[This sermon was preached at Orchard Street Church, Eugene, Oregon, October 3, 1976. It was the first sermon I ever preached. The timing notable. I wrote it shortly after I graduated from college but before I began to read Mennonite theology.]
Our pastor, Stuart Smith, asked me a couple of months ago to share about my experiences this past summer of driving across the United States and back. Since then I decided that I would take this opportunity to share about what I have learned in this past year and a half since I began attending Orchard, with the learnings of last summer being only the latest.
I would like to challenge everyone seriously to think through the question I ask in my sermon title. We hear many one-line, simple, pat-type answers to this question of why we are Christians. By sharing the evolution of my own attempted answers to this question I would like to show how it is a very complex question and one, which, when wrestled with can reveal a lot about where we are at in our relationship with God.
So, I would like to share with you the development of my own thinking regarding why I am a Christian. It is a person testimony of sorts, so please bear with me.
I think we can divide this question into two separate aspects – why did I become a Christian and why do I remain a Christian?
For a strong Calvinist, that answer is simple to both question – “I became a Christian because I was one of the elect and God zapped me with irresistible grace, and I remain one because of the fact of eternal security or preservation of the saints.” I do not intend to deny or refute these beliefs, but there is far more to the question than that. If this were not the case, our choices and, really, our personalities would be meaningless.
However, we do have a free will. We do have many, many responsibilities. We are faced with decision. We do make significant choices. That is why the Christian life is a constant struggle. In practically everything we do we have to decide between at least two choices. We are constantly, as we grow in the faith, confronted with new areas of our lives which we need to change and given the choice to change or not and how. We are constantly confronted with new questions we have to answer – and we can find answers; we can change.
Therefore, my question is not aimed, today, at the theological aspect in terms of Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Rather, I am focusing on the personal, subjective type aspect. In other words, why am I a Christian in terms of my everyday life and my personal motivations?
Becoming and remaining a Christian
Briefly, I would like to go into the first aspect – why did I become a Christian? Looking back, I can see it was not quite so simple as I thought then. I believe now that I first turned toward God in the fall of 1970. I was hit by a kind of mystical experience while at a friend’s funeral in which I knew God was there, though I did not really know anything else. The details came in the months which followed until July 1971 when I have my “conversion” experience.
My reasons basically were that I knew God was there and the gospel story really made sense. It was a matter of having a need for answers. I could not face the reality of a meaningless existence.
The reasons for which people have for becoming Christian are varied. I could think of four basic ones. I am sure there are others.
(1) Some face deep personal crises or are strung out on some kind of destructive trip (drugs, occult, etc.) and they need healing. They have tried many escapes and finally “try” Jesus.
(2) Some have listened to a persuasive presentation, are unhappy with their own existence, and are convinced that Christianity will give them happiness. But these are not people with major problems like the first group.
(3) It seems that some are literally called by God. They suddenly see the truth of Christianity, even though they had not been looking. Or, they are literally shaken by God until their eyes become unstuck, like Paul they may have been very religious and devoted – but to falsehoods.
(4) And there are those, on many different levels, who come to see Christianity as providing the answers to the questions of life.
Of course, everyone varies, and very few fit totally in one category. I would like to make the distinction between the reasons one becomes a Christian and the reasons one remains one. In other words, our reasons for being a Christian change. At first, they may well be quite simplistic and self-centered, or very much based on intense personal needs we have. We often become Christians so we can take; over time we see how much of being a Christian is giving.
For myself, my reasons for a long time for remaining a Christian were probably as self-centered and superficial as the original ones for becoming one. It is hard to say why, exactly, I remained a Christian except that I kind of believed totally that it was true.
But my experience of Christianity has been radically changing over the past year and a half. I have come to see that Christianity is a very complex and demanding way of life in many ways. It is complex in the sense that it seems to me more and more that there are many very significant and practical questions that do not have simple answers.
The Bible is true in all that it affirms and is our authoritative source for guidance, but it is not an exhaustive blueprint giving clear cut answers to questions such as “should a Christian ever go to war?” or “is it wrong to make $50,000 a year working for a big corporation?” or “how do I practically relate to the poor around the world?” Even generally, “where is the line between being in the world and not being in the world?” There are about a million other equally complex and significant questions.
These questions do not have simple, one verse proof-text answers. However, and this is one main reason I remain a Christian, I have come to see more and more how the Bible provides the context to deal with these questions. If it did not, I would have to say that it would be very hard for me to remain a Christian.
So, as I am seeing the Christian life more and more as a complex and demanding one, I am seeing the reasons for why I remain a Christian to be more complex also.
The theological rationale
Why, then, would I say that I am a Christian? First of all, there is what you might call the strictly theological reason. I am a Christian because I believe that I am a sinner, that I am truly morally guilty before a just and holy God who has created me and everything else in the universe.
