What it Means to be a Christian

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 2 - What Happens When We Become Christians

In these talks, we are seeking to be pre-eminently practical. That is, we are not occupied with the presentation of Christian doctrine in itself. Christian doctrine will be here, but we are not interested in presenting the doctrines of Christianity in the abstract, important as they are. What we are concerned with is that everything shall be practical and experimental, and capable of being immediately put to the test.

There is, of course, a difference between the facts and truths of the Christian life, and the explanation of them. That is, it is possible for all the facts to be present in the life without the person concerned being able to explain those facts. It is a part of our present business to try to explain the facts, and to challenge as to the facts. Now, any explanation of the Christian life should be corroborated by the experience. That is, it ought to be possible for you to say, 'Well, I could not have explained it like that, but I know exactly in my experience what you mean - that does just express my own life.' So that the explanation must be borne out by the experience: the experience must corroborate the explanation.

Let us, then, consider what happens when we become Christians. We shall spend some of our time in seeking to get behind this matter of becoming a Christian, to get to certain other facts - facts stated or revealed in the Bible, and true to human experience.


When we come to consider man as we know him, man by nature, the first thing we find is that his relationship with God is completely dislocated. We say 'dislocated', because we believe what the Bible teaches: that things were all right once, and they have gone wrong. If for the time being you prefer to waive the word 'dislocated' and substitute 'severed', you may do so. We shall probably at least agree that things are not in order between man and God. The relationship between man and God is in a broken-down condition. That is the fundamental fact. The relationship is disjointed; it is in a state of strain. There is distance between man and God. The relationship, or perhaps we should say 'non-relationship', is a very unhappy thing: it is altogether unproductive; there is nothing coming from it. It is barren and desolate, quite unfruitful. With many God does not seem to matter, and is quite ignored.

But that is more or less neutral or negative. In most cases the situation is much worse than that - it is positively antagonistic. Man is in a state of antagonism to God in his nature, and often in his mind, in his attitude, and in his reference to God; there is a state of conflict, there is suspicion in man's mind as to God. A great deal of resentment exists in many human hearts. And we can go further - for the Bible goes this far - and say that in some cases, perhaps in not a few, there is even hatred in the human heart for God. We meet that sometimes. So that is the first fact - the relationship between man and God is chaotic, broken-down, dislocated or disrupted.


That is not all. We need to get inside of that and go further. Man has a set of senses belonging to his spiritual being which are not functioning - a set of senses which correspond to his physical senses. The physical senses, as we know, are: seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling. But man has another set of five senses which are not physical, but which belong to his inner man. They are the counterpart of those five physical senses, and in man by nature these other senses are not functioning. The Bible speaks of all these senses in a spiritual way in relation to God.

The Bible speaks of a seeing of God, which is not physical at all; it is not with the natural eye. There is that little fragment known to most: "The pure in heart... shall see God" (Matt. 5:8). That is certainly not a physical matter.

Again, hearing. There is a spiritual hearing of God which is not audition through the natural or physical ear. It is something in the heart. It is not the hearing of an audible voice, but it corresponds to that in a spiritual way. People are able to say they have heard the Lord speak to them, but they never heard anything with their natural ear.

tasting? Yes, the Bible says: "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8), and no one thinks that that is a physical matter.

smelling? - that seems to be difficult, perhaps. But we know what we mean, without any physical factor coming in, when we say that we are 'scenting' something. We go into a room, and somehow we detect that there is 'something in the air'. People have been talking, and when we go in we see embarrassment on their faces, and they suddenly become quiet and look at one another, and we 'scent' something. In an analogous way, we know that it is possible to sense the presence of God.

