With the dawn of a new year, your mind may be on self-improvement. New Year's resolutions are all well and good, but unfortunately, they don't tend to last. Our resolve to exercise every day or go to bed earlier are worthy goals, but come February, we're likely to find we've started to fall back into our old routines. Sure, we can change our habits if we try, but it's difficult or nearly impossible if your heart's not in it. It's hard enough to change our hearts even in a small way, to value exercise more than sleeping in, for instance.
So, entirely changing your heart likely seems impossible. The Bible tells us, though, that we can experience this kind of change. We can trade in our sinful, self-centered heart for a new one that loves God and desires to live according to His will. We can't do something so miraculous on our own, but the change is possible with God.
If you're interested in taking your first steps to Christianity, keep reading to see what the Bible says about what Christians believe, and what you need to do to accept God into your life. Think of this as your first and most important lesson in Christianity for beginners. We'll see what it takes to be saved and what the incredible gift of salvation includes.
1. Believe in God
The first step to Christianity is to believe in God. Of course, this isn't the only step, since plenty of people say they believe in God, but don't live for Him. In fact, according to Pew Research Center, 83% of Americans are either absolutely or fairly certain that God exists, but that doesn't mean they will spend eternity with God in Heaven. While believing in God alone isn't enough, it's an essential first step nonetheless.
So, what does it mean to believe in God? Some people have a vague concept of a deity in the clouds with a fluffy white beard and a toga, but Christians have a much clearer picture of who God is. That picture mainly comes from the Bible. Since Christians believe God Himself divinely inspired the Bible, if we believe in God, we should believe what He tells us about Himself in those pages.
In the Bible, we see a beautiful picture of the trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We recognize that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, unchanging, trustworthy, just, perfectly holy, loving, and merciful. When we meet Jesus in the New Testament, we get to see God's character on display. We see Christ's love for sinners and His willingness to endure pain and spiritual suffering to save us.
While we're on the topic of Christ, it's crucial to note that this is what separates Christians from members of other religions. Other religions typically acknowledge the existence of a god or gods, and some even claim to believe in the same God of the Hebrew Bible, but Jesus is where these believers part ways from Christians.
To believe in God as a Christian is also to believe that Jesus was, and is, exactly who He said He was in Scripture: God in the flesh. Colossians 2:9-10 says, "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ, you have been brought to fullness." So, to believe in God is also to believe in Christ. You've likely heard John 3:16 before, which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
So we know we have to believe in Christ, specifically, but we must take it a step further. Being a Christian is to believe in Christ and to see Him as Lord and Messiah. Romans 10:9-10 encapsulates the way to become a Christian, saying that, "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved."
For a Christian, believing in God doesn't only mean acknowledging the presence of a man upstairs. Instead, it means truly believing that God is who He says He is and has proven Himself to be. It's revering and loving Him as Creator, King, and Savior. Do you want to have a personal relationship with this God?
2. Admit to Your Need for a Savior
Believing in God and believing that Christ is God in the flesh is an essential start to becoming a Christian, but it's not enough on its own. You need to personalize your belief. John Piper explains it like this: "So what is missing is not believing in the fact that Jesus is the Son of God but delighting in that fact, embracing that fact, and making Christ the treasure and the Lord of your life by surrendering to him."
Why would we respond that way to God? Why would we delight in Christ? We can marvel at who God is, but the primary way most of us come to treasure Christ is by seeing our need for Him. To realize salvation, we have to first see our need for a savior. Do you know you need saving? Most of us enjoy feeling independent and competent on our own, but the truth is, we all need a savior.
That's because, without Christ, we're stuck in a cycle of sin that causes all sorts of problems in our lives and, ultimately, separates us from God. Romans 8:7-8 says, "The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God." We all find ourselves in this same predicament.
The apostle Paul uses the phrase "dead in our trespasses and sins." That is a dire situation and one we can't crawl out of on our own. The way we move from death to life, from hostility to love, from rebellion to submission, is by God changing our hearts and reconciling us to Himself. But this reconciliation can't happen if we don't see our need for it. God won't save us if we think we're doing OK on our own, and we'll make it to Heaven because we're pretty good people.
Consider the difference between the religious leaders Jesus condemned and the sinners he elevated. Leaders like the Pharisees were full of self-righteousness, while people who knew they were sinners looked to God for forgiveness, knowing their lives were a mess without him. That's why Jesus said to the chief priests and elders, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you."
