How To Become a Christian – David James Burrell (historic sermon 1844-1926)
“And there arose no small stir about that way.” —Acts 19:23
The name by which the early Christians were familiarly known was “The people of that way.” In the year 36 the Sanhedrin issued a commission to Saul of Tarsus authorizing him to arrest any whom he might find “of the way, whether they were men or women, and to bring them bound unto Jerusalem.” (Acts ix., 2.) In the year 58, twenty-two years later, the same Saul, now an apostle of Christ, made a defense from the steps of the Castle of Antonia, in which he said, “I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prison both men and women” (Acts xxii., 4).
The name thus given to the followers of Christ is significant for many reasons. The question has been raised in some quarters as to whether religion is dogma or life. In fact, our religion in the last reduction is neither dogma nor life; it is a way from sin into the Kingdom of God. Its bed-rock is truth, its pavement is character, its destination is eternal life.
It is a plain way; as indicated in the prophecy, “A highway shall be there and a way, and it shall be called the way of holiness; the wayfaring man tho a fool shall not err therein.” Nevertheless , to the unsaved no question is more bewildering than this: “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” In the Pocono Mountains, last summer, I found it very difficult to keep in the old Indian trail; tho it was easy enough for my comrade, who had been born and bred in the vicinity. A letter lies before me, written by a man of affairs, in which he says, “All my life I have been an attendant at church; I would like to be a Christian, but I confess that I have never yet learned how to set about it.” It is my present purpose to make this matter as clear as I can. Let it be said at the outset that one thing only is needful in order to become a follower of Christ— to wit , that one shall believe in Him, but, before we come to that, we must touch upon a matter of preliminary importance.
A man must repent before he believes in Christ (Mark i., 15). Now repentance is not a saving grace, having value only as it leads to something further on. The pain of a physical malady has no curative virtue; but it is this pain that inclines the patient to ring the doctor’s bell. So John the Baptist goes before Christ with his cry, “Repent ye!” Since without repentance there is no adequate sense of need, nor disposition to accept Christ.
Let us get a clear understanding of repentance. It suggests at the outset, an apprehension of sin as a fact; not a figment of the imagination, not “a belief of mortal mind”; not an infection due to environment, and therefore involving no personal accountability; but a distinct, flagrant violation of holy law, by which the sinner is brought into rebellion against God.
And sin must be apprehended, furthermore, as a calamitous fact, that is, involving an adequate penalty: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” A true penitent recognizes the justice of the punishment which is imposed upon him; as did the repentant thief , when he said to his comrade, “We indeed are condemned justly.” One who spends his time in trying to explain away hell and “the unquenchable fire” and “the worm that dieth not,” is not a penitent man. And sin must be furthermore recognized as a concrete or personal fact. It is not enough to acknowledge the incontrovertible presence of sin in the world around us. The important thing is, that this sin inheres in me. So David prayed, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according unto thy loving kindness; for I have sinned and done this evil in thy sight.” He had always known, in general terms, that adultery was a fearful thing; but when it pointed its gaunt finger at him in the watches of the night and hissed, “Bathsheba!” it brought him to his knees.
And this conviction of sin must be followed by a resolution to forsake it. The true penitent fears his sin, hates it, loathes it, abhors it, and determines to quit it. But observe, all this is merely preliminary to the one thing needful. There is no virtue in repentance per se. The penitent is not saved; he has only discovered his need of salvation. He knows his malady; now how shall he be cured of it? To pause here is death. One in a sinking boat must not be satisfied with stopping the leak; the boat must be baled out. A man head over ears in debt can not recover his credit by resolving to pay cash in the future; he must somehow cancel his past obligations. If a penitent were never to commit another sin, the “handwriting of ordinances” would still be against him. The record of the past remains; and it will confront him in the judgment unless it be disposed of. The past. The mislived past! What shall be done about it?
This brings us to the matter in hand: What shall I do to be saved? or How shall I become a Christian?
Our Lord at the beginning of His ministry said to Nicodemus, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And to make the matter perfectly clear to this learned rabbi , He resorted to the kindergarten method, using an object-lesson: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up (that is , crucified), that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” So the one thing needful is to believe in Christ.
The same truth was repeated over and over in the teachings of Jesus and of His disciples as well. To the jailer of Philippi who, in sudden conviction, was moved to cry, “What shall I do?” the answer of Paul was, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” But what is it to “believe in Christ?” It is easy to say, “Come to Christ” and “Accept Christ” and “Believe in Him”; but just here occurs the bewilderment. These are oftentimes mere shop-worn phrases to the unsaved, however simple they may appear to those who have entered on the Christian life.
