The Naked Church – Chapter Six
The Naked Church – Chapter – 6. Real Salvation
The Naked Church – Chapter Six – The pastor could hardly contain himself as he told me about his church’s door-to-door evangelism program: “In the last five months we’ve had over 175 people give their lives to Jesus!”
I was there to do some guest speaking, and I knew that only about 50 people were attending the church. “Where are they?” I asked.
“Come on, Wayne, you know as well as I do that less than one percent ever make their faith active.”
He was right—I did know that. Even the largest and most expensive evangelism campaigns don’t do much better. I always wonder why we get so excited about such efforts. Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful that at least a handful of people want to take time on a Saturday to share their faith. I’m excited about the two people (a generous one percent) who found a new life in Christ. But my joy is mitigated when I think about the other 173.
Did they go through the motions of accepting Jesus just to get the visitors off their doorstep? How silly we must look when we’re so easily deceived!
Did they think a sinner’s prayer alone completes the Christian experience? If so, I’m afraid we’ve deceived them at the same time we disarmed the conviction of the Holy Spirit that might well have brought them to Christ.
Did they genuinely want to walk with Jesus, but no one showed them how? Then we’re only leaving a wake of frustrated people whose form of Christianity won’t fulfill its promise.
The reason why so many people don’t know God as a present, personal reality is because we’ve ceased to define Christianity relationally. We have come to see salvation only as an escape from hell, and not as an introduction into a living relationship with the Father through his Son. That is at the heart of the church’s nakedness both on the doorsteps of our witnessing programs and in the pews of our sanctuaries.
Evangelists thunder about the moment at judgment day when
your neighbor on his way to hell looks at you and cries out, “Why
didn’t you tell me?” To be honest, I’m also concerned about the
person sitting two pews in front of me. He may have opened his
heart to God at one point, but he no longer holds an active faith
because he is either unconcerned or unaware that life with God
is more than sitting in a pew every Sunday.
Christianity Made Easy
When the goal of relationship is removed from the topic of conversion, we are left to quibble over what the minimum requirements of heaven are. Wanting to include as many as possible, we have the tendency to build a wider road than Jesus did.
Ann Landers, writing to a Christian mother concerned about her son’s impending marriage to a Jewish girl, seems to think a good life will suffice: “Try to view the situation from a broader point of view. It is this: Eternal life is granted to all people who live according to God’s laws.”1 I’m all for mothers accepting future daughters-in-law, but do we have to change God’s covenant to do it? Scripture clearly states that we’ll never merit salvation by our own works: “For if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).
Peter Wagner, a leader in the church growth movement, describes his concept of active church members: “They may not be there every Sunday, but they attend at least occasionally, they make some financial contribution to the church, they regard the church as ‘my church,’ they expect that their young children will also become members, and they look to the church for rites of passage such as weddings and funerals.”2 I know that church growth experts need something to count, but what has any of this to do with whether or not someone is wholeheartedly walking with God?
Perhaps the most popular determination today is whether someone has said the sinner’s prayer. Many feel that it encapsulates all the responses asked of us for salvation—confession of sin and surrender to Jesus’ lordship. And for the most part it does, except that using it alone reduces salvation to an outward act that may not express the desire of the heart. To that extent the sinner’s prayer can become nothing more than the New Testament equivalent of Old Testament circumcision.
God told Abraham that at eight days old every male was to be circumcised as a sign of his covenant with Israel. Eventually the rite became more important than the objective for which it was given. Even in those periods when Israel was disobedient to God, every male child was still being circumcised. But the act itself, without the heart surrendering to God, was meaningless.
The same is true of our “sinner’s prayer.” Many have gone through the ritual, thinking it a small price to pay to escape guilt or hell. In our haste to bring people into God’s kingdom we too have lost true purpose to the outward form. We count converts by sinner’s prayers or baptisms, never questioning whether or not these people are finding intimacy with God. The result, one writer observed, is that even though more people are professing to be born again, it’s not making any difference:
One of the distressing aspects of the “born again” boom is
that it makes so little impact on Christian society. Crime
is up. Marriages are breaking down at an ever-increasing
rate. Secularism is growing. Yet, with each passing day,
more and more people profess to be born again.