Do you feel like you're a pretty good person on your own, or do you know you need God to save you from your sins? Being sinful may not seem like a problem when you look around and see that everyone else is, too. But God isn't. God is perfect, and we can see how sick we are with sin when we compare ourselves to His holiness. When you come to the end of yourself and acknowledge your need for a savior, that's when God can do amazing works in you.
3. Confess and Repent
When you believe in God and know you need Him to save you from your sins, the next step is to confess your sins and repent. It's not enough to lump yourself in with the rest of humanity and say, "Yep, I'm less than perfect." Instead, consider the particular ways you have sinned against God. In other words, make it personal. How have you ignored God's authority or lived for yourself instead of for Him? How have you hurt others in your life with your sin?
Confessing your sin requires humility, especially when we ask friends and family in our life for forgiveness, as well as God. Who wants to bring attention to their shortcomings? The payoff is well worth it, though. Proverbs 28:13 tells us, "Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy."
Mercy is something we all need. The Bible also tells us in 1 John, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." How great is that news? You may be surprised by this, since it seems like anyone can rattle off a list of bad things they've done. Is that all it takes for God to forgive you? The short answer is no.
Just because you can list your sins, that doesn't mean you are engaging in the biblical act of confession. True confession involves a change of heart. It's feeling genuine sorrow and a sense of brokenness over your sins. It's different from being embarrassed or feeling a tinge of regret temporarily. That's because confessing your sins should include another act of the heart: repentance.
When you realize how you have sinned against God and you confess those sins, the next step is to turn away from those sins and go a new direction with your life. Throughout the Bible, the prophets and Jesus call people to repent. This word indicates turning away from sin and turning toward God. Think of it as doing a 180 with your life. It doesn't mean you'll never sin again. Just ask any Christian. But it does mean you'll desire to please God, something that wasn't on your radar before you came to faith.
For the first time, you'll start to value the things God values and see sin for what it truly is: a slavemaster and a source of pain and destruction in our lives. When someone truly repents, the change may be gradual, but it will be true change nonetheless. You'll see them become a whole new person. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!"
4. Accept God's Gift
Finally, you need to accept God's gift. That means you trust God's promise, that by believing in Him and giving your life over to Him, He will give you a new heart and will accept you into His family. Let's look in more detail at what the amazing gift of salvation includes. A common way to break down the gift of salvation is into three important categories: justification, sanctification, and glorification. No need to pull out a theology textbook. We'll explain what these three aspects of our salvation entail.
The Bible tells us God will judge every person on earth. He will either reject them or accept them into His kingdom. This thought can be a scary one if you don't know where you stand with God. The good news is that, when you become a Christian, God justifies you. Justification means we're no longer under the penalty we deserve for sin. That penalty is death and separation from God. The only way we avoid the judgment we deserve for our sin is through God's grace.
Romans 5:1-2 tells us that "since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand." When God saves us, He promises to no longer hold our sins against us. That means we never have to worry about experiencing God's wrath. Instead, we receive Christ's record of perfect righteousness and undeserved approval from our Heavenly Father.
Justification alone is an incredible thing, but God doesn't stop there. He also promises to continue doing work in us throughout our lives. This work, called sanctification, is the process of us becoming more like Christ. He gives us the Holy Spirit who helps us overcome the power of sin in our lives and increase in holiness over time. That doesn't mean Christians are on a fast track to perfection, but it does mean we experience more and more freedom from sin as we continue to live for God.
The apostle Paul explains what this freedom looks like: "For we know that our old self was crucified with him [Jesus] so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been set free from sin." While we are immediately freed from the penalty of sin when we get saved, our freedom from the power of sin is ongoing.
Justification and sanctification are both fantastic gifts, but in the words of all our favorite infomercials, "Wait — there's more!" The gift of salvation also includes glorification. Glorification points forward to the day we leave this earthly life behind and enter eternal life. The Bible tells us that, when we enter Heaven, we'll have glorified bodies, just like Christ's.
It also tells us we'll finally enjoy perfect communion with God, completely free from sin. That idea should be exciting! Imagine seeing God face to face and having no shame because of your sin, only love and awe for Him. The gift of salvation comes to full fruition when we get to experience glorification.
Learn and Grow With Us at Cornerstone
If you live in the San Francisco Bay area and you want to learn more about becoming a Christian and what it means to live a Christian life, join us at Cornerstone. We're a multi-generational, non-denominational church with a diverse body of believers united in our love for Jesus. Whether you've never cracked open a Bible or you're a longtime believer, you'll feel right at home in our community. Come and learn more about the amazing gift of salvation that God offers all of us.