Lecture 1: Conversion
Starting your new life
I would like to begin by talking with you, the new believer, about your conversion. I would like to celebrate your decision, see if you have any basic questions, and fill out your understanding of what happened when you became a disciple of Jesus Christ—a child of God. If you’re unsure of anything I say, please ask the person sitting next to you, and they will explain it to you. Also, understand that over the next eleven weeks, I’m going to be spelling out the details about which I’m talking today.
While there are many verses or passages to which I could go, I’d like to base my talk on the most famous verse of all times, the one saying of Jesus that more people know around this world, and that is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only son that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have everlasting life.” As I talk through your conversion experience, I’d like to use John 3:16 and break it down in pieces.
“For God So Loved the World”
Notice Jesus’ starting point is the fact that there is a God. God is not some impersonal force, fate, or Mother Nature. God is a personal God who loves; this loving God created the world and created people to inhabit the world. The Bible says He created people in His image, so that among other things, we could have fellowship with our Creator and have a relationship with Him. A dog can’t live in a relationship with God. You and I were created in His image, and we were made to live in fellowship, in communion, in relationship with our Creator. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, walked in the garden with God. Regardless of what we might hear, creation is no accident, nor are we global freak-chances-of-nature; we are not primal scum that washed up on the shore and then over millions of years became human beings.
We were created as the apex of all creation. We were created intentionally by God. The creation story in Genesis 1 and 2 (the first two chapters in the Bible) is all pointing to the creation of human beings. You and I were created with meaning and purpose; part of that meaning and purpose is that we live in fellowship, in communion, and in relationship with our Creator. Then something terrible happened to this world, and we need to know that God wasn’t surprised; God knew this was going to happen before He created anything, yet He still created everything. Adam and Eve, our first parents, were given one lousy, little rule: of all the trees in the garden, you can’t eat the fruit of that one tree. I wonder how many times in heaven Adam is going to have to apologize, “I know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. All I had to do was just one thing…” I’m glad I’m not Adam. There was only one rule he had to follow. By following that one rule, it was a way he and his wife would be demonstrating how much they loved God. By following God’s rule, they were saying, “Yes, we live in submission to Your Lordship.” “You are God and we are not.” Yet as we read in Genesis Chapter 3, Adam and Eve deliberately chose to break that one rule — they sinned and ate the fruit of that one tree.
The consequence of that sin is they became separated from God. They were separated physically by being kicked out of the garden, but in their hearts they were also separated from God. They were hostile to Him and they were alienated from Him. The prophet Isaiah says, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.” (Isaiah 59:2) We are separated from our holy God, our holy Creator; that is the consequence of sin. The punishment for living separated from God is death; it is in fact, eternal separation.
The Bible says, “the wages of sin is death,” eternal separation from God. What was true for Adam and Eve is now true for all people. The Bible says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All have committed sin, all have done what God has called us not to do, therefore all of us, apart from the work of Christ that we will learn about in a second, live separate, alienated and hostile lives from our Creator. Our God, while He is a God of love, is also a God of justice. A God of justice cannot allow sin against a holy God to go unpunished, so there is punishment for sin and separation. Yet the good news is that God is also a God of love just as much as He is a God of justice.
“That he gave his only Son”
Jesus continues in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave.” This is how He loved: He gave His only son. He gave His only son to live on earth to live a perfect life and to die on the cross”
1. What actually happened on the cross
What actually happened on the cross? What happened was more than a man just dying. Jesus lived a life of perfection. Jesus lived a life of no sin. So when He died, His death was not payment for his own sin, because He had not committed sin, but His death became payment for your sin and my sin. Because His death became the penalty for our sin, forgiveness is now available.
The prophet Isaiah, 700 or so years ago before the time of Christ, wrote down what was going to happen on the cross; it is an amazing prophecy. “Surely He,” meaning Jesus, “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” Jesus carries our griefs and our sorrows and we think God is mad at Him. “But He,” Jesus, “was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement,” the punishment, “that brought us peace, and with His stripes, we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him,” on Jesus, “the iniquity,” the sin, “of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6) Later on in the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes, “that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Jesus lived a perfect life. His death was not penalty for His own sin, and therefore, His death became the means of God’s forgiving your sin and my sin. Forgiveness is available. Because of our sin, there is a chasm that exists between God and us. Jesus’ death on the cross bridged that chasm. Jesus, on the cross, made a relationship with God possible. Jesus, on the cross, made it possible for you and me to go home to the garden and walk once again with God.
