In last month’s article (Part I) we looked at the common but mistaken idea that becoming a Christian is an easy process which anyone can accomplish if he is so minded. This month we shall turn to some biblical illustrations in order to be positive and give better guidance in this matter. These illustrations show us how the Bible itself presents the issues involved in becoming a Christian, and what it really means to seek God.
A necessary journey
In Matthew 12:42, Christ refers to the ‘Queen of the South’ who came from a distant land to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Jesus then adds that he himself is greater than Solomon, and thus even more worthy to be sought and heard. Here we have a biblical illustration, which carries the authority of the Son of God himself. It pictures a soul seeking and finding Christ, and thus helps us understand how a person may truly become a child of God.
We know from the story that the effort involved in the Queen’s endeavour was great, considering the distance she had to travel, the difficulty of the journey, and the perils involved. She was determined to go personally rather than send a councillor with a message. How clear it is that the effort she made was very great; she came, we are told, from ‘the ends of the earth’. But she was not unique. In his prayer at the dedication of the Temple, Solomon prayed concerning ‘a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, but has come from a far country for Your name’s sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your strong hand and Your outstretched arm)’ (1 Kings 8:41-42). Even in those days, therefore, God made provision for the whole world! News had spread abroad concerning the great things he was doing for his people the Jews, and those who sought him realized that they must travel to Jerusalem in order to find the one true God.
Things are different now, of course. Since Christ ascended to his Father’s throne, and the Great Commission was given, it is the message that does the travelling. The gospel has gone out to the ‘end of the earth’, and people no longer approach God through the hardship of pilgrimage. But this does not mean that no effort is necessary on the part of the ungodly. Modern techniques of evangelism have been adapted to make effort seem unnecessary. Because all the hard work has been taken out of many tasks in this twentieth century, it is tacitly assumed that the same applies to salvation. It is considered now an easy thing to become a Christian. The very terms used make this clear. We have to ‘decide’, to ‘commit’, and to ‘give’, things we do very easily in the normal course of life.
How different are the terms used in Scripture! Christ spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven ‘suffering violence’, and ‘the violent’ taking it ‘by force’ (Matthew 11:12). He also spoke of men ‘pressing into’ the Kingdom (Luke 16:6). He spoke of ‘searching’, ‘striving’, ‘knocking’ and ‘seeking’. In Hebrews 11 we are presented with the idea of a spiritual pilgrimage, and are told that God rewards those that ‘diligently seek him’. John Bunyan, with the insight of an understanding pastor, accurately pictured this searching and striving in his famous allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress.
It is legitimate, therefore, as we look at the Queen of Sheba and the whole Old Testament experience of physical effort in the search for God, to spiritualize these things and recognize that the one who is seeking Christ has to make a spiritual journey. The faithful pastor continually comes across people who tell him they have ‘asked to be forgiven, have prayed that they might become Christians, and have sought the Lord, but all without success’.
The wise pastor does not shrug off their difficulties by telling them that they have already arrived, and it doesn’t matter how they feel. He knows that the human heart is deceitful, and that they have more to learn about themselves before they will know enough to lay hold on Christ by faith. He urges them to go on. He tells them to continue to seek the Lord. He does not give them the impression that if they perform a certain act, or speak a certain prayer, they will instantly and automatically arrive.
Instead, he tells them that they will most certainly arrive if they seek the righteousness that comes through faith (Philippians 3:9), and that when they do arrive they will know indeed, and this will be a blessed moment. He will not need to give them human assurance, though it may be his place at times to direct them to promises which may help them to this end. The seeker’s experience will be like that of the Queen of Sheba. He will make a great discovery. He will find Christ, and will know that he has found him. We will not need to tell him that he has found Christ — he will tell us!
The pastor and the seeker
When a true pastor tells seekers to ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ’, he does not make the mistake of offering them an ‘easy way’. He does urge upon them their great need, but he can do no more than Bunyan’s Evangelist, who pointed Pilgrim to Christ. His work is to make sure that seekers are travelling towards Mount Zion, or perhaps we should say, the cross outside the city wall. His counsel is all towards this end. He may need to encourage some that God is dealing with them, since otherwise they might faint under their burden of sin. Others, he may warn solemnly, reminding them of their terrible condition. But he cannot tell them that the cross is just around the corner, or that they have arrived, since he cannot see into their hearts and does not know.
When their burden falls off, they will know, as it was for Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress when he got to the cross. This may not happen dramatically, of course, but happen it will. Furthermore, the real test and proof of faith is in the fruit of the Spirit, which is borne by those who are truly converted. This is the only evidence of new life in Christ that is scriptural, and that justifies a person taking assurance to himself or giving it to others.
We are told in John 1:11-12 that, ‘He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.’ This verse is also used by some in their evangelistic technique in order to ‘get people through’. It is true that the word ‘receive’ is active rather than passive, but we must understand the full picture intended. To help us do so, consider a second illustration drawn from Scripture, namely Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.
Zechariah 9:9 is a wonderful prophecy of Christ’s coming to his own: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Behold, your King is coming to you: He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ Here we have a God-given picture of true salvation. Just as Christ entered Jerusalem to be received by the people, so he comes to men and women to be received spiritually. He came to Jerusalem ‘having salvation’, but also as their King. He does the same to men and women today.
He is not a King who waits for man’s invitation. He did not wait outside the city to see if people really wanted him. He took the initiative: ‘your King is coming to you’. So Christ comes as a King with salvation — he approaches men. God does not hold out salvation on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. He comes to us with it.
How does Christ come to the seeker? He speaks through the Word, through the ministry of that Word, and through his dealings with them. And to this they must respond. Let them come out to meet him, so to speak; let them receive him and welcome him; let them yield and respond to all they feel he is doing in them. This co-operation is, of course, enabled by grace alone — they can only respond as the Holy Spirit enables them — their ability to receive Christ brought about by that same Spirit (John 1:12). Faith itself is God’s gift. Nevertheless, we urge them by the Spirit’s grace to respond.
Perhaps the most striking point about this illustration is that the King decides when he comes to his subjects. It is God who decides when a person will be saved. It is not within the power of man. It is an act of God.
So this is what actually happens in salvation; in his sovereign purpose God causes a man to seek and find salvation in Christ. I have restricted myself to an area where there is much confusion, an area where a pastor needs to be very skilful. He must not mislead men, but neither must he leave them in the air. He must point them to Christ and tell them to seek him. He must, at the same time, tell them to respond as God is drawing near to them. He must be skilful in discerning the work of the Spirit in the heart. But his energies must be bent towards encouraging, at all times, spiritual activity in the heart of the one with whom he is dealing. This he can do through the Spirit’s help, but more he cannot do, and should never attempt to.
We can conclude on a positive note with the wise counsel given by Israeli pastor Baruch Maoz. He was approached by someone who wanted to know how to repent. He replied, ‘If you are aware of your sin and your need of God’s forgiveness, just call out to him, and keep on calling until you know that he has answered. Then come and tell me about it.’ What wisdom! The seeker found the Lord. He was not given assurance by the pastor, but by the Lord!