It’s not who you are; it’s whose you are
I was raised Catholic by two wonderful, loving, devoted Catholic parents. They took all ten of us kids to Mass every Sunday, and every one of us went to Catholic elementary as well as high schools. I was married in a Catholic church and three of my four children were baptized Catholic. If you had asked me anytime back then if I was a Christian, I would have said ‘Yes,’ probably puzzled that you would even have to ask if you knew that I was Catholic. But now I believe I would have been mistaken in my reply – I don’t believe I was a Christian then, despite belonging to a Christian church, believing that Jesus is the Son of God, and trying to obey the rules.
One huge hindrance to true, saving faith in Christ is the common misconception that coming from a Christian family or belonging to a Christian church makes one a Christian. It’s a deception that gives false assurance to its church-going adherents, and provides deadly ammunition to skeptics and critics when self-identified “Christians” act very un-Christlike.
Family upbringing and church affiliation can be instrumental in leading a person to true faith in Christ, but they cannot confer salvation on anyone. The term “Christian” denotes an adherence or even belonging to Christ. It refers to one who has a relationship with him as his follower and servant, not just a head knowledge of his deity and a willingness to be identified with his church. It’s a crucial distinction that very many do not recognize.
Here’s how I now view the distinction in my own experience. As a Catholic, I was taught that Jesus, as God’s Son, died on the cross for the sins of the world. And I believed it to be true, along with many other core Christian doctrines, like his divine incarnation through a virgin, his resurrection from the dead, and his eventual return to earth at the end of the age. But even demons believe all this. Mere mental assent to the validity of a claim does not save anyone.
Still, I had something over demons – I wanted to be good, and I tried to be good, and I was relatively successful at it. But works don’t save anyone, as I now know. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) I was believing, as many do, that if my good deeds outweighed my bad, I would earn myself a cushy house in Heaven. But, “the righteousness of God (is) through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:22-24)
But did I not believe? Didn’t I have faith if I believed that there is a God and Jesus the Christ is his Son? Again…demons believe that. The kind of faith the Bible talks about as sufficient for salvation involves an act of the will. It denotes a submission to…a putting your trust in…a surrender. A choice to give up control of your life to God and obey him. I did not have that kind of faith as a Catholic. I’m not saying that no Catholic can, only that I did not.
If you’ll bear with me a little longer, imagine a king with two servants. Both acknowledge the king’s authority, but they differ in how they respond to it. When Servant A does what he’s told, it’s only to avoid punishment or perhaps curry favor with the king. When he doesn’t, it’s because he has not submitted his will to the king’s, and believes he should be able to do what he wants, his way. He is consumed with his own needs, desires, and ambitions, and makes no effort to avail himself to the king for his service.
Servant B humbly acknowledges his position and concerns himself with what the king wants and expects of him. When he does what he’s told, he’s acting from an attitude of submission and a desire to please the king. When he doesn’t, it’s because he too has his own needs, desires, and ambitions that sometimes clamor for attention and deceive him into favoring them over the will of the king. But afterward he regrets his rebellion, confesses it to the king, and is forgiven.
The king loves both servants, but because he is righteous and just, he cannot long allow Servant A to remain in his service unbroken, like a wild horse. So he disciplines him with the goal of bringing him into submission so that the servant can enjoy the blessings that only a right relationship with the king can secure. This is what is best for the servant, even if he doesn’t believe it. If he stubbornly resists the king’s discipline, refusing to surrender his will, the king has no choice but to terminate his service.
The nature of true, saving faith is not universally agreed on by all Christians, but this is my understanding of it, as far as it goes. Salvation is a work of God and I don’t presume to completely understand nor fully explain it. What I can confidently affirm is that my personal experience supports my contention that there was something critical lacking in my faith as a Catholic. I am so different now than before I intentionally submitted my life to Christ. My desires are different, my affinities are new, my attitude towards sin dramatically refined, and I understand things I never did before.
Praise God for his glorious grace and mercy with which he drew me to himself and gave me new life.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2Corinthians 5:17