What Is It Really Like to Be a Christian
The answer has everything to do with our sense of
assurance in Jesus.
By Robert K. McIver
What is it like to be a Christian?
The question is important, and many people give up on Christianity because they have not understood what it’s supposed to feel like. I care a great deal about this, because some of these people have been my friends.
First of all, we need to go back to the process of how we became Christians, and examine what that is like.
Becoming a Christian
Usually a combination of experience and knowledge brings us to Christianity. Our experience as a non-Christian is a gloomy one. As we examine our life apart from God, we find that there’s much about it that we dislike. We could probably accept a certain amount of laziness and carelessness as part of our human condition, but the problem is worse than that. At times we act in a way that can be described only as evil. We do things that we know are wrong and injurious to ourselves and other people.
But even worse, when we try to improve, we find that we cannot even change our actions, let alone our motives. We want to be different, but no matter how hard we try, we always fall short. And to our horror we discover that the biblical description of our condition is right. We are all sinners (Rom. 3:9-18).
This is our experience. The truth we learn from the Bible (our knowledge) both makes things worse and gives us hope at the same time. It makes things worse because the Bible tells us that God is righteous and that it is death for any sin to appear before Him. Not only that, we learn that God will come back to give everyone the kind of reward their deeds deserve—both those who are alive at the time and those who have previously died (Rev. 19:11, 12). So the consequences of our evil will meet us beyond the grave!
Yet the Bible gives us hope. That hope is found in Jesus who, though He was God, became human (Phil. 2:5-11); who, though He was sinless, accepted our punishment when He died on the cross for our sins (Gal. 1:3, 4; Col. 2:14; 1 John 2:2; 2 Cor. 5:21). The Bible also tells us that we can be saved from our sins if we believe in Jesus and accept Him as our Savior and Lord (Rom. 10:9, 10; Acts 16:31). In other words, I become a Christian when I recognize my need and accept the salvation Jesus offers. I pray the prayer God always hears: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13, NIV).
What is it like to become a Christian? Once a person accepts the forgiveness offered by Jesus, there is a sense of release, joy, and peace (Rom. 5:1; 14:17). We are no longer condemned to live under the slavery of sin (Rom. 6:17, 19), but can live lives of freedom in Christ.
All this is true, yet we find that there are some things we didn’t expect. We find that while new impulses come into our lives, old ones remain—which creates an apparent contradiction. For after all, we became Christians precisely to escape the power of sin!
So does becoming a Christian really give us overcoming power—power over sin? Or is Christianity based on a lie? No, it’s not based on a lie; but such questions are important because the discouragement that comes from recognizing the depth of our sin problem can cause many beginning Christians to give up.
So how does a mature Christian relate to sin in their life? I want to approach this question from two angles: one theological, the other practical.
Sin in My Life?—a Theological Answer
The theological answer to this question is tied up with the way Christians understand the end of time. They look forward to a time when Jesus will return to this earth to make a final end of sin. The dead will be raised, the wicked destroyed, and all things will be remade so that God’s will will be perfectly reflected in the world. At that time death and sin will be no more (Rev. 21:4).
Experience of Salvation
In infinite love and mercy God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, so that in Him we might be made the righteousness of God. Led by the Holy Spirit we sense our need, acknowledge our sinfulness, repent of our transgressions, and exercise faith in Jesus as Lord and Christ, as Substitute and Example. This faith, which receives salvation, comes through the divine power of the Word and is the gift of God’s grace. Through Christ we are justified, adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and delivered from the lordship of sin. Through the Spirit we are born again and sanctified; the Spirit renews our minds, writes God’s law of love in our hearts, and we are given the power to live a holy life. Abiding in Him we become partakers of the divine nature and have the assurance of salvation now and in the judgment. (2 Cor. 5:17-21; John 3:16; Gal. 1:4; 4:4-7; Titus 3:3-7; John 16:8; Gal. 3:13, 14; 1 Peter 2:21, 22; Rom. 10:17; Luke 17:5; Mark 9:23, 24; Eph. 2:5-10; Rom. 3:21-26; Col. 1:13, 14; Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 3:26; John 3:3-8; 1 Peter 1:23; Rom. 12:2; Heb. 8:7-12; Eze. 36:25-27; 2 Peter 1:3, 4; Rom. 8:1-4; 5:6-10.)
Yet with the (first) coming of Jesus the blessings of this new age have arrived. If we believe in Him, we have passed from death to life (John 5:24); we, in fact, can have eternal life now (John 3:16-18). Resurrection and eternal life belong to the blessings of heaven, yet the Christian can enjoy them now.
This enjoyment, however, is but an anticipation of the future blessings. When Paul explains why a Christian would no longer wish to sin, he does so by pointing to baptism. When we were baptized we joined Jesus in His death (Rom. 6:4, 5). Then he says that we are to consider ourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to Jesus (Rom. 6:11).
For Paul this is the secret of being a Christian. We are still in this age, and our sinful natures are still with us. But we are to live according to the new realities that Jesus has made available to us. In other words, we still live in this age and becoming a Christian does not change that. We remain children of Adam. But as Christians we now have a new reality that dominates our lives. We can live in the blessings of the age to come right now, as we consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to Jesus. Christians are children of hope; they are in Christ.
Sin in My Life?—a Practical Answer
If Christianity did not bring a change to the life of believers, then it would be based on a falsehood that few could accept. Indeed, for every Christian that is a hypocrite, we can think of two or three who grow more and more like their Lord every year—loving, kind, considerate, and free from guile.
Yet the issue of sin in the life of a Christian remains, even in the lives of the best Christians. I think the answer lies in the viewpoint of the observer. Observed from outside, it can be seen that Jesus has brought dramatic changes to the lives of people; and that while they’re still human, the general tenor of their lives is to become more and more like Jesus. But if you were to ask those very people what their experience of coming closer to their Lord is like, they likely would reply that they’re seeing more and more clearly how sinful they really are, and how much more they need to depend on Jesus. In other words, their growth as Christians is in their increasing dependence on Jesus.
I don’t know what your experience as a Christian has been like, but mine has been a continuous process of relearning that apart from Jesus I cannot help sinning. Indeed, as I have understood more about myself, I realize how much more I need Jesus.
So what is it really like to be a Christian? It’s built on the insights that first brought us to Christianity: that without Jesus we are lost. As we grow as Christians, we grow in our dependence on Christ. As we make real in our own lives the reality of the new life that Jesus has brought, we will experience the blessings of the age to come right here and now: we will have peace, acceptance, and joy.
Robert K. McIver is senior lecturer in biblical studies at Avondale College, New South Wales, Australia.