We open the week with an email from Karla, who writes in with a very short question, to the point: “Pastor John, how does a person know when he or she is ready to take the jump and become a Christian?” What would you say to Karla?
It’s a good question, because Jesus told a story one time that really emphasized the importance of counting the cost before you become one of his followers. Here is what he said: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). In other words, it is not easy. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’” (verses 28–30).
“The greatest problem in the universe is that we have failed to trust God and to obey God and to live in a way that treats him as the supreme treasure in the universe. And every one of us knows it.”
So that is Jesus’s story and I think it means, in other words, being a Christian is not a bed of roses. Believing and living the truth cost Jesus his life. And the same may be true of anyone who follows him. I just read this morning about Christian missionaries being crucified and beheaded in Syria. That is what he meant when he said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” So I am glad that Carla is taking this as seriously as she is. And I think the question — When is a person ready to become a Christian? — will become plain. The answer will become plain if we define what becoming a Christian means, or what a Christian is.
So let me try. I am not going to quote a lot of passages of Scripture, but virtually every sentence that I speak now I have thought through from particular parts of the Bible. So this is not just, I hope and I believe, John Piper’s opinion, but really what the Bible teaches about what it means to be a Christian:
Jesus Christ, the eternal, divine, Son of God who was never created, but who always existed along with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit in a mysterious unity as one God, this Jesus Christ came into the world about two thousand years ago, conceived in the womb of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, not “with God” like some celestial man shacking up with a virgin, like some religions say we believe. That is not what we believe. The power of the Holy Spirit “will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35) and a God-man was conceived in the womb in a most spiritual and holy and pure way. And he grew up in order to solve the biggest problem in the universe.
The greatest problem in the universe is that we have failed to trust God and to obey God and to live in a way that treats him as the supreme treasure in the universe. And every one of us knows it. We have failed. And so we have dishonored God and belittled his infinitely beautiful glory as though it weren’t worth anything. And as a result of this treason against our Creator, God’s justice and holiness demand that we be appropriately punished. And given the fact that God is an infinitely worthy God, therefore our punishment, in order to be just, must be infinite. And that is why hell exists.
But God is not only holy and just. The Bible reveals he is also gracious and patient and loving and therefore he planned a way to solve this biggest problem in the universe; namely, the massive chasm that exists between us sinners and God in his holiness and justice and purity. And the solution that he designed was that God sent Jesus Christ into the world to become a substitute for everyone who would believe in him. In other words, when Jesus Christ died on the cross as the God-man, he bore — this is an exact quote — “he bore the sins of all of those who would trust in him” (Isaiah 53:12; 1 Peter 2:24). He bore our guilt. He bore our punishment. He bore the wrath that we should receive and don’t have to receive if we are hiding by faith in Jesus as our best protection, because he bore it for us.
And then he rose again from the dead to vindicate the success of his saving work on the cross. And so everyone who trusts Jesus is viewed by God as united to Jesus so that the death of Jesus counts as our punishment. And his resurrection guarantees our eternal life. And so the chasm between us and God is overcome and we are enabled to live with overflowing joy in the presence of infinite beauty; namely, God, forever and ever.
And the reason this is possible is not only that God took our guilt away through Jesus, but also because when we are united to Christ by faith we receive that other person of the godhead; namely, the Holy Spirit, so that all three, the Father, the Son, the Spirit, are at work in our salvation. We receive the Holy Spirit, who begins to work in us new desires, new passions, new loves, so that we are actually able to enjoy the God that we once were so afraid of or hated or didn’t believe in.
Now what all of that means is that becoming a Christian involves something more than a mere decision to believe certain doctrines or perform certain behaviors. This is so crucial. Becoming a Christian also involves a miracle of a changed heart. Before we become Christians our heart does not embrace Christ. It doesn’t see him as Savior and Master and supreme Treasure of our lives. Before we are Christians we feel self-reliant. We feel like we are the masters of our own fate. We treasure many things more than we treasure Jesus. That is the condition of my heart before I was a Christian.
And the change from self-reliance to Christ-reliance, and from being master of my own fate to being utterly dependent on Jesus and from treasuring the world, and a zillion things in it, more than I treasure Christ or God the Father, that change is a miracle. It is a miracle. It is so beyond me. I can’t snap a finger and change all those passions and desires and loves in my life. The Bible calls it the new birth. Jesus said, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). And that new birth is what makes us a Christian. It is a change of heart so that we love to trust Christ as our substitute and we love to trust Christ as our Master and Lord and Guide in everything, and we love to receive him as our supreme Treasure in our lives.
And nobody can make that happen to themselves. But we can listen to the Word of God and we can pray that God would come and open our eyes so that we can see Christ for who he really is and want to be drawn to him. And the Bible says that faith comes by hearing. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). So we can listen to the Word of God.
So the real answer to the question — How can I know if I am ready to become a Christian? — is this: As you listen to the Word of God, as you read your Bible, or as you listen to a sermon about the Christian gospel, do you find yourself being changed? Do you find yourself being changed so that Christ now is appearing as true and beautiful, and your sin is starting to appear ugly and God-dishonoring and shameful, and God is starting to appear to your mind and your heart like a loving Father pursuing you and having you as his child, and the death of Jesus is no longer foolishness or a myth? It is now precious and utterly needed. If this is happening, yield to it. Yield to it. Give thanks that God is at work in your life. Lean into this new condition with all your heart. You are ready. Don’t resist. Welcome the work of God when that is happening.
John said — and I am going to quote now — John said, “to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). And the last chapter in the Bible says, “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). It is absolutely free. Come and drink. So that is how you know that you are ready. It is happening to you when you find your eyes being open to the beauty of Christ.
And just one last thought. At desiringGod.org there is a free book called Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ. It is the one book that I wrote explicitly with Carla-type people in mind — people who were on the outside looking in, wondering, “Who is this Jesus? How do you get to know him and how might I be shown to be ready to become a Christian?”