There’s a saying, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car!” Growing up in a Christian family I learned that this is true, and that there is a world of difference between “churchianity” and Christianity.
Distinguishing “Churchianity” from Christianity
My parents were able to teach me this, for they had earlier distinguished “churchianity” and Christianity for themselves. Whereas my father had, as a teenager, deserted the hypocrisy and shallowness of nominal Christianity for an angry atheism, he soon discovered true Christianity through faith in Jesus Christ. By the time I came along, he had given up a promising career as a professional actor in order to preach to others the good news he had found in Jesus. Likewise, my mother came to faith in Christ as a teenager. Although her father promised “to beat Christianity out of her,” he, too, came to know the Lord Jesus, later serving as a leader (Elder) in the church where my father was the minister.
Accordingly, Dad and Mom were concerned for their four children to understand that while true Christians go to church, it is not church attendance which makes a person a Christian. Rather, a Christian is someone who has encountered God. These encounters, called conversion, may differ in their circumstances, but are marked by four senses:
- A sense of God—the greatness of his size, the beauty of his holiness, the perfection of his justice, and the wonder of his love and compassion.
- A sense of self—our smallness in comparison to God, the offensiveness to God of our personal sins, and our inability to satisfy his justice or to procure a relationship with him.
- A sense of Christ—our vital need of him, for he has lived the perfect life we could never live, and has received in his death the reward of our sin.
- A sense of purpose—blessed with such a full and free forgiveness, and now relating in love to God, the Christian dedicates his or her life to God’s glory, and seeks in this world to serve him for the benefit of others.
Distinguishing Historical Faith from Saving Faith
Since an encounter with God begins with faith in Christ, I decided early on to believe in him. However, I did not understand what the Bible has in mind when it calls us to believe (John 3:16). I confused what is called historical faith with saving faith.
Historical faith is purely of the intellect and simply believes the Bible to be true. Yet, one can have historical faith without a change of heart toward God. Indeed, “cultural Christians” in America today have historical faith, but no personal knowledge of the God of whom the faith speaks.
Saving faith, by contrast, includes historical faith, but is exercised from the heart and not simply from the mind. Saving faith includes not only knowledge, but also conviction of personal sin, and trust in Jesus for forgiveness.
Not until I was fifteen did the knowledge acquired to that point begin to instill the conviction that there is a great chasm between God and me, seismically and morally. From a human perspective my life was unimpeachable, yet I came to see how my so-called respectable sins—pride, selfcenteredness, anger, bitterness, hidden lust—were seen by God for what they were. Left to myself, I had neither power nor desire to become a new person. I could, perhaps, change my habits, but could not change my heart. I thus became convinced that Christ alone could save me from myself.
I came to a true trust in Christ on August 14, 1981. Significant in this regard was the realization that the repeated promise of Scripture that “whosoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” was not a glib sentiment. It is a promise from the God who cannot lie. Thus, I claimed this promise and would not let go of it until I knew that God had heard me and that Jesus had become my Savior and Lord. My longing boiled down to this singular desire to be able to say that, “Jesus is mine.” That sunny morning, I went into a prayer meeting greatly depressed on account of my sinfulness but left it rejoicing that my sins were forgiven. “Churchianity” had given way to true Christianity!
T h i r t y – s i x years later, I gladly testify that God has never let me down nor let me go. I persevere in the faith, assured that I am being divinely preserved. His purpose is that I should look increasingly like Jesus, sharing the good news that if he can save me he can save you! Why not also call on his name?