When I hear that, one of the questions in my mind is: How on earth is that possible? (Although, when you think about it, the answer is not on earth.) How is it possible for one man’s death to pay the penalty for the sin of all men, women, and children? How is that possible? The answer is “I don’t know.” The Bible never fully explains how that’s possible, but it at least gives us two parts of the answer of how it is possible for Jesus’ death to pay the penalty for our sin.
1. Merciful Heart of God
One of the answers is simply that it’s buried deep in the merciful heart of God; it’s because of God’s mercy and grace. You and I don’t deserve to be forgiven. Jesus asks, “What can a man give in exchange for his soul?” The answer is nothing; you and I have nothing we can do. No amount of religious activity and no amount of being better than our neighbors is enough to gain forgiveness of our sin; the answer is deeply buried down inside the merciful heart of God.
We understand that we don’t deserve salvation; but God, in His goodness and His mercy toward undeserving sinners, decided that the death of an innocent sacrifice could pay the penalty of another person’s sin — that’s mercy! Throughout the Old Testament up to the cross, the entire sacrificial system is designed to teach us that the death of an innocent sacrifice can pay the penalty of another’s sin because God is a merciful God.
2. Who Jesus Is
The other part to the answer of how it is possible that Jesus’ death pays the penalty for your sin and my sin is wrapped up in who Jesus is. Jesus is fully God; Jesus is fully human, and it is because of the incarnation that He was able to bear the sin of the world and pay the penalty for your sin and my sin.
If I lived a sinless life, and then died, I couldn’t pay the price for your sin, could I? Jesus had to be fully God, because only God could bear the weight of the penalty of all sin. When Jesus hung on the cross, God made Him sin, the Bible says. It’s not just that He was punished, but He actually was made to be sin. Jesus was made to be all sin that all people of all time ever committed or ever will commit. No human being could ever bare that weight; at every level, it would be impossible. Jesus had to be God in order to bear the weight of all of your sin, all my sin, and the sin of all the people throughout all the ages.
Yet there is also something in God’s heart that says that if you are going to provide a sacrifice for human beings, you also have to be a human being. Therefore, Jesus had to become fully human if He were to bear sin of all human beings. In the book of Hebrews, the author writes, “Therefore Jesus had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He could provide propitiation, so that He could provide a sacrifice for your sin.” I don’t fully understand how Jesus’ death could pay the penalty for my sin much less yours. However, I do know that it’s wrapped up in the merciful heart of God, and that God had to provide the sacrifice Himself, but He had to provide it as a human being in order to forgive the sin of all human beings.
“That whoever believes in him”
”God so loved the world, that He gave His only son...” And then Jesus, in John 3:16, moves to our response, “that whoever believes in him” (John 3:16).
1. Whoever believes
That word, “whoever,” is really important, isn’t it? It tells us that no one is beyond Jesus’ ability to save. When Jesus cried out from the cross His last words, “it is finished,” and then bowed His head in death, He meant what He said. He had completed the task for which God the Father had sent Him to earth; that is, to be the sacrifice for the sin of people. He did His job well; He completed it; He finished it. Now, when we cry out for forgiveness, no matter what we have done and no matter what we will do, God is able to forgive “whoever believes in Him.” He could have also said, “Whoever believes in Me;” it is important that we know “Him” is a personal pronoun. None of the following is Christianity:
Christianity is not a religion — a religion is defined as people seeking God.
Christianity is not a philosophy, a bunch of good ideas.
Christianity is not a set of doctrines.
Christianity is not a church building or a religious organization or a religious way of thinking.
Christianity is not a list of do’s and don’ts.
Christianity is not a spiritual spasm where we say a magical prayer and raise a weepy hand and we think that’s all there is to it.