There are thus a whole set of spiritual faculties which, when they are in proper order and function, serve to relate us to God; and in the natural man, the unregenerate man, those senses are not functioning at all. There is no seeing God, in that way; there is no hearing God speak to him; there is no sensing or feeling God - it is a tremendous thing to feel God, not with your hands, but in an inward way. There is no 'tasting that the Lord is good' in the natural man. All these things are out of order - and yet the Bible speaks of them a very great deal. The Bible teaches, and man's condition corroborates, that, where God is concerned, man is blind, man is deaf; man is numbed, has no feelings, is insensitive to God. Is that not so? That is a true description of anyone - it may be you who are reading these lines - who has not had a definite Christian experience. You do not see God in this way, you do not hear God, you do not feel God, you do not sense God; God is unreal, remote, far away, if He is at all. You do not know Him.

It is no real contradiction of the above and of what follows when we say that in most cases - very, very few exceptions exist - there is a consciousness of the existence of some supreme Object demanding recognition. Our point is that there is no fellowship, understanding, knowledge, or living relationship with God.


But the Bible goes further still. It says that man by natural birth is lacking in yet another thing, which corresponds to his - may I use the phrase? - biological existence, his life. We have a biological existence which we call life. Now it is a very significant thing that the New Testament puts two different words over two different classes of people. It uses one word (bios) for natural life, but it never uses that word of the life of the Christian. For that it uses an entirely different word, with an altogether different meaning. What the Bible says is that man by nature not only lacks the functions of his spiritual senses, but even lacks that which corresponds to his natural existence - life. In a word, the Bible says that man is dead; not only blind and deaf and insensitive to God, but dead. "Death passed upon all men" (Rom. 5:12), says the Word of God. By nature man is dead to God.


And he is dead to the true meaning of his own existence. Man by nature does not know why he was born, why he has a being. We have all sorts of accounts of his being - wild explanations and excuses, shelving responsibility, and so on, all proving that he is entirely dead to the real meaning of his own existence. He makes the best of it - and sometimes it is quite a good best that a man makes of his life; but, after all, when set in relation to God and in relation to eternity, he does not know why he is alive, why he has a being. He is dead to that. He is dead to eternal and heavenly things and values. What a futile and hopeless thing it is to talk to man by nature about the things of Heaven and the things of God! He looks at you, he gapes at you, he does not know what you are talking about. That belongs to a world with which he is just not acquainted. It is something foreign, far off, and he is utterly bored.

He may be a very good man from certain standpoints, a very educated man. He may be occupying a position of high esteem and respect amongst men - he may even be a very religious man. There was such a man who came to Jesus, an outstanding specimen of the best product of humanity outside of Christ; but over him was suspended one big question-mark. He was full of interrogations 'How...? How...? How...?' And Jesus said, in effect: 'Well, it is no use talking to you about heavenly things at all. You do not belong to that realm; you are just dead to that.'

Now, is that true? I said at the beginning that you can put everything to the test. This is not just a statement of abstract Christian doctrine. This is a statement of fact which is verifiable. Some of you may be actually knowing the truth of it now, in your own experience. Many of you did know it in time past, but, thank God, you know it no longer. According to the Bible, man is dead. It is useless to speak to a corpse - you will get nothing back. As far as the things of God are concerned, man makes no response. There is no correspondence, no interchange, no communion, no fellowship possible. That is what the Bible and human experience say as to man's condition by nature.


That brings us to a very practical point in approaching this question: What exactly happens when we become Christians? There are two fragments of New Testament Scripture which I think sum this up for us very concisely and very fully. The one is that statement, so familiar and yet so little understood even by Christians, the statement made to the man to whom I referred just now, who came with his big question - his multiple "How...?" Jesus simply looked at him, and did not try to answer his question at all, because He knew how hopeless a thing it is to talk to a dead man. He looked at him, and said: "Ye must be born anew", or "Ye must be born from above" (John 3:7). The other passage, from one of Paul's letters, is also very well known: "Wherefore if any man is in Christ, there is a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). Those two words sum up what happens: "born anew", "a new creation".