It is obvious that something is wrong. Many people call themselves “Christian” who have never discovered the life of God that engages them in relationship and transforms them into his image. Our attempts to include everyone have helped no one, and as a result our churches are full of six different varieties of Christians, who may be that in name only:
Pretend Christians only go through the motions of religion for the benefits of being thought a Christian. It might please a spouse, help them make business contacts, or give their children a religious heritage, but they are not interested in growing closer to God or obeying his will.
Cultural Christians think that they inherit Christianity from previous generations. These people love chaplains in legislatures, “Now-I-lay-me down-to-sleep” prayers, and invocations at graduations. Cultural Christians produce the kind of headlines we see coming out of Ireland: “Catholics Kill Four More Protestants In Belfast.”
God gets more bad press from Pretend and Cultural Christians than from any other variety. They are hypocrites of the worst order, exploiting Christianity for their own gain. The next four varieties are less maliciously inclined, but that still doesn’t negate the emptiness they feel or the damage they can cause.
Fire-Insurance Christians scare easily, and though thoughts of hell may drive them to “accept Christ,” they are always trying to find minimal salvation—just enough to qualify for heaven. Their favorite question upon hearing what God wants of them is “Do I have to in order to still be saved?”
The Naked Church – Chapter Six – Creedal Christians find salvation by agreeing with a prescribed list of truths. Our evangelistic strategies, or lack of them, have produced more of these than any other. The Four Spiritual Laws are the epitome of Christianity by creed. They forget that good theology isn’t enough; it’s how much of it we allow to shape our lives that is important. As James 2 points out, even demons can affirm correct theology: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that-and shudder.”
Good-hearted Christians seem so loving, kind, and generous that even though they don’t get “too religious” everyone assigns them believer status. They do little harm to Christianity itself, since they often demonstrate more kindness than the others, but they endanger themselves by finding a false security in their perceived goodness rather than in surrendering to Jesus.
Ethical Christians try to find salvation by living a morally impeccable life, and outwardly they appear that way. Yet when this is produced by their own strength of will, it yields very little of Christ’s compassionate character. These people are usually happy only when demanding of others the same ethic that makes their own life so miserable.
These last four may indeed be better-intentioned than the first two, but they are equally as misguided. All of them seek to answer the legal question of escaping the flames of hell, but do not fulfill the purpose of salvation which is to restore our fellowship with God.
Whenever we separate salvation from relationship we pave a road so broad that it becomes meaningless. The number one reason people who are genuinely seeking God are turned off to the church is because hypocrisy lives unchallenged within it. And I can’t blame them, for the road Jesus gave us wasn’t nearly so wide:
The Naked Church – Chapter Six – Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matthew 7:13,14).
“Few find it,” not because God has hidden it, but because few really want to know God and walk in him. They are only trying to escape the anguish of hell. If you have found Christianity not to be as real as you thought it should be, this might be why. But I have good news for you: There is a better way.
What Is a Christian?
The Naked Church – Chapter Six – We may see a wide variety of so-called Christians, but the Bible recognizes only one kind—disciples. Disciples are those people whose hearts burn with an unquenchable hunger for God, desiring to know him better every day. They are not perfect, but they love him and continue to draw near him to learn how to trust him more and be changed into his likeness.
There are lots of people like this (you probably even know some), but regretfully they are often typed as exceptions. In actuality, they model normal Christianity—walking in a real relationship with the living God. You’ll recognize them by their depth of compassion and wisdom, and by the freedom they enjoy and extend to others.
If we are so bored or pained by Christianity that the only reason we’re going along with it is to escape hell, I’m afraid we miss the point. Jesus’ message was “Repent; the kingdom of heaven is near.” The glory of God’s kingdom and his compassionate offer to share it with us is the motive he wanted for his disciples. We can have fellowship with God again, both now and throughout all eternity.
The objective of conversion must be to open people to God’s presence and to their participation in his kingdom. That takes more than praying a sinner’s prayer or sitting in a pew every week listening to an anointed sermon. You don’t add Christianity to your life like you join the Rotary Club—attending meetings and paying dues. Christianity redefines life itself under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
The rich young ruler was willing to be ethical to have salvation, but balked when Jesus asked him to give up the possessions he so dearly loved. Jesus calls us to love him with all our heart and to live every day in his presence. That’s the joy of Christianity. If we really want heaven, we can live in pieces of it now, every day.