Christianity is our believing in Jesus; it is a relationship with a personal God — a relationship made possible because of what Jesus did on the cross for you and for me. Christianity is a relationship in which we get to go home; we get to return to the garden and we get to walk once again with our Creator and our God.
2. Not simply “believe”
“Whoever believes in Him....” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Whoever believes Him.” Biblical belief, biblical faith and biblical trust are all English words that describe the same concept. Biblical faith is not intellectual assent; it is not believing Jesus. Biblical faith is not even theism, which is believing that God exists. In fact, if someone says he is a Christian, he believes Jesus and believes that God exists, one answer is: So what! The demons believe and they shudder. When the demons see Jesus coming, they know exactly who He is and they cry out, “O Holy One of God, have you come to torment us?” Demons are theists; they know God exists. They know who Jesus is, but they are still going to burn forever in hell.
Biblical faith is not intellectual assent, nor is it theism, nor is it believing that God will take care of our hurts and our pains. Biblical faith is not believing that God is going to change our lives and give us purpose and joy; those are part of it, but none of these are conversion. Conversion is the experience of those who believe in Jesus Christ.
3. Believe into
This part of the Bible was originally written in Greek; Jesus is going out of His way to use really bad Greek grammar to make the point. In all of recorded Greek literature, no one uses the phrase that Jesus uses here. If you were going to translate it exactly, it would be “that whoever believes into Him;” this is horrible Greek grammar, but marvelous theology.
Biblical belief means that we no longer believe in ourselves. Biblical belief means that we no longer trust ourselves. Biblical belief means we have transferred our trust out of ourselves and we have transferred it into Jesus. Biblical belief means that we have made a commitment to trust Jesus, not ourselves. Biblical belief means throwing ourselves into the merciful arms of our loving Creator, fully trusting Him for everything: for forgiveness, for salvation, for care, for support, and for all the things that we need as people. Biblical belief means we have thrown ourselves into the merciful arms of God and trust Him for everything; and that’s a far cry from just believing Jesus, isn’t it?
4. Psalm 23
One of the best-loved passages in the Bible is in a book called Psalms. In Chapter 23 of Psalms, we can see who Jesus is. If we punctuate the pronouns, we can start to get a grasp of what it means to believe into Jesus. The psalmist writes, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Think of the relationship that exists between stupid, dumb, smelly, biting, kicking sheep and the Shepherd. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Here come the pronouns, “He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” (because I’m a strong, independent being and I can handle whatever life throws at me? NO!) “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You,” God, “are with me. Your rod and staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house,” in the presence, “of God forever.” (Psalm 23:1-6)
5. Salvation is not something we earn
Salvation is not something we earn There is a really important consequence that I want to point out if we are to understand this phrase in John 3:16. If we understand that salvation is not something that we earn, but it’s something that God does for us, then it’s pretty easy to understand that salvation is not by doing religious things; salvation is by faith. When you and I became disciples of Jesus Christ, we didn’t come to Him with our hands full of good deeds and say: “Hey, you owe me.’ – “I haven’t beaten my wife, lately.” – “I haven’t kicked my dog, lately.” – “I haven’t cheated on my income taxes, lately.” – “I go to church some of the time, and I even gave a dollar last year.”
We don’t come to God with things in our hands as if we can earn salvation or earn forgiveness. When we come to understand what salvation is, we understand that it is simply by faith. Salvation is our trusting that when we jump into Jesus’ arms, He will catch us and He will save us. The Bible says, “that the wages of sin are death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We are saved and become disciples of Jesus Christ, not by the things that we do as if we were earning favor with God, but by believing that God has done in Christ what we could never do for ourselves.
Paul writes to the Ephesian church, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, lest anyone boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) There’s a song which reads, “Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free, for God the Just is satisfied to look on Him” (Jesus) “and pardon me.” This songwriter and all true disciples of Jesus Christ understand that we are pardoned not because we have done certain things, but because God through Jesus has done certain things. God the Father, who is loving and just, is content in His mercy to look not on our sin, but to look on Jesus’ perfection and to treat us not as we deserve, but to treat us as Jesus deserves. Salvation is nothing that we do for ourselves, salvation is what God has done for us and we respond in faith, believing and trusting that it is so.
