I don’t want to freak you out, but whenever I meet someone for the first time, whether it is a counseling situation or a membership interview, or what have you, I am usually wondering about one thing.
This goes beyond my role as a pastor – I’m looking for this when I meet a neighbor for the first time or someone on an airplane or anyone else. And you know what it is, right? I am looking to find out if the person is a Christian.
This is fairly normal for followers of Christ. We believe that there is a real heaven and a real hell, and so the words of C.S. Lewis in his essay The Weight of Glory ring true:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare…”
Clive Staples and I are not alone in this – the Apostle Paul undoubtedly thought about people this way too. In his passage on being an ambassador for Christ, he said, “From now on therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.” 2 Corinthians 5:16 (ESV)
Now, if you say that this is judging, and that Jesus said not to do it…well, no offense, but…you’re wrong. This is not about determining whether I am better than them. That point is already solved. I am not. I am a sinner. This new person I am meeting is a sinner. Who cares who has sinned more? We are both broken and in need of the Savior.
And, as Lewis suggests, there is actually a very good reason for asking this question about any new acquaintance. I need to know if someone is a Christian so I can determine if I need to explain the gospel to them. And so, as Lewis closes his point about possible gods and goddesses: “All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”
That’s right, and yet, the question is, how do you do this? How can you tell if someone is a true Christian so you can help them to the right destination? Well, of course you can’t know for sure, but you can get a really good idea because there is one great key, and the encourager, Barnabas, knew it.
In Acts 11, some evangelists have traveled to Antioch and proclaimed the gospel, and word came back to the leaders in Jerusalem. So in response, they sent Barnabas to determine if this was a real work of God. In other words, they wanted to find out if these folks had really become Christians. Now, take notice of what Barnabas was looking for:
When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, Acts 11:23 (ESV)
When I get into a conversation on an airplane, or when someone comes to me for counseling, or when I get stuck with someone in an elevator, there is one thing I want to determine – like Barnabas, I want to know if I can see the grace of God.
Now, the $64,000 question is this – how do you see the grace of God in someone’s life? And this is my best answer – you must get to the heart of what they are trusting in to be accepted by God, to get to heaven. I often use some form of a question like this (I think this comes from Evangelism Explosion): “If you were to die tonight and stand before God, and He was to say, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ what would you say?”
If their answer is some form of, “I’m a good person,” or “I’ve tried to do my best,” then you know you have a person who is depending upon their own works. You’ll need to explain the gospel.
But sometimes they say this: “I don’t deserve to go to heaven. My only hope is in the cross of Christ where Jesus died in my place. My hope, therefore, is in God’s grace toward an undeserving sinner.”
When you hear an answer like this, then praise God. Of course, it’s not everything – someone who really is trusting in God’s grace will respond to his grace with good works (Ephesians 2:8 – 10) – but in all likelihood, like Barnabas, you have good reason…to be glad.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, February 25: Acts 12