I said I would keep off negative ground and on positive, but let me say here in parenthesis that it is not becoming a Christian just to accept, or give a mental assent to, the tenets of the Christian religion, or to join some society which has the name of being a Christian institution, even though it may go by the name of 'church'. That is not becoming a Christian in the New Testament sense. The only true 'becoming a Christian' is by way of being born anew, becoming a new creation: which means you become a different species from what you were before, and from what all other people are who have not had that experience.

But when we so become Christians, what happens? Our state of death gives place to a state of life. This other life, this resurrection life, which no man by nature has ever yet had, excepting Jesus Christ; this life - which we will not even refer to in the New Testament terminology - is given in the day of our faith-exercise toward the Lord Jesus as Lord and Saviour. A new aliveness takes place. It is the first wonderful basic experience of the Christian. The Christian at that time leaps into life: he immediately begins to talk a new language about now knowing what it is to live, knowing the meaning of life, and so on. What happens when we become Christians? Well, we are alive from the dead! We become alive.

But it is not just the resuscitation of something. It is the impartation of what was never there before - a new life, belonging to a new creation: that is, a new order, which is a heavenly order. For this is birth "from above". Jesus never said a truer thing than that. "Ye must be born again." If there is someone reading these lines who has not had that experience, you know, after what we have said about the natural condition, that, if you are going to see God and hear God and feel and sense God, in the way of which we have spoken, something has got to happen to you which is as radical as being born all over again in another realm. Jesus is right at any rate on that, is He not? It is true. "You must..." - it is not just an imperative of command, it is not just a declaration that you have got to become a Christian to be accepted with God. It is the statement of a fundamental and inescapable fact: that you can never, never know God in a real way, far less have living fellowship with God, until something has happened in you that is absolutely constitutional. You have got to have a new life, which is God's own life, to enable you to understand what God is, to know Him.


This new life immediately introduces a new consciousness of God. Immediately you are alive to God - you sense God. God becomes a reality, a living reality: no longer remote, far off, indefinite, but now very dear, very real, very wonderful, indeed the greatest reality in your whole life. You know God in a new way, you have a new consciousness of God.


And then you find you have a new consciousness of the meaning of your own existence. Every Christian who is truly founded upon this basis of beginning, of resurrection, almost immediately leaps into this consciousness: 'Now I have got the explanation of life, I have got the key to life. I know that I was born for something! I never before knew that I was really born for something, but I know now. There is a sense of meaning in my being here, and of destiny, wrapped up with this new experience. It gives an explanation to my own life.' Is that not true, Christians? It is - it is just like that. 'Now we know why we are here!'


And to carry that one step further - it is a new consciousness of purpose and vocation. It is not only that there is a meaning in our being alive, but that a purpose has come in with this new life, a sense of vocation. We are called for something. You do not have to have a lot of instruction about that. You do not even have to wait for it. The truly born-again child of God spontaneously, instinctively, begins to talk to other people about it. You can test your Christian life by that. You just must tell them, you must talk about it, you must let them know. That is vocation coming out. You feel you are called for something, that there is business on hand. And that can develop, as we know, to specific vocations. But this consciousness of purpose, meaning and vocation springs up with new life.


And then we find we have a new set of relationships, of interests, of desires. We know that; it happens. It is no use talking to anybody who has not had the experience about these things. They have their relationships, their interests, their desires, and they just despise you for not doing what they do and going where they go and engaging in the things which are everything to them. They do not understand you. They think you have missed the way, that you have lost everything that is worth having. But you know quite well that it is just the other way round. You do not despise them, but you pity them, are sorry for them. This is a transcendent, superlative set of relationships. Christians know the meaning of a little phrase that was used about some early servants of God who were arrested because they were doing this very thing - fulfilling, expressing, the sense of vocation, and not keeping it in and keeping it to themselves. They were arrested and brought before the authorities and threatened. 'And being let go, they went to their own company' - instinctively to their own company (Acts 4:23). We know what that means. There is a new 'company' - a new relationship, a new fellowship, a new set of desires and interests. No one else can understand or appreciate it, but the Christian knows.


