Many people come to Christ today with a magical view of God. They realize that the Christian God is most able to meet their needs, and they accept him as their God. They pray the sinner’s prayer; but that is more like a mantra that they feel they need to recite to become a Christian. Their worldview—the way they look at life and the world, the beliefs that make them think and act the way they do—has not had a major change. They still see religion as a list of dos and don’ts. What they do has changed. Now they pray, read their Bible, go to church on Sundays, tithe, and get involved in service. But those activities do not represent the heart of Christianity.
The Christian life is essentially not a list of things we do or avoid doing. Everything has been done for our salvation by Christ. The loving God has loved us in sending his Son to win our salvation through his death on the cross. The holy God has let Jesus bear the punishment of our sin. Now it is our privilege to be forgiven, to be reconciled to God, and to enter a Father-child relationship with him. Everything in life springs from that relationship, which is a gift of grace. These ideas are strange to someone who has come from outside a Christian background.
Today when many think of the death of Christ, the focus is on how much he lovingly suffered for us in his heroic death. They have seen films like The Passion of the Christ, and they are deeply moved by the intensity of his suffering. Their own sin is not a major factor in their thinking. But the Bible teaches that sin mars their relationship with God. When those who understand grace commit a sin, they are eager to confess sin and to be quickly restored in their communion with God through grace. When Jesus taught his disciples an ideal prayer, he included in that a request for forgiveness (Matt. 6:12).
When we approach life from the perspective of grace, we are not afraid of sin. We are afraid to sin, but not afraid of sin. We know that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). John puts it beautifully. He first says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1a). There is no excuse for sinning. “But,” says John, “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation [the sacrifice that takes away God’s wrath] for our sins” (1 John 2:1b–2a). Those who understand this are eager to see sin cast aside through forgiveness, with the resulting restoration of their love relationship with God. They are eager to confess so that they can be free, and they are afraid of concealing their sin. As Proverbs 28:13 says,
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
Confession opens the door to that gift of grace without which we are empty and unhappy.
What if God accepted people based on what they did? That is how people approach religion before they become Christians. They think that the most important thing for a Christian is doing the things Christianity prescribes, like going to church, tithing, and showing kindness to others. Thinking that way would not encourage anyone to confess sin; to do so would be to say that one is not a genuine Christian. Sometimes “converts” transfer their ideas about the gods to the Christian God, whom they now accept as the best, the supreme God. What they really need is not to transfer old views of the gods but to transform their belief according to the biblical view of God.
In our discipling we must explain the gospel in such a way that people realize the primacy of grace and the futility of works for salvation. This is a big challenge. Sadly, because people from non-Christian backgrounds find the atonement so difficult to understand, many Christian leaders don’t spend much energy trying to explain it to converts. That is suicidal!
So we must help our disciplees to understand the biblical teaching about guilt and forgiveness by helping them to understand the biblical doctrine of grace. Often when teaching young Christians, our Youth for Christ staff exhorts them firmly about Christian behavior. That is necessary, especially with youth. But I tell our staff to balance that teaching with the marvels of grace so that the most important thing to the youth will not be their performance as Christians but the amazing grace of God to them.
During this whole process we are encouraged by the truth that the Holy Spirit “will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). We do all we can to help people realize the seriousness of sin and the glory of grace. The Spirit will use our feeble efforts to bring about the life change he desires for God’s children.