Coming to Christ
To understand then what it means to “accept Christ,” we have
to ask not what qualifies us for a pardon from hell, but what
opens the door for us to know the living God? That’s what the
people asked Peter after his Pentecost sermon, and the answer he
gave them still holds today:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
The Naked Church – Chapter Six – They had just seen 120 people burst out of a room with more joy than they had ever witnessed. They had just heard from Peter’s mouth that the Jesus they had crucified was in fact the awaited Messiah, and they had each at the same moment heard his words in their own native language. They were hungry, and Peter gave them two simple steps to fill that hunger.
First, repent. Everything about the way we live outside of Christ is centered in our own desires, feelings, and needs. That is the source of our sin and the arrogance that drives God out of our lives. It produces trouble upon trouble.
To repent means to change your mind, to surrender unconditionally to the Father as the source of all life. In other words, I come to God when I come to the end of myself. It recognizes that sin is an attitude before it’s ever an act; and that God wants to free us from sin, not to ruin our fun, but to save us from ruin.
Repentance is not a popular message in an age that seeks to present Christianity not as the end of our selfish desires, but rather the fulfillment of them. Chuck Colson tells us why: Repentance can be a threatening message—and rightly so. The Gospel must be the bad news of the conviction of sin before it can be the good news of redemption. Because that message is unpalatable for many middleclass congregations preoccupied with protecting their affluent lifestyles, many pastors endowed with a normal sense of self-preservation tiptoe warily around the subject.
Be careful not to confuse repentance with regret. Regret is sorrow over the consequences of sin. I’ve met many people who are sorry they are going to jail, getting divorced, or running out of money. They regret the decision that contributed to their pain and want help. But if that help is anything less than surrender to Jesus, then it isn’t repentance—no matter how much they weep.
Bob was a confused young man. Nineteen years old, hooked on drugs, and wanted for theft, he showed up on the doorstep of one of the couples in our fellowship with his 17-year-old girlfriend. They were in despair and wanted help. Different ones in our fellowship spent time with them, and they eventually said they wanted to follow Jesus.
And they started to—until they found out how much he wanted to change them. Fearful that the changes God was making in them might change their relationship to each other, Bob backed off. Days later he tried to commit suicide. No matter how deep the pit, and how much we despair of being in it, regret is not the same as repentance. Regret is self-centered even in its sorrow, and cannot bring itself to submit to anything other than the whims of flesh, no matter how much more pain it brings.
Repentance is proved not in the moment of anguish but in the actions that follow it. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” John the Baptist chided his self-righteous listeners.
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:7,8). That fruit is the humility of a life submitted to Jesus, no longer championing its own agenda but following God’s.
The Naked Church – Chapter Six – Repentance also recognizes our powerlessness to save ourselves knowing that we can do nothing to make us more acceptable to God. Instead, his great mercy has provided everything we need to discover life in him and freedom from our sins. It affirms Jesus Christ as Lord of all and willingly yields to his love by growing to trust him better every day of our lives.
This growth in intimacy will lead us to repent almost every day. Over and over again we will recognize the futility of our own ways in the face of his wisdom and grace. What a joy to turn our backs on our need to live life on our terms, and to embrace what God joyfully wants to provide for us each day!
The second step Peter gave was for them to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. It is amazing how such a simple instruction can become the object of such controversy. But that’s what happens when its purpose is regarded merely as a legal matter. This wasn’t so in the New Testament. Baptism was the doorway into a new life in Jesus, the consummation of their desire to follow him.
“Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” The Ethiopian’s words to Philip underline the depth of this conviction about baptism. This is not to say that the water holds any magic; it doesn’t. It is obedience to Christ’s word, not the water, that makes the difference. Being baptized because of peer pressure or formality is lifeless. Baptism is only real to the degree that it reflects the truth about our heart for God.
Baptism’s importance cannot be discounted. Those who try to do so only prove otherwise by their refusal to do it. I’ve nursed along many new believers only to find them unwilling to follow Jesus if it means they must be baptized. Their problem with baptism may be no bigger than the embarrassment that comes from being wet in front of a group of people, but if they won’t follow Jesus that far, they usually won’t go much further either. Though I’ve met people with a vibrant faith who had not been baptized, their omission was due to ignorance, not refusal. Upon learning what Scripture taught about baptism, they willingly complied.
The Naked Church – Chapter Six – But what’s most important about these two steps in Peter’s instructions is what follows them. When people repent and are baptized with sincere hearts, two things happen immediately: The first is forgiveness of sins, what Hebrews calls a “cleansed conscience.” The mind and spirit are liberated from failure and guilt. It is as if we have never sinned and are free to enter God’s presence with confidence. The fellowship severed by our sinfulness is restored.
The second result is what Peter termed receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. The reality of God’s presence floods our being in the person of the Holy Spirit. He comes to be our guide, teaching us how to know God better and how to follow his will. He also brings us power—to walk in his strength and to love as we have been loved.
These two benefits take all the abstraction and ritual out of the conversion experience. The evidence of salvation is in the freedom of forgiveness and in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. That’s how we can tell when conversion is genuine—because that person becomes alive with God’s presence. This is what salvation is for, and if you’ve never experienced intimacy with God, this is where you can begin. Find someone whom you know is alive in God and ask them to walk through these steps with you. Open your heart to God and know it is done when his power and presence floods your being.
Continuing in Christ
The Naked Church – Chapter Six – Having come to Christ, we can now continue in him. This is a relationship we can enjoy for a lifetime, though much about life in this age will seek to distract us from it. One of Jesus’ most popular parables drove home that point and also explained why some people who begin don’t follow through on their faith.
A man went out to sow a crop. As he threw seeds, some fell on the roadway and were eaten by birds; some fell on the rocks where they couldn’t root (and withered when the sun came out); others fell among thorns where they were choked by weeds; the rest fell on good soil where they flourished. Each of these shows us different ways we can be robbed of God’s life and what we can do to ensure that our life with him will endure.
1. The word misunderstood. The seed on the road are people who hear the gospel and accept it, but no one shows them how to walk with God. Even what little they had gets devoured by the enemy because they didn’t understand God’s life. Unless discipleship walks hand-in-hand with evangelism, new converts are stillborn and end up frustrated and condemned by their own lack of growth. If this is where you need help, find a mature believer who will meet with you every week to answer your questions and teach you how to draw from God’s presence.
2. The word unheeded. The seed on the rocks gets into the soil, illustrating those who understand it, but don’t let it take root. They get just enough Christianity to get by when all is well. But when the rain stops, even briefly, the soil dries out quickly and the plant dies. This illustrates those who embrace God’s life for selfish reasons. They never let their relationship with him grow. As soon as difficulties come, they walk away from God, angry that he didn’t take care of them. Your faith in God needs to run deeper than your circumstances, or it will collapse when trouble comes—and come it will.
3. The word ignored. The third kind of seed grew up in the soil and rooted deeply. Alongside it, however, were weeds that grew up and choked it. Jesus said that these weeds represent the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth. I have seen so many growing Christians thwarted by the purchase of a new home, the birth of a baby, or the task of simply trying to keep up with their credit card payments. Enthusiasm for God can be eaten away by the simple demands of everyday life.
This is perhaps the greatest danger for us in America, since we have so much to be distracted by. A pastor once lamented to me, “I’m not sure it’s even possible for a middle-class person to be saved.” Obviously he was overstating his concern, but he had seen many people start out well and then relegate God to a distant corner of their life. Wealth (or the pursuit of it) is extremely deceptive. We think we can have God and still work for the wealth of this world. Scripture warns us otherwise.
4. The word obeyed. Those who get past these obstacles do so because their life is in God, not themselves. Every day their walk with him deepens. Rather than conversion being the greatest day of their life in Christ, it was just the beginning. This is where the Word becomes fruitful, and as we feast on its fruit we experience joy almost greater than we can contain.
The Naked Church – Chapter Six – The chapters ahead are designed to help you get your life