Further, we have a new set of capacities. This is a wonderful thing about the new creation life, this 'born-anew' life, this true Christian life. We get a new set of mental capacities, something different from, and additional to, and altogether transcending natural mental capacity. It is a new understanding of things, and it is one of the wonders of the Christian life. You may find a person who has had no great advantages academically, educationally, or in any other realm, a very ordinary person: and yet, when they come into a real experience of the Christian life, it is remarkable how they acquire an entirely new understanding and intelligence. They have an insight into things that a man of the highest education and the biggest brain is - by these means alone - entirely incapable of grasping or understanding.

This is something that the Christian knows to be so true. Very often we may think that a certain person, because of such academic achievements and qualifications, is bound to be able to understand, we are bound to have good interchange and fellowship with them: yet, when we begin to speak about the things of the Lord, we meet a blank - they do not know what we are talking about. But here is this simple man or woman who knows. They have a new mental faculty, a new set of capacities and powers for understanding the things of the Spirit of God, for knowing what no natural man can know - not by the way of study, but by the way of communion with God.

And these wonderful new capacities grow and develop as the Christian goes on. We find that we have new powers of transaction and enaction - of 'doing'. The Christian has the power of doing things that other people cannot do: a power of endurance, a power of overcoming, and a power of working. Many of my readers will understand me when I say that sometimes - indeed very often - it seems that the Lord takes pains to undercut our natural ability for doing, in order to lead us into a life where we can do without 'abilities', without any natural explanation at all. If you look at much that has been done through true Christians, in this world's history, you will not be able to account for it at all on natural grounds. They were weak things, frail things, things at a discount in this world. But just see what God has done through the "weak things" and the "things that are not"!


A new hope - that is characteristic of the true Christian. An altogether new prospect has leapt into view; we shall see more of that later. But here it must be stated that the Christian, if a true Christian, is not one characterized by despair, by hopelessness, by a sense of final frustration and disappointment. A Christian is one, deep down in whose very being there is rooted the consciousness that there is something wonderful ahead, something beyond. The final argument for the afterward is not in any system of teaching about Heaven or its alternative. It is found in the heart, in the life - it is found in a mighty dynamic. What is it that has kept Christians going in the face of unspeakable difficulties and sufferings and opposition? What is it? Others capitulate, give up, let go, fall into despair. The Christian just goes on. And it is not because the Christian is of any better natural calibre than others, with more tenacity and doggedness. Not at all. So often they are the weak ones, as counted by men; but there is this going on. They are gripped by an inward conviction that this is not the end, this is not all, there is something beyond. There is this hope, which has come from the "God of hope".


Now what is the explanation of it all - a new life, a new consciousness, new relationships, all things new? We are not exaggerating the Christian life. What does it amount to? What is the inclusive secret of it? You see, it is not just that the Christian receives some abstract things. You may call it life, you may call it understanding, you may call it hope, you may call it power, but these are not merely abstract things. The true, born-anew Christian has received, not abstractions, but a Person. The inclusive explanation of it all is the gift of the Holy Spirit. God gives His Spirit to them that obey Him (Acts 5:32).

Now, the Holy Spirit is God, no less than God, and the Holy Spirit has all the intelligence and knowledge of God, all the eternal prospect of God; the elements of eternity, timelessness. All that is true of God is true of the Holy Spirit. If, then, God gives the Holy Spirit to become resident inside a person, and that person learns from the beginning, like a babe, day by day, year by year, to walk in fellowship with the indwelling Holy Spirit, that person is bound to grow in all these characteristics that we have mentioned.

