I’m been talking with some young men about what it means to become a follower of Jesus, and one had a very good question: If I say “I’m a follower” does that make me a follower? He pointed out that it seems too easy. He also pointed out that God has been at work in his life for a long time, so why should he draw a line in the sand and say “Now I’m a follower.”
The question has been kicking around in my heart for several days and I’m finally venturing an answer. There are two sides that need to be kept in mind. One the one hand, people have a tendency to externalize things. People point to the fact that they have been baptized or said a certain prayer as proof that they have a living relationship with God. Yet, if we examine their life, we can find very little evidence that this is true.
Jesus told us that we will know a tree by its fruit: good trees have good fruit; bad trees have bad fruit. Someone told me that if we see an animal that has feathers and a beak, says “quack” and flies south for the winter, we know it’s a duck. It doesn’t matter if someone tells you it’s a dog or a cat or a walrus, we still know it’s a duck.
The same goes for us and the fruit we produce. If we are jealous, proud, lying, stealing, dishonest, lustful, malevolent, lazy, and/or rebellious, it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves, the truth is that we are sinners. It was an important step in my life when I tried to stop viewing myself as good and started admitting that I was a sinner. To use the animal analogy, I started admitting I was a duck rather than a stallion.
Thus, we know that it is possible to confess faith with your mouth and yet have a life that contradicts that. As a result, some people shy away from the idea of making a public commitment to Jesus because they know that some people are insincere.
Despite the danger that some people are insincere, the Bible makes it clear that there is a choice we make when we cross a line into a relationship with God. That relationship is described as a covenant or agreement that has six parts:
1. God initiates. We don’t find God–he finds us. He does it in various ways, but somehow he shows us that he knows us, he loves us, and he is willing to forgive us. God could speak to us through the words of a friend, through reading the Bible, through circumstance, through miracles or in other ways.
2. The free-willed person responds. God doesn’t force us into relationship with him–we can say yes or no. Jesus invited many people to follow him. Some left their old lives to follow him; others chose not to. When I asked Abby to marry me, she said yes (thankfully), but she didn’t have to. A covenant with God, like a marriage covenant, is a free-willed choice.
3. A covenant is formalized through an oath or promise. Through Jesus, God is promising certain things: forgiveness, love, provision and eternal life to name a few. We, in turn, are promising certain things to God: love, obedience, and turning from sin to righteous living. (Thankfully, God will help us keep our promises because on our own we wouldn’t be able to keep up our end of the deal.) Despite all the emotion and pageantry surrounding a wedding, the most important part is the promises that the bride and groom make to each other, which will guide their relationship for years to come.
4. Stipulations (a.k.a. “dos and don’ts”). There are certain rules that God give us if we choose to follow Jesus. These rules are given to protect us and keep us on the right path. Many people get upset about the idea of God placing limitations on them, but remember that the rules come out of God’s love and mercy. There are certain things I can and can’t do in my marriage, but those rules flow from the fact that I love my wife and have chosen to submit to the laws of marriage.
5. Blessings and curses. A covenant with God is serious business. If we keep our covenant with God, there are many blessings (good things) that come of it. But just like some husbands or wives go back on their marriage covenants, there are people who choose to seriously disobey God after beginning a relationship with him. God disciplines us to bring us back into relationship with him if we choose to pay attention to his correction. But if we ignore his discipline, we will eventually lose our relationship with him.
6. Sign or seal. A wedding ring is an external symbol of the promises and commitment a husband and wife have made to each other. For followers of Jesus, baptism becomes that symbol that we have died to our past sins and are coming to Jesus for forgiveness and trusting God to give us a new life.
I outlined these steps to hopefully clarify what starting a relationship with God means. Before you get too far, you need to respond to God if he is talking to you. Perhaps God has been working in your life in small (or big) ways, but that doesn’t mean you are in covenant with him. Abby and I knew each other for three or four years before we actually got married (i.e. began a marriage covenant with each other). Getting married changed our relationship with each other significantly and we’ve never been the same since. The same can be true for you. Through Jesus, God is offering love, forgiveness and a new life. If you choose to respond to him, your life will never be the same again.