Jesus’ teaching even when difficult.

It is quite understandable if you don’t yet feel able to respond in this way but have questions you would like to work through. If that is you, do please contact us for a one-off chat. As I hope you have picked up, these things are too important to just dismiss.

You may however be sensing that you do need to respond as Jesus calls you to. If so, do be reassured: To those who do, Jesus promises forgiveness, everlasting life in his kingdom and his Holy Spirit to help them live for him. In the light of this, can I urge you not to put things off? You may find the following prayer useful:

Lord God,
I thank you for your great love in sending Jesus to die for me.
I believe that you raised him from the dead and that he is your Son and King and Judge.
Please forgive all the wrong I have done or will do, every sin I know of and don’t know of.
I commit myself now to obeying Jesus as my King.
Please fill me with you Holy Spirit to help me live for him.
Amen. 

One of the first proofs that we are sincere in our new faith is that we want to join a church where the Bible is clearly taught so that we can learn more about Jesus, and where Christians will encourage us as we seek to live for him. Please do get in touch so that we can point you in the right direction.