The little tract said it was easy. All I had to do to become a Christian was accept Jesus. I didn't have to do anything else. According to the little booklet, Jesus did everything for me when He died for my sins and there was nothing that I had to do in return. The text said that if I accepted Him into my life, good things would happen to me now and in the future, I was guaranteed eternal life. Concluding, it asked, "Won't you accept Jesus into your heart right now?"
Perhaps you've read or heard the same message. It's readily available through friends, many churches, restaurant counters, bus stations and just about anywhere else one could imagine. But is being a Christian that easy? Is Christianity just accepting and celebrating what Christ did for us? Is nothing expected of us in return?
As a young person, how can you determine what God wants you to do? In this article we're going to see what the Bible itself says about Christianity. I hope you have the courage to read what it says and follow its advice.
Let's begin with a thought-provoking question. If Christianity is so easy, why aren't more people becoming Christians? After all, who in his or her right mind would turn down free benefits like winning the lottery, getting a tax refund or, in the case of Christianity, living forever? Could it be that some suspect there is something wrong with the message? Let's begin with a quick survey of the state of Christianity in general.
Survey of Christianity
The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that between 1990 and 2000, "the overall increase in religious affiliation did not keep pace with the rate of US population growth" (8.8 percent compared to 13.2 percent) and "the proportion who classified themselves as Christian dropped from 86 percent to 77 percent" ("Charting America's Religious Landscape," Jane Lampman, Oct. 10, 2002, http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/1010/p12s01-lire.html). In Europe, the trend to abandon Christianity is even more pronounced. Many churches sit empty, lacking people to fill them.
While immigration likely skews the above noted percentages in the United States, one additional fact did arise in the article: "Socially conservative denominations grew faster between 1990 and 2000 than others." In other words, the greatest appeal came from the more challenging religions.
Along similar lines, many have wondered why more women than men attend church. In 1999 Leon J. Podles wrote a provocative book titled The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity suggesting reasons why men were less attracted to religion than women. His work reflected a desire to understand why Christianity had lost its appeal to men.
Putting today's trends into historical perspective, we have to ask why Christianity grew so rapidly in the early centuries, even in the face of intense persecution, and why it seems to be floundering today—especially when so many parts of the world have religious freedom.
The key: Jesus' teaching
Looking for an accurate explanation of the nature of Christianity, our best resource is Jesus Himself. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, considered to be the fundamental overview of Christianity and how we should conduct ourselves, Jesus said, "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14, emphasis added throughout).
Later in this same chapter, Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (verses 21-23).
These scriptures explain that being a Christian will be "difficult"--that doing God's will and obeying God's law are also prerequisites for entering the Kingdom; it would not be solely acceptance and celebration.
Now, please don't misunderstand. Accepting and celebrating what Jesus did for us is important. The Bible teaches us that we must be baptized and it commands observance of God's Holy Days—annual celebrations of God's plan to reconcile humanity to Himself (Acts 2:38; Leviticus 23). But there is far more to Christianity than just accepting and celebrating Christ.
To add to our understanding of the challenge of being a Christian, let's consider some of the apostle Paul's writings. In Romans 7 Paul commented on the struggle he was having with sin. Here he wrote: "For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin" (verses 22-25).
Later, Paul likened his effort to receive eternal life to the training of a runner. Using this analogy, Paul wrote, "... I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified." (2 Corinthians 9:27). In 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, Paul described the efforts of Christians to honor God as spiritual warfare.
In these passages, Paul acknowledged that he was struggling to do what he should and he realized that he needed Christ's help to live as God intended. With this realization, he declared, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). He gave his own life to God to be used for God's honor and purpose.
There is one important caution in understanding the effort God expects of those who seek Him. Struggling to live a Christ-like life does not earn us salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly explains, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." No amount of good works or effort on our part will ever earn us eternal life. The opportunity to live forever is a gift bestowed upon us by God through His great mercy.
The fact that eternal life is a gift, however, does not negate God's expectations of us. As the passage in Ephesians 2 continues, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (verse 10). The struggles we have to do good when others around us are doing evil are part of God's plan for perfecting His people. We build righteous character when we struggle against our human nature and the urge to retaliate against others who mistreat us. It is in this crucible of struggle that God sees who we are and what we are becoming.
In God's desire to see us develop into mature, principled Christians for His Kingdom, He realizes that we need challenges along the way. Just as weightlifters build muscle by actually lifting weights, we build spiritual character through challenge—not by watching someone else practice Christianity.
Character is crucial
We build righteous spiritual character by resisting temptation. When others cheat on exams or in the preparation of papers, it takes effort by people striving to be Christians not to do the same. When others choose to have sexual relations prior to marriage, it takes courage and character to obey God and resist the desire to do likewise. When others break the Sabbath or skip church services, it takes character to do what God commands.
When young people see hypocrisy in the church or in other adults, it takes character to obey God anyway. And then there is peer pressure. Resisting it is hard, too.
Building righteous character through resistance to sin is so precious in God's sight that character is going to be the basis for our reward in God's Kingdom. As Jesus explains in Revelation 22:12, "I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work." Simply stated, eternal life is a gift, but we are rewarded according to our works.
Given the challenge of being a Christian, some may feel discouraged--as though this struggle is more than they can bear. Yet under these circumstances, God promises to help. As Paul said, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). Our human effort coupled with God's help makes it possible for us to be positive examples to those around us. This is precisely what Jesus had in mind when He said that we are to be lights to this world (Matthew 5:14-16).
Where should you start if you're determined to become a serious Christian? We can't think of a better place than a summary of what God expects of us. You'll find it in The Ten Commandments, a free booklet that explains why God's commandments are so important and a crucial part of the solution to humanity's problems. You should also request Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion to better understand the hows and whys of becoming the kind of person God wants you to be. Both booklets can be ordered or read on-line.
Christianity is not a spectator sport. It is not a matter of simply watching others do what is right and it is not solely a matter of learning and accepting what Christ did for us. Instead, those of us who desire to be Christians must be actively involved in obeying God and doing His work. As Hebrews 12:14 admonishes us, "Pursue peace with all men, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord."
Christianity isn't for wimps; it takes effort and work. Holiness must be pursued. We hope you have the courage to do so. GN