BECOMING A CHRISTIAN - Woodhill prison

How does a man or woman become a Christian?
Every day at Woodhill, there is a certain amount of puzzlement, on the part of men who are trying to make sense of the Christian faith; who hope to make a bit of progress; but who feel that they aren’t getting anywhere.
Some of them ask questions: ‘What do you think that I should do?’, or ‘How can I experience the reality of faith, that I hear others talking about?’. Often, men find the answers hard to accept; especially when they don't fit into set ideas, as to how things should be done.
Many a man appears to prefer to carry on with his old, habitual way of thinking; even though he knows that it hasn't worked for him in the past; rather than to accept that he has been tackling things the wrong way, and that his thinking needs correcting.
What makes a man, or woman, a Christian in the first place; and what helps him or her to remain a practising Christian, once the start has been made?
Some men explain their puzzlement along these lines: ‘I read the Bible every day. Sometimes what I read makes sense; at other times, it doesn't
... I've prayed a lot lately; but I don’t appear to be getting the answers I’m looking for. I’ve read dozens of Christian books, which tell how other people are making progress; but I’m getting nowhere…
...’What are those 'other people' doing; that I'm missing out on?’. Those who ask such questions, usually link their ideas of spiritual progress, to actions. They talk of doing things, in order to become a Christian; without realizing that that is not how it is done in God's Kingdom.
Imagine a man trying to be a dog. He goes along on all fours, wearing a collar and lead. He eats Pedigree Chum, out of a plastic dish on the floor; and laps water from another dish. He sleeps in a basket, in a corner of the kitchen; and, when the doorbell rings, he makes growling and barking noises; and so on.
What is happening? Is he actually becoming a dog?
We can say: ‘Of course not!’, because all that he is doing is to copy, as far as he can, what dogs do; and he can never become a dog that way.
A dog is a dog because it is born that way. And a Christian is a Christian because he or she has been re-born that way!
We will look closer at being 're-born' in a while. Until then, let's agree that a man can never become a dog simply by copying a dog's actions. If we agree on that; do we also see that a man or woman cannot become a Christian, simply by copying what they observe Christians doing.
A man wanting to be a Christian, may go to church; read the Bible; say his prayers; give money to good causes; and do anything and everything that he believes a Christian ought to do - and still be getting nowhere.
Very often, such a man; wanting to make progress in the faith, but feeling that he isn't doing so; gets the idea that the way ahead consists in doing what he has been doing - only more so.
He tries all the harder; reads more of the Bible, and Christian books; prays more often, and tries to be good; convinced that, the harder you try, the more successful you are likely to be…
... all the while, forgetting that it is not doing things that makes us a Christian; but becoming a Christian, through accepting the way that God sets before us.
My German wife and I have been married 36 years. Because of certain laws, made long years ago; marrying me did not automatically give her British citizenship. So, my wife remains a German national.
If she wants to have British citizenship; there are certain words that she must say; and papers that she must sign; and fees that she must pay, in order to become British.
It's no good her saying: ‘Look here! I've lived in this country for 36 years’. No use her saying: ‘I've always tried to be a good wife and mother; and I love my grandchildren’.
It’s a waste of time for her to say: ‘I've got a job, and I work hard; pay my taxes; and support several charities. Surely all these things, and more, count for something, and qualify me for British citizenship’.
They may count for something; but they relate to how a citizen lives, and not to what makes anyone a citizen in the first place.
Just as my German wife would have to use certain words; enter into a particular contract, and make a payment of money, to become British; so the man or woman wanting to become a Christian, must use certain words; enter into a contract of relationship with God; and make a payment of believing trust.
Before getting right to the point; we will have a brief look at things from another angle. If I ask you a direct question: ‘Can you drive a car?’, you are likely to give me a direct answer, either 'Yes!', or 'No!'. Later, you may qualify your answer by saying: ‘I used to do more than 70 on the motor-ways’, or ‘I'd love to drive a Formula one, car, to see how it feels’, and so on. Whatever the qualification; the first, direct answer to the question: ‘Can you drive a car?,’ would be ‘Yes!’ or ‘No!’.
