To I need to go to church to be a Christian?
Today it is commonly thought that claiming to be Christian is all it takes to make you a Christian. We also hear people boldly assert: “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. I believe Jesus died for my sins. That makes me a Christian.” Knowing that these false notions influence the people we serve, these words of Jesus are critical. Three times Jesus speaks about people who considered themselves his followers, but Jesus asserts they “cannot be my disciple.” They are not mine.
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ 31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. (Luke 14:25-43)
Jesus calls his disciples – his students, followers, adherents – to give up everything they have to rightly call him their Rabbi, Master and Teacher. Why? Because that’s the only way Jesus can rescue them from sin’s slavery and blindness and set them free to taste life to the full (John 10:10).
How can we help those people who think: “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. I believe Jesus died for my sins. That means I’m saved.”? Consider this reply: “I am so happy you have heard the good news that Jesus paid for all your sins. That’s awesome! What I hear you saying is that you want Jesus to be your Savior, but not your Lord. Friend, if Jesus is not your Lord, he cannot be your Savior.”
Weighing the cost of following Jesus is not paying for eternal life. It is merely understanding what eternal life is – what Jesus bought and gave you as a free gift. Jesus made full payment for your sins to rescue you from captivity to sin (redemption). Sin is bad. Fellowship with God – walking in righteousness – is good. We gladly follow Jesus so he can teach us and release us from the sin mindset. Jesus’ disciples continue in his teachings, knowing that his truth alone offers real freedom (John 8:31) – freedom from sin’s control, guilt and influence.
What does it mean to “take up your cross and follow Jesus”? The primary role of a cross is to identify what is repudiated – considered worthless and harmful. As Paul teaches us (Gal. 2:20; 5:24; 6:14) Jesus’ disciples crucify (repudiate as worthless and detested) all the thinking and desires of the sinful nature. We reject them as false life to follow Jesus and find real life in him. Then we discover something. Everything we gave up to follow Jesus – loved ones, possessions, etc. – all those things become gifts of God that are loved and used to serve Jesus. We get them back, but no longer as our masters.