First published 31 January 2010
For those who are not (yet) Christians
I guess I intended my last few blog articles for those who are Christians like me. However, a few people who have read my articles may not have been Christians. If that’s you, I am a little bit conscious that what I have written may not make much sense to you if you do not have the starting point of a faith in Jesus Christ. You might wonder about what all the fuss is about “glorifying God” and “bringing praise to His name”. You might think it a bit fanatical to try and “find our all in God”, and to be “free of self”. You might think God a bit selfish for being ready to discipline believers with hardship and suffering in order to bring Himself praise. You may have wondered what I was on about when I spoke about God punishing sin by punishing Christ (who was sinless), so that we sinners would not be punished.
“What’s it all about?” you may be thinking! So here are a few explanatory comments.
God comes first
First, God is fundamental to everything that exists. It all exists because He brought it into existence. We exist because He made us. Human beings are the pinnacle of His creation, and He made us “in His image”, which the Bible’s way of saying that He made us to uniquely reflect His characteristics. Obviously, God is infinite, but we are not, so that’s why we talk about a reflection or an image and not a copy. So human beings are moral beings, emotional beings, intelligent and creative beings – like God – things that set them apart from the animal kingdom as a unique creation.
We also believe that God created everything with a purpose. God’s purpose in creating was to point to His own glorious character. In creating a species in His own image, with the ability to relate to Him, He was also giving them the ability to appreciate and share His own glorious character.
That’s why as Christians we aim to “find our all in God”, to put self to one side, to “glorify” God. This is why He created us.
I have heard some non-Christians object that this is rather self-centred or selfish of God. How can God point out the sinfulness of selfishness, when He Himself is utterly self-centred? But that misses the point.
God is infinitely good, loving, gracious, compassionate, powerful and glorious. He has infinite capacity for beauty, joy, ecstasy, pleasure and all this in perfection – since He defines in His creation what is perfect, good and beautiful, based on His own character.
So it may be self-centred of God to want people to share in and honour Him. But it is also gracious and loving of Him to want people to share in the best of everything good – which can only be found in Him.
And when we get that warm feeling of joy and pleasure when we see or feel something good in creation – a great mountain, a beautiful lake, a gorgeous sunset, the thrill of love – that’s because God has given us that capacity to reflect His perfect character.
What is sin?
Second, as Christians we are painfully and explicitly aware of the reality and seriousness of sin. People don’t like talking about sin these days. But we all know that it exists in our own lives, in our families, communities and societies. God has made us with a conscience, a feel for what is right and wrong. Sometimes that conscience is corrupted and we delude ourselves, but often deep down eventually we have to admit things to be wrong especially when we suffer adverse consequences following them.
The essence of sin, the root that you can trace it all back to, is selfishness and self-centredness. It’s saying that I actually know best, I will decide for myself how to satisfy myself, I will define for myself what is right and wrong in my life, I will go for my own pleasure as a primary objective without reference to anybody else. In contrast to God’s self-centredness, our own self-centredness is not loving. It is selfish and unloving.
So, sure, God may have given ten commandments, and a bunch of laws to His people, the Israelites – Moses and those people. But those were all really just making specific the general principle – moral goodness is about honouring God as the highest good; sin is about dishonouring God through making our own desires our highest aim.
I’m hoping that these first two points clarify two things:
- That human beings are wired up to appreciate things God’s way. Our inbuilt sense of morality and our inbuilt sense of joy, pleasure and beauty, are all evidence of the imprint of God’s image within us. And that is what makes human beings special, set apart above the rest of creation. And,
- That when Christians talk about sin they are not necessarily talking about breaking a commandment or law. Sin in our hearts manifests itself in breaking commandments, in immoral acts and wickedness. But sin is also evidenced by things that are not legally wicked – like rape or murder – but also in things like, anger, disloyalty, greed, gossip, lying, pollution, etc. All those things show our selfishness, and our failure to live up to God’s image in us.
We are all sinners
Third, building on those points, we are all sinners. You may wonder what the point of story of Adam and Eve is. (I say “story”, but it’s really history. They were really the first human beings that God created and we are all descended from them.) The point is that Adam and Eve were God’s original human beings, created directly by Him, not being born. They were created part of God’s original perfect universe. That’s right! When God first made the universe it was perfect. Hard to imagine now! No illness, no death, no fighting, no anger or hatred. Nothing went wrong. It was paradise.
However, you will hopefully remember (trying to cut a long story short – if you don’t remember, go and look at the first few chapters of the Bible), that Adam and Eve broke the only command that God gave them. And the reason they did that was because they thought they knew better than God. They ignored what He said about the way to enjoy His perfect paradise, and they decided to disobey Him. They were banished from the garden of Eden, which was the centre of the creation and the epitome of paradise, and the creation was cursed because of them. Their lives were cut short, so death came into the world, and the world was cursed with working a little bit out of kilter. Things would be difficult. It would be hard to find pleasure and joy. God would hide Himself, and there would not be a direct access to Him.
So that first sin, and our ultimate ancestors’ sinfulness, as well as the consequences of sin, have had repercussions for every human being that has ever lived, and for all the creation. The Bible says that we, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
The reason I wanted to explain this, and I have laboured the point to a certain extent, is that people very often think that Christians are all about “do this” and “don’t do that”. As if all we think about is morality. We’re not, and we don’t. I will come on to the central message of Christianity in a minute, but morality is only part of Christianity in that it shows us how God wants us to live. It shows us how we are to reflect God’s image and live the way He intended us to live, enjoying the full blessing of His goodness and perfection. Since Adam and Eve, unfortunately, morality has really simply shown us how far we have fallen. It gives us a sense of hopelessness, because conscience tells us we can’t live up to those perfect moral standards.
