Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by this message. I can’t count the number of sermons I’ve heard warning against the dangers of being a “bad” Christian and how it could land you in Hell. I would go so far as to say that this type of sermon was one of the main reasons I grew up doubting my salvation (something I talk about in depth here).
Most of these sermons talk about what separates a good Christian from a bad Christian, and almost all of them come with a checklist. Have you fed or clothed your neighbor recently? Have you led a double life? Are you spending every day in God’s Word? The problem with these checklists is that they are focused on things we have or haven’t done, which can only lead us to one of two places: pride or guilt. We either say, “Yes, I actually donated all of my clothes to someone in need last week!” *pats self on back*, or we say, “I’ve been so focused on the things going on in my life that I haven’t helped out any of my brothers or sisters recently. I wonder if I’ve done enough to get into Heaven?” Then, we walk around for the next few weeks wondering whether we are a sheep or a goat.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” – Matthew 25:31-33
Here’s the thing: I don’t disagree that a Christian’s life should be transformed by Christ. I truly believe that once we recognize Christ for who He is and what He has done for us, we can’t help but love who He loves. However, I don’t think that what’s happening on the outside is nearly as important as what’s happening on the inside.
Salvation comes through faith, but transformation comes through relationship. I was saved by faith when I was fairly young, but I didn’t start having true relationship with God until six years ago. My life did not produce much fruit for the kingdom in those first few years, but that didn’t make me any more or less saved. I also don’t think it made me a “bad” Christian; it just made me an immature one. I had to learn about and truly understand God’s love and grace before I could reflect it. God had to walk with me through those challenges and doubts so that I could grow into the calling He had placed on my life.
I’ve grown to dislike sermons that focus on whether or not I’m a “good enough” Christian, because they put the focus on the sinner rather than the Savior. Shepherds’ rods should be used to beat the wolf, not the sheep. “Good Christian checklists” are the reason I doubted my salvation in the first place. The works that I do or don’t do can never negate the finished work that Christ did on the cross.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9
The same Jesus died for all of us, and His sacrifice alone is the reason I have confidence in my eternal resting place. Serving our brothers and sisters should not be done out of a misplaced sense of Christian duty, but out of an overflow of the love He pours into us when we grow in our relationship with Him. That kind of intimacy doesn’t always happen with the flip of a switch the moment we are saved; sometimes it can take years to build up to.
If it’s been a while since you have served your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, if you’re struggling to spend time in the Word, or if you are fighting a secret addiction, don’t let that send you into a tailspin of despair, wondering if you’re going to Hell. Instead, let it serve as a gentle reminder to come boldly before the throne of God, receiving the grace and mercy He is pouring out over you. As you grow in your relationship with God through His Word and His Spirit, you’ll begin submitting more and more of yourself to Him, which is what will equip you to shine more and more of Him into the world.