To believe in Christ is, first, to credit the historic record of His life. Once on a time He lived among men , preached, wrought miracles, suffered and died on the accurst tree. So far all will agree; but there is clearly no saving virtue in an intellectual acceptance of an undisputed fact. It means, second, to believe that Jesus was what He claimed to be. And His claim is perfectly clear. To the woman of Samaria who sighed for the coming of Messiah He said, “I that speak unto thee am he.” No reader of the Scripture could misunderstand His meaning , since the prophecy of the Messiah runs like a golden thread through all its pages from the protevangel, “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head,” to the prediction of Malachi, “The Sun of righteousness shall arise with healing in his beams.” But, more than this, Jesus claimed that as Messiah He was the only begotten and co-equal Son of God. He came forth from God and, after finishing His work, was to return to God and reassume “the glory which he had with the Father before the world was.” It was this oft repeated assertion which so mortally offended the Jews as to occasion His arrest on the charge of blasphemy . He persisted in His claim, and was put to death for “making himself equal to God.” It must be seen, therefore, that no man can be said to believe in Christ who is not prepared to affirm, without demur or qualification, that He was what He claimed to be.
It means, third, to believe that Jesus did what He said He came into the world to do. And here again there can be no doubt or peradventure. He said, “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many.” His death was to be the purchase price of redemption. In the wilderness He was tempted to turn aside from His great purpose. The adversary led Him to a high place, and with a wave of his hand, directed His thought to the kingdoms of this world, saying, “All these are mine. I know thy purpose: thou art come to win this world by dying for it. Why pay so great a price? I know thy fear and trembling— for thou art flesh— in view of the nails, the fever, and dreadful exposure, the long agony. Why pay so great a price ? I am the prince of this world. One act of homage, and I will abdicate. Fall down and worship me!” Never before or since has there been such a temptation, so specious, so alluring. But Jesus had covenanted to die for sinners. He knew there was no other way of accomplishing salvation for them. He could not be turned aside from the work which He had volunteered to do. Therefore He put away the suggestion with the words, “Get thee behind me, Satan! I can not be moved! I know the necessity that is laid upon me. I know that my way to the kingdom is only by the cross. I am therefore resolved to suffer and die for the deliverance of men.”
On a later occasion, on His way to Jerusalem— that memorable journey of which it is written. “He set his face stedfastly” to go toward the cross— He spoke to His disciples of His death. He had been with them now three years, but had not been able fully to reveal His mission, because they were “not strong enough to bear it.” A man with friends , yet friendless, lonely in the possession of His great secret, He had longed to give them His full confidence, but dared not. Now, as they journeyed southward through Cæsarea Philippi, He asked them, “Who do men say that I am?” And they answered, “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elias; others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.” And he saith, “But who say ye that I am?” Then Peter— brave, impulsive, glorious Peter— witness his good confession: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” The hour had come. His disciples were beginning to know Him . He would give them His full confidence. So as they journeyed on toward Jerusalem He told them all how He had come to redeem the world by bearing its penalty of death; “He began to show them how he must suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.” At that point Peter could hold his peace no longer, but began to rebuke him, saying, “Be it far from thee, Lord! To suffer? To die? Nay, to reign in Messianic splendor!” And Jesus turning, said unto him, “Get thee behind me, Satan!”— the very words with which He had repelled the same suggestion in the wilderness. As He looked on His disciple, He saw not Peter, but Satan— perceived how the adversary had for the moment taken possession, as it were, of this man’s brain and conscience and lips. “Get thee behind me, Satan! I know thee! I recognize thy crafty suggestion; but I am not to be turned aside from my purpose. Get thee behind me! Thou art an offense unto me. Thy words are not of divine wisdom, but of human policy. Thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men!”
From this we conclude that the vicarious death of Jesus is the vital center of His gospel, and that any word which contravenes it is in the nature of a Satanic suggestion. It follows that no man can truly believe in Christ without assenting to the fact that the saving power is in His death; as it is written, “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin,” and, “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission.” He came into the world to die for sinners, that they by His death might enter into life; He came to take our place before the bar of the offended law, to be “wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities , that by his stripes we might be healed”; He came to “bear our sins in his own body on the tree”; and to believe in Christ is to believe that He did what He came to do.