I was created with a personality, in the image of God, in order to have fellowship with Him – and I couldn’t because, in His righteousness and holiness, He couldn’t have fellowship with anything not also righteous and holy. However, through the work of Jesus Christ, who was without sin yet paid the price for my sins I can, by trusting only in Christ’s work and not my own, have fellowship with God and thereby do that for which I was created.
So, really, that is why I am a Christian, because that that is the only way I can have fellowship with my Creator – and I don’t want to minimize this aspect at all. Given all the variables of our individual experiences, that is the basic reason we all are Christian.
So, everything stems from that. However, we do not stop there. We can ask why we want to have fellowship with God. One definite reason is the promise of eternal life.
However, we are on earth still. There must be reasons for that. Ephesians 2:8-10 tells us, “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of god – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
So, we are Christian in order to do good works. We are saved by faith alone, but this faith is never alone. In other words, if we are not doing good works, then we are not saved. Justification must result in words. If not, then there is no justification.
The call to good works
The question, therefore, is: what are good works and how do I do them? The understanding I am gaining in this area has really motivated me and made me very sad. We are living in a fallen world; hence, if your goals are the best, or perfection, then we will never reach them.
My understanding of works has broadened a good deal. I see it related to our call to redeem all aspects of our existence, what the Reformed people call the cultural mandate. We see this in Genesis 1:26-28: “Then God said ‘Let us make man in our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ And God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Therefore, whatever moves toward that end is “good works.” Implicit in this is that all these works be under the Lordship of Christ. In all things we “hunger and thirst after righteousness.”
As Hans Rookmaaker writes, “to be Christian involves all our work and activity, understanding that there is nothing neutral, nothing apart from Christ’s reign. Our very humanity, our everyday human life, including both the intellectual and the emotional, is something we shall thank him for, and something that we shall have to defend against the attacks of the spirit of our age, and also something we must develop in a creative way, realizing all our possibilities, our potentials” (Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, 249).
Christ came to preach the gospel to the poor, to humble the proud, to act against all kinds of injustice and inequality. We are called to do the same, very specifically and definitely. These are good works.
It is hard to be that kind of Christian. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls it “costly grace.” “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ; it is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only life; it is costly because it condemns sin, it is grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son, ‘Ye were bought with a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. And, above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life but delivered Him up for us.”
Bonhoeffer continues, talking about Martin Luther. “God showed Luther through the Scriptures that the following of Christ is not the achievement or merit of a select few, but the divine command to all Christians without distinction.…In the depth of his misery, Luther had grasped by faith the free and unconditional forgiveness of all his sins. That experience taught him that this grace had cost him his very life, and must continue to cost him the same price day by day….The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ. Such a man knows that the call to discipleship is a gift of grace, and that the call is inseparable from the grace.”
Following Christ is taking up His cross, following in His footsteps, serving others, total humility, compassion for others while he was suffering himself, ministering to the poor, to the rejected, to the whole man.
So, I am a Christian so I can follow Christ’s call to discipleship. And that means hungering and thirsting after righteousness in all areas, not just the so-called “spiritual.” It means truly serving others. Only the Christian who sees his life as being dedicated to following Christ’s example and commands can really do that. This aspect is a very challenging and imposing one – but one which offers deep satisfaction here on earth.
The last aspect I want to talk about today in answer to “Why Am I a Christian?” is that of fellowship. 1 John 1:5-7 tells us, “this is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not put the truth into practice. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from every sin.”
So, if we have fellowship with God, through Christ, then we can have fellowship with each other. Perhaps the supreme example of this is the fellowship that took place among Christ and His disciples. They lived together, communed with each other, totally baring their souls to each other and being united with each other and with God to the extent that Pentecost could take place. However, it took time – it took three years of the most intimate kind of fellowship imaginable.
We really cannot expect anything less. Our fellowship needs to be a uniting of our whole persons – our weaknesses as well as our strengths. But, as Christ showed us with the disciples, it is possible. Our fellowship with and love for the brethren is inseparable from that toward God.
1 John 4:19-21 makes the clear. “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
A key idea I gained from my visit to Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago last summer was “fellowship means sharing our whole life with one another and therefore sharing it with God, and He will then share His life with us.”
So, I am a Christian so I can experience fellowship, not only with God, but, in a very deep and meaningful way, with my fellow believers.
In conclusion, I guess I’d say that the answer to the question of “Why Am I a Christian?” is multi-faceted. I think, though, it can be summed up in two points.
(1) Being a Christian is being restored to fellowship personally with God and thereby being able to experience life as I was created to – relating with God individually, with and through other believers and through all of His creation.
(2) Having the power and direction to deal with a broken world. To strive after righteousness, even when it means conflict with the “powers of our age.” To suffer with the suffering as Christ did, to weep for this lost age and broken creation as He did. But also, in every area I can, to strive to bring about substantial healing.