Faith In Real Life Blog

Why CHurch: “Why Would Anyone Want to Become a Christian?”

Rev. Vernon Gramling

Decatur Presbyterian Church

June 15, 2023


John 3:16-17 

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The promise of eternal life is a pretty compelling reason to be a Christian.  It is both the reason I am Christian and the reason I struggle with Christianity.  ‘Believing in him’ has been a slow, question-filled journey and identifying a way to talk about eternal life has been more so.  When responding to this scripture in our Faith In Real Life group, the group almost unanimously said they would choose to be a Christian whether or not there was eternal life.  As Ron Johnson put it: “I’m a Christian because I believe that Jesus will give you your best life in the here and now— afterlife or miracles are not high in my priorities.”  

As we struggle with cultural and demographic changes of this generation, we need to remember that the first century church faced much bigger odds.  As soon as the movement moved outside of Israel, fewer and fewer listeners shared the Jewish traditions or the scriptures that gave birth to Christianity, much less any direct experience of Jesus.  The Christian faith spread and survived because it offered something people needed. 

 In our Faith and Real Life groups, we answered the question:  “WHO WOULD WANT TO BE A CHRISTIAN?” with:

1. Anyone who wants or needs love.   

2. Anyone who wants a life well lived.

3. Anyone who wants a life of inclusion and community. 

4. Anyone who wants a life that has meaning beyond the boundaries of our biological lives.

God promises to love us and the most important thing in life is love.   God promises to teach us how to love and that no one is outside of that love.  Finally, God’s love predates us, includes us and lasts beyond our limited lives.  These are the promises of the Christian life.  We call them ‘good news’.  These promises are foundational and have changed lives for two thousand years.  The church has survived—in the face of countless abuses—because it provides a better way to live. The trick is to be clear enough about them to live them. 

These promises are all implicit in this scripture but as is so often the case, the same words have been used in exclusionary and conditional ways. In many cases, words of hope have become words of condemnation.  Though the words look clear, it is not at all clear what it means ‘to believe in him’ nor what it means to ‘not perish’ and to ‘have eternal life’.  Let’s look at ‘eternal life’ first.  Probably the most common understanding of eternal life is some kind of cosmic existence where we are joined with God and the people we love.  We speak of death as a transition into a new life. These are big concepts but are very short on details. Linda LeBron commented that her understanding of eternal life has become less literal and more vague. It certainly remains her hope but defining what it means to believe in eternal life has become less important. Nesie Williams said it is the trust that the love that has held us in this life will continue to hold us after life.  Each person in the group had some variation of understanding.  But we do not actually have to understand what eternal life means to have the hope that there is meaning beyond biological existence. 

My own way of making sense of eternal life is to move away from thinking about my physical life and move toward understanding eternal life as it applies to my spiritual life.  Aging, loss and grief have confronted me with the reality that I cannot keep any physical thing (or person) I love and value.  Our possessions, our accomplishments, our families and our bodies will all be lost to us. When I face that reality, the question “What makes a life well lived?” gains new urgency.  We have a very short time on this earth.  How will we use it? Those are questions for our spiritual life.   I believe Christians answer those questions by saying receiving and offering love is the only thing that is eternal.  And more specifically, receiving and offering love as Jesus taught us. 

I believe that the promise of the resurrection is that love continues to matter and influence life long after our physical bodies are dust. The reality of our physical death is undeniable but it does not mean our lives do not matter nor that the way we live does not matter. We do not get to know how our loving will ripple into the future and any conversation about eternal life is speculative.  We certainly can be Christians without an understanding or belief about a future ‘eternal life’.  But regardless of what we believe or hope for in the future, we believe that eternal life begins in the here and now.  We believe that living a life centered upon loving is better for us, better for others and better for the world. 

On the face of it, this is a conditional passage. Only believers gain eternal life.  But what does it mean “to believe in him”?  RG made a distinction between belief and faith which I think is helpful.  He said belief comes from the brain and faith comes from the heart. He said, “I can believe the parachute will open but it is faith that allows me to jump.”  He suggested that a better way to read the passage is that those who have faith in Jesus will inherit eternal life (however we define the terms). Otherwise, it suggests that only the ‘good’—usually meaning those that agree with us, qualify.   It further suggests that we have specific creedal beliefs to qualify to receive God’s gifts. This thinking leaves out grace and leaves us in control.  In an extreme example, reliance upon belief was foundational to the tortures of the inquisition.  If the consequence of not believing in Jesus is eternal damnation, any pain on earth that got you to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ is worth it if it means you gain eternal life. That is not a premise I am willing to live by. 

Faith, however, emerges out of the experience of receiving love. It is a gift.  For most of us, the activity of loving is a far better indicator of ‘believing in him’ than any creedal statement.  I do not believe any human can determine who qualifies for eternal life. That is up to God. It makes moot the perennial questions about who gets saved.  Loving is more important than belief systems. God is about loving—period.   In real life, it is easy to say the words ‘I love you’ but, all too often, the behaviors of regard and cherishing are missing.  As often as not they are used to evoke positive responses.  The words are just as often used to get something more than to offer care. The same can be said of religious belief.  The words of belief must emerge from the experience of faith—not the other way around.

The second verse of this scripture does not usually get the press that the first verse receives but it is vitally important to the question ‘why would anyone want to be a Christian?’ “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Jesus did not come to tell us what we were doing wrong as much as he came to tell us how to live better lives. In real life, standing for something will raise your profile.  It will make you more vulnerable to attack and criticism.  Relatively speaking, standing against something is easier.  Standing against typically means attacking and taking shots.  That is not how Jesus lived his life.  And nor should we.  We need to be in the business of living the good news rather than trying to arbitrate who is doing it correctly enough. That is how the Gospel spread in the first century and I believe it is how it will be spread in our century.

Linda LeBron had a great one liner that I hope I am quoting correctly: “If God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, I am quite sure he didn’t send you.” 

Following Jesus is vastly more about standing for love. We believe love comes from God.  We have the faith that he offers a life that gives life.  For any who seek love and purpose, this is Good News. 

Let it be so.