Follow . . .

If we believe that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin, and if we are confident that what we call salvation is offered to humanity as a free gift, how do we respond to God and actually take possession of this gift? That’s where we left this topic last week in this blog.

First, summation. With the Bible as our foundation of faith and practice, we know that all humanity begins in a state of rebellion/sin against God (Romans 3:23). Because of this sin, no one is able to meet God’s standards of righteousness (Romans 3:10). God has provided a substitute to take on himself the sins and punishment of others so that they might be presented as righteous to God the father. That substitute is Jesus Christ (1 John 2:1).

At this point, it could seem that the sacrifice of Jesus, powerful enough to cover the sins of the entire human race, would automatically clean and redeem everyone who ever lived. Potentially, that is so. Practically, there is more.

The Christian church, following the words of the Bible, often uses related terms such as save, saved, and salvation. This means a person who is still in a sinful state is rescued from that state by Jesus’ sacrifice. The church also uses the term grace. We talk about grace as unmerited favor or receiving something we don’t earn ourselves. The picture of a gift is often the best illustration of grace. A gift is, well, a gift. A gift is given because the giver wants to do so. The giver doesn’t have to do so, he wants to. The person to whom the gift is given must take it. If the receivers do not actually take a physical gift into their possession, the transaction is not complete.

The Bible pictures this appropriately in Romans 6:23, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” and Ephesians 2:8-9, “. . . it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God . . .”  Following the logical picture of a gift, the person to whom it is offered must take possession or receive it in order to complete the transaction.

Again, the Bible follows the picture of a gift offered and accepted in John 1:12, “Yet to all who received him [the gift], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God . . . .” and Romans 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

God’s gift stands as an open offer to all of humanity, but it must be received/accepted to be effective. To describe this act of acceptance, the Bible uses such terms as believe, receive, accept, and others which are often difficult to understand in terms of modern language and thought, especially when communicated across linguistic and cultural barriers, as is common in missions.

While a missionary in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to present this concept to a small tribal group which had little contact with the Bible, the church, or even the outside world. I realized I might have only one opportunity to make this presentation to them. I could not assume they knew enough about God or his dealings with humanity to understand the concepts of sin, rebellion against God, and substitutionary atonement. It was very interesting as I tried to lay down the entire foundation of redemptive history in about 30 minutes, before even approaching the concept of God’s work and offer through Jesus Christ. When I finally did explain that, I could sense their interest.

I knew what I wanted to say next in English, but I knew little of their tribal language. I was using Indonesian as a trade language to bridge the gap. I knew my choice of words would be crucial in establishing real understanding of what was at stake. I’m not quite sure what happened next, though I know I can’t attribute it to personal brilliance. Instead of receive, accept, believe, I used the Indonesian word ikut which means follow. I asked if they were ready and willing to follow Jesus.

I could not have anticipated the response. The entire village, with one voice, responded, “Tuan, kami mau ikut Tuhan Yesus” - “Sir, we want to follow Jesus.” To them, the word follow resembled what they did with their village chief. They committed their lives to the chief. They did what the chief told them to do. They listened and learned from the chief. It was, therefore, not that difficult for them to apply this same concept of total allegiance in soul and spirit to Jesus Christ as their new chief of chiefs, as a beginning to understanding the full relationship.

As it turned out, use of this word was both appropriate and effective. There is now a thriving church in this village. Was it biblical? Looking through the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, we can see Jesus using this word over and over again. He called his first disciples to “follow me” (John 1:43). Follow, for Jesus, did not simply mean to walk behind him in a physical sense but implied the total commitment of one person to another. In the same way the church today often uses the word believe and takes pains to distinguish simple intellectual assent from committed belief.

The second half of the book of Acts follows the travels of Paul the apostle as he moved among the major centers of the Roman world bringing the news of God’s free gift of salvation and calling on people to respond to it. While in the city of Philippi, those opposed to Paul’s message arranged for him to be imprisoned. While in the local jail, an earthquake broke open the doors and the chains which were holding Paul and his companion Silas. Shortly afterward, the Roman official in charge of that prison came running into the cellblock, thinking all of his prisoners had escaped and that he would be punished by his superiors. Instead, Paul assured him that no one had left the prison.

The jailer asked Paul “what must I do to be saved?” To which Paul replied “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. . . .”

The Roman religion allowed for many gods and was accepting of new gods from  peoples they conquered. Intellectually believing in a god would not have been difficult for that jailer. Paul called instead for a committed belief in one specific God, Jesus Christ. Immediately after this question and answer, Paul and Silas went with the jailer to his own family dwelling and spent the next hours explaining what it meant to truly follow Jesus. When they were finished, the jailer and those in his household were so willing to commit themselves exclusively to Jesus Christ and to follow him that they accepted the rite of Christian baptism, thereby identifying themselves for all times with those who followed Christ.

That is the mission of the church, 2000 years ago and today, whether in our own communities or the other side of the globe. By virtue of our own relationship with Jesus Christ, we are expected to share our understanding of God, his relationship to humanity, his standard of righteousness, his provision of salvation in Christ, and the response he expects from people to his free gift.

It doesn't stop there. But that's for next week.