The Fundamental Problem
Ignorance is probably the greatest enemy of the Christian faith today, and muddle-headedness is one of the sins of the age. Hundreds of people reject Christianity without any clear understanding of what it is, and hundreds more would like to become Christians if they only knew how. It is the purpose of this article to outline simply how to become a Christian, for the sake of those who really want to know.
Christianity claims to be God’s solution to man’s greatest problem. It is, of course, impossible to understand the solution, let alone accept it, unless we are clear about the problem. This then is where we must begin.
Let the Bible state it: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth” (1 John 1:5-6). It is true that John wrote this verse in a letter to people who were already Christians. Nevertheless, man’s fundamental problem is clearly set out here. It can be summarized in three statements of fact.
First, men “walk in darkness.” Or, dropping the metaphor, all men are sinners. Sin is a distasteful subject, but we cannot close our eyes to an obvious fact which the Bible declares and experience confirms. The darkness of selfishness and sin overshadows our whole life.
Secondly, “God is light.” Unlike men there is in him “no darkness at all.” He is absolutely pure and spotless.
Thirdly, as light and darkness can never live together, neither can God and sin. This is the logical conclusion. He “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16). Just as darkness is dispelled by light, so the sinner is inevitably banished from God’s holy presence, and he cannot “have fellowship with Him” until his sin has been cleansed away. As the prophet Habakkuk had said years before, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on iniquity” (1:13).
The problem is now laid bare before us. How can I who am a banished sinner be reconciled to a holy God? How can my sins be forgiven so that I can have fellowship with God?
The Christian Answer
Once again, let the Bible state the answer in its own words, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to solve man’s fundamental problem. He came to be the Savior of men. “For us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven,” and he accomplished this salvation when he died on the cross. Indeed he came to earth principally not to live but to die. The shadow of the cross lay athwart his path from the beginning, although then “his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30). Later, he “set His face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), knowing perfectly well that death awaited him there. Several times indeed, he clearly predicted it. The night on which he was betrayed, in the upper room, when he broke bread and poured out wine, he had not foretold his death but explained its purpose. ‘This is My blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
What connection has his death with our forgiveness? The real meaning of the cross is not to be found in the excruciating physical agony of crucifixion, nor in the mental pain of his friends’ desertion and his enemies’ abuse, but in the spiritual anguish which he endured for three bitter hours. From 12 noon until 3 o’clock there was darkness over the face of the land. It was but an impressive outward symbol of the darkness of our sin which was engulfing the soul of the Savior. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Paul went so far as to say in simple, awe-inspiring monosyllables, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). But even this is not all. As the prophet Isaiah had foretold in the verse preceding the one quoted above, “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.” He bore not only our sins but the penalty of our sins. Now, as we have seen, this penalty—the inevitable consequence of the holiness of God—is death, or separation from God (Romans 6:23). God who is light and in whom is no darkness at all could not be in fellowship with darkness even when his dear, only begotten Son was enveloped in it for us. So, being of purer eyes than to behold evil, he turned away his face, and Jesus cried out in desolate abandonment, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
When he had borne “our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24), he cried out again, this time not in despair but in triumph, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The work of salvation was accomplished. Then, as if to confirm the truth of the words which Jesus had spoken, God gave his dramatic reply. “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). The thick veil which for centuries had stood as a symbol of the barrier which sin had erected between the sinner and God was hurled aside. The righteousness of God was perfectly satisfied; Christ had fully borne the penalty for the sins of the whole world and so had “opened the gate of Heaven to all believers.”
There was none other good enough
To pay the price of sin.
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven and let us in.
In order to give final decisive proof that Christ’s sacrifice had been effective for the removal of sin and that He was satisfied, God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his own right hand. There Christ is represented as seated, for he is resting after perfectly completing the work he had been given to do. He made on the cross, the Prayer Book declares, “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” Man’s sin is the fundamental problem. Christianity is therefore primarily what Paul called a “message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is a “gospel,” that is, good news of what God has done in Christ to put away our sins.
What Must I Do?
That Christ finished his work is certain. But some people thoughtlessly suppose that, through his death on the cross, forgiveness of sins is automatically conferred upon all men. God’s solution to the fundamental problem of sin is, however, not mechanical and impersonal. He does not impose salvation on those who do not want it. He still respects his own gift of free will to mankind. He offers me salvation. He does not oblige me to accept it. We cannot achieve it by our own efforts, but we must receive it from God if we are to possess it. How?
To be quite direct and personal, if I am to benefit from Christ’s death I must take three simple steps, of which the first two are preliminary and the third so final that to take it will make me a Christian. The reader should consider these steps very carefully, looking up the verses mentioned.
