This week I am blogging from church camp. I am tagging along with a group of 7-12-graders from my church as they spend the week at our local associational camp (think bugs, bunk beds, uncomfortable mattresses and cafeteria food!).
Last night the camp pastor preached from the story of Nicodemus found in John chapter 3. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a.k.a a religious leader. One night he snuck away to ask Jesus some pretty tough questions. Let’s take a look.
“He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.’
In reply Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’
‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’
Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to the spirit…’ (John 3: 2-6).
Nicodemus remains confused (I’m not sure I blame him—this is heavy stuff!). So, Jesus goes on to sum up salvation in one beautifully simple sentence (If you’ve ever attended VBS, you’ll know this one by heart).
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
As I listened to the camp pastor preach I thought about the 100 + campers who sat in the sanctuary with me. Many of them have been coming to this camp every summer since they were little. Most of them are from Christian homes and attend church or youth group regularly. Some of them have been on mission trips; others play on praise teams or volunteer in their church nurseries. But I’ve noticed that at least a few of them are confused about what it means to be a Christian. I did some informal polling and I heard things like “of course I am a Christian…I go to church camp every summer,” or “of course I am a Christian…I just got back from an awesome mission trip to Guatemala” or even “of course I am a Christian, I walked down the aisle during the alter call my freshman year.”
I think these are great things. I love church camp (bugs and all), I think mission trips are wonderful, and I have watched in wonder as streams of kids have walked the aisle to make decisions for Christ (in fact, I walked the aisle myself at church camp when I was 15). But, I want to ask the same question Nicodemus did…are these the steps necessary to become a Christian? In other words, what does it take to be saved?
I decided to interview one of the camp pastors. He just happens to be my handsome, talented and brilliant husband, Jason. Our conversation went something like this…
Me: Let’s cut to the chase, what do we have to do to become a Christian?
Pastor Jason: You must acknowledge that you are a sinner and that the blood of Christ is the only thing that can atone for your sin. Accept that sacrifice.
Me: So, that’s it? I just have to say those words?
Pastor Jason: Romans 10:9 does say, “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But there aren’t any magic words to say. Romans 10:10 says, “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” Salvation comes from the understanding that only the blood of Christ can bring you in to relationship with God and from accepting that sacrifice.
Then there are a lot of things we do, not to get salvation, but because of salvation. We can’t earn grace, but because of God’s abundant grace, it compels us to behave in certain ways.
Me: Like what?
Jason: Like benevolence, compassion, taking care of widows and orphans, praying, Bible study…
Me: That seems like a lot of “church words” that don’t really to apply to my life.
Jason: Well…outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ, I guess those things can be kind of meaningless.
Me: So, if I am nice to old ladies and go the Bible studies at my church, then I am saved?
Jason: Being nice to old ladies isn’t what saves you. It is a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not something that you earn, but it is given to you freely. It is not walking an aisle, it is not praying a prayer, it is not saying some words—it is a relationship with Jesus Christ—a relationship that changes you.
Erin: (At this point I feel like offering a very Nicodemean “huh,” so I decide to switch gears) In your experience as a youth pastor, do you feel like young people “get it?” Do they seem to understand what is necessary to start that relationship with Christ?
Jason: I’d say some do and some don’t. The majority of people feel like they need to adhere to a set of moral rules, which in some ways is good because there are moral rules that we need to adhere to for our own well being. But the confusion comes in when you behave in such a way to earn salvation instead of behaving in such a way because of your salvation.
Me: When teenagers are confused on this issue, what kinds of things do you hear them say?
Jason: I hear many variations of the same lie. Students often tell me things like “I am a Christian because…I grew up in the church, my dad’s a deacon, I am in the praise band, I go to church every Sunday, I haven’t killed anyone, I do better things than most of my friends, I go to church camp every summer, I was really moved at that one worship rally, or my dad’s the pastor…”
Bingo! These are the exact same lies we encountered while doing research for Lies Young Women Believe. Did you know that 27% of Americans believe that you get into heaven through acts of kindness? Another 26% believe that religion is the way to salvation. Only slightly more than half realize that the way to salvation is through a personal relationship with Christ.
Nancy and Dannah tackle this issue head on in Lies Young Women Believe. They write, “For many years, I (Nancy) have carried a great burden on my heart for people who have grown up in the church and claim to be Christians, even though there is little if any evidence in their lives of true salvation. They have been deceived into believing various forms of this lie.
‘Of course I’m a Christian, I go to church all the time.’
‘Of course I’m a Christian, my parents are.’
‘Of course I’m a Christian, I grew up in the church.’
‘Of course I’m a Christian, I went forward at that awesome youth rally!’
‘Of course I am a Christian, my mom told me that I prayed to receive Christ when I was three.’
The list goes on and on.
But the essence of true salvation is not a matter of profession or performance; rather, it is a transformation. Only God can truly tell of someone is a believer, but He’s given us some standards by which we can judge ourselves. For starters, 2 Corinthians 5:17 says: ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come!’ The person who has been ‘born again’ has a new life, a new heart, a new nature, a new allegiance, a new Master. Have you experienced that kind of radical change in your life?’ (Lies Young Women Believe, 126).
That very question is the reason I’ve left my air-conditioned home and comfy bed to spend the week at camp. My answer is “yes!” When I was 15, I had a true encounter with Christ—in which the Holy Spirit convicted me of my sin and pointed me toward Jesus, the perfect sacrifice. On that day I repented of that sin and believed that God is who he says he is and that he can do everything he says he can do. The result has been 13 years of transformation and sanctification. It is my desire to see that same transformation happen in the lives of the people around me, including those who are here at camp and those who read this blog but have yet to accept His free gift of salvation.
What about you? Have you had that kind of encounter? Are you still a bit confused about the steps necessary to be saved? If so, do what Nicodemus did. Talk to God about it. Tell him what confuses you. You don’t even have to sneak way into the night to do it. Why not, ask Him for His guidance right now?
I’d love to hear about your encounters with Christ that have led you to become “ a new creation.” Feel free to write out your testimony right here on the blog. I promise to check in to read them soon…but right now, I’m heading to the pool!
To read the second part of this blog post, click here.