Change the question to: ‘Are you a Christian?’, and the reply is likely to be: ‘Well, I do try to be one’. That's not a direct answer; is it? Instead; it's a comment about effort; about trying, and doing, but not actually being a Christian.
Are you a Christian?’ ....... ‘Well, I read the Bible in my cell each day; and I pray a lot’. That is not an answer either: it's another comment about trying, and doing things, through effort.
Can you drive a car?’ ....... ‘Yes!’, you say, because you know that you can; and you give a direct, to-the-point answer. And so it is with those that are Christians. They can give a direct, to-the-point answer, because they know that they are; and any comments that they might like to make, about aspects of their faith, would follow later.
A man or woman becomes a Christian, not by striving and straining to do 'good things', through copying what they observe Christians to be doing. Becoming a Christian has nothing to do with being good enough ...well-read enough ...loving enough ...prayerful enough ..spiritual enough ...or any other thing, except willing enough…
... willing enough to stop trying to do for ourselves, what only God can do, for us; willing enough to allow the Lord to make us a Christian, not because of our good works, but because of his love and good will, in Jesus.
From the moment that we are truly repentant; that is, when we deliberately turn away from the bad things that have caused the trouble, and turn to God instead; from that very moment, we can become a Christian.
We do it firstly by words. In the quietness of our cell at night; or at any time, with one or two trusted friends to help us; or in a more public way; such as here, in the chapel. We tell the Lord that we are truly sorry; and that we really want to make a new start to life; and that we accept Jesus Christ as our personal God, Saviour and Lord.
From the moment we accept Jesus in that way; God the Father counts us into his great scheme of things; and, providing that we co-operate with what the Lord does, our lives begin to change for the good, in very noticeable ways.
When we accept Jesus in that way; we enter into a contract of loving relationship with God, and gladly pay our dues of believing trust; through not relying on ourselves, or upon anything that we think we ought to be doing; but through depending upon Jesus Christ, and what he has already done for us at the cross; and what he will do for us now, in our daily lives.
Becoming a Christian is not a concept, or idea, that we accept, and then leave at that. The concept has to be converted into an actual event. We may take a long time to arrive at the point where we want to undertake the event; or we may come to such a point very quickly; but the whole thing remains no more than an idea; with no power to change our lives; until the actual event of accepting Christ into our lives takes place, in the way that God wants it to.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, who had been trying to do things his way, for years: ‘Just as you were once born, in a physical way; so you must, as it were, be born all over again obviously, not physically; but spiritually; and then, from the moment of your spiritual re-birth, begin to grow as a Christian, and become mature’.
Many a man in prison, has used the time to reflect on the fact that he cannot become a Christian through good deeds, and the mere passage of time; but only through accepting Jesus Christ as his personal God, Saviour and Lord; and yet, having come to that understanding, has done nothing about it. Where that is so, it is usually because he has not really let go of the old, habitual thinking, that he must earn salvation through doing good deeds; or else through self-rejection, and thoughts such as: ‘Surely, I am not good enough to be accepted by God as I am? Just look at the mess my life is in’.
Such thinking, such self-rejection, and such continual attempts to do things our way, has nothing to do with Bible-teaching; which says that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; to save those whose lives are in a mess; by accepting them as they are; and then helping them to become what, deep down, they truly want to be.
Ideally, a preacher should bring a sermon to a clear, logical and meaningful end, that will promote further thought; but this particular sermon, cannot be brought to an end on paper; for its true end lies, not with me, but with those men who have yet to fully accept Christ as the way ahead for them.
As said; accepting Christ into our lives is more than an idea in our minds. It is an actual event; a being re-born in the Spirit of God; from which point we move on, and grow in spirit and in truth, and become mature.
Accepting Christ into our lives also involves a daily re-dedication, that brings with it daily blessings.
What do we intend to do, in order to convert our ideas and hopes into a reality; and so begin to fulfil our best desires? Amen.