6. Salvation is believing Jesus
The way you and I become disciples or followers or Christians — whatever language you want to use — is not by doing religious things to earn God’s favor. You and I become disciples of Jesus Christ by believing that Jesus is who is says He is and by believing that He did what He said He did.
We believe that Jesus is who is says He is. Jesus says, “I am the Way, I am the Truth, I am the Life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” We believe that Jesus alone provides forgiveness of sin, and He alone provides access for fellowship and relationship with our Creator; apart from Him, we will die alone for our sin and spend eternity away from His presence in a place called hell.
We believe He is who He says He is. We believe that He has done and will do what He has said He has done and will do. Jesus said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve and to give My life as a ransom for many.” We believe that Jesus provided the ransom, the payment, to secure our freedom from sin. We believe that when Jesus cried out, “it is finished,” He did complete the work on the cross, and now our sin can be forgiven and we can gain access to our Creator.
Disciples are those who believe Jesus is who He says He is and that He has done what He said He would do.
“Might not perish but have everlasting life”
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only son that whoever believes in Him,” not in ourselves, “will not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) If we live our lives separated from our Creator, the only possible option for us is perishing. Hell is a very real place; we have a taste of it here and now, don’t we? Hell is a real place and all I’m going to say is this, “You really don’t want to go there.” Jesus died so we won’t perish, but have everlasting life — eternal life. We understand that death is a passage into true life lived in full fellowship with our Creator. The really cool thing about the gospel is that even before death, you and I get to enjoy some of the benefits of eternal life here and now, after all, we’ve been born again. We have a new Father. We have a new family with new brothers and sisters. We have a new inheritance waiting for us in heaven. We are aliens now on this cruddy earth but our citizenship is in heaven.
We live our lives looking forward, longing to go home and walk in the garden again with God. However, there will continue to be pain; there will continue to be suffering; there will be death all around us. Guess what? There will even be persecution for our new faith. Our friends are not going to understand why we have changed. We will become, as Paul says, “The aroma of death to them,” but we will be a fragrance to God. You and I will have new lives with real joy, the kind of joy that sees past the circumstances of our lives; it’s a true joy that is based in the fact that the emptiness of our souls has been filled by our Creator. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
Count the cost
Jesus also says that before we make the decision to believe into Him, we must count the cost because things are never going to be the same again — they can’t be. Salvation is absolutely free and absolutely undeserved; there is nothing that you can do to earn it. Yet when we make the decision to be followers of Jesus Christ, it is going to cost us everything because discipleship is discipleship under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us, “You are not your own.” Why? The answer is we were bought with a price, so glorify God and not ourselves. Glorify God in our bodies. Peter says, “for you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life, but rather you were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ.”
The blood of Christ is the price God paid to redeem you and me from the pit of Hell. Now we who are disciples of Jesus Christ belong to Him, and it is a life in which the tyranny of sin has been broken and the mastery of sin over us is gone. Not only do we have lives of freedom and joy, but also lives lived under His Lordship for His glory. Whether we eat or drink, whatever we do, we do to the glory of God. So we have counted the cost and we have joyfully made the decision to follow Jesus.
When we made our decision, God’s Holy Spirit came into our lives and He regenerated us, made us into new people and gave us new birth; we were born again. God’s Spirit stays within us and He guides and directs us; He even gives us the power to change.
God’s goal for your life and my life is that we change. His will is that we stop looking like what we used to look like, and that we start looking like his Son, Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that we are being changed from one degree of glory to the next, and this is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, giving us the desire to change and then the ability to change. The Bible calls these changes the “Fruits of the Spirit.”
As God’s Spirit is at work inside of us, our lives start to show a kind of love that it’s never shown before. Our lives start to understand a deep-seated peace that we’ve never felt before. We have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control because the tyranny of sin has been broken and we are free to serve God; he is at work, giving us these new desires and then the ability to perform them.
What we have done is taken the first steps in new lives of discipleship. God made the world, he loved the world, he gave his Son for the world, and his Son died for the sin of the world, so that those who have placed their trust into Jesus will enjoy the joyous relationship with our Creator now and forever more.
Welcome to the family of God, my brother and my sister.