I heard the story of a man who had been down on his luck and was desperate to make a little money. After a few other doors had closed to him, he had the idea of going to the city zoo, hoping to land a job feeding the animals. The manager at the zoo had no openings, but seeing how big this guy was, he offered him another position.
“Say,” he said, “our gorilla died the other day, and he was one of our most popular exhibits. If we got you a special gorilla suit, would you put it on and imitate him for a few days, until the new gorilla arrives? We’ll pay you well for it!”
The man was so desperate for work he agreed. In fact, after a few hours, he really got into the part—beating his chest and shaking the bars. Huge crowds were gathering. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all, he told himself.
But one day, he was swinging on a trapeze and lost his grip. His momentum carried him right over a tall chain-link fence into the middle of the lion’s den. Looking up at this intruder in his domain, the huge lion gave a ferocious roar. The crowds were mesmerized.
What was the gorilla to do? If he cried out for help, it would reveal his true identity.
He slowly walked backward away from the lion, hoping to climb the fence back into his own cage. The lion, however, with a hungry look on his face, began to stalk him step by step. Finally, in desperation, the gorilla hollered, “Help!”
Immediately the lion answered in an annoyed whisper, “Shut up, stupid! You’ll get us both fired!”
You see … things aren’t always as they appear!
There are many people today who claim to be Christians—who may even think they are Christians—but they are not.
What Does Being a Christian Really Mean?
It’s clear that many people really don’t have a grasp on what it means to be a believer. Do you? Are you one? Are you sure? What exactly is a Christian? Are you born that way? If not, how exactly do you become one?
Let’s look together at some clear biblical principles about what must happen as a result of someone truly finding Jesus Christ as his or her personal Lord and Savior.
When you ask someone if he or she is Christian, one of the most common responses you get back is, “Of course I’m a Christian. I go to church, don’t I?” That’s like saying I am a golfer because I own a set of golf clubs. Or I’m a surfer because I own a pair of board shorts. Listen, to be a golfer you need to golf; to be a surfer you must surf; and to be a Christian you need to walk with God!
Don’t All Roads Lead to God?
Now you might ask, “Why is it so important that I be a Christian, anyway? Don’t all roads basically lead to God?”
Not according to Jesus!
Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Only Jesus Christ—and no other—died on the cross for your sins. Only He promises you the hope of Heaven. Jesus essentially said the only way you can be certain your sins are forgiven and to know you will spend eternity in Heaven is by putting your complete trust in Him. And there will be tangible results to show you have done that.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that X amount of good works makes you a Christian. Far from it. In fact, all the good works on Earth will not save you.
The Bible says, “He saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, NLT).
This, in fact, is one of the main things that sets apart Christianity from all other world religions. All other religious systems essentially say Do: “Do this and you will have good karma, or you will get to Heaven, or paradise, or nirvana.” In contrast, Jesus Christ says, “Done!” That’s what it meant when He cried out on the cross, saying, “It is finished.”
The transaction is complete. The price has been paid.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
If you were to ask “the man on the street” what one must do to be a Christian, he would probably say: “Believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Believe in miracles, Heaven and hell. Go to church, pray, read the Bible and keep the Ten Commandments. And—oh yeah—probably be baptized. And start living a good life.”
I am going to make a statement that may be shocking to you: You can do all those things and not necessarily be a Christian! Don’t get me wrong; if you are a true Christian you should do all of those things. You see, the outward change is often without the inward. However, the inward change is never without the outward.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the elements of this “outward-inward” phenomenon.
A person may pray and still not be a Christian.
Most of us pray when we’re in trouble. But when the crisis blows over, what then? God said of Israel, “These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me” (Isaiah 29:13).
You may pray with all the passion and regularity in the world, but if you have not admitted to God that you are a sinner, lost without Him; if you have not sought His forgiveness and salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ, it won’t do you any good. The psalmist wrote: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18, KJV).
A person may make visible changes in life and still not be a Christian.
People will “get converted” to get what they want. A non-Christian guy asks an attractive and virtuous Christian girl out on a date. But she turns him down, saying, “Sorry, I only date Christians.”
Suddenly, the nonbeliever is saying, “Oh … praise God! I’m really into this Christian thing, too.” Probably not! And it will only be a matter of time before the mask falls off and his true motives are revealed.
You can live a good life, be religious and even keep the Ten Commandments to the best of your ability and still not be a Christian.
Think for a moment of the account of the Rich Young Ruler in the Gospels. One of the accounts tells us that he came to Jesus and said, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”
Jesus told him, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” And then the Lord told him which ones.
The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” (See Matthew 19:16–21.)
Look how far this earnest young man had gone: He not only heard the commands of God, he kept them. And he had done it since childhood!
But he didn’t go far enough—he stopped short of following Jesus.
The story concludes with the young man turning his back on the Lord and walking away sadly. And there is no record that he ever came back to Jesus.
So let’s summarize. The outward without the inward is only an empty shell. You can pray, believe in miracles, hear the Gospel and even believe in its truth, and still not be a Christian. You can live an exemplary life, be religious and keep the commandments of God from earliest memory and still not be a Christian. You can be in church with other believers, hear the same message, receive communion, and even believe that Jesus is coming back—and still not be a Christian.
Who Then Is a Christian?
The real question before us is one that man has been asking for years. The Philippian jailer put it so clearly when he cried out, “What must I do to be saved?”
Paul’s response was significant, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Fine. But what does “believing” actually mean? The Bible says that even the demons from hell believe, and tremble at what they know very well to be true (James 2:19). Here are the essential elements of the Good News that we must believe and receive to become a born-again child of God:
Realize You Are a Sinner
Romans 3:23 tells us, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, sin has infiltrated the human race, and not one of us has escaped its effects.
The Bible says that prior to coming to faith, we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). The Greek word used here for “sins” is hamartias— “to miss the mark.” It was a term used in archery. This phrase came to represent missing or falling short of any goal, standard or purpose.
No human being in his or her own strength has hit that mark. Some of us may miss the bull’s eye farther than others, but not one of us has hit it.
Why? Because God’s “mark” is absolute, total, complete, flawless perfection! Jesus said, “Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Repent of Your Sins
To repent means to “change” or to “turn.” It’s like driving down the highway, pulling a U-turn and heading the other direction. More than simply being sorry, it is a word of action. Many people feel remorse for their sin but never truly repent. Remorse is being sorry; repentance is being sorry enough to stop.
In the story of the Prodigal Son, the young man knew he was wrong. But nothing changed until he acted on that knowledge, crawled out of the pigpen and started down the road toward his father and home. He had a change of mind that resulted in a change of direction.
Believe in and Receive Jesus Christ Into Your Life
The Bible says, “But as many as received Him [Jesus], to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).
Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
This is because you realize that Jesus Christ is the very Son of God. He is the One who loves you so much that He died on a cross for you 2,000 years ago to pay the penalty for your sin, and then rose from the dead three days later. You need to believe that, and ask Him into your life.
Do it Now!
Good intentions are not enough. Agreeing with what I have said here is not enough. You must admit you are a sinner, repent of that sin, and put your faith in Christ.
The prodigal son could have repeated the words, “I am no longer worthy” over and over. He could have said it the rest of his life and still remained in the far country, separated from his father and home.
But he did more than repeat those words. He acted on them. He got up and started walking. You must do the same.
When? The Bible says, “Now is the day of salvation.” As with the prodigal, that first step might be a difficult one to make. But how glad he was when he felt his father’s arms around him and heard the words, “Welcome home.”
Greg Laurie is senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, in Riverside, Calif., and featured speaker for Harvest Crusades.