In the first place, they are bound to know Divine life - God's own life within. This is a most wonderful thing, when you think of it. We have not just an 'It', but Himself, God in Christ by the Holy Spirit, as our very life. I love the way the Bible puts that about God: "He is... the length of thy days" (Deut. 30:20). Think about that. It means that if God really is our portion, resident within, then our duration, our spell, is not dictated by natural things. HE is the length of our days. We shall die when He says that the time has come, and not before. You see, all things are in His hand, and until that time comes the threats may be many, but His life persists, and we rise again and rise again and rise again. We thought the end had come, but we rise again and go on - because He is our life. The Holy Spirit is called "the Spirit of life" (Rom. 8:2). To have such a Person resident within is a very wonderful thing.

And so, if He has all Divine intelligence, and we are in His school, living with Him, keeping fellowship with Him day by day, we shall grow in this intelligence, which no natural man has. We shall be growing in knowledge, growing in understanding, growing in ability to grasp the things of God, which no man, apart from the Spirit of God, can understand. I want to lay emphasis upon that. It is the Holy Spirit Himself. I know that Christians as such believe in the Holy Spirit - the majority of evangelical Christians believe in the Person of the Holy Spirit. They put the article there - the Holy Spirit - whereas others speak of 'Holy Spirit'. It is a part of our Christian faith to believe in the Holy Spirit as a Person; to have some knowledge of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, His work and His power. And yet there is among Christians a lamentable lack of understanding of what it means to have the Holy Spirit really dwelling within. This is disclosed and manifested by the very fact that they can sometimes act and speak so contrarily to the Holy Spirit without seeming to be checked up by Him. It is truly astonishing how many Christians can speak in a manner in which the Holy Spirit certainly cannot acquiesce, and yet seem to be quite unconscious of the fact that the Holy Spirit disagrees with them. Many Christians can believe lies about others, and repeat them, and yet never register the Holy Spirit's disagreement. There is something wrong here in regard to the practical expression of the indwelling Holy Spirit - for He is the Spirit of truth.

Now the true Christian life means that wherever the Holy Spirit is in disagreement with anything that we say or do, or with the way we say or do it, we should be aware of it. At once we should register - not a voice, but a sense: the Holy Spirit saying, in effect, 'I do not agree with you - that is wrong, that is not right, that is not true, that is not kind, that is not good, that is not gracious.' There is a very great need for the reality of the indwelling Spirit to be expressed. It is not that the failure to recognise and sense and discern means that the Holy Spirit is not there; it simply means that, if it is like that, we are not walking in the Spirit. There is something needed on our part by way of adjustment.

But, coming to the positive side, the true Christian life can be, and should be, like this. With the Holy Spirit resident within, when you or I say or do anything with which He does not agree, we know it at once. We have a bad feeling right in the middle of us, and we do not get rid of it. We have to say, 'Evidently I was wrong in what I said, or did. Lord, forgive me and put it out of the way.' If it has done someone any harm, well, let us try to put it right. That is a life in the Spirit. It is very practical.

That is what happens when we become Christians. It begins like that. The beginnings are very simple. If you are still quite young in the Christian life, you surely must know something of this in simple ways. Perhaps you go to do something that you used to do, and something inside you says, 'Oh, no, not now - that belongs to the past.' That is a simple beginning, is it not? If you go on, you burn your fingers - because you are alive! If you were dead, you would do these things and not feel them. Because you are alive, you are sensitive.

Yes, that is what happens when we become Christians. It is very simple; many of us know about it from experience. But it is important for the many who are coming to Christ in these days, who are at the beginnings of the Christian life, to know really what they have come into, really what has happened to them. They should be able to say: 'Yes - well, I could not have explained it, I could never have put it into words or defined it; but I know what you mean. That is true to my own experience.' But, you see, it is something more than just feeling. We need to understand, we need to be intelligent about these things. May God make us intelligent Christians - Christians who are going on in life-fellowship with His Spirit within, and growing all the time. God forbid that any young Christians, reading these lines, in five, ten or twenty years' time should be just where they are now. That is not necessary, because of course - praise God! being born again is not the end of things - it is only the beginning!

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