“When I was converted I made this mistake: I thought the battle was already mine, the victory already won, the crown already in my grasp. I thought that old things had passed away, that all things had become new; that my old corrupt nature, the Adam life, was gone. But I found out, after serving Christ for a few months, that conversion was only like enlisting in the army, that there was a battle on hand, and that if I was to get a crown, I had to work for it and fight for it.
It is like this: When a man enters the army, he is a member of the army the moment he enlists; he is just as much a member as a man who has been in the army 10 or 20 years. But enlisting is one thing, and participating in a battle another. Young converts are like those just enlisted.” —DL Moody
When someone led me in my first prayer to “ask Jesus into my heart,” as important as that was and as well-intentioned as the man who led me in that prayer, he didn’t tell me some very important truths, which would have helped me early in my Christian life. First, he didn’t tell me that I received eternal life simply by believing in Jesus. That we receive salvation as a gift through faith, and not works. That Jesus did all the work to save me. He lived a sinless life and paid for all my sins on the cross and that when I believed in him, all he did was credited to me—forgiveness of sins, and Christ’s own righteousness. All as a gift.
And he didn’t tell me that after receiving eternal life through believing in Jesus, that NOW I should become a disciple, because in Christ I am a new creation. That now the work would begin. That after being saved as a gift, through no work of my own, that I should turn from my sins and begin to put them to death. That being a disciple is hard work. Being a disciple is learning to obey all Jesus’ commands.
He also didn’t tell me (and actually he didn’t have time to tell me the night he led me in my prayer to receive Christ) that when I believed in Jesus, I became one with him. One with his death, burial and resurrection, and because of this, sin no longer has dominion over me. I’m no longer a slave to sin. I may feel like I need to sin, but I don’t have to. I’m to consider myself dead to it. I also didn’t know that in Christ I have all the power and resources I need to live a life of victory.
Because I didn’t know these things, I continued practicing sin for a year and a half after my initial “prayer.” I’d go to prayer meetings, then to the local bars and get drunk. If you looked at my life, you would not have seen much fruit. You probably would have doubted if I was really saved. But I was. I had truly believed in Jesus. I had eternal life that I could never lose. I just hadn’t been taught that I could change, until about a year and a half after I got saved, I heard messages about turning from sin and following Jesus as Lord. That’s when I became a disciple. That’s when I went to war.
We don’t bear fruit automatically when we’re born again. Christians can live in sin. If someone says they genuinely believe in Jesus, if we don’t see fruit, rather than telling them they might not be a Christian, we should do as Paul did—exhort them to quit presenting the members of their body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, because they have new life and new power in Christ. To quit sowing to the flesh but to sow to the Spirit. To flee immorality. To offer their bodies to God as living sacrifices. And we should tell them they are no longer slaves to sin and to draw near the throne of grace for help in time of need.
We should tell new converts it’s like they’ve enlisted in the army. They’re as much a part of God’s army and people as someone who’s been in the army 50 years. They have eternal life. They are born again. But now the work begins. Now, as new creations, they should begin to follow Jesus as disciples in the power of the Spirit. Their work doesn’t save them—Jesus saved us by his work. But now they should begin to kill sin and obey their Lord. And they have all the power and grace and resources they need in Jesus. They have the Word of God, filled with promises of God’s help and might. They have the Holy Spirit. They can pray any time day or night for God’s power.
If someone claims to believe in Jesus, then let’s take them at their word. If they’re still sinning, don’t assume they aren’t born again. But explain to them the difference between receiving salvation as a gift through faith, and following that with discipleship, obedience, hard work and war in the power and grace of Jesus. Exhort them to turn from their sin and follow hard after Jesus.