Why Going to Church Does Not Make You a Christian
I am not a Christian because I attend church on Sunday. Neither are you. And neither is John Piper. This was a discovery Piper made in the opening pages of a book by C. S. Lewis. In God’s providence, a thin little blue book by the title of “The Weight of Glory” found its way into Piper’s life at age 23 (recently photographed, above). Here’s how he recounted the story in a 2015 sermon:
The second wave that broke over me in my 23rd year was the discovery that my desires were not too strong, but too weak. And the remedy for my early perplexity did not lie in getting rid of my desires, but on glutting them on God. That was revolutionary to me.
Your problem, longing, aching, yearning, wanting, John Piper, is that you don’t yet want like you ought to want. I will come to you and I will put a fire under the fire of want. I will show you what want is. And then he puts his glory in front of you and fills you with his Holy Spirit and you discover what want is.
And C. S. Lewis was the one who unlocked the door. I am standing in Vroman’s Bookstore on Colorado Avenue (in Pasadena, CA) having read Mere Christianity in college. I look at a table. I think they were on sale or something. I am not sure why they are out on a table. I see a little blue book called The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis. I pick it up and open to the first page and read this:
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.
Boy, that got my attention.
We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ, and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit this notion crept in from Immanuel Kant and the stoics and has no part in the Christian faith.
Are you kidding me? I thought it was the part. But no, it “has no part in the Christian faith.”
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
I have written many times: Books don’t change people, paragraphs change people. That is all you remember when you are done with a book. That. That is enough. That is world-shaking. Whatever else was in the book, that changed the world. And then I saw it, of course, as you have, all over the Bible. “As a deer pants for the flowing streams, so my pants . . . ” — no, not my pants! Start over again. Edit. Or leave it — that was funny.
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalm 42:1–2).
“Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
“Serve the LORD with gladness!” (Psalm 100:2). It is a sin to serve the Lord another way.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
So the mandate from God to enjoy God was not, to my amazement, marginal. This was central. This was pervasive. Being satisfied in God was not icing on the cake of Christianity. It wasn’t the caboose at the end of the train. I don’t mean to be offending anybody — except a little bit. It was the essence and the heart of Christianity.
Christianity — now get this southern Bible-belt people, Presbyterian, Baptist, you name it — Christianity is not a willpower religion. It is not a religion of decisions to do what you don’t want to do. It is a supernatural work of God by which you are born again so that you want God more than you want anything.
If you don’t want God more than you want anything else, you are not a Christian.
That is what the new birth is. It takes hearts that are in love with the world and puts them in love with Christ and his Father and the gospel and the glory of being saved and promised to go into everlasting paradise of joy. And if it is a ho-hum, boring, insignificant thing to you and everything else in the world is real to you, you are not a Christian. I don’t care how many decisions you have made, how many aisles you have walked, how many cards you signed. I don’t care what you do, what church you go to. That is not Christianity. That was a revolution for me.
It is very threatening. Yes, it is. It is terrifying to learn that my heart has to be changed in order to be a Christian. I have to have values that are new, passions that are new, desires that are new, joys that are new. New things make me happy. I didn’t just start going to church. Yuck. Who wants to call that Christianity? That is not. That was a revolution for me. My desires were not too strong. They were too weak, because to become a Christian is to be given a new heart, which means new passions, new desires, new longings. Jesus is now your highest treasure.
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” is normal Christianity (Philippians 3:8).