(1) I must acknowledge myself to be in God’s sight a helpless sinner. In Romans 3:22,23 this unequivocal statement is made: “There is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All men are sinners indiscriminately. That is to say, there may be some distinction between men in the degree to which they have sinned; there is no difference in the fact. This statement includes me. In thought, word and deed I have continually disobeyed God’s commandments and fallen short of what I should have been. Consequently, I have been banished from his presence as Isaiah 59:1, 2 makes clear. “Your iniquities have separated you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you.” Moreover, I am helpless to remedy the situation. No amount of good deeds on my part can win God’s favor. I am a hopeless, helpless sinner. I need a Savior to bring me back to God.
(2) I must believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to be the very Savior I have just admitted I need. “The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). He bore my sins in his own body. He was made sin for me. More than that, he voluntarily endured the penalty which those sins of mine deserved. He was wounded for my transgressions and bruised for my iniquities. Clearest of all verses is 1 Peter 3:18, which says that, in order to bring me back to God, Christ, the innocent One, suffered for the sins which I, the guilty one, had committed.
(3) I must come to Christ and claim my personal share in what he did for everybody. He died to be the Savior of the world; I must ask him to be my Savior. He bore the sins of all men; I must ask him to take sins away. He suffered to bring everybody back to God. I must ask him to bring me. Exactly what I must do is explained by Christ in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him.” The house is a picture of my life. Christ stands outside the front door. He will not put his shoulder to it. He does not use a battering ram. He waits patiently until I open the door. Then he will come in, and on entering he will have become to me the Savior I have acknowledged I need, and I shall find myself reconciled to God, enjoying that fellowship with him for which I was created.
Some Sobering Thoughts
Before taking this step, it will be wise to pause to consider thoughtfully its implications. The Lord Jesus himself constantly discouraged people from following him if they were in danger of being swept into his allegiance by irresponsible emotion. He urged them not to begin building until they had worked out the cost of construction. We too, before accepting him, must think out what is involved in the step. There is rich compensation in Christ, but there is a price to be paid. What demands does Christ make on me, both at the time of accepting him, and afterwards?
(1) I must repent of my sin. “Repent and believe,” he said (Mark 1:15). The faith which receives Christ must be accompanied by the repentance which rejects sin. Repentance does not mean that I must simply be sorry for the past. Sorrow is not enough. I must repent. That is, I must resolutely turn my back on everything in my past like which I know to be wrong, and I must be willing for Christ to cast it out of my life forever. I shall not be able to do it by myself. I must be willing for him to do it. If my repentance is genuine it will include making restitution, wherever my sin has affected someone else, by repaying stolen money or property or time, by making some needed apology, by contradicting false reports about others which I have been spreading, and so on.
(2) I must surrender to Christ. He wants to be my Lord as well as my Savior. He wants to take possession of my house and rule in it so that from today onwards his Word is law to me. I shall consult him before making and decisions, pray constantly about my career, and do my utmost to discover and obey his will in little things and big. I shall never forget what he said about denying myself and following him (Mark 8:34).
(3) I must confess Christ before men. I realize that I cannot be a secret disciple. If I open the door to him today, I will tell someone what I have done. Then I shall not be ashamed to show by my life that I am a Christian, and if I am challenged, I will own up to the fact. I am quite well aware that this may lose me some of my old friends, and will bring me many a sneer, but Christ told me not to be ashamed of him (Matthew 10:32,33; Mark 8:38). I shall count it a privilege to suffer for his sake (Acts 5:41).
We have seen what it means to be a Christian, and also what it costs to be a Christian. The issues are clearly before us. If Christ makes exacting demands, he also gives handsome rewards. Nothing can compare in this world with the deep, inward satisfaction of knowing him (Philippians 3:8). And then there is the cross. Even if we were the losers by coming to him, his dying love is such that we cannot turn away.
If the reader has clearly understood what Christ accomplished on the cross and has considered carefully the demands he makes, there is nothing to stop him from becoming a Christian. The best thing for him to do would be to go somewhere where he can be quiet and alone, without fear of interruption. Then he can pray some such prayer of faith as this:
“Lord Jesus Christ, I humbly acknowledge that I have sinned in my thinking and speaking and acting, that I am guilty of deliberate wrongdoing, and that my sins have separated me from Your holy presence, and that I am helpless to commend myself to You.
I firmly believe that You died on the cross for my sins, bearing them in Your own body and suffering in my place the condemnation they deserved.
I have thoughtfully counted the cost of following You. I sincerely repent, turning away from my past sins. I am willing to surrender to You as Lord and Master. Help me not to be ashamed of You;
So now I come to You. I believe that for a long time You have been patiently standing outside the door knocking. I now open the door. Come in, Lord Jesus, and be my Savior and Lord forever. Amen.”
Some Final Suggestions
Here are some concluding words of advice for those readers who have humbly and sincerely echoed this prayer, and received the Lord Jesus Christ:
(1) Tell somebody today what you have done.