It means, fourth— and now we come to the very heart of the matter— to believe that Christ means precisely what He says. He says to the sinner, “The Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins.” He says , “Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.” He says, “He that believeth in me hath everlasting life.” At this point belief means personal appropriation; acceptance, immediate, here, now. It is to make an end of doubt and perplexity and all questionings, by closing in with the overtures of divine mercy. It is to lay down one’s arms and make an unconditional surrender. It is to take the proffered hand of the Savior in an everlasting covenant of peace. It is to say, “My Lord, my life, my sacrifice, my Savior and my all!”
But just here is where many hesitate and fail. They do not “screw their courage to the sticking point.” They come up to the line , but do not take the step that crosses it. They put away the outstretched hand, and so fall short of salvation. The will must act. The prodigal in the far country will stay there forever unless his resolution cries, “I will arise and go!” The resolution is an appropriating act. It makes Christ mine; it links my soul with His, as the coupler binds the locomotive to the loaded train. It grasps His outstretched hand; it seals the compact and inspires the song:
‘Tis done, the great transaction’s done,
I am my Lord’s and He is mine!
He drew me, and I followed on,
Charmed to confess the voice divine.
High heaven that hears the solemn vow,
That vow renewed shall daily hear;
Till in life’s latest hour I bow
And bless in death a bond so dear!
Now this is all. The man who really believes on Christ is saved by that alone. He can never be lost. As Wesley sang, “Christ and I are so joined, He can’t go to heaven and leave me behind.” But salvation from the penalty of sin is not the whole of salvation; only the beginning of it. The sequel to “becoming a Christian” is following Christ. “Salvation” is a large word, including growth in character and usefulness and all the high attainments which are included in a genuine Christian life. This is what Paul means when he says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you.” Work it out! Work your salvation out to its uttermost possibilities! Be a maximum Christian; not content with being saved “so as by fire,” but craving “an abundant entrance” into the kingdom. All this is accomplished in the close and faithful following of Christ.
This “following” is the sure test and touchstone by which a man determines whether he has really come to Christ and believes in Him. Our “good works” are not meritorious as having any part in our deliverance from condemnation; but they are the acid test of our faith; and they also determine the quality of the heaven that awaits us. And, in this sense, “they shall in no wise lose their reward.” To use a rude figure; a man going to an entertainment gets a ticket of admission, but for his reserved seat he pays something more. “The just shall live by faith;” but the abundance of their life is determined by the product of their faith. Wherefore, he loses much who, while believing in Christ, follows Him afar off.
To follow Christ at the best, means to regard Him as our Priest, our only Priest, whose sacrifice is full and sufficient for us . We forsake all other plans of salvation and trust simply and solely to the merit of His atoning blood.
To follow Christ means to regard Him as our only Prophet or Teacher. All preachers, ecclesiastical councils, historic creeds and symbols are remanded to a subordinate place. His word is ultimate for us.
To follow Christ means to regard Him as our King. He reigns in us and over us. His love constrains us. His wish is our law. His authority is final. “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.”
And to follow Christ means to do all this in the open. It may be that some who refuse to confess Christ are ultimately saved by Him; but the presumption is immensely against the man who lives that way. “Stand forth into the midst!” “Quit thyself like a man!”
In closing, we return to iterate and reiterate the proposition that our salvation from sin and spiritual death is by faith in Christ and by that only. Let no side issues enter here to confuse and bewilder us. “He that believeth shall be saved.” That is final and conclusive . Our deliverance is wholly of grace: we do not earn it. “The wages of sin is death: but the gift of God is eternal life.”
Long as I live,
I’ll still be crying Mercy’s free!
And therefore all the glory is unto God: “Of whom are we in Christ Jesus, who is made unto us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption; that, according as it is written, if any man glory, let him glory in the Lord.”
Nevertheless, the benefit of the gift is conditioned on our acceptance of it. The manna lies about our feet “white and plenteous as hoar frost,” but it will not save us from famishing unless we gather it up and eat it. The water gushes from the rock, but we shall die of thirst unless we dip it up and drink it. Christ on the cross saves no man; it is only when Christ is appropriated that He saves us. We must make Him ours. We must grasp His extended hand. Luther said, “The important thing is the possessive pronoun, first person singular.” One of the fathers said, “It is the grip on the Blood that saves us.” Christ stands waiting— he offers life for the taking. Who will have it? The worst of sinners can make it his very own by saying with all his heart, “I will! I do!”