There’s a common Christian slogan that’s been going around. It goes like this: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than sitting in a garage makes you a car.”
Usually, I don't like Christian slogans (bumper sticker theology my friends often call it), but in this case, I agree. You can give intellectual assent to the creeds of the church and even go through the motions, but that doesn't mean you're saved. James 2:19 says that even the demons believe that God exists but Revelation 20:10 tells us what's going to happen to them. Merely acknowledging the existence of God isn't enough. You must dedicate your life to Him. By making a commitment to serving Jesus Christ, you'll be born again (John 3:3, 2 Corinthians 5:17). Only by being born again can we enter the kingdom of God. My friend Richard Bushey, author of www.ThereforeGodExists.com recently put out on his church sign “Confession of faith is not enough, you must be born again.”
Here’s a good way to think of it: There’s belief that and belief in. Belief that consists of intellectually acknowledging the truths of Christianity (i.e I believe that God exists, that Jesus is God incarnate, that He died on the cross and rose from the dead 3 days later etc.). Satan and all his agents agree with and believe all these things (as James 2:19 tells us). But clearly they aren’t saved. Revelations 20:10 tells us that Satan will be cast into the lake of fire “where he’ll be tormented day and night forever and ever”. So clearly merely acknowledging the facts of The Bible by itself doesn’t bring forth saving grace. If it did, Satan would be saved.
By contrast, belief in consists of placing your trust in Jesus Christ for your salvation. It is repentance of all your past evil deeds (Isaiah 55:7) and confessing them to the Lord, asking Him to forgive us and to cleanse us from all our unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). If you’re sincere when you’re asking Jesus to save you, if you’re truly ready to be transformed, He will save and transform you. The moment you genuinely repent from your sins and ask Jesus to forgive you, you’ll be born again. You will have moved from mere Belief that to Belief in. Satan has the former. Christians have both the former and the latter.
Satan believes that God exists and Jesus rose from the dead. But he hasn’t repented of his evil deeds. He hasn’t believed in God. He hasn’t placed His belief in Jesus. If Satan had, his fate would look very different in verse 10 of Revelation chapter 20. His fate would likely involve resuming his role as one of God’s archangels. Of course, this is assuming a salvation plan is even in place for the demons to even make such repentance possible. As far as I know, God doesn’t have any plan to rescue the demons from their sins like He has human beings. Why? I can’t say for sure. I have some speculative answers as to why that is, but scripture is silent on this issue.
There are plenty of nominal Christians walking around. I know so. I used to be one of them. I grew up in a Christian home. I gave acknowledgement of everything I was taught. But it was only until I reached the age of 17 that God got my attention I finally placed my faith IN Jesus, rather than merely nodding my head at the creeds. If you had asked me the question “If you didn’t believe in God, would your life look the same?” If I was answering honestly, my answer would have to be “yes”. Yes, my life would look nearly identical if I were say, an atheist, or an agnostic. That’s not good. A Christian’s life should produce fruit if he’s a Christian (Galatians 5:22-23). After all, “The old has passed away, the new has come.” My life was lived in such a way that If I had characterized myself as an atheist. An agnostic, or whatever, my life would have been hardly any different. Looking back, I didn’t really care about a relationship with God, nor did I care whether what I did offended Him or not. In fact, I did a lot of things I was certain God didn’t approve of but I rationalized it away by saying “Well, nobody’s perfect. Even The Bible acknowledges that.” And I used that as an excuse to not even try to do better. While it’s true that nobody’s perfect and that even the most devout of Christ followers will mess up from time to time, the one who truly loves Jesus will do their best not to do anything that offends Him (see John 14:15 and 1 John 5:2-5). And when we do mess up, when we do sin, it will really bother us. Our sin will stink to us (as I pointed out in the article “Does Repetitive Sin Mean We Aren’t Saved”). My sin did not stink to me. It did not bother me. Plus, I rationalized it away by appealing to common human imperfection coupled with my church’s belief in eternal security. Moreover, I only prayed when I needed something. I saw God (not consciously of course, but subconsciously) as a type of genie. You rubbed the lamp, he would come out and ask you what your three wishes were, you tell Him what your wishes are and then He’d give them to you. God felt far away. I felt like He was waaaaay up in Heaven looking down on me. I felt separated from Him. I know now that I didn't merely feel far from Him, I was far from Him.
Those who hold to eternal security (or perserverance of the saints) hold that every one of these who have turned AWAY from the Christian faith never really turned TO the Christian faith to begin with.
Certainly intellectual assent is important. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that “Anyone who comes to God must believe that He exists….” You can’t have belief in unless you have belief that. If you don’t believe that God exists, it makes little sense to say that you’ve placed your trust in Him. After all, how can you place your trust in a person you don’t even believe exists? But while you can’t have the latter without the former, you can have the former without the latter (as demonstrated above).
Take a look at John 3:16. Look carefully at what it says and what it does not say: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son. Whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”
It does not say “Whosever believes the facts about me as recorded in the gospels my disciples will write down a few decades after I go back to Heaven.” It says “Whosoever believes in Him…” Of course, again, the former must be in place before you have the latter.
Sitting in church, or merely believing that God exists or that Jesus rose from the dead by itself doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than it makes Satan a Christian. Placing your faith in Jesus. Repenting, confessing your sins to Jesus, making a commitment to follow Him no matter the cost…makes you a Christian. Being born again makes a Christian.