(2) Do not be in doubt that the Lord Jesus has come into your life. Do not worry if you do not feel any different. His sure promise, not your fluctuating feelings, is to be ground of your certainty. Read Revelation 3:20 and John 6:37. He has promised to come in if you received him, and to receive you if you come to him. Believe his Word. He will not break it.
(3) Join a Christian fellowship. God does not intend us to live the Christian life alone. Sunday worship is a Christian duty.
(4) Maintain and develop your new friendship with Christ by disciplining yourself to have a daily time, morning and evening, of quiet Bible reading and prayer. You will find this indispensable.
(5) As soon as you have found your feet, start praying for someone else to bring to Christ. You cannot enjoy a monopoly of the gospel.
About the Author: John R.W. (Robert Walmsley) Stott died on July 27, 2011 at the age of ninety. He was a world-renowned pastor, theologian, and author of numerous bestselling books and Rector Emeritus of All Souls Church in London.
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote (quoting Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center) that if evangelicals chose a pope, they would likely select John Stott. As a principal framer of the Lausanne Covenant (1974), a defining statement for evangelical Christians, Stott was at the heart of evangelical renewal in the U.K. for more than half a century. In 2005, he was honored by Time magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” His many books and sermons have inspired and transformed millions throughout the world.
Stott was born April 27, 1921, in London to Sir Arnold Stott, a leading physician, and his wife, Emily. His father was an agnostic, while his mother was a Lutheran who attended church at All Souls, Langham Place. He converted to Christianity at Rugby School in 1938, and after finishing there he went on to study modern language at Trinity College, Cambridge. After earning double firsts in French and theology, he transferred to Ridley Hall Theological College, Cambridge, and was ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1945. Stott became a curate at All Souls Church (1945–1950) and then rector (1950–1975). He resigned as rector in 1975, although he remained in the church and was appointed Rector Emeritus. In 1974 he founded Langham Partnership International (known as John Stott Ministries in the U.S.), a ministry that seeks to equip Majority World churches for mission and spiritual growth. Stott finally retired from public ministry in 2007 at the age of eighty-six.
Stott’s influence on evangelicalism throughout the world is extensive. He has written more than fifty books, including various Bible studies and Bible commentaries. As Stott’s main publisher in the U.S., Intervarsity Press enjoyed a wonderful partnership with the man they called “Uncle John.” IVP associate publisher for editorial Andy Le Peau said that Stott’s works were embraced for their “clear, balanced, sound perspective on Scripture and life. He was filled with a grace and strength that will be dearly missed in this era of extreme viewpoints and harsh rhetoric.”
“We are deeply grateful for this long publishing partnership and friendship with one of the most influential and beloved evangelical leaders for the past half-century,” said Intervarsity Press publisher Bob Fryling. “John Stott was not only revered; he was loved. He had a humble mind and a gracious spirit. He was a pastor-teacher whose books and preaching not only became the gold standard for expository teaching, but his Christian character was a model of truth and godliness. We will miss ‘Uncle John’ but we celebrate his life and writings as an extraordinary testimony of one who was abundantly faithful to his Lord Jesus Christ.”
Derek Thomas’ reflects on John Stott: “Any theology which cannot be communicated as gospel is of minimal value.” So wrote John Stott (Culture and the Bible [IVP, 1981], 38). And as I now think about the massive contribution he made to twentieth century evangelicalism, it is his communication of the gospel that comes to mind. His writings will remain as definitive expositions for a long time to come. His commentaries on Romans, Acts, the Pastoral Epistles, for example, are essential reading — who else has made Romans as accessible as John Stott? Your Mind Matters, Basic Christianity, Christian Mission in the Modern World, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today and The Cross of Christ are classics in their own right. The Preacher’s Portrait, New Testament word study analysis of what preachers are and do was for me groundbreaking. His more recent contribution (2007), The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor, was breathtaking in its provocative advocacy of a biblical approach to such things as worship, evangelism, giving and ministry. One thinks, too, of the (yes, for American readers, controversial) green-edged politics of his ethical-social analysis of war and conservation issues in Issues facing Christians Today. And we could go on.
Summing up a biographical study of John Stott (2-volumes, 1,000+ pages), Timothy Dudley-Smith cites one of Stott’s study assistant’s: “People ask me, ‘What is John Stott’s secret?’ This is an annoying question, to which there is no good answer. Instead of answering directly, I have taken to telling people that although you have no ‘secret’ there are several characteristics. I have observed in you that I will seek to emulate for the rest of my life. The three things I always mention are rigorous self-discipline, absolute humility and a prayerful spirit. Perhaps the most important thing I have learned from you is that, by grace, faithfulness to God is a combination of these three qualities.” (John Stott: A Biography, Volume 2 The Later Years [IVP, 453]).