So of course Christians say that wrong things are wrong, because God says they are wrong, and not because we think we are any better than anyone else. We’re not.
So when I have spoken about finding our all in God, or about losing self; when I have gone on about how I want to glorify God as a Christian and submit to His will, I am really just saying that we want to get back to living the way God intended when He created us. And that’s good because God intended us to share in Himself, and He is perfectly good, bringing perfect joy and peace and beauty.
But if you are not (yet) a believer I really wanted you to understand the stuff that follows now. How do you get from sinfulness, and suffering the sense of hopelessness that comes from turning against God and living our own way, to finding our all in God and enjoying His perfect pleasures?
Salvation is impossible without God
So the fourth thing I want to say is that it is utterly hopeless! You can’t! You can’t simply stop sinning and start wanting to live for God. And if you did try, God would not be impressed. Why? Because our sinfulness has made us spiritually dead. It’s too late. We are already completely corrupted. Our perfection has gone. One place in the Bible refers to us as being, “dead in your transgressions and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1).
Hell is not a very nice thing to have to talk about, but it is real. It’s really the place after physical death where our spiritual death continues forever. All chance for redemption is gone. But spiritual death is the term that sums up hell, and it sums up our situation without Jesus Christ here in this physical life. If we have sinfully disconnected ourselves from God then we have no spiritual life, and being cut off from God we are spiritually dead.
And that’s why Jesus said that we must be “born again”. Again, that’s a term that is so misunderstood these days. People use it almost like a political label, as if a “born again Christian” was different to an ordinary Christian. Even some Christians don’t really understand the point of why Jesus said we must be born again!
Ironically, Jesus said that we must be “born again” to emphasise the simple fact that you can’t do it yourself. You can’t decide to be born again “of the Spirit” any more than you decided to be born the first time around! Spiritually dead people cannot raise themselves to life either, any more than physically dead people can bring themselves back to life!
Being saved is just that: being saved – passive – not saving yourself. There is nothing you yourself can do to get back on the right track. If your eyes are opened to see your need, God did it. If you have a desire to come to Jesus, God gave you that desire. He gives spiritual life and sight.
Jesus has done everything necessary for salvation
In terms of salvation – bringing us back in to a right relationship with God – Jesus Christ has done it all. This is the fifth, and most important, point I want you to realize. The reason Christians get so enthusiastic is because of the amazement that Jesus has enabled us to be saved from spiritual death. We can now start to (although not perfectly in this life) relate to Him in the way that we are supposed to, to appreciate His beauty, His perfect righteousness and morality, the order of His creation, the magnitude of His glory. And we can look forward to a day when God has promised to wrap this imperfect universe up and chuck it away, replacing it with one which is recreated in perfection again. This time it will last forever, and His people will enjoy God in His perfect New Creation forever, without end.
We have a hope, and this is how we have the hope:
Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, came to earth and was born as a human being, so that He was just as much human as He is God. He suffered the temptations we suffer, He suffered the pains we suffer, and He suffered the separation from God that we should ultimately suffer. He did that on the cross, when He hung there saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I don’t know if you quite get the full force of this. God provided what was necessary for our salvation by giving His own Son! We could do nothing for ourselves. We are not capable of doing anything to save ourselves. Only God could save us. And He did it by sending His only Son to die for us, in our place. The punishment that we deserved was placed on Him, so that we might be able to enjoy the eternal life that Jesus deserved. And Jesus was vindicated and proved successful by being raised from the dead.
Why do Christians get so emotional? Why are we so keen for others to know about Jesus? Are we just trying to convert others to our point of view in the same way that a politician tries to get you to switch allegiance and vote for them? Are we just raving about something we enjoy and might be enjoyed by others? No, much more than that! We have been brought from death to life by someone who was willing to die for us, rather than judge us. God showed us that even though His perfect character and His justice requires that we be separated from His perfection, and suffer hell, He himself was willing to provide the only way back for us.
It is truly wonderful, and Christians understandably get carried away with that. So if you meet Christians who try to convert you, please don’t resent it. We can see clearly the lost eternity that you are heading for, since we were heading there ourselves before God opened our eyes, and we can see the solution provided by God – Jesus Christ. We want you to find the salvation, and experience the joy and peace, that we have in Him.
How to get saved
So finally, what do you have to do to be saved? What do you have to do to get Jesus to give you the salvation only He can provide?
Effectively nothing! Just ask. Just turn to Him and admit you have been wrong to turn your back on God. Admit that you are a sinner, and that you deserve the wrath of God in hell – the spiritual separation – because of the way you have not acknowledged His ways and His glory. Believe in Jesus Christ, and His promise of forgiveness and eternal life. This is what we call “repentance” and “faith”. Nothing else is required.
Whatever else we do is in response to God’s goodness and His promises to us. But His salvation is available to us if we simply turn to Him and believe.
In conclusion, I hope that this article has given readers of this blog who are not (yet) Christians a bit of explanation of some of the mysterious things that I often write about.
I originally made this article part of the “reflections on hardship” series (I never intended it to be a series, but I seem to have a lot to say about it, so it turned into a series!). But you have not heard me mention hardship yet! Really I have been trying to explain the foundations that were assumed when I wrote the other articles. I hope you can now see why Christians should see hardship in the way I have tried to outline. God has been gracious to us, giving us an eternal hope, in the giving of His Son to die for us, so why should we fear anything else? He is the Almighty God and He is good, and He is on our side, through Jesus!
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels now demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39)
Please do send me questions if there is anything you don’t understand. I am